Month: July 2000

The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science-Fiction Universe, George Ochoa & Jeffrey Osier

Writer’s Digest, 1993, 314 pages, C$26.99 hc, ISBN 0-89879-536-2

The very existence of certain books can tell you more than you wished to know about the world. Go to your nearest mega-bookstore and look around at the book categories. Who could have thought that there could be so many new-age freaks, needlepoint enthusiasts or (bookshelves!) amateur gardeners?

You may think you know all about interest groups, but really; had imagined that there could be a whole series of books for wannabee SF writers? I’m not kidding; Writer’s Digest Books has a series of books aimed specifically at the beginning science-fiction writer. Books on how to create alien societies or create typically “Science-fictive” effects. In hardcover, no less.

The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science-fiction Universe has a self-explanatory title. The authors aim to provide any new and struggling writers with an array of facts, thoughts and technique with which to create a believable backdrop for any serious science-fiction story.

In truth, this is pretty much the only thing a prospective writer has to know in order to write good SF. Whereas good writing techniques can be adopted from almost any other type of fiction writing, the essence of SF is in its creation of imaginary, yet plausible worlds that can withstand the scrutiny of even the most demanding readers. The authors are careful to ground prospective writers in the SF ethos of imaginary realism and the result is a book that’s not only useful, but well-intentioned:  They not only give out specific information, but also encourage the writer to develop a true sense of what is meaningful in the genre.

It is a measure of how useful this guide is that you can not only read it cover to cover, but also use it as a reference work. The first part of the book is more or less a snappy overview of essential scientific knowledge required to write adequate SF, and one can easily refer to selected excerpts to ensure that they haven’t screwed up. Even though the book dates from 1993, it has aged well so far, mostly due to its reliance on general overviews rather than advanced research (see Charles Sheffield’s Borderlands of Science for a book that fails on this level.)

And even for those not really interested in writing SF, this Guide can fulfill another purpose: The writing is clear and direct, lively but detailed, so that it can serve as a general science vulgarization book, with occasional asides to recommended SF (in a scientific context) as well as an introduction to the whole idea of SF-as-fictional-study-of-change. There is, easily, a freshmen-level college course in general science to be distilled from this book.

Interestingly enough, George’s Ochoa bibliography is a marvel of scholarly eclectism, with dozens of books on a wide range of subject, from movies to history, public library answer books to sound recordings. One gets the feeling that be brought the same vulgarization abilities and professionalism to The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science-Fiction Universe. The result is worth it.

Journey into Darkness, John Douglas & Mark Olshaker

Pocket, 1997, 382 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-00394-1

Most law-abiding citizen are, at one degree or another, fascinated by criminal behavior. Temptation from the dark side? Vicarious living through the illegal actions of others? Reassurance that being a criminal is always a bad idea? Whatever the reason, the publishing industry has responded in kind: a whole new non-fiction category (“True Crime”) has been created to satisfy a lucrative need.

Of all types of criminal activities, serial killing must be one of the most incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. One can rationalize theft, fraud, assault or even accidental homicide, but repeated cold-blooded murders are out of anyone’s conceptual framework. And yet, some people make it their job to get into the mind of serial killers. John Douglas is probably the best-known of them, having long been director of the FBI’s profiling unit, which specializes in establishing psychological portraits of typical serial killers. Journey into Darkness is an account of his work, his methods and various cases in which Douglas has some expertise.

This isn’t Douglas and Olshaker’s first book together, (They also previously wrote Mindhunter) and this has some effect on the book’s ultimate impact. While Journey into Darkness remains a good read, it seems to skirt on a few important issues and suffers from a structure that doesn’t flow as naturally as it should. One get the feeling that this is more of a sequel to a previous book in which all the introductory elements have been explained. Journey into Darkness must assume that most of its readers are already familiar with the basis of profiling, serial killer definition and the high-profile cases in the specialty.

Even then, however, the book remains worthwhile. For a newcomer to the profiling work, it’s fascinating to see how, from a few clues, specialized FBI agents can deduce or narrow down some characteristics of the killer’s environment, behavior and socioeconomic situation. Douglas explains that most serial murderers are intelligent young white males with few social contacts. They have low self-esteem, often live at home with a relative, have a history of abuse, pyromania and cruelty to animals. They know how to manipulate people and often return to crime scenes.

Douglas establishes these base elements early on, then use them to show how real profiles can use clues from crime scenes to form a profile. No traces of struggle? The victim must have known the killer. White victims? White killer. Mutilations? History of sexual violence.

Most of the book is composed of case studies of serial murder cases as examined by Douglas and Olshaker. The writing style is brisk and efficient, allowing for a glimpse in the mind of both criminals and policemen. Of particular interest is the analysis of the O.J. Simpson case. Douglas’ conclusion? Guilty, guilty, guilty…

Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the book has a few structural problems. One case study is dragged on over several chapters, and however sympathetic the victim was, the book so far had dealt with individual cases in a matter of pages, not chapters. Another source of problems is inherent in the subject matter itself; however fascinating the subject matter is, and despite the good work in presenting the subject, this repetition of true human evil gets repulsive with time even though the interest level remains high.

We should thankful for people like John Douglas, willing to explore the criminal mind to take away as many of them possible off the street. Journey into Darkness is a good exposition of the work practiced by his equivalents, and the results they get. Even though Mindhunter is probably the best introduction to the subject, don’t hesitate to pick up this one if the subjects fascinates you. And chances are it will.

[February 2005: Indeed, Mindhunter is almost a prerequisite to Journey into Darkness. Not only does the prequel offer considerable background on John Douglas and the way the FBI profiling program was established, but it also describes how those “rules” of profiling were developped over time. Read it first if you can.]

Starfire, Charles Sheffield

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 401 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37894-5

Is it possible for a sequel to be… better… than the original?

Depends on what you mean by sequel. It’s certainly more reasonable to assume that books planned from the onset to be a sequel to a first volume (say, as part of the series) has chances to be more ambitious than the first volume than a book cooked a few years later as a sequel to an initially stand-alone novel. Compare cinema with literature on this point, and after you’ve compared HIGHLANDER 2 with, say, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, I’ll rest my case. (Though XENOCIDE could be compared with SUPERMAN III and set off a whole new debate.)

I was not a big fan of Charles Sheffield’s Aftermath. Partly because it felt more like a disaster novel than science-fiction, partly because it was filled with unsympathetic characters that spent their time discussing various sexual dysfunctions, partly because, frankly, it just wasn’t very interesting. Aftermath, however, was obviously the first volume in a series; the ending, with its last-minute curveball, seemed explicitly designed to whet readers’ expectations.

I happened, a year later, to grab Starfire off my local library’s shelves. No sense in spending money to read a sequel to a book I didn’t really like.

Surprisingly, even though I can’t really say that Starfire is all that good, it’s certainly more interesting and more enjoyable than its prequel.

For one thing, it certainly feels closer to science-fiction than the previous volume. At the end of Aftermath, scientists discovered that they had twenty-five years to prepare a shield to protect them from a serious particle storm headed for Earth. In Starfire, the twenty-five years are up and the final elements of the shield race to completion before the storm hits. But, ah-ha, things suddenly look much worse than previously; the particle storm arrives earlier than expected, packs more punch, and faces a shield that’s dogged by budgetary constraints and sabotage. Seems like, as usual in hard-SF, wacky religious groups just keep wanting the end of Earth.

As if that wasn’t enough, most of the essential robots of the shield project are controlled by a maniacal dwarf (is there any other kind of dwarf, I ask?), who sends a traitorous woman (is there…?) to seduce a straight-laced engineer (is there…?) Even better; to solve a series of murders on a space station, a shadowy operative contacts a genius ex-serial murderer. (Now, you know that all serial murderers are geniuses.)

A lot of stuff, mostly already seen elsewhere, but it keeps things moving at a decent pace. The constant sexual obsession of the first volume is considerably toned down and even though some characters approach cliché, it does seem as if they’re a rather more pleasant bunch than in the previous book.

The details are a mixed bunch. As could be expected from a scientist/hard-SF writer like Sheffield, the science is adequate even though the “one single smart scientist figures it all out” cliché is once again taken for a walk. The political details, however, sound naive and far too convenient, a flaw shared by many similar novels. Political unlikeliness isn’t the only type of doubtful developments in Starfire, however; the whole ending (along with the dinosaur stuff) struck me as essentially preposterous.

But, even though Starfire isn’t too good, it lends itself to a quick reading, and represents a step up from its predecessor. Unfortunately, it still represents another sub-par novel from Sheffield, who’s shown himself capable of both the best and the worst, often in successive books. Certainly, seeing him turn out two or three novels a year doesn’t do much to inspire confidence; is he spreading himself too thin?

In any case, those readers who slogged through Aftermath deserve something to lessen the bad taste of it; Starfire might fit the bill. And if you haven’t read the first volume, well, it’s not essential for enjoying this one.

Destroying Angel, Richard Paul Russo

Ace, 1992, 230 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-14273-7

Each revolutionary artistic current has its host of routine imitators, not necessarily incompetent poseurs, but averagely talented artists who are either fascinated by a new style without being able to faithfully render it, or otherwise tempted by easy monetary gain on the coattails of more innovative material.

Cyberpunk crashed into science-fiction in the eighties and eventually faded out in the nineties as the world finally caught up to the fiction. William Gibson et al’s vision of tech-smart street people, decaying cities, dominating corporations and “dirty tech” was an all-too-common concern in the Internet-dominated nineties, and if only for this reason, cyberpunk faded out as a genre, though it radically re-energized SF in the process. (Indeed, some of the most successful SF works of the decade managed to incorporate cyberpunk’s native energy, manic invention and fascination with information technology as elements -not keystones- in a larger future tapestry. Interested scholars can look at the career of Bruce Sterling as a perfect illustration of this metamorphosis.)

In this context, Richard Paul Russo’s Destroying Angel stands as an example of a strictly average cyberpunk novel coming almost at the genre’s death march. It is not bad -or inferior- per se, but it doesn’t really exhibit any superior qualities.

Certainly, the plot is immediately familiar. In a downtrodden and rodent-ridden San Francisco, an ex-cop with a bad past manages to earn a living as a smuggler. But a serial murderer once thought dead reappears in the City and starts killing again, bringing back the ex-cop straight back to where he had quit the police force.

In a few words, it’s your standard serial killer plot, along with the flawed hero, noir atmosphere times ten stirred in with the usual cyberpunk gadgets. Any more ordinary and you’d get a book put together with excerpts of previously published stories.

But I’m being too harsh, because once you’re into the story, Destroying Angel is enjoyable in a strictly-entertainment fashion. The writing is pretty good, Russo creates an acceptable hard-boiled atmosphere, scenes move with a certain efficiency, and it’s hard not to sympathize with the tortured protagonist. Several nice touches, such as the opera-signing ghetto lady, enliven an otherwise routine narrative.

Only a somewhat useless subplot about a young girl named Sookie drags down the book from its straight-ahead narrative. (Sookie eventually becomes vital to the plot, but the rest of her story smacks of padding in order to obtain a novel-length manuscript.)

As with any genre, Science-Fiction’s got its blockbusters, its work of art, its true stinkers and total failures. Then there’s the overwhelming majority of the total SF production; wholly average novels that are neither really good or really bad. That’s where Destroying Angel goes; in the vast masses of the averages. To its credit, it doesn’t try to be anything more pretentious than it is; the writing is clean and obviously tries to be entertaining. It’s an acceptable thriller.

It’s worth a look if ever you come across it at a used book sale and if you don’t have anything more pressing to read. Otherwise, it’s one of those books you can safely skip without missing anything essential to the evolution of the genre. Hopefully, the book brought money to Russo and allowed him to buy a few nice things.

And sometimes, artistic innovation be damned, that’s all you can ask for: entertainment for the reader and money for the author.

Fatal Cure, Robin Cook

Berkley, 1993, 449 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-14563-8

As somewhat of a genre reader, I rarely get to read books that make it to bestseller lists. Aside from Tom Clancy, most of the current best-selling authors aren’t favorites of mine. Robin Cook is one of these best-selling authors; Though I was aware that he wrote medical thrillers, the two book from him that I had read before in translation (Fever and Brain) didn’t make enough of an impression on me to lead on to further readings. (Unlike, say, Robert B. Parker—but I digress)

The literary circles I frequent often resent “bestsellers” as an inferior form of writing, as if being popular required bad writing, simple plot and cardboard characters. Right. Say what you want about the general dumbing-down of the American public (myth!) but truly bad novels go on the slushpile, not the top-ten lists which at worst might be filled with formulaic plotting and familiar characters, but not incompetence.

After reading Fatal Cure, I’m ready to revise this opinion.

If you’re somewhat familiar with medical thrillers, you already know the plot: Young couple is lured to a hospital in a city far way from home. But! Patients start dying mysteriously, the hospital’s administrators don’t want to talk about it and, of course, our protagonists are quickly threatened as soon as they investigate further.

Oh, I’m sure that most readers who paid good money to buy this book and put it on the charts really liked what they read. Maybe they’re just less demanding. Maybe they really like medical thrillers. Mostly they don’t read 150+ books a year like I do.

Because everything in Fatal Cure reads like a re-run of these 150+ books. With time, avid readers start building up standard templates of familiar stories, and less tolerance for those authors which can’t or won’t surprise them with fresh twist.

For instance: One of the thrills of crime fiction is to keep guessing the identity of the murderer. Ironically, if the reader figures out the mystery before it’s revealed, it definitely lessens the book’s impact, and takes away from the fun of reading the book.

Yes, I did figure out the identity of the bad guy in Fatal Cure. Pretty much from the first scene on; it’s that transparent.

The rest of the book isn’t much better. Every tired plot thread is used shamelessly, from the sick daughter to the sexual harassment subplot to the local sheriff in cahoots with the chief conspirators. So-called “clues” are so obvious that from their very first mention, you can guess how they’ll play later on in the book. So, the young couple buys a house whose owner mysteriously disappeared, but notice a strange smell in the basement. Gee, I wonder what that smell could possibly be…? Not so annoying if they would immediately discover the body, but rather more annoying when no less that 104 pages (69 to 173) pass between smell and body.

It gets worse; not only is the plot clichéd in every conceivable way, but it is also wrapped in an unsubtle authorial message about how bad HMOs truly are and why Americans shouldn’t support such initiatives. (Hey, in Fatal Cure HMOs breed killer administrators. And that too can be guessed early on.)

And yet… and yet… Even though most copies of Fatal Cure could spontaneously combust with nary a tear from me (provided the rest of the libraries stay intact), it should be said that once you make it through the first half of the book, it doesn’t get better but it can be read fairly easily, especially if you’re adept at diagonal reading; most of what is expected to happen, happens, and if you enjoy that type of thing, I can see Fatal Cure as average beach reading.

On the other hand, there’s never a single element to convince me to read another Robin Cook book ever again. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll feel the pain very much.

Ekkusu [X] (1996)

Ekkusu [X] (1996)

(In theaters, July 2000) Japanese animation works according to its own very peculiar rules, and Ekkusu demonstrates this above everything else. A choppy story of good-versus-evil ultimate combat, this is perhaps the most unintentionally funny film you’ll see on any given year: Divided either between hilarious straight exposition (which isn’t helped by the sarcastic attitude) and over-dramatic action scenes, Ekkusu contains such gems as “I came to save you and you were here to protect me, but it didn’t turn out that way” (said after half the characters dies). Ekkusu‘s faults might be exacerbated by a poor dubbing, but most probably find their source both in the typical anime tics, and the ultra-compressed adaptation of the story from a massive manga series. In any case, this film is best rented with a group of guys as so to enjoy the curvy female characters, gory action scenes and what may be one of the most unintentionally hilarious death scene ever.

X-Men (2000)

X-Men (2000)

(In theaters, July 2000) When all will have been said and done, the biggest measure of X-Men‘s success is how it didn’t disappoint the legions of fans and hordes of non-fans that went to see it. It’s incredibly hard to make a film about iconic figures, but X-Men manages to pull it off. The script wisely focuses on only a few characters, grounds the fanciful comic elements in reality (such as the black leather uniforms rather than yellow spandex) and plays around the ever-popular theme of discrimination, almost bringing some actual thought in the process. Director Bryan Singer does a decent job on most of the film, but his action scenes clearly show his lack of experience with special effects and action editing: They feel disjointed, don’t flow nearly as well as they should and rarely use wide-angle shots that would firmly establish the action flow in viewers’ mind. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable, features a breakout performance by Hugh Jackman (as fanboy favourite Wolverine) and delivers value for the money. Not a bad performance for a summer blockbuster.

A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1999, 405 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57827-8

Many nasty things can be said about series of science-fiction books set in the same shared universe. They’re exercise in marketing over art; they repudiate the spirit of unbounded imagination that is at the core of SF; they allow authors to be lazy; they require less mental effort from their readers; they often repeat the same themes over and over…

Which is why it’s so rewarding to find a series of novels that’s genuinely good. Nearly all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fiction output so far (minus a couple of short stories and one fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring) has been linked to the “Vorkosigan Universe”, named from the family around which most adventures of the series seem to take place.

It’s not easy to isolate the secret of Bujold’s success with critics and readers (She has brought home an unprecedented 4 Best Novel Hugos for the series so far) because it appears so transparent; great characters, memorable plotlines, superb dialogue all moved along with crystal-clear writing. But the simplicity of Bujold’s work is deceptive, because it hides in plain view an astonishing mastery of her art.

The depths upon which the Vorkosigan series are constructed becomes more apparent when considering A Civil Campaign and its two immediate predecessors, Memory and Komarr. Memory was, in many respect, a big important book, both for Bujold and her protagonist Miles Vorkosigan, as he saw himself forced to abandon covert military service and learn to cope with his family obligations in a more direct fashion than previously. At the same time, Bujold was cutting away the important military/action roots of her series. Few authors have the guts to try something as definitive.

Komarr is often seen as something of a “simple adventure” in the Vorkosigan Universe, a simple matter of Miles investigating a crime in his new job as Imperial Auditor. But A Civil Campaign highlights the importance of the novel in introducing Ekaterin Vorsoisson, who quickly becomes the object of Miles’ affection.

In war as in love, there are no certitudes, and if Miles Vorkosigan’s first adventures were military in nature, A Civil Campaign is a love saga, blending seamlessly the conventions of regency romance with the Barrayaran aristocracy, a compatible match if ever there was one. (Along with the usual everything-goes-wrong tendency of the Vorkosigan adventures.)

Everyone who’s read as much as one Bujold novel already know how funny she can be. A Civil Campaign allows her to run wild with comedic scenes. Readers with some attachment to the characters will find themselves swept along, slapping their forehead in embarrassment, grinning ferociously at the witty developments and even shouting out loud whoops of satisfaction at what are known in the trade as “the cool scenes” (of which there are, as usual, many) Few novels, few authors are able to pull in readers as efficiently as Bujold, and for that alone, she deserves special attention.

In short, it’s really hard to be anything but enthusiastic about the latest Bujold novel, especially when it’s one of her better ones such as A Civil Campaign. On the other hand, like most of Bujold’s novels (Barrayar comes to mind) it’s not a novel that depends as much on its science-fiction elements as other works. Some readers will call it “slight SF”, and in a sense they are right. Even though Bujold’s output is excellent fiction, it’s definitely not strong SF, which explains some of the mixed sentiments about Bujold’s regular Hugo nominations.

And yet, under the surface, look closer and you’ll find serious SF material nearly everywhere in A Civil Campaign. From the biotechnology of the “butter bugs” (and impact thereof on Barrayaran ecology) to the biotechnology of Lord Dono’s solution (and impact thereof on Barrayaran aristocracy) to the biotechnology of Lord Vormuir’s semi-cloned daughters (and impact thereof on Barrayaran society)… there is no doubt that A Civil Campaign is definitely SF.

In the meantime, put these esoteric considerations out of your mind and get the latest Bujold. If you haven’t yet started the series, well, it’s not too late to begin…

The Undertaker’s Wedding (1997)

The Undertaker’s Wedding (1997)

(On VHS, July 2000) Charming, little-known comedy about an undertaker being caught in the middle of a mafia family war. Romantic -and possibly fatal- complications ensue. Sympathetic central characters, gorgeous actresses, fun conclusion and a few funny scenes make this an entirely acceptable, if not essential rental.

Small Time Crooks (2000)

Small Time Crooks (2000)

(In theaters, July 2000) The type of perfectly adequate film that is neither too impressive nor too awful to talk about. Woody Allen plays his umpteenth neurotic character, the first act is the funniest, the ending isn’t all that good, it’s more of a smiling comedy than a laughing comedy.

Scary Movie (2000)

Scary Movie (2000)

(In theaters, July 2000) If ever there was a genre which deserved its satiric roasting, it’s the late-nineties “teen horror” craze, which -for all its hip self-awareness- wasn’t all that much better than its predecessors, the early-eighties slasher films. Scary Movie takes up the task with gusto, and despite an annoying intrusion of gross-out comedy, the film is oodles better than most satiric comedies have been in years. The script is filled with genuinely funny material, and most parodies are on-target. I’d have cut about five minutes of unnecessary vulgar material (which gets old real quickly, and ends up annoying rather than amusing), but the rest works well. Wait for the TV network version.

The Perfect Storm (2000)

The Perfect Storm (2000)

(In theaters, July 2000) Upon reading Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction book The Perfect Storm, my first reaction was that it would make a spectacular movie, but probably not a very good one: The historical facts -if played straight- were ill-fitted to a dramatic arc, and carried a definitely anti-happy-ending resonance. Fortunately, director Wolfgang Petersen was able not only to keep the film reasonably faithful to the book, but also to deliver a film that will satisfy most audiences. The first forty minutes of the film, with its land-based action meant to introduce the characters and set up the relevant elements of the plot, are definitely its weakest: The audience is there to see the storm, not some fishermen with clichéd dialogue. But pay attention, as the characters will give meaning to the upcoming mayhem. After the storm starts, you can only sit back and go Wow, because you’re going to see some of the most awe-inspiring storm footage ever computer-generated. This is the point where you realize you should see this film on the biggest screen you can. By this time, the lousy dialogue and jerky character development doesn’t really matter. We’re in ride-movie territory, and as far as those go, The Perfect Storm is better than most. Even the ending, which I was apprehending, felt right. Maybe not a perfect film, but a darn good roller-coaster with some depth.

Pâfekuto burû [Perfect Blue] (1997)

Pâfekuto burû [Perfect Blue] (1997)

(In theaters, July 2000) Japanese animated film about an actress whose entourage gradually gets killed by some mysterious entity. Putrid rotoscoped animation is compensated, somewhat, by a down-to-earth adult subject matter (so much that it’s unclear why this was done as animation) and gripping plot. The film occasionally gets too twisty for its own good and probably doesn’t make sense even after the last revelations, but it’s worth watching. Needless to say, this is not for kids.

Nocturne for a Dangerous Man, Marc Matz

Tor, 1999, 470 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57537-7

As I accumulate my SF reading and develop more sophisticated tastes in my entertainment choices, I have inevitably progressed past certain things. Star Trek adventures now simply bore me, given that they exhibit none of the intellectual inventiveness, mental challenges and new characters that, to me, have come to represent the best that science-fiction has to offer. The same can be said about scores of run-of-the-mill action/adventure novels, where the thriller mechanics aren’t really enhanced by the science-fiction setting. Especially when it’s “average” SF and/or the thriller plot is more boring than thrilling.

Don’t read in the above read what I didn’t say: I can always appreciate a good thriller or an unassuming action/adventure SF novel when they have something special, but it takes more than just labeling a tired chase scenario with lasers and robots to make it interesting.

In this perspective, Nocturne for a Dangerous Man is a half-success. On one hand it’s a complex thriller with decent SF elements. On the other, it’s an overlong bore with nothing really new to say and a paternalistic tone in which to say it.

It’s typical of the book’s murky impression that the plot can be stated in several fashions. At first glance, it would appear to be a straightforward story where an ultra-competent mercenary protagonist is hired to rescue a damsel in distress. On closer inspection, it’s far more complex than that: The protagonist has to chase down several leads, complete sub-objectives in order to further his mission and contact dozens of past acquaintances to get more information. But look closer, and you’ll find that the kinks of the narrative threads untie themselves to form a single, continuous simple story: That of an ultra-competent mercenary protagonist hired to rescue a damsel in distress.

In other words, this is a book that ends exactly where you’d think at first, which is to say pretty much like the (great) cover illustration, in which a rugged-looking man hangs on to a helicopter rope ladder with one hand and a beautiful woman in the other while in the background, a cruise ship explodes. For readers, the journey is the goal, not the ending.

All fine and well; like most Hollywood movie, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a routine plot executed supremely well. But Nocturne for a Dangerous Man isn’t so successful.

Many difficulties stem from the protagonist’s narration. Just like in most of Robert Heinlein’s best novels, Nocturne for a Dangerous Man is narrated by an astonishingly competent renaissance man, a protagonist trained in the military arts, fluent in dozens of languages, superb cook, expert lover and most probably multiple-PhD-holder for all we know. Needless to say, such characters quickly approach self-parody, a trap that Matz doesn’t entirely avoid here. Just like Robert Heinlein’s worst novels, however, the narration quickly becomes paternalistic, almost as if anyone not knowing a dozen languages, half a dozen fighting techniques, culinary and amorous arts can’t possibly be adequate enough to read the book. This snobbishness tends to grate and grate greatly.

Adding to the problem is a structure that drags on, and on, and on… The best hard-boiled novels (which Nocturne for a Dangerous Man is obviously trying to imitate) were those which didn’t multiply endless empty complications. (Have you ever read about a glib private eye?) But Matz, for whatever reasons, seems to delight in demonstrating his intelligence to us, which comes out as a net waste of time.

Too bad, because with some drastic editing, Nocturne for a Dangerous Man would have been a fast-paced, entertaining read. Matz shows a good grasp of SF world-building and the details -plentiful as they are- remain interesting. Despite everything, I’ll take a look at his next novel.

The Patriot (2000)

The Patriot (2000)

(In theaters, July 2000) The impossible has happened: Emmerich and Devlin -the team behind such stinkers as Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla– have finally produced a good film. A really good film. Sure, Mel Gibson’s done pretty much all of this before in Braveheart and the film is peppered with occasionally dumb scenes. (Cinepop-quiz: At which point will the little “mute” girl will start to talk? What will she say?) But on the other hand, this is a straightforward war adventure with a decent script, a likeable protagonist, some tension and clear direction. Cultural anthropologists and war buffs will revel in the representation of classical 18th-century European warfare (lines of soldiers advance, shoot, reload. All very civilized) While some liberties have been taken with historical facts, the film feels very convincing in details and atmosphere. Finally, a summer epic that does not disappoint!

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2001) This film definitely appreciates with a second viewing. You come to expect the mawkish emotional scenes (“Daddy! I can talk at dramatic junctures of the plot!”) and gloss over them to focus on the wonderful re-creation of the American Revolution. The script, aside from the cheap occasional sentimentalism, isn’t half-bad and the directing is quite good. Who would have thought the one who brought us Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla could pull it off? The DVD contains a few extras that won’t work on my cheap player, and a moderately interesting commentary track by the directors. The Patriot finally plays like the grand historical epic it’s supposed to be: A good film!