MP3 Underground, Ron & Michael White

Que, 2000, 279 pages, C$38.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7897-2301-8

So near, and yet so long ago…

It’s a well-known fact: Things move quickly in the computer field, and even more so when it comes to Internet technologies. What is true now may not be useful in a month or so, as companies merge, products are replaced, stocks crash and people upgrade to newer things. Anyone who dares to write a technical book must accept this fact of life and be prepared to accept near-instant obsolescence. While I can pick up a novel from 1995 and read it as if it was published yesterday, computer books tend to mold in place only a few months after their publication.

MP3 Underground is such a book. Read barely two years after initial publication, it has already outlived its useful half-life. Technologies explained in this book have been upgraded, stopped or supplanted. Napster was destroyed by the RIAA when The Industry feared it was losing control of music distribution channels. CDex has replaced Audiograbber as the MP3 ripper of choice. One can now buy MP3-CDr players at the local Walmart for less than 100$Can. The static object that is MP3 Underground has been left behind in 2000 as the rest of the world has evolved.

Still, there’s no denying that the heart of MP3 Underground was -and remains- at the right place. One can still read the opening chapter to understand what “the MP3 revolution” is all about. This reviewer’s personal experience matches what father/son Ron and Michael White explain: It’s not about ripping off artists. It’s not about piracy or thievery or plain old adolescent mischief. It’s about taking control. It’s about listening to music you really like rather than being subject to the manipulation of The Industry. It’s about listening to music you like at home, at work and anywhere else without lugging stacks of unwieldy CDs. It’s about identifying the good from the bad without wasting your money. It’s about fostering a sense of community between people who like the same things. All of this and more is acknowledged by the Whites in the opening pages of MP3 Underground. They recognize that you want free music, but they also treat you like responsible adults; there is no need to paint all users with the same brush, as the RIAA is prone to do.

The rest of the book, predictably enough, doesn’t hold up as well. There is a quaint nostalgia at reading “how to use Napster” instructions, given today’s state-of-the-art Kazaa and WinMX networks. The other “how to” recipes all suffer from a similar impression: There are newer software products available out there to do it all without that many complications. Sure, it’s nice of them to have included a CD with all sorts of fun software on it, but we can do better now, thanks.

It gets worse in the last half of the book, which is a listing of the “Top 101 Internet Audio Sites”. As you can guess, most of the sites have now either been shut down, or have redesigned to become something other than what is described. Pure Internet-link rot, hideously visible even after two years. Heck, even the book’s “official” site,, doesn’t even exist anymore!

But in some ways, MP3 Underground is a time capsule of another time, a reminder of a technology’s difficult beginning. In a few years (and it might only be a few, at the speed things are going), well after the RIAA is disbanded, voluntary micropayments have been made easy and popular music has found a better business model, we’ll look upon MP3 Underground as the chronicle of the beginning of a truly modern era. The techno-hordes were knocking at the barricade, ready to help those stuck inside the walls. It’s a far-away vision of the future, and yet so close…

Big Trouble, Dave Barry

Berkley, 1999, 317 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18412-9

Americans can do really strange things, sometimes.

Yes, I’m referring to the activities depicted in Dave Barry’s Big Trouble. But I’m also referring to the controversy surrounding the theatrical release of the filmed adaptation of the novel. Barry Levinson had produced a low-key amusing version of Big Trouble, starring such comedians as Tim Allen, Denis Farina, Rene Russo and the incomparable Janeane Garofalo. Everything was ready for a September 21st, 2001 release. And then…

Well, you may suspect the rest of the story. Some nuts smashed a few planes in a few buildings and suddenly, America wasn’t prepared to deal with, say, a story which very briefly features two dim criminals unwittingly passing a nuclear bomb through airport customs. Here, let me brazenly reproduce a most inflammatory passage:

Puggy picked up the suitcase and the little party headed down the concourse toward the planes. Behind them, the stern woman turned her attention to the next passenger, a pension actuary who was already, without having to be asked, turning his computer on, knowing that this was the price a free society had to pay to combat terrorism. [P.249]

Ooh… I’m offended. Well, okay, I wasn’t, and it turns out to be such an insignificant part of the book that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting bothered about it. And yet, Touchstone Pictures yanked the film off its schedule and quietly released it six months later. You would have thought everyone would be mature enough to handle it by then. Alas, reviews were scathing, everyone worked up a sweat decrying that tiny thirty-second sequence and the film flopped. Here, let me reprint part of Steve Rhodes’ moronic one-star review:

Originally set to open the week after 9-11, it was pulled by Disney, who thought, correctly, that kids were probably not ready to laugh at terrorists with nuclear bombs who hijack airplanes. They should have pulled the movie from theatrical release entirely and gone direct to video without any fanfare or marketing. Burning the print might have been an even better idea.

As one of the few to have seen the film in theaters (and, apparently, one of the fewer to have enjoyed it), I couldn’t pass up the occasion to read Dave Barry’s original novel. The first surprise was to find out how reasonably faithful the film was to the novel. The second surprise was to find out that there wasn’t much more to the novel than the film let on.

That’s right. Normally -especially in comedies-, the filmed version hacks off a lot of the flavor of the original. Reading the book after usually expand and deepen the filmed story. Not so much here: Most of the sequences in the film are present in the novel, and the very few changes made to the ending are probably changes that Barry would have made if he had thought of it first. (Most unusually, these changes strengthen the book’s pre-existing theme of father/son approbation)

But don’t think that these surprises somehow translate into a disappointment: Big Trouble, whether on screen or on paper, is well worth your while. The novel is deliciously written in a compulsively readable fashion; don’t bother packing a bookmark, because you probably won’t need one. This warped portrait of Miami-area residents is sufficiently off the wall to keep you glued to the novel. After years of hilarious newspaper columns, Barry proves to be adept at longer comedy, though it should be said that this novel-length comedy is often pulled together from a string of related vignettes.

In any case, Big Trouble is Big Fun (but don’t quote me on this, given that I just stole that line off the opening blurb pages). Fans of madcap crime thrillers are sure to enjoy this, as is anyone looking for novel-length comedy. It’s up to the Barry standard.

Texas on the Rocks, Daniel da Cruz

Del Rey, 1986, 293 pages, C$4.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-31659-2

For me, reading a good old-fashioned hard-SF novel is a lot like getting together with a few friends. Sure, it may not be all that great by Party Central standards, but at least I know everyone there, we pretty much agree on whatever we’ll be doing, the conversation will be about things we care about and however good or bad it’ll ultimately be, at least it’ll be a good excuse to see each other.

The more formulaic the hard-SF, the stronger this impression becomes. Sure, average hard-SF doesn’t spend much time on character complexity, symbolic meaning or deep emotional scenes. On the other hand, well, they usually play around with cool gadgets. And sometime, that’s pretty much all you need.

Texas on the Rocks is one heck of a good average Hard-SF novel. One simply has to read the back cover to be convinced: “Lone Star Republic to the Rescue! / In 2008, when the Russians ruled most of the world and the United States was suffering from a catastrophic drought, most everybody went to bed a little hungry every night. / But out in the South Atlantic Ocean, a Texican named Ripley Forte was riding herd on the answer to America’s deadly water shortage, hauling toward Matagorda Bay the only natural resource that could make the Republic of Texas rich again. / And while he was at it, Forte would teach the Russians a thing or two about surprise attacks. / To save the civilized world, all he had to do was to live long enough…”

Add to that the honking big “First time in print!” and the front-cover blurb “America was dying of thirst, and the whole world was hungry—but Texas had the answer!” and, frankly, you have to be a chump not to want to read this book.

Yes, it’s about this once-popular scheme to drag icebergs from Polar Regions to water the thirsty masses. As Texas on the Rocks begins, America is in deep trouble: The Soviets reign over most of the planet while America is mired in various problems, including a seceded Texas. Meanwhile, can-do American hero Forte is battling governmental regulations, dastardly weather and intractable financiers to extract oil from the Atlantic Ocean. No, it’s not all made up just for this novel: This story follows the author’s previous The Ayes of Texas, in which the independent republic of Texas fought (and won) a battle against the Soviet Fleet.

So, naturally, corrupt politicians, scheming women, double-crossing soviet agents, patriotic American engineers and a host of other characters will fight it out for control of a single iceberg. A fun time is had by all, especially the reader.

More than fifteen years after publication, the geopolitical context of the novel is completely obsolete, but that doesn’t really detract from the vigor in which the tale is told. Hero Forte (no mere “protagonist”, he) is a brawny, short-tempered Texan with good engineering instincts but bad business skills (mostly because the ones with the money are overwhelmingly evil in this book). He breaks heads and hearts alike as he moves mountains of ice to save the Good Old US of A (but first saving Texas). Call me old-school, but this kind of two-fisted American punch-fighting is always a lot of fun to read when it’s confined to fiction, and Texas of the Rocks is so grandiosely over-the-top that it’s hard not to enjoy. When Forte confidently states to the evil schemstress that he’ll keep her close to him even as she’ll try to destroy his enterprise, well, it’s hard not to crack a smile. When he adds that he’ll then marry her, it’s hard not to laugh aloud. At the conclusion, when he has his way with a now-very-willing schemestress, only to leave her fully satisfied and then deny her the pleasure of his companionship, well, game over; I’m sold.

Looking at the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction and Fantasy, it turns out that Daniel da Cruz passed away in 1991, at the age of 70. I’m sure he would have enjoyed knowing that, even in 2002, readers would have such tremendous fun with one of his books. (FLASH ALERT! As I research this review, it turns out that a third volume exists: Texas Triumphant (Ooh! Aah!) Acquire! Acquire!)

[December 2003: I’m sad to report that The Ayes of Texas is less interesting and more ridiculous. There are interesting moments here and there, but the book ends up sinking in ridiculous caricature and cheap jingoism.]

First Landing, Robert Zubrin

Ace, 2001, 262 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00963-8

There have been, shall we say, quite a number of science-fiction novels about Mars over the past few years. After the grandiose sweep of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the intricate nuts-and-bolts detail of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage or the adventurous spirit of Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing, can the marketplace sustain yet another Mars novel?

Apparently so. Robert Zubrin’s First Landing slipped in bookstores in paperback format in late 2002, unnoticed by anyone save for the most dedicated hard-SF fans (which is to say, people like me). Though Zubrin is a first-time novelist, he’s a scientist with some serious credentials as a science writer. After all, he’s the author of The Case for Mars, one of the non-fiction books credited for much of the late-nineties resurgence of interest for the colonization of the Red Planet. (It also formed part of the inspiration behind the film MISSION TO MARS, but the least said about that is best, I suppose.)

It’s not a particular surprise if First Landing turns out to be so readable. By sticking to a clear and descriptive prose, Zubrin gives energy to his narrative and propels the plot forward. Here too (as in Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing and Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race, not to mention MISSION TO MARS again or even RED PLANET), a catastrophic mishap strands a team of astronauts on Mars while rescue efforts are hampered by oh-so-evil politicians on Earth.

The usual Hard-SF gallery of freaks and villains is fully present here: Rabid environmentalists, short-sighted politicians, Bible-thumping fundamentalists and trash-science “experts” manipulate popular opinion, sabotage the mission, create strife between crewmembers and generally behave in ways that seem almost too over-the-top for conventional fiction.

But don’t roll your eyes yet: Keep reading. Despite the unsubtle characters, the good-old ecofreak villains and the stock premise, something quite wonderful emerges from First Landing. This novel starts to be fun. Good fun. Compulsively readable fun. “I want to know what happens next” fun.

Over the pages, some of the early excesses of the novel even start to lose their edge. The astronauts (once so mismatched it was a wonder they’d been allowed on the same mission) start to gel and to bond together through strife and miscommunications with planet Earth. Everyone pulls together with an all-American can-do attitude. By the triumphant finale, even the short-sighted politicians finally “get” the message of Martian colonization. Cue the ticker-tape parade. Cheers!

That may sound trite and/or cynical, but it’s exactly what’s needed for First Landing to succeed. It’s that kind of novel. Furthermore, Zubrin avoids many of the flaws that had so dogged Landis and Benford’s efforts. His characters are flawed, sure, but they don’t carry around closets full of pesky secrets like the full cast in Mars Crossing. The novel is short enough that it sticks to the essentials, avoiding the dilution of suspense that ended up harming The Martian Race. All and all, I’d put Zubrin’s book above the last two, if only for sheer efficiency. It’s a lean, mean (but not too mean) hard-SF novel that doesn’t try to be anything else. Even its flaws only reinforce the feeling that this is a real Hard-SF story.

I sure hope Robert Zubrin is hard at work on a second novel; authors that get both the science and the fiction right are rare enough that they all should be encouraged. If he can make even an overused premise like Mars colonization interesting again, who know what else he’ll be able to do next?

K-Pax, Gene Brewer

St. Martin’s, 1995, 228 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-97702-6

Somewhere on this very planet Earth a writer is staring at an empty wall. He wants to write a novel that will comment on the human condition. Suddenly, a flash of genius strikes! He will write a novel about an alien visiting Earth! This will allow him to highlight the folly of our existence! The perfect stranger will be the perfect detached observer! Egawd!

This writer must be stopped. Sedated. Convinced to write something else. Or, at the very least, forced to watch all of Star Trek’s episodes that focused on Spock or Data’s quest to fit in with humans. Heck, make him watch a marathon of ALF, STARMAN and a bunch of cheap “What is it to be human” sci-fi films. He deserves it.

While you’re at it, you might as well slip him the 2001 train-wreck K-PAX, starring Jeff “STARMAN” Bridges and Kevin “Oscar-baiting” Spacey. It’s a dull, saccharine, vaguely offensive excuse for a science-fiction movie, but fortunately the book is a bit better.

Not by much, but it’s better.

A quick recap, for anyone lucky enough to have been unconscious when the publicity blitz for K-PAX was unleashed upon America: The story begins as a psychiatrist is asked to take a look at a very curious case: A man called Prot (the book always has “Prot” in lower-case, but we won’t have any of that particular nonsense in this review) who think he’s an alien. Prot knows things he’s not supposed to, and appear able to do things he shouldn’t be able to do. Hm. Our psychiatrist isn’t convinced, and digs deeper. A different story emerges, the sad tale of a man driven to madness by terrible events.

So, ta-dum-dum: is Prot truly an alien, or simply someone with an alternate personality? Well, what do you think? The film’s single biggest failing was that it tried having it both ways, with unsolvable problems whenever one privileged one solution over another. One of the many reasons why K-Pax is better than the filmed adaptation is how the book would rather commit to a science-fiction explanation with the slight possibility of a rational escape route. This makes the book far more honest and satisfying: there’s no bait-and-switch at the very end. It also helps that the whole “Prot’s true identity” subplot is kept as, indeed, a subplot and not a major portion of the third act. In K-PAX, Jeff Bridge’s character himself flies around the country to uncover the rational mystery, whereas his novel counterpart simply gives the job to someone else, who reports on her findings in the epilogue, well after Prot’s “departure”.

(There one more thing: This movie tie-in edition of the novel also features the first chapter from the sequel to K-Pax. That pretty much settles the whole business, doesn’t it?)

In short, K-Pax doesn’t think its audience is a bunch of total morons. Maybe partial morons though, especially whenever we get to hear details about K-Pax’s biology (implausible; unsustainable; ridiculous from an ecosystematician’s point of view). The carefully detailed first-person narrative is thankfully drenched with authenticity, at least from the operational psychiatry angle. Finally, the novel moves with a certain amount of efficiency, not wasting our time as much as the g’damned film did though lens flare effects and ridiculously overplayed “dramatic” scenes.

In short, you could say that the book is better than the movie simply because I didn’t dislike it as much. That would be harsh (I still found some entertainment reading the novel) but not completely untrue.

In the meantime, though, if you know of an author planning an alien-visits-Earth novel… it’s been done before, folks.

The Immortals, Tracy Hickman

ROC, 1996, 430 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45404-9

WARNING! The following review contains spoilers. I just don’t care, but you just might.

The following quote from the book’s after word pretty much says it all:

“I had wanted to write this book years ago, but could find no one who was interested in publishing it. I was told—why would I want to write something, so obviously serious as this? I wasn’t the right time, some said. It wasn’t commercial, said others. I told [friends] I wanted to write a near future book about AIDS concentration camps. They were vehement in their response: they thought it was a terrible idea.” [p.427]

Hickman then goes on to demonstrate that the friends in question were bigoted fundamentalists (“I don’t hear from them much lately” he adds wryly), but this doesn’t really distract from the three most important words of this excerpt: “a terrible idea”

On one hand, I can admire when an author goes on a crusade. But only if it’s done with an appropriate degree of wit and sophistication. It may mean very little or very much, but whenever one embarks on an AIDS diatribe (or any kind of social crusade), one must do so very carefully, or risk trivializing the message.

Sadly enough, that’s the case with Hickman’s The Immortals.

In the near-future, an AIDS-fighting cure becomes even more virulent, evolving into a form called V-CIDS. It seems to be airborne-carried and as deadly as the disease it was designed to cure. Victims are identified and sent in concentration camps in the Utah desert. In comes a man, looking for his estranged son.

The particular camp he walks into is led by a fundamentalist dictator, who segregated the camp in “straight” and “gay” sectors. But the casual violence, overburdened health facilities, complete human misery and constant hate are trifles compared to what the protagonist eventually discovers: The camp is only one of many, and they’re all designed for one thing: Complete destruction every few months. At a given time, bombers lob a few FAE canisters above the camp, which ignite and burn everything down to ashes in a matter of minutes. A few days later, the camp is rebuilt and the cycle begins anew—with a brand new shipment of V-CIDS victims.

I’ll admit it; this is the only part of the book that got a good reaction out of me. The sheer orchestrated evil of such a construct is enough to make anyone read carefully and remember the details. Hickman has imagined an all-too-plausible update to the Nazi’s cremation camps—with an even greater degree of efficiency.

Too bad that such a terrific concept is encased in interminable grimness. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but a far more effective method of presenting such a concept would be in a short story. Big revelation. Cue sound of bombers in the distance. End of story.

But noooo. Our protagonist finds his son, realizes his impending doom, manages to overthrow the evil fundie bastard and gets fried to a crisp. (There is an optimistic kicker which I’ll keep for anyone still undeterred enough to read the book, but it doesn’t change the fact that most are dead-dead-dead by the end of the novel.)

But beyond the downer and overall sense of futility, there’s the oh-so-slight detail that The Immortals is just not a very pleasant book to read. The characters are indistinct, featureless and unlikeable. The writing is muddled, dull and unfocused. Thematically, Hickman coasts too much on a SCHINDLER’S LIST atmosphere, and not enough on any real effort to make us care. Rather that sticking to the story, Hickman goes everywhere and anywhere, never giving his narrative any focused energy. Most of the book is spent waiting for things to happen, and even whatever happens prove to be pretty much useless.

In the end, it’s not quite “a terrible idea”, but certainly an ill-executed one. Such a somber, serious subject can become tedious if handled with anything less than a perfect touch, and The Immortals quickly cloys itself in a featureless sermon that transcends whatever good intentions it had. You don’t have to be a bigot not to like The Immortal: you just have to be disappointed.

Colony Fleet, Susan R. Matthews

Avon EOS, 2000, 296 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-80316-X

According to Clute and Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, the first genre treatment of the generation-spaceship idea was published in 1940, as Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years”. Explain Nicholls, “the theme of social change and degeneration inaugurated by Wilcox was to become the dominant motif of such stories.” [P.480]

Let’s just say that in light of this, Susan R. Matthews’ Colony Fleet breaks no new conceptual ground even sixty years later. In this novel, unrelated to her infamous “Andrej Koscuisko, pro torturer” sequence, we predictably find a Colony Fleet nearing its destination, yet hampered by a rigid social system divided between engineers, mechanics and administrators. (Original, isn’t it? It’s like… another typical SF over-simplification! And they say the genre has no memory of its history…) As the book opens, our heroine -Hillbrane Harkover- fails her rite of passage / oral thesis defense. Double-crossed by her would-be lover she is found unworthy of “Jneer” status and relegated to the lower “Mechs” class. Hillbrane’s just too good for that, however, and before long she finds herself sent away on the first colonizing mission… along with both her old boyfriend and her new beau.

Oh boy! A wacky soap opera ensues! Mechs versu Jneers versus Admins in a Bollywood-worthy musical romance that will leave you smiling and dancing! All resolved though a dash of nanomancy and the instant cloning of our heroine! Songs and dances carry the plot away!

Err, sorry: I got carried away in a far more enjoyable alternate plot. What really happens in Colony Fleet is rather more restrained and certainly grimmer; the old boyfriend’s nothing but dumb trouble for himself and for everyone else involved. If nothing is done, it’s the colony itself which will die.

There’s not denying that Colony Fleet takes a long time to get going. The seemingly trivial point that casts our heroine out of Jneer ranks may seem exasperating. Her gradual adaptation to a “lower” class (even as she plots the revolution that will bring everything back in harmony) is just as bad; we’re seen this before.

And yet, just as it looks as if the book couldn’t possibly get any blander, Colony Fleet steps off the fleet and onto the planet. Suddenly, everything comes into focus: there are real conflicts and real issues at stakes. The incompetent boyfriend may have been a frustrating moron back home, but on this planet he’s a real threat to everyone involved. (Interestingly enough, he truly becomes a loathsome character this way, far more than this flippant summary might indicate) It’s at the colony that Hillbrane’s struggle becomes far more important than every before.

And so Colony Fleet manages to distinguish itself from countless other generation ship stories. Not by being strikingly original in itself, but by delivering a real story, with engaging characters and high-enough stakes. The inevitable conclusion isn’t much of a surprise, but it works. The science is in the background, though there’s probably a thematic resonance to be found in the engineer’s power-grab over the other two classes. (“Warning! Empowered nerds”, maybe?)

After Matthew’s torture-series novel, this isn’t as provocative nor as memorable, but it should ultimately be more accessible. Alas, there isn’t much that’s new or interesting; you could even say there’s only one-half of an okay novel in Colony Fleet. Still, if you’re looking for middle-of-the pack straightforward SF entertainment, this may very well be the novel for you. Hoo-ha: that’s my ringing endorsement!

Solaris (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Solaris</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, November 2002) Full Disclosure: As an editorial board member of a French-Canadian magazine called “Solaris”, I was a bit concerned about this latest adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel. Given the ability of Hollywood movies to contaminate the memepool for years, it clearly wouldn’t do to see the name of our proud magazine associated with a big dumb sci-fi disaster. The first sign we had nothing to worry about came when the posters and the full trailers were revealed: You had to squint real hard to see any type of sci-fi action in them. As it happens, the movie itself isn’t very good, but it’s not very good in a curiously satisfying way. Director Steven Soderbergh is back in full-blown artsy mode, and the result is not audience-friendly: the ambiguous narrative jumps back and forth in time, presented in a sparse visual style. Long, slow but not without commanding a certain befuddled respect, Solaris feels a lot like an art-film gate-crasher at a sci-fi party. I suspect that most viewers’ reaction will be to dismiss the film as a dull and pretentious bore. That wouldn’t be wrong; this story could have been told with considerably more energy and concision without losing its romantic edge. But it would be a mistake to completely dismiss the film: There are a few good ideas left in the script, despite the considerable simplification of the novel’s plotline. George Clooney turns in yet another good performance, and so does the statuesque Natascha McElhone. Even the atmosphere works, if you’re favorable to that type of mood. In the meantime, my magazine shall henceforth be associated to a dull film only brainiacs will understand. I can live with that!

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monsoon Wedding</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, November 2002) This is an Indian film starring Indian actors in an Indian setting, but don’t mistake this for a Bollywood film: Monsoon Wedding is closer to the type of American drama designed for Oscar recognition than to a full-blown musical. It’s realistic, dramatic, contemporary and very successful: This tale of a family on the verge of all sorts of thing may take place during a wedding, but it’s neither much of a comedy nor an Indian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Instead, we have a heart-wrenching study of child abuse, class differences, arranged marriages, celebrity affairs, parent-children friction, the westernization of traditional values and all sort of other not-so-fun stuff. The beauty of Monsoon Wedding is how well it works, from simple scenes (the return home of the hitherto-comic “wedding fixer” says a lot in only a few simple seconds) to difficult choices (family or friend: pick one). The mixture of English, Hindi and Punjabi is effective (with subtitles), illustrating today’s India in what feels to be a very naturalistic fashion. Fans of family dramas and foreign movies can rush to this one. Complex, ultimately uplifting and generally quite enjoyable, it’s good enough to impress even those who don’t usually go for these films.

Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, November 2002) I’m probably not alone in saying that the Harry Potter series is essentially critic-proof as far as I’m concerned. The way they’re handled, I will simply pay up and enjoy with nary a complaint. Fortunately, it just so happens that this film, like the previous one, is quite good. A happy mix of magic and good storytelling, this second instalment builds on the first one and deepens the universe in which Harry lives, though understandably not as much as the book does. While there are significant differences between the book and the movie (enough to make some go “huh?” at some of the film’s least coherent moments), those aren’t critical or thematically different from the source material. The acting is top-notch (with a particularly amusing Kenneth Branagh), and all three lead youngsters ably demonstrate their ability to hold a picture together: Daniel Radcliffe is more assured this time around (a characteristic he shares with his character) and Emma Watson’s Hermione is still my favorite character (despite a shortened screen presence). The impression of unoriginal manipulation so prevalent in the first film is here attenuated. Good stuff for kids and adults, genre fans and mundanes. Why is it that we’ll have to wait two whole years before the next one?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling

Scholastic, 1999, 341 pages, US$6.99 tpb, ISBN 0-439-06487-2

Second year at Hogwarts, and a second year of assorted trouble for boy wizard Harry Potter, who probably doesn’t need any introduction. Now that we’ve been introduced to the students, teachers and support staff at Hogwarts, this story feels free to dig deeper in the whole universe created by J.K. Rowling for her series. Fortunately so, for this is what makes the Chamber of Secrets so enjoyable this time around.

It’s not as if this volume is so dissimilar, plot-wise, from the first novel. Once again, Harry must confront a mystery, endure random sniping from unfriendly peers and rely on his friends. Mix in a few classes, quiddich matches, magical tricks, sinister reminders of Voldemort’s power and you’ve got a well-rounded adventure that runs the danger of reading a lot like the first one.

But everyone on all three sides of the pages is growing up. J.K. Rowling is more comfortable writing about her universe, Harry and friends are one year older, and so are the readers. Unlike many kids’ series, the Harry Potter Series seems written “in real time”, allowing for kids to grow up as the novels are released.

While the results of this evolution are still (mostly) forthcoming as The Chamber of Secrets is read, attentive readers can already see the germs of future conflicts in this volume. Rowling takes the opportunity offered by a visit through the seedier side of Diagon Alley to make us glimpse a magical universe that’s far deeper than anyone had hitherto suspected. Magic even has a civil service, which depends on good-natured public servants much like in ours. Is class warfare coming up? Well, it’s a British book: what do you think?

More directly, Rowling touches upon the touchy implications of “magically-gifted” persons in the “real” world and the inevitable muggle-wizard relationships. Discrimination appears at Hogwarts, drawing a none-too-clear divide between the pure-blood aristocracy and the more “populist” wizard population. Yes, this series is definitely growing up.

A side effect of this added depth is an added interest for readers already used to the fantasy genre. Whereas many (including your truly) were prompt in quibbling that the first volume contained nothing especially new, this second volume helps in establishing the series for what it is, a fully-imagined universe that can support itself without references to other previous mythologies. For all the above complaints about the similarity of the intrigues, Chamber of Secrets curiously feels more original than the first volume. Go figure.

It helps, obviously, that Rowling’s addictive writing style stays clear and compelling. Reading Harry Potter has a charm of its own, and so don’t be surprised to plan your life around the time you’ll be putting aside to read this book. It’s that good, and even makes the book critic-proof to some degree; when you’re having this much comfortable fun reading about Harry and friends, why complain?

The success of Harry Potter speaks for itself, and I’m not adding much to the discussion by pointing out that these books are, in fact, a heck of a lot of fun. Though I still intend to read the books as the movies come out, I’m having a harder and harder time justifying that decision; you mean there are at least two more books to read, available right now? Gee, I don’t know…

Die Another Day (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Die Another Day</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, November 2002) Forty years after Doctor No, James Bond is back with his twentieth movie, and this one is kind of a half-hearted renewal. In the first hour, we actually see something new: James Bond failing and being captured. Shocking! you say as the suave British spy does things never seen before. He is tortured (with a Madonna song, appropriately enough), exchanged for another prisoner and has to fight his way back in the service. Tons of winks to previous Bond adventures are there for the sharp-eyed viewer, including a further nod to “the original James Bond” for those hardcore Bond fans. The only sour notes come from Halle Berry, whose Jinx has to be one of the worst Bond Girl ever: her line delivery is flat and perfunctory, with the added disadvantage of a crass attitude that make Bond look downright humble. Yikes! The second half of the film isn’t as appealing, given that it simply delivers Yet Another Bond Adventure with the usual trappings, boring action sequences and overlong finale. Jinx is scarcely worth rescuing, the villains are flat, the directing/editing gets more and more incoherent as the film goes along and some truly hideous CGI shots (Bond surfing amongst the icebergs) contaminate the otherwise good visuals. I did like parts of the end sequence, but the rest is just dull, dull, dull… Still, it’s hard not to like Rosamund Pike and the sword-fighting sequence. Add those to the good first hour, and we’ve got a better-than average Bond. Which is all you need, really.

Bollywood/Hollywood (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bollywood/Hollywood</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, November 2002) For a while, this film nearly doesn’t work. Hampered by its low budget, lousy audio, choppy editing, lame comic timing and overall lack of Ooomph, this Canadian Bollywood take-off sputters. Fortunately the luscious Lisa Ray (oooh!) appears on-screen in a tight angora sweatshirt (double oooh!) and this unforgettable sight is soon followed by a fantastic musical number starring Bollywood celebrity Akshaye Khanna. Then we’re ready to follow the film along, wherever it leads. Even if it’s in familiar Pretty Woman territory, despite the self-awareness of director Deepa Mehta’s script. As is the norm with Indian films, the story definitely takes a back seat to the musical numbers (of which there are too few) and the megawatt charm of the leads. The nearly-local Toronto backdrop adds to the enjoyment. Other highlights include a fun group musical number atop an apartment building, a credit sequence starring the film’s crew and amusing subtitles that tell you exactly what the scenes are about. It all amounts to, what else, a fine time at the movies. I could quibble with a lot of other things, but this is the kind of film where I’d feel guilty doing so. Viewers with a deeper familiarity with Bollywood will undoubtedly get more out of this film than I did. I just wish a bigger budget could have accommodated a few more dancers, a few more numbers and a better sound quality.

8 Mile (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">8 Mile</strong> (2002)

(In theaters, November 2002) The biggest surprise of this film is not how conventional it actually is, but how much it doesn’t suck, especially as a pop music star vehicle. I may or may not like Marshall Bruce Mathers III / Slim Shady / Eminem (a rapper who sells because he annoys the parents of his target audience… gee, that’s an original tactic for anyone who doesn’t remember Elvis, KISS, Public Enemy, Ice-T, Marilyn Manson and dozen of others) but he seems willing to take chances in this project, and the film works because of this willingness. It’s not as if he’s stretching; this tale-from-the-hood protagonist is everyone’s archetypical underdog, and the structure of 8 Mile is immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen a sports film or two. (Still, the silliness of the intrigue is obvious whenever one tries to summarize the film: “So this guy’s having trouble with his mom, his girlfriend, his work, his friends, his car… but then he says poetry to another guy on a stage and like -bang- he wins everything, man!”) But when it works, it works, and after seeing 90 minutes of Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith getting humiliated, beaten up, trodden upon and cheated on, it’s curiously satisfying to see him get the upper hand by acknowledging the reality of his situation. Mathers may not be much of an actor, but he does have a quality that makes him compelling for the film’s duration. Director Curtis Hanson’s done a good job with material that might have bombed in any other hands. As is stands, 8 Mile might not be anything spectacular, but it’s more than good enough for what it tries to be.

The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 2002, 658 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10920-0

The rarest novels are those that ultimately make you doubt that they were, in fact, written by a single human. The Years of Rice and Salt is a bit like that; a story so big, so ambitious and so convincing it’s hard to imagine one single person coming up with all of this stuff. It’s not a terribly entertaining novel, but it’s a very impressive one.

It starts with a a very big bang: In the fourteenth century of the Christian Calendar, an Arab expedition in Europe finds the continent empty of human life. The Black Plague has passed, and instead of killing one in three, it has felled more than 99% of the population. In one stoke, Christianity has become a historical curiosity, leaving the planet to other civilizations.

It’s an ambitious conceit, and Robinson finds a way to tell us what happens for the next centuries without necessarily abandoning his protagonists. Through reincarnation, our two main characters, K. (Kyu, Katima, Kheim, Khalid, etc.) and B. (Bold, Bistami, Butterfly, Bahram, etc.) witness the gradual evolution of this new world, so totally unlike ours. Though they seldom remember their previous incarnations, K and B keep the same personalities: K is aggressive, adventurous and driven whereas B is cautious, quiet and fatalistic. Other minor characters (from A. to Z, one could say) also pop up here and there again and again; a character guide might be necessary to keep up with all their incarnations.

But through the story of K and B, Robinson also tells the story of civilization, each advance propelled by Ks, but shored up and integrated by Bs. The alternate universe in The Years of Rice and Salt isn’t necessarily better or worse than ours, being peopled with humans just as ours is. But the sweep of this imagined history is awe-inspiring. From alternate technological developments to a decades-long World War to a very different “North America”, Robinson delivers such a staggering achievement that readers might blink once or twice before the magnitude of the effort.

The recognition of such ambition does a lot to compensate for some of the weaker parts of the book. Not every section is equally compelling, and so it is that such sections as “The Alchemist” (a beautifully-written segment about the alternate birth of modern science thanks to a charlatan turned scientist) and “Nsara” (Feminism triumphant) are far more interesting than the rest of the book. Robinson really gets cooking whenever he can marry sweeping historical currents to personal struggles. Alas, whole sections of the book seem perfunctory at best. We’ll read them in order to get to the next part.

There is a similarity between this novel and Robinson’s own Mars Trilogy, mostly in terms of political argumentation (which is not as vigorous here, mind you) and historical sweep. In terms of writing, however, The Years of Rice and Salt is uneven, sometimes deliberately so: Parts of the books are written in different styles, with occasional digressions by the narrator, side notes, poetry excerpts and other superficial differences.

Students and scholars will probably analyze this novel to death over the next few years; sympathies and best wishes on those working on their essays! Certainly, this novel contains enough material to keep everyone busy: the mix of religious, political, scientific and historical material is provocative. Even Robinson’s closing argument on the ever-progressing nature of the human race just happened to mesh with this reviewer’s musings. At a time (in this particular universe) where Islam and Christianity are looking for ways to understand each other, this can only help.

Stuffed with interesting ideas and one of the most ambitious premises in a while, The Years of Rice and Salt might not be as immediately compelling as Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but it certainly contains enough material to reward patient readers. Subsequent reads might even help unlock some of the book’s deeper themes. It’s such a big book that it’s hard to believe that one author could write it at all. Even if that writer happens to be Kim Stanley Robinson.