The Armageddon Rag, George R.R. Martin

Pocket, 1983, 399 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 0-671-47526-6

To youngsters like myself, born in the latter quarter of this century, the mindset and attitudes of the “sixties” are either ridiculous or alien. Granted, an impressive fraction of the values pioneered in that decade has endured and even entered mainstream society (often through unusual means, such as the philosophies underlying the Internet as we know it), but digging back through the easy clichés of the period, we find a movement that simply appears too strange to have been real. Free sex, communes, political riots, anticipation of a revolution, drug advocacy… no wonder the United States were so screwed up during these years.

Those were excessive years, and the return to the norm has been harder on some than most. Still, unless someone explains those years to us, the younger generation will miss out on a decade of experiences that could be useful to learn.

That’s what George R.R. Martin does in The Armageddon Rag, cleverly disguising it as a crime thriller with supernatural overtones. You may be fooled into thinking that it’s just a very good novel set in the early-eighties music industry, but it’s really a recapitulation of a generation, with some nostalgia and a lot of style.

The Armageddon Rag begins by hooking us as a good crime thriller: Sandy Blair, novelist in creative crisis, receives a phone call about the death of a rock promoter. But not just any promoter; the ex-manager of the Nazgûl, the best rock band of the sixties. And not just any death, but a gruesome murder with plenty of evidence to suggest that it was done by someone with a thorough knowledge of the band…

Before long, Sandy has chucked it all: The expensive Manhattannite girlfriend, the assorted apartment and the creative crisis, all for an article on the murder. But as he progresses further, not only does the events surrounding the murder get stranger and stranger, but Sandy is drawn further back in his own past sixties, filled as they were by rebellion, violence and barely suppressed pain.

All and all, the plot is a rather good excuse to systematically revisit the sixties through various archetypical characters. Sandy himself is the observer turned pro, the ex-journalist now novelist. Other friends haven’t fared so well: One revolutionary turned ad executive, another still living in an increasingly silly commune, another stuck in mental constructs far more restrictive, another turned college teacher, another (draft dodger) now claimed mentally ill by his domineering father… All facets of the children of the sixties, morphed by latter events.

Before long, we’re (maybe) deep in a supernatural plot to unleash demonic forces on the world. Or maybe not; it’s that type of novel. But the ambiguity isn’t too terribly frustrating.

It’s all quite fascinating, and unusually readable too. Martin is, after all, a Nebula and Hugo-winning pro, and The Armageddon Rag sucks you right in, holds you tightly thanks to some good plotting and doesn’t disappoint through the ending. Characters are sharply defined, the style is brisk and the details are telling. The music-related details are well done, bringing in evocative rock concert descriptions, believable lyrics and an overall feeling of authenticity.

Best of all, The Armageddon Rag doesn’t really show its age, whether it’s thirteen years after initial publication or thirty years after the main period of interest. Musically, it’s easy for a modern reader to imagine Nazgûl as sounding more or less like Rage Against the Machine on a good day. As far as the “spirit of the sixties” is concerned, it works rather well at presenting a particular point in time and the mindset associated with it, even though the concept of a “revolution” nowadays will be cause for more giggles than nods of approval.

It’s hard not to like this novel, both for what’s it’s saying and how it’s saying it. It’s a gripping read, and should appeal to a wide readership, whether or not the individuals were there during the sixties or not. Rock and roll will never die!

The Way Of The Gun (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Way Of The Gun</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) As this film was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who also penned The Usual Suspects, you could have expected a good crime thriller done with wit and effectiveness. The end result is not as satisfying: First mistake is to depend on two singularly boring small-time criminals as protagonists. (Which shouldn’t be interpreted as a dismissal of the good acting by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) Second mistake is the languid pacing, which allowed me to doze off twenty minutes without missing a single important plot point. Third mistake is a weak conclusion that neither surprises nor satisfies. Add to that the manipulative use of a pregnant woman, uniformly unlikable characters, pretentious narration of the criminal-thinks-deep-thoughts type, boring gunfights and you get a below-average thriller with nothing special.

True Romance (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">True Romance</strong> (1993)

(In theaters, November 2000) The first time I tried to watch this film on TV, I drifted off fifteen minutes later, distracted by housework. This time, stuck in a second-run movie theater, I had no choice but to keep on watching, and I must that that the end result isn’t bad at all. A lot of famous names and faces (including one good sequence between ever-dependable Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper) plus an odd script from the pen of Quentin Tarantino, built around only a few sequences that last a long time each. Some surprises, a good action finale and crunchy dialogue make up for ridiculous plot development seemingly lifted from teenage fantasies and a roster of largely unsympathetic characters.

01-01-00®, R.J. Pineiro

Tor, 1999, 406 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56871-0

Being a book reviewer is best left to the intrepid. While the best part of the job is being able to rave about an under-appreciated gem, there are other, less pleasant aspects to the profession. Horrors lurk in libraries, unimaginable atrocities waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting readers. It’s my job, as a reviewing-kind-of-guy, to warn you against these… things. Make no mistake, the life of a reviewer is always intense!

So today, I have to warn you against 01-01-00®. To be fair, any sufficiently attentive buyer won’t need the advice of book reviewers to put down the book and run away. The title alone contains two serious danger signals.

The first one is, of course, the reference to Y2K. (Pineiro’s previous book, unimaginatively enough, was also called Y2K.) It’s already hard to recall, but the late nineties were filled with schlocko thrillers built on the semi-mystical century switch, with almost uniformly atrocious results. I suppose we should be grateful for that opportunity to come up with a technological rationalization for the end-of-the-world boogieman, but somehow I can’t bring myself to it. At least we’ve had the opportunity to knock down (with a mallet) every seal-cub-like author who hasn’t resisted the lure of the buzzword. Like Mr. Pineiro. Onward.

The second warning signal contained in the title is the ® so thoughtfully appended to 01-01-00®. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that artistic endeavors should be as far apart from marketing as possible. By the time a title is registered, it’s time to pack it up and go home. (Are you listening, Clive “Dirk Pitt®” Cussler?) Digging deeper in the novel’s foreword, it turns out that 01-01-00® is a registered trademark to another guy, who ended up licensing it to Pineiro. Or the reverse. Or the inverse. Whatever. If you think that ®egiste®ing an a®®angement of bina®y symbols and dashes is a good idea, then 01-01-00® and you dese®ve each othe®.

It gets worse as the novel opens. A hacker brings down Washington’s traffic system, causing (very indirectly) a speeding mother to have an car accident, fall down a cliff and kill the rest of her family. Bad driving? Yep. Bad luck? Sure, but when said mother becomes a super-computer-cop for the express single purpose to catch the hacker who did that to her, well, that’s got to rank fairly high in the top-ten misguided character motivation list.

Such psychological howlers are common throughout the book, with perhaps the best one left for the end: The protagonist gets a moment of “total empathy” with the world, and sees “how a vagrant killed himself following [her] stoplight speech about getting a job and not being a bum.” [P.397] Obviously, Pineiro doesn’t have much of a clue about the psychology of the homeless, or vastly overestimates the persuasive powers of his heroine.

I’ll leave out the technological funnies inserted here and there; that’s too much of an easy target. I’ll just point out that in 01-01-00® Pineiro mixes aliens, Y2K bug, emasculated terrorists, new-age feel-good philosophy, all-powerful computer viruses, perfunctory romance and the Mayan calendar with barely an self-critical eye toward all of it, or even a cursory nod toward Pope Gregor’s calendar reforms.

Bad doesn’t begin to cover it, but “boring when not funny” will do the job. As a book critic, I have to slog through all of this crap so that you don’t have to, so if ever I am to do a single good action with these reviews, please don’t read 01-01-00®. Ever. Trash it if it’s in your to-read pile and don’t ever buy it if it’s not.

Chances are that most copies have been pulped anyway. Who the hell wants to read a Y2K book now?

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sunset Blvd.</strong> (1950)

(On VHS, November 2000) There’s a reason this film is often called a classic: Great script, archetypical characters, unconventional plotting and crunchy dialogue. Narration has quite possibly never been done this well ever since. Surprisingly enough, modern films have stolen a lot from Sunset Boulevard: The style of L.A. Confidential, lines from Cecil B. Demented, clichés from Hollywood exposés (“I’m still big; it’s the pictures that got smaller”), scenes from countless parodies… It’s a testimony to the impact of the film. Granted, Hollywood loves talking about itself, and that might explain Sunset Boulevard‘s enduring reputation, but the film itself is rather good. Not only a good story, but also a courageous film, with its willingness to go beyond the star system while simultaneously starring some personalities as themselves (Cecil B. Demille, Buster Keaton, a Warner brother, etc…) Wow.

The 6th Day (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The 6th Day</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) The nineties have been a rough decade for superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not only has no one learned how to spell his last name right, but he’s gone from career highs (1990’s Total Recall, 1994’s True Lies and most famously 1991’s Terminator 2) to mega-bombs (1993’s underrated The Last Action Hero), pathetic comedies (from Kindergarten Cop to Jingle All The Way) and severely average action pictures (Eraser and End Of Days). The 6th Day isn’t much of an improvement over most of his 90s output, but at least it’s better than End Of Days. Here, we get two Arnolds for the price of one, as we delve in an ambitious future marked by cloning. It’s not all that successful, but it works rather well, isn’t as completely routine as you’d think it would be and provides one or two good concepts. The actions scenes are okay, though they seem almost dated. (Note to screenwriters: To be clever, hip and postmodern, it’s not enough to have a character say to another “Cool, a car chase!”) Faint praise, but not every film has to be exceptional. A decent enough choice, provided you haven’t seen Total Recall enough times already.

Red Planet (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Red Planet</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) Mixed impressions about the second Mars-themed film of 2000: It’s certainly better than Mission To Mars, but even then it’s no great film. Acting-wise, most of the cast is wasted, at the possible exception of Carrie-Anne Moss, who solidifies her action heroine status after The Matrix. The special effects are rather nice. The problems pop up whenever the script is involved: Gigantic plot holes, incompetent plotting, boring subplots, unsatisfying characters and atrocious scientific errors all join forces to sap all energy that could have been produced by the intriguing premise. It’s not a complete failure, mostly because it tries so hard, but no one shouldn’t feel guilty of passing this one up in video stores.

Ravenous (1999)

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

(On DVD, November 2000) This film has to work hard in order to overcome the natural yuck-factor inherent in its cannibalistic premise. But it does so adequately, and the result is a small surprise, a horror film with an unusually original premise, decent performances, a few good surprises and some effective moments. The DVD includes a few interesting deleted scenes, audio commentary and a few Easter Eggs.

The Light of Other Days, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Tor, 2000, 316 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87199-6

I sense a trend. And, for once, it’s a good one.

Over the years, Arthur C. Clarke has collaborated with quite a few authors. Gregory Benford wrote a “sequel” to Clarke’s The City and the Stars (a classic that shouldn’t be “improved” by any means!) and it stank deeply. Clarke and Gentry Lee collaborated on a novel, Cradle, that left most indifferent. Lee then wrote a “sequel” to Clarke’s Rendez-vous with Rama (a classic that could use some work, but not by hacks like Lee) and the result was a bloated trilogy that wasn’t very good either. Mike McQuay expanded a Clarke outline in the novel Richter 10 and the result, while better, wasn’t all that good.

At that point in time, most SF critics individually came up with the “Clarke Collaboration Theorem”, which in simple term stated “all Clarke collaborations suck”.

But then came along The Trigger, written in collaboration with Michael Kube-McDowell (ie; Clarke wrote a two-thousand word outline which was expanded to novel length by Kube-McDowell) and the result was surprisingly good if you weren’t a gun nut.

SF critics put the Clarke Collaboration Theorem on hold.

Now they’re ready to retire it for good as The Light of Other Days arrives in bookstores. While it doesn’t have a very different plot outline that the one already seen in The Trigger (indeed, the structure of both novels almost seem carbon-copied from one another) and is rather pathetic in terms of literary value, it’s a great read filled with ingenious ideas, a breathtaking conclusion and pure fun from cover to cover.

In other words, it does not suck.

The Light of Other Days‘s premise is not particularly original: Isaac Asimov’s classic story The Dead Past also posited the existence of a “remote viewer”, a machine that allowed you to see any scene from history from any point of view. (Indeed, Clarke and Baxter cite a few examples in the afterword without citing the Asimov text, which is rather unsettling given the popularity of the story and Clarke’s friendship with Asimov)

But, as always, it’s all in the treatment. Whereas Asimov’s story ended on the predicted doom of humanity through the end of privacy, Clarke/Baxter use this as a stepping-stone to more interesting things. As the capacity to see anywhere in history through the “WormCam” spreads through the population, investigative exploration of history takes off, religions are destroyed (hey, it’s a Clarke novel), historical figures are demolished or enhanced. Of course, there’s the end of privacy, last dying gasps of governments, general paranoia, new and exotic forms of perversions but guess what? Humanity endures, and how well it endures forms the strong conclusion of the novel, which manages to bring in the Eschaton without looking too silly doing it. Impressive stuff, any way you look at it.

As with The Trigger, the fun of this collaboration lies in the intellectual debate surrounding the WormCam. Ideas, concepts, extrapolations are described, sometime sketchily, but in such numbers that the ultimate effect on the reader is quite impressive. As in The Trigger, the novel loses strength whenever it tries to insert more classical plot conflicts in-between all the fascinating ideas. A gunshot-and-traitors conclusion is there to tie up some loose ends, but not to knock the socks off the readers; that’s the following chapter.

The overall result, again like The Trigger, is a compulsively readable (can be finished in less than a day) novel of ideas that faithfully follows the SF ethos of unflinching extrapolation. Due to the large historical component of the book, this might even be a good crossover novel for people not overly familiar with Science-Fiction.

And it destroys the Clarke Collaboration Theorem, which is a welcome piece of news indeed.

Pushing Tin (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Pushing Tin</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, November 2000) John Cusack plays young cool professional types like no others (see Grosse Pointe Blank and City Hall), and here he plays yet another one of those, a hot-shot air traffic controller that has to defend his turf and his wife against a new hotter-shot competitor (a good turn by Billy Bob Thornton). The difference is that Cusack here is supposed to Lose It, which we never quite believe. Part of the problem is typecasting, but most of it is the script, which flits from one thing to another without really coming up with strong material. As with most docu-stories taking place in unusual and interesting environments, Pushing Tin is best when describing the unusual, and worst when inserting familiar plots in this unfamiliar setting. Here, the romantic elements take away from the pressure-cooker environment of air controllers and ultimately bring down the film to only average status. Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie are fun to watch as The Wives, even though Vicki Lewis is underused as one of the interchangeable other controllers.

Nurse Betty (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Nurse Betty</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, November 2000) There’s a standard comedy plot shtick that drives me absolutely crazy: The one where a character is doing something completely stupid while thinking it’s perfectly legitimate, and when the deception will inevitably be discovered. The only thing you can do is count down the seconds before the character’s humiliation. Now imagine a film that spends more than forty-five minutes on that subject. Looking forward to it? If not, skip Nurse Betty, a misguided “comedy” in which a pair of hitmen kill in graphic detail and a waitress becomes so unhinged with reality that she chases a favorite soap star. Not many laughs here, nor overly impressive technical credits: The direction is flat and even if Renee Zellweger is as adorable as always, the other characters don’t manage to be very sympathetic. (Though the Latino girlfriend is pretty). Script-wise, coincidences abound and Morgan Freeman’s characters sounds as if he escaped from an unusually pretentious Tarantino movie without bringing the witty dialogue with him. Humiliation and discomfort seem to be the goal of the film, and if the result seems to confuse some critic in thinking it’s rather good, most average moviegoers will reach for the fast-forward (or even the stop/rewind) button.

In The Line Of Fire (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">In The Line Of Fire</strong> (1993)

(On DVD, November 2000) Not much to see here. The crazed-assassin-goes-after-the-president shtick has been done elsewhere multiple times before, and even if In The Line Of Fire is competently executed, it’s not anything new. Clint Eastwood is good in what’s probably going to end up being his last action-hero role. (The romance between his character and the one played by Renee Russo, however, should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Yawn.) John Malkovich plays the assassin as a soft-spoken super-genius, which is again either (depending on how many stories like this you’ve seen already) really good or really annoying. The bare-bones first-generation DVD release of the film basically allows you to to feel grateful that the film is playing at all, so don’t ask for extras.

The Hidden (1987)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Hidden</strong> (1987)

(On VHS, November 2000) Say what you want about “great movies” and “cinematographic art”, but what you want, often, is simply a good old B-movie. The Hidden brings to mind The Terminator as another low-budget, technically-competent, no-fat science-fiction B-movie. It’s not art, but it’s damn good entertainment from the gripping opening sequence to the satisfying end. The plot’s been done elsewhere (a parasitic alien goes from body to body as cops try to chase it down) but this time is done with the proper amount of action and cleverness. The film also has some heart, which is more than you can say for the rest of the contenders to the B-movie crown. An underrated gem, well worth another viewing.

Beyond Recall, Stephen Kyle

Warner Vision, 2000, 438 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60809-2

Thriller readers are most often presented with grotesquely non-negotiable alternatives. Evil terrorists versus pure peacekeepers. Democracy versus dictatorship. Blood-giving heroes versus puppy-kicking villains. Some will say that it’s typical of the American binary mindset: It’s much easier to make choices when you demonize the alternative, as it all too often happens during American elections.

On the other hand, such easy choices usually mean more straightforward entertainment. What would QUAKE be if you could choose to negotiate with your opponents? What if the terrorists in the latest Hollywood blockbusters were working toward a laudable goal? (To be fair, THE ROCK did this… only to turn around at a critical moment and have some terrorists “go renegade” on their leader, thereby re-establishing comfortable polarity) What if, instead of simple entertainment, we had flawed heroes and virtuous villains, setting up true drama in the process? With Beyond Recall, “simple thriller” readers get the chance to find out if such departures from the norm offer something more than the usual black-versus-white mentality of genre entertainment.

The premise is apparently simple: terrorists threaten to unleash a biologically-engineered plague on the United States if their demand are not meant. But the complications begin as soon as you look into it a bit further: The plague will target only women. The demands are to set up a multi-billion fund for the education of third-world women. The terrorists’ ultimate goal? To halt ecological damage through population control, one way of the other: Educate the women (a proven way to lower population growth and raise standards of living) or sharply reduce the reproductive capacity of the consuming nations.

Already, we’re presented with a moral dilemma: Though the ends are good, the method isn’t. And as the United States do not negotiate with terrorists, there’s a significant potential for mutually assured incomprehension.

Beyond Recall‘s basic premise is fascinating. Things don’t go as well as the various characters are introduced. To heighten drama, author Stephen Kyle basically interrelates everyone involved: The chief terrorist is the White House advisor on bio-terrorist matter but also the mother of a lobbyist who’s married to the FBI’s main man of the affair. Meanwhile, the chief terrorist is the ex-lover of the only doctor able to build an antidotes except that the doctor’s wife was one of the first victims of the virus’ test run… I’m not making any of this up.

The melodramatic (and somewhat ridiculous) interrelation between characters easily destroys most of the novel’s power though soap-operatic plot dynamics and god-awful resolutions. By the epilogue of the novel, the good doctor is doing the wild thang(s) with the lobbyist, which practically smacks of incest or, at the very least, of Hollywood-style old-man/young-girl power fantasies. Creepy, and maybe more than the premise.

When the novel fails at that level, it doesn’t take much to make it fail at other levels too. The pacing is deficient in the second half of the book. Kyle also blurs the distinction so much between good guys and bad guys (the President is painted as an angry idiot, the FBI agent as a bad guy for no real reason than he’s opposed to the chief terrorist which is set up as the protagonist, etc…) that readers might just give trying to find someone to cheer for. It’s all quite unbelievable, and that’s ultimately the impression left by the book.

If you’re going to blur good and evil, it takes a lot of skill to keep the reader going without clear reasons to cheer or jeer, and I frankly don’t think that Kyle is experienced enough. No reason to condemn the author in perpetuity; it’s still his first novel, after all. (And, heck, he’s a fellow Ontarian writer, so he deserves a little home-grown respect) But he still fails to deliver on an intriguing premise for reasons not entirely related to the premise itself. Veteran thriller readers might find Beyond Recall an intriguing experiment because of its failing, but readers looking for some comfortable summer beach reading are advised to skip this one.

The Great Escape (1963)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Great Escape</strong> (1963)

(On VHS, November 2000) Allied prisoners-of-war try to escape a high-security Nazi camp. Ingredient for a classic? Absolutely! A totally satisfying film experience? Not quite. If the first two-third of the film are a fascinating parade of clever ways to escape the camp, the film is dragged down by a depressing last third, in which the logical conclusion of the great escape (it ain’t a spoiler, it’s the title!) are played out. But don’t interpret that as an excuse not to rush out and grab the copy at your nearest video store: The Great Escape withstands the test of time quite well, with its top-notch technical credits, all-around great performances (Steve McQueen!) and nifty script.