Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Tom Clancy [ghostwritten]

Berkley, 1998, 372 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16172-2

Reviewing “Tom Clancy’s” novels is the critical equivalent of shooting fish with big barrels. These ghost-written cookie-cutter novels sustain a basic level of readability, sure, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember anything about them only a few days after an initial read. Heck, you’d be lucky to remember the difference between the various series, whether they’re “Op-Center”, “Politika” or “Net Force”. As far as any serious reader is concerned, they’re three names for the same thing: Clancy’s willingness to whore out his diminishing reputation through dozens of mediocre novels he should be ashamed to be associated with.

This venom now being out of my system, allow be to concede that as far as the “Tom Clancy’s” novels go, Net Force is better than the other ones. The premise is slightly more SFish than the other series, being concerned about a federal agency dedicated to fighting computer crime. The series is set in a ten-year-away future, which is depressingly similar to our own except when it suits the purposes of the plot.

In other words, don’t go in Net Force expecting a fully-developed social anticipation in the tradition of the best Science Fiction. While Steve Perry has previously proven himself to be an adequate SF writer, he’s obviously writing Net Force to pay the bills, and this strictly alimentary approach to the novel shows through a distinct laziness.

Take, for instance, Net Force‘s representation of cyberspace, which makes all the mistakes you might see in a slush-pile SF novel magically teleported from the mid-eighties. Metaphorized into a representation of the highway system, it forces characters to drive cars and search highways for bad guys. Not only does this represent a singularly useless and inefficient mapping of cumbersome real-world equivalent over something that doesn’t require it, but it also drags down the level of the rest of the book to this quasi-adolescent car fetishism where driving a Dodge Viper is good enough to catch the enemies.

And, yes, there is a “good” level of the book to drag down. One character and one subplot is enough to keep our interest, the “Selkie” assassin and her contract against new Net Force director Alex Michaels. It’s the least ridiculous part of the book, the most focused and the most interesting. There’s also an interesting love triangle / martial arts exposé between Michaels, an agent named Toni Fiorella and some other agent whose name isn’t ultimately important. Oh, and a few funny scenes featuring a nerdy teenager.

But that’s it. Zero other set-pieces, zero compelling characters, awful technology and scarcely any good writing besides a very few fascinating technical/procedural details. The rest of Net Force is of such forgettable averageness that it blurs up almost instantly, sinking is the cesspool of “Tom Clancy’s” novels. The only question left for me to ask remains “If I’m buying those awful novels used, who the heck keeps buying them new?”

High Crimes, Joseph Finder

Avon, 1998, 388 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-72880-X

Fiction does not operate according to the usual laws of reality. Life seldom makes up interesting stories and that’s why, from stone-age shaman onward, making up compelling fiction has always required creative interpretations of how things usually happen.

The protagonist is a good person who struggles in search of his goal. After difficulties, lovers end up together. Bad persons are punished. While not ironclad, these “rules” drive most of modern fiction. You’re familiar with them from years and years of novels, films and other stories.

Sub-genres acquire their own dramatic conventions, which occasionally make them impenetrable to newcomers. Thrillers are no exception. After reading a few dozen of them, patterns start to emerge and readers may demand bigger surprises in order to be satisfied.

Ironically, there are such things are expected surprises. A novel with twists and turns can start to be repetitive; any character whose body isn’t certifiably autopsied is liable to come back “from the dead”, any friend is a possible traitor and every government agency has squads of murderous operatives. It becomes possible to guess the next big twist simply by asking ourselves “What’s the worst that could happen at this point?” A lawyer asking himself if his client committed the crime isn’t much of a story if the client isn’t actually guilty as hell. (See, oh, films from JAGGED EDGE to PRIMAL FEAR, whose “twist” is given in the first line of dialogue.)

Joseph Finder’s High Crimes is an enjoyable, but generally predictable thriller whose final twist is self-obvious whenever you ask yourself “What would be most interesting?” It then proceeds straight into ludicrous absurdity, but by this time, you’re only two pages away from the end, so you might as well finish the whole thing. Even if you’ll still end up with a few unanswered questions.

This being said, the setup is interesting; a renowned attorney is stunned when her husband, theoretically an economist, is hunted down by the military for a war atrocity trial. He insists that he’s innocent and she agrees to defend him at a court-martial. Powerful forces from the Pentagon do everything they can to distance the trial from a few high-ranking officers. Who’s lying, the husband or the brass?

What the novel lacks in overall surprise, it gains in sharp writing and solid details. Our heroine has to learn the intricacies of martial law at the same time as we do, and the result is a fascinating trip through an area few readers know about. Characters are presented efficiently, sometime too quickly, and developed with an adequate amount of care. The dialogue is witty and natural. The pacing drags a bit, especially in the beginning (just get the suspect in custody and go on with the story!), but it gets better and for all its little problems, High Crimes doesn’t become boring.

It might even be unintentionally comical in its frantic effort to keep our interest. Aside from the inherent fascination of court-martial procedures and special-operation details, Findley piles up increasingly extreme events regardless of if the story calls for it. The setups are sometime so laborious as to be offensive, such as with the whole chapters leading up to the apprehension. A few latter sequences, like the car sabotage, scream “cheap thrill!” more than they suggest an organic plot development. But given that they’re eventually inconsequential to the overall dramatic arc, most of these cheap thrills remain meaningless.

But that’s all part of dramatic logic, where the bad guys are notoriously inconsistent in their desire to kill off the protagonists. Dramatic logic -where the best friends are in fact the best enemies and the most unexpected twists become mandatory- is the real main character in High Crimes. It’s a good testimony of Finder’s professionalism that his novel can sustain interest despite holding few genuine surprises.

THX 1138 (1971)

<strong class="MovieTitle">THX 1138</strong> (1971)

(On VHS, April 2001) The story’s been done better elsewhere (man tries to escape his oppressive society; see Dark City, Gattaca, Truman Show) but this is a creditable effort for the seventies. You will be unable to associate this grim and artistic George Lucas with his latter American Graffiti or Star Wars series. (Sharp-eyed observers, however, will note Lucas’ recurring motifs of car chases and distrust of technology) Unfortunately, Lucas’ vision is hampered by four things; a low budget, a lack of storytelling skills, no knowledge of science-fiction and an approach more suitable to arty films than popular entertainment. All of this combine to produce a film with recycled imagery, simplistic plotting, awful dialogue, an unsatisfying ending, laborious introduction/development of well-known concepts and “artistic” imagery that exasperates more than it enlighten. While THX-1138 doesn’t hold up to modern standards and inspires more guffaws than deep thoughts, it’s of definite historical interest. Worth a look despite everything else.

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, August 2019) It had been nearly twenty years since I’d seen THX 1138, but as I watched it a second time it became obvious that it wasn’t the version I had watched in 2001: The inclusion of obvious CGI in a 1971 quickly led me to realize that I was watching the 2004 director’s cut of the film, with added digital details to fix the most dated aspects of the film. The result is strangely compelling: by updating the effects, George Lucas has removed a fundamental stumbling block of casual viewing (focusing on bad effects rather than the story), while the block he has added (those are modern effects in an older movie!) won’t be as obtrusive to most viewers. The story, of course, has not changed much: it’s still a good old repressed protagonist in a dystopian society (although one notes with some interest that it’s a society that’s not even particularly good at keeping itself working: there are plenty of hints that things are not going well, that there are accidents and errors and systemic failures even in an environment where everything is supposed to be controlled) realizing that the society is dystopian and escaping it. It’s the ur-example of dystopian fiction plotting familiar through endless examples, but it’s not badly done. The antiseptic aesthetic sense of THX 1138 remains intriguing, and some of the details (including, yes, the bolted-on CGI additions) do create a certain tangible reality. A dystopian vision from the early 1970s can feel intriguingly out of time these days, and while I’m still not a fan of the film, at least I can see that it may be worth a look. Then there’s the whole link with Star Wars to think about, but that’s been discussed already.

Spy Kids (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Spy Kids</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, April 2001) After trying to pander to the teen crown with The Faculty, Robert Rodriguez goes after the family market with Spy Kids, one rare example of a film that successfully delivers to the youngsters while keeping the adults interested. Make no mistake; this is still very much a kid’s film, with simplified plotting, much fantasy, not a whole lot of subtlety and no real attempt at an extra layer of sly winks at adults. Still, it’s all very enjoyable; Rodriguez turns in his most polished film yet without losing touch with his dynamic style. There are a lot of fights, cool gadgets, conscious set-pieces and a lot of stuff blows up, but the film is supported by a solid promotion of family values and an overall lack of objectionable material. The latino settings and sensibilities add another touch of pleasant distinctiveness. Bring on the sequel.

Xiao Li fei dao zi Fei dao wai chuan [The Legend Of The Flying Swordsman] (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Xiao Li fei dao zi Fei dao wai chuan</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Legend Of The Flying Swordsman</strong>] (2000)

(On TV, April 2001) With a title like that, you might expect a martial-arts action-fest jam-packed with sword fights and wire-fu. Well, you’re in for a major disappointment, and that also stands for the film as a whole. The first forty minutes are concerned with, roughly, a wayward husband’s addiction to the fine products of the local bar. Then things get more extreme, with adultery, infanticide, a high body count and more ludicrousness. There is one sword fight, which is actually really good in a cartoonish sort of way, but it quickly passes and the rest of the film is an unabashed loss of time, a clash of genres and a mess of incoherent storytelling. Maybe it can be explained to me through obscure cultural references, but I prefer the simplest explanation; a bad film.

Set It Off (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Set It Off</strong> (1996)

(In French, On TV, April 2001) Four beautiful black women robs banks in order to get out of the ghetto. Sounds interesting? It is, but even that premise has limits. Letting slide the disappointing lack of full frontal nudity, the film’s goal to marry an attempt at a serious out-of-the-ghetto tale to an action crime thriller quickly produces contradictions that are hard to ignore. While the heist set-pieces are very well done, one can’t say the same thing about the rest of the film. The setup is laborious, as each character is manipulated (often by those no-good white rich people and policemen) in a desperate situation. Then, inevitably, we get the group-bonding scenes, complete with requisite drug inhalation and weak jokes. Then the ending conjures up a high body-count, often challenging basic credibility to do so. Characters are shot-down-by-police- while-reaching-for-a-weapon with a eye-rolling predictability, most often out of no discernible reason. (One of the gunfight is precipitated by such a dumb move by a security guard that it effectively destroys the film’s impact from then on.) The ending suddenly tries to milk maximum pathos and does so in such a ludicrous fashion that the net effect is more unintentionally funny than affecting. At least the direction is well handled, in a first effort by Gary F. Gray.

Skeptic, Holden Scott

St. Martin’s, 1999, 376 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96928-7

Looking at the world through tabloid newspaper glasses, it seems that the strange, the unusual, the supernatural and the just plain weird is constantly threatening to invade our so-called-reality. The universe described by the New York Times, or any other “mainstream” media, seems hopelessly constrained, boring in its lack of excitement, pathetic in its self-explanatory fashion. But wait! The Loch Ness monster will be captured! Aliens will land on the White House lawn! Even the humble vampires want nothing worse than to be our friends!

It’s difficult to gauge how many people gobble up fantastic stories as honest truth, or even how many people might be tempted to believe in some of it. Polls routinely indicate that a significant proportion of Americans believe that telepathy exists, that aliens are among us, that angels routinely intervene in their lives and there’s got to be something in all these JFK conspiracy theories.

There’s definitely a potential for a few hundred novels on the subject of skepticism and so-called reality. When a thriller called Skeptic comes across our desks for perusal, it’s hard not to expect some kind of definitive statement on the subject. But while an intriguing novel, Holden Scott’s first book isn’t quite up to the task.

Oh, it’s not as if there isn’t a lot of stuff in these 376 pages. From a medical research center in Boston to a raid deep inside Chinese lines, this is the type of thriller that sacrifices plausibility for maximum bang; avid readers of the genre will love it if only because it shows them something new.

The plot revolves around a scientific discovery that more or less validates the concept of ghosts. Through a complex and not-quite-credible mechanism involving viruses, it seems that deceased people’s “spirits” can communicate with the living. Now mix in a dangerous Chinese super-spy, a political assassination, a CIA agent as beautiful as she’s deadly and you’ve got an interesting story.

There are a few serviceable characters, including the requisite competent/rebellious/tortured doctor hero, the sexy CIA agent and the eeevil antagonist. There are a few good gadgets, including a (fictional?) type of weaponry not seen anywhere else yet. There are gruesome autopsy scenes that will make your stomach churn. There are chases, escapes, gunfights and explosions. There’s even a massive plot to take over the world, if you still wanted something of the sort.

But there’s only one little tiny instance of supernatural doing, and it’s almost an afterthought thrown in at the last minute by the author. But as for the main plot, there’s nothing that warrant belief of skepticism; Scott does his suspension-of-disbelief techno-babble so well that there’s no need to be skeptic.

Leaving that aside, Skeptic remains a better-than-average thriller, thanks to effective writing, memorable incidents and a strong dose of originality. Yes, Scott does get carried away from time to time and his grandiose conspiracy is simultaneously too over-the-top and seemingly useless that it’s likely to inspire more giggles than chills. But when considering the novel’s overall freshness, that doesn’t seem too bad. Much like tabloid newspaper readers, thriller fans would rather read blatantly ridiculous material than to be stuck in the same old reality.

Hackers (1995)

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

(In French, Second viewing, On TV, April 2001) Not as annoying the second time around, as any false expectations about Hollywood’s capacity to produce a technically accurate film are quickly discarded. What remains is a delightfully silly comedic thriller whose hollywoodesque approach to hacking is too funny to be despicable. At least the script’s in-jokes show passing familiarity with the lingo and the landmarks, a further sign that at least some of the mistakes are intentional. Seeing it six years later also allows for the discovery of an early Angelina Jolie, whose hair has since grown longer with great effect. Otherwise, Hackers is a pleasant distraction, worth a look if nothing else is on.

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, April 2001) Jim Jarmush does an urban crime film. But that was too simple a concept, and so the references to Japanese samurai ways pile up, accompanied with gratuitously lengthy shots, various meditations on honor, showy characters and other various methods that make it very easy to find depths in a really inconsequential film. At least Forest Whittaker does a good job with his modern samurai character. The film as a whole, however, is just an overlong mob story that’s been told better elsewhere. Don’t be fooled by the pseudo-artistic touches. Note: This is the film that got me banned for life from Rogers Video. Email me for the gory details, but guess what? Rogers Video sucks.

The Forsaken (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Forsaken</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, April 2001) Once in a while, it’s just good enough to hang back and enjoy a good old-fashioned B-grade horror film. In The Forsaken‘s case, not thirty seconds passes before we’re treated to the sight of a naked woman graphically showering off blood from her body. Say no more, make no excuses; this film is a throwback to the good old days of the early eighties, where horror films weren’t self-referentials, and there was enough female nudity to excuse even the biggest plot holes. You won’t find much originality is The Forsaken‘s bland vampire premise, but it’s all done in unassuming fun, with car chases, bitten victims searching for their cure and shotgun decapitations in glorious cheap grainy dark cinematography. You might wonder how an immortal can be so stupid, but don’t worry; this is exactly the type of stupid objection that makes the film so much fun. For connoisseurs of horror films, and fans of pleasantly bad one.

Fallen (1998)

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

(On TV, April 2001) It’s not the first film to feature a body-hopping serial-killing demon and until it puts all of its cards on the table, Fallen runs a bit too long, a bit too slowly. Once the premise is fully exposed, however, the film becomes more potent, up to the disappointing shaggy dog conclusion. (I think I could see a way out of the ending, but it might not have been as effective as what’s presented on-screen.) Denzel Washington is his usual dependable self as the lead policeman. The direction is effective, though maybe a bit too overeager on “demon-view” shots. Some of the framing mechanisms (both the narration and the ways the protagonist is set up by ze daemon) are weak. On the other hand, it’s a cut above most supernatural horror thriller you’re likely to see. Not bad.

Bears Discover Fire, Terry Bisson

Tor, 1993, 254 pages, C$27.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-85411-0

Bears discover fire. A huge magma “bubble” raises the Adirondacks outside the atmosphere. A blind painter is asked to draw the afterlife. A writer quits before the story is over. A toxic donut is consumed. A retired astronaut goes back to the moon.

Welcome to the short stories of Terry Bisson.

Bisson’s been known for a few things, some of them faintly ridiculous (He novelized JOHNNY MNEMONIC, finished Walter M. Miller’s posthumous Saint Lebowitz and wrote back-cover blurbs for HarperCollins) but always somehow evading becoming a big-time SF star. Some authors are like that.

Fortunately, Bisson managed to convince Tor books to publish an anthology of his stories, and the book stands alone in introducing a pretty good author to the world-at-large, or at least those who can get their hands on the collection.

As always, some stories are better than others, so here’s a quick recap of the book in not particular order.

I found Bisson to be at his best when writing very short humorous vignettes with satiric bite. “By Permit Only” will amuse and knock you out with its I-give-up ending. “Next” shows bureaucracy gone mad with red tape nightmares. It might be fun to read “Are There Any Questions?” out loud, just to get the feel of the huckster narration. I’m still not sure if “The Toxic Donut” is supposed to be funny, but I liked the dark comedy and the pyrrhic choice offered within.

Of course, Bisson points out in his afterword that he can also write some non-funny stuff, and “Necronauts” is a good example of that, a none-too-jolly story that nevertheless reads very well.

Other highlights include “They’re made out of Meat”, a widely-reprinted true little classic that you might have read by accident somewhere else. (Even, in my case, as being attributed to L. Ron Hubbard!) and “Two Guys From the Future” (Bisson outdoes Connie Willis at the fluffy time-travel romance game)

Some of the longer stories are interesting, but wounded by their insufficient bang-to-length ratio. “Over Flat Mountain” struggles with its world-building and eventually loses. It’s a fate shared by “The Shadow Knows”, which adds to it an underwhelming conclusion best left in depressing New-Wave-era anthologies.

Then there are the weird stories I’m not sure I liked. “The Two Janets” looked like a fun concept in search of a plot. “England Underway” still seemed as whimsically inconsequential as the first time I read it in Omni. “Press Ann” reads like a draft for a shorter, funnier sketch. “Carl’s Lawn & Garden” was jammed by an extra-large dose of heavy-duty symbolism in its last sentence.

Of course, there are misfires. The title story didn’t bowl me over as much as it convinced the various award juries. “George” seemed pointless. “The Message”, even at five pages, seemed long and laborious. And then there are the pieces I just couldn’t get into: “The Coon Suit” (Oh, so that’s the conclusion.) and “Canción Auténtica De Old Earth” (Rzzz).

In most cases, Bisson’s writing is brisk, smooth, funny with a good dose of truth thrown in. Even with the boring stories, he delivers the goods and entertain the reader. It might not lead anywhere, but at least you’ll enjoy the trip.

Of course, that’s the risk with any short story collection. Savor the good, take the okay and try the bad. In any case, you’ll be able to form a good picture of Terry Bisson as a writer, and he needs the attention.

Driven (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Driven</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, April 2001) Let’s establish right away that for a racing film, the crashes are good enough. Renny Harlin is known for his action set-pieces, and Driven exhibits plenty of those, in fact enough to give the film a marginal recommendation for action film fans who might be starved for some ‘splodin’. Unfortunately, Harlin isn’t known for the quality of the scripts he chooses to direct, and Driven‘s vanity-project history shows through the story, which blends the worst sport clichés along with a special implausible showcase for Stallone. Few surprises, and even fewer original moments. The quick-cutting gets tiresome after the first few moments, and the consistent bad writing really grates, especially when considering the caricatures that pass off as female characters in this movie (there’s a Babe, a Bitch and a Brain. Why even give’em names?) As long as you go see Driven fully expecting what you’re going to get (some action without much thought), you should be satisfied.

Deterrence (1999)

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

(On VHS, April 2001) A film with too many significant flaws to be classically good, but fortunately it’s got so many fascinating elements that it’s hard not to recommend it anyway. A political thriller with global repercussions set entirely on one set, Deterrence harkens back to the theater while going for the highest possible stakes. That in itself would be sufficient to make Deterrence a curio of the highest order. Could have been a great film too, if more care would have been given to the characters and the ending. While the president is ably interpreted by Kevin Pollack (looking a lot like a live-action The Critic) and the presidential staff is mostly well written, the clients of the diner are obviously meant to represent archetypical American views, but never rise above the status of stock cliché. Take, for instance, the French-Canadian waitress; it would have been easy for that character to raise the issue of a foreign national being present during high-stake brinkmanship, or even to raise tension when doubts are raised about the French government… but nothing ever comes out of it. Other missed opportunities abound. And the ending feels a lot like a cheat, simultaneously pulling out a hidden card while ignoring the consequences of it all. (Some of said consequences having previously been raised by the characters themselves!) And, of course, the limitations of the budget are matched by the limitations of the director, who doesn’t really impress by complex camera setups. Still, even after all of the above objections, Deterrence is worth a look if only for the audaciousness of the premise; a single-set global political thriller.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Cider House Rules</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, April 2001) I hope that one of the sign of impending critical maturity is the ability to find value in film about which you don’t really go nuts. The Cider House Rules doesn’t include any of the elements I usually enjoy in film, whether it’s explosions, aliens or Nazis, but when all is said is done, it remains a good film worth a rental. Granted, it’s a message film: Abortion is never an easy subject, and setting a pro-choice argument during the medically barbaric 1940s is just trolling for strong reactions, but once the unpleasant first few minutes are past, the film really finds its coming-of-age narrative. (Readers should note my strong pro-choice convictions and adjust their response accordingly.) While Michael Caine won a supporting Oscar for his role, the real glue of the film is Tobey Maguire, who really holds the film together with his patented vacant stare and slight build; he might not act any different than in Pleasantville, but the performance is a good one. Compare with Charlize Theron, whose interpretation is virtually interchangeable with dozens of other young blonde actresses. In any case, the slow pace eventually settles in (weaning out everyone with Attention Deficit Disorder) and the result is a film crafted with a lot of skill, featuring good performances and a message that might not be too subtle, but should properly offend everyone who should be offended by it.