Month: March 2000

Supercarrier, George C. Wilson

Macmillan, 1986, 273 pages, C$10.00 hc, ISBN 0-02-630120-2

From almost any point of view, few things on Earth are as awesome as a modern airplanes carrier ship. Easily classifying as some of the largest objects every built by humankind, carriers are supposed to be ships, cities, airport, repair shop, warmachines and political instruments. Most of them include everything needed to host 3,000+ men: Chaplains, a newspaper, a TV station, huge cafeterias… In short, aircraft carriers are an ideal subject for non-fiction books.

Given the already-established market for military books (fiction or non-fiction), the idea of a documentary account of life on an airplanes carrier fits right in the publishing field. That is, as long as a sufficiently knowledgeable person can be persuaded to put in the research time.

On paper -and that’s all that counts, after all-, George C. Wilson appears to be an ideal man for this project. The cover blurb describes him as the chief defense correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of at least two other military-themed non-fiction books. He obviously has the skills, and at the very least, one can say he had the motivation to do some serious research on his subject: For seven months, Wilson accompanied the crew of the USS John F. Kennedy on a typical deployment, leaving behind civilian life, a job, family and wife.

As it turned out, the September 1983-May 1984 deployment of the Kennedy turned out to anything but typical. Originally intended to sail for the peaceful Indian Sea, it was re-ordered toward Lebanon shortly after beginning its tour. There, in the aftermath of the US Marines compound terrorist bombing of 1983, planes from the Kennedy would enter combat over the skies of Lebanon. Five planes were lost during that tour: three crashed in the sea, one had a mid-air collision, and one was downed by enemy fire. Three pilots dies. A group of sailors asked to be let off the carrier.

But that’s the big picture. Wilson spends as much time describing the minute human mechanisms that make it so that the thousands of men aboard the Kennedy can effectively work together. At the top, of course, there’s the captain, purposefully maintaining the image of aloofness and professionalism fit for someone cumulating the equivalent positions of captain, mayor and father confessor. There’s the hands-on executive officer (XO), constantly worrying about how to implement the captain’s policies. There are the heads of specialized departments: Propulsion, weaponry, maintenance, aviation. But there’s also the chaplains, master chiefs, psychologists and other personnel that ensure that thousands of men can spend seven months together without cracking up.

Chapter after chapter, Wilson takes up through normal carrier operations: Russian airplanes interceptions (“Bear Hunts”), shore leave (in Rio de Janeiro, no less), VIP visits… Wilson also climbs in the cockpit for descriptions of naval aviation: Combat Air Patrols, Antisubmarine warfare, bombing, refuelling…

The closest equivalent to Super Carrier is Stephen Coonts’ The Intruders, which was a novel about a naval pilot on a carrier tour of duty shortly after the Vietnam war. Like The Intruders, Super Carrier also falters during its second half. But unlike the Coonts novel, which suddenly creaked under the sudden imposition of a ludicrous late-minute plot, Super Carrier suffers from excessive military theorizing by Wilson, as he uses the subject as a springboard to explore various controversies in American military doctrine. While this must have been of some pointed interest at the book’s release, it’s also the part of Wilson’s account that has aged the most in the fifteen years since original publication.

This caveat aside, Super Carrier remains a good read on a fascination subject. Wilson was incredibly lucky to be on such an eventful deployment, and he was talented enough to be able to describe in clear terms what happened for laymen. The result should be worth tracking down for anyone interested in the intricacies of naval military operations.

Dinosaur Summer, Greg Bear

Warner Books, 1998, 325 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52098-5

There are probably no other working SF authors as frustrating as Greg Bear.

One part of his bibliography includes such masterpieces as Blood Music, Eon, The Forge of God or Moving Mars; Hugo-winning, hugely acclaimed novels of hard-SF with good characters and exciting prose.

The other part of Bear includes simple-but-boring novels like Strength of Stones and a slew of rather unmemorable novels written and published between 1975 and 1985. Even some highly ambitious latter works (Queen of Angels, Slant, Anvil of Stars) have significant flaws that have alienated many readers.

So, every new Bear novel is cause for suspense: Will it be a “Good Bear” novel or a “Boring Bear” novel? With Dinosaur Summer, bets seemed even more uncertain than usual: Even though the concept of writing a sequel to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Lost World seemed iffy to modern SF readers, the original was so darn fun that one would have to work hard not to keep this same charming sense of excitement.

Unfortunately, Greg Bear fumbles it.

For one thing, he makes the mistake of making this an explicit “Young Adult” book by featuring a teenage protagonist. Letting aside my belief that the “Young Adult” market segment is a useless but lucrative market created by publishers for parents and libraries who should know better than to spoon-fed Holy Reading to teenager, I’ll simply note that most of my favorite novels, as a teen, simply delivered a good rousing story. The age of the protagonist had nothing to do with it.

But let’s leave some room for doubt. After all, Dinosaur Summer has marketed as a regular SF book, without any particular trappings of the “Young Adult” demographic segment.

It still doesn’t excuse a criminal waste of the reader’s time. Whereas The Lost World expedited its characters in harm’s way in almost no time, Dinosaur Summer ambles on like its namesakes and finally gets its first true thrilling “action” scene barely past the book’s midpoint. Worse, the writing style is almost complacently long-winded, with the predictable result that the reader’s attention is bound to wander off long before anything of interest happens. Dinosaur Summer is conceived as kind of an alternate history, with oodles of in-jokes you’ll probably miss if you blink. Okay, so Harry Harrihausen is a major character. That’s a good homage, and a pretty fun thing for him, but I don’t really get anything out of it. Samewise for everything else.

It would seem to be an elementary requirement to include some adventure in an adventure book. Dinosaur Summer has some, mostly of the expected form of run-away-from-dinosaurs, but it comes too late, and repeats itself too often to be considered effective. Bear has done a good job in extrapolating a complete Plateau ecology, but doesn’t do much of interest with it. There’s some truly weird stuff about prophetic dreams and such, but by that time, the actual reading of the book had begun to take on nightmarish qualities. (“When will it end?”, etc…)

Special mention should be made, however, of the rather good interior illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi, who does a lot to save the book from total collapse.

Still, it’s hard to see who would be interested in Dinosaur Summer. From the weak premise to the botched executions, this novel doesn’t sustain any interest. The dry, uninvolving style tries too hard to wring out some charm from its surrounding and obviously doesn’t succeed at the task.

There is no doubt that Greg Bear can do much, much better than this. In the meantime, Dinosaur Summer will have to be classified as one of his weakest novels. Readers looking for a dash of adventure are advised to track down a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original The Lost World.

Stardance, Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Ace, 1977, 278 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-18367-7

Spider Robinson. There’s no one else like him in science-fiction.

Whereas SF has traditionally been logical, mechanistic, goal-driven, conservative and scrupulously clean, Spider Robinson comes from a background that’s far away from the scientific education shared by many of hard-SF’s core membership. He has described in interviews how he had his big break in SF as his regular job was to guard a sewer plant at night. He’s stayed on both coasts of Canada, first Nova Scotia then British Columbia. He’s had some association with communes, is an outspoken drug advocate and looks exactly like one would stereotypically imagine a hippie.

His novels reflect his background, being almost pathologically filled with motifs of universal love, friendship and happiness. His characters -usually narrators; his novel are almost always told from the first person point of view- are charmingly imperfect, yet paradoxally far more tolerant and self-describingly morally superior to your usual human. Most of his stories include one or several rants about how (pick one) intolerance, sexual monogamy, fear of communicating, racism, sexism, narrow-mindedness or other “so-typical” human traits are generally messing up the world.

Stardance isn’t really any exception. An expanded version of Hugo and Nebula-winning novella of the same name, Stardance is narrated by Charlie, an ex-dancer made audiovisual technician by an untimely accident. He meets Shara, a dancer too big for one-gee work who finally decides to invent zero-gee dance. Suddenly, aliens appear and Shara’s super-dance convinces them not to destroy the Earth. End of original novella and the first third of the novel.

I’m being needlessly flippant; Robinson’s greatest strength is how he can write about almost anything and make interesting through the narration. An easy prose style with carefully-chosen details and heaps of humour make up for many structural weaknesses. Even though the magically-dancing-the-aliens-away bit isn’t truly credible in itself, the novel does a good job at suspending our disbelief at this point.

The rest of the novel follows Charlie as he sets up a zero-gee dancing school and gets whisked away to Jupiter for another race-saving dance session. (STARDANCE II: ELECTRIC BUGALOO!) It’s a hugely readable tale, reasonably well-paced and populated with interesting characters. His zero-gee assumptions are curious, but then again Robinson isn’t a Hard-SF writer.

Even then, however, the book remains slightly annoying. It took me some time to figure out what it was, but when I did, it struck me that this flaw of Robinson’s work could be applied to his whole work.

If you accept the theory that Spider Robinson is SF’s hippie representative, it makes sense to assume that his work will promote the ideals of this culture. Check: His whole Callahan series, for instance, creates a family-slash-support-group through a bar where everyone knows everyone’s name. Time Killer spend way too many pages promoting an idealistic view of a 1973 commune.

However, this message of peace-love-happiness carries a none-too-explicit counter message: If you can’t love everyone else, if you can’t realize that serial monogamy is selfish and bad, if you can’t tolerate everyone then you’re scum, you’re despicable, you’re not invited to Spider Robinson’s parties and frankly, you’re not even worthy of calling yourself human. Bang. Like that. In other words, there’s a current of intolerance-for-the-intolerant that runs in all of Robinson’s fiction. It’s made worse by the holier-than-thou stand he himself takes on the subject. Liberals may grind their teeth at conservative novels, but at least conservatives don’t make any attempt to pretend they love everyone!

Stardance goes through the same motions by clearly highlighting that zero-gee isn’t for everyone, and that only superior adaptable humans deserve to be in zero-gee. (His last-minute amendments are bunk.) Everyone else goes back in the gene pool. How tolerant…

(In some future review, I’ll take on another Spider Robinson annoyance of mine; how individualism isn’t worth a damn for him.)

Chariots for Apollo, Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff

Avon, 1985 (1998 reprint), 320 pages, C$19.50 tpb, ISBN 0-380-80261-9

Looking back over a span of thirty years, humankind’s effort to land a few of its own on the Moon seems nothing short of incredible. To think that “these people” in “that time” could do such miracles with “their technology” borders on the miraculous. Whereas today’s space program is moribund, dogged by budget cuts, drastically reduced ambitions and a surplus of overcautiousness, the effort to go to the moon shines on as a pinnacle of human ingenuity and doggedness.

A good way to re-live this whole era is to grab a copy of Charles Pellegrino and Joshua Stoff’s Chariots for Apollo. This book, originally published in 1985 (“immediately going out of print with the Challenger explosion” [P.xiv] reminisce the authors) has recently been re-edited in trade paperback format by Avon books, and readers will find that the book has lost none of its interest. Indeed, given that fifteen more years have passed since the oft-overlooked first edition, most will appreciate this “new” book that has the advantage of hindsight and a “what-happened-to-them” afterword. Part time-capsule (several of the people interviewed for the book have died since 1985) and part historical work, Chariots of Apollo does an exceptional job at representing the low and high dramas of the Apollo era.

Most histories of the space program will spend time in explaining the basics, or will focus on a historical heroic-figure approach. Pellegrino and Stoff are writing for a different audience: One that pretty much already knows, in general terms, what happened during that time. Furthermore, the authors admit in the prologue in focusing their attention on the overlooked heroes of the space program: The engineers and low-level technicians who actually designed and built the machines that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon. Chariots for Apollo is a homage to the thousands of ordinary people doing an ordinary job in order to fulfill an extraordinary goal; put humankind on the moon.

More specifically, it focuses on the people who designed, built and tested the Lunar Expedition Module (LEM), the tiny, brittle, crucial piece of machinery that covered the last few miles between Earth and the Moon. It has become an iconic piece of machinery, with its spider-like shape that is immediately recognizable even today. Chariots for Apollo, as the title indicates, spends a lot of time behind the scenes at Grumman, describing the laborious process which lead to the construction of the LEMs.

There are anecdotes aplenty. From the ultra-meticulous security/safety procedures (despite which a twenty-four-foot extension cord was lost in the LEM clean room…) (despite which a squirrel found its way in the clean room and had to be shot-gunned) (despite which LEMs were physically turned upside-down to allow loose part to fall out) to oodles of near-dangerous incidents that were solved in the nick of time. (Only on Apollo 11: the glycenol lubricant crystallized in orange slush, soldering repairs had to be made on LM fuel lines days before the launch, the LEM nearly blew up from unanticipated fuel pressure seconds after landing, Armstrong accidentally broke the ignition arming switch…) The book is filled with details that even moderate space buffs like your reviewer have never seen anywhere else.

The result is a beautifully written book, filled with fascinating details and honest human-interest stories (like the various mementoes put on the ship by construction personnel) that warmly illustrate the magnitude of humanity’s achievement in going on the moon. Maybe a bit short, and not comprehensive enough. (it is rather too focused on the LEM given the richness of related content and the misleading cover) A bit melodramatic too, but that makes for vivid reading. Like most of Charles Pellegrino’s books, this one is worth grabbing on sight.

Solid reading about the moon program which will leave you with plenty of questions to learn more, and one overriding concern: When are we going back there?

The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 1998, 240 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-85723-730-7

It’s so difficult to write a good, original SF novel that writers who do manage it consistently deserve to be treasured. Why spend your time trying to figure out new and original futures when you can just file off the serial numbers of the STAR TREK universe and set a novel in this context? Why bother researching new emerging technologies when you can just randomly use buzzwords like nanotech, hyperspace and transhumanity?

Ken MacLeod is a young hot British author who’s quickly acquiring a reputation of being at the front of the SF idea-generator pack. With now four novels to his name, he’s only now beginning to make major impact on the American scene. His third book, The Cassini Division was the first to cross the Atlantic and be published by a major American SF publisher. Why the delay? Having read MacLeod’s first, The Star Fraction, I’d argue that it’s all about politics.

Most American SF readers -myself included- are simply not used to see complex political issues in science-fiction. When political issues are raised, they’re usually of a progressive/regressive nature: Should progress be unimpeded or not? Only a few writers -Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, L. Neil Smith, etc…- have gone beyond the simple regressive/progressive polarity that seems to dominate current American politics.

MacLeod’s novels are different. They take place in a common future where the predominant system is Communist/Socialist, make references to bad historical periods of American/UN empires, feature capitalism as almost a social disease, etc… Annoying stuff for the average American reader, which explains why MacLeod’s first novels never made it to our shores. Truth be told, The Cassini Division is his first novel to “overcome” MacLeod’s political preoccupations and deliver a good story.

His first novel, The Star Fraction, -available in America in a few select libraries- puts its complex politics above the plotting (which roughly concerned the making of a revolution in a chaotic feel-bad future) and suffered considerably from it. As an SF novel, it was pretty much an average effort, good enough to be a keeper but not going much further beyond that unless your politics happened to match with MacLeod’s own Socialist convictions.

The Cassini Division is better. It takes place farther in the future (diminishing the “oh, come on!” factor) is driven by a richer plot (briefly; humans against posthumans) and is strictly more enjoyable to read than its predecessors. There’s some satiric capitalist-bashing in here too, but the goofball treatment doesn’t grate at in The Star Fraction.

More importantly, The Cassini Division feels like fresh SF. The buzzwords are handled competently, the gadgets are new, plausible and interesting, the atmosphere of a new and interesting future is well-handled and the first-person narration is compulsively readable. It’s one of the few SF books of 1998 that deserve an eventual thorough re-read. Not many new novels on the market can claim to score points in all these categories. On the other hand, the zap conclusion will annoy more than a few readers.

Naturally, the above caveat about politics may very well not apply to readers who are older, wiser, or simply closer to MacLeod’s political opinions. As for the remainder, well, a little argumentation is almost invariably good for the brain. And frankly, this might be the highest -as well as the most truthful- compliment one can say about The Cassini Division: Not only is it fun, but it’s also pretty good for the brain.

Jat go zi tau di daan sang [Too Many Ways To Be No.1] (1997)

Jat go zi tau di daan sang [Too Many Ways To Be No.1] (1997)

(On TV, March 2000) Now that’s the reason why I watch Hong Kong films. Released one year before Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run, this film presents the story of two alternate universes offered to a young Hong Kong mobster. Go to Taiwan or go to the Mainland. First we see one story, then the other. But beyond the cute premise, the true fun of the film is in the sheer inventiveness of the cinematography, from a fight filmed upside-down to another in pitch darkness, only illuminated by gun flashes. The camera becomes almost a character in its own right, with some very unusual movements. The rest of the film is a black crime comedy reminiscent of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, though skewed to Hong Kong tendencies. Worth a look, if you can find it.

Romeo Must Die (2000)

Romeo Must Die (2000)

(In theaters, March 2000) American filmmakers won’t manage to produce good martial arts film unless they understand that the attractiveness of these films’ fight sequences lies in the fight choreography. It is far more impressive to see thirty uninterrupted, uncut seconds of hand-to-hand fighting than to see thirty second’s worth of one-seconds cuts. One is easy and falsely exciting; the other is damnably hard to do, but awe-inspiring. That, in a nutshell is one of this action aficionado’s main problem with Romeo Must Die; it’s not up to Jet Li’s talent. The other problem lies in the mortally slow pacing, which sucks the energy out of the film. Fortunately, Jet Li rocks when he’s allowed to, and Aaliyah is a true-and-true dreamgirl. (Plus, Françoise Yip has a good cameo) At least the film is wonderfully pleasant in its matter-of-fact multicultural attitude. Worth your time if you’re an Hong Kong action film fan, but otherwise… this ain’t Romeo And Juliet.

The Ninth Gate (1999)

The Ninth Gate (1999)

(In theaters, March 2000) Horror is a curious genre, as it’s very dependent on its conclusion to successfully contextualize its initial eeriness. Explain too much, or produce a boring explanation (oh no, another vampire!) and the audience feels ripped off. Explain too little, or don’t explain at all, and the audience also feels ripped off. The Ninth Gate manages a superb first two hours, but then negates most of its impact with a gratuitously ambiguous ending that might or might not explain the past two hours. Too bad, really, because the first 5/6th of the film are directed with skill (though the focus seems slightly off most of the time), written with some verve and carried by Johnny Depp’s character. Plus, the glimpse into rare-book collecting is fascinating, and makes us forget that the pace of the film is glacial and that not much happens for a horror story. But the finale, the finale… ow… It’s no coincidence if half the theatre audience groaned when the credits came up.

Mission To Mars (2000)

Mission To Mars (2000)

(In theaters, March 2000) A perfect example of what is colloquially known as the “Stupid Hollywood Sci-Fi Blockbuster”. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s really extremely accomplished in technical matters. Even the actors do a really good job. But, characteristically, the script is truly awful, filled with obvious lines you can predict, sudden character shift, silly science and one of the most awful saccharine ending in recent memory; how can you top the cheap-CGI weeping alien, or the let’s-hold-hands-around-the-planet-and-sing-Kumbaya silliness? As with Armageddon, one could built an entire presentation around the bad science in this film, but unlike Armageddon, it’s unlikely that one will manage to enjoy Mission To Mars on a purely visceral level: Uncharacteristically, Brian de Palma’s direction is limp, obvious and mostly without pep. The consistently inappropriate score only highlights the failures of the film at providing excitement. Savvy Viewers ready to give chances to Mission To Mars (after all, for each four or six stupid things, it usually gets one crucial detail right, like the zero-gee effects) will probably give up after the laugh-aloud finale, and rightfully rank this as one of the worst big films of 2000.

Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet, Michael Wolff

Simon & Schuster, 1998, 268 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84881-3

The Internet. There’s never been anything like it before, and chances are that there will never be anything like its first years again. From a technical point of view, the Internet is a one-shot result of events that somehow all coalesced in the mid-to-late nineties: The introduction of personal computers, the state of research in high-speed communication, the slow interlinking of the research backbone, the arrival of several media players, the rise of AOL, the availability of the development tools and concepts, the very basic Internet paradigm of distributed decentralization… all contributed at the explosive growth of the network.

Who says explosive growth usually means money. And money is a very strange thing. Our current economy is really a common hallucination, where even a rumour of bad news can quickly become a true catastrophe for those involved. In this context, the Internet -touted as “the next big big thing, bigger than TV”- was seemingly designed to send investors rushing to entrepreneurs. And vice-versa.

In Burn Rate, Michael Wolff gives a first-person testimony of the net’s early mass-media days -roughly 1996-1997-, when giants like Warner cautiously investigated what the fuss was all about, when naïve investors threw money at everything “new media” and when no one had a clue what they were doing. Same thing as today, right?

Yes and no.

Yes, it’s obvious that things have changed. Two years is a full generation on the web, and there’s definitely a certain air of staleness in what’s described in Burn Rate. Warner’s glorious “Pathfinder” site has been revealed for the Bad Idea it was, NetGuide is D-E-A-D dead and mergers have rocked the chaotic webscape even more. Many of the proposed business models, operating paradigms and development ideas in Burn Rate have been mutated, integrated or discarded, but are certainly not current any more.

And yet… no, things haven’t changed. Investors still rush to “dot-com” sites (though as of this writing, a “market correction” is taking place), Venture Capitalists still hope to create the Next Big Thing on the Internet, the Web looks more like 1997 than 1997’s web looked like 1996 (there’s been a stabilization of standards) and people still don’t know what they’re doing, even though the best of them now have a clue what the Internet is all about.

As a result, the book already reads as a quasi-anthropological glimpse in the net’s early days, and it remains to be seen if it can successfully transform itself from current business affairs to a historical document. If it does, it will be in no small part due to Wolff’s writing style, which possesses a certain humour and a telling eye for details. (The first chapter on Capital-raising conferences is an eye-opener) The book may drag in mid-read, after the initial strangeness and before Wolff’s ultimate downfall, but it can be read briskly. A good editor may have removed some meaningless name-dropping. Fortunately, the tale gets better as it ends, given Wolff’s curious position between creditors and debtors; a man forced to give up his own company after an alliance with a devilish investor.

A few readers may detect an edge of bitterness in Wolff’s narrative, and with good reason: Even though the man is now comfortably wealthy, he nevertheless failed to grab on the big Net rush of the late nineties, and saw the parade pass him by. Fortunately, he jotted down his impressions, and the result is a funny business tragedy described in a physical object that will probably remain in business school libraries for years to come. Who knew the Internet could produce such a thing?

Note: For such a “Webbish” book, Burn Rate‘s web site… well… sucks. Besides a “more complete” index (uh-huh…), there’s not much more here than standard brochureware, with carefully selected laudatory quotes, quotes from the book and the usual marketing drivelspeak. It’s also one of the ugliest web site I’ve seen in a long time… but don’t take my word for it, and check it out at

El Mariachi (1992)

El Mariachi (1992)

(On TV, March 2000) The reputation of Robert Rodriguez’s first, ultra-cheap (16,000$, financed with credit card and blood donations) action film overshadows its actual value, but even then, expect to be pleasantly surprised by this rather simple crime tale. This modern-day western -well-set in Mexico- with requisite good-guy, bad-guy and cute-chick, has its dull moments but also its good ones. The better-known -and more enjoyable- sequel, Desperado, is really a bigger-budget rehash of the same elements more than a sequel. While not essential, El Mariachi is a pretty good choice for Rodriguez fans, and/or anyone looking for a slightly different action film.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2004) There are few clearer examples of “the little film that could” than this one: Produced for peanuts by Robert Rodriguez, who used the unexpected success of the film to go on to other, better things, El Mariachi benefits enormously from this “Special Edition” DVD treatment. Anyone who’s familiar with the Rodriguez oeuvre on DVD knows that the man is a ceaseless fount of fascinating information, and so his audio commentary on the film is packed with production anecdotes and tips on how to save money on a low-budget shoot. The film itself has its moments, but it’s a lot more interesting as an example of what can be done with nothing than a full action thriller. Director Robert Rodriguez’s first notable full-length feature is not a bad movie by itself, but it becomes far more astonishing once you know that it cost less than the price of a new car to shoot. In this light, the special edition DVD is a must-see for all budding filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts, because Rodriguez spares no effort in showing us How It’s Done For Nothing, from deceptive camera angles to the usefulness of having local connections. The DVD’s best extra is the director’s commentary, which is (as Rodriguez fans may know from other commentaries) jam-packed with information about the actual making of the film. Wonderful stuff, somewhat complemented by another of his “Ten-minute film school” featurettes. The film is good, but the surrounding material is just great. Don’t skimp on the supplemental material on the DVD, as they give a further behind-the-scene glimpse of the making of the film. While I’d be surprised if general audiences really got into the film, cinephiles and budding directors will be endlessly fascinated.

The Limey (1999)

The Limey (1999)

(In theaters, March 2000) I was rather less impressed by this film than most pro critics. Besides some fun time-jumping here and there, The Limey is, at its heart, a fairly plain revenge story we’ve seen a few times around. The low-budget of the film can’t sustain extensive actions scenes, but fortunately Terence Stamp is there to carry the film on sheer hard-boiled attitude. Better than the average B-grade action film, but that’s what it remains.

Final Destination (2000)

Final Destination (2000)

(In theaters, March 2000) A cut above the usual teen-horror films, mostly because of some effective directing, interesting set-pieces and a refusal to explain away the horror by some boring random knife-wielding psycho. This time, the enemy is Death itself, and Final Destination does a better job than most horror films at instilling a faint -but genuine- sense of dread, and a lingering feeling of uneasiness after the film is over; I defy you to drive your car back home after the film and not think about stupid random accidents. The airplane’s crash scene is an anthology piece, brutally effective in its realism. Sure, the film is limited in ambition and not entirely successful: Two scenes seem notably out of place (the weirdish morgue segment and the quasi Evil Dead cabin scene) and the death scenes are a bit too cartoonish -not to mention fairly predictable- to be really creepy. (They’re so over-the-top that they can be disposed of by a giggle and a shrug, whereas a more restrained approach would have been far more effective.) Still, it’s not that bad, and any film that ends with that final shot (think about it again…) isn’t entirely bad.

(Second viewing, On DVD, July 2002) I remember being slightly unnerved by this teen horror film when it first came out, and indeed this impression is sustained a second time around. This isn’t some stupid slasher film in which everyone acts like brain-damaged morons; this film stars Death itself, and the convoluted ways in which even the silliest things can become fatal. Just try to drive home afterward without thinking about bad-luck accidents! Suffice to say that this film will creep on you while you won’t expect it, and that it itself is an admirable accomplishment in a subgenre that hasn’t produced any marvels lately. A second look doesn’t do much to assuage my misgivings about the shifting tone of the film and the needlessly gruesome death scenes, but the rest of my initial impression equally holds up. It’s an efficient, clever little supernatural thriller that will keep you on edge better than its counterparts. Dim the lights and see it with someone you trust. The DVD contains a lot of extra, whether it’s two commentary tracks or related featurettes (the best being one about test screenings, and how Final Destination went from having a wussy soft ending to the hard-edged one it currently enjoys.)

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Donnie Brasco (1997)

(On TV, March 2000) This film as the story of an undercover cop seduced by lure of gangster life, struggles in the shadow of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, but manages to hold its own. No, it’s not near as good as these films are, but then again few films are. What you get, instead, is a moderately entertaining mob story with occasional moments. The ending is relatively abrupt, though.

Starfish, Peter Watts

Tor, 1998, 374 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57585-7

The sub-genre of aquatic Science-Fiction has been dominated, for years, by Arthur C. Clarke, who parlayed a scuba-diving obsession into at least two fine novels of futuristic sea adventures, The Deep Range (harvesting whales for food) and The Ghost from the Grand Banks (raising the Titanic). That’s in addition to several other stories, subplots and non-fiction writing about the subject. Anyone even daring to cover the same ground better pay homage to the master, or else.

That’s exactly what Toronto resident Peter Watts does in “A Niche”, the short story that formed the basis for Starfish: One of the protagonists is named Clarke. (The other; Ballard) “A Niche” ends up being the first chapter of Starfish, and the novel follows what happens after the events of the short story. “A Niche” was rather good (it was notably featured in Northern Star, a best-of anthology of Canadian short SF) and so is Starfish, despite a few problems.

The biggest of those is probably the premise. Some things work in short stories and simply don’t translate well to bigger lengths. The concept of using mentally unstable persons as deep-sea explorers is one of these things. Suspension of disbelief is easy to sustain over twenty pages (oh, another wacky SF concept!)… but three hundred? Does anyone really think that a multi-billion mega-corporation would willingly entrust important projects to crazy personnel on the dubious premise that “an environment that drive the sane insane might drive the insane sane again?” Is anyone in the audience truly surprised when people start cracking up under all sort of pressures, both physical and psychological? Is it any wonder if none of the characters is overly sympathetic to the reader?

Okay. Never mind that. Suspend disbelief and proceed.

…only to be stopped again by some major structural problems. The book suffers from its origin in that the major character of the short story -Lenie Clarke- is probably not the best viewpoint characters for the full-length story. That character would probably be the “sane” psychologist Yves Scanlon, but he doesn’t arrive on-site until the novel is well in its second act. Before that, the viewpoint keeps shifting between characters who often disappear before mid-novel, creating an unfocused impression that really doesn’t help the novel get underway. Have I mentioned that for the first half of the book there’s no one even remotely worth cheering for?

In fact, most of my good opinion of the novel comes from the last fifty pages or so, when new exciting elements (like Βehemoth) are introduced and developed as a credible plot thread. Suddenly, most of what comes before is negated or trivialized. This is good at first (it basically saves the novel), but rather unsatisfactory on further reflection. In fact, the Βehemoth plot element is so good that its late inclusion smacks of sloppy editorial guidance; why couldn’t the novel be re-conceptualized around this?

But, as ever, let’s not be overly critical of what is, after all, a first novel. It would be unfair to forget the obvious strengths of the novel; a daring sense of originality which is admirable even when it misfires; a good grasp of unusual characters; some really good ideas that could have benefited from much more development; an obvious willingness to do keep the science exact and to present the best parts to the audience and, perhaps most importantly, a readable style that should work wonders in a different context.

Starfish isn’t without problems, small and large, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read and a promising first novel from someone who should deliver good things in latter books. It follows in the aquatic footsteps of Arthur C. Clarke and doesn’t seem out of place in the company of the SF grandmaster. That’s not bad at all.

Possibilities for a sequel? Get more information on that, and Peter Watts at