Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2004, 221 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30759-6

By now, everyone connected to the SF field should be aware that Cory Doctorow is rushing on the scene like a demented man. His second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, will only add to his reputation. A jumped-up mix of fallible characters and five-minutes-from-now speculation, this is the kind of book you read in a single sitting and then browse over for choice quotes.

What if, on this ubi-connected globe, one feels more kinship to people living in another time zone? What if it’s just more practical to live online than offline, eschewing physical days for virtual ones set on the rhythms of your chosen “tribe”? In some fashion, the idea sort-of works: One can imagine Indian technological workers synced to their Californian managers (or vice-versa). Otakus can live “on Tokyo time” given broadband Internet access and plenty of Japanese friends. You can tie it with the “Global Village” concept without too much trouble. Where it fails the real-world test is when you assume that those “tribes” can start playing seriously dirty tricks on each other, or are anything more than arrangements of convenience. Then there are literal objections to the concept of “Eastern Standard Tribe”, as if everyone in that particular slice of time, from Abitibi to Bogota, was part of a homogeneous group. But that’s a lame objection, especially given that Doctorow adopts a satiric approach to the whole thing. Here, minor crime reporting to the London police will result in about half a day of inconveniences. Sony rentacops will tear-gas you without much of a due process. Legal advice can be obtained through an IRC channel. And so on. This isn’t real: Like many of his contemporaries, Doctorow reacts to the increasing strangeness of our reality by laughing at it.

Other objections are more serious: Eastern Standard Tribe is a very short novel, and leaving aside the cost/benefit ratio, the book suffers from a few dramatic shortcuts: Here, awfully convenient freak meetings drive the plot forward, with sometimes-annoying results. The ungraceful ending feels compressed in about half a dozen pages, with scarcely any place for resolutions. Is also feels like a more scattered novel than Doctorow’s debut Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Maybe it is time for him to start working on bigger things with tighter plots and stronger endings.

Still, this is far from being a disappointing novel: The structure of the book, as it alternates between a third-person flashback and a first-person “present” narration, is initially quite dazzling. (Unfortunately, it falters at the end, when the “present” is explained and the “past” starts being repetitive; we can figure out some plot points ourselves, thanks.) For techno-geeks such as myself, the type of nerd-core prose used by Doctorow feels natural, maybe even a natural extension of what we read on the net every day. There’s a strong identification to that particular brand of fiction… but some of the more specialized passages may very well be incomprehensible to the mundane masses.

Still, it’s hard to be mad at a novel that clocks in at nearly 200 pages per hour in a single sitting. The brisk style, amusing vignettes, take-no-prisoners approach to the future are all in good fun. While I’m not as floored by this novel as I was with Doctorow’s first, it’s still likely to end up as one of my top choices for 2004. Of course, it’s already making me look forward for his next novel.

The Depths of Time (The Chronicles of Solace #1), Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 426 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37811-2

Looking at Roger MacBride Allen’s bibliography, one gets an awful glimpse in the life of a professional science-fiction writer. It’s a bizarre mis-mash of media novel (including a Star Wars trilogy), sharecropped series (“Isaac Asimov’s”), an unfinished series (“Hunted Earth”), some small-press publications and a scattering of novels which may or may not be singletons. Then there is his latest “Chronicles of Solace” trilogy, of which The Depths of Time is the first volume.

While I have generally enjoyed a few of his earlier single works (The Modular Man and Farside Cannon, both solid SF books), this bibliography shows how difficult it is to be a working mid-list SF writer in today’s industry. Media tie-in and sharecropped series may not be glamorous, but they help to pay the bills. Unfortunately, they also plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of fans like me; Is he still capable of writing “honest” SF?

The Depths of Time answers that question reassuringly. Despite some annoyances caused by the book’s role as the first volume in a trilogy, it’s a solid SF novel that ought to satisfy anyone looking for straight-up genre fiction.

By far the biggest flaw of the book is how long it takes to set up all the elements of its world. It takes seventy-five pages to explain how the “Solace” universe is linked by a complex system of long-cryo starships and time-travel wormholes. Then we spend a few pages in the Grand Library around Neptune. And then nearly twenty-five pages to show how badly the terraforming on Solace is failing.

In short, it takes more than a hundred pages to get to the main story. It’s a lot for any 400-pages novel, but it’s marginally more palatable for a 1200-pages trilogy. (This being said, only sharp-eyed readers will discerns the suggestion, in the acknowledgements, that this will be a “two or three” book series. Even the moniker “Chronicles of Solace” is taken from the subsequent volumes sitting on my shelves. Stupid editor, Caveat emptor!) Fortunately, it’s not uninteresting setup: MacBride Allen is a professional, and all of this laborious background is dramatized in an interesting fashion. He even manages to make us sorry about the death of a character barely twenty pages after her introduction.

At least the story starts rolling along soon after: As a starship captain wakes up from cryo, he finds himself in the right solar system… but more than a hundred and twenty-five years too late! The ship has been sabotaged, and one of the passengers has to face the fact that his mission has failed: How useful will his warnings of impending terraforming doom be if he’s more than a century too late?

The most engaging characteristic of The Depths of Time is how is keep son piling revelations and further mysteries as it roars forward. All the setup of the first hundred pages progressively starts paying off and even if some revelations can be guessed simply from dramatic deduction (“Oh, I wonder why those two events are introduced…?”), there is a lot to like in the gradual discovery of secrets, all the way to the very last chapter. Time-travel, vast archives and terraforming aren’t new ideas, of course, but they’re here used in interesting fashions. This is a first volume of a trilogy and while it’s not satisfying by itself, it does a great job in setting the stage for the rest of the series.

It’s also quite good in how it defines its characters. Protagonist Anton Koffield is tortured, humiliated, and marooned decades after his era, but he’s a solid and capable hero; I look forward to his next adventures. Minor characters also get some viewpoint time, with involving results. MacBride Allen even manages to give life to two characters whose presence in the action is more legendary than physical. All in all, coupled with the clear style and the top-notch technical aspects of the writing, it’s a good example of perfectly decent core science-fiction.

I’m often prompt in bitching about media tie-ins, declining authors and substandard science-fiction, but The Depth of Time is none of those things. Welcome back, Roger. It’s been a long time since your last “honest” SF novel. We’ve missed you.

Bright Messengers, Gentry Lee

Bantam Spectra, 1995, 447 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57329-2

Gentry Lee is, by all accounts, a formidable man. JPL engineer, father of seven, renowned public speaker, he is best-known in the science-fiction field for his four collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke: Cradle and the Rama trilogy that followed on Clarke’s classic Rendez-vous with Rama.

But perhaps is it more accurate to says that Lee is infamous in the SF community for his collaborations with Clarke. Critics have not been very kind to any of those books. Clarke’s succinct, no-nonsense, steely-agnostic prose was transformed into a sprawling mess of mystical experiences, unlikable characters in overwritten adventures that had few, if any, of the originals’ charm. Cradle didn’t have to labour under the heavy burden of any classic predecessor, but even then few readers liked it. Now here comes Bright Messengers, Lee’s first solo novel which also doubles as a prequel to the Rama trilogy. (aaargh!)

Lee’s track record in other fields suggest that he’s able to do many things exceedingly well. But writing novels won’t one of those things. Let us see why.

Part of it has to do with the pedestrian nature of Lee’s imagined future. The year is 2141, but there are no details (save for a few colonies on Mars and the usual economic catastrophe) to indicate that this is any different from, oh, 2010. Granted, Lee ripped off his setting from the “Rama” trilogy (and that’s another problem right there), but even that doesn’t excuse much when his characters all act like refugees from the mid-nineteen nineties. All except for Sister Beatrice, a spectacularly grating model of perfection whose unshakable faith is held up as an example for all. Or something like that; it’s difficult to care for sainthood incarnate.

But onward, for despite a particularly boring first hundred pages, things soon pick up once our characters fly off to Mars. There is a deliciously decadent atmosphere of decay in the “Valhalla” section, as the red planet’s colonization effort is failing. Thanks to a bad economy, governments and corporations alike have turned their back on Mars and are in the process of sending everyone home. Everything is falling to pieces, and so (among other things), a colony has to make a Faustian bargain with a dangerous engineering genius to survive. This is perhaps the only section of the book worth reading, as the tension slowly cranks up.

Eventually, mysterious quasi-mystical appearances lead our character to an alien base, which whisks off our merry bunch of characters away in alien lala land. A psychopath hops along for the ride. The book gets worse from that point on. People who complained about the strange guilty mixture of sex and piety in the Rama trilogy won’t feel let-down by the even wackier mix in Bright Messengers. The psychopath (whose short stature and Arab origins are often highlighted) fulfils his obvious role in the narrative. It results in a gruesome death and an eyebrow-raising character reversal. What happens to poor pretty perfect Sister Beatrice is straight out of the Catholic “Greatest Martyrs” play book.

Lee is an avowed theist, but his dumb use of pseudo-religious elements does a disservice to all believers. When, late in the book, something spectacular happens in an environment built and controlled by mysterious alien intelligence, stupid sister Beatrice goes on to exult at the visible proof of God’s intervention. When her sceptical companion replies with a variation of Clarke’s third law, she retreats into pouting and wishing for another companion. If someone can explain how an editor can let an author self-defeat himself in his own novel, I’d be most grateful. (Unless the editor was being deliberately unhelpful; I can understand that after reading the book.)

(Shuffling through the novel to re-read that passage, I see that I forgot to highlight the dull and lengthy Hiroshima-and-Nazis virtual reality section, but that’s okay: I ended up browsing them anyway and then found out that they had absolutely no impact on the rest of the novel. Yes, it’s a book like that.)

This book barely has any plotting (Ooh, psychopath! Booga-booga!), nor anything resembling sympathetic characters. Aside from brief moments in the Martian section, it oscillates between stupidity and boredom. At least the book solves one mystery; the question of who wrote most of the Rama trilogy: Obviously, the quality of Bright Messengers speaks for itself. And, presumably, so will Double Full Moon Night, the announced conclusion of this unfortunate piece of fiction.

[June 2004: Wow, Double Full Load of Nonsense indeed speaks for itself. The heroes are still gratuitously marooned on one, then another alien environment. People reproduce (giving rise to even more twisted psychosexual dynamics), bicker, die horribly, etc. It’s not much of a Science-fiction novel, though. It really doesn’t help that it’s so dull and clunky, filled with character not worth caring about and long philosophical speeches that could be demolished by any high-school student. If you haven’t read the first book, don’t worry: it’s summarized in a pithy introduction that contains such wince-inducing phrases as “Leaving [protagonist] to die in his cave prison, [antagonist] repeatedly raped and humiliated [character] in many additional ways.” Plot-wise, I hope you weren’t expecting any developments nor answers, because there aren’t any: Even when the insufferable beatified Beatrice makes a return appearance as a helpful ghost, she remains coy about their situation and start spouting off nonsense such as “It is never necessary for us to have all our questions answered. [P.226] and later “For reasons that you would never be able to comprehend, I cannot give you any more specifics.” [P.258] But even these get-out-of-jail cards can’t hide the fact that Gentry Lee is a poser who’s making this stuff up as he goes along, with an appalling disregard for his readers that borders on a prolonged insult. The last section tries to tie the two books back to the Rama trilogy, which would be interesting if we actually cared about even a tiny sliver of those five books. ]

Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear

Ballantine, 1999, 538 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-43524-9

At a time where reality is out-imagining science-fiction, is it any wonder if the line between the two is getting blurred? Michael Crichton has been making millions for decades by passing off a kind of science-fiction as something that could happen tomorrow. Isn’t it time for genre-grown SF authors to cash in on the mainstream moolah?

Surely Greg Bear’s reputation as a science-fiction author is unquestioned. While his novels have been hit-and-miss (Hit: Moving Mars. Miss: Dinosaur Summer. Your mileage will vary), it’s hard to say that the author of Blood Music is anything but a hard-core hard-SF writer. But even the paperback edition of Darwin’s Radio comes packaged as “Fiction” by generalist imprint Ballantine Books. It scrupulously avoids “Science-Fiction” on the cover and shyly mentions it once in the in-leaf blurbs. Bear isn’t the first one to leap from the SF ghetto to the bigger techno-thriller audience, but he’s not likely to be the last to annoy his core audience by doing so.

But enough fanboyish kvetching: what about the book? Here too, it’s impossible to avoid snarky comparisons to Crichton et al.: Darwin’s Radio begins sometime soon, with two separate discoveries that are obviously linked: a mass grave in Georgia and three Neanderthal-era bodies in the Austrian Alps. In the process, we’re introduced to the two main characters of the novel: biologist Kaye Lang and rogue academic Mitch Rafelson. In the accepted manner of such thrillers, clues accumulate, events start to snowball and pretty soon a horrible truth is uncovered: There is a virus out there which is doing very, very nasty stuff to expectant mothers. The end of the species may be in sight.

Now, before proceeding any further, let us highlight one very important thing: Science-fiction has not traditionally been very interested in the yucky stuff of procreation. Physics are fine insofar as they allow rockets and Big Dumb Object and space travel and rock-jawed starship captain heroes. But soft smelly biology, with its unreliable mechanisms and small-scale working, leads to the icky matters of reproduction, which in human terms leads to sex and emotions and relationships and uncomfortable things like that. I’ll come clean; as a science-fiction fan, I’m not alone in preferring the clean lines of a mile-long alien starship to the squishy stuff of pregnancies.

So when Bear uses Darwin’s Radio as an excuse to study the implications of a world-wide plague directly linked to reproduction, it’s difficult to remain unmoved and unconcerned. However bad the evening news are, they can’t touch the nightmare of widespread miscarriages, deformed babies and massive riots. It cuts close to the bone, and props have to be given to Bear for tackling such a subject.

Unfortunately, audacity isn’t enough: It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out that with two protagonists of reproductive age in a tale concerned with pregnancies, something will happen. It also doesn’t take much SF literacy to remember similar tales told with a much greater economy of means, in short stories less than a tenth of this length. Most of Darwin’s Radio is spent waiting for the next shoe to drop rather than more active plotting.

At least techno-geeks and bio-nerds will enjoy the technical details. There’s a lot of evolutionary speculations in the book, and while some of it is too scattered, it’s not a bad read. (Some questions seems to be purposefully left unsolved for the sequel, though.) This is where Bear’s background as a science-fiction writer resonates most clearly, through extensive jargon and reasonably convincing technical details.

As a science-fiction novel, it’s a bit basic. Hence my disapproval for Darwin’s Radio‘s Nebula Award for best Novel of 2000. It also, with hindsight, marks a turning point in Bear’s career, as his last three non-media novels (Including a sequel, Darwin’s Children) have also been in a techno-thrillerish vein. Good? Bad? If nothing else, Bear is hopefully getting filthy rich with Crichton’s target audience.

With Hostile Intent, Robert Gandt

Signet, 2001, 368 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-20486-7

One of the great genre fiction tragedies of the past decade has been the progressive atrophy of the military thriller. From the genre’s heyday in the early nineties, we’ve been saddled with a number of unconvincing stories written by authors whose technical knowledge greatly exceeded their ability to tell a story effectively. Numerous best-selling authors have become mere parodies of themselves (I’m looking at you, Dale Brown) as others have moved on to other things or simply stopped writing.

In the absence of reliable authors, finding new material has taken a hit-and-miss quality. While there’s been a steady number of new writers coming out of the US military, their novels haven’t all been wonderful. A lot of these books are burdened with far too much military jargon and not much of a story. Most feature unpalatable characters. Many are contaminated with the kind of gung-ho militarism that makes them incomprehensible even to well-intentioned civilians. Of the late-nineties crop of military authors, only James H. Cobb has struck me as an interesting and reliable writer.

While it’s a bit early to judge Robert Gandt on reliability, his first novel With Hostile Intent suggests that he’s an author worth watching. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s certainly one of the most promising military fiction debuts in recent memory. Simply consider this: It’s a thriller in which the action scenes are not necessarily the most interesting part of the book.

It all takes place around the turn-of-the-millennium Persian Gulf, from Bahrain to Baghdad. In this pre-9/11 setting (Published in October 2001, With Hostile Intent may end up being the last thriller of the twentieth century), this is a familiar area: Saddam Hussein is the undisputed ruler of a sanctions-bound Iraq and the Americans are enforcing a no-fly zone over most of the country. The action begins as a mistake is made and an Iraqi fighter is shot down.

What follows is a pretty darn spiffy story of professional rivalry, tangled romances, aircraft carrier life and occasional military suspense. It’s not the first novel to take place on an aircraft carrier (see whole sections of Stephen Coonts’ oeuvre, for instance), but Gandt shows an uncanny knack at combining shipboard politics with more straightforward naval aviation action.

By far the best thing about With Hostile Intent is how it quickly develops sympathy for its characters. Protagonist Brick Maxwell may sport a pulp-fiction name, an outlandish biography and a steely behaviour, but he’s nearly the perfect viewpoint character: His undisputed skills don’t diminish his struggles as a new guy on the block. He’s got good friends and excellent enemies. Plus he gets to act like an idiot and atone for it. The gallery of supporting characters is also serviceable in creating an involvement with the book.

As an added bonus, With Hostile Intent isn’t the kind of jingoistic propaganda piece that gives military fiction a bad name. There are several rotten apples in this aircraft carrier, and our protagonist deals with them. The main Iraqi antagonist is described with some degree of respect and sympathy. Even the “sold-out” American journalist gets his fair moment of glory.

It’s stuff like that which gives With Hostile Intent an extra edge when comes the time to compare it to other contemporary military fiction. The writing style is limpid and uncluttered with the kind of techno-fetishism that ofter overwhelms similar books. It’s a welcome change of pace to find our interest as engaged in interpersonal strife than in the air combats. While parts of the book are unbelievable (isn’t anyone else paying attention to the number of crashes for this particular cruise?), they stand out because the rest of the book seems so realistic.

Time and other novels will tell if Gandt can sustain the promise shown by his first novel. But judging from With Hostile Intent, he certainly seems able to juggle the various demands of military fiction and deliver a pleasant reading experience on top of everything else. I may be suffering from low expectations, but this book delivered everything I could ask from such a thriller.

Van Helsing (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Van Helsing</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) Whew! Logically, I should hate this film; its disregard for simple narrative coherency (full moons, chasm-running roads, oh my!) only matches its ignorance of physics (Jumping horses! Exploding coaches! Conveniently-placed ropes!) and muddled sense of narration. Yet unlike The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you can sense an underlying method to this madness; writer/director Stephen Sommers knows that he’s being silly and isn’t being shy about it. (Heck, there’s even a reference to MAD magazine thrown in the mix!) Also, maybe more importantly, this film is seldom boring; while it runs too long (there should be a “only one massive castle fight” rule for movies like this), there’s rarely a dull moment. As a respectable film it’s a disaster, but as a homage to the whole monster-movie genre (with more than a bit of superhero action thrown in for good measure), it’s pretty darn spiffy. Special-effects-wise, some are great and some aren’t, but there’s certainly a ton of them! As if that wasn’t enough, Kate Beckinsale looks amazingly hot. (Hurrah for anachronistic hair!) Yes, I feel guilty for even thinking about getting the DVD, but too bad; it’s fun and I wasn’t asking for much more.

Atlantis Found, Clive Cussler

Berkley, 1999, 532 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17717-3

In reviewing a Dirk Pitt[TM] adventure, there’s a tightrope path in between being an annoying spoilsport and a credulous fanboy. Cussler’s fiction is certainly not respectable litterature. Even allowing for the usual sub-standard latitudes given to genre fiction, Dirk Pitt’s adventures have serious problems. The structure of Cussler’s last dozen novels follow more or less the same template, down to the historical prologue. The breakneck pacing actually hides remarkably long stretches of nothingness. His protagonists are so invulnerable as to defy common sense. The series of whoppers he has managed to uncover in each successive novel have an uncanny way of disappearing before the next one.

But that’s just your reviewer being a boring pedant: It’s not as if Cussler’s flaws aren’t already obvious to anyone who’s read even two of his novels. Find someone who has read more than two, however, and you’re likely to find someone who has learnt to enjoy the books on their own terms, as two-fisted adventures with some crunchy historical speculation. In fact, find someone who has read a third Cussler novel and you’re likely to find someone on their way to read them all: While a steady diet of Dirk Pitt adventures would be brain-damaging, there’s nothing wrong with a yearly shot of Cussler craziness.

And there’s plenty of craziness in Atlantis Found for sure. Heck, even the title spoils very little: While stalwart Dirk Pitt indeed goes on to find the titular Atlantis, you won’t believe what else stands in his way: Modern-day Nazis, shadowy assassins, rotten weather, doomsday plans, nanotechnology and maybe even matrimony. Whew! As Cussler fans have come to expect, there’s the requisite archaeological expeditions, car chases, delicious dialogue, Clive Cussler cameo and a big race against time before Something Really Bad Happens. Good good fun.

One could conceivably point out that the book hovers even more dangerously that usual above flat-out auto-parody, but that would be both self-obvious and, of course, annoying. Much like one could point out the scientific mistake in describing nanotechnology as a science with the potential to build things using new metals (P.243: er, no; it’s molecular technology, not atomic!): once again that would be criticizing the tree and ignoring the forest. After Cussler’s inclusion of a secret Lunar base in Cyclops, it’s hard to get worked up about his bad science or nonsensical plot developments.

Heck, it’s difficult not to stand up and cheer considering the amount and quality of outlandish material crammed into Atlantis Found. Even casual Antarctic buffs will squeal in glee at the surprise appearance of the Snow Cruiser late in the book. Plus, you won’t believe what’s in the Nazi relics box (nor what happens to it). Ironically enough, all of this clever intellectual madness makes Cussler’s exposition scenes far more interesting than his action sequences; it’s easy to flip through the pages as Dirk Pitt(R) and friends mow down yet another squad of baddies, but the quiet discussions in which historical secrets are revealed are worth a careful read.

True, internal consistency doesn’t match from one novel to another, the characters haven’t changed in decades (though some material late in this book may lead to romantic developments), the books keep expanding without good reasons besides repetitive action padding and the repetitive plotting is really starting to grate. But it’s all good fun: Atlantis Found even has this winking quality that also works on a second level for those jaded readers who know better.

It sure looks as if Cussler is having fun too. His cameo appearance in the novel is amusing, and from what we can read elsewhere on the web, he’s busy re-investing his royalties in classic cars and underwater archaeological expeditions. Goodness knows there are worse ways to be a best-selling author… even if the latest flood of “Clive Cussler collaborations” suggests that the need to mint royalty money may outweigh his respectability as a writer.

Um. Did I just associate “Clive Cussler” with “respectability as an author”? My mistake!

Troy (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Troy</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) Massive historical warfare! Plenty of special effects! Hot Greek chicks! What’s not to like? Whee! While this adaptation plays loosely with the “real” source material (if any can be said to exist), it manages to create the required epic feel of a war between Greece and Troy. The gods are thankfully left aside to make place for the real story. The battles scenes are a wonder to behold, as thousands of soldiers, both real and computer generated, fight it out in earnest. But just as impressive is the accessible nature of the story, which manages to fit lust for glory, lust for power and plain simple physical lust into a story of war between nations. It may be long, but it’s seldom boring. Brad Pitt does a fine job portraying Achilles as a bored and meditative rock star, but it’s Peter O’Toole and especially Eric Bana who steal the show with textured performances of curiously sympathetic antagonists. While some of the visuals can be outlandish (fortunately, the CGI team had hard drives big enough to generate those thousand ships!), the movie as a whole isn’t bad at all. Plus, as a bonus, you get to clarify some of that confusing Greek mythology.

Les Triplettes De Belleville [The Triplettes Of Belleville] (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Les Triplettes De Belleville</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Triplettes Of Belleville</strong>] (2003)

(In theaters, May 2004) This film is nothing less than a tour-de-force, managing to tell a complete story with only a minimal use of dialogue. What fills the blanks is the fantastic visual imagination on display throughout the entire film, from off-beat character design (ugly, if you ask me, but certainly unusual) to elaborate Rube-Goldberg mechanisms. While we’re accustomed to scripts as being mere supports for spoken words, this one is a stripped-down thing of wonder, featuring a whimsical plot with strange characters and quirky developments… and almost no lines dialogue. Special mention must be made of Benoit Charest’s fantastic soundtrack, which mixes genres and ends up with a finger-snapping Oscar-nominated number. The film was conceived in Montreal with support from over the world, and its uniquely mid-Atlantic feel, halfway between French and American stereotypes, clearly shows it. Funny, weird, original and a success from start to finish. Copious sight-gags (like the grotesquely fat “statue of liberty”) will reward multiple viewings. Writer/Director Sylvain Chomet shows considerable promise.

Touching The Void (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Touching The Void</strong> (2003)

(In theaters, May 2004) This fantastic re-creation of a true-life mountaineering odyssey is an unqualified success. Thanks to some clever editing, the film manages to wring a considerable amount of tension out of an event narrated by the principal actors themselves. The film alternates taking heads with re-created scenes from the odyssey, and the effect is mesmerizing. Touching The Void, among other things, manages, in passing, to give a proper presentation of the appeal and mechanisms of mountaineering: It’s easy to be taken by the gorgeous alpine shots, or fascinated by the way people manage to haul themselves up a cliff. But of course, it’s the adventure that takes over; the way it just keeps getting worse and worse even as things should get better is nothing short of admirable. The film may be a touch too long, but that merely heightens the experience for the viewer. (Plus there’s the torture of Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring”)

Starsky & Hutch (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Starsky & Hutch</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) Some movies leave you with plenty of questions. This one doesn’t, because by the times the credits roll, you’ll be wondering about only one thing: Why was it ever made? It’s not particularly funny. It doesn’t do much with its Seventies setting. Its plot is strictly action-movie stuff despite an almost total lack of action sequences. For anyone not familiar with the original show, Starsky And Hutch just sputters along, occasionally scoring a slight smirk. While there are a few good moments (Will Ferrell, the pony, “Do it. Do it.”), there isn’t much to remember here. Snoop Dog plays a good Huggy Bear, but acting-wise, if what you want is Ben Stiller acting alongside Owen Wilson, it’s easier to just go out and rent Zoolander again.

Conceptual Blockbusting (4th edition), James L. Adams

Perseus Publishing, 2001, 220 pages, C$25.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7382-0537-0

At the intersection of psychology and business literature, it’s often difficult to separate useful works from loosely-outlined collections of pithy aphorisms. Businesses, by definition, have money and want to make even more money. There is no surprise, then, to see that there is a significant market for works promising untold riches in five (or ten) easy catchphrases. The “business” section of your local used bookstore is filled with past management fads, too-easy answers to complex problems and ridiculous attempts to exploit businesspeople’s massive insecurities. (My favorite in the genre being Richard Marcinko’s The Rogue Warrior’s Guide to Leadership.)

If you don’t believe me, go ahead, take a trip and have a look. I’ll wait. But while you’re there, if you happen to see James L. Adams’ Conceptual Blockbusting, take it out of the stack and bring it home with you; it deserves better company than a stack of tomes on how to manage Japanese-style.

For Conceptual Blockbusting is not your usual business psychology book, nor is its appeal strictly limited to anyone trying to get ahead in a corporate hierarchy. No; this is a book that, under a business guise, aims to teach everyone how to think better.

In a nutshell, this is a book that purports to break the unproductive habits that defeat the most innovative thinking. But in doing so, it delves deep into the sources of inspiration and the methods of the human mind. The subtitle says that it’s “a guide to better ideas” and might as well believe it: in a succinct 220 pages, it delivers enough thinking material to keep anyone busy for a while.

I’m hardly the first one to feel so positively about the book. “300,000 copies sold!” claims the title page. Not only is it at its fourth edition, twenty five years after its initial publication, but I was pleasingly surprised to recognize within its pages a few familiar classroom exercises. Adams’ work has been influential and this newly-refreshed edition is an ideal way to see why.

More than half of the book is dedicated to the identification of conceptual blocks; the kind of constraints, acknowledged or ingrained, that restrict us in our quest for better ideas. Stuff like social taboos, hasty mis-perception of problems, personality quirks or lack of expressive knowledge can all contribute to dull solutions. By enumerating how we’re not quite as free-thinking as we perceive ourselves to be, Adams makes us conscious of the problems and gives us pointers on how to get around these blocks.

Other areas covered in Conceptual Blockbusting include an examination of thinking languages (and how, say, mathematical or verbal thinking may not be universal problem-solvers, to the dismay of those trained in those techniques), ways to crack those idea blockers (far beyond the usual “brainstorming” cliché, though this is also covered and explained in good detail) and a savvy glimpse at how ideas can be nurtured in organizational structures.

All of which could be trite stuff if it wasn’t for Adams’ polished delivery. After four editions, his material is optimized for both pleasure reading and reference purposes. His style is direct, dense but curiously pleasant to read and re-read. This is the kind of book worth refreshing once a year if only to ingrain those conceptual blockbusters in daily thinking. It doesn’t take much to see in Conceptual Blockbusting a good primer on the structures of human thinking and a springboard to deeper reflection.

Or maybe not; if all you want are better ideas and a solid business psychology book, this one’s for you. Deceptively effective, solid without being flashy, there are good chances that James L. Adams’ book will still be available twenty-five years from now, in hopefully an even-better edition.

Spartan (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Spartan</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) David Mamet writes and directs this film, so you can expect an off-kilter result. Indeed, his take on political thrillers and special-operative character study features a few precious moments of pure genius. Twists are thrown, dialogue is barked, Val Kilmer is surprisingly good, schemes unfold, American politics are criticized and stoic characters fight for the right thing. Unfortunately, these good moments are intermittent and only get rarer as the film advances. The budget also seems to diminish as the film unreels, and we end up with a Dubai that looks a lot like the Boston we just left. Unfortunate, but not as much as the cold and methodical style of the film, which gets less and less efficient as the plot heats up. The ending features one unforgivable flying coincidence. Not bad, but a bit frustrating… a lot like his previous Heist and The Spanish Prisoner: Good bits and pieces in search of a coherent whole.

Soul Plane (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Soul Plane</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) Some films are good and funny. This one isn’t so good, but it’s twice as funny. An urban (read; “black”) take-off on the whole airplane disaster genre, Soul Plane is gloriously silly and doesn’t even try to hide it. There’s a joke every ten seconds and plenty of them miss the target (ie;whole subplots go nowhere in an dull fashion). But those who manage to hit the target actually hit pretty well: it’s hard not to be swept into the whole “airline with soul” premise. While some would like to make you believe that Soul Plane wallows in ethnic clichés, it’s more appropriate to say that it takes us in a very specific fantasy world packed with good music, infectious fun and bootylicious bodies. Few other movies of 2004 can match the sheer sex-appeal of Soul Plane‘s K.D. Aubert, Angell Conwell and Sofía Vergara. (There is zero nudity despite the film’s R-rating. Talk about a waste: even Airplane! had some.) This being said, it’s zaftig comedienne Mo’Nique Imes-Jackson who grabs the film’s best moments as an overzealous security guard. Sure, some moments go over the top and should have been trimmed out: Taste-wise, it’s an equal-opportunity offender. But why care when it’s so silly? “At ease, ladies” says Captain Snoop Dog upon boarding, and this kind of sexy insouciance is exactly the right frame of mind for Soul Plane. Step on the plane, and don’t forget to visit the upstairs club.

(Second viewing, On DVD, December 2004) Some films really shouldn’t be watched more than once, and that goes double for lame comedies. Once the initial surprise of comedies has been blown, viewers have the right to be a little bit harsher on the actual quality of the film, and Soul Plane truly doesn’t do well at a second glance. For one thing, a second viewing clearly highlights the jarring dead moments when the main romance kicks in at the film loses all sense of humour. A similar “filial love” plot thread also falls flat in the context of a silly comedy that live or die on the strength of its pacing. Fortunately, the rest of the film’s silliness is preserved, though the repetitive nature of the film’s jokes starts grating midway through. I still like the booty, the silliness, the cheap gags and the performances of quite a number of the actresses. But it’s not nearly as The DVD doesn’t bring much more to the experience, and even hurts as the commentary track has an extra value of exactly nil. Warning! The DVD film is different from the version shown in theatres: Though I can’t remember the exact details, I clearly remember at least one theatrical scene between Tom Arnold and Mo’Nique that’s not on the DVD (has the old silly phobia of interracial romance reared its ugly bigoted head once more?), and the “unrated” version adds a few T&A shots –none of which do much to justify the unrating. (In fact, DVD reviews report that the R version and the unrated version have different outtakes. What the heck?)

Shrek 2 (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Shrek 2</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, May 2004) The Green Ogre’s adventures continue in this smile-a-minute adventure that starts where the first film left off. Technically, the film is more spectacular than the first one (just compare the “fields” sequences), but don’t worry; the quality of the script is just as solid. The outright laughs may be concentrated in small portions (the opening musical montage, the “Knights” segment, anything with Puss in Boots), but the giggles are steady through the entire film. Some unexpected gags (Love Potion Number 9, etc) and twists are also in the fine tradition of the first film. Otherwise, well, there’s not much to say: The whole family will enjoy the ride.