Month: September 2004

The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

Dial Books, 2004, 384 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-385-33711-6

The mega-success of The Da Vinci Code has had a variety of consequences both good and bad. Dan Brown may never write a good novel now that he can sell copies of his grocery lists. Le Louvre will probably pick up a few dozen new tourists per year. Some people will make fools of themselves by believing any of the book, or calling for its immediate ban. For the next ten years, paperback racks are going to be packed with rip-offs both explicit and implicit.

The explicit ripoffs will be easy to spot, and most of them will deserve nothing more than an early cover stripping. Built to order by wily authors in search of a best-seller, hyped by publishers anxious to repeat a once-in-a-lifetime success and ignored by seasoned readers in search of new thrills: As a trend, it’ll burn itself out. Maybe we’ll even get one or two good surprises out of it.

The implicit ripoffs will be harder to spot, and much less deserving of scorn. They’ll be honest books that, for a reason or another, will be similar to The Da Vinci Code. But no good idea goes unpunished and so publishers will promote the novels as “the next step in thrillers!” The authors will be hailed as “the new Dan Brown!” Quality won’t matter; just marketing.

I believe that The Rule of Four is a fine example of the latter category. Written well before The Da Vinci Code became such a monster hit and sharing only passing similarities with Dan Brown’s breakout book (it, too, deals with historical investigations), Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s debut book is so different from The Da Vinci Code that it’s almost a shame to speak of both in the same sentence. But guess what? The book became a success because of Dan Brown’s book. Now it must suffer the consequences of the association. (Here’s an amusing Google factoid: A search for the authors reveals 23,000 hits. A search for the authors excluding “da vinci code” gives 8,000 hits. Ouch!)

Suffice to say, in its defence, that The Rule of Four is much better-written than the average thriller. The narrator of the book tells the last events of his stay at Princeton with a somber quality that adds a lot of depth to the telling. The plot also holds its own: As he and his friends get sucked into the study of a devilishly complex book, strange things start to happen; people die, old enemies fight once more and an age-old secret is revealed. This book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, has driven scholars to madness before; will the same thing happen to our heroes?

Well, I’ll let you find out. But as historical clues and modern dangers accumulate, it’s obvious that this is a thriller with grand ambitions both erudite and literary. Structurally, The Rule of Four is a tour de force; it mixes layers of flashbacks, centuries of history, decades of obsession and a “modern-day” plot –all told from a viewpoint years removed. Whew!

Still, don’t think that this is a constant page-turner: As the background is slowly put together for the benefit of the reader, it’s easy to think that this is not leading anywhere. But stick with it: about halfway in the book, the true issue becomes clear, and the novel benefits from the new revelations. Things start to slide once more near the end as traditional thriller mechanics take over inventiveness. But don’t worry, the last two pages rescue the novel from the doldrums.

Not that this is a completely believable novel: Among other mistakes and liberties (First snowfall in April? In which hemisphere?), our college-age protagonists are unbelievably refined, able to quote historical figures (in multiple languages) at the drop of a beer can. It would be ridiculous if it wasn’t for the fact that the authors themselves are of the same age, and they can certainly sling the references.

But ironically enough, and perhaps insultingly enough, I have to admit that once you put The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four one alongside the other, it doesn’t matter if Dan Brown can’t write and The Rule of Four is a triumph of true erudition over flashy research. It doesn’t matter if one has real characters and the other one doesn’t. I doesn’t even matter if one is indisputably better than the other one; I still liked The Da Vinci Code better than The Rule of Four, warts and silliness and all.

But I still read The Rule of Four, and that’s not something I would have done if The Da Vinci Code hadn’t been so wildly popular.

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Ace, 1984, 271 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-56959-5

Twenty years after its publication, it’s hard to feel the impact that Neuromancer had on the SF field for one truly good reason: More than any other SF novel of 1984 (itself somewhat of a banner year, wouldn’t you say?), William Gibson’s first novel discarded the old clichés of Science Fiction, took a look at the future and forged its own way. In doing so, it predicted the future so well that it fit right into it. Yes, looking at Neuromancer in 2004 is a whole new experience. In a world saturated with wi-fi, linked by the Internet, gripped with Terrorism Madness, Neuromancer almost feels like home.

No, I can’t look at Neuromancer today the way they did when it was published in 1984. But I can compare it with my first read, eleven years ago. Back then, I was in High School, reading the book on the patio in my parents’ backyard, mesmerized (and occasionally confused) by this novel so often recommended on those newfangled BBS I was exploring. Fast-forwards to 2004, and I’m a seasoned SF reviewer, reading Neuromancer in my own backyard and posting my review on my own web site. I have changed, but what about the book?

The good news is that even in 2004, it’s easy to see why Neuromancer swept the SF field off its jaded tripods: The novel still has something special; a mixture of high-tech knowledge and streetwise sense, firmly embedded in a global context where branding is more important than nationality. Gibson’s single biggest flash of genius may have been to realize, years before anyone else, that the future was going to be complicated. No easy answers. No global government. No unified set of laws followed by everyone. The real future is all about personal information management; as it gets more complicated, everyone becomes an information analyst… if only to survive.

It helps, naturally, that the book moves at the speed of a broadband connection. Carefully written yet propelled by a natural rhythm, Neuromancer milks the structure of a thriller as the gateway to a different future. This pacing isn’t constant, mind you: I believe that when people talk about Neuromancer in such glowing terms, they usually refer to the initial Earth-bound portion of the book. At the plot acquires orbital velocity, it diverges and meanders, losing itself slightly in its own drug-fuelled excesses and gratuitous psycho-sexual dynamics. There is a point, three-quarter through, where protagonist Case is stuck in VR: that doesn’t seem so fresh after twenty years of cyberpunk both written and screened. (Not that this is Gibson’s fault, of course; no visionary is so cursed as he is endlessly ripped-off.)

But the rest holds up more than enough. As you may guess, it’s Gibson’s gift for language that carries the novel through the end even as it starts revolving around itself and the plot is revealed to be simpler than anyone thought. It reads like noir without the laconic simplicity of it; you want to slow down and capture every image before going on to the next part. Characters are iconic but hollow; Case is a curiously absent protagonist as Gibson’s fetishism of cool makes his protagonist so unemotional as to be unable to react to anything except major annoyances.

But no matter. No matter, because even twenty years later, Neuromancer still triumphs over SF both current and contemporary. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, but more importantly, it got the future. No matter if there are no cell phones in the novel (wouldn’t that pay-phone sequence be so much cooler in a chirping crowd of ringtones?); it still has the right stuff. The attitude. The slick writing. The cool images. The basic understanding of how the real world works.

Reading Neuromancer today is like seeing a trailer for a classic movie. Sure, it’s a bit bombastic and a bit misleading and only hints at the characters and the real story…. but we know how it turns out.

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2003, 454 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50420-9

I would love to review The Da Vinci Code as, simply, a work of fiction. But that’s not possible any more. Not after selling seven million hardcover copies in less than 18 months. Not after spawning a mini-flood of a dozen companion titles (Cracking the Da Vinci Code, etc.) in as little time. Not after it’s been praised or lambasted by a variety of literary and religious authorities. Not after seeing it banned from Lebanon. Certainly not after it has become a pop-culture object in its own right, earning movie-blockbuster attention before even becoming a blockbuster movie.

Reviewing such a book on its own terms is impossible: Any well-informed reviewer comes to the text with expectations, and half of the exercise becomes a validation (or disproof) of external opinions. Quickly followed by an irresistible urge to find out what, exactly, made The Da Vinci Code so successful. Is it due to something in the book’s style, is it the “explosive secret” of the premise, or simply the author’s gift for self-promotion? (Much was made, at the book’s release, of Brown’s aggressive push for on-line reviews).

It doesn’t take many pages to see that there is, indeed, something in The Da Vinci Code to make it so popular. Not the writing, certainly: Brown is earnest, but his style can best be qualified as “clumsy”. Time and time again, experienced readers will trip over a sentence and wonder if there wasn’t a more elegant way of phrasing things. No, the novel’s initial claim to fame is its pacing. The book begins with that sure-fire draw: A murder, as the curator of Le Louvre is shot within the halls of his own museum. Then Brown follows with a macabre mystery: The police, summoned to the scene, discover a cryptic set of notes written by the victim, using his own blood. As our protagonists (Cryptology expert Sohpie Neveu and “symbology” authority Robert Langdon) start pulling at the fine thread of secrets, more and more revelations are made, characters are forced on the run and the novel is off to a fast start. The Da Vinci Code starts like a sprinter and quickly accumulates the forward momentum of a freight train. Try stopping after just a hundred pages: This is pure literary fast food.

But the pacing is just a gateway to the book’s biggest strength: a series of “everything you know is wrong” revelations about historical religious conspiracies and hidden symbolic meaning in everyday life. Like many thriller writers, Brown cleverly plays around with commonly-accepted history and juices up a compelling blend of age-old secret societies, early Christianity trivia and what-if scenarios. Unlike most thriller writers, he obviously hits a nerve. Everyone loves to know a secret, and so The Da Vinci Code serves The Big Ones: The real life of Jesus. The true meaning of the Holy Grail. The source of patriarchy. Whew! Well-done!

Once past the secrets and the pacing of the first half of the book, though, not a lot remains. Perhaps the best thing about Brown’s writing is how he manages to keep up our interest in protagonists constantly lecturing one another. The minimal thriller mechanics (police chases, cracking codes, decoding clues) act as a skeleton for exposition scene after exposition scene. It wears thins midway through, soon after the book’s intellectual climax and biggest revelation. After that, the second half becomes a lot more conventional and settles into a comfortable chase routine. The conclusion eases to a stop with a final revelation that doesn’t seem all that important after all that came before it.

We haven’t mentioned the characters because there isn’t much to say: Protagonist Robert Langdon is curiously passive, content to spout whatever timely exposition is required for Sophie Neveu (and readers) to make sense of what is happening. There’s a limp attempt at character-building (Oooh, look: a Mickey Mouse watch), but otherwise they all act their role in the plot without too much fuss.

In light of this, reviewing “the controversy about The Da Vinci Code” ends up being more interesting than The Da Vinci Code itself. Here, a comparison with movies may be useful: We can’t deny that The Da Vinci Code has received an unprecedented amount of popular attention, which is seldom the case with books. Movies are widely released and burn out their welcome in weeks; novels are more likely to build upon a period of months and, if it’s a classic, acquire a good reputation very slowly. Dan Brown’s novel has defied those traditional patterns and reaped both the benefits and downsides of such attention.

Anyone who reads a lot knows that written fiction can get away with much more controversial material than motion pictures. Horrid horror stories, realistic terrorist plans and subversive ideas are commonplace in genre fiction with nary a peep from the media or religious groups. But when even relatively innocuous films are released, the standards are completely different. Let’s face it; Most mass-market fiction, if rated like movies, would earn a big solid R-rating. But reading is a (comparatively) difficult and unpopular activity; why bother raising a stink when it’s easier to get media attention by criticizing a multi-million-dollar movies starring “real” celebrities?

But when a book breaks the million-copies-sold barrier in such a short time, all bets are off. The book becomes worthy of media stories. Morons who haven’t picked up a book in years are tempted by what everyone is talking about. Everyone starts paying attention, and that includes crackpots, religious groups, would-be censors… and journalists.

There isn’t anything startlingly new or innovative in the ideas kicked around by The Da Vinci Code. Any serious student of religious history already knows about the dodgy history of early Christianity. Any amateur historian knows that Jesus-as-a-historical-figure wasn’t, er, all the Bible hyped him up to be. Heck, any mature reader can see where the reality bleeds into fiction and play along with Brown. But when that much popular attention is concentrated on a book, silly strange things start happening. The book finds its way in hands unaccustomed to the heft of a good thriller. Attentive readers ask questions. Credulous cretins take everything at face value. Cash-grab books purporting to tell “the real story” appear on the market. Religious authorities make pre-emptive strikes against even the slightest whiff of doubt. (Heck, if a silly little thriller can rock any Church, I say that it deserves to be rocked.)

Looking at the amount of media attention still surrounding the book (As of October 1st 2004, featured over 450 stories about The Da Vinci Code), I’m tempted to ask how many other books Da Vinci Code readers have read in their lives. Looking online at the massive amount of pseudo-controversy surrounding the novel, I’m surprised anew at the capacity of some people to get worked up over meaningless stuff. Yes, The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Pieces of it are true, and pieces of it are not; as a mature reader, I understand this and am not about to froth at the mouth at the
revelation that Brown may have been a bit fanciful in his telling. But here are web sites seriously arguing the validity of the book’s premise and others gleefully shooting down even minor details. I ask once more; how many books do these people read per year? What would happen if we gave them a copy of Tim Powers’ Declare? Are they so insecure as to spend all of their time dealing with someone else’s imagined universe?

Meanwhile, Dan Brown is making tons of money –and good for him! He may be forever destroyed as a serious thriller author (his next thriller could be a thinly veiled excuse to show his grocery lists to the world, and it would still sell five million copies), but at least he’ll be able to retire on the profits generated by his thin back-list alone. Isn’t that the sweetest thing about this entire phenomenon?

Now just wait until the movie comes out.

Stone, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2002, 316 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-575-07396-9

One of the many great things about living in Canada is that thanks to our dual imperialistic allegiances, we have access to both American and British literary output. In the Science Fiction field, this is a fairly big deal given how many of the best SF authors are not published on one or the other side of the Atlantic. Widely-acclaimed authors such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds or Jon Courtenay Grimwood are available overseas years before American publishers deign to import their stuff.

Adam Roberts is one of those authors, a decent SF writer whose name barely raises a glimmer of recognition in America. But up here in Canada, all it takes is a well-stocked chain bookstore or even a mega-discount bookstore and -hurrah-, Adam Roberts’ books can be carried home. After years of hesitations, I finally broke down and grabbed Stone, the most intriguing of Robert’s four novels so far.

The back-cover blurb certainly promises a heck of a ride: In a future where humanity lives comfortably in a galaxy made habitable by faster-than-light travel and nanotech (“dotTech”, as it’s called), the only murderer in the known universe is jailed within the core of a star. Chapters later, he escapes thanks to mysterious patrons who only ask for one trifling favour in return: Kill the entire population of a certain planet. But as our anti-hero progresses toward his goal, he becomes fascinated by a very simple question: Who hired him? And why are they so intent on mass murder?

Throw in some fancy quantum mechanics, plenty of exotic planetary environments, an easy familiarity with the tools of SF as well as some gratuitously pedantic quirks, and it’s easy to see that Roberts is a true professional with a deep understanding of the genre. Stone may not be a classic for the ages, but it’s thoroughly satisfying and that’s more than what we usually get.

Adams takes interesting risks in telling the story through our murderer/investigator itself, a narrator of dubious gender (having been both) and variable morality. (“I am a bad man, I’ve done some bad things. I beg your pardon, stone, in telling you these things” [P.1]) Stone takes the form of a meandering monologue, going from one thing to another and embedding levels of flashbacks in a complex narrative. Flashy, showy… but effective.

(Another level of narration is weaved throughout the story as is “translated” by an occasionally-felt editor who inserts gratuitous footnotes discussing translation difficulties. Some footnotes add amusingly useless information on the narrator’s times: My favourite remains the one on page 71, where the narrator’s “The star was called after stuttering conglomeration of letters and numbers, I forget exactly which(1)” is immediately footnoted with “(1): NX-17aOH”. Funny stuff!)

Fans of exotic travelogues will take delight in the series of weird planets environments described by the narrator as he sets about his journey. There is a grandiose uselessness to parts of Stone that is hard to resist; sure, the story could have been half a short, but isn’t it neat that Roberts is spending so much time and energy giving us such extraneous material? (The glossary is particularly wasted: hidden at the end of the book, it’s sandwiched between the conclusion of the narrative and an excerpt from Roberts’ next novel, a location that ensues that no-one will spot it before the end of the novel.)

Other neat touches clearly show that Roberts is an author who knows what he’s doing. The novel’s first murder is a gruesome sequence made even more affecting by the required effort in an age where nanotech can fix most fatal afflictions. In a novel so much fun it’s easy to forget we’re cheering for a mass murderer, this passage does much to ground the novel in a more serious vein. Other neat touches include the narrator’s progressive understanding of the situation he’s in, complete with red herrings, psychological breakdowns and tasty tech details. (I especially liked how a decaying AI stuck in his head breaks down in mid-sentence, saddling the narrator with a severe case of tinnitus. This is the kind of stuff that -ahem- sticks in mind when thinking about a particular novel.)

After all is said and done, Stone is one of those standalone SF novels where seemingly every single nook and cranny and special feature of the invented universe comes into play in explaining the significance of the novel’s event. Don’t get me wrong: I love this stuff. But even the satisfying conclusion can seems like a let-down after the terrific build-up. No matter; my local bookstore has a few more of Roberts’ novels in stock… but not for much longer.

Geek Confidential, Rick Klaw

Monkeybrain, 2003, 255 pages, US$18.95 tpb, ISBN 1-932265-06-6

The good news is that I bought a book of essays previously published on the web. The bad news is that I bought a book of essays previously published on the web.

Hey, it’s no fun being disappointed by a book. It’s even worse when half the book is very good and the other half is just, er, ordinary.

Some context will be useful: Look on the web for “Rick Klaw” and you will find plenty of material. He has edited comic books, run a publishing house, edited fiction, worked in a bookstore and chronicled all of the above in a series of pieces here and there. His current home on the web, however, is his popular “Geeks with Books” column at SF Site. On a monthly basis, he has the license to talk about whatever crosses his mind.

Fortunately, his mind is a geek’s paradise: Science-fiction, fantasy, comic books, gorillas, movies, bookselling, civil liberties, Texas and all sorts of fascinating things co-habit in there, and the mix can be dangerous. Dangerously entertaining, that is: I defy anyone to read five randomly-selected web column of his and not be tempted by Geek Confidential, his first small-press non-fiction collection (alas, complete with unfortunate typographic mishaps). Brought between two covers, you’ll find most of the “Geeks with Books” columns until early 2003, as well as some pieces published in a variety of outlets from to corporate newsletters. As you may expect, 255 pages of pure Klaw can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

The bad news first: Yes, this is a collection of essays previously published on the web, and you will notice it. Reading something on paper is not the same thing than on-screen: context changes everything, and it’s not uncommon to find out that this absolutely neat little essay you remember from isn’t so wonderful in your comfy reading chair. (Granted, the fact that you do remember it counts for something.)

But beyond simply re-printing familiar material perhaps best-suited to another medium, 255 pages of pure Klaw can also be 127 pages of idiosyncratic indulgence. Klaw means well and writes clearly, but by the end of Geek Confidential, he has mentioned the same dozen authors so many times that amusement is replaced by exasperation. We know they’re great. We know they’re from Texas. We know they’re your friends. Next, please. (On the other hand, the laudatory cover blurbs from these same authors all make perfect sense) As is the case with most essay collections, the scatter-shot nature of the book can be a bother, especially toward the miscellaneous end. It doesn’t help that Klaw’s knowledge is broader than it is deep: His understanding of hard-SF, for instance, is superficial at best; good for selling books, but of limited insight to hard-core geeks.

But don’t get me wrong: Geek Confidential shines in other areas: Whenever Klaw gets going on bookselling or comic books, the results are spectacular. The first section of the book, about bookstores from an insider’s perspective, is a screaming delight. His experience in editing the comic book original anthology Weird Business is wonderfully described. His interviews with Tom Doherty, Michael Moorcock and Neal Barrett Jr. are amongst the book’s best passages. There’s a fascinating comic script for a story by Joe R. Landsdale, followed by the actual comic itself. The first half of the book, focused and knowledgeable, is great. The second half… not so great.

Geek Confidential is half a success mixed with half a disappointment. I don’t regret the amount of money I spent on the book: My dollars will grease the wheels of small-press SF publishing, from the dealer to the publisher to Klaw himself, who certainly deserves a few bucks for the on-line columns. But there is a difference between writing for the web and writing for the page. Selection is a must and editing is always a good idea. Even the best presentation (and Geek Confidential, for its fault, is an exceedingly good-looking book) can’t hide the occasional ordinary material. If it helps, think of the book as a wide-ranging conversation with a geeky friend; the good stuff is fascinating, but you’ll have to nod in false agreement whenever he goes off on a tangent of dubious interest. But don’t worry; all you’ll remember later on will be the good parts.

Strokes, John Clute

Serconia Press, 1988, 178 pages, US$16.95 hc, ISBN 0-934933-03-0

Contemplating John Clute’s critical work usually makes me consider quitting SF reviewing altogether. The man is good, m’kay? His reviews transcend good/bad to attain a perfect mass of criticism, linking a studied work to the grand continuum of Science Fiction’s history, the author’s career and overarching trends in critical theory and current events. (In fact, you can sometime read an entire piece of his without even figuring out if he liked the book or not.) I jest, but barely. Clute is the best critic the field has seen and is likely to see for a while. All of us are mere scribblers in comparison.

Granted, he’s been at it since 1966, three decades before I even started posting reviews on the web. But thanks to a Worldcon dealers’ room, I had the unique good fortune to find a rare first edition of Strokes, a collection of his essays and reviews from 1966 to 1986. Along with Clute’s other collections Look at the Evidence (1987-1992) and Scores (1993-2003), this book offers a look at the state of late-twentieth-century Science Fiction and the evolution of John Clute as a critic.

Not that the young John Clute is any less impressive, verbose or perceptive than the latter one: Any critic who wishes to compare chops with the early Clute is in for a rude awakening. In essay after essay, review after review, he demolishes the SF establishment, mines the dictionary for inspiration and holds the genre to higher standards. Here’s what he has to say about William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “Gibson has gotten run away with by a very silly genre plot, and it’s rather a shame” [p.128] . Orson Scott Card: “I for one have never been able to tell if the innards he formaldehydes are gut or plasteel.” [P.67] Harlan Ellison: “Ellison’s high-pitched burning-bush prose is sometimes hard for an atheist to parse.” [P.80, and if you think that’s a zinger, you haven’t read the full paragraph for its maximum impact]. Oh, yes, everyone is slapped around in Strokes: Clute has no patience for anything less but excellence and he takes SF as seriously as any other form of literature (which doesn’t mean that he, himself is serious). You should see what he does with George Zebrowski’s Macrolife: Ouch.

Our younger Clute isn’t, at times, necessarily more intelligible than the more wizened one. The depth of his references can get the better of him (in fact, some of his 1986 annotations have to explain his allusions) and it’s not rare for readers to step back from the text and think “okay, I will assume he knows what he’s talking about.” Given this, it’s somewhat of a shock to read that even Clute can’t fully understand Gene Wolfe upon first reading (as he puts it, “Making sense of Gene Wolfe, it seems to me, is initially a job of decipherment” [P.163]) This, though, doesn’t translate in Clute’s disappointment as much as a challenge for him. (And crestfallen hopelessness for base readers like myself: If John Clute has to re-read Wolfe to make sense of it, what are my chances?)

Clute scholars will be pleased to find out that, even though Clute’s concept of a SF book’s Real Year has since been popularized, it makes its first appearance here as, significantly, a book’s Real Decade [P.31] (Logically enough, it serves as an introduction to John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline) Other meaty critical thoughts in Strokes deal with tropes in SF cinema and SF as an enclave. As suggested above, the book ends with a substantial series of pieces about Gene Wolfe, pieces that actually do help in understanding what Wolfe is trying to achieve.

The stuff surrounding the reviews is similarly worthwhile and useful. The book begins with a revealing introduction by Thomas M. Disch (a classmate of Mr. Clute, we learn) and ends with a fabulous little index that does much to establish this book as a reference work.

All in all, quite a good compilation of reviews. There’s a lot in here for any serious student of the SF field, and plenty of excellent material to shame even journeymen reviewers. Even decades past publication date, Strokes remains a significant work of SF criticism and an essential part of Clute’s oeuvre. While the readership for this book may be small, it will be very pleased.

The Tranquility Wars, Gentry Lee

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 627 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57338-1

One of the most interesting panels of the 2004 World Science Fiction Convention dealt with the fine art of reviewing. Among other things, well-regarded critics on the panel discussed the problem of bad reviews: While no self-respecting reviewer can resist the allure of a killer zinger, there are consequences in publicly claiming that something isn’t worth the time (or the money) to read. One should be careful when writing words that will be read by thousands of readers.

I couldn’t help but cackle silently at this recommendation. Being an obscure reviewer, my readership numbers in the dozens and my influence is negligible. This is handy when I have to deal with stuff like Gentry Lee’s The Tranquility Wars. As for consequences and lost sales, there is no need to worry: As a well-known engineer and well-paid public speaker, Lee doesn’t needs the money, nor is he likely to suffer from the kvetching of a few Science Fiction fans. So let’s forget all about a critic’s responsibility and gleefully jump into a critical trashing, shall we?

The first problem with The Tranquility Wars is that there isn’t anything new or original about the premise of the novel. Our young protagonist, the dashing Hunter Blake, is about to leave his native asteroid for a study fellowship on Mars. But in transit, he’s kidnapped by evil pirates and forced (yes, forced) to work for them. After a while, the pirates let him go and so he goes to Mars to study. Then, what do you know, he comes to realize he’d rather be with the pirates. Then stuff happens to negate the tension of making difficult choices. The End. Not a genius-level plot outline, further complicated by the fact that nothing is surprising. Oh, and there is no Tranquillity War. Barely a juvenile government-versus-rebels spat in which, of course, the rebels are the good guys. Or at least the least-evil ones.

I might have gone along for the ride if it wasn’t for the fact that Hunter Blake, fellowship scholar, is one of the dumbest protagonists I’ve had the misfortune of reading about. His understanding of things is barely sufficient for continued survival. His romantic adventures are complicated by the fact that every female he sleeps with has a good fifty IQ points over him. Half the novel (a six hundred pages novel) is spent wanting to slap Blake around; the other half is darkened by the growing realization that Lee actually likes his own protagonist. (One thing for sure; he certainly loves his work on the “Rama” video game, because it survives intact as a significant part of this novel’s background.)

Let’s not talk about the writing style, nor the dialogue: In a hard-SF genre renowned for bad prose and lines that will never be said by any normal human being, The Tranquillity Wars should be hidden away in a closet as an embarrassment to the merely adequate writers in the field.

But let’s spend some time rehashing Lee’s peculiar guilty vision of sexual relationships. As with the Bright Messengers sequence, there is a lot of sex in this book, and almost all of it is a demonstration of why some writers should never approach the subject. Young Hunter Blake is, not to put too fine a point on it, a moron when it comes to relationships. His first crush is on a woman who proceeds to become one of the system’s best-known escorts. (it speaks volumes that almost all male characters know about her and become unthinking beasts in her presence.) But -aha!- his second Significant Other is the very model of motherhood. Ooh; madonna/whore, I wonder which one he’ll pick?

There are many, many things wrong about The Tranquility Wars and all of them are exacerbated by the ungodly length of the book. Gentry Lee may or may not underthink his novels, but he certainly overwrites the heck out of them. Hunter isn’t captured by the pirates until page 180. His inane inner monologues are stretched over paragraphs, making us loathe him even more. Simple predictable scenes takes pages to unfold; skipping entire passages becomes essential to make any kind of sane progress through the book.

Oh, just forget it, all right? This book may be fun to read for all the wrong reasons, but it’s still trash riding on the coattails of Lee’s “collaborations” with Arthur C. Clarke. I note with some relief that since 2000, Gentry Lee seems to have figured out the obvious and quietly left the Science Fiction field. For once, I’m not about to complain about the loss of an SF writer; Mister Lee gets to enjoy a meaningful life of engineering endeavour and familial happiness, while we SF fans are spared any further indignities such as The Tranquillity Wars.

Super Size Me (2004)

Super Size Me (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) So McDonald’s says that its products are perfectly healthy and those obese people suing them are just not making the right choices. Well, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decided to take the fast-food chain to its word and, for thirty days, live on a diet exclusively composed of products bought at McDonalds. Three square meals a day, eating just what’s on the menu at Mickey-Ds. Naturally, he had to film the experience and measure his progress. Two days later, he’s throwing up; by the middle of the month, doctors are aghast at his blood tests and demanding that he stops. Yes, Super Size Me is a stunt, but it’s also more than the chronicles of a mad experiment: it’s a journey through the seedy intestines of fast-food culture circa 2004. Packed with fun segments and shocking facts, this is a compulsively watchable documentary. Despite the muddy video and the uneven sound, Spurlock’s film is a little gem of advocacy backed up by a sympathetic star/test subject. I wasn’t fond of the home-grown rock-and-roll snippets, but otherwise the film is a solid documentary. Rent the DVD, call some friends and have a vegan party.

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) Every two or three years, sci-fi geeks get a little present from Hollywood. Dark City, Equilibrium and now, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. They have to be quick, though: The films usually crash and burn with nary a trace, proof that what turns on geeks like myself is just not what amuses mundanes. Oh, it’s not like this is a perfect film, even for pre-sold audiences: Shot in a virtual environment, it has all the stiffness of old studio films. Interaction between characters and stage are reduced to a strict minimum, and there’s an aura of artificiality clogging the naturalism of the direction. The self-consciously pulpish story may not be to everyone’s taste, but even the best intentions can’t compensate for lengthy stretches of banal dialogue. This being said, nothing will stop me from loving this film unconditionally; it’s simply a beautiful piece of nostalgic golden-era SF, filled with big images and classic themes, wonderful machines and crazy ideas. I’m not usually a big fan of Gwyneth Paltrow, but it just takes long flowing locks of blonde hair and a sassy attitude to show me the error of my ways. Yes, this is a box-office flop and an incomprehensible curiosity to mass audience. But I’ll be buying the DVD as soon as it comes out; thank you Hollywood, and I’ll wait until the next happy accident.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) It’s not that this film is entirely unpleasant: It’s just that whatever is interesting about this film comes in thirty-seconds snippets, sandwiched between vast stretches of silliness and boredom. Yes, there’s plenty of added value-for-money for us Canadian in seeing a very explicit Toronto double as a “Raccoon City” overwhelmed by flesh-eating zombies. It’s interesting to see another take on the urban desolation theme. Roughly three of the last five minutes are top-notch. Milla Jovonovich isn’t completely wasted as super-powered heroine “Alice”. Here and there, dumb shoot-em-ups still manage to bring back memories of the rock-and-roll first film. But by and large, Resident Evil: Apocalypse struggles from one set-piece to another, barely managing to distinguish itself in the increasingly crowded zombie sub-genre. The dark-on-black cinematography annoys, the cheap production values hurt and so does the painfully inept script: The characters are so unimaginably stupid that it’s hard to actually cheer for any of them. Worst of all, though, is the dawning insight that Paul Anderson’s much-derided direction is what propelled the original Resident Evil from stupid video-game movie to enjoyable stupid video-game movie. Here, well, it’s not all good. Not all good at all.

Airforce One is Haunted, Robert Serling

St. Martin’s, 1985, 332 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-90029-5

One of the pleasures of being a free-range reviewer (Wild! Untamed! Answerable to no one!) is that I can have the luxury to look at older oddball books. I have no stack of advance copies, no editor asking for reviews in a certain format, no corporate interests to defend. So when such a bizarre book as Robert Serling’s Airforce One is Haunted makes its way to me, it’s hard to resist the temptation to give it a fair shake and see what falls out.

Keep in mind that there is an interesting context surrounding this book and this author. You can note, for instance, that Robert Serling was a prolific aviation writer. Born in 1918, he was also the brother of “the” Rod Serling best known as the writer behind the original “Twilight Zone”. He achieved some notoriety with the novel The President’s Plane is Missing, which was later filmed for TV. His last novel was Something’s Alive on the Titanic (1990), third in a trilogy of rather obvious titles.

[April 2006: The web proved surprisingly useless in verifying Serling’s more recent whereabouts, but an anonymous correspondent wrote in to correct my initial impression and say “Author Robert J. Serling is alive and well and currently resides in Arizona.” Thanks!]

A direct sequel to The President’s Place is Missing (which I haven’t read, but must have been a challenge to follow-up given that it was published and set nearly twenty years earlier), this novel mixes romance, political thrills, history and the supernatural to give form to something that’s not boring, but could certainly use some tightening up. Bolted together from too many dissimilar parts, this novel has the unfortunate distinction of being more interesting than successful.

It begins, audaciously enough, with the President of the United States seeking psychological help. As Jeremy Haines explains to beautiful (and single) psychologist Jessica Sarazin, his last few trips on Air Force One have been plagued by visions. Not just visions, actually, but lengthy conversations with the ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After being devastated by the events of the previous novel, the President is finding great inspiration from these chats. New policy programs spring forth, stunning pundits from either sides of the political divide. But despite these clear and successful results, he can’t help but wonder; is he insane or subject to a paranormal manifestation? With Sarazin’s close help (which soon gets even closer), he sets out to investigate.

But this isn’t a time for even ghostly rumours to spring up. Going through the penultimate year of his second mandate, Haines is facing difficulties both foreign and domestic: The Communists are baring their teeth (this is a Cold War novel, after all) while, at home, a depression is trashing the economy. Haines’s enemies are just waiting for a slip-up. Worse; now that the SDI program nears completion, some elements of his cabinet are seeing an occasion to solve the Soviet problem once and for all.

So there we go: psychiatric romance, haunted Air Force One and thrilling political fiction all blended together. Is it any wonder if some lumps don’t smoothly go together? Political fiction is so intricately based on reality-as-we-know-it that throwing a ghost in the proceeding isn’t just inappropriate: it’s completely useless. I don’t mind the romance and the portrait of FDR is sympathetic enough, but trying to mesh a ghost with the political affairs of nation is more likely to make one wish for one or the other. It certainly doesn’t help that Serling tries to have it both ways, both as a psychological hallucination (FDR as the conscience of Haines) and as a real ghost. Shrug.

Certainly, this may explain why this book has completely sunk away from public perception. It’s certainly not dull, thanks to Serling’s efficient writing style, but it’s definitely the product of a bygone time and suffers as such. You can read it, enjoy the policy arguments (there are a number of clever ideas, though I’m not sure how practical, say, a national lottery would truly be) but close the book and it will vanish, a lot like a ghost of barely-adequate fiction…

Paparazzi (2004)

Paparazzi (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) Normally, it’s easy to emphasize with movie heroes looking out for their families. But when confronted with such a hypocritical piece of work like Paparazzi, it’s even harder to care. A revenge fantasy made for those dozens (dozens, I tell you!) actors rich enough to be hounded by celebrity photographers, Paparazzi makes its first mistake when it introduces a hero with serious attitude problems. Most of us could deal with paparazzis with a touch of tact; here, our protagonist starts pounding. Ahem. Then our antagonists are just as quickly sketched as lewd and amoral caricatures of pure evil, prone to hissy fits where they vow “I’ll destroy you!”. Uh-huh. (The script is so detached from reality that it features a woman jumping into bed right after witnessing her one-night-stand leaving the scene of a terrible accident he just caused. Whaaat?) The rest of the picture is a revenge fantasy where our sympathies naturally migrate toward the photographers rather than the rich-and-famous-actor. The awful coincidences, dumb contrivances and limp plotting do nothing to make us care and more. By the time the protagonist’s self-styled therapy session has given him the tools required to face his celebrity (“I’ve killed a bunch of your colleagues; how’s it going, champ? Take another picture of me, willya?”), normal audiences are left to face the fact that this is what passes for entertainment these days.

Control Room (2004)

Control Room (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) This fascinating documentary takes us on the ground at the US Military media “control room” in Quatar throughout the American invasion of Iraq. While the focus is kept on the staff of the Al-Jazeera news network, this is really an examination of how war affects journalism, and how truth is carefully molded by forces escaping individual control. As a documentary, it’s low-touch: All is raw footage and beyond some text at the very beginning of the film, there is no feeling of a narration telling us what is happening. Don’t think that this makes for a loose film, though: Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Control Room is how it defines and watches its own characters coping with the ordeal. Samir Khader, a wizened news producer who tells the truth in-between cigarettes, including how he’d gladly trade the Arabic nightmare for the American dream. Hassan Ibrahim, a teddy bear philosopher whose quiet brainy rage is no match for the events he’s covering. Lt. Josh Rushing, a mouthpiece for the US Army who nevertheless shows, at times, a rough understanding of what is going on. Donald Rumsfeld, appearing only through television monitors, every single time uttering a statement that applies more to himself than to the enemies he thinks he’s damning. And the staff at Al-Jazeera, professionals and journalists just like others, until they themselves become targets. Throughout the film, one stark realization emerges for non-partisan viewers looking at it from a late-2004 perspective: In a match between American and Arab media, the Arab media seems to have a clearer picture of what truly happened. As American media breathlessly accuse Saddam of torturing prisoners and lying to the press, it’s hard not to feel the force of history selecting the ultimate truth-sayer.

Cellular (2004)

Cellular (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) Thrillers don’t have to be good if they’re clever, and Cellular demonstrates this better than most other films. Bad dialogue? A lousy lead actress? Contrivances, coincidences and leaps of logic? Here’s the surprise: you just won’t care if the film is energetic and suspenseful enough. After a wobbly first fifteen minutes (Kim Basinger is still pretty hot, but her idea of “terrified” is closer to our vision of “mildly annoyed”), the premise is clearly established: A faint phone connection as the only thing linking a kidnapped woman to her accidental would-be rescuer. After that, watch out, because the film takes off and doesn’t land until the end. A succession of clever set-pieces keeps the action flowing, and director David R. Ellis’ nervy direction excels at delivering a limpid story. There’s suspense, there’s action, there’s wish-fulfilment and there’s plenty of humour. Lead Chris Evans does exceedingly well as an ordinary guy thrown into an extraordinary situation. Jason Stratham is wasted as the bad guy, but Rick Hoffman turns in a great character performance as an ultra-obnoxious lawyer. Los Angeles itself takes a starring role as the playground on which all the craziness occurs. The ending is a bit conventional, but no matter; by that point, it’s easy to be completely taken by Cellular, one of 2004’s purest and most compelling thrillers. Let this be a lesson to would-be filmmakers; be funny, be fast and be clever, damnit!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume II, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

American’s Best Comics, 2003, 224 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 1-4012-0118-0

After the critical and popular success of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I (the comic book, not the movie), the expected sequel took its time to appear, and in doing so raised expectations to an unattainable level. Now that Volume II is on bookshelves in a trade paperback format, everyone can be disappointed for less money than the hardcover edition.

As suggested on the last page of the prequel, this sequel deals with a Martian invasion of England. Once again, our Extraordinary Gentlemen are sent to investigate. What they find seems to be safely contained within an impact crater, but as we may expect from those type of stories, things don’t remain under control for too long: it doesn’t take two issues for the English countryside to be set ablaze. But if you think that the Martians are the only problem, you’ll be sorely mistaken: Tensions between members of the League, simmering since the Volume I, are finally allowed to boil over. Terrible things happen. More literary references are made. Two (maybe three) graphic sex scenes occur. The Martians are vanquished. The book ends.

If the violence in Volume I made you uneasy, Volume II is much worse. It’s not simply a matter of thousands of people dying through the Martian invasions (some of them in a gruesome fashion; being burnt alive is not a pretty death, even in comic form), but also of very personal violence between the protagonists of the tale. Issue 5 alone will make more than one reader queasy. The violence is not without consequences; Moore alters the series so significantly that whatever League composes the rumoured Volume III won’t look anything like this one. (Don’t lose hope, though: the appended prose “New Traveller’s Almanac” describes more than a few further adventures for the surviving characters), The least we can say is that the go-for-broke dramatic intensity of this adventure is a refreshing change from comic book series designed to last decades in static patterns.

What is unfortunate, however, is that the League’s actions in this adventure seem far more passive and limited than in the prequel. Most of Issue 1 is spent on Mars, in a prologue that seems as drawn-out as superfluous. For the longest time, The League simply looks at what’s happening with scarcely any progress. Then, as it splinters in interpersonal conflicts, the big heroics come when two members of the League are used as glorified messengers. The same lack of explicit action also plagued Volume I, but to a lesser extent given how it was counter-balanced by the formation of the League. Here, half the characters are wasted. Plot-wise, Volume 2 is just a disappointment.

Naturally, the simple fact that this is a sequel works against its impact. We’re already familiar with the imagined world of Moore’s pastiche. We already know how The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a mash-up of Victorian-era heroes. We already think that this is a piece of genius. We already played with fascinating elements from the period. While H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau are not trifles, they can’t compete with the heady spin of the first volume’s constant invention. Oh well.

For fans of the first book, the sequel is still worth a look if only to bring the story to a natural conclusion. Moore’s writing definitely has its moments —though the motivation in one villain deciding to turn against the league seems highly suspect. Even if I’m still not a big fan of Kevin O’Neill’s deliberately stylized work, it features a dynamism and a gorgeous use of colour that’s pleasant to see. The playfulness of the concept is still strong enough that anyone with even the slightest interest in Victorian literature will get another kick out of this. But please: no movie sequel.