Spin State, Chris Moriarty

Bantam Spectra, 2003, 485 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-38213-6

For me, one of Science Fiction’s more endearing qualities is its capacity to imagine neat futures where most of today’s less interesting problems are neatly solved away. Distances are erased, material needs are satisfied and reason takes over as a dominant conflict-solving mechanism. Humans are, at last, left to work on the most interesting problems –and half the fun is in figuring out which ones those can be.

Such an interesting future is not in the cards for the protagonists of Chris Moriarty’s Spin State, a 2003 Philip K. Dick award-nominated first novel by a brand-new author who’s also seriously vying for the 2004 Campbell award. Once again, scarcity rears its ugly head, and millions suffer for lack of something: “Coal. Oil. Uranium. Water. This is not the first time humanity has depended on a nonrenewable resource.” [P.153] In this case, the nonrenewable resource is Bose-Einstein condensates, a substance that allows faster-than-light communication and teleportation. There’s one catch, though: Bose-Einstein condensates doesn’t occur in nature save from inside a coal mine on a backwater world called Compson’s World.

As luck has it, that’s where protagonist Catherine Li comes from. But despite her best efforts at staying away, a series of unfortunate events lead her back home as the lead investigator in the mysterious death of a top-ranking scientist. As you can expect, complications rapidly accumulate: The scientist shares the same DNA as the protagonist, Compson’s World is on the edge of rebellion and Bose-Einstein condensates are a major source of friction between the UN-led Earth and the breakaway Syndicates. As is the norm with SF thrillers, the murder case quickly morphs into a nexus of major forces. Throw in a few AIs, genetic discrimination, twisted allegiances and long-buried secrets and it will take more than enhanced reflexes and superior combat abilities for Li to get out of the situation relatively intact.

In some ways, Spin State is a solid SF thriller in the noirish vein. In others, it’s an attempt to integrate a few good ideas. It’s a typical first novel, filled with promises and yet not completely successful.

There’s not a lot that’s wrong with the novel, mind you: A lot of the initial ideas are intriguing and introduced with skill. Li is adequately twisted: as a super-agent for the UN, she’s not terribly beautiful, remains wracked with neuroses, can’t trust a soul and has a quasi-omnipotent (yet completely untrustworthy) AI as a best friend. Far from the slick superhero of so much SF, Catherine Li works quite well as a real protagonist.

But I kept waiting for Spin State to become more than something average, and that never happened. It’s far too long, for one thing: Cut at least a hundred pages of the interminable investigation (which doesn’t really pay off when the real story starts moving) and we’ll start talking again. Other annoyances are there; the contrived excuse to set a Science Fiction novel in a coal mine, coupled with unconvincing “evil leper mutant” discrimination yadda-yadda. Let’s move on, shall we? One of the book’s last big revelations is blindingly obvious hundreds of pages before, as soon as coral is mentioned. Though the book flaunts itself as hard-SF and includes pages of bibliographical references on quantum physics, not a lot of explicit science makes its way in the novel itself.

(It doesn’t help that, by sheer coincidence, Spin State follows on the heels of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, a superior novel that just happens to touch upon some of the same subjects in a far more energetic fashion.)

All told, it’s hard to read the novel with anything approaching enthusiasm. I trudged on out of duty and obligation, awaiting the magic spark that would ignite everything. Oh, I don’t begrudge the money I spent on the novel, or the time it took me to read it… but it’s not making me overly anxious to rush out and get Moriarty’s next book. One thing that SF can’t solve is scarcity of time and money… especially when it comes to reading more SF, some unpleasant choices must be made.

(One final note; I’m a bit dismayed at the carefully gender-neutral jacket blurb and author biography. Yes, a trip to Chris Moriarty’s official web site will reveal Moriarty’s gender. But surely we know better than to assume that hard-SF readers will avoid works by a woman writer? Why the deception?)

The Ocean of Years (Chronicles of Solace #2), Roger MacBride Allen

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 441 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58364-6

It is true that publishers are in the business of making money, not telling the truth. Still, you have to wonder at the relationship between the two when marketing ploys backfire. When, for instance, books like Roger MacBride Allen’s The Depths of Time come out and the only reference to it as the first book of a trilogy is buried, by inference, in the author’s note. Readers (and reviewers) charge through the novel only to find an ending that doesn’t solve much. And then Bantam Spectra wonders why sales tank.

Unfortunately, sequel The Ocean of Years suffered from the stupidity of the original book’s marketing: Whereas the first volume was available in trade paperback format, this one was relegated to a cheapo mass-market paperback debut edition. As consolation, the follow-up book is more forthright about what it is, as can be read on the title page: “Second book of The Chronicles of Solace.”

When we’d last left series protagonist Anton Koffield, he had just found out why he was marooned 128 years in a future not his own: A devilish plot by mastermind Oskar DeSilvo to prevent him from telling a secret too soon. But a lot of things happen in 128 years, and so Koffield also happened to come across nagging clues leading him to the current hideout of DeSilvo. As The Depths of Time ended, we were left with one certitude: Koffield was going to solve the puzzle, track down DeSilvo and ask him a few good questions.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise if he does exactly that in the sequel. Travelling with a band of characters with as much interest in DeSilvo’s answers, Koffield makes his way to the Solar System of year 5341. Then their group splits up in search of clues, sending emissaries to Earth itself and the Grand Library in orbit around Neptune.

One of the book’s highlight happens then, as three characters make their way through the gargantuan Permanent Physical Collection, a mega-library to end all libraries. So big that they have to hike in it, making their way from own human-livable reading room to another (the books are kept in a pure nitrogen atmosphere to ensure their preservation) to find out the real state of the physical terraforming collection as opposed to the one in the digital archives. Library freaks are sure to enjoy this passage, much like another latter one in a forbidden museum. MacBride Allen surely knows how to exploit environments that should be dear to anyone likely to be reading this trilogy.

Secrets, archives, knowledge and patient clue-hunting form the backbone of this second volume. Save for a desperate what-are-they-going-to-do-now sequence in chapters 18-20, and a tiny act of physical violence at the very end of the book, there isn’t much conventional action in The Ocean of Years. It’s all exploration, searching, deduction and cogitation. Old-school science-fiction by any yardstick, this is the kind of comfortable genre novel that would be familiar for any pre-New Wave SF reader in the Asimov vein. There is nothing beyond a PG rating in this trilogy so far.

Alas, the pacing is just about what you’d expect from brainy novels that take place in libraries. Just like in the first volume, the first hundred pages don’t mean much. Just like in the first volume, we spend a lot of time going from one place to another. Just like in the first volume, the characters think a lot before they ever act. It’s not a bad thing per se (it certainly creates an atmosphere, maintains the suspense and heighten the action whenever there is some) but there’s no telling what a more succinct version of the same events might have gained. The prose is compelling enough that it doesn’t matter a whole lot if it’s 400 pages rather than 200, but if the difference would have been a single 600-pages tome rather than a full 1200-pages trilogy, well, I know where my loyalties lies.

Still, don’t think that I’m giving anything less than a good rating to this book and the series as it stands at the end of the second volume. There’s a lot of well-developed ideas here, a bunch of sympathetic characters, crystal-clear prose and a great sense of discovery as we peel away the layers of this imagined universe. Stay tuned for the final review of this trilogy.

Double Whammy, Carl Hiaasen

Warner, 1987, 320 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35276-4

Over the years, I never had the luck to actually sit down and read one of Carl Hiaasen’s novels despite the good things heard about them. That changed when Double Whammy landed in my reading stack. If it’s any indication of what Hiaasen is capable, I just may have found a new favourite author.

In the mystery genre, Hiaasen is often mentioned as being part of the “Florida school”, along with such writers as Lawrence Shames, Dave Berry and James W. Hall: Apart from the Sunshine State as a common setting, all of these writers also share a highly atypical sense of humour, especially when you compare it to the usual dour brand of crime fiction. I’m always a sucker for silly laughs, so it was only a matter of time before I got to Hiaasen’s stuff.

Suffice to say that Double Whammy is an interesting introduction. Would you expect, for instance, a thrilling laugh-filled novel about bass fishing? It starts when R.J. Decker, a Miami-based private detective (also an ex-newspaper photographer, also an ex-husband, also an ex-convict), is hired to catch a bass tournament cheater in flagrante delicto. Soon enough, clues then bodies accumulate and it’s hard for Decker to deny that he’s stuck in a situation that goes way beyond getting the biggest fish.

The laughs are obviously Double Whammy‘s biggest attraction. Hiaasen’s sarcastic eye for details does wonders at satirizing redneck America and the dangerous silliness that seems to permeate Florida. His improbable characters at generously fleshed-out: even the bit players all have a distinguishing trait or two. The narrative often takes tangents to describe an aspect of Floridian life or another, with smile-stretching results.

But Hiaasen’s less overt accomplishment is to manage a delicate balance between tragedy and comedy without renouncing the funny stuff. There is a lot of truly nasty material in this novel, and a lesser writer may have been unable to reconcile the two. Beyond the murder and maiming of sympathetic characters, Double Whammy makes sure to remain in the domain of unlikely reality, rather than plunge ahead into a straight-out comedic vein. (Read Dave Berry’s stuff for that… not that there’s anything wrong with a pure comedy) Beyond the laughter, there is an array of serious issues brought forth in the novel, from environmental concerns to the easy media manipulation of crowds. But here too, the message doesn’t overshadow the plot as Hiaasen moves his pieces too quickly to dwell on any single element.

Indeed, Double Whammy holds its own in the plot department against thicker and more serious novels. Anything you think you can depend upon at the novel’s beginning is overturned sooner or later. The protagonist is revealed to be someone with a bottomless reservoir of issues. Characters switch allegiance. Twists abound. Revelations are made. Readers are thrilled.

All of that would be for naught if it wasn’t for Hiaasen’s impeccable style. So-called “humorous” crime fiction is not an easy thing to write and several writers have only managed a marginal success trying to do so (Joseph Wambaugh, I’m looking at you). Here, fortunately, we’re in good hands: The prose is straightforward and the scenes fly by. The quick-paced resolution ties everything together. Truly excellent beach reading, should you be so inclined.

In short, a wonderful introduction to the Hiaasen oeuvre, and one that is likely to keep me coming back for more. Given my existing predilection for Shames and Barry, I just have to wonder –what is it they put in Florida’s water supply…?

Separation of Power, Vince Flynn

Pocket, 2001, 436 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-04734-5

After the trashing I gave to Flynn’s previous The Third Option, you would think that I’d stay away from any of his other books, let alone a direct sequel. But hope springs eternal, some authors can be forgiven the occasional awful novel and it’s entirely possible to succumb at a used book sale where everything is cheap, cheap, cheap.

So, onward with Separation of Power, which picks up moments after the conclusion of The Third Option. Once again, villains are running rampant over Washington and flawless hero Mitch Rapp is hunting them down. His attempts to find the real culprits of the previous book’s events soon take him to Italy (along with his civilian fiancée), where he’ll have to deal with a beautiful yet deadly assassin straight out of Central Casting. Meanwhile, brainy Irene Kennedy has been nominated to become the director of the CIA, drawing out plenty of political enemies, and Saddam is hiding nuclear weapons under an hospital in downtown Baghdad. Separation of Power isn’t quite a three-ring circus, but it’s scattered enough to make anyone feel like it is.

I should probably tone down my sarcastic tone right away, though, because even though Separation or Power breaks no new ground and is unlikely to be celebrated by anyone but the author’s most ardent fans, it’s still much better than The Third Option.

Oh, the annoyances picked up in the previous volume are still there: If there’s one genre that should just avoid series, it’s thrillers: Part of the fun of reading a suspense novel is in wondering how far the author will push it. Will presidents be killed, cities destroyed, countries devastated? Or will everyone live to sell another novel? When The Third Option ended with a pat “to be continued” promise, I surely wasn’t the only one to ask for my money back. At least Separation of Power offers a conclusion of sorts, even if it’s rushed in the last few pages.

Alas, Flynn is still padding his books with useless material. Had Separation of Power been half of its length, I wouldn’t be so picky. (Heck, had The Third Option and Separation of Power been one single 400-pages novel, I might have given it a passing recommendation) But when Flynn piles useless scenes one after another right when the plot should get underway, it’s hard to be forgiving. It all reaches an exasperating apogee in the latter half of the novel, as we take a trip through pure soap-opera romantic theatrics, reading pages after pages of mopping even as we know that it’s profoundly silly. Someone needs an editor, and quickly!

Fortunately, there is some good material buried under the morass of indifferent passages. Two good action scenes come late in the novel, saving it from total lack of interest. Plot-wise, it’s obvious that Flynn loves complications without understanding how they could all relate together: The connections between the three plot lines are tenuous if not ridiculous (see how Mitch Rapp gets to participate in all three for no good reason whatsoever!), even as they sheer kinetic force of the conclusion creates interest whether we want it or not.

(I should probably make a note of this as being Yet Another Pre-9/11 Anti-Saddam Novel. In retrospect, there’s plenty of material in 1990-2001 American thrillers to show the widespread blood thirst that America had for Saddam Hussein’s regime. Canny social psychologists will undoubtedly mutter something about how the Bush II regime was able to tap into those unconscious feelings to obtain popular support for an unjustified invasion. But I digress severely.)

All told, Separation of Power marks a slight step up for Flynn. It’s still average in almost all aspects, but at least it’s not actively bad, nor as dull as The Third Option. But we’re still far away from the promise shown in either of his first two novels: Before he started churning out those formula products, Vince Flynn had the spark of a real thriller author. Let’s just hope that he’ll regain it someday soon.

Singularity Sky, Charles Stross

Ace, 2003, 313 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01072-5

These reviews are often written to share my joy at coming across fine examples of genre fiction. Dull books I ignore and bad books I warn about, but it’s the good ones that keep me going month after month. While I won’t try to pretend that Singularity Sky is a classic for the ages, it’s a damn good example of what modern SF should be, and a fine way to spend some quality reading time.

It starts with phones falling from the sky in what looks like a pre-industrial world. No, it’s not a Nokia stunt: These freebies from heaven are the first signal of an alien invasion. Answer the phone and you’ll be asked to entertain the mind at the other end of the line. In return, your wishes can be granted, with an emphasis on materialistic possessions. Within days, the tranquil bucolic existence of that particular planet is shattered through centuries worth of future shock all hitting at once. Imagine going from horses to nanotechnology in a single day for a taste of the trauma.

There are much bigger forces at play here, though. The assaulted planet is part of an Russian-styled empire that isn’t too thrilled by the sudden technological spike. So, completely misunderstanding the nature of the invasion, they answer with an attack force and a plan to futz around causality through judicious time-travel.

But wait! It gets better, because in Stross’ imagined post-singularity universe, the Eschaton has become a force for causal enforcement. Twiddle with time too much and you’ll wake up to your sun going supernova. So Earth itself has put special agents in place to enforce compliance before the Eschaton does… and that’s where protagonists Rachel Mansour and Martin Springfield come in, two agents with hidden agendas. Expect the usual boy-meets-girl stuff (well done) and graft on to this plot the traditional complications.

Obviously, plotting isn’t the main attraction here, not when we’ve got a vigorously imagined future to kick around. One of Singularity Sky‘s most satisfying aspect is how it reconciles once more the space opera genre with the increasingly probable eventuality of a singularity. By focusing on the left-behinds, by showing different levels of technology interacting with one another, Stross creates tension from above (the threat from the Eschaton) and manages to fit all the good old space battles of golden-age SF with what we now suspect from the universe. It’s canny world-building, and one of the most obvious proofs that Stross is a hard-core SF writer with an easy familiarity with the genre. He certainly can talk the talk, what with the easy sprinkling of technological jargon, future technologies and nifty ideas. (As an added attraction, I’m not sure that the novel is even intelligible to anyone who doesn’t know already a lot about science-fiction) He’s from the Internet generation and it shows, through the novel’s ideological message and the various in-jokes hidden here and there throughout the novel. Make no mistake: this is a deeply amusing book, filled with well-placed silliness (MP-3 missiles?) and compulsively readable despite an impressive density of ideas.

Still, some of the plot points weaken the overall impact of the novel. Viewed from afar, the novel is a shaggy dog story that, despite the amusing plot developments, ends pretty much exactly as could be deduced from the first fifty pages. It’s also filled with tangents of dubious interest, the worst of which has to be the “Felix” plot thread and the gratuitous space combat scenes. Parricidal elements of the ending stretch plausibility, even in the context of a light-hearted science-fiction story.

Not that I’m seriously complaining: Anyone who has read more than a few of these reviews already knows that for me, fun trumps structure six days of the week. And so Singularity Sky easily finds a spot on my short list of the year’s best novels. It’s vivid, imaginative, fresh and dynamic. It deftly mixes science and politics. It’s one of the best examples of twenty-first century science-fiction. It reaffirms my growing admiration for Stross’ work and tells me that not all is lost for the genre.

In fact, I’m so jazzed-up about Singularity Sky that I’m looking forward to the sequel (Iron Sunrise, due Any Time Now) with some trepidation. And that, for someone who doesn’t usually like the whole idea of sequels, is really saying something.

All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson

Putnam, 1999, 277 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14579-6

Few first novels have been as successful as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which hit the science-fiction scene twenty years ago already. It wasn’t just a dynamite book; it coalesced the then-nascent cyberpunk movement and was later co-opted by the mainstream (from Billy Idol to the Wachowski Brothers) as the new face of futurism. Gibson’s subsequent career couldn’t be anything but a let-down. While avoiding spectacular failure, his latter works have been steadily less ambitious from a strictly-extrapolative standpoint. Subsequent novels, while exceedingly well-written, elicited as many shrugs than bravos.

With All Tomorrow’s Parties, Gibson concludes the “Bridge” trilogy launched by Virtual Light in 1994 and loosely continued in 1996’s Idoru. Characters from both books are back, and so is their universe, with a special place for a Golden Gate Bridge converted in a bohemian paradise. Fans of Gibson’s elliptic storytelling know better than to expect a tidy conclusion. But for all of its flaws, All Tomorrow’s Parties does contain a plot of sorts, and Gibson’s strongest narrative thread since Mona Lisa Overdrive, the resolution of his first trilogy.

(There are in fact many similitudes between both All Tomorrow’s Parties and my memories of Mona Lisa Overdrive, from the Really Important Object carried by the protagonists, to similar “siege” situations to Gibson’s usual shtick of describing important scenes from a drug-afflicted viewpoint. Remember kids: it ain’t plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself!)

It’s not a particularly strong plot, but at least it gives the impression of forward movement. All is set in motion when Idoru‘s data wizard Laney contacts Virtual Light‘s Ryder to be his hands on the ground at what he thinks will be ground zero for a new revolution in human affairs: San Francisco. Before long, old characters meet again, killers are on the loose, human destiny is subtly altered and the street once again demonstrates new uses for high technology.

It’s all handled competently. I’m not sure if it’s me mellowing since I read Idoru back in 1997, but All Tomorrow’s Parties seemed more accessible, more interesting and more enjoyable than its prequel. Here, we’re back at the guns-and-perils roots of cyberpunk: if all else fails, constant danger to the protagonists can at least sustain basic readability.

But plotting and intrigue are the wrong reasons to read a William Gibson novel. As usual, his writing is a cut above the rest of what’s to be found elsewhere in the genre: He has an uncanny knack at finding the first description, at seamlessly integrating future artifacts in normal situation and in depicting the banal ways new technologies can be used and abused.

Sadly, elements of his usual vision are starting to be tiresome. The whole cyber-grunge aesthetic movement has played itself out since Neuromancer and there’s scarcely anything interesting any more in following the homeless set as they set out to confront the next step in human history. Gibson’s novel have seldom featured normal character with whom to sympathize, and All Tomorrow’s Parties is no exception. It often hovers around deja-vu, or even quasi-parody. If it had featured another author’s name on the cover, I’m not sure I’d be so kind.

Still, it’s a step up from Idoru and a better science-fiction novel than most of what was published in 1999. As millennial SF, it may even be emblematic. But now that we’re in the century described by Gibson, maybe it’s time to start thinking about something else. Gibson may be able to coast forever on Neuromancer‘s reputation… but that’s no reason for him to do so.

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, June 2004) Well, it’s obvious that Chris Columbus is out of the picture for the third instalment of the Harry Potter series: the colour palette is harsher, Hogwarts has abandoned its all-Caucasian student policy and the camera actually moves once in a while. Hurrah for Alfonso Cuarón! But it takes more than pans and swoops to make a good film, and if Harry Potter 3 is a lot more fun to look at, it’s curiously not as steadily compelling as the first two films. The film even become literally repetitive toward the end, capping a curiously tepid dramatic arc. It certainly doesn’t help that the script cut a lot of the original story to fit in a reasonable length: some details didn’t make sense until they were patiently explained to me by other Potterphiles. (The ending is particularly chaotic, pulling thin threads out of nowhere) But let’s not go overboard with criticism: Even when it’s middling, the Harry Potter series has enough good stuff to leapfrog over most of the other movies of the year. Acting-wise, the lead trio does a fine job, and will hopefully be able to follow the series along until the end. Onward to the fourth volume, then.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fahrenheit 9/11</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, June 2004) Devastating. It’s not that there is a lot of new material here (reading a lot of left-wing blogs helps in being jaded), but the way Michael Moore arranges nearly four years of American history in a coherent opinion piece is unbelievably effective. From Bush’s incompetent first few months in power to the trauma of September 11th and the terror hysteria leading up to the invasion of Iraq, Moore says out loud what an increasing number of people are thinking. His use of archival footage is nearly flawless and speaks for itself (though I would have used dates and attributions on every single frame); compared to his previous Bowling For Columbine, Moore manages to avoid being on-camera most of the time and the film is much more effective for it. I defy other movies this year to do what Fahrenheit 9/11 does on an emotional register; in a large crowd, you can hear the laughs, the crying, the gasps and the stunned denials. The music also helps a lot, going from the unsubtle (“Vacation”) to the ironic (oscillating between happy and ominous music between shots) to the breathtakingly nasty (I wonder how many people noticed the “Cocaine” riff?) Yes, it’s a mash-up of two movies (the pre-Iraq treatise on Bush’s incompetence and corruption; then the Iraq mess), but that’s at the image of what has happened to Moore, heck, to America itself in 2001-2004, smashed from one narrative to another whether they liked it or not. All in all, a wonder of a movie, one that actually dares to push back the establishment, and even veers into highly subversive territory mere moments before fading to black. Whew!

The First Wives’ Club, Olivia Goldsmith

Poseidon Press, 1992, 441 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-74693-6

As a science-fiction geek, a techno-nerd, a cynic, heck, a young man, I’m not exactly the poster-perfect fan for Olivia Goldsmith’s oeuvre. But look closer: Not only will I admit a deep romantic streak, but Goldsmith’s books aren’t quite your usual run-of-the-mill romantic fiction for women.

All of the reasons why are obvious in The First Wives Club, Goldsmith’s first published novel. (and the one most likely to be remembered given its status as a mildly successful film back in 1996) All the ingredients that would later surface in what I’ve read of hers (from Fashionably Late to The Bestseller) are all there: the frank language, the adult content, the heavy-handed morality, the use of strong female protagonists, the delightful prose style… For a novel, it’s a pretty good read. For a first novel it’s even more impressive.

The main dramatic arc (though it would be more appropriate to speak of a comic arc) is straight female-empowerment stuff: Dumped by their husbands for younger, more vapid second wives, our heroic trio decides to get mad and get even. Add to that the new romantic interests of the trio and their ex-husbands, the usual gallery of helpful secondary characters (including the de-rigueur flamboyant homosexual confidante) and you’ve got a cast of dozens with plenty of potential for social satire. There’s a “no trophy” icon embedded in the binding of the Pantheon Press hardcover edition, and it effectively summarizes the take-no-prisoner attitude of the protagonists. Hell hath no fury…

Some may be tempted to describe the book as man-hating propaganda. But those tedious pundits would probably be the kind of people to protest the oppression of the modern male, and you won’t get two guesses as to what I think of those people. (Or why they’d be better off in self-assertion therapy.) The truth is that the Wives’ revenge would have been useless if their ex-husbands hadn’t all been crooks and perverts. Sicking the IRS one someone is useless unless there’s real financial trickery involved, right? Painting the antagonists as out-and-out villains may not be especially subtle nor realistic, (nor does it reflect well on our poor heroic trio; what the heck were they thinking when they married these guys?) but it’s not gratuitous man-bashing. Goldsmith, more than in any other of her other books, deals in archetypes. It is, after all, a light-hearted revenge fantasy: It’s not as if knives and squishy body parts are involved.

What is involved, however, is a series of good scenes, especially if you’re a fan of over-the-top bonkbusters. You can almost see the blueprint behind the prose, the conscious attempt to write commercial fiction, the carefully-measured doses of sex and foul language. But scarcely any of that matters once you’re willing to play ball and sympathize with a trio of too-rich women with something to prove. The prose flies, the characters are speedily defined and scarcely any time is lost in attempts at sophistication. The New York social scene takes its lumps and even if there’s something almost annoying in how Goldsmith makes the same points over and over again, it’s hard to be resentful (or even dismissive) when we’re having some much fun.

As a first novel, it’s a good prototype for Goldsmith’s later string of novels. The one thing that seems to have been refined later on is not the heavy-handed moral ending of her stories, but the delightful suspense in knowing if a character will commit to good or evil. Here, everything initially painted as one or another ends up with the same alignment. Latter books would at least allow some latitude in that choice (though appropriate fates would still befall the characters). I can’t help but think that in a latter book, Mort Cushman’s purgatory would have resulted in moral re-alignment, redemption and maybe even a faintly positive ending. Here, well… maybe in the sequel.

All in all, though, it’s a worthwhile fun book, not particularly deep but amusing enough to please anyone looking for a few hours of entertainment. I wonder how the film compares, though…?

Ella Enchanted (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ella Enchanted</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, June 2004) Virtually unnoticed by critics and audiences, this fairy-tale satire actually works surprisingly well, solidly claiming a tradition in the vein of The Princess Bride. Part of the considerable charm of the picture rests squarely on the adorable shoulders of headliner Anne Hathaway, whose charisma shines throughout. (It’s not simply how cute she looks when she shakes-shakes-shakes her booty, though that also helps. For a kid’s film, its scores fairly high on the sex-appeal meter, what with perennial favourites Minnie Driver, Parminder Nagra and Vivian E. Fox all showing up for too-few scenes.) The premise (a mish-mash of fairy-tale sorcery and gentle political satire) has the potential to be annoying, what with its unconvincing “obedience” shtick, but it manages to go beyond the obvious gags and present something more interesting. The script eventually finds its voice, with some surprisingly clever moments. (it’s probably not accident if it’s adapted from a book) Special effects are uneven, through the opening fly-by is a thing of beauty. All in all, a fine time at the movies, and a film that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Capable comedy riffing off fairytale motifs, holds up quite well to a second viewing. Good jokes, well told and quickly lined up. The limits of the budget are obvious, but the charm of Anne Hathaway in the lead role more than compensates for any sub-par special effects. Charming, fun and fit for the whole family. The DVD includes an adequate audio commentary and a number of supplements worth watching once, at the exception of the dull and repetitive featurette.

Connie and Carla (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Connie and Carla</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, June 2004) Some movies are almost too fluffy to talk about. Such is the case here, with a light and inconsequential comedy in which two women on the run from the mob disguise themselves as… drag queens. Nia Vardalos is almost unbearably cute, but (as in the beginning of her previous Big Fat Greek Wedding) she’s not afraid to lather on repulsive coats of makeup for comic effect. Aside from her performance and her blandly pleasant script, the rest of the film is scarcely unremarkable, defusing stereotypes by sheer virtue of being inoffensive in all other aspects. I’d wonder about the reaction of actual drag queens to the film, except for the nagging suspicion that, like everyone else, they’d find it so darn hard to say anything less than nice about the film. It’s a campy comedy by the numbers; let’s leave it at that.

The Chronicles Of Riddick (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Chronicles Of Riddick</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, June 2004) Oh no; here I am, twisted between a bad film and a genre I love, a ridiculous script and a director who knows what he’s doing. In some ways, this film is the epitome of dumb people’s conception of bad SF. Would I be inclined to melodramatic statements, I’d probably say something like how it “sets back the general public’s perception of SF by decades”, except that Battlefield Earth already damaged the genre’s perception for years. On the other hand, I’ve professed my admiration for David Twohy just about everywhere else, and there’s no denying that he’s attempting something very ambitious here. Too bad that it’s pure bargain-basement nonsense: despite some nifty details here and there, this movie rarely makes sense and is content to rely on tired clichés (the Furian prophecy, the easy “victory by killing the head vampire”, etc.) rather than bring forth something new. It doesn’t help that the direction is just about as original as the writing. Scientifically, it’s all trash (don’t get me started on the impossible weather patterns of Crematoria), but that hardly matters given that the film veers more often in science-fantasy territory. As such, there’s something admirable about the grandeur of the visuals: even though the film’s design is singularly ugly, it’s big and bold. Much of the same could be said for Vin Diesel, who once again turns in a serviceable return performance as bad-boy Riddick, though he’s nowhere near the impact of his turn in the prequel Pitch Black. Judi Dench and Colm Feore spend the entire movie slumming in undignified and humourless roles. Still, there’s an undeniable appeal in seeing scorched-hot Thandie Newton vamp around in a snake-tight outfit, or even Alexa Davalos do her best with the usual “tough chick” shtick. So there I am, twisted between dull directing, bad writing, a love of the genre and respect for Twohy. What’s a critic to do?

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Some movies improve upon a second viewing and some don’t. This one not only doesn’t, but actively suffers from the supplement of information that is to be found on the DVD. Sure, some of the action sequences aren’t bad, the art direction is imaginative and Vin Diesel has a screen presence that can do much to compensate for the material. But nothing can raise the quality of the atrocious script, nor make sense of the ridiculous excuse for a science-fiction story. In fact, the more information is presented to us, the less sense the film makes. Yikes. Don’t listen to the audio commentary!

Mystic River, Dennis Lehane

Harper Torch, 2001, 448 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73185-1

Books are usually better than movies; that’s not a revelation. But reading Mystic River after seeing the film may provide the clearest illustration of why this is so. Hint; it’s all about bandwidth, baby.

The first mistake in comparing cinema with prose is using mis-matching examples. Bad books novelized from bad films. Great books that end up being sucky films. Good books that are adapted in good movies that are completely different from the source. No, comparing the two requires an adaptation that is as close as possible to the original material. Needless to say, there aren’t many of these: For some reasons (usually money, insecure production personnel and the perils of collaborative endeavours), film adaptation usually bear only a passing resemblance to the original material. Endings are different. Characters are concatenated. Subplots are eliminated. Only very rarely do you find an adapted film that adheres to the original. It’s even rarer to find a good movie that stays true to a good book.

MYSTIC RIVER is all that. Scripted with great skill by Brian Helgeland, it does an astonishing job at following the novel almost scene by scene, beat by beat. It’s exceedingly rare to find such fidelity, even more unusual to find that both versions are excellent. (Helgeland himself is no stranger to adaptations, though his 1997 take on L.A. Confidential is a perfect example of a good book turned in a great film that is nonetheless very different from the source)

There’s no doubt about it: Mystic River is a great story, on the page or on film. A rich crime drama featuring complex characters and heart-wrenching choices, Dennis Lehane’s story escapes from the strict confines of crime-fiction by studying the effects of a murder on the victim’s friends and family, not strictly through the lens of the investigating sleuths. There is a mystery to be solved (and entertainingly so, should I add), but it’s not the main focus of the story. It’s the fragile relationships between three old friends, the environment they live in, their grief and their misguided attempts at justice that end up providing a quasi-tragic feel to the story.

Anyone with a good grasp of the mystery genre already knows about the book’s reputation or the honours received by the film. There’s no need for me to say that it’s almost an essential piece of genre fiction. Just read or watch it already.

But for literary film geeks like myself, reading Mystic River after seeing the film is a breathtaking demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of cinema as an art-form. Given the fidelity of the story, it’s easier to see what, in the background, makes the two ways of telling the story so different.

To put it simply, the book’s 450 pages allow for a deeper understanding of the story. There is simply more information given about the characters’ state of mind than on the screen. It may not be so atmospheric nor so immersive (It’s easy to sit and watch the film, giving it two hours and a half to just flow without conscious effort), but it certainly communicates the author’s intention more effectively. In On Writing, Stephen King memorably refers to writing as a crude attempt at telepathy. Here, it’s obvious that the prose gets to the marrow of the characters more efficiently that the complicated narrative mechanics of a film. It wouldn’t have mattered in an action-driven film (oh, why don’t you go read the Godzilla novelization?), but it’s absolutely crucial in a story that takes some much time and effort fiddling with its characters as Mystic River.

Even for fans of the film, the book delivers an entirely new experience; it’s like getting the real story behind the story, with all of its ramifications, historical antecedents and complicated motivations. Suddenly, sketchy movie moments become iconic representations of messy situations. None of that should be a knock against Helgeland, director Clint Eastwood or any of the talented actors involved in the making of the film. It should just be seen as a honest, all-cards-on-the-table comparison between two ways of telling the very same story.