Month: February 2000

Choosers of the Slain, James H. Cobb

Berkley, 1996, 338 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16053-X

The publishing industry seems to work in booms and busts. One year, fat fantasy trilogies are the rage; others, procedural murder mysteries are what gets bought. These cycles usually dramatically affect the midlist catalogue, causing good times and bad times. Die-hard fans of one particular sub-genre may pine for “golden years” when their chosen genre was all the rage.

Among techno-thriller fans, this period is roughly between 1988 and 1992 (ironically enough; the last years of the Cold War), where big complex novels of imaginary wars underwent their apogee in terms of publishing attention. During that time, Tom Clancy wrote The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Clear and Present Danger, Dale Brown Day of the Cheetah, Larry Bond Vortex, with other authors like Harold Coyle, Payne Harrison and Joe Weber producing their best novels.

Now, Clancy feels bloated, Brown has lost its freshness, Harrison has turned UFO-nutso and Bond, Coyle and Weber have moved on to historical novels or -gack- plain thrillers. It’s easy to say that the technothriller boom of the early has come and gone. But that’s a simplistic view of things, because no publishing sub-genre ever dies; it may go underground, sustain less authors, but if you look hard enough, nothing ever prevents you from finding a steady trickle of good technothrillers in the late nineties.

James H. Cobb’s first novel, Choosers of the Slain, is a perfect example of the kind of totally enjoyable technothriller to come by in the “lean” years of the technothriller. It’s short, snappy, to the point, completely fluent in the conventions of the genre and genuinely thrilling. As with most memorable techno-thrillers, the setting has been chosen with maximum impact in order to provide chills to the reader: Antarctica.

This isn’t the first time that the Southern latitudes have been mined by technothrillers authors. Payne Harrison’s superlative Thunder of Erebus used the setting to maximum effect, producing a novel as exciting as it was memorable. More recently (ah-ha, another good late-nineties technothriller!), Judith and Steven Garfield-Reeves’ 1998 Icefire used Antarctica’s ice shelf as a pivotal plot device for a globe-spanning techno-thriller.

But Cobb brings new things to Antarctica, the most striking of them being a female military protagonist, USS Cunningham Commander Amanda Garrett. It is she who will have to hold sentry for the US Government, as a blockade is imposed on Argentina for the invasion of British bases on the south continent. While Argentineans prepare intimidation manoeuvres and, later on, all-out attacks on her stealth destroyer, Garrett also finds herself attracted to another member of the crew… already proving herself to be a notch above her automaton cardboard counterparts in most other technothrillers. Neither superwoman nor feminist poster heroine, Garrett is entirely believable, and it’s to Cobb’s credit that he’s able to sustain her presence without resorting to easy clichés. Support human characters; buy the book!

Most importantly, Choosers of the Slain has everything you’d like in a technothriller: Great title, believable premise, sympathetic supporting protagonists, very cool gadgets, historical depth, optimized length (neither too short nor too g’darn long), spectacular combat scenes and limpid writing. It has its flaws (the romantic subplot grates somewhat, though it must be noted that this isn’t the immediate down-and-dirty affair you’d expect, but a rather restrained, even mature, series of quiet scenes), but usually it’s simply a lot of fun.

Cobb proves that the legacy of the technothriller’s heydays is still alive and well. Choosers of the Slain is the first book in a series and bodes well for the other volumes. (The equally enjoyable Sea Strike is available in paperback, with another announced later in 2000) In the meantime, techno-thrillers fans will be able to get their escapist fix and discover a new hot author to replace the fallen ones.

Teranesia, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 1999, 249 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06855-8

Greg Egan is back, and this time he’s offering something different.

Egan has made his enviable reputation in the Science-Fiction field (“One of the genre’s great ideas men” —The Times) by delivering stories and novels with an unusually high concept density. It also helps that he’s a hard-SF writer of the old school: All of his stories are built around one cool idea and the question “What if…?”

On the other hand, most critics have been prompt to mention that Egan isn’t a good stylist, doesn’t build compelling characters or writes lamentable dialogue. (To be fair, there’s some truth to this: Egan often comes up in English-French translation discussions, as a case example of the trade-offs needed to remain faithful to the source material; most translators just itch to “improve” his prose style.)

Egan’s previous 1998 novel, Diaspora, was a dense, fiercely original, quasi-unreadable work of impressive vision and frustrating writing. Any SF writer could justifiably take a break after such an effort. Most readers, however, won’t expect the complete shift taken with Teranesia.

It starts with a lengthy prologue in which we’re introduced to Prabir Suresh, a nine-year-old boy living with his sister and his parent scientists alone on Teranesia, an isolated Indonesian island. Stuff happens and Prabir is forced to seek refuge in Canada along with his sister. Years later, Prabir finds himself drawn once again to Teranesia, lured by reports of unexplainable mutations.

The first surprise of Teranesia is its pacing. Unlike the often-frenetic movement that characterized the first few pages of his first novels, like the breathtaking “digitalization” scene that opens Permutation City or the mesmerizing after-death-confession of Distress, Teranesia leisurely establishes Prabir’s character before doing anything else. It’s unusual for Egan, and not really practical in hooking the reader’s attention.

The leisurely pace is maintained though most of the book, but the book’s appeal picks up once the narrative moves to Toronto, just in time for vicious (and overdone, yet hysterically funny) attacks on new-age / feminist / post-modernist / anti-science rhetoric. If you pay attention, you’ll notice by this point that the prose is more pondered, the characters more fleshed out than in Egan’s previous work. There aren’t as many idea, though, even if Egan fans will recognize most of the landscape. In representing a non-Anglocentric near-future scenario, Egan evokes memories of recent works by Bruce Sterling.

The late explosion of concepts, when it comes, is a lot of fun though there’s a feeling that they arrive a little too late for full satisfaction. The unfinished ending (“AND WHAT HAPPENS *NEXT*??”) is also disappointing, -yet a cut above Egan’s usual reformat-the-universe conclusions- and adds to the feeling that for a writer who ventured in post-human territory as often as Egan, he’s taking a curiously reactionary position…

The result is kind of a new Egan, one that seemingly set out to write an easygoing novel to address most of his perceived weaknesses: the prose, the characters, the ending… While Teranesia doesn’t fully live up to Egan’s previous body of work, it’s a novel that shows promise for the author’s next books. It’s probably not coincidental that Teranesia is also the author’s most accessible novel. It’s always interesting to see an author grow…

Cosm, Gregory Benford

Avon EOS, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79052-1

Even though “Science” is fully half of science-fiction, its representation in most SF stories is simply appalling. One cannot count the number of cheap stories in which The Answers seem to be held by one clever fellow who can also whip up a universe-saving device in five minutes and still get the girl. (Watch INDEPENDENCE DAY again. Discuss your disgust.)

Real-world science truly doesn’t work that way. Answers are found after messy, meticulous trial-and-error procedures that don’t result in flashes of insight as much as in slow theoretical elaboration. And that’s still in the lab, because outside the lab lies even more drudgery; endless paperwork to apply for research grants, constant academic or corporate social infighting, political pressures… The appalling state of today’s science is matched only by our disgusting lack of knowledge about it.

All of this must have crossed Gregory Benford’s mind as he sat down to write Cosm, his latest science-fiction novel. Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California, so he presumably knows what near-future hard science-fiction is all about.

At first glance, there’s not much excitement in Cosm‘s premise: Almost by accident, an ordinary scientist creates a shiny meter-wide sphere in a particle accelerator experiment that goes wrong. She keeps the sphere and starts studying it. No big pyrotechnic displays, no mind-blowing SF concepts.

And, for most of the book, that’s where things stay. The sphere proves to be an interesting phenomenon, but not one that has the inherent potential to arouse the jaded reader’s interest.

Most of the novel’s impact comes from other strengths, such as its insider’s glimpse into contemporary science. The political battles, dirty academic tricks and real-world concerns of most working scientists are faithfully described.

Second is the attention that Benford brings to his protagonist. Alicia Butterworth is, simply put, one of the most impressively realized characters in recent SF. She’s not a beauty queen (far from it), she’s not a terribly charming person (her dismal dating record proves it), she’s not supernaturally smart (part of her appeal is that she’s an average scientist) and she realistically suffers from the twin handicaps of being both black and female in a white male environment. Her struggles and triumphs are made more real by being solidly anchored in the real world.

The result is, without question, Benford’s best book. The prose is lively and compulsively readable, the pacing holds up, the supporting characters are well-defined, the book is peppered with great throwaway lines and as a result, the book nearly reads itself in less time than you’d think. Good scenes, believable dialogue, a few physics jokes and a lot of nifty personal insight: Cosm raises the bar for the rest of Hard-SF. Through exceptional writing, the appeal of the book goes well beyond SF territory, though fans of the genre will not feel any dumbing-down of the material.

There are still a few rough spots whenever it’s time to place all the events in a greater context, like some knee-jerk media-bashing, and simplistic fundamentalist overreaction. (Though this leads to a typical kidnapping scenario that, for once, plays as if a smart kidnapee was involved.) General-interest readers might quibble that the science stuff is overwhelming (sheesh; a few graphs and everyone screams bloody murder!) and that the pacing is dull. Nothing that we’re not led to expect, really.

But with Cosm, Gregory Benford turns out the novel we’ve been waiting to read from him: A purely hard-SF tale that’s at the same time written with zest and a whole lot of skill. Recommended reading.

Wild Things (1998)

Wild Things (1998)

(On VHS, February 2000) Let’s be upfront about it right away, and admit that this film is pure popcorn: It’s built around plot twists, spends a lot of time focusing on curvy female forms and never aims at providing anything more -or less- than two hours of pure entertainment to its viewers. But what it does, it does damn well. Naked people (including Denise Richards), dead bodies, double-crosses, a briefcase filled with money, alligator wrestling and gorgeous south-Floridian cinematography are some of the elements composing this crunchy thriller. A great performance by Bill Murray, classic quotes such as “You skanky bitch!” and “My mother will kill me if she finds out I took the Rover”, Neve Campbell as white trash, a score by George S. Clinton and plenty of comic relief are others. Don’t expect much, but be prepared to have a lot of fun.

Countdown aka Serial Bomber (1996)

Countdown aka Serial Bomber (1996)

(On VHS, February 2000) This is, from stupid title to trite finale, one of the most inept piece of celluloid I’ve seen in a long, long while. Think of almost any element that could go wrong in a terrorist thriller, and they’re all there: An heroine (Lori Petty) that looks like a crack addict, a whiny villain that’s far more annoying than threatening, wrong technical details, implausible developments, bland action scenes, no suspense, an ending that’s more laughable than exciting, obvious dialogue and a complete lack of tension. Those all outweigh the rather interesting intentions of the film, like setting up a female protagonist with a Japanese policewoman and/or killing off most of the characters. In short; a video rental to avoid, and a study in how *not* to build a thriller. We asked our money back at the local Blockbuster. They easily complied.

Spyworld, Mike Frost and Michel Gratton

Seal/Bantam, 1995, 275 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2707-3

If you’re like me, you tend to assume that the vast majority of modern spying is handled by the Americans. Dozens, hundreds of spy movies and semi-fiction technothrillers, most of them produced in the United States, have conditioned us to accept the FBI, CIA and NSA as undisputed masters of electronic spying. Compared to them, the very though of, say, Canadians trying out their luck at espionage is somehow completely ridiculous.

And yet, even masters need their apprentices. Mike Frost was one of them, an employee of Canada’s NSA-equivalent, the Communication Security Establishment (CSE). From the early seventies to 1990, Frost was at the forefront of Canada’s electronic spying initiative. As he makes it clear, it was all sponsored, equipped and suggested by the Americans… though the apprentice would eventually surprise the master.

Electronic spying isn’t exciting in a cinematographic fashion. Instead of seducing enemy agents, photographing secret documents and shooting oneself out of trouble, it basically means intercepting, decoding and analyzing radio communications. All of which can be safely conducted from a more-or-less safe location, like an embassy.

But even if physical danger isn’t a factor, the international spying game has its own sets of rules, where embarrassment can be the ultimate failure. It’s simply not done to pack up electronic equipment and set it up in the embassy. Things have to be done stealthily as so not to awaken doubts, even among the embassy personnel itself.

Frost, along with collaborator Michel Gratton, clearly traces the evolution of Canadian electronic spying efforts, from amateurishness in Moscow (lack of preparation leading to funny anecdotes concerning the shipping of the electronic equipment, including sending a high-powered drill to pierce a safe, cutting up a five-foot dish antennae in shippable pieces and taking chances with an underpowered elevator.) to stealing profitable trade secrets from the Chinese.

This is heavy-duty modern spying, and each step of the way is meticulously detailed. Embassy selection, equipment installation, personnel training and data transmission are all crucial steps, described in here. And it all feels real, without too much sensationalism or outlandish claims.

Well, almost without too many outlandish claims. Like most general-interest books about the spying business, Spyworld raises issues of domestic privacy and government powers in communication interception. Should the CSE have the power to intercept domestic communications? Should it be overseen by a committee of elected officials? Unfortunately, these questions are nothing new; the book is more effective in demonstrating the powers of contemporary spying capacities than in explicitly decrying its possible excesses.

In any case, the end result is a non-fiction account that’s interesting, not too technically obscure, with some great anecdotes and which lifts a small corner of the veil over some very real spying practices. Not a bad read, if only for a few moments of national pride.

Seconds (1966)

Seconds (1966)

(On VHS, February 2000) John Frankenheimer is best known for the classic The Manchurian Candidate, but he should get special mention for this almost-forgotten piece of speculative fiction. The film begins as one middle-aged businessman is offered the opportunity to start afresh as a new person (played by Rock Hudson, no less). But, of course, there’s a hidden price… Starts off well -if longuishly-, lags a lot in its middle (What was that bacchanal scene all about?) but makes it up in its last nightmarish minute. Not exactly a piece of fluff cinema for a Saturday night, but a worthwhile film for serious SF fans.

Scream 3 (2000)

Scream 3 (2000)

(In theaters, February 2000) This film ends the Scream trilogy on the worst possible note, being exactly the type of film that the first one parodied. Surprisingly tepid for a horror film, mostly because there’s never any tension (idiot characters do stupid thing, and the oh-so-infallible Ghostface kills them.) nor any unsettling elements. Formula? Hell, yes! Not much laughs either, and those feel more forced than anything else. Catch it on video if you must, but there’s not much to be found here.

Ransom (1996)

Ransom (1996)

(On TV, February 2000) It takes some effort to put together a good thriller, but no one ever accused Ron Howard of not being a professional filmmaker. Here, he draws upon Mel Gibson, Renee Russo and Gary Sinise to set up a sombre kidnapping affair that quickly goes awry. Solid leading-man Gibson is perfect for the role, and Sinise makes the most of his name’s resemblance with sinister as the bad guy. Even though the film feels slightly too long at more than two hours, it moves quickly and the viewer is never bored. The conventional finale disappoints somewhat, as if the scriptwriters didn’t know what to do with their last-minute twists. But Ransom mostly delivers what it sets out to do; a good, fun, crunchy thriller.

Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch Black (2000)

(In theaters, February 2000) This film must be considered as an SF B-movie in order to be properly assessed. It doesn’t set out to re-invent the alien-creatures-eat-humans type of story, but is plays effectively within the limits of the sub-genre. No one in the audience can be blamed for wanting to leave after the first five minutes (the direction of the opening crash is a blur of flashes, jerky camera work and incoherent editing), but the movie settles down after that for a rather good second act, with plenty of chills, thrills and fun visuals. Vin Diesel makes a strong impression as bad-boy Riddick. The script falters by the time the last act come through, with no clear big finale, and a muddled last five minutes. The intentionally grainy cinematography might not be to everyone’s liking, but fits perfectly with the idea of a B-movie. One thing to like is the film’s reliance on purely visual cues in order to provide a sense of strangeness. (Even though the film severely fumbles with its “darkness” motif, as most of the latter half takes place in a full-moonlit environment.) Not great SF -the ecosystem is patently impossible- but great fun, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Patch Adams (1998)

Patch Adams (1998)

(On VHS, February 2000) This film approaches unbearability by its callous usage of mental patients, cancerous children and personal grief in order to build a “heartwarming tale of life”. The treatment of the girlfriend character, killed by some random psychotic in order for the main character to have his own crisis of faith, is particularity repulsive. Robin Williams is insufferable when he dons his false saccharine personality. The script compounds bad taste with dumb one-sidedness, painting Hero Patch’s enemies with a Pure Evil brush. The central thesis of the film (“medicine is cold and uncaring”) is actually correct, but the scriptwriters completely missed that this is order for physicians to protect themselves against burnout. Gee, why isn’t that covered in the film? Oh right; all doctors are evil! The film quickly becomes an intellectual tug-of-war between its loathsome manipulative intentions and our own innate intelligence. The viewer can win, but the battle leaves unhealthy mental scars.

Day of Wrath, Larry Bond

Warner Books, 1998, 481 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-51677-5

Almost every avid reader has a “buy-on-sight” list of especially meritorious authors whose books are of such invariable good quality that they warrant the 35$ gamble of a brand-new hardcover. Mine is composed of people like Tom Clancy, Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, John Varley, Neal Stephenson… all of which can be depended upon for conceptually solid, physically thick pieces of entertainment.

Larry Bond holds the distinction of having been taken off my “buy-on-sight” author list after his 1996 book The Enemy Within. His first three books -four if you include his WW3 super-thriller collaboration with Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising– were grand spectacles of future war, hugely complex tales of nations run amok and superb set-pieces played upon technical, political and military battlefields. Red Phoenix, Vortex and Cauldron were deeply impressive techno-thrillers, brimming with unexpected rewards at more than 500 pages each. Cauldron was bought-on-sight.

So was The Enemy Within. But upon reading this limp thriller devoid of the sweeping scope of his earlier books, I was not tempted by the sequel, Day of Wrath. Two years later, Day of Wrath is available at dirt-cheap prices in used bookstores, and that’s where Larry Bond and I meet again.

After reading his latest effort, Larry Bond stays off my A-list.

The problem is the same than with The Enemy Within: Is that it? Bond had proven his ability to send thousands of men in mega-battles, moving pieces off gigantic chessboards, meticulously describing capacities and weaknesses of high-tech hardware and in seamlessly integrating multiple protagonists.

Nothing of that sort in his “thriller” phase. Both The Enemy Within and Day of Wrath concentrate on a couple of protagonists: Colonel Peter Thorn and Agents Helen Gray. And despite the focus, these two characters combined can’t equal the interest of any of the bit-players in Bond’s previous novels.

Day of Wrath is bland. Predictable. Implausible. Déjà-vu. Limp. Nothing special. Once again, a gna-ha-ha grandmaster of evil hates the Americans for some trivial childhood trauma and badly wants to attack the United States. Once again, his diabolic plans are foiled by Thorn and Grey. Nothing we haven’t seen before, even in the details.

To be fair, Day of Wrath isn’t all that badly written in the confines of the thriller genre. The novel is obviously padded -did we have to frolic across most of Europe?- but I guess that intentionally done in an effort to satisfy beach readers. At least there is a heightening of tension by the end of the book -cruise missiles aimed at Washington are good at that-, though you’ll have to wade through a lot of Commando-type silliness (Two humans! Against a compound filled with world-class terrorists!) in order to get to this point.

But even an okay thriller doesn’t begin to match the level of Bond’s earlier super-thrillers. Reading the cover blurbs for the paperback edition of Day of Wrath -and assorted comments from customers-, I’m amazed at how some readers seem to think that Bond has “matured out of the technothriller” genre, as if he did better stuff now than before.

Let me set those fools straight: Bond has declined. He isn’t as much fun to read as he was before. It’s not only the stories themselves, but also the details, the plotting, the characters that are worse than before. It’s not as if we could blame a lack of time; he’s still publishing at two-years intervals. It’s not as if we could blame publishing pressures: Stephen Coonts and James H. Cobb are still publishing decent future-war novels.

It’s almost as if we have to blame Larry Bond. (“Your name is Bond, *Larry* Bond”.) Well so be it; he stays off my buy-on-sight list.

Lung hing foo dai [Operation Condor 2: Armour Of God] (1986)

Lung hing foo dai [Operation Condor 2: Armour Of God] (1986)

(On VHS, February 2000) Standards disclaimers apply where reviewing Jackie Chan films: Thin plot, forced humor, mysogynism, choppy pacing, etc… Armour Of God is a bit more indulgent in these flaws than usual, and commits the added sin of boring the viewer for its first hour, but nevertheless maintains the usual Jackie Chan strengths: Amazing action set-pieces, genuinely funny physical comedy and an overall sense of fun that can’t be denied. For fans.

High Anxiety (1977)

High Anxiety (1977)

(On VHS, February 2000) Mel Brooks spoofs Alfred Hitchcock. Yawn. Problem being that the spoofs aren’t funny, and that the best bits (the orchestra in a passing bus, the camera crashing in a window) were used in latter, better films.

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1988)

(On VHS, February 2000) Rather less effective than what I had heard, but still stands as one of the finest teen comedies of the eighties. I’m not sure that such a film would have been commercially viable a decade later, what with its subject matter of students “suiciding” other students, but it’s certainly as interesting now than before. It hasn’t really aged all that much unless you start focusing on how *young* Christian Slater, Winona Ryder and the luscious Shannon Doherty all look. Filled with many subtle sight gags and blink-you’ll-miss-it laugh-aloud quotes (“People may like you, but I *know* you”) that highlight its smart writing. Said writing flags noticeably in the second half, as if neither writer nor director knew what to do with their premise after the initial hour. Would make a great companion to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Election.