Marrow, Robert Reed

Tor, 2000, 502 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56657-2

Readers of these reviews won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t necessarily review everything that I read. Aside from my technical/reference reading, there are a considerable number of books that are either too inconsequential or too boring to review at length. Over any given period, I will review one book in three or four that I read.

While it’s relatively easy to praise or condemn a book, it’s much harder to find ~650 words about a book that didn’t even register in the first place. Unfortunately, I also try to review every recent SF book that I buy, if only to justify my SF purchases. With Robert Reed’s Marrow, I find myself with a conflict. I want to review it because it’s recent SF. Yet I don’t want to review it because it’s such a blah book.

It’s long. It takes place over thousands of years. It features only a dozen characters, and not many of those are of any interest. For ten Canadian dollars, you can get a much better book.

And yet… here goes:

Let’s start with the premise, arguably the best thing about Marrow: It all takes place in a big alien ship. A really big alien ship. I don’t exactly recall the dimensions, nor can I be bothered to dig them up, but it’s such a big alien ship that humans eventually discover a Mars-sized planet deep inside after a few hundred thousand years of occupation. Mars-sized. And they’d sort of never found it before. Big alien ship.

Due to life-extension technology, the lifespan of our characters is virtually infinite barring any unfortunate accidents. This has two important consequences on the plot of the novel. First, these characters think nothing of waiting a few hundred years before doing something. Second, we can never be totally sure they’re dead until their individual atoms are fissioned. There are more fakeouts in Marrow than there are in an entire season of your favorite soap-opera.

The plot involves a few hundred senior ship officers being stranded on the Mars-like planet as no-one ever goes to look for them. Thousands of years (and hundreds of pages) pass. They eventually manage to re-create a complete industrial civilization and go back to the ship, only to discover a dastardly plot to take over the ship. There’s a war in which millions of sentient beings die. There is an ending of sort. The end.

Now milk out all the drama out of the above, add in some spurious pseudo-melodrama and let fester for five hundred pages. Your result will look a lot like Marrow; good potential, but it’s just not a lot of fun. I was lucky enough to be stuck witnessing a day-long management conference with the book as my only friend. It was probably the most efficient way to make me read a book I didn’t care too much about.

And that, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about Marrow: I didn’t care too much about it. Certainly didn’t love it, but neither did it actively start annoying me. It just… was.

Unfortunately, that means that your hard-won entertainment dollars (and your even more precious entertainment-time) can be spent more efficiently elsewhere. Bruce Sterling. Learning Spanish. A yo-yo. Heck, even a Hollywood movie. Oh, Reed completists will presumably love it, if they exists. Some SF critics may be tempted to read it if only to find out how some exciting ideas can be ruined by tepid writing. Many of us, though, may very well just not care. Too bad.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Young Frankenstein</strong> (1974)

(On DVD, November 2001) Alas, years of ever-heightened comic pacing have not been kind to this satire of the first two Frankenstein films. (Which you should see in order to get a few scenes, most notably the blind man sequence.) The jokes come too slow, and sometime feel too forced. Fortunately, the actors pretty much earn our sympathy early on, and help considerably in enjoying the picture. (Particular wows go to Teri Garr, whose luscious Inga steals the show. “Vould you like a roll in ze hay? It’s fun! Roll! Roll!”) Mel Brooks fans will love it: the overall pacing is a lot like Blazing Saddles. The DVD features quite a few deleted scenes (justifiably cut for pacing, but they explain a lot. The “intellectual discussion” should have been kept in the film.) and a good making-of documentary that benefits from a comfortably-distant perspective.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">You’ve Got Mail</strong> (1998)

(On TV, November 2001) At first, it’s hard to see why any heartless chump would dislike this romantic comedy. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are free to look their cutest, the direction is suitable and New York shines through. Heck, even the story is interesting, what with a big-bookstore / independent-bookstore fight and an internet-age update of a pen-pal romance. It works… but then the film doesn’t end when it should, drags on for far too long and becomes more and more unpleasant from a moral point of view. The quasi-stalking behavior of Hank’s character is borderline creepy. The final helping of sugar helps to soften the blow, but the overall impact of the film is considerably lessened by its final 30 minutes. Still, there’s no denying that it’s a bit more interesting than originally anticipated.

Wonder Boys (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Wonder Boys</strong> (2000)

(On VHS, November 2001) While we’re used to see Michael Douglas in antiseptic professional roles (Wall Street, Traffic, etc…), he’s equally convincing here as a rumpled-up English professor caught in a web of adultery, lies and creative rut. He looks like an unshaven hound-dog and mostly acts like it too. Fortunately, he proves more than adequate to carry the movie on his shoulders. Toby Maguire’s usual drowsy acting style also works well here, which is more a reflection on how well he picks his roles to suit his style rather than any stretching of his abilities. The rest of the supporting cast is one of the best in recent memory. Blackly funny, cynical and almost comforting in the way it plays on the clichés about Writers and Academics, Wonder Boys is a lot of fun. (Though it’ll work much better on said writing/academia audiences) As an added bonus, it’s well-written, occasionally clever and far from being stupid. Who could ask for more in a movie?

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

<strong class="MovieTitle">When Harry Met Sally…</strong> (1989)

(On DVD, November 2001) Some movies hit you at very particular time in your life, and so I ended up seeing When Harry Met Sally at a critical juncture in mine, maybe the point where it did the most good. Don’t think that I haven’t loved it… but do wonder if it would have been as effective if I would have seen it even two months before. I ended up saying “ouch” and moaning a lot: mmmm…mmmmm…mmmm… In any case, it’s easy to see, objectively, why the film is so great: Crackling dialogue, excellent lead actors, unusual yet “real” plotting and a careful direction make this film an all-around winner. (The split-screen phone conversation alone are worth the rental) Meg Ryan has never looked more gorgeous before or since, and Billy Crystal makes the role uniquely his. A wonderful film, except for the annoying “how we met” vignettes. Hasn’t aged a bit in twelve years. The DVD features a pretty darn good making-of documentary with the added benefit of more than a decade of hindsight and cultural impact.

The Wedding Singer (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Wedding Singer</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, November 2001) Many people are prompt to call this Adam Sandler’s best movie. While it’s certainly not the funniest (somehow, Billy Madison works better), it’s certainly the least offensive and the least annoying. As far as the story’s concerned, though, there isn’t much to see here, with yet another pathetic Sandler character somehow getting the girl (though you might argue that they deserve each other) and winning everyone on pure “charm”. It’s not all bad, mind you; unlike other Sandler films, this one is not displeasing to watch, and the last segment end on a triumphant note, with a wonderful cameo by Billy Idol. The rest of the does preciously little to allay my dislike of Sandler’s entire oeuvre, though.

Sea Fighter, James H. Cobb

Jove, 2000, 513 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12982-8

Over the past year, I’ve read so many limp military thrillers (Brown’s Fatal Terrain, Rugerro’s The Common Defense, Stewart’s The Kill Box, etc…) that I had almost forgotten what it felt like to read a genuinely entertaining one. Fortunately, James H. Cobb’s Sea Fighter was there to make me believe in the genre again.

What often happens with military-series writers is that they eventually get stale, don’t renew their premises, barely allow for character growth and simply lose touch with how to write an exciting novel. Not so here: After two similar novels, Cobb shuffles the deck with skill, and Sea Strike continues the series with sustained originality.

The novel’s first few pages are deliciously jarring, as protagonist Garrett writes a “If you read this, I’m dead…” letter from a marine platform a few miles away from the African coast. Veteran readers of the series will be immediately concerned; where’s “the Duke”, the high-tech destroyer that starred in the first few books? What is Amanda doing, planning to lead a ground expedition in Africa?

The next few pages lay it out for us; the USS Cunningham is in dry-dock for repairs after the events of Sea Strike, and Amanda Garrett’s been offered a post coordinating the UN forces in a nasty little war in Africa. This sets up a devilishly clever scenario where the might of the US military is handicapped by political concerns to such a degree where a battle with an African navy becomes more of a test of cleverness than a war of firepower. Garrett is forced to out-think a dangerously intelligent antagonist and win the war through unconventional means… a intellectual contest in which the biggest winner is the reader.

From large-scale naval engagements, Garrett is forced to move to coastal tactics and gadgets. Amphibious crafts and SEAL-team tactics are in the foreground in Sea Fighter, which is a nice change of pace and a welcome renewal of Cobb’s fiction. The featured techno-gadgets here are the titular “Seafighters”, experimental armed hovercrafts that do pretty much everything including cutting and dicing. The new tactical capabilities of the “Air Cushion Gunboats” are a good excuse for new tactics and original spectacular scenes; Cobb has a lot of fun with his gadgets, and so do the readers. Now that we’ve seen the first military novel about hovercrafts, I’m waiting for one on hydrofoils.

It’s been an axiom of mine that you can reliably gauge the worth of a military technothriller by the number of Cool Scenes it features. Sea Fighter ranks highly on that scale, with an assortment of well-narrated battle scenes, clever maneuvering on both sides of the conflict and accessible political/strategic considerations. The care with which the antagonist is established as a nuanced opponent is one of the highlights of the novel and yet another facet of Cobb’s skill.

While war is a grim subject and current real-world conflict headlines are hardly amusing, military novels are a different things, and indeed the best of them can also be distinguished by a sense of compulsive fun. Sea Fighter understands this perfectly and is quick to establish the book’s main conflict as a chess game in which moves and countermoves alternate in a compulsively readable fashion.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s all simplistic fluff, though; the geopolitics of Sea Strike are plausible and realistic to a degree that is far more convincing than some of its brethrens. Cobb can also rely on an impressive catalogue of historical references. Here, a raid on enemy lines isn’t presented as a cowboy manoeuvre, but a Civil War tactic adapted to modern times.

It all adds up to an intelligent and entertaining war novel. Dig deeper and you’ll see Sea Fighter as a true example of the dirty-little-wars era military novel, where reduced stakes don’t mean a reduced interest for the reader. Grab it as soon as possible if you’re a fan of the genre. Don’t forget to pick up the rest of the Cobb oeuvre while you’re at it.

Practical Magic (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Practical Magic</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, November 2001) Now here’s an exemplary chick flick: Not only are almost all protagonists of the female gender, but the antagonist is a violent male, and the eventual male love interest does zilch to resolve the problem. Whatever plot revolves on a family of witches whose lives are cursed whenever true love enters the picture. Dig deeper, and -oh- here are womyn majik undertones and definite feminist overtones. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… and hey, no matter: It’s all so sympathetic that it won’t matter. Sandra Bullock is unspeakably cute and so -to a lesser degree- is Nicole Kidman. It’s a slight but fun film, pleasant despite its silliness. I liked it, can’t figure why. Must have been bewitched.

Outland (1981)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Outland</strong> (1981)

(On DVD, November 2001) This movie is famous in SF circles for representing everything that’s wrong with Hollywood Science-Fiction, most notably the tendency to use SF visuals and gadgets to tell a story that isn’t specifically SF. In this case, the charges have merit, as Outland was originally pitched to studios as “High Noon in outer space”. It sure feels every bit like a western, as a rogue sheriff (Sean Connery) has to fight corruption in his company town… er… mining station. Stupid science errors abound, from exploding bodies in vacuum to wonky “artificial gravity” babble. But guess what? It works well as an adventure film and it work pretty darn well as a futuristic thriller. It’s not a classic, but it deserves to be remembered twenty years later. The set design by itself is worth a look, embodying a full “Space 1999”/Alien techno-industrial slate-gray feel. It’s all good fun.

The One (2001)

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

(In theaters, November 2001) The Theorem of Convergent Movie Premises goes like this: however original and fresh any film premise is, by the time the film is over, Hollywood will find a way to make it fit in one of the few depressingly similar templates at its disposition. That’s how, for instance, Alien and The Hollow Man eventually end up with the same kill-the-monster third act, or any number of romantic comedies with seemingly disparate protagonists all end up playing pretty much the same dramatic scene. Despite an intriguing promise and the capable Jet Li, The One also ends up feeling like yet another formulaic action film with scarcely any excitement past the first few minutes. Okay, so some of the special effects are fun (the first action scene even manages to do something interesting with bullet-time effects), but pretty soon your believability sensors will start protesting at the inconsistent usage of the superpowers. Don’t be surprised if you starts picking holes in the premise even as the film is doing its best to ignore them. (My favorite is; how come don’t we have more super-powered elderly people, as their other-universes avatars die one after the other?) It’s a shame to see Jet Li once again (see Romeo Must Die, Kiss Of The Dragon, etc.) suffer at the hands of a director who doesn’t know how to film a martial art sequence. Not that the screenwriter is necessarily more competent. Once again -see Ghosts Of Mars, or better yet don’t-, I felt sorry for Jason Statham. Granted, there are nice images, from sparks-fighting to motorcycle-swatting, but the rest of the film is instantly forgettable.

Novocaine (2001)

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

(In theaters, November 2001) I happen to believe that there’s a place in every cinephile’s heart for the little B-movie that works, the out-of-left-field video rental that simply proves to be a fun rental on a slow evening. No top-ten material nor DVD-essential, Novocaine nevertheless proves to be a fun black comedy—a light noir film, if you like. This first feature by director David Atkins treads in the same water as 1999’s under-appreciated Goodbye Lover, with a slightly off-kilter send-up of the usual genre conventions. Novocaine is carried by Steve Martin, with Helen Hunt and Helena Bonham Carter in crunchy roles (Voyeur alert 1: Bonham Carter even takes off her clothes. Voyeur alert 2: She’s more beautiful with them on.) and Kevin Bacon’s cameo is simply hilarious. This is not a film that succeeds because of its plot: Due to the small budget, the cast is very small and the whodunit is consequently easy to unravel. But even then, the film’s sense of fun is constant, from the meta-fictional Bacon character to the several small scenes almost parodying the genre conventions. (Think escapes; the easy ones and the hard ones.) While the directing may be a bit flashy for some, special merit should be given to a pair of continuous shots inside the dentist’s cabinet, wonderful examples of cinematic technique. It all adds up to an unassuming, fully satisfying thriller that should do the job next time you don’t know what to rent at the video store.

New Waterford Girl (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">New Waterford Girl</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, November 2001) Anyone who grew up in a small town where they “didn’t quite belong” will empathize with the protagonist of this story, whose schemes to get to the big city become increasingly desperate. Don’t be put off by the low budget or what is initially one of the most depressing environment put to film: New Waterford Girl gets better as it goes along, and even ends on a triumphant note of sorts. Liane Balaban makes a sympathetic heroine, and the supporting cast works just as well. The script works well within the confines of the production constraints, with a few fun scenes that will stick with you. At last, a Canadian film that’s not too embarrassing!

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, Cory Doctorow & Karl Schroeder

Alpha, 2000, 360 pages, C$25.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863918-9

One of the most unlikely publishing trends of the nineties has been the Dummies’ Guide to… series of books, along with the inevitable knock-offs, such as -surprise- the Complete Idiot’s Guide to…. Using a voluntarily provocative title as a hook for a series of excellent reference works, the publishers of these two series have moved away from the obvious computer training manuals to delve into subjects we might not have expected from dummies guides.

Publishing Science-Fiction is one of those unlikely subjects. Few would be prompt to categorize idiots as a prime demographic for writing SF—though the jury is still out on Star Trek readers. Delve beyond the silly title, however, and you’ll find the best book on the market to teach, as it says, how to publish Science-Fiction.

Rising Canadian SF superstars Cory Doctorow (2000 Campbell Prize Winner) and Karl Schroeder (Ventus, The Claus Effect, etc.) have put together a step-by-step guide to writing SF where the only ingredient missing is determination. This Guide starts with an introduction to the genre, of course, then moves on to the essential mechanics and techniques of SF writing. The authors don’t try to teach how to write as much as they highlight the differences between SF and other types of literature. As could be expected from a general guide, their explanations are limpid and eminently accessible.

But the Guide doesn’t stop there. Once the stories are written, the hard part begins: they have to be sold! It’s no accident is this is a guide to publishing rather than writing SF: Doctorow and Schroeder spend more than half the book discussing how to build a professional SF-writing career, from the initial story sales to fiscal considerations whenever a significant fraction of your income comes from book royalties. While this will probably annoy any “true artist” in the crowd, very few resources actually deal with material considerations for budding authors.

Through it all, the Guide really represents a cause for minor astonishment at market forces: Given such a niche market fed by only a few hundred authors, who could have contemplated a market for a book on how to become a pro SF writer?

This being said, it’s not as if only budding writers will benefit from reading the Guide. By lucidly explaining the mechanics and distinctions of SF, Doctorow and Schroeder have also allowed the rest of us a glimpse at the hidden engines of modern Science Fiction. For instance, their discussion of SF character-building [Chapter 11] -and the embodiment of SF themes in events rather than characters-, will be enlightening to fans and critics of the field by explaining why SF works like it does. The first part of the guide, which introduces SF to the masses, is also invaluable in providing a succinct, but thorough overview of the field. Naturally, the glimpse in the dirty mechanics of the SF publishing industry will also help any avid fan to understand the market forces driving the field.

The Guide is a reference book that knows how to grow with its owner. While most will initially pay more attention to the earlier parts, the latter sections of the book -on self-promotion, awards and contracts- become more important as the writer matures in his chosen profession.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the book is a delight to read from start to finish, thanks to its efficient structure and the accessible style of the authors. Good fun, even if it doesn’t directly concern you.

In short there isn’t a lot to dislike about the Guide. While already occasionally dated barely a year after release (Please note that the accompanying web site has moved to ), most of its advice will remain effective for a long time. Check it out at the local library if it sounds interesting to you, and definitely consider buying it if you think you want to be a pro SF writer.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monty Python And The Holy Grail</strong> (1975)

(In theaters, November 2001) The advantage of a micro-budget is to provide an easy excuse for whatever technical failings a film might have; “oh, they just didn’t have the money…” And there is a lot to forgive in this movie, from the unpleasantly amateurish directing to the choppy editing. Fortunately, the script is so good -and so self-aware of its own deficiencies- that you’ll pay attention no matter what. (Except, alas, that the best lines have long since become part of pop culture) This being said, there are a few thunderingly dull moments in this 91-minutes film, though the highlights (The credits! The political discussion! The shrubbery! The rabbit!) more than make up for it. Still, the lack of technical polish hurts; though it may be heresy to suggest so, I’d like to see a competent remake someday.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monsters, Inc.</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, November 2001) Computer-animation studio Pixar maintains their perfect track record with a fourth feature that will no one unsatisfied. Once again, the state-of-the-art in CGI is pushed even further, this time most impressively through a perfectly-animated furry protagonist. But Pixar’s biggest asset is to avoid letting technology become a crutch for a good story, and here too, Monsters, Inc. shines brightly. The premise is cool (a monstrous parallel universe whose energy comes from scaring “our” children), but what really makes the film compelling is the steady exploitation of this premise, seemingly wringing out every conceivable joke and gadget out of it. The voice animation is good (Billy Crystal fails to annoy) and so is directing; as Pixar acquires more experience, it gets more and more audacious in how it tells stories. The comic timing of the synthetic performers is better than most other comedies of the year. Even though aimed at the kids, Monsters, Inc. is a whole lot of fun for adults given the sharp pacing and numerous in-jokes (Harryhausen’s, anyone?) Cool scenes abound, most specially the end chase sequence, a marvel of originality that will leave you breathless. The epilogue contains a touch too much schmaltz, but it won’t matter a lot when you’re been enjoying the whole film this much.