The Moon Goddess and the Son, Donald Kingsbury

Baen, 1986, 471 pages, C$5.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-65381-4

The Cold War has been over for more than a decade, but the books of that era will continue to dog us for a while yet. When readers and critic discuss Donald Kingsbury, they usually talk about Courtship Rite, or even Psychohistorical Crisis, but most tend to forget that the capable Canadian SF author has written a novel in-between, The Moon Goddess and the Son. With good reason, mind you: While I can still imagine the previous two titles being read, discussed and enjoyed decades from now, it’s going to take some effort to even try pretending that his second novel was anything more than an overlong mess.

No, I’m not going to try to pretend deep love and affection for the novel, despite all the personal respect I’ve got for the author and my usual bias for all things Canadians (or, in Kingsbury’s case, from the Montreal area) I’m feeling cranky, and that’s because dull books that take forever to establish a novella’s worth of story always make me cranky.

Heralding from the Cold War’s last dying moments (hey, 1986 is already, what, more than fifteen years old), The Moon Goddess and the Son is a hodge-podge of Soviet philosophy, space boosterism, March-September romance (ew), clashing generations and attempts at a political thriller. It’s long, it’s rambling and if there are quite a few things to like about it, it takes forever to get to them.

You may think, at first, that this is a story about a space-struck young girl who, when she’s abused by her father, escapes into fantasies about a famous astronaut. But don’t, because that’ll come into play only late in the novel (in pretty much the fashion you apprehend). Then again, The Moon Goddess and the Son may be about the famous astronaut and his difficult family relationships. But that’s not it either, at least not at first. Then again, this may be about a role-playing game designer at the end of his rope and the sadistic treatment he’s got in mind for his abusive boss.

Now that may be a thread. Because the designer’s elaborate pain-and-punishment recreation of Russian history ends up being exactly what his boss is asking for in order to understand the Russian mind. Meanwhile, in another plot thread, our young star-struck teenager will sleep with the spaceman of her dreams as well as his son, helping out the family by doing so. Yes, it’s that kind of novel.

But it’ll take forever to get to those plot points. Most of the novel is a pointless collection of scenes that does little to advance the story. Character do stuff; we don’t care. Saudi Arabia undergoes a revolution; we care even less. The Russians threaten to take over the world; maybe that would be best for all involved.

Oh, it’s not as if it’s a total loss: The Russian national character is described with noblesse and respect, setting this novel apart from some of its contemporary ultra-paranoid fiction. Some of the technical details are interesting. It all amounts to a novella’s worth of story.

But it will take special skills today to slog through this brick. Cold War-era politics are about as useful as Tzarist policies these days, and a lot of the cheering for space exploration seems identical from what we’re hearing these days. Coupled to the lack of sustained dramatic hard, it makes it hard to imagine that anyone but Kingsbury completists (and I’ll raise my hand at this moment) being willing to undergo this particular mild punishment.

Maybe there’s a historical worth to this book, if only for a feel of 1986-era thinking. But then again you could just grab Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and “get” the cold war. As far as Kingsbury is concerned, grab Courtship Rite, read it, treasure it, cherish it and skip directly to Psychohistorical Crisis. Anything else would just be a waste of time.

Ben-Hur (1959)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ben-Hur</strong> (1959)

(On DVD, May 2003) I know, I know; this film won a bunch of Oscars, enthralled generations and made a god out of Charlton Heston. But did it have to be so bloody long? Three hours and a half of monotonous, stilted, unrealistic discourse peppered with occasional moments of interest. Wake me up once it’s over. To be fair, two sequences still work really well; the galley sequence and the chariot race still stand out as particularly fine pieces of cinema, mostly because they move at such a good clip. The rest of the film is generally dull and overdone. The lack of realistic camera movement , lighting and staging may have been state-of-the-art back then, but even middling modern sandal epics such as Gladiator can jade today’s audience. There is nothing in this film that a good edit and a few camera moves couldn’t fix, but as it stands now, you’d better settle down comfortably, rest your hand on the bible and pray the phone doesn’t ring in order to go through Ben-Hur again. Goodness know now I’ve done it once, I won’t have to do so again. The DVD contains a rather more interesting making-of, which spends almost half of its time discussing previous incarnation of the “Ben-Hur” story before tackling the impressive making-of of this current version. Hey, maybe it’s time to do a remake…?

The Art Of War (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Art Of War</strong> (2000)

(On DVD, May 2003) Well, well, well, isn’t that interesting: An American action thriller financed by a Canadian production company, directed by a French-Canadian, in which an African-American agent, along with a Chinese translator, must save the United Nations from the imperialistic plans of two white Caucasian Americans. Imagine that. The only anomaly is Donald Sutherland in a good-guy role –but then again he’s also a Canadian actor. Premise apart, the film itself is interesting but routine, a competent thriller with some visual flourishes and a few geopolitical twists. Wesley Snipes is rather good as the protagonist, and so it Marie Matiko as the bespectacled heroine all sinophiles will enjoy. Two particularly interesting sequences include a car chase with a nasty finish and a hallway sequence whose “visible bullets” effects seem directly inspired by The Matrix. (It’s a good scene, but its visual style isn’t found anywhere else in the film.) Moves at a decent pace and seems to think on a more global level than usual for an action thriller. Not a bad choice at all.

Agent Cody Banks (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Agent Cody Banks</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, May 2003) This isn’t the first teen James Bond parody, but it’s a good one… that is, until it forgets to be a parody and simply apes the convention of the Bond formula. Frankie Munez is quite good as a truly sympathetic teen character whobecomes an “agent in training” for the CIA without his parents’ knowledge. The film depends on him and his charm does more for the film than any of the special effects. His struggles to combine teenage life with his covert mission aren’t particularly imaginative, but they’re a lot of fun. (The sequence where the elite CIA operatives help out for the housework is a highlight.) At least the particulars of the Bond formula are followed: Girls, gadgets and even a touch of gambling. Angie Harmon is almost too hot to be in a kid’s movie, but at least it’s something for the older teens to look at while the plot slows down. The film as a while is energetic. Stupid, too, but not much more so than, say, the latest Bond ripoffs for so-called “adults” (hellooo, XXX!) Alas, the charming quality of the first hour wears thin as the third act becomes a thrills-free carbon copy of the typical Bond ending, complete with an exploding fortress and the grotesque death of the villain. The overall effect is a disappointment, especially given the overall high level of quality of the Spy Kids series. Oh well. We’ll be there for the sequel.

The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson

Dell, 1979 (1988 omnibus), 545 pages, C$13.95 tpb, ISBN 0-440-50070-2

Robert Anton Wilson takes great care, early in The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, to warn us that “contrarily to appearances, [it] is not a mere ‘routine’ or ‘shaggy shoggoth story’” [P.10] I beg to half-differ. While this trilogy isn’t routine, it certainly feels like a shaggy shoggoth story. Pleasant to read but frustrating in terms of conventional plotting, Schrödinger’s Cat can be lot of fun as long as you don’t expect anything resembling an ultimate answer.

Nor any definitive plot, character, dramatic arc or conclusion, for that matter. The central conceit of the trilogy is that it studies the adventures of a few dozen characters in parallel universes. Some of them are more-or-less identical from one universe to another; others are rather different. The American political leadership of any given universe ends up having a substantial impact on the overall feel of each universe —though even Wilson couldn’t imagine the Reagan presidency.

The genius of the trilogy is how the events in one universe inform our understanding of another. Characters are introduced in one timeline, explored in another and left as supporting players in yet another universe. The explanation to some events must be found elsewhere in the book as given situations are explored from other perspectives.

It’s hard to say anything conclusive about the whole work (as Wilson seemingly takes delight in confusing the heck out of anyone even trying to make sense of the overall flow), but it looks as if every book of the trilogy covers an alternate universe, at the exception of the first volume which gives us a second timeline for free after the catastrophic end of the first one.

Normally, I wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about such artistic attempts; I like my fiction straight and linear, and have no patience with books where the author tries to pass off indecisiveness as subtlety. But what reconciled me with this trilogy (aside from the emphasis on science and technology as Good Things) is how even if I wasn’t bothered to follow along with what may or not be a plot, there were enough amusing vignettes to keep me occupied. The narrative is filled with zingers, from the tyrannical “Unistat” empire to a literary critic talking about “Norman Mailer-than-thou”. The character sketches are sympathetic and effective. (Heck, even the author is a character.) The various pranks, events, anecdotes that make up the bulk of the trilogy’s vignettes are rather amusing when taken approached one at a time.

Madness awaits anyone trying to make sense of it all, though. The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy isn’t a movie, and doesn’t follow a conventional A-to-B narrative. It may be best compared to an intricate surrealistic painting, where elements are disposed on a surface that suggests proximity but doesn’t necessarily represent affinity between the parts. Think hologram. Think author on acid. Think “read a random page, rip it out, repeat”. Think chapters in a blender.

Yes, there’s no doubt that this is artsy-trippy stuff. I could understand anyone being reluctant to take it on. If you do, one piece of advice; read as much of it at once. The accumulation of background details is slight but noticeable, and you’ll get much more out of the trilogy if you do read a solid chunk of it in near succession. Some jokes play off each other, and the vast cast of characters may be obscure from time to time. (It also helps to have strong and fond memories of the Illuminatus! trilogy, given that elements of it, such as The Beast and Hagbard Celine, make a return appearance) As long as you don’t try to make too much sense out of it, it’s easy reading. But there are no big answers, no big finale, no puppet-master pulling the strings from the metaverse. It ends in mid-story. It probably warrants a re-read every couple of years.

In short, this isn’t an ordinary book. It’s both fun and frustrating, easy to read and impossible to understand. Maybe I even completely misinterpreted everything. Yet I don’t care all that much. As long as I’ve been entertained, who am I to complain?