Month: March 2001

Guilt by Association, Susan R. Sloan

Warner, 1995, 529 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60306-6

From the blurbs reprinted on the first few pages of the book:

  • ”…its climax is a tense courtroom showdown that ends on a genuine surprise” —Seattle Times
  • ”…building to a splendid and ironic surprise”—Los Angeles Times
  • ”…a conclusion that will chill you to the bone”—West Coast Review
  • “What are they smoking on the west coast?”—Christian Sauvé

As a thriller reader, I want to be entertained. If I can’t be entertained I want to be informed. If I can’t be informed, at least surprise me. And if you, as a thriller writer, can’t do any of these three, you might as well pack your things, stay home and stop writing novels because it’s not worth the time to read your stuff.

The back cover of Susan R. Sloan’s Guilt by Association promises a good story. Thirty years after being brutally raped, a woman takes revenge upon her aggressor, now running for the White House. Okay, sure, fine, sounds interesting, let’s see it.

Now, a competent thriller writer would have immediately seen that the story in here is the revenge. Not the rape nor the aftermath of it, but the payback. Three hundred pages, a well-deserved conclusion, end of book and everyone goes home happy.

But not Sudan R. Sloan. The initial rape takes place upon twenty-eight exploitative pages. Then we’re set for nearly three hundred pages of excruciatingly long setup before our two main characters meet again to kick in the revenge story.

You see, our heroine isn’t merely raped, but utterly destroyed. Her boyfriend breaks up, her family can’t faced what happened to her, she quits school, she can’t hold a job, etc… She manages to live in a commune during the sixties and not have sex with anyone. (Obviously, that particular trauma will take pages to resolve) Page per page, we get not a thriller, but pretty much a fictional biography detailing what she does year after year in exasperating detail. Not much of this has any relevance whatsoever to the main plotline of the thriller. SKip, skip, skip pages if ever you want to remain sane. Most of the psychosocial insight in these pages is the very same stuff you can get from watching a few Discovery Channel specials on the past few decades.

During that time, of course, the antagonist has a few kick-the-puppies scenes in which he becomes even more ruthlessly evil.

When the revenge plot finally gets going, something very curious happens. After decades of obsessive details about our protagonist, the narrative skips over a few crucial hours.

Now, why would that happen? Don’t think about it. Don’t even pause to consider the question, because otherwise you’ll figure out the conclusion a hundred pages before it comes up. In fact, you don’t even need to pause for it because it’s so blindingly obvious that even the dullest thriller reader will figure it out.

As I said, if you can’t entertain or inform me…

The ultimate result is a complete mess, a thriller so undeserving of the title that the marketing department at Warners should be fined. Guilt by Association is a boring novel with nothing new to say, a terrible structure, infuriating failed emotional manipulation, an astonishingly obvious “twist” ending and a series of stupid choices made by the author. I’d burn it in a second if I didn’t want friends to believe me when I describe what may very well be the most pretentious, most boring thriller ever.

And don’t even get me started on so-called “professional” reviewers who were taken by the plot or surprised by the ending…

Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman

Avon EOS, 1998, 472 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79799-2

I usually try to stay away from novels nominated for the Lamba prize. This award, given each year to “the science-fiction or fantasy work that has most successfully investigated gender issues” usually seeks to reward works dealing with themes and issues about which I couldn’t care less. As they say, message fiction tends to be interesting only when it’s vehiculing your message; as a white heterosexual male, I don’t have a lot to say about gender or gay issues.

But I nevertheless ended up with Halfway Human in my reading pile, halfway dreading the prospect of yet another boring The Left Hand of Darkness knock-off. Certainly the back cover doesn’t inspire confidence, talking about “Tedla is neither he nor she… an asexual class of ‘blands’… shocking truths hidden inside this sexless, tormented creature.”

If I hadn’t already paid good money for the book, I most probably would have put it back on the shelf.

And while that wouldn’t have been a tragedy, it would have been missing out on a decent SF novel. While Halfway Human obviously carries a message, it’s not out to stamp it on everyone’s foreheads. It’s all too easy to be carried away by the storyline and stop trying to decode what’s the real underlying theme.

Most of the novel takes the form of a first-person narrative in which Tedla, our friendly bland protagonist, tells of his short and so far unhappy life. Colonized by humans and then cut off from galactic civilization for decades, Tedla’s homeworld has -we progressively learn- canalized its explosive population growth in the eugenic selection of males and females, assigning the remainder of the teen population to blandness—a servant class. While overly sentimental and predictably dark, it’s a good story verging on the fascinating.

The other half of the plotline is concerned with a xenosociologist named Val, who comes into contact with a suicidal Tedla, interviews it -hence the first-person segments- and eventually tries to save it from the authorities who would like nothing so much as to ship Tedla homeside to keep their eugenic practices secret.

The human society described in Halfway Human is separately fascinating because of its rigid control over information, where copyrights can be a prized heirdom, architectural style can be licensed, information is the only commodity that is worth its transport costs and a researcher has to be rich or employed by a gigantic corporation in order to be able to access the required literature. To myself, obsessed of late by the increasingly dangerous legal precedents in the field of intellectual property, this facet of the novel proved to be a chilling warning and an unexpected delight.

But the core of the book, make no mistake, is with Tedla and its story. Unlike most Lambda-running fiction, Halfway Human is told in a crisp, direct, accessible style that did much to raise my opinion of the book. Gilman also remains faithful to her characters; no sudden change of heart, unexpected romances or sudden gender-switch in store here. This being said, the ending is a bit of a cheat, though almost any trick is acceptable when a happy ending is concerned.

In short, Halfway Human is a good SF paperback novel. Not spectacular, a bit too long to be really effective but clear and steadily interesting, Carolyn Ives Gilman could have done worse as a first novel. Now let’s see how her second one will turn out.

The Ice Limit, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 2000, 449 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52587-1

This is a novel about a rock. Not just any ordinary rock, mind you: For one thing, this one weighs a few thousand tons. For another, it’s most probably not from around here, being exceptionally dense, of blood-red color and unbreakable by conventional means. It’s also located on Isla Desolacion, a forsaken island in Argentinean territory. For most of these reason, this is an exceptionally valuable rock, and our billionaire-protagonist wants it for his museum. One last detail: That rock has the unfortunate tendency to zap lighting bolts into people.

Even if you don’t really like Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s thrillers, you’ve got to hand it to them; they know how to come up with an irresistible premise. From the monster-loose-in-the-museum premise of The Relic to the monsters-loose-under-New-York story in Reliquary, they’ve upped the ante with each successive novel. If the expression “hack writers” didn’t have such unpleasant connotation, that’s what we could call them; they write to mass-market specifications, turning out perfectly competent thrillers with adequate characters, fluid writing, good technical details and a structure calculated to deliver steadily more shocking jolts. Hey, it’s a bestselling living.

As it is, the plot of The Ice Limit is immediately gripping. A meteorite-hunter is hired by a billionaire in order to head an expedition to bring back The Rock to the United States. Given the unusual nature of the object, the novel then introduces one very unusual team, a wonderfully reclusive engineering business (ESS) specialized in huge-scale projects, from volcano manipulation to the re-creation of JFK’s real death. ESS is The Ice Limit‘s real delight, such an intriguing creation that I could easily a series of stories built around that company. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for engineering fiction.

In any case, the plan to bring back The Rock quickly sets into motion. A boat is built, then heavily modified and disguised by ILM. a sexy female scientist is introduced. Argentinean officials have to be bribed, except one who vows a terrible revenge. The teams arrives at Isla Desolation.

More people die. Secrets are uncovered. More people die.

It’s been said before, but a fundamental difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction is how the author reacts to change. Science-Fiction usually adopts the attitude that “the genie is out of the bottle” and that we’d better adapt to change because change isn’t going away. Techno-thrillers, on the other hand, often shoo away the upsetting change, burying, destroying, ignoring it in the hope that the day after, everything comes back to normal.

And, unfortunately, -without going in details-, that’s pretty much what happens in The Ice Limit, which nearly ends up being one of the most depressing thrillers I’ve read in a while. The massive body count and ultimate futility of the exercise brings to mind authors handshaking over an agreement that “some things are not meant to be known by humankind”—and that hardheaded engineers are doomed. This attitude is partially redeemed (saving the book from an awful ending) by a last-minute twist that will be familiar with the weirder speculations of British scientist Fred Hoyle. (How’s that for a literate spoiler? Don’t think too much about it.)

Fortunately, the rest of the book is pretty good, and compulsively readable. The characters do the job for which they were created, and The Rock ensures a massive presence over the whole story. The engineering firm, as mentioned previously, is a wonderful creation I’d like to see elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that the end sucks off a lot of the novel’s energy, but feel free to skip the last fifty pages and imagine a better ending for yourself. At least that’ll entertain you until Preston and Child deliver their next thriller.

Matter’s End, Gregory Benford

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 294 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56898-1

Gregory Benford’s novel-length fiction can be distinguished by two characteristics: For one thing, it’s usually packed with scientific details, lengthy explanations, a deep understanding and love of the scientific method. Through books like Cosm and Timescape, Benford has produced some quintessential science-fiction whose realism was only exceeded by masterful writing.

Which, alas brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic: About half of Benford’s novels are overlong borefests, whose few good ideas are drowned in pretentious writing, overlong plotting and a complete lack of interest. Exhibit A for the prosecution’s case is the “Galactic Center” series, which ably spreads a novel or two’s worth of interest over seven lifeless volumes. Exhibit B is The Stars in Shroud, an admittedly early novel which distinctly has no interest whatsoever.

Fortunately, Matter’s End is a short story collection, which effectively diminishes any length concern. The first surprise is to be found in the table of content, where 21 stories jostle to be included in 290-odd pages. Discounting the two longest stories, we’re left with 19 stories over less than two hundred pages, an average of less than a dozen pages per story.

The variety of the style exhibited by Benford is impressive. Beyond the usual past-tense-straight-narrative, there’s a sale pitch (“Freezeframe”), first-person narration (“Mozart on Morphine”), exam questions (“Calibrations and Exercises”), a mission report (“Side Effect”), tips and hints (“Time Guide”), a radio news transcript (“The bigger one”) and one stream-of-consciousness (?) thrown in for good measure (“Slices”).

The genre of the stories is usually science-fiction, though maybe not as hard as you may think. There’s a smattering of fantasy, some humoristical SF but mostly, some bread-and-butter SF not especially distinguished by hard scientific content. As a collection, it’s easy to get into and easy to continue reading.

There are a few duds, mind you. Both novelettes are overlong: if “Matter’s End” eventually comes into its own a few pages before the end, “Sleepstory” made me go “Is that it?” Given that this is a collection that spans nearly thirty years of Benford’s career, it’s almost natural that his earliest stories tend to be weaker. “Stand-in” seems particularly pointless, a fate shared with “Nobody lives on Burton Street” and “We could do worse”, though the last two are also stuck in the bad pessimistic late-sixties mindframe. Finally, “Shakers of the Earth” demonstrates an occupational hazard of being an SF writer; Once you’ve seen JURASSIC PARK, it’s hard to be wowed by a 1980 story featuring -gosh!- resurrected dinosaurs. But even Benford acknowledges this last one in his afterword.

Fortunately, the rest of the collection holds up very well. I can’t understand why “Calibrations and Exercises” hasn’t become an SF short story classic. “Freezeframe” and “Proselytes” exemplify Benford’s best witty and succinct style, by making a strong point and immediately ending the story. “Centigrade 233” is a good exploration of the social role of SF, though don’t think too hard about the title or you’ll end up guessing the end. Those who read science-fiction to find truth about science and scientists should be pleased by the title story and “Mozart on Morphine”. It’s always a pleasure to read material by a professional who knows what he’s doing.

In this afterword, Benford makes the point that for writers, short stories are fun. And if “fun” has not exactly been one of Benford’s dominant characteristic in his novels, he’s obviously on a looser leash here. The result is a decent anthology of short SF fiction, well worth the read for genre fans, even for those who find the author to be very uneven. So’s this collection, but at least it’s unevenness on a faster scale.

The Dragon Never Sleeps, Glen Cook

Popular library, 1988, 500 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-445-20349-8

It’s the sacred duty of every conscientious book reviewer to steer other readers toward books they might otherwise have missed. This duty becomes even worse, attaining messianic proportions, whenever the reviewer has also missed the book when it first come around.

And, boy oh boy, has everyone missed The Dragon Never Sleeps. Prior to recently reading a great review of it in a magazine (a review of the French translation of the book, no less!), I had never even heard of the novel, and in fact still associated Glen Cook only with that “Black Company” fantasy series.

Fortunately, the local Ottawa Public Library had a copy of Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps on its shelves (along with a few other books, which finally made me realize this was the same Glen Cook of the “Wizard” fantasy/comp.sci. series) so I could comfortably check for myself whether that rave was deserved or not.

In short; Bring back the book in print right now, it’ll sell thousands.

Any attempt at a plot resume would be cause for headaches for both reviewer and reader, involving such classic space-operatic props as family clans, galaxy-spanning empires, aliens, space battles, clones and political intrigue. Add a dastardly plan to destroy the galactic social order, gigantic space stations, decantable military personnel, some weird sex and age-old secrets and you’re in intensely familiar territory.

But it’s all handled so well that you’d swear you’re reading new-millenial SF with its methodical re-use of all possible established conventions, with an extra helping of rational weirdness. The novel hasn’t aged a bit, an iota, a single little particle since 1988. Read it today, and you’ll think of Banks, Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter. It’s quite a remarkable feat.

Granted, this isn’t an easy novel to digest. The cloned versions of four characters alone almost add up to half the Dramatis Personae, and they’re seldom differentiated. It’s a fun novel to read, but it’s also devastatingly easy to miss a few crucial lines. The narrative is so dense that the information most probably won’t ever be repeated. And yet, unlike some other hard-to-read novels you might have tried, the style is not difficult or complex; it’s the sheer density of plotting that will trip you up.

The first hundred pages won’t help, as you’re boldly thrown in a brand-new universe that doesn’t have a previous trilogy as a world-building crutch; you’ll have to assimilate all information on the fly, even as complex events are already set into motion. At least you won’t be able to predict what’s going to happen: The body count starts early and rarely eases up. It would be a sacrilege -and an undeserved marketing blurb- to compare The Dragon Never Sleeps to Dune, but… there are similarities.

It all adds up to a darn good space opera. Vivid space battles are sprinkled throughout the book. Breathtaking betrayals abound. Grand concepts are revealed. Big fun for all, as long as you’re still following what’s happening. Plus, hey, it’s got a trilogy’s worth of material between two covers; you have to like that!

In short, I liked it a lot, and if you can find the book, I don’t doubt that you’ll enjoy it too. It should be reprinted soon, if Cook’s current popularity -and vocal fan-base- is any indication. A little gem overlooked by most critics upon its release, The Dragon Never Sleeps deserves a good look. Certainly, I plan on re-reading it in a few years, just because I’ve got the feeling I’ve missed out on so much!

What Women Want (2000)

What Women Want (2000)

(In theaters, March 2001) It’s not easy for an actor to grow old, but Mel Gibson has done so enviably well, enhancing a tough-guy image with considerable willingness to play quirky roles and hard-won charm tempered with age. In short, he’s the perfect lead for What Women Want, a gender-driven comedy about an uber-macho with the sudden power to read women’s minds. Fantasy-lite concept handled with some rough skill, though a promising first half eventually peters out in traditional dramatic arcs, including a few long-foreshadowed life crises. It’s not even a passable script overall, with Marisa Tomei pretty much used as a one-joke character despite the overall creepiness factor. Well, at least it’s good to see her in another big-budget role again. But, overall, What Women Want is pretty much what the audience wants, and if it doesn’t really go anywhere new or fresh, at least it’s reasonably entertaining up until the last fifteen saccharine minutes.

U.S. Marshals (1998)

U.S. Marshals (1998)

(On TV, March 2001) Serviceable chase film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Snipes. Several twists and turns, most of which can be seen well in advance, including a traitor that every one can identify from first appearance onward. The directing is average, save for an exceptional long take detailing the aftermath of a plane crash. Some wholly unnecessary scenes and characters, like “the girlfriend” and the opening sequence, burden the film with unnecessary elements. A few adequate action scenes. It’ll do if there’s nothing else on TV. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Sugar & Spice (2001)

Sugar & Spice (2001)

(In theaters, March 2001) Any film that appears in the middle of January and sinks without a trace has got to be complete trash or a pleasant surprise. Such is Sugar & Spice, not a classic by any mean but a conveniently amusing comedy with a sharper sarcastic edge that you might have expected from the trailers. The low budget and deficient technical qualities (the first half-hour is marred by an inaudible sound mix) are disappointing, and so’s the quick ending, but the rest is good enough. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed.

Wasn’t the future wonderful?, Tim Onosko

Dutton Paperback, 1979, 188 pages, C$12.95 tpb, ISBN 0-525-47551-6

Save for the occasional odd SF paperback, most of the books reviewed in these chronicles are easily available from libraries or used bookstores. Anything that makes it up to frosty Ottawa, Ontario can probably be acquired anywhere else in North America, so I feel safe in not boring my readers with arcane material or, worse, whipping them up in a frenzy about some obscure book they’ll never find.

So it pains me to have to rave about a full-page coffee-table paperback published in the late seventies. Most certainly long out of print, presumably unfindable by casual readers, Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? is nevertheless a must-read, a definite curio for anyone interested in social change, science-fiction, history, futurism or what I’d call innovation management.

Subtitled A View of Trends and Technology from the 1930s, Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? is simply a collection of the most outrageous articles published by “Popular Mechanics”-type magazines during the 1930s, wrapped in an introduction and a few follow-up notes.

It doesn’t sound like much, a reprint of musty old mags, but when you encounter such grandiose headlines as “Explaining technocracy: A revolution without bloodshed”, “Airport in the Heart of a City Provided by Logical Design”, “Big Cities to Have COOLED Sidewalks”, “The Great Wall of China to be Motor Highway” or “Science Shows NOISE Causes Indigestion”, there’s bound to be more than nostalgic interest.

Each article is accompanied by superb illustrations that are often more interesting than the articles themselves. As only full plates are reprinted, some pages -such as an article by the great Nikola Tesla himself- are adorned by flavor-of-the-time advertisements. Tires for $2!

In any case, it’s certainly fascinating to peer at what the forward-thinkers of the 1930s were planning for the future. Granted, many things came to pass (like television), but in almost all cases, the end result was realized using much different means, and with far different consequences, than the idealized version.

But it’s for the futures that never happened that Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? becomes fascinating. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fields of large-scale engineering, where dozens of gargantuan schemes (an air-protection installation inside London, a fighter-jet skyscraper dwarfing the Eiffel tower, six-level highways, plans to radically modify intersections, etc…) are proposed without any regard as to who would want such a thing. Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? then becomes an exercise in how -or why- some things just aren’t practical.

Granted, Popular Mechanics probably wasn’t the orthodox view of the nineteen thirties, but was it so different from today’s “Major new breakthrough!” articles published on a daily basis in our newspapers? Predictions might be more restrained, more subtle today, but it doesn’t mean they’re better, or more accurate.

The book concludes with a wonderful article entitled “Most Scientific Fiction CAN’T COME TRUE”, in which such wacko schemes as teleportation, travels to the moon or radio signals to Mars are relentlessly debunked. I hope they’re as right about teleportation as everything else.

In any case, Wasn’t the future wonderful? is a wonderful book, filled with surprises and unusually good at giving a sense of technical perspective. Teachers could use it to develop scientific literacy. SF Writers could use it as a guide to non-silly prediction. Artists could use it to acquire a sense of realistic craziness. Everyone else can use it to spark discussion, jog those little gray cells or simply have a good time. It’s a fun book. Bring it back in print!

Say It Isn’t So (2001)

Say It Isn’t So (2001)

(In theaters, March 2001) Well, the age of the gross-out comedy is upon us, and as if it wasn’t enough that almost all of them are There’s Something About Mary ripoffs, what really makes’em stink is that they’re just not funny. I mean, who could reasonably greenlight a comedy about incest featuring mutilation and poking fun at amputees? No small wonder the film elicits only a few forced groaners and quickly sank at the box-office. It doesn’t help that Heather Graham is upstaged in the looks department by the “other woman” character (who’s in barely three scenes), and that Chris Klein is one of the blandest romantic protagonist imaginable. (He’s interesting for maybe five minutes, during which he sports a slacker haircut that disappears almost immediately.) Unfunny, unfocused, exasperating by its willingness to always go for the obvious gross-out, Say It isn’t so unfortunately is. A leading contender for worst-of-year title.

Riddler’s Moon (1998)

Riddler’s Moon (1998)

(On TV, March 2001) Weak, slow-paced, cheap-looking made-for-TV film. Concerns a handicapped hero, a drunk father figure, a squeaky-voiced single mother (Kate Mulgrew, in-between Star Trek Voyager episodes), dumb rednecks and an extraterrestrial relic buried underground. If you fall asleep during the film, you’ll have the good fortune to miss the idiotic ending, where the rednecks help, the father-figure gets together with the single mother, the kid gets cured… oh, and everyone else’s memory gets erased for no good reason. Hm, now that you know the ending, there isn’t much point in seeing it, right? Combines fluffy science-fantasy with the low production values of a low-budged TV film to create the ultimate in cinematic irrelevance! On the other hand, it is one of the few rural SF stories I can recall. One point for originality.

Miss Congeniality (2000)

Miss Congeniality (2000)

(In theaters, March 2001) Sandra Bullock has always projected a girl-next-door image, even in her tougher roles, but films that have taken full advantage of that duality have been few and far between. Since Speed, her career has been filled with wrong vehicles (28 Days, Forces Of Nature), half-successes (Demolition Man) or films no one wants to discuss again (Speed 2). But she really gets to show her stuff with Miss Congeniality, as an “ugly” FBI agent forced to undergo a complete makeup in order to compete in a Beauty Pageant. Girls will love the fantasy; guys will simply drool over seeing her in Lederhosen, bikini and evening gown in a short thirty-minutes stretch. The rest of the film is paint-by-number fish-out-of-water scripting, with few surprises but sustained fun from start to end. Not bad.

Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

(In theaters, March 2001) Worth seeing out of historical interest, but that’s it. Doing wonders on a very low budget, this first effort by George Miller starts with a very good car chase whose energy level is sadly not surpassed anywhere later in the film. The middle section is a predictable bore, as it laboriously sets up a revenge story whose shocker comes only fifteen minute before the end of the film. A young Mel Gibson stars, looking a lot like the popular stereotype of a gay porn star. Interestingly enough, the whole post-apocalyptic thematic of the two sequels is nearly undetectable in this first film, as much a consequence of the low-budget than a lack of imagination at that stage. Often unintentionally ridiculous by its lack of funds and polish.

The Genesis Code, John Case [Pseudonym]

Ballantine, 1997, 467 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42231-7

I love thrillers. I read dozens of ’em per year. Naturally, I now demand more that the simple obvious plots to get me interested. The days when I could get excited about a simple governmental conspiracy are long past, unfortunately; now, if it doesn’t involve at least the mafia, the Girl Scouts and the flat-earth society, I don’t even bother reading past page 100.

I jest, and yet I find some plots, character and situation too clichéd to be tolerable. I demand to be surprised by the author, even at the expense of realism if appropriate. If I can predict the course of a novel when I’m not even halfway through, it means someone’s not doing his job, and even though I could be wrong, I don’t think it’s me.

So, whenever The Genesis Code opens up with an Italian priest going gonzo after hearing a confession from a highly-rated doctor, it doesn’t even take the DNA helix on the cover to figure out where this is going. Whenever the said doctor exhibits an interest in genetics and religious artifacts, it only confirms suspicions. By the time a link is uncovered between deceased women and a cute kid comes in, it’s a lot like being hit in the head repeatedly by clue-by-fours.

Unfortunately, exhibiting all the gosh-wowedness of a first-time novelist, “John Case” (it’s a pseudonym) keeps hammering it up until the last sentence, which laboriously demonstrate what we’d been expecting for a while. In terms of surprises and originality, The Genesis Code rates as a solid, tedious dud. I’ve seen the idea explained more interestingly in several science-fiction short stories. Often.

The flaws don’t stop there; the plot is constructed in such a way that one major character really only comes into the novel in the last third, feeling somewhat like an intruder. Many scenes drag on for far too long. The bad guys are unkillable. There’s a cute kid.

But despite everything, The Genesis Code remains a modest success, mostly because it does what it does in a reasonably efficient fashion. The pacing moves quickly past its lulls and the writing style is all very readable. The characters are adequately defined. I was quite taken with the description of an order of elite, unstoppable Catholic assassins even though that particular concept, again, isn’t totally new.

And in the end, it’s the old things well-described that make up most of The Genesis Code‘s definitive interest. We’re told that “John Case” is a pseudonym for an investigative journalist (though, from the laudatory passage on tabloid newspapers -see P.348 and P.362-, we can safely guess that he’s not exactly working at the Washington Post.) and his professionnalism shows in the amount of well-presented details that bolster the credibility of the novel’s mechanics. The protagonist is a security consultant, and his action do reflect this mindset, as does his investigative methodology. The more scientific/technical details also seem credible.

Even though you might guess the end fifty pages in and see many passages as being needlessly long, there’s seldom a reason to stop reading. Granted, this doesn’t make The Genesis Code a remarkable thriller, but at the very least it won’t you make curse the (short) time you’ll spend reading it. And, who knows, maybe you won’t be jaded enough to guess the ending after a few pages.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

(In theaters, March 2001) Seeing all three Mad Max successively can be a curious experience, as the scope of each film increases dramatically each time, with lavisher sets, better technical directing and a more polished script each time. This third film opens with a helicopter shot (!) and features sets with hundreds. Despite the enjoyable “Thunderdome” sequence, it’s a mistake to keep the Mad Max character (Mel Gibson, looking a lot like a long-haired George Clooney) off his natural element; the road. Tina Turner is gorgeous, almost worth by herself the time to see the film.