The Trigger, Arthur C. Clarke & Michael Kube-McDowell

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 447 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10458-6

According to some SF commentators, your reviewer included, science-fiction is about the effects of change on human behavior. That change is usually linked to scientific and technological innovation is unavoidable, but not essential. This definition of SF isn’t perfect (nor accepted by all), but it allows to define an idea-space in which SF can distinguish itself from all other types of fiction.

At the same time, it allows “pure-SF” fans to distance themselves from the unimaginative drivel that passes itself as SF in the media and in the general population’s worst stereotypes about the genre. In media terms, STAR WARS isn’t SF (it’s fantasy in futuristic trappings) and most of STAR TREK isn’t SF (it’s adventure/soap opera in space) while GATTACA is SF (studying biotechnology-induced changes in humanity) and DARK CITY is SF (musing on artificial manipulation of memory on a society). Science-Fiction should be conceptually solid, imaginative, preferably controversial.

Needless to say, unimaginative adventures-with-laser-guns are far more common than “true SF”, nowadays as yesterday. But fans of the pure stuff can now run to their bookstores, because a new must-read is in town.

The Trigger is a “What if?” novel of the first order: What if someone came up with a foolproof way to remotely detonate all nitrate-based explosives? Practically speaking, this would blow up -at a distance- most munitions and explosives in common usage. The perfect gun control tool.

Had The Trigger been written in any other civilized country in the world, the results would have been interesting, but not much more. Of course, this being published in the United States (let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that English-born Sri Lanka resident Arthur C. Clarke has anything more to do with the book than collaborating to the outline), The Trigger has to face America’s centuries-old fascination with guns, conspiracies and government.

The results are fascinating. The impacts of The Trigger are examined and explained in great detail, as the discovery is handed from the scientific to the political and military community. Everyone who comes in contact with The Trigger immediately wish it would disappear, but everyone has to face the fact that it’s here to stay, and accommodations must be made in order to ensure its rational use. Gun Lobbies inevitably get into the act, lawsuits fly, private corporations rush Triggers to the market and private citizen watch it all happen with increasing discomfort. Top-notch extrapolation all around, along with some preachiness. Certainly not subtle, but nevertheless compulsively readable.

There are a few problems, though. The characters of the first half essentially disappear in the latter part of the book. Then the ending falls apart as one character is killed in a rather useless fashion, and another has to face enemies closer to caricature. A shame, because up to that point, The Trigger had labored hard to present “the opposing side” as basically decent people. After the intellectual complexity of the first 400 pages, it’s a let-down to see the climax being nothing but an action-adventure bit facing stock villains. A chilling afterword kind of makes up for it. (Though, given the conceptual breakthrough at mid-novel, one would expect this type of discovery -not to mention bigger, better innovations- to be made much earlier than twenty years later!)

But it doesn’t really matter. With The Trigger, Kube-McDowell has achieved something quite remarkable: Break the “Clark Collaboration Rule” (which used to state that every novel written in collaboration with Clarke does suck.) and produce a novel that stands alone in its own right. The Trigger is, in general, everything that SF should be: It postulates a radical technological change, follows its controversial social implications and does so in an magnificently entertaining fashion. Don’t miss it.

The Wrong Guy (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Wrong Guy</strong> (1997)

(On VHS, September 2000) Little-seen low-budget Canadian film starring Newsradio‘s David Foley as a man who thinks himself falsely suspected of his boss’ murder. Clever premise for a take-off on Hitchcock’s thrillers (the credit sequence will hammer this home), but unfortunately, Foley’s character is written as too much of a doofus to be as sympathetic to the audience as Gary Cooper, James Stewart et al. It doesn’t help that the film deviates from its Hitchcockian mold and loses itself in sort of a travelogue across America. Jennifer Tilly disappoints with a short haircut. It’s not that the film is bad; there are a lot of laughs, David Foley is as good as usual and the film doesn’t feel like it’s low-budget. But it’s a disappointment that it can’t do more with what it starts out with.

Tin Cup (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tin Cup</strong> (1996)

(On TV, September 2000) Even those who can’t stand Kevin Costner should be able to enjoy his turn in this sports (golf) comedy. That Renee Russo is there, looking hotter than ever, should placate the last holdovers. Not a great film by any measure, nor much of a comedy, but it lets itself be watched easily, and the film boasts a few interesting set-pieces. (Most memorable are the two bets between protagonist and antagonist, as well as the protagonist’s fascination for one very specific club.) The ending is interesting, simultaneously damning and following the usual sport conventions by turning victory into defeat and definite defeat into victory. Too imperfect to be all-fun (there are two painful scenes) but worth a look, if not dollars.

Survivor (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Survivor</strong> (1999)

(On TV, September 2000) Okay, so I’m cheating: I only watched the first ten and last five minutes of this TV movie. Why the heck do I feel able to comment on it, then? Because I can interpolate the rest of this strictly-routine Antarctic-base monster film from what I’ve seen. No surprises, no difficulty to follow despite having missed 90% of the film. Draw whatever conclusion you want from that simple observation… They might have simply called it The Thing: The Cheap Version and be done with it.

Forever Free, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 1999, 277 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00697-3

WARNING: Contains necessary spoilers in discussing the book’s failures.

Fame can do strange things to both performer and audience. An artist whose reputation comes chiefly from hard work and constant professionalism can suddenly find himself able to turn out mediocre work with impunity, as the audience uses earlier works as an excuse to be lenient on newer material. Both sides lose out, because the the artist doesn’t perfect the work, and the audience gets results of inferior quality. In the book industry, best-selling authors can become “editor-proof”, when no one will take take them to task for overwritten books, weak prose or ordinary execution.

For instance, Haldeman’s thematically-linked Forever Peace won raves and a Hugo despite being a novel that read more like a moderately-competent first-time author’s work than a novel by a veteran of the genre.

Similarly, It’s easy to pinpoint Forever Free‘s problems, but it gets difficult to ponder why Joe Haldeman wrote the book that way. Especially when it’s the sequel to one of the most famous SF novels ever.

You may remember The Forever War: Published in 1974 as a Vietnam veteran’s answer to Robert A. Heinlein’s militaristic Starship Troopers (itself a classic), it went on to sell thousands of copies, win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards as well as gain a central position in the genre’s collective memory. The Forever War described the military experience of William Mandella, a physicist-cum-soldier in a war waged during millennia, thanks to light-speed delays. At the end of the first volume, Mandella found himself home with his girlfriend, ready to settle down as Humanity allied itself mentally with the once-enemy alien race.

As Forever Free begins, Mandella is restless: His two children are grown-up and he’s trying to find a way to prove that his type of human is better than Man, the collective entity now representing most of humanity. His best plan? Hijack a starship and make a one-way trip far in the future to see how it all turns out. Stuff happens and things don’t go as planned.

More specifically; they limp home twenty-five years later to find out that everyone has disappeared. They investigate and get weird results.

“How weird” is exactly the problem with Forever Free. While The Forever War (and the first half of Forever Free) is strictly enjoyable hard-SF of the most rigid order (the whole premise of both depends on the absence of Faster-than-light travel), the last pages of Forever Free lazily throw up a completely useless race of shapeshifters (“We’ve been around on Earth for hundred of thousands of your years,” they say offhandedly) and an apparition by God that would be more at home in a Monty Python sketch than in here. (“Oh, you were an experiment, and it’s now time to put away my stuff. Since you insist, I won’t delete you. Oh, I’ve changed to laws of physics while I was at it. Toodles. “) The central mystery of the book isn’t as much solved as it is basically declared irrelevant.

Needless to say, the result is so outlandish that some readers are likely to give up in disgust a novel that that been perfectly good up to that point.

Which naturally raises the question; why was it written this way? I offer a few explanations, none of them really satisfying:

  • “Ha! I’ll write you a sequel, you bastard readers! You keep pestering me for a sequel to a twenty-five year-old classic that stands on its own? I’ll give you a frickin’ sequel.” (Also suspected to be the Thomas Harris Hannibal syndrome)
  • “Oh, no! Five days to go on my deadline, or I lose my fat advance! Gotta wrap this up quick!”
  • “It’s like, man, I’ll put my stuff about Goddd and the universe and stuff. It’ll be sooo deeep and stuff. Man, pass the joint again.”
  • “The metaphorical encounters the literal in an effort to make the reader experience the same sense of alienation as the principal characters, which nicely fits into the post-modernist ethos of nihilism-”
  • “Oh gee, I screwed up this one.”

Pick one… but don’t pick this book in bookstores, and wait for your library copy if you really insist to see what the fuss is about.

Sliding Doors (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sliding Doors</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, September 2000) Funny how this film can appear to be many things to many people: Romance, Drama, Philosophical Exploration, Fantasy, Science-Fiction or plain old Experiment. In any case, the film follows the adventures of a young woman (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a good turn) whose life is affected in a tiny way that has dramatic consequences. The narrative alternately follows two different paths from that nexus point. Alternate universes? Plain fantasy concept? Whatever the justification, the script is well-written, and if there aren’t as many inter-linking between the two universes as one might have hoped, the dialogue is sharp enough to keep us absorbed in the storylines. The banter between “good-guy” and “bad-hair heroine” is particularly interesting. The conclusion is a downer, though it’s hard to say how else the film might have ended in order to wrap everything up. The French video version of the film has English captioning, which allows to see how the translation loses a lot of the subtle humor of the original script. In any case, an interesting film, and one that should please many very different audiences.

Simon Sez (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Simon Sez</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, September 2000) Dennis Rodman as the star of a new spy-movie franchise? Computer-expert monks? A gorgeous female assassin? A prissy Englishman villain? A Romeo-and-Juliet subplot? Wisecracks by an inept sidekick? Yellow motorcycles, big weapons and a gliding gadget-car? Yes, it’s bad, but not as bad as you might think for what basically amount to a vanity project for Rodman. The impressive cinematography helps a lot (can you go wrong by filming in Mediterranean France?) and if the script does no wonders, it seems to have at least a hint of self-derision to it. Granted, there are plenty of cringe-inducing moments, like two really bad CGI shots and the awful line “let’s work out”, but as a whole, it’s a surprisingly diverting film that should fit the bill for an otherwise-unoccupied Saturday evening… and long as you don’t expect anything.

Rounders (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rounders</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, September 2000) At first glance, this would appear to be a gambling film, but pay closer attention and you’ll find the structure of a typical sports film here, with the only difference being that the sport here is poker. (“If it’s such a game of luck, why is it that the same players end up finalist at the national tournament?” asks the film) The details of the game and the associated culture are fascinating, and the film does a great job at presenting the inherent drama of the sport. Great actors abound, from Matt Damon and Ed Norton to John Malkovich as a ridiculously accented Russian player. Maybe not as strong as it could have been, but more interesting than not.

Pi (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Pi</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, September 2000) This goes straight in the “quirky indie film” category at first glance, what with is starkly supersaturated black-and-white cinematography, its abuse of repetitive sequences, self-supported cameras, flashy direction and pretentious narration. Nevertheless, there’s some depth to the film, and it takes chances. As a first-time feature, it show promise for its director Darren Aronofsky. Viewers with some scientific and technical literacy will quickly see through the film’s techno-babble. The ending is somewhat disappointing, but fits the overall film quite well. Worth a look if you’re in that type of experimental film, but definitely not a crowd-pleaser.

The Pallbearer (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Pallbearer</strong> (1996)

(On VHS, September 2000) This film makes good use of David Schwimmer’s (TV’s “Friends”) puppy-dog charm, but that’s the extent of the film’s strength. The rest is just ordinary romantic comedy material, based upon a mistaken-identity premise that borders on the uncomfortable. Gwyneth Paltrow is bland in the lead female role, and the other characters are ill-defined. It’s hard to dislike a competently made romantic comedy, but it’s much easier to be unimpressed, and that’s pretty much what The Pallbearer leaves with us.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

<strong class="MovieTitle">One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest</strong> (1975)

(On VHS, September 2000) The problem with classics is that they’re almost inevitably copied everywhere. It’s even worse with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest because it’s set in such the immediately outlandish milieu of psychiatric hospitals. Seeing it again today brings involuntary memories of pretty much all asylum movies since then, most notably Girl Interrupted and Patch Adams. It should be acknowledged that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest hasn’t really aged a lot since 1975 –especially in comparison with its contemporaries. Jack Nicholson is still as good as the protagonist, and the the supporting characters are all developed with a surprising amount of depth. On the other hand, it’s not a pleasant film; I didn’t want to be there most of the time, and the film kept adding one unrelated vignette after another. Keep watching, however, as this is a film that’s redeemed by a few cheap dramatics at the end. Manipulative as it is, it’s still effective.

Mickey Blue Eyes (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mickey Blue Eyes</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, September 2000) Released only a few months after the “other” mob comedy Analyze This, this Hugh Grant vehicle works, but only just. It’s rather more funny than expected in its first half, but a few unwise plot choices, scripting problems and predictable ending take away from the film’s enjoyment. (The script problems get worse and worse as the film advances. Just ask yourself why everyone has to be at the end wedding.) The film is unsuccessful at marrying (ho-ho) comedy with the omnipresent threat represented by the mafia. Some setups are so obvious they’re ridiculous. Jeanne Tripplehorn looks remarkably like Geena Davis in this film—the fact that her character is named Gina isn’t coincidental to this impression. James Caan is a lot of fun as the mob dad and Hugh Grant is as floppily charming as always.

Mallrats (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mallrats</strong> (1995)

(On TV, September 2000) This film stands halfway between director/writer Kevin Smith’s low-budget wit and Hollywood’s big-budget means. While technically, the result is far beyond the hand-camera used to film Clerks (his first feature film), the story it illustrates seems… wrong… for the means used. Don’t be mistaken; Mallrats is still filled with enough of Smith’s trademark witty dialogues, outrageously frank vignettes and tasty scenes to be entertaining for everyone. There’s just something… faintly wrong here. The happy ending, perhaps?

Love Stinks (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Love Stinks</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, September 2000) How do you make a satiric romantic comedy? Hmmm… Oh, you could make the female character a total bitch and the male protagonist a complete wuss. Hmm… But then you’d get an often-unfunny film with repellent relents of misogyny and general nastiness: While the screenwriter’s intent is obviously to show the relationship-from-hell, it’s simply too unbelievable to be enjoyable. (The portrait of women as marriage-hunting schematrixes and men as commitment-phobic might be fun for a good-natured jab or two, but it grates when it goes on for ninety minutes) Unexpectedly enough, the flatulence gag is among the film’s funniest moment (“Olé!”) Granted, Love Stinks has a few redeeming qualities (The supporting characters are good, there are scattered laughs and the ending is fun) but it’s more interesting to imagine how to improve the film than to watch it as is. Or, alternatively, to use it as a centerpiece in a thesis proving that good humor is designed to make you comfortable, not uneasy.

Kingpin (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kingpin</strong> (1996)

(On TV, September 2000) Some hold that comedy springs from other people’s misery, but looking at the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin (and, indeed, most of their corpus—especially Me Myself And Irene) it’s easier to decide that they don’t really have a clue as to what’s funny. Stupid gags follow tasteless jokes follow lousy punch-lines follow incoherent plotting and the result is a mess. Characters? Repellent. Gags? Incoherent. Funny? Not really. Unsalvageable? Not quite, mostly due to Bill Murray, fantastic as usual, who turns a bad role in a crunchy performance that’s the only sustained reason to watch the film. Though the bowling parts are interesting, the rest isn’t worth it, and those looking for a good bowling comedy should first see The Big Lebowski.