Month: November 2004

Guts, David Langford & John Grant

Cosmos Wildside, 2001, 173 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 1-58715-336-X

Horror novels got you down? Can’t stomach yet another exotic supernatural threat to humankind? Won’t stand the dour pretentiousness of King wannabes? Trust David Langford and John Grant to churn out the most awfully hilarious parody of the entire splatter-shock sub-genre and make you like it!

There is no cover plot description for Guts and you won’t need one as long as you know cheap horror novels: If, say, you see a horror novel named The Rats, does it take a rocket surgeon to figure out what’s the big concept of the book? In fact, when half the novel on these particular shelves are named The [Something], do you need a plot description other than the classic “[Something], which you thought was harmless and maybe even useful, turns out to have an evil mind of its own and start killing just about everyone in the world”?

I don’t think so. Hence the previous spoileriffic “spoiler-free” paragraph.

But onward; suffice to say that Langford and Grant have delivered the ultimate horror novel parody. It combines elements of bad SF, awful writing and wickedly sharp satire for what may very well be an unforgettable reading experience. Silly characters (including clueless scientists, cheap bimbos, broad stereotypes and a journalist who just won’t die) are nice, but it’s the consciously over-the-top nature of the writing that makes Guts such a success. I haven’t yet been disappointed by a Langford book yet and Guts is no exception: If you’re a fan of horror and British comedy (and especially British horror that cries out for comedy), this is the book for you.

“Warning: Offensive Content!” says the brown-bagged cover, and it’s not kidding. Sensible minds and weak stomachs may be best-served by avoiding this book forever. Langford and Grant pull no punches in serving funny horror on a dripping plate of blood and gore. Perhaps the best scene of the book comes along in Chapter Five, which includes the single best parody ever written of those interminable that-guy-should-be-dead knock-down drag-out brains-hanging-out fights between protagonist and unspeakable horror. It’s as bloody disgusting as it’s compulsively hilarious, and that’s exactly the kind of effect Guts is looking for. It’s so over the top that it’s impossible to mistake for anything but self-conscious satire. If you think that DEAD ALIVE and the EVIL DEAD series were a bit on the wussy side, Guts is what you’re looking for.

Unfortunately, like most humour novels, it’s not lacking in weak moments. The novel is front-charged with good stuff; the latter sequences leading to the explosive ending (involving a sentient cheese, though that’s already saying too much) are a bit of a let-down. Not all plot-lines are equally compelling; I was a bit underwhelmed by the neo-Nazi segments myself. (Don’t worry; this is a perfectly understandable statement in the context of the book.)

Published by small-scale house Cosmos Wildside, you can bet that Guts won’t be available at your local chain bookstore anytime soon. If the idea of a splattery horror parody appeals to you, if you’re already familiar with Langford’s typically dry British wit, if you love self-conscious take-offs of bad fiction, you can probably figure out if Guts is likely to appeal to you. It’s a wonderful take-off on a sub-genre that has long deserved some humorous disgrace, and a savvy comment on the tools of lazy horror writers. That it’s unbelievably funny is just a bonus.

Somewhere, an owl hoots (for you).

Utopia, Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 2002, 385 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50668-6

It would be easy to make a wisecrack about how theme park are like catnip for techno-thriller authors, but that would be designating Michael Crichton as “all techno-thriller authors”. It’s not because the guy has made a career writing about theme parks, from WESTWORLD to Jurassic Park, that one has to tar an entire genre with the same brush.

Still, when Lincoln Child decided on a theme park as the setting of his first solo effort, he had to be aware that reviewers around the world would use Crichton’s oeuvre as a lead-in to their reviews. So there we are.

Chances are that you have already read something at least co-written by Child: Douglas Preston and him are, after all, responsible for some of the best-selling thrillers of the past decade, The Relic to The Cabinet of Curiosities. What was stopping them from branching off on their own? Why, nothing, and so Child had Utopia out on the shelves in late 2002. (With a very attractive cover illustration which, might I add, shares a non-coincidental look with Swarz and Watkins’s Power Failure. But that’s an observation best left to cover design geeks such as myself.)

As a thriller, it couldn’t dream of a better setting: Set deep in the Nevada desert within the imaginary theme park of Utopia, Utopia begins as robotic expert Andrew Warne is invited at the park to fix a few persistent problems with the robotic equipment. No, no, the novel has nothing to do with robots taking over the place: you can calm down. It’s merely an excuse to get Warne in place as terrorists make a well-coordinated assault on Utopia. The novel (save for the prologue and epilogue) takes place over a single day packed with thrill-rides, chases and explosions.

As a setting, Utopia is a whole lot of fun: Child takes an obvious delight in showing us how theme park operate, which is fortunate given how this kind of techno-fetishism detail is exactly what readers likely to pick up Utopia are looking for. Divided in four parts (Gaslight/Victorian, Camelot/Medieval, Callisto/Futuristic and Boardwalk/Beachfront, though most of the story takes place in the futuristic “Callisto” area), the park attracts thousands of visitors per day, depends on the latest technology, makes tons of money, employs thousands of people, bla-bla-blah… The behind-the-scenes details betray either extensive research or a convincing imagination, but there’s not much to complain about given how it’s the setup of the novel. It’s like slipping back in a comfortable story-telling mode. Crichton fans, to name an obvious market segment, are unlikely to be disappointed.

Things heat up a little bit more when Something Happens and the management of the park receive instructions from carefully-prepared terrorists. They want something, they’re ready to prove how evil they are, they’re obviously getting information from someone on the inside and so the games begin.

Alas, the novel is never quite as good as its setting suggests. The final goal of the villains seems laughably pedestrian, especially considering the amount of complicated preparations they undertake to achieve their goals when simpler ways to get to it existed. The identity of the traitor can safely be guessed from the very first scenes. The book’s killer-app technology, perfect holography, is used in exactly the same way it’s been used on countless cheap TV series with scarcely any technological believability. Even the pacing of the novel seems to stretch on forever by the end, even as it should go a little bit faster.

Don’t get the impression that any of this is a catastrophe: if nothing else, Utopia delivers the kind of summertime thriller-reading experience the name “Lincoln Child” has become (half) known for. But there’s something disappointing in putting down the novel and muttering something about how it could have been much better. Hardly essential but, hey, there’s always the next Preston&Child collaboration…

Iron Sunrise, Charles Stross

Ace, 2004, 355 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01159-4

Singularity Sky, Charles Stross’ debut novel, was immediately acclaimed as one of the best SF books of 2003 and went on to earn a spot on the Best Novel Hugo Awards nominee list. Its sequel, Iron Sunrise, is even better. Reprising some of the same characters in a different adventure set in the Eschaton universe inaugurated by Singularity Sky, it expands the scope of the series and also shows Stross’ progress as a novelist.

It starts with a bang, of course, as a sun is detonated in spectacular technical detail. New Moscow has just died, taking along with it billions of people and destroying an entire culture. Who’s to blame for the star-killer? UN investigator Rachel Mansour (co-star of Singularity Sky) is assigned to the case after a messy interlude defusing a nuclear bomb in suburban Geneva. Things quickly get worse when it’s revealed that New Moscow’s destruction has triggered a doomsday device aimed at another star system. As the race against the clock begins to save an entire planet, events spin out of control when the Nazi-like reMastered faction steps onto the stage… and that’s not even saying anything about Wednesday Shadowmist, an exiled teenage girl with a very unusual education who comes to play a big part in the subsequent events.

There is a lot to like about Iron Sunrise, and perhaps the best thing about it is how it shows Stross’ increasing control over his material. While Singularity Sky told a rather simple story with a lot of padding, Iron Sunrise goes for a more complicated plot and a tighter focus on what’s really important. Rachel Mansour herself is almost a supporting character, what with Wednesday constantly stealing the show. The threat of the reMastered has big repercussions outside the immediate events of the story, and the feeling of the novel is more vertiginous than its prequel.

A lot of it has to do with the expanded scope of the Eschaton universe as used by Stross, which takes on new shapes and shades. This imagined future is profoundly upsetting, in a way, as it resets the clock on human history and reignites ethnic conflicts on dozens of world without much in a way of impartial mediation. For a writer quickly being known for light-hearted storytelling, Iron Sunrise proves to be surprisingly mean and effective at times: Times of London blogger Frank the Nose’s recollections of Newpeace, for instance, is awful, disturbing and one of the best thing Stross has ever written.

Sometimes, though, Stross’ quirky sense of humour can get the better of him: I’m worried that the book will age prematurely, what with blogs and slashdotting being bandied about casually in this far-future setting (heck, Iron Sunrise even has a chapter called “Someone set us up the bomb”. Top that!) His energy is contagious, and his gift for putting characters in bizarre situations is getting better. (The sequence in which the characters have to plot inside a panopticon is definitely ingenious.)

Fortunately, Iron Sunrise keeps moving at a steadier pace than Singularity Sky. The slingshot ending alone is a piece of work, kicking the novel in high gear just as you thought everything was winding down. Alas, Stross confirms on Usenet that he’s grown doubtful about the Eschaton universe and has no immediate plans to return to it. Too bad, but then again we’ve got more than enough to satisfy us with those first two volumes.

As of this writing, Iron Sunrise looks like a leading contender for the Hugo Awards, helped along with Stross’ physical proximity to Glasgow in time for the 2005 Worldcon. Best of luck to him; the book certainly deserves consideration. It’s a fine piece of modern SF by a rising star of the genre, one who can be counted upon to deliver the good like a true professional.

The McAtrix Derided, Adam Roberts (as "The Robertski Brothers")

Gollancz, 2004, 300 pages, £6.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07568-6

I would like to write that after reading Adam Roberts’ Stone, I was so blown away that I bought everything he wrote and then tracked down everything he’s done under pseudonym and ended up with The McAtrix Derided in my hands. It would be a good story.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be true. While I was impressed by Stone enough to buy the rest of Roberts’ SF novels, the truth is that I would have bought this Matrix prose parody regardless of the author. To know that Roberts was the not-so-pseudonymous author of it only made it more amusing to me.

Now, I’m told that parody is a hot genre in the UK right now. Driven by such titles as Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody and The Soddit (another Adam Roberts product, as “ARRR Roberts”), the category has known a brief white-hot flash of popularity in 2004, and The McAtrix Derided rides squarely on the crest of that particular wave. I’ll leave it to other scholars to discuss the pop-cultural implications of such a parasitic phenomenon, but the bottom line for me is this: I’m such a whorishly undiscerning fan of THE MATRIX trilogy (despite my progressive disenchantment with the latter volumes) that any parody is all right with me.

Certainly, The McAtrix Derided has the decency to use the usual tools of parodies: The thinly-disguised puns on characters’ names (here, “Nemo”, “Thinity”, “Smurpheus”, “The Frurnchman” and so on), the roughly-parallel plot structure, the silly alternate explanations, the gentle jabs at the source material’s plot holes and the affectionate take-down of the pop phenomenon surrounding the original work. It’s all quite amusing, especially if you’re ready to be amused. After all, parodies are usually as good as the amount of slack you’re willing to cut them.

The good news are that I was indeed quite amused by the whole book. It starts before even cracking open the covers of the book: As -I gather- is the case with other parodies, The McAtrix Derided comes in a tiny 6"x5"x1” hardcover scarcely bigger than my hand: if any book format can be called “cute”, this is it. Beyond the twin functions of cutting down on costs while making the thin narrative seem longer than it actually is (most pages contain less than 250 words!), it’s a format that, like most needlessly tiny objects, asks you to smile before you even start reading.

Given that this is a parody, a summary of the story is probably irrelevant. Suffice to say that as Gordon Everyman (Database Coordinator) discovers the hidden truth about his world, readers are asked to follow along the usual slight gags and silly comedy of an extended MAD-magazine satire. Particular highlight include “Gents” antagonists (as in “Oh no, a gent!”), a mad dancing sequence, perpetual befuddlement from Gordon/Nemo (which allows Roberts to poke holes into THE MATRIX’s most dubious assumptions) and a series of bonus pages treating the book as a DVD release (along with Author’s Commentary, Deleted Scenes, promotional offers, previews of other “Victor Gollum” videos and promotional trailers that had me laughing like an idiot.)

But the real treat comes late in the narrative: While most of the book is a parody of the first MATRIX film, the latter half touches upon the second film and then leaves the whole original trilogy behind for the conclusion. It’s not for nothing that the third part of the book is titled “The McAtrix Derrida’d”: It’s a clever conclusion that tones down the comedy and works both as a conclusion to the book and an alternate explanation for the original movie trilogy. Most interesting, and I say this despite the deliberately ambiguous conclusion. MATRIX fans will find here a reason to track down the book independent of the appeal of a parody.

The best part of The McAtrix Derided (why couldn’t they call it The Mactrix Derided?) is that it’s a product by a real SF author, and not simply a literary hack chosen at random: Roberts knows his science, likes THE MATRIX, understands the appeal of a good story and never lets his natural decency as a human being stop him from cramming another lame pun in the story. You have to respect that kind of commitment.

Ghosts of Vesuvius, Charles Pellegrino

Morrow, 2004, 489 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97310-3

Charles Pellegrino’s two biggest gifts as a scientific vulgarizer are his ability to make unlikely connections between seemingly disparate elements, and his tendency to extract the last drops of dramatic intensity from these connections. Used in moderations, they can take any readers’ breath away. Overused, they can transform a book in melodrama. Ghosts of Vesuvius, Pellegrino’s latest and most ambitious work, succeeds despite nearly tripping over these elements of Pellegrino’s style.

Regular readers of these reviews already know the tremendous amount of respect that I have for Pellegrino as both a Science Fiction novelist (Dust, The Killing Star) and as a scientific vulgarizer (Ghosts of the Titanic, Chariots of Apollo, Return to Sodom and Gomorrah). I was delighted beyond words to see him briefly featured in James Cameron’s documentary GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS. He’s one of the very few writer on my buy-on-sight list; please colour the following review accordingly.

A quick look at Pellegrino’s bibliography will reveal a fascination for catastrophe: Life on Earth as we know it ends in both of his solo novels while two of his non-fiction books are entirely about the Titanic. In his latest work, Pellegrino tackles nothing less than the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and, two thousand years later, the tragic events of 9/11. In both cases, Pellegrino goes in the field: first as a member of the team digging and analyzing the remnants of Pompeii and, later, as part of the team investigating the remnants of the WTC. (And as fans may guess, there’s also new Titanic-related material here and there in the book; see GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS for details..)

The subtitle of the book says it all: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall and Other Strange Connections. A mere summary of the high points of the book fails to do justice at the incredible stuff Pellegrino pulls out of the fire: A dramatic explanation of how Pompeii died, complete with a lesson in high-energy physics. The incredible phenomenon of “shock cocoons” in which people can escape, unscathed, from the worst catastrophes. (Pellegrino himself being a case study in these matters) The heart-wrenching stories suggested by the excavations in Pompeii. The unbelievable events surrounding the collapse of the World Trade Center.

But as good as this material is, it’s never better than when Pellegrino starts making links between then and now, between this and that, between there and here. Roman and American arrogance, the fragility of existence on a geologically active Earth, the exploration of space and sea are all tied together in a strand of human history that does much to eliminate differences between all. Ghosts of Vesuvius is awe-inspiring in the way great science books often are, by making the obvious marvellous again.

But Pellegrino, as a humanist, also manages the opposite trick, by finding the human touch in exceptional events. Slaves swallowed by a pyroclastic cloud or firefighters atomized by a falling tower; all are ordinary people in extraordinary situations. There’s plenty of grief and hope in this book, and it doesn’t matter if the tragedies happened three years or two thousand years ago.

It adds up to an impressive, often disjointed five hundred pages. Pellegrino writes in a scatter-shot stream-of-consciousness style that makes the greatest of connections but can be hard to follow if you’re expecting a structured work. Thankfully, he doesn’t allow the drama to become melodrama, but the tremendous amount of heartfelt sentiment in this book may surprise those expecting a more dryly clinical work. (There’s also a good index, if that helps)

Fans of Pellegrino will be delighted to find out that the man has been up to much since his last book (Ghosts of the Titanic, 2000) and get even more tantalizing hints about the infamous “Pellegrino Effect”. Newer readers may have to work a bit harder to get used to the flow of the book, but once that’s done, only one thing is obvious: Ghosts of Vesuvius is an exceptional book combining hard science and heart-felt sentiment. Pellegrino triumphs once again. So, when’s the next book due?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast/Bloomsbury, 1999, 317 pages, C$11.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55192-478-1

Truth be told, I’m not unhappy to be the last one on my block to read the Harry Potter series. As a rabid reader with a serious hundreds-books-per-year habit, you could expect me to keep up with the fantasy bestsellers. But I’ve been content so far to follow the series along slightly behind the movies, trying to find a happy medium between being a cinephile and honouring my semi-rigid rule of waiting until the last volume of a closed-ended series has been published before reading it. Hey, it’s been working for me so far: Wait for the movies to come out, see film, read book, repeat… until volume seven comes out, that is.

I’ve been generally satisfied by the movies so far, except for moments in HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN where crucial scenes seemed to run too quickly without the necessary information. As the crowd around me oohed and aawed in recognition, I started suspecting something had been lost in adaptation.

Even a cursory reading of the original novel confirms these doubts. Oh, the basic thrust of the story remains the same: Harry escapes evil foster parents, goes to school (third year!), tries to follow classes but ends up stuck in yet another skirmish between the forces of good and evil. Harry learns a little bit more about himself, we learn a little bit about the world surrounding them and more magic ensues. How complicated can it be, truly?

Quite complicated, as it turns out. I’m just about the last critic to make the wide-eyed discovery that the Harry Potter books are growing along with the characters, and so this third volume is much more darker in tone than the previous volumes, following the trend traced by the second book. Themes are more serious (even though there’s less emphasis on the muggles/wizard class divide this time around), stakes are higher and even the magic itself is getting more serious. (Just wait until Harry’s hormones kick in: I’m expecting riots and ravishings by volume seven)

But Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn’t just more somber: It’s downright tragic. The biggest twist of this third volume is the growing realization that poor Harry and his friends are stuck in paths traced by their parents. Harry, Hermione and Ron would love to live the life of normal students, attending classes, making friends, playing quidditch and having fun. But no: Thanks to events having happened decades earlier, they’re constantly stuck in mortal perils not of their doing, trying to atone for the sins of their fathers. And that, in my book, is pretty damn tragic.

Otherwise, well, there isn’t much to report. Readability remains sky-high, thanks to Rowling’s careful prose and steady re-use of common fantasy elements. I do like the way that her universe is expanding and coming together, though the big breakthrough in this matter so far remains the second volume. Still, Harry’s education is always a delight to follow. On a sentence-per-sentence level, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does honour to the high standards of the series, though some lengths are found here and there.

What’s unfortunate is that the wrong lengths have been excised from the film version. If you want to talk about the adaptation buts-and-bolts, I can always point out at the missing pets material (there’s a lot more in the novel, and even a quarter of it would have been nice to see in the film). Interestingly enough, the film includes hints of a budding romance between Ron and Hermione while completely ignoring the first appearance of Cho (blame it on casting), whereas the book scrupulously avoids any romantic foreshadowing except for Harry’s early infatuation with Cho. Hmmm.

But not much of this really matters (including this review), because the Harry Potter juggernaut rolls forward, critic-proof and flush with accumulated good will. Has the third volume changed my opinion of the series? Not a bit: I still think it’s quite wonderful. Do I have any intention of altering my current reading schedule for the series? Not really. Is this review bringing anything new to the discussion? I really don’t expect it to.

The Zenith Angle, Bruce Sterling

Del Rey, 2004, 306 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-46061-8

Where oh where have all the cyberpunks gone? Bruce Sterling’s newest techno-thriller The Zenith Angle offers a few answers and takes on the post-9/11 environment by the barbed horns.

Is it useful to point out that Bruce Sterling, chairman of what was then the cyberpunk movement, has now joined fellow neuromancer William Gibson in writing techno-thrillers? While Sterling’s been hovering near current-day settings for a while (His previous novel, Zeitgeist (2000), took place in a slightly-fantastic 1999), there’s no denying that this is the sort of emblematic factoid that makes contemporary observers of the SF scene stand up and take notice: Are we climbing the asymptote of progress so quickly that the singularity already looms over us all? Is this yet another sign that SF writers have given up on the future, flummoxed as they are by an increasingly bizarre present?

Well, maybe. But let’s not be so quick to judge, for The Zenith Angle has a number of things to say, and they wouldn’t be as relevant anywhere but in a techno-thriller. The novel begins, after a brief, prologue, on a clear morning day of September 2001. Yes, that morning of September 2001. In a few short minutes, uber-nerd protagonist Derek “Van” Vanderveer sees his whole life change. For reasons soon to become clear (his family is no stranger to dark operations, though not enough is made out of this), he ditches his comfy dot-com job to become one of the government’s top cyber-spooks. His life dominated by a shadowy war, his personal fortune in shambles, his family left behind, his career at the mercy of the vagaries of bureaucracy, he struggles to reach a new personal equilibrium after The Day That Changed Everything TM. From theoretical geek to electro-warrior (in a community where a stupid fist-fight can raise one to demigod status), Vanderveer’s an ideal character through which to study this weird new millennium, and Sterling is the man to do the job.

For he seems to realize that today’s world has a richness that is worth studying with lens polished by the tools of Science Fiction. Sterling, world-weary traveler, techno-prophet and sought-after keynote speaker, understands the world better than most, and The Zenith Angle often feels like an attempt at expressing how weird and wonderful today’s reality has become. Unlike the late nineties, dreams of electronic futures and endless leisure have been replaced by a stark battle for survival against powerful evil forces. Or have they? Because Sterling is too smart to swallow the “War on Terrorism” as anything but an empty slogan used to justify the worst the government can do. Vanderveer’s inherited idealism proves to be no match for the inertia of bureaucracy and the hollowness of the cause. Cyberpunk meets good old power-grab, and in the real world, let’s just say that the good guy doesn’t always win. But neither does he have to lose, and so the conclusion to the novel resorts to an ironic side exit in order to satisfy everyone.

There’s a fiendish plot complete with a death ray laser sandwiched somewhere in the last fifty pages, but readers already familiar with Sterling’s novel-length fiction are right in suspecting that the plot of The Zenith Angle doesn’t have much to do with its intended effect. The real treat of the novel is in the description of the “cyber-security” government efforts, packed with red tape and empty org charts. It’s in how Vanderveer, like most of us, got stuck believing in a sham that was never meant to be more than an exercise in rhetoric. It’s how the glorious days of the dot-com era were slapped around by forces outside any geek’s control.

Oh, it’s not all good. The above summary is likely to be a touch more incisive than the actual novel, which meanders from one situation from another, which has trouble balancing its satiric tone against what it it really means and lame attempts at thrills scarcely bothers to follow-up on promising plot threads. Charles Stross is blurbed as calling it “a Catch-22 for the slashdot generation” and it’s not a bad analogy, except that The Zenith Angle doesn’t (yet) have the required distance to the material to be anything but a quick rant.

But it tells us where the cyberpunks have gone. Out of the private sector and into national security. Out of the future and into the present. Out of technology, even, and maybe into politics. Pick your weapons carefully, but first decide if we’re at war, and if so, against whom.

Saw (2004)

Saw (2004)

(In theaters, November 2004) It’s no accident if, at least three times during its duration, Saw starts throwing loud music, fast cuts and insane visuals at the viewer. It’s very impressive, but it just masquerades a fundamentally unlikely premise. You could certainly see it as yet another entry in the ever-more-extreme “Clever Serial Killer” mystery genre popularized by The Silence Of The Lambs. Here too, innocent characters find themselves at the mercy of a mastermind criminal who plans everything ahead of them. Chances of survival? Slim. Believability of the whole premise? Slight. But it’s all in the execution, and so Saw is built like a puzzle, with interlocking parts often glossed over when the film doesn’t want you to pay attention to plot holes. Amazingly enough, it works: The film is grim enough, different enough and fast enough that the conclusion has the time to take your breath away before you can go “Yeah, but…!” There is some dynamic film-making at work here, especially when the style overwhelms the substance. Telling you more about the story would be a disservice, but warning you that this is a seriously twisted film is probably fair enough. Here, it’s obvious that the screenwriter is the one who is manipulating both audience and characters like puppets. It all amounts to a decently-entertaining pitch-dark crime drama. It works like a nightmare and makes just about as much sense. Enjoy, if you can.

National Treasure (2004)

National Treasure (2004)

(In theaters, November 2004) Everyone loves a good secret, a good chase and a good mystery, so it’s no surprise if such a slick piece of escapist entertainment as National Treasure should tap into the same popular success as The Da Vinci Code. True, the Nicolas Cage / Jerry Bruckheimer combo has produced wonders in the past and this fourth collaboration is pure wall-to-wall fun. It had to happen sooner or later, mind you: a blockbuster tapping American history as a source of adventure and a thin pretext for chases and gunfights. That it works so well is less a testament to the appeal of early American history than to the professionalism of Jerry Bruckheimer’s formula. National Treasure moves at a fast clip, doesn’t waste time on needless material, uses arcane ideas at a prodigious rate (for a film) and disposes of them almost as quickly. Oh, many lines are lame, physics routinely ignored and the characters come straight out of central casting, but that simply reinforces the comfortable blockbuster feel of the whole thing. The only surprise is that the film wasn’t released in the summer. Hey, you can bitch and moan about this being a poor man’s Indiana Jones (and you’d be right), but National Treasure is such an oddball Hollywood creation that it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for an action picture that, at least, pays some lip service to the virtues of knowledge. (“I know something about history that you don’t know… Hold on one second, let me just take in this moment. This is cool. Is this how you feel all the time?”) Good enough for me, at least.

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken

Plume, 2003 (2004 reprint), 421 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-452-28521-6

I had a plan. In retrospect, it was even a cunning plan.

On November 2nd 2004, American Election Day, I would buy Al Franken’s infamous Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right) and start reading as the results came in. I would read as Election Night wore on and John Kerry would be declared the (rightful) winner. Being a Canadian, I couldn’t vote myself, but it would be the least I could do to celebrate. There would be schadenfreude as the Republicans would be driven out of office! A new age of reason, peace and prosperity would be ushered in! A fitting conclusion to the madness of the past four years would be written in the history books! And through it all, dependable humorist Al Franken would be my laugh track. Har-har.

I did allow for the small possibility that Franken would be there to cheer me up in case of a Republican victory. Small. Possibility.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. By 10:30 (Ottawa Time), as early results from Ohio and Florida started trickling in, my tingling statistical senses told me that the game was already over. A look at the CBC and another at pretty much confirmed the deal. Minutes, if not hours before even the most enthusiastic networks, I called the election to Bush and went to bed for further nightmares. By them, I’d made it only fifty pages into Al Franken’s book.

The next few days were so full of gallows humour that even Franken’s political satire felt off-key. It’s one thing to humorously uncover lies after lies from American’s radical right-wing commentators, but when the results are in and they show that no one really cares, that’s a pretty damning criticism for Franken’s thesis.

Oh, it’s not as if the book was completely lost on me. One of the unfortunate tendency of the last four years have been to give me a crash-course in American media despite not having access to any of it: While I’m constantly mystified by Ann Coulter’s popularity (does anyone really take her seriously as anything but a conservative stand-up comedian?), her name is familiar to me, as are those of other right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Canadians not having this level of partisan discourse, this all looks like a bit of circus from up here. (But we’re glad to see you show us the worst-case scenarios. No, really, we owe a lot to you for what we’re not.)

It goes without saying that American political expertise is essential background for this book, which merrily takes us across the conservative landscape, cracking jokes and scoring points. Some of the book is hilarious (Franken is a better comedian than he’s a pundit), some of it is devastating (as with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, some of Franken’s criticism of his opponents’ statistics is just beautiful) and some of it falls flat (“The Waitress and the Lawyer”) or skirts tastelessness (“Operation Chickenhawk: Episode I”). Unfortunately, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them occasionally errs on the side of shrillness –and I say this despite basically being on Franken’s liberal side. Part of it is the nature of American discourse, where comparatively right-wing position have staked a claim to centrism. Part of it is also that the book is torn between being funny and being accurate, and the two don’t necessarily mesh well together.

As it happened, I ended up finishing Lies four days after the election, by which time the sky was blue again and the worst of my depression had passed (but then again it rained a lot that week in Ottawa). Despite the partisan cries of, oh, half the American population and the vast majority of non-Americans, this administration too shall pass. (“Pass over our dead bodies, crushing our skeletons to dust”, am I tempted to add, but I would merely be kidding on the square, as Franken would say.) What is unlikely to pass, unfortunately, is the rabid polarization of American politics, of which Franken is as big a culprit as the Liars he exposes. It’s all good fun and circuses and trivialization of the nature of politics… until thousands get killed. Oh, wait, did that happen already?

But really, what do I know? My pick didn’t even get elected.

The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles (2004)

(In theaters, November 2004) Pixar’s continued good run of excellent films continues unabated with this latest entry, most assuredly one of the best superhero films ever made. Combining sharp satire with a healthy respect for non-sappy family values, The Incredibles does everything it can with the elements it chooses to cover. A far funnier take on Watchmen‘s theme of disgraced superheroes, writer/director Brad Bird’s latest masterpiece (five years after The Iron Giant) is simultaneously one of funniest comedies of the year and one of the most awe-inspiring action film of 2004. Best of all, however, is Pixar’s patented tendency to refine the elements of its films until perfection is attained: Hence the non-stop delight of one of the film’s best sequence, in which an elastic woman is stuck in-between three (or four?) different doors at once. The action sequences are similarly awe-inspiring, with buzzsaw chases across an island paradise and a fantastic set-piece in which superheroes battle a robot in downtown Metropolis. Whew! But even with Pixar’s technical savvy and sophistication, it’s the script that shines brightly, with simple gags and fantastic characters such as Edna E Mode, a costume designer borrowing equally from Doctor Ruth and Christian Dior. Despite some initial lengths, rarely has a film stepped so assuredly on my Year’s best Top-10 list.

Alexander (2004)

Alexander (2004)

(In theaters, November 2004) I would have believed it if I hadn’t had three hours to find out for myself, but it’s true: Oliver Stone has taken one of the most inspiring life in history and made a boring movie out of it. This lavish biography of Alexander the Great frequently fails to deserve any attention at all. Despite the epic scale, the wonderful actors, the convincing re-creations and the sheer bloody length of the picture, Alexander bores and annoys. The trouble is obvious even from the first ten minutes: Lengthy monologues make it obvious that this won’t be a snappy picture even as the quality of the lines falls through the floor. Yikes. It doesn’t really get any better afterwards: The adult Alexander takes too long to be brought on-screen; A massive battle scene that could have been impressive had it been half as long just feels flaccid; narration is used to reinforce the action on-screen rather than provide crucial context; Colin Farrel never plays Alexander as someone worthy of respect. While the film tries to do much in terms of character psychology, the only characters with whom we sympathize are the soldiers who just want to go home after eight years on the road; certainly, Alexander has begun to feel just as long by then. Would I be the generous sort, I’d give a single star to the film on the sole basis of Rosario Dawson’s pendulous assets. But by this point, I fear that I may have imagined her nude scene in-between bouts of somnolence. Oliver Stone. Boring. Who would have thought?

After The Sunset (2004)

After The Sunset (2004)

(In theaters, November 2004) Let’s see: A caper comedy starring hot actors and taking place in a lush tropical paradise. That stuff can succeed on auto-pilot. Alas, that’s almost what director Brett Ratner does with After The Sunset, a good-enough film that nevertheless never tries for something more ambitious than mere adequacy. Oh, Salma Hayek has seldom been hotter (though there’s also plenty of good things to say about Naomie Harris as a policewoman with a Caribbean accent and pleasing curves) and the whole script moves forward with an impeccable amiability. There is a good rapport between the actors, and the lush cinematography is awe-inspiring. But the film starts falling apart when you look at the details of the script, which is so loose as to be inconsequential. Tons of plot holes are carelessly abandoned here and there, with unexplainable contrivances, inconsistent characters and dubious developments. Despite the suave presence of Pierce Brosnan as a master thief, this is nowhere near The Thomas Crown Affair. The conclusion is all in keeping with the film’s impact: Pleasing but hardly impressive, capping a film that will just do as a light diversion.

Scores, John Clute

Beccon, 2003, 428 pages, C$33.00 tpb, ISBN 1-870824-48-2

Regular readers of these already know all about my steadfast admiration of SF critic John Clute. His work, after all, is essential reference for serious SF readers. Past mentions of Clute’s work (Strokes and Look at the Evidence) have made it clear that I worship the ground he walks upon. Reading his criticism sometimes makes me feel so inadequate as to jokingly contemplate quitting reviewing altogether. But a different feeling dawned on me as I was reading his latest Scores: Inspiration.

From the onset, it’s obvious that Scores is meant to be a meaty collection. Some four hundred small-point pages of reviews spanning a decade from 1993 to 2003, Scores is a snapshot of the millennial turnover as seen from SF’s perspective. Clute doesn’t review every major work of the period, but he comes close and hits a lot of the essential points from Brin’s Glory Season to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Additionally, many reviews have been edited and commented from a 2003 perspective… sometimes with amusing results.

The reviews, of course, are the reason to buy the book: They’re packed with ideas, well-reasoned, well-structured, often hilarious, sometimes infuriating and far, far beyond the simple “buy it/forget it” reader’s guide. Clute doesn’t like or dislike as much as he appreciates and dissects. But sometimes, even his famous erudition gets the better of him: There are a few instances where the 2003 notes candidly explain obscure references, admit to rewriting passages for clarity and even, once, points out a deletion because Clute himself couldn’t even understand what he had written. Now that’s the kind of note fit to reassure every Clute reader occasionally wondering about their reading skills.

For readers of such collections of critical material, there is a temptation to focus on comments about familiar works and skip the others. While I haven’t always resisted that particular impulse myself, there’s a lot of interesting material here and there, from general comments about particular sub-fields to enthusiastic recommendations about works that may have slipped through the cracks. Scores features, for instance, an absolutely fascinating explanation about “variorum text” studies (the delicate academic field in which revisions to the text are examined to understand the author’s true intentions) that is mentioned as part of a review of an academic text most of us will never read. There’s also a rave about Mary Gentle’s Ash fit to make anyone rush out to get a copy.

All of which feeds into a sense of deep satisfaction as the book is read, review per review. One thing John Clute wants you to know is that he’s building a cohesive argument with his work. He’s already acknowledged as the field’s most perceptive critic, but this book brings it all together, ties links between elements of his overarching thesis (of which the famous “Real Year” is only a small section) and clearly establishes inroads into further dissections of the field. Throughout Scores, he not only makes numerous references to his previous collections, but peers ahead at an essay collection called The Darkening Garden. Further references are made to the three encyclopedias he co-edited as if to remind us that, yes, he’s the kind of guy who has co-edited three encyclopedias.

The only sad part about Scores is that it makes so many references to The Darkening Garden that we want to read that upcoming book right now. (It will feature several general essays, which should be a welcome wide-scope view of the field rather than a series of ultra-focused texts.)

But the most surprising thing about Scores is how, after closing the covers, I didn’t entertain any of my usual thoughts about quitting the SF criticism field forever. I felt, rather, empowered. Motivated to perfect my art, highlight the best examples of the field and dismiss the lesser ones. Sure, Clute wrote better at my age than I ever will: But once you strip away Clute’s vocabulary and his formidable critical insight, his exemplary passion for the genre remains red-hot. If nothing else, that should be enough to make me improve my craft past typos and lazy consumer’s-guide reviews. We all want better Science Fiction, and we’ll be better off if more of us stand up to say what works and what doesn’t.