Month: August 2002

The Big U, Neal Stephenson

Harper Perennial, 1984 (2001 reprint), 308 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-380-81603-2

Neal Stephenson vaulted to the top of the SF best-seller list with 1992’s Snow Crash, (a book that became a surrogate bible for many cyber-heads even as the Internet took off) but this first success wasn’t his first book. That honor would belong to 1984’s The Big U, which quickly became a collector’s item as geeks of all stripes started hunting it down in used bookstores and rummage sales. For a while, copies of the book fetched three-figure prices in online auctions. Stephenson was reportedly disenchanted with the book, but even less happy with the price-gouging and so allowed the book to be reprinted following the boffo mainstream success of his Cryptonomicon in 1999.

After reading the book, it’s hard to understand Stephenson’s reluctance to acknowledge The Big U: Even if it’s nowhere as polished, sophisticated or impressive as Cryptonomicon, it still ranks highly above most of what I’ve read recently.

It takes place on the pseudo-fictional “American Megaversity” campus, an entirely artificial structure called “the Monoplex” composed by a series of eight massive towers arranged around a central campus building. As an institution of higher learning, it can only disappoint 30-year-old junior Casimir Radon: students seem to be far more interested in drunken partying than good grades and there’s more anarchic violence on-campus than anywhere else in the city.

Typical? Maybe, but Stephenson stomps the pedal to the metal and never lets go. American Megaversity students use so little of their brain capacity that they eventually devolve to a state where the halves of their brain stop forming a unified whole. Those morons quite literally start hearing “voices in their heads”. It wouldn’t be so bad, but alas the campus is also overrun by radioactive rats, fanatical D&D players, anarchists, illegal kitten pushers, religious nuts, foreign revolutionaries and a physics student building a mass-driver railgun. That’s in addition to the usual bunch of campus neurotics. Very Bad Things are about to happen and our narrator is in the middle of it all. Unlike many campus novels, this one is quite literally about how university can kill you if you allow it to.

But even then, The Big U is one of those books that will make you laugh out loud repeatedly, a delight of gonzo writing style than you’ll have a hard time abandoning whatever the circumstances. Even though my own campus experience was nowhere as bad as the one described here, I only wish I could have read that novel at the time; maybe it would have made everything more amusing. The novel certainly plays well with my own liking for high-concept satire, tech-infused plotting and a dense prose style. The increasing bursts of violence may upset some (there are certainly a few disturbing passages in here) but fit increasingly well with the rising chaos of the book. Too many novels step back from the abyss just before we have the chance to have some fun, but The Big U jumps in it with glee and Jolt-fuelled abandon. The Big U is Hell on Campus. You’ve been warned.

In the end, my only quibble with the book is that when the dust has settled at the end of the story, we have the outline of a conclusion, but scarcely any resolution about the relationships between the characters. Stephenson makes his characters so sympathetic that the bare-bones conclusion is a let-down.

So what are you waiting for? Find The Big U right now, especially if you’re a college-age fan of Stephenson’s other works. Despite the original 1984 publication date, you’ll find that the book hasn’t aged much, and still is one of the best read you’ll find even this year. While we’re anxiously waiting for his next book (Quicksilver, due 2003), this will do.

Design for Communities, Derek Powazek

New Riders, 2001, 307 pages, C$44.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1075-9

As a web designer, I know how easy it is to focus on the information structure, the XHTML coding, the CSS graphical design or the hardware needed to run a successful web site, while ignoring the users who will visit the site. (Or even worse; thinking of them merely as automaton visitors that have to be scientifically managed using “usability guidelines”.) I can testify that coding even a mid-sized web site by oneself can be such a huge task that any simplification is welcome.

At the same time, there is a tendency -among organizations and individuals alike- to think of a web site as merely a repository of information. That’s a good first step, and sometime all you need… but what sets the web apart from anything else that’s existed before is the capability for interaction between creator and visitors, or between visitors themselves. Indeed, you could argue that some of the most successful web sites are made by visitors rather than the administrators.

But there’s a very good reason to avoid considering web sites as community tools. It’s far more complex, on a technical level, than simply putting up static XHTML pages. It’s also vastly more complicated to deal with unpredictable humans when they have a hand in the creation of content. For every five well-behaved net.citizen, there’s at least one net.vandal who loves nothing better than the anonymity of the web to be able to send bricks through your virtual storefront. Dealing with those idiots isn’t the only challenges of community web sites; administrators also have to define the tone of their community, attract enough users to sustain a critical mass of discussion, nurture their shared conventions, avoid growing too quickly and manage flame wars… the list just goes on. Woe on anyone venturing forth in this area without strong guidance.

Early web pioneers had to learn it all on the job, through mistakes and the wonders of naturally-evolving systems. But not anymore, thanks to people like Derek Powazek and his wonderful book Design for Communities. Anyone thinking about going beyond simple contact forms to a more sophisticated form of web community interaction should put this book high on their must-read list. Not only is it fascinating reading on its own, but it contains enough hard-won advice to save you months of development time.

Powazek quickly establishes himself as a likeable host in the book’s first few pages, and this shining personality is one of the things that make Design for Communities worthwhile and so compulsively readable. He integrates the “website by other people” concept a step further in his writing by including great interviews with other web community builders at the end of each chapter (for instance, a discussion with’s Rob Malda is featured at the end of chapter 6, “Moderation, Karma and Flame Bait”) Communities are about identity and personality, and Design for Communities has a voice of its own. There’s almost no technical jargon in this book and that’s a good thing: you’re building for a community and not from technology.

Chapter after chapter examines not only the design issues in allowing user interaction on a site, but also how to set rules, enforce policies, why barriers to entry are useful, how communities can become highly intimate, how to set up mailing lists and how even commercial entities can create highly successful communities. I was most impressed by Chapter 11, ironically (or not) about how to gracefully manage the end of a community site. Thoughtful!

At the end of Design for Communities, I felt as if I’d learned an awful lot of stuff in a very short while. In fact, I’d learned enough to decide that I wasn’t yet ready to implement such tools on any of my sites yet. But maybe you’ll decide otherwise (or have already done so), and in this case, there isn’t a better work out there than this book to guide you through the pitfalls of web communities. As web presences become more commonplace, I suspect that many organizations and individuals will start looking at the Next Big Thing for their web site, and communities could be one of those things. In a field where books expire before they roll off the printing presses, it’s doubtful that Design for Communities will be obsolete any time soon.

xXx (2002)

xXx (2002)

(In theaters, August 2002) I like Vin Diesel. I think he’s one of the most credible “action heroes” to pop up since the Fall of Schwarzenegger. XXX is nothing but a star vehicle for him, and as such it works very well: The script is copied from a rejected James Bond outline, the dialogues are pedestrian and the direction can be underwhelming at times, but Diesel carries the whole film on his shoulders with impressive ease. Say whatever you want about his range (or perceived lack thereof), but you can’t stop watching him whenever he’s on screen and that, friends, is old-fashioned star power. Remove Diesel and replace him with any of the “action wimps” of the past few years (calling Matt Damon… Ben Affleck… Josh Hartnett…) and suddenly the film becomes far less interesting. Oh, I’m not saying it’s a great film even with Diesel; for all its self-serving rhetoric about being better/more current/more extreme than the Bond series, “Triple-X” Xander Cage is just another copy of Bond, down to the cute chicks, nerdish technical assistant and big stunts. (Actually, the stunts are very impressive, even when they’re digitally enhanced) The techno-rap soundtrack basically defines its public and attitude; you can simply hear the film and decide if it’s going to be for you. It’s fun summer fare, not very ambitious nor too serious about it. I liked it, but I recognize the wide variety of reactions that this movie will elicit.

(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2003) Vin Diesel is a James Bond for teenage boys in this bad-boy story that’s nevertheless more inoffensive than most PG-13 action thrillers. The macho extreme-sport posturing is amusing to watch, but not nearly as amusing as hearing director Rob Cohen try to mythologize this very average action film. But let’s be fair; Cohen is one of the only directors able to sustain a fill-length commentary by himself, and he is genuinely amusing throughout. The film doesn’t gain much at a second glance: The plot, dialogues and villains are still pedestrian. Only Vin Diesel can make this stuff work despite all odds… the true definition of a movie star. The “special edition” DVD contains a few making-of supplements; the “filmmaker’s diary” is interesting, but the others are very fluffy, including -I kid you not- a five-minute ad for the upcoming GTO car. There is a noticeable lack of information about the visual effects, probably because a lot of it involved replacing stuntmen’s faces with Vin Diesel’s own. But you’ll have to read Cinefex in order to learn about it, because nothing can come between Diesel and his mystique…

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)

(On DVD, August 2002) Monster movies! You like them or you don’t. In this case, this second sequel to the already-classic Tremors falls short of the original (unsurprisingly) but still manages to pack some punch, especially for a straight-to-video release. In the Tremors tradition, it’s not bad in presenting relatively smart characters using their wits to fight off killer creatures. Unfortunately or not, it also keeps expanding the lifecycle of the “Graboid” creatures in a third stage (completing the cycle), the unfortunately-named “ass-blasters”. (no joke) Michael Gross returns as Burt the not-so-crazed survivalist, along with a variety of other players from the first feature. (Ariana Richards also returns, but it’s been a long time Jurassic Park, and she here seems to be trying her damnedest to win a Kirsten Dunst look-alike contest.) The film advances at a decent pace and delivers the expected chills and thrills but make no mistake; this is a film for the fans of the series only. Don’t apply if you haven’t seen (and liked) the first two features. The DVD features a fluffy making-of featurette, cast bios (which is useful when you don’t know these people), trailers for all three Tremors movies and not much else. Not that you actually need much else.

Killing Time, Caleb Carr

Warner, 2000, 335 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61095-X

We hard-core Science-Fiction geeks have a favorite past-time whenever an author best-known in another genre decides to write a genre novel; it’s called “trashing the book.” The rationale for indulging in such an immature pursuit goes a little like this: Despite decades of excellent stories, the mainstream “establishment” still poo-poohs SF. Occasionally, a member of the “establishment” decides that s/he wants to write a science-fiction story, but -ah-ha!- it’s “much too good to be called SF”. The problem is that in most cases, these authors don’t have any of the intellectual rigor expected of SF writers and make atrocious mistakes in logic, science and plausibility. Then they usually answer any criticism by saying “So what? It’s sci-fi.”

So fans usually strike back by tearing apart the novel. It’s good fun, it’s a group-affirming past-time at conventions and as long as nobody else has to listen to us, it hurts no one. So feel free to skip to the next review if you feel like it.

Caleb Carr’s main claim to fame (so far) is a pair of historical crime fiction novels set in late 19th-century New York. The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness have been justifiably lauded by critics for a certain originality (applying modern criminal procedural knowledge at the earliest possible time where it was possible to do so, not unlike Foucault’s The Name of the Rose) and a definite storytelling competence. Carr -a trained historian- has no SF background, nor has he ever attended a science-fiction convention. In short, he is Not One Of Us, and as such is a perfect mainstream target for SF geeks. Killing Time itself was published by the general fiction arm of Warner publishing (not the SF “Aspect” imprint) and the blurbs included in front of the paperback edition are all from mainstream publications (George, USA Today, Baltimore Sun, etc.)

Certainly, Carr doesn’t do himself any favor by writing a novel in which the first two pages are a broad denunciation of the Information Age, complete with the catchphrase “Information is not Knowledge”. If there’s one viewpoint certain to infuriate a whole generation of SF addicts weaned on cyberpunk’s “Information wants to be free” and the anti-Frankenstein “There are no things humankind isn’t meant to know”, well, I can’t think of a better one.

So Killing Time begins. From a straight-SF viewpoint, it doesn’t get much better; Carr’s first-person narration details how one Gideon Wolfe (presumably a criminalist/psychologist, though his talents don’t play much role in the following story) is taken away from his comfortable 2023 upper-class lifestyle by a band of traveling anarchists who have vowed to destroy the Information Age. Curious echoes of “funny SF” tales such as Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric resonate here, but Carr seems intent on playing it completely straight. Alas, even the characters seem stenciled from SF’s worst stock clichés: the disabled mad scientist, the beautiful female assassin, the sex-starved geek, etc.

It’s not as if there aren’t any ideas at all, mind you. Carr’s novel is an extrapolation on the means at our disposal now for faking the truth. The problem here is that these ideas don’t mesh in a coherent whole, nor do they seem organic to the plot. We are eventually asked to believe in a genius who can single-handedly build machines defying our conception of space and time. We are also asked to believe in a future where no one double-checks information against multiple established sources.

It’s not as if the novel doesn’t have substantial non-SF flaws either; Killing Time‘s pace is firmly set at “breakneck”, almost as if Carr was afraid of us asking too many questions. The protagonist seems content to be a passive onlooker throughout most of the book, being hijacked and led from one situation to another. Even for such a short book (less than 350 pages in large typeface), there isn’t much of a story here.

But, even then, Killing Time isn’t a complete disaster. Carr’s attitude is different from the usual SF assumptions, and that may be a welcome diversion for some. The speed at which the book can be read ensures that not many readers will waste too much time on it. Plus, whoever does read Killing Time will have a lot of fun at the next SF convention, whenever the subject of mainstream authors barging in the genre eventually comes up. Everyone wins!

Titus (1999)

Titus (1999)

(On DVD, August 2002) Even people who, like me, don’t have much use for pure Shakespearian dialogue might still be impressed by this visually rich re-interpretation of the Bard’s Titus Andronicus. Savagely violent, darkly funny and constantly surprising, this is a stylistic exercise that will constantly surprise and amuse you. The images are stunning and if you can’t stand the torpid pacing, you can always push the fast-forward button on your DVD remote to see the film (with subtitles) in half the time. The haunting look of the film is a blend of Roman ruins and modern neo-fascist chic, with a touch of classic debauchery thrown in for good measure. Cheerfully anachronistic in a symbolic kind of way, Titus is also surprising by its musings on violence and the amount of gore on display. Anthony Hopkins is very strong at the title character, as are most of the other actors. You’ve never seen Shakespeare played that way, and we can only be grateful to director Julie Taynor for her vision in accomplishing such an oddball project. The impressive “special edition” DVD contains a wealth of material to help you make sense of the film’s various levels of meaning, including two commentary tracks, a good interview with Taynor and a rather good making-of which (gasps!) actually spends quite a lot of time talking about acting.

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)

(In theaters, August 2002) I liked the first movie well enough, but I must say that I like this one even better. Everyone seems more comfortable in their roles (with particular props to Antonio Banderas for poking fun at his tough-guy image.) and it mostly shows behind the camera as the sequel is grander than the original. More gadgets, more special effects, more fantasy-based sequences and a sense of fun that doesn’t let go until the very last second of the credits. Sure, Spy Kids is for the younger crowd, but it’s got enough action, adventure and comedy to hold everyone’s interest. Kudos to writer/producer/director Robert Rodriguez for doing a big-scale film on a relatively low budget. This is big fun for all families. Get the DVD!

Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)

(In theaters, August 2002) On one hand, I really do hate the “science-fiction” elements of Signs. Bargain-basement aliens with inconsistent powers, shoddy “what the kid reads from the book is always right” rationalization and oh-so-profound spiritual conclusion don’t sit well for me and if that was the only thing worth talking about in this movie, I’d be the first one to recommend burning down all copies of the negative. But that not what Signs is about, which leads me to what I did like about the film: the sense of looking at a huge story through a very small hole, the fantastic cinematography (that overhead driving-into-town shot; whoah!), the awesome (mis)direction, the suspense, the symbolism? Replace “aliens” with “demons” and maybe you’ll start to appreciate the film as a parable more than any actual attempt at hard-core SF. Mel Gibson is entirely believable as the lead, with most of the other actors (including the kids) also doing a good job. M. Night Shyamalan is a commercially overrated director, but if he’d be doing niche genre movies, everyone would be claiming him as their best thing ever. In the meantime, he’s proving adept at telling clichéd genre stories through very unusual methods, using masterful camera techniques and coaxing impressive performances out of his actors. There’s a lot to hate and a lot to love in Signs, but even more to be impressed about. Swing away!

S1m0ne (2002)

S1m0ne (2002)

(In theaters, August 2002) As with writer/director Andrew Niccol’s previous movies (he wrote Gattaca and The Truman Show), S1m0ne is best considered as a fable than hard-edged realistic science-fiction. The technical details are ridiculous, and deservedly so; Niccol is more fascinated by more abstract subjects like the relationship between truth and fiction, our fascination for celebrity, our craving for comfort through self-deception and the rapport between creator and creation. It’s a lot of stuff to pack in a single film (with a few other bits here and there), but as a result, S1m0ne feels like a heady trip in fantasyland. Not everyone will “get” the film, nor even care for it, but like Gattaca and The Truman Show, I suspect that the cult following of S1m0ne will only grow with time. There’s certainly a lot of material for cinema geeks, from the throwaway gags (you saw the “eye” poster passing behind Elia Koteas, I hope?) to color composition (such as the computer-green S1m0ne poster in the otherwise organic environment of the protagonist’s office during the audition scene) and the overall overly stylized shot composition. Al Pacino is great -as usual- in the lead role, but everyone else does quite well in the supporting slots. Don’t forget to stay during the credits for Simone’s real identity (Rachel Roberts) and a funny little scene.

(Second viewing, On DVD, June 2003) I quite liked the film in theatres, but I find my reaction to the DVD a bit more tepid. Oh, I still think it’s a good film: The dazzling mixture of themes still makes me giddy with goodness and my appreciation of Al Pacino’s work is once against confirmed by his amusing performance. But what seems more obvious than before is the forced nature of the laughs in this comedy. Oh, it’s not meant to be a serious film, but the merely light-hearted nature of the film doesn’t naturally lead to frank laughter and this very particular tone, I suspect, tends to be difficult to appreciate when you’re not in a proper frame of mind. Suffice to say that a script revision could have heightened the laughs without too much effort. But I still quite like the film as it is, and I can only wait to see what else writer/director Andrew Niccol is brewing up. The DVD offers an interesting array of deleted scenes (usually cut for a good reason) and two very brief featurettes. The lack of a commentary track is almost criminal given the film’s thematic depth.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

(On DVD, August 2002) Slight but charming little low-budget comedy driven by performances far more than pacing. Joe Pesci is rather good, as are most of the supporting actors. But of course, the real star of the film is Marisa Tomei, who lights up the screen whenever she appears. Her Academy Award-winning turn may mark one of the few times an Oscar’s been given for sheer kittenish sex-appeal, but I’m not about to complain given all my drooling. The rest of the film elicits a constant grin rather than outright laughter, but My Cousin Vinny is satisfying in a comfortable way. That the “stakes” of the film are non-existent (an appeal would have settled everything anyway) but that’s part of the charm, and charm is something that this film has in spades. The DVD contains few extras, one of them being a dull director’s commentary that will make you wonder how such an unfunny man can direct such a charming film.

Blood of Others, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2002, 466 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1267-6

(Obligatory disclaimer; adjust the following review according to my acknowledged favorable bias for A> local authors and B> authors I’ve met.)

Fans of Rick Mofina, rejoice; the Ottawa-area thriller writer shows no sign of slowing down, turning in his third novel in three years. After the unconventional Cold Fear this novel is somewhat of a return to the settings, characters and conventional structure of his first book, If Angels Fall.

For one thing, Blood of Others is mostly located back in San Francisco, where the events of the first novel took place. For another, Blood of Others features the protagonists of Mofina’s first novel in a rather more active role than in Cold Fear.

As the story begins, a few months have gone by since the events of the previous novel, but things look a lit like they did two novels ago; Walt Skydowski is still the same irascible super-cop, though he’s making progress on the dating front. Tom Reed is still an overworked, underappreciated journalist, hated by his bad boss, hounded by his wife and once again on the prowl for a good story. He’s about to get a big one; the spectacularly ghoulish display of a murder victim leads him to an informant who claims to have seen the victim enter a police car on the day of the murder. Clearly, something is up and neither Tom nor Walt have any idea what they’re up against. Fortunately, another character looks as if he does, and by the end of the book, we can only wonder if the next novel won’t feature a third major recurring character…

It’s risky to talk about “an author’s favorite themes” after only three books, but risk has never stopped this particular reviewer in the past. Truth is, anyway, that several familiar elements do re-occur. The antagonism between the media and the police is still very present and personified by Tom and Walt’s antagonistic relationship. On the other hand, Tom’s complicated work/life balance is getting overused as a dramatic device. It would be about time for him to have a good boss and be able to write his articles without antagonizing his whole family. Maybe in time for the next novel!

Still, there’s no denying that Mofina is becoming better and better. The overall pacing of Blood of Others is generally more sustained than that of its predecessor, and the hair-raising finale is appropriately located at a San Francisco landmark. I wasn’t overly impressed by the antagonist in this volume, but then again I’m liable to unfavorably prejudiced whenever a character like that turns out to be a raving psychopath. (There’s also the whole bad-internet-bad! angle, but I need to lighten up about such things) Still, I wonder if the little time-bomb buried at the end of the epilogue will be used in Mofina’s next novels in the Reed/Skydowski cycle. Tick-tick-tick-tick…

In the meantime, have fun with Mofina’s first three novels. I’m impressed enough to put him on my short to-buy list, though I’ll be the first to admit that his stuff fits squarely in the crime-fiction mid-list, there isn’t anything wrong with that. At least you can rest assured of a good read; Mofina writes clearly and concisely and with more than enough suspense to keep you intrigued. A promising initial trilogy from a writer to watch.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

(In theaters, August 2002) The surprise hit of summer 2002 is nothing more (or less) than a deliberate attempt at giving a certain audience exactly what it wants. As such, it works really well: Writer/star Nia Vardalos delivers a romance, a family reconciliation tale as well as a duckling-to-swan transformation. The romance might be the film’s least impressive element, especially when compared to the impressive evolution of the protagonist. This isn’t simply a Rachel-Leigh-Cook-with-glasses metamorphosis, mostly because no one pulls any punches in representing the “before” state; baggy clothes, thick glasses, stringy hair, blank stare and makeup-enhanced face lines, Vardalos throws herself in the pre-transformation role with abandon and emerges as an even more adorable woman at the end of the process. That’s when the romance kicks in, but it’s not nearly as interesting as a process by which we discover the eccentricities of this particular Greek family. It’s a welcome glimpse in an ethnic group that’s long been neglected by Hollywood. (Expect a surge of imitators in the next few years.) It ends exactly as we think it will; no surprises, but good warm fuzzy feelings. It’s not a raucous comedy; the pacing is only a-joke-a-minute and the film wouldn’t have felt out of place as a television movie-of-the-week. But it’s worth seeing, especially if you’re stuck in a situation where you have to see a movie with a wide audience; this will do for the whole family.

Made (2001)

Made (2001)

(On DVD, August 2002) Though Made is billed as a mob comedy, this low-budget film written and directed by Jon Favreau is too often irritating to be consistently amusing. Vince Vaughn’s character is one of the most obnoxious protagonists in recent memory, and a large portion of the film’s suspense is in wondering when someone will finally shut up the loud self-centered idiot. The making-of featurette on the DVD, however, is gracious enough to let us know that this effect is fully intentional, as the filmmakers were self-consciously trying to mix an uncomfortable blend of comedy and tension. They recommend a second viewing. I’m not sure I’m willing to undergo that particular punishment. In any case, there are few bad things to say about the film’s technical polish; despite the low budget and the tight shooting schedule, the film looks great, makes good use of its LA/NYC location shooting and manages to build complete characters, despite how one may feel about them. (Though if someone can explain the sudden appearance of someone near the end…) If you liked Swingers (about which I have similar reservations), please feel free to enjoy Made.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (2002)

The Importance Of Being Earnest (2002)

(In theaters, August 2002) I like adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays. I just do. Trying to explain why or how I loved The Importance Of Being Earnest would be useless if you don’t share my overall love of such stories. Wilde can be cynical without being dour, romantic without being sappy and this is one of this film’s biggest strengths. Did you like An Ideal Husband? Rush to see The Importance of Being Earnest, then. Good acting, warm finale and ultra-sharp dialogue. Plus great performances from Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Frances O’Connor, who should stick to period pieces if we’re to compare this to Mansfield Park and/or Bedazzled or Windtalkers. Wonderful date movie. I guess.

Callahan’s Key, Spider Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 335 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58060-4

I have detailed, in previous reviews, my various annoyances with Spider Robinson’s unique brand of fiction. With Callahan’s Key, Robinson has come up with a novel that is almost indistinguishable from the previous two or three books in the “Callahan’s” series. So why have I liked it so much?

This latest installment begins on one of the darkest winter days of early 1989, as narrator/protagonist Jake Stonebender suffers through the indignities of yet another Long island snowstorm. Things look grim, but before long, the usual gang of very exceptional friends shows up and convinces Jake to A> move to Key West, Florida and B> save the universe. Not merely the world, mind you, but the universe. The gang reacts in their usual blasé fashion. (“God damn it. AGAIN?” [P.7] Also see P. 181 and 201 of the paperback edition.)

There remains the slight matter of moving some hundred-odd (very odd) people from upstate New York to Key West. Doing so will require some ingenuity, work and more than a dozen yellow school buses. Most of the novel’s first half is spent following Jake and the gang as they first plan and then go on the road trip to end all road trips. Several cool not-so-tourist attractions are visited. A few puns are slung. Authority is defied. A shuttle is launched. A good time is had by all. This first half is by far the most enjoyable; the process of mass-moving from New York State to Florida is far more relevant to us than the process of saving the universe.

Then we’re due for the gang’s arrival in the Keys, where even their full-blown exceptional nature is unremarkable. There remains the slight matter of saving the universe, but as we all know, that part proves to be a cinch. No matter; you know you’ll devour it at once.

No, there isn’t much that’s new or even original at Callahan’s. Robinson has found himself a comfortable niche, and as long as he continues to deliver the goods, he’s not tinkering with the formula. Regulars will appreciate the tall stories, the anti-establishment tone, the puns and of course the feeling that every one is welcome at Callahan’s.

Callahan’s Key is still one of the best entries in the series, though, what with its unusual travelogue that takes the bar away from the characters, somewhat. Robinson doesn’t waste as much time setting up elaborate puns and his description of a shuttle launch seems as moving as the event itself. The book isn’t nearly as weepy as its immediate prequel. There’s also a good role for Nicola Tesla, one of my own favorite historical character, with a wonderful explanation of the man’s latter-year slide in crackpot-hood. (Think Siberia, 1908 and slap yourself for not thinking of it earlier. [Chapter 13])

I still hold on to most of my reservations about Robinson’s shtick, mind you. His cast of characters is, by now, ridiculously powerful (and bulletproof). Group telepathy seems to be the ultimate answer to a remarkable number of things. He still displays a remarkable intolerance for “bureaucrats and Pentagon dolt-heads” (someone should sit with him and explain the nobility of public service, as well as how We Are Not A Monolith, Damnit.) Robinson also overplays to his crowd (we’re go smart, so advanced, so civilized, etc.), but whoever is still reading the Callahan’s series after nearly ten volumes shouldn’t be surprised at most of this stuff.

So why do I keep counting myself as one of them? Well, one of the surprises of Callahan’s Key was finding out that I actually enjoyed reading about Robinson’s merry band of iconoclasts. While Robinson and I obviously come from different backgrounds and would probably start arguing the minute we met (not that this would be a bad thing, mind you), the truth is that coming back to Callahan’s universe almost felt like going someplace familiar. I suspect that a large part of Callahan’s appeal is in offering an idealized representation of a place where all are welcome regardless of prejudice, as long as you enjoy good company, good ale and good songs. I think we’re all looking for something like that. Hurrah to Robinson for providing it, even in a diluted fictional form!