No Way Back, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2003, 374 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1225-X

While I have generally enjoyed local writer Rick Mofina’s first three novels (If Angels Fall, Cold Fear and Blood of Others), I haven’t been shy to criticize protagonist Tom Reed’s complicated work/life balance as an overused plot device. It quickly gets worse in No Way Back: Barely forty pages in, Reed’s wife is kidnapped by Reed-hating criminals who just happened to recognize her during a bank heist.

At least this happens upfront. The rest of the novel is a lengthy chase in which Reed goes well beyond his job as a reporter to get his wife back. Series co-protagonist Walt Sydowski also returns, though there isn’t as much for him to do this time around. This is Reed’s show, and he gets one of the series’ best moment in Chapter 40, as he confronts (or is rather confronted by) a big-time drug dealer who may have information about the identity of his wife’s kidnapper.

Generally speaking, No Way Back is Mofina’s best book yet, mostly because he manages to milk an impressive amount of plot out of a very simple setup. The tension steadily ratchets upward, even as the body count accumulates and several false herrings are thrown to the reader. Mofina’s constant focus on journalism as an adjunct to police work is once again in full display. Here, “good” newspaper reporter Tom Reed is compared and contrasted to a “bad” tabloid show journalist, who stops at nothing to get exclusive footage she can sell at a profit. (Her porn-star-like name is no accident; as is wont with that type of one-note antagonist, her previous activities include nothing less than Thai pornography. Naughty, girl, naughty!)

[April-May 2008: From the “reality inspired by fiction” department, it turns out (looking at my web referer logs) that there is now a small-time blonde porn model named like the tabloid show antagonist of the novel. Since I like to keep a clean site, I have scrubbed the name of said antagonist for this review. Invert “enyaL aiT” and Google it up, if you’re curious.]

I was rather less impressed at the peculiar nature of memory so common in serial mystery fiction. As usual, Tom Reed can’t seem to remember that bad stuff always happen to him or his family. He can’t seem to be able to comfort his son by saying “look, champ, three books ago you were kidnapped by a crazy criminal and I still saved you in the nick of time, right?” In doing so and ignoring entire portions of his previous volumes, Mofina tries to have it both ways: All the attachement of recurring characters without any of the complications associated with such re-use. I understand the commercial necessity of developing series to pre-sell a struggling author’s next volume, but I would rather see a “same universe” sequence over a “same protagonist” series where events have to be conveniently forgotten like that. Cold Fear took a step in the right direction by re-using Reed and Sydowski in extended cameos. One would hope that future books will be similar in construction.

Because, oh yes, there will be other books, I’m sure of it. Other novels that I’ll end up reading. There is a compelling quality to Mofina’s stories that is good enough even as it is, and if No Way Back is any indication, he’s steadily improving the quality and sustainability of his suspense. The next volume is announced for 2004: Let’s see what’s next.

Humans (Neanderthal Parallax #2), Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2003, 384 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87691-2

Ding! In this second round of the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, the plot thickens slightly, the exposition continues unabated, hard-core interspecies naughtiness is graphially described and a distasteful subplot is resolved in a manner that will strike some as silly and others as ridiculous. Sawyer’s usual preoccupations with theology and matrimony are also finally allowed to simmer to the surface. As if that wasn’t enough, more explicit Canadian flag-waving also ensues. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

When we last left Hominids, the (mostly) self-contained first volume in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, a quantum bridge had been opened between two civilizations in alternate universe: Our human world and another one evolved from what we know as Neanderthals.

Things aren’t simple as this second volume gets underway. Neanderthal physicist Ponter Boddit may start the novel in his alternate reality, but it doesn’t take a long time until he back in ours again as an assistant-ambassador. Meanwhile, Marie Vaughan may have been snapped up by an American think-tank, but she too doesn’t end up spending a lot of time away from Ponter. Later on, she even makes the trip over to the other universe and gets to see the differences between the two societies for herself. There is an assassination attempt (I’m not telling where or how), a Significant Scene between Ponter and Mary and one or two ominous developments regarding events in the upcoming third volume, but otherwise that’s the extent of Humans‘ plotting.

What abounds, however, is plenty of exposition and speculation thinly disguised as dialogue. Neanderthal society, in this trilogy, has never known agriculture, has managed to develop information-age technology while side-stepping industrialization and has unanimously agreed on not only ritualized mating, but also the omnipresence of personal life-recording devices. With such radical notions, it fall to Sawyer to make us understand how this may have happened, or at the very least sufficiently suspend our disbelief. As a lifelong hard-SF fan, I’m easy when it comes to disbelief suspension, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean my agreement with Sawyer’s thinly-developed thesis. While the first volume hand-waved away doubts about the sustainability of development without large cities, Humans half-heartedly attempt an explanation in a horribly condescending chapter (Twenty-Four: P.210-221) that mixes Native American smugness (!) with silly non-rhetoric (“Hello!” said Henry “Earth to Angela!”) that ends up proving not much if the exact opposite of Sawyer’s argument. Add that to the “unified society” fallacy (in which alien societies are monolithic blocks where no dissension is ever expressed and where such whoopers as massive birth regulation are enacted with nary a peep) and the whole trilogy suddenly seems based on very wobbly foundations. In short, I wasn’t convinced. And I found it Highly Significant that the prehistoric annihilation of humans in the Neanderthal universe is never seriously discussed.

I’d like to comment on the resolution-of-sorts of the “rapist” subplot, but I can’t trust myself to do it without being sarcastic. Your Mileage Might (Hopefully) Vary.

But onward. For being a nitpicker is just no fun when confronted with such an easily readable book. While some of the material may be exasperating, it’s a creditable effort to develop an interesting alternate society and imagine what could happen if a brand-new Earth was discovered right alongside ours. As usual, Sawyer’s prose is lean, clunky, and instantly readable. There are better, more satisfying novels out there, but few of them are as absorbing as Sawyer’s work; even as you’re protesting rather loudly against what’s written down, you can’t help but to turn the page to see what happens next.

Which will bring us, eventually, to the conclusion of the trilogy

The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton

Ballantine, 1975, 281 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-39092-X

(A fair warning to readers: This Michael Crichton novel will be reviewed according to the Crichton Critical Paradigm #1 (encyclopedia novel), which should not be confused with the Crichton Critical Paradigm #2 (theme park novel, itself a sub-genre of CPP#1). Crichton novel written and read using CCP#1 are thinly fictionalized strings of anecdotes gleaned throughout a careful study of a given subject. Rather than write an encyclopedia entry about the subject, Crichton then turns his research into a novel, every potentially interesting nugget of information becoming a chapter of the novel. Other Crichton novels written using CCP#1 include Congo, Eaters of the Dead, Sphere, Airframe and Timeline. CCP#2 stories include Jurassic Park and Prey, as well as -obviously- WESTWORLD.)

Prisons, says Michael Crichton in his introduction to The Great Train Robbery, do not offer the ideal representation of the common criminal mind. For obvious reasons, prisons only bring together the criminals stupid enough to be caught, which is to say the least-competent criminals there are. True Criminality, he argues in a still-contentious essay, is not a matter of economic classes, innate evil or lack of intelligence. The Great Train Robbery of 1855 was in many ways an emblematic event, a watershed mark in our understanding of crime. It showed Victorian England that criminals could be smart, organized and rather likeable.

The novel that follows is a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the Robbery, assembled from historical records and court documents. But The Great Train Robbery is less of a story than a trip through time to Victorian England, with its peculiar mores and methods, to the very sources of today’s western society in the hopes that we may, through them, learn something about ourselves.

Certainly, 1855 London was a very different place, as Crichton takes pains to remind us at every chapter. The industrial age may have been running at full bore, but social attitudes were still adjusting to the new elements. From his high perch of 1974, Crichton feels free to comment on the Victorians (with what is often a strong authorial voice), and not-so-secretly delights in showing how little matters have evolved since then.

It all makes for truly interesting reading. At the exception of Eaters of the Dead, this is easily Crichton’s most stylish novel, and also one of his most enjoyable ones. The tone is a screaming delight, halfway between a Victorian pastiche and a modern well-informed pundit. It’s easy to be sucked into the world of the novel and let the crime story take a back-place to the description of the era. Through the Robbery, Crichton tries to capture a time and a place. It’s enough to make one wonder which of today’s event would best describe our world. Any takers for the challenge?

While critics (this one included) may have a lot of fun taking apart Crichton’s work for flaws real or imagined, this novel is a useful reminder that the man, from time to time, is capable of turning out excellent work. Granted, The Great Train Robbery is only slightly older than your reviewer, but it’s a slick piece of fiction, a recommended read even after a quarter of a century with the added dimension that Crichton’s then-commentary is itself becoming a curiously historical artefact in its own right…

Raft, Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 1991, 251 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-586-21091-1

It’s common wisdom that every overnight success takes years to attain, but it’s still a surprise to find out that such a staple of contemporary hard-SF as Stephen Baxter “merely” published his first novel in 1991. Raft (an expansion of a previous short story) is, in retrospect, a pretty good harbinger of Baxter’s later work, from the strengths to the flaws to the full plot of entire subsequent novels.

As with many such hard-SF tales, Raft is first and foremost a description of a peculiar environment and the cool things you can do in it. In this case, the entire universe is different, with a gravitational constant multiplied by some ludicrous factor. (“one billion times stronger”, argues the back cover with the supplied italics, which means business in a non-American edition) As a result, stars have a diameter of two or three kilometres, nebulae are perfectly inhabitable and humans have a perceptible gravity field. (which would logically make them pretty dirty in no time, but let’s not go there)

Cool little playground, but not if you’re Rees, a child in a tiny human group that has been stranded there for centuries, living off the cannibalized parts of its own space ship, watching helplessly as the very fabric of this particular nebulae is doomed to extinction. Our protagonist has quite the usual hard-SF hero checklist in front of him: Be curious, escape his dead-end surroundings, get an unconventional education, make a significant discovery, be thrown around in various picaresque adventures, make new friends, draw up a bold plan and save most of his people. Whew. Plus, given that he’s a teenager, he’ll have to do all of that while subject to hormonal mood swings likely to make him brilliant one moment, and whiny a few minutes later.

As a protagonist, Rees is sufficiently interesting, which may not sound like heavy praise, but actually is when considering the usual crop of hard-SF heroes, most of whom struggle to keep a distinctive name, let alone a personality. At the very least he’s all right and is curious about the universe, in a bid to allow the reader some ready-made sympathy. The novel is decently readable, with the usual hard-SF exposition ceding an appropriate place to the astronomical curiosities inherent to the heavy-gravity universe. (I have a few doubts about some inconsistencies I though I spotted in Baxter’s scenes, but as I’m not a physicists I’ll just shut up. It just may be a visualization problem, as some of the stuff is hard to imagine for non-specialists.)

Readers with an interest in Baxter’s overall career will find Raft even more fascinating given that it neatly encapsulates, in barely 250 pages, most of the themes Baxter would later re-use in somewhat longer works. The weird environments (Ring), the depressingly violent human derivatives (Manifold: Origin), the spaceborne sea creatures (Manifold: Time) and, above all, the ludicrously improbable seat-of-the-pants space programs (oh… just about everything from Titan to Moonseed). Baxter’s continuing problems with human psychology are also on display, but here we’ll follow the tacit convention of hard-SF fans and not discuss the subject any further. You can always read it as a juvenile if you want.

No matter; as a “weird environment” hard-SF novel, Raft has few things to envy to such classics as The Integral Trees and Mission of Gravity. It’s readable, interesting, decently-paced and even awe-inspiring at times. Good fun for readers with an interest in those kind of things and a most promising start for one of today’s leading hard-SF authors.

The Runaway Jury, John Grisham

Island, 1996, 550 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22441-1

I remember reading John Grisham’s first four novel in rapid succession, then more or less abandoning him altogether. No specific reason: just a lack of I’ve-got-to-read-this oomph and a vague feeling that Grisham was repeating himself. (Best exemplified in the “Third Rock from the Sun” sitcom episode where the Solomon family tries reading books by “America’s number-one author” to fit in: “My John Grisham is about a young southern lawyer fighting the system” “So is mine!” “Mine too!”) Now the movie adaptation of The Runaway Jury comes along, giving me a splendid reason to check out Grisham’s work once again and see if I’ve missed anything.

Well, if this novel is any indication —I’ve got some catching up to do. Much as the film was a taut exercise in how to build a slick legal thriller, the book comes across as a fascinating equivalent. Less action and more details, certainly, but as much an example in its field than the film was in its own category. Even better: those familiar with the film adaptation will get to rediscover the novel as an (almost) entirely new work. While the premise remains the same, almost everything else changes from the timing of the plot twists to the very issue of the trial itself.

Written in 1996 -well before Big Tobacco started losing civil liability suits- the book is about how, even outside the courtroom, both sides of the argument will try to ensure that the jury will turn a favorable verdict. Trials are too important to be left to juries, claimed the movie, and the same rationale applies here: When the issue can be billions of dollars in potential profit, you can be certain that no cent will be spared in order to manipulate the jurors themselves.

The potential jurors are spied upon, photographed, psychoanalyzed at a distance, meticulously rated for potential bias. At the jury selection step, they’re cautiously questioned and picked by both sets of lawyers. The resulting twelve people will get to decide an explosive civil suit. But jury selection is merely the first step. Jury consultant Rankin Fitch likes to think of himself as the master of the game, the occult power manipulating the jury to his own purposes for his powerful clients. But he’s in for a shock when he receives proof that someone else, in the jury, can manipulate the twelve men and women on whom he depends. The verdict is his, says his mysterious interlocutor, as long as he pays a few million dollars. Otherwise, well, it’ll be a disastrous legal precedent against Big Tobacco…

At the very least, The Runaway Jury ranks high in terms of originality. While other novels have played around with the notion of manipulating jurors before, they’ve seldom done so with the scope and suspense of Grisham’s work. This novel is packed with fascinating details and vignettes about civil liability suits and the curious habits of jurys. The result is mesmerizing, gripping from beginning to end.

What the book does better than the film is to give a clear picture of the mental game required in order to manipulate the members of the jury to a state where one leader could influence the matter one way or the other. It also makes clearer the admiring relationship between Finch and his elusive temptress, and throws in an extra little bit of financial manipulation at the end. Characters aren’t as clearly good (or bad) as in the film, motivations are a bit more complex and the result is a little more realistic.

By far the best Grisham I’ve read so far, and indeed one of my favorite thriller of the year, The Runaway Jury is a unique procedural courtroom drama (to coin an unwieldy expression) with plenty of great details and no-less fascinating characters. Fans of the film won’t be disappointed, and neither will wayward Grisham readers.

Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2002, 404 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07322-5

Science fiction and hard-boiled pulp fiction have always shared a lot of similarities, from the steadfast admiration of dedicated fans to the usual unwarranted dismissal by guardians of literary merit. What began as a union of understanding between the two was further formalized when cyberpunk took off, as it combined the grittiness and style of noir fiction with the ideas and ethos of SF. Altered Carbon is a grown-up follow-up to the cyberpunk movement, a hard-edged future crime novel in which the action and the ideas take equal billing.

It starts with the death of its narrator and his resurrection on another planet. You see, in Morgan’s imagined 26th century, technology has perfected immortality: as long as a “cortical stack” at the back of your skull keeps on recording your memories, you can be revived afterward. Usually in someone else’s body (a process delicately termed “resleeving” ), but when it’s so bloody expensive to be resurrected, why complain? Naturally, the richer you are, the more options you get: custom-made bodies, automatic memory backups, etc.

So when our narrator finds himself hired by a very rich man to investigate the mysterious death of this very same rich man, he doesn’t bat an eye. The man simply wants to know why he died. Was it a suicide, as the police suggests, or was it a spectacularly stupid murder given his guaranteed resurrection? Let the intrigue begin…

In the best tradition of hard-boiled fiction, a lot of action ensues. Our protagonist can’t peek outside of his hotel room without smashing someone’s body parts, being threatened with Real Death, dealing with dangerously uncooperative witnesses or himself being kidnapped. Things aren’t any less exciting in his hotel room, where he can’t seem to avoid having sex with beautiful women. Tough life, being a tough guy…

Even jaded readers should note at this point that Altered Carbon is not a novel for sissies; the violence is described as carefully as the sex scenes, and there are scenes of rare gruesomeness strung through the entire story. The virtual torture scene alone (where someone can be tortured to death… over and over again) is wince-inducing to a degree seldom seen. Compared to that, the harsh language used throughout the novel seems almost charming. Overly squeamish readers beware.

But foregoing Altered Carbon on graphic content would be a disservice to anyone looking at the current state of the art in Science Fiction: The Fresh Ideas Quotient here is astonishingly high, what with the issues inherent in body-switching. There are a fair number of scenes in this novel where even jaded readers are likely to find something new and fresh.

You won’t be able to let the book slip from your hands: Stylishly written (in a hardboiled mode, of course) at a hundred miles per hour, crammed with revealing details (Hey, how ’bout those Martians?), great characters and a steady stream of ideas, Altered Carbon is the real stuff, the kind of story SF was invented for. Don’t settle for run-of-the-mill watered-down derivatives. Get the stuff straight from the source. Grab a copy of Altered Carbon as soon as possible.

(Sequel: Broken Angels)

The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly

St. Martin’s, 1994, 397 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-95500-6

Regular readers of these reviews already know that when it comes to crime thrillers, I’ve had it up to here with serial killers. The Silence of the Lambs was the worst thing that could have happened to the genre: suddenly, everyone and their childhood bullies were writing serial killer stories, using just the “serial killer! booga-booga!” line as a crutch for unconvincing characters, lousy plotting, tepid style and a complete lack of understanding of police procedures.

(You could say that my complaints have more to do with lousy fiction than serial killers per se, but that would distract from my argument and minimize my disgust at the umpteenth serial killer novel I read in which the would-be-last victim of the killer is someone near and dear to the detective. See Reich, Kathy: Déjà Dead.)

The Concrete Blonde is a serial killer novel. Fortunately, it’s nothing like anything I’ve read to date, and fortunately so. It proves that a really good author can still do something worthwhile with those same elements that seem so tired in amateur’s hands.

If you read crime fiction on a regular basic, you already know Michael Connelly. Loved by critics, acclaimed by fans, he’s at the top of the genre. I’ve been slowly reading his work, averaging one or two books per year, with the same care as a wine enthusiast will slowly stretch out his collection, secure in the knowledge that there’s more of the good stuff locked in his basement in case of a quick fix. Some authors are like that: Why hurry to completion when you know you’re going to read all of them sooner or later?

Connelly 1994’s novel was his third one, and it starts unconventionally; detective Harry Bosch thought he had solved the “Dollmaker” case –with a single bullet. Now, years later, even as the widow of the Dollmaker sues him for shooting her husband, another victim appears, and it’s got all of the hallmarks of the Dollmaker. Again. Did Bosch get the wrong man? Was the Dollmaker a team? Ta-dum-dum, the investigation begins again.

But nothing is simple, and so The Concrete Blonde offers the unique spectacle of a policeman enduring a civil lawsuit even as he’s investigating the very same case being argued in court. We are, quite fortunately, spared the entire first Dollmaker investigation: the novel begins in mid-story (where, indeed, most serial killer novels end), and the effect of this structural choice are dazzling, alternating between (and then intermingling) courtroom drama and police procedural. Woof!

Fortunately, structure isn’t all that Connelly has on his side: The Concrete Blonde, like the author’s other books, is deliciously written in a no-nonsense style whose elegance nearly disappears behind its accessibility. The pages turn, the chapters fly and pretty soon we’re caught up in a good mystery. Connelly takes delight in confusing the readers with top-notch red herrings; no resentment ensues. Procedure details are top-notch and so are the characters, even including the titular concrete blonde. I tend to use the word “crunchy” when describing substantial novels one can just bite through, and there’s no doubt about it: The Concrete Blonde is one crunchy book.

Yes, this novel is a rare treat, an intelligent and suspenseful thriller, exactly the model of what good crime fictions should be. It remixes familiar elements in a brand new format, and goes it all in an unobtrusive style. Even weeks after reading it, The Concrete Blonde remains strong in memory, which is a lot more that I can say about other crime thrillers, good or bad.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Matrix Revolutions</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, November 2003) Sometimes, it’s best to take one’s inner fanboy and temporarily lock it in a cage. Otherwise, said fanboy would rant on and on about how, even with its problems, The Matrix Revolutions is one of the year’s most enjoyable film just because it so happens to be one of the very few hard-core SF films of 2003. Well, stuff the fanboy and let slip the vitriol of betrayed expectations. By far the most infuriating thing about this third episode in the series is how it doesn’t even answer the dozens of questions raised by the second film. It lets all the balls drop, one by one, until the juggler is left saying “sucker!” But the film’s flaws certainly don’t stop there: The elegant focus of the first film was diminished in the second and finds itself crudely forgotten here: all is chaos and confusion, whether you’re talking about the dialogue, the themes, the visuals or the direction. In the process, all of what made the first volume so worthwhile has been ignored. The characters are emotionless parodies of themselves. The dialogues are painfully predictable. The special effects aren’t half as spectacular as Tharini Mudaliar in her all-too-brief appearance. Then the conclusion sinks into the woo-woo morass that has afflicted so much anime in the past; a pointless fight which only concludes when the screenwriter simply decides so, and in which the viewer has to perform all of the intellectual justifying work. Ay, yay-yay, what an ignominious end for a trilogy that had started so well. The Wachowski brothers pretty much blew up all accumulated credentials with this misguided effort, and effortlessly proved the law of diminishing returns: However much money and chaos you put on screen, sometimes it’s just not worth the effort. It’s fitting, in so many ways, that even the Rage Against The Machine-less soundtrack is the lesser of all three films.

(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Nope, still haven’t changed my mind about the film: It’s a lousy end to a trilogy that had started so well, but there’s still enough pure Science Fiction content and images to make me happy. This initial DVD edition, however, has a lot of good stuff in reserve: Plenty of special-effects supplements (you won’t believe some of the stuff they had to use for the final fight!), some useless background material (including a badly-designed collection of stills and “historical” information) and an intriguing look at a on-line game that will probably look quite silly in two or three years. Die-hard The Matrix fans ought to get this, if only for the sake of completing the series.

(Third viewing, On DVD, May 2005) I suppose that only the most ardent fans of the film will have the patience to watch both sets of commentary tracks on The Matrix Ultimate Edition trilogy. Those brave few who do, however, will get much out of “The Philosophers” commentary: Ken Wilbur and Cornell West each bring a perspective on the meaning of The Matrix trilogy that does much to add depth to the second and especially third segments. Don’t get me wrong: I still thing that this third volume is over-indulgent, long and falsely profound, but Wilbur’s idea about the trilogy being the story of the re-unification of disparate realms (body, mind and soul; blue green and gold; Zion, Matrix and Source) in a new trinity (a Neo/Trinity, one might say) brings a different light to it. Not bad, but still not recommended to anyone who’s not already a freakishly obsessive fan.

Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, November 2003) Yarr, matey! Step aboard this grandiose nautical adventure! Come alongside our twelve-year-old sailors as they learn to be men while battling certain death at sea! You say that you’ve already seen a nautical adventure this year in Pirates Of The Caribbean? Well hold your tongue, young lass! For Master And Commander is no barrel of laughter, and Russell Crowe can musket-whip Johnny Depp any day of the week! ‘Tis amusing, but not quite fitting that the park-ride movie would be the story-heavy champ of the two even as the literary adaptation would end up feeling like a series of adventures, but don’t let that drive you away, landlubber! There’s a lot to see here, from a corker of storm to a stop on the Galapagos Islands, along with enough sea combat to wet your whistle! No, I don’t know whence you’re from, but don’t worry; you’ll fit right in our indistinguishable cast. Of course, our ship is the co-star of the film! With today’s digital technology, we can simply board and pillage any previous film and present it all in glorious surround-sound! Granted, our good director Peter Weir can’t be bothered to cut a long sweeping take, but we still put up a pretty good fight in two quick cuts! Come in! Come in! We offer all of the advantages of safe cinematic time-travel without the drudgery of Timeline!

Genius, James Gleick

Vintage, 1992, 531 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-679-74704-4

There is a chapter, “In Search of Genius”, more than midway through James Gleick’s Genius, which dissects the nature of brilliance and asks where, in today’s world, are the dozens of world-shaking geniuses we could expect from a world packed with more than five billion humans. From a Western European pool of less than a billion souls, the past has produced Shakespeare, Newton, Mozart; where are today’s geniuses, and why aren’t they more distinctive? [P.313]

It’s a disingenuous question in many ways (today’s world is more egalitarian, more complicated, more specialized, more susceptible to trivia, etc. than the times in which the afore-mentioned geniuses lived) but it’s a question well worth pondering whenever we’re considering the life of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, a man who in many ways exemplified the type of genius everyone can recognize as such; he made significant contributions to modern physics, had a career that spanned from the Manhattan project to the Challenger investigation, including a significant rewriting of quantum theory. Showman to the Nth degree, Feynman cracked safes, played bongos, dated abundantly and tried to annoy whoever he could. And that’s just the back-cover version of his life.

Genius is a curious book, an attempt to cover his life that deliberately avoids some of the better-known stories that Feynman himself wrote down in his own memoirs. (Which is useful only those those who have read Feynman’s memoirs, obviously.) James Gleick covers the scientist’s life from birth to death, with plenty of asides on the state of scientific knowledge during the twentieth century. The amount of material crammed in the book is awe-inspiring, and Genius thankfully comes complete with a comprehensive index as well as two separate (and extensive) bibliographies.

It’s a fascinating read in no small part thanks to Feynman himself. Tragedy (his first marriage) and comedy (safe-cracking at Los Alamos), genius (how his drawers were packed with “substandard” research that would mean publication for other scientists) and conflict (his gentle feud with Schwinger over the dominant interpretation of quantum mechanics) all intervene at one time or another in his life, and the best that Gleick can do is to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

Let’s not kid around; you will need a physics degree to follow Gleick’s description of the spheres of science in which Feynman evolved. But that’s only a small part of his life: the rest of the book is unusually readable and accessible. Feynman makes a sympathetic hero, a genius that wasn’t without flaws (his romantic life after the death of his first wife, for instance, could be seen as an exercise in pure cynicism) but whose comprehension of the world did much to advance ours. The portrait of the various scientists with whom he interacted (Gell-Mann, Dyson, Oppenheimer, etc.) are just as interesting, but obviously we know who holds center-stage. The biography deftly balances science with life and gives a good portrait of a man as a scientist, not just the other way around. Inspiring reading, perhaps especially for physics students and other fledging scientists.

Ultimately, Genius is a fitting tribute to one of the twentieth century’s foremost scientist, perhaps the last time someone could fly around from one part of physics to another and make key contributions in passing. Until the next genius, of course, for the question remains: Where are the other Feynmans? Worse; if there are Feynmans in the world today, will we have to wait until their death to know about them?

[September 2004: Yes, Feynman’s own “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is indeed a recommended prerequisite for Genius. Ironically enough, it’s more accessible, more representative and a great deal funnier than Gleick’s work.]