Branch Point, Mona Clee

Ace, 1996, 310 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00291-9

As a literary genre, Science-Fiction nowadays is large enough to accommodate a vide range of views on certain subjects. Nuclear weapons, for instance, have been used in a variety of ways by different authors. From the nuke-happy rhetoric of the most extreme military-SF to the wide-eyed horror of the post-apocalyptic segment, there’s been a divergent attitude about the current nec plus ultra in sudden energetic release. Most SF writers have accepted nuclear weaponry as a necessary evil or even as a useful dramatic tool from time to time.

Mona Clee’s first novel, Branch Point is definitely not ambivalent about nuclear weaponry. The hook of the novel is how an intrepid group of time-travelers painstakingly avert one nuclear war after another. The anti-nuke discourse is strong and strident, up to a point -as we’ll see- that it harms the novel’s overall credibility.

Branch Point is set up with a minimum of fuss and believability. We are to believe that by 1962, the US government was able to build a secret facility in California named “The Bunker”, designed to protect the best and the brightest of American scientists. The facility is activated when the October Crisis goes nuclear. A hundred years later, the dying facility has perfected time-travel (uh-huh) and is about to send three teenagers to avert the war. All three happen to be half-American, half-Russian, which is weakly justified (Visiting Soviet scientists were in The Bunker when the missiles flew, and they were far more interested in procreation than their nerdy American counterparts) but rather handy when, later, the teenagers will have to go to Russia.

Within a few dozen pages, the October crisis is avoided. But it’s not the end of the adventure for our three protagonists: years later, four preeminent American politicians are assassinated and missiles fly again. As it turns out, our protagonists have “three more tries” by which to avoid nuclear war, and they’ll avoid that one too, bringing history closer to the one we’re familiar with.

But the cycle starts anew as the 1990 Soviet putsch (in our timeline) diverges in yet another nuclear war, which our protagonists mop up once again. The universe of Branch Point then diverges in “our” future. Naturally, missiles will fly again in the early 2020s, and this time our heroine must use her last chance to avoid nuclear war ever again…

Her solution is rather curious, which is to say that she travels back to a time where Russians could have colonized California, and manipulates them in doing so. It’s an interesting conceit (suggested in the first two pages of the novel, so don’t worry about me spoiling the novel) and interestingly executed.

What I didn’t like as much is the way Clee goes out of her way to suggest that nuclear weapons will forever be banned in her “final” future. Physics go a certain way, and it seems highly doubtful that alternate sciences will not re-create nuclear weapons ever again. In this light, a lot of Branch Point seems highly convoluted. (And let’s not speak of the parts of the novel which are convoluted, such as seeing an old flame of the protagonist pop up at exactly the right moment.) Knee-jerk condemnation of nuclear weapons isn’t nearly as credible or interesting as coming to grip with a responsible usage of them… short of global thermonuclear war, naturally.

Rabid Republicans might also howl at the hero-worship representation of both John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton as minor characters in Branch Point. Baby-boomers are liable to be impressed. Others, like me, are more likely to be amused.

But even despite these problems, big and small, Branch Point remains an interesting novel, more in terms of execution, ideological standpoint and historical Easter Eggs than in terms of overall plot. Certainly, it’s a bit more memorable than other time-travel thrillers, and maybe even a bit more desperate. How much of Clee’s own pet likes and dislikes show through this novel? I’m sure some enterprising thesis author will try to find out at one point.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Bourne Identity</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, June 2002) Don’t worry if you don’t remember much from the original Robert Ludlum novel: There’s scant resemblance to the original story beyond the premise of an elite secret agent who’s lost his memory. This remake is a solid thriller; perhaps too much so: There’s a definite sense of deja-vu here, as the film laboriously puts together what may be one of the blandest, least imaginative thrillers in recent memory. All of it is familiar by-the-numbers spy stuff. I could hand you the film’ premise and you’d develop a story roughly similar to this incarnation of The Bourne Identity. Matt Damon is decent as the hero, but not particularly noteworthy. The same can be said of directory Doug Lyman, who does the job with a very occasional flourishes but seldom any sustained panache. I drifted off midway through, bored by a second or third repetition of the same plot structure (Agent is sent to kill Bourne. Bourne kills agents, learning tantalizing clue. Agent dies before telling more) and I’m not sure I missed out on anything. Well-done but bland. There’s a nice little care chase, though.

Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, June 2002) The second cinema adaptation of the classic “Asterix & Obelix” comic book, and it was a risky proposition: Not only is the first (animated) movie rightfully considered a classic (ooh, those musical numbers… “Quand l’appétit va, tout va!”), but the first live-action Asterix and Obélix wasn’t very well received critically. This second live-action film is better than the lackluster Astérix et obélix contre César and falls short of the insane greatness of Astérix et Cléopatre, but still results in a rather good historical fantasy-comedy. The style is often frenetic, with plenty of sight gags, multiple anachronisms, some good dialogue and a constant sense of fun. Mission Cléopatre is so packed with jokes that even though non-French-European viewers (including French-Canadians) might not understand half the gags, there are still more than enough left to amuse. It relies a lot on pop culture, though (including a reference to Star Wars), so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not nearly as good in ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, enjoy the performances, the jokes and the visual effects.

Army Of Darkness (1992)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Army Of Darkness</strong> (1992)

(Third viewing, In theaters, June 2002) Some movies somehow never lose their charm. This is one of them; a short (81 minutes) horror/comedy hybrid with inconsistent effects but a solid sense of fun. I’ve been watching this one yearly for about half a decade and it’s still as cool as it was. What more can I say? If you haven’t seen it yet, go!

(Fourth viewing, On DVD, August 2006) There are few movies that I’ve watched more often that this one, but happily enough I’m still not bored by it. Bruce Campbell has the role of a lifetime in this film, and the constant creativity of the direction keeps piling the laugh deeper and deeper. There’s more stuff in this 85-minutes film than in some three-hour epics I’ve seen. The bare-bones DVD isn’t particularly interesting: surely there must be something better out there?

The Modular Man, Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 1992, 306 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29559-4

There are no surer ways to inflame a crowd of Science-Fiction geeks than to try to define the “mission” of the genre. Some will argue that there is none; others will use this as a tangent to discussing the definition of SF; others will simply sneak away for more snacks.

As with many other experienced SF geeks, I tend to be amongst the group that slinks away for more food. Not only because I’m a hungry fellow or because the debate tends to be invariably circular, but mostly because I’ve made my peace a long time ago with what SF should be. And that, constant reader, would be a literature of ideas.

Of course, SF should be well-written, packed with vibrant characters and constant entertainment. But that’s not the point. You can walk into any mall bookstore, head for the general fiction section and pick non-genre novels that do all that. But what other literature can seriously examine the human impacts of technological change? Which other literature always starts with “What if?” (Well, okay, Fantasy is the other one) Where else can you read accessible book-length dramatization of future issues that will soon preoccupy us? In Science-Fiction. Purely and simply.

Certainly, the good old school of SF understood this: A standard template for an Analog magazine story was to find a scientific issue, derive a consequent problem with the power of affecting human lives, discuss the issue and then offer a solution to the problem. Hundreds, thousands of stories have been written to that specification. Some were good, some not-so-good, but most of them were unabashed SF.

It’s in this techno-problematic tradition that we must place Roger MacBride Allen’s The Modular Man. There isn’t much of a plot (dying scientist downloads self in machine, political interests try to convict the robot, courtroom drama ensues), but the novel certainly features a thorough examination of the upcoming blur between humans and cyborgs, along with euthanasia, immortality, wealth hoarding and other such philosophical trifles.

Fortunately, The Modular Man is explicit in what it tries to do. Fourth in the short-lived “The Next Wave” didactic SF series (published in the early nineties by Bantam Spectra), the book comes packaged with an after-word on “Intelligent Robots” written by none other than Isaac Asimov. It’s a good piece, though the novel naturally offers most of the same ideas in a more entertaining (albeit longer) fashion.

What MacBride Allen sets up in his narrative is nothing else but an excuse to explore the legal nuts-and-bolt issues that might one day surround the artificial enhancements of humans. The Modular Man isn’t set particularly far in the future, and the writing style of the novel is much closer to legal thrillers than to more stereotypical SF. There’s certainly a lot of reasonable-sounding realism throughout the book, even though there may be too many issues to untangle simultaneously. But that’s what happens when all of your subplots relate to your central theme.

As fiction, The Modular Man isn’t much of a show-stopper. The characters are serviceable, but their places in the narrative are clearly delimited. (And yet… and yet… you’d be surprised at how moving some passages of the book are.) The plotting all leads up to the predictable Big Courtroom Victory, though there are a few twists here and there. The writing style is brisk and businesslike.

But as idea-fiction, The Modular Man is nearly exemplary. Ever chapter raises and interesting question or two, and even offers sort of a proposed solution, or at least a path worth exploring. There’s a definite pleasure in peeking in the future in that fashion; barring significant progress in nanotech, the increased reliance on artificial body parts is inevitable… and so will be the legal issues surrounding extended life-spans, artificial minds, non-humanoid bodies and such. So why don’t to get a conceptual head-start on everyone else and start studying tomorrow’s headlines now?