The Second Angel, Philip Kerr

Henry Holt, 1999, 392 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-8050-5962-8

There are many ways to explain how much I hated Philip Kerr’s The Second Angel, but the most succinct one can be boiled down to only one word: Footnotes.

Sure, you say, footnotes can have a place in fiction. I won’t argue the point, especially, when I so recently lauded their use in Mark Z. Danielewski’ House of Leaves and Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book. But Philip Kerr isn’t writing post-modern or amusing fiction: The Second Angel tries to be a mystery/Science Fiction hybrid, with the genre plot serving as a template on which to hang erudite musings on the nature of blood. In 2069, the story goes, a devastating epidemic called P2 has contaminated a good proportion of the population, and clean blood (which can be used to cure the disease through transfusion) has become an valuable resource, so valuable that it’s used as collateral and “blood banks” (har-har) are now better-protected than money banks.

From its very premise, The Second Angel doesn’t even make sense: You cannot cure a blood disease by simple transfusion: given that blood is produced in the bone marrow, transfusion is, at best, an expensive reprieve. (Practical proof of this assertion is to be found in the number of AIDS victims nowadays) Kerr himself acknowledges this plot hole when a minor character is diagnosed with a different type of blood problem and transfusion is seen as an expensive way to delay the inevitable. But then he still goes on to base the rest of the novel on the idea that P2 can simply be cleaned away through a full transfusion. This is simple contempt from the author toward his audience, and once you latch on to the idea that Kerr thinks you’re a moron, supporting evidence is everywhere to be found.

Which brings us back to footnotes. The novel contains a copious number of them, inserted mostly for pedantic purposes, explaining things and historical details to the reader. At best, most footnotes bring nothing noteworthy to the reading experience. At worst, they’re simply dumb: Is it really useful to put a footnotes at “intel1 workers” if the footnote just explains “1: intelligent”? Worse: the footnotes are presumably inserted by the omniscient 2069-era narrator, intended to a contemporary audience. Alas, these footnotes (Hey! “Intel worker” means “Intelligent worker”!) would be strictly useless to a circa-2069 reader.

No, the footnotes are just the most visible aspect of Kerr’s worst trait as a writer: He’s not a storyteller as much as he’s a lecturer who’s openly disdainful of his audience. SF readers will have tons of fun with The Second Angel… not because it’s good, but because it’s so inept. Yet another example of a writer barging into a genre without doing any homework, Kerr painfully ignores SF’s basic storytelling techniques and the result is awful narration throughout the entire book: “As you know, Bob”-type explanatory conversations pepper the narrative until it overwhelms it, and the prose style distrust the audience’s intelligence so much that it takes pains to explain every single detail in exasperating detail. Rip a page off of this novel (better yet; rip them all off) and compare it to the self-assured storytelling of a true SF writer like Kim Stanley Robinson or Charles Stross, and Kerr looks like an arrogant fool who can’t be bothered to tell a story properly.

Never mind that his story doesn’t even hold interest in a strictest thriller-genre template: If you want complications, twists or even plausible motivations, you’re better off in a novel that’s not nearly so drunk with its own false erudition. Here, everything proceeds as planned without much in way of unusual complications. The overdone antagonist (How overdone? How about “necrophiliac rapist”?) dies well before the climax. Characters think nothing of nearly killing themselves to fake malfunctions that could be hacked through improper telemetry. After the run-through, the end heist is an exercise in tediousness. Even the framing device is a seriously lame one, with a revelation that’s more exasperating than illuminating.

That’s not even mentioning the actual mistakes every half-dozen pages. Kerr sets out to write a novel packed with scientific details, but then he proceeds to screw up half of them. You could wipe the floor with my knowledge of advanced biology, but it doesn’t take a Nobel prize winner to figure out that a character can’t have his hair turn white in a matter of minutes. (Nor is this an oversight: Kerr mentions it two or three times afterwards.) Stupid physics mistakes betray Kerr’s lack of basic common sense over and over again, from a false need for super-refrigeration units for space travel (useless even today) to an idiotic distinction between liquid and solid excreta as a source of space hazards. (Here’s a hint, Kerr: Water freezes) The hyperbaric stuff doesn’t make a single PSI of sense. The search query stuff is hilarious. The novel even takes a trip in psychic lalaland near the end, with an easily-guessable plot development stolen straight (and badly) from Larry Niven’s “Gil the ARM” short stories. And let’s not get into the economics of The Second Angel. Not when blood is a renewable resource. Not when blood problems are still a problem despite fairly strong and widely-available nanotechnology. Not when vault have “labyrinths” to deter thieves (You’d think that the authorized users would want a way to quickly get in and out of the vault) Not when… oh, forget it: This, despite the cut-and-pasted erudition and the fancy vocabulary, is a deeply dumb novel.

Worse; it’s a deeply dumb novel from someone who think he’s much more clever than the very readers who are supposed to buy his stuff. Condescension and disgust drips from every page of The Second Angel like water from a leaky drain: Imagine Kerr as the worst teacher you’ve ever had, haranguing his so-designated inferiors from a pulpit, mistakes infusing every second statement he makes. You can read some novels and not understand them; you can read some novels and not care for them; but only a select few novels provoke fully-informed loathing, and Kerr’s pathetic attempt at a SF thriller falls squarely in this category.

Some may protest that these criticisms are unfair, that Kerr was attempting a philosophical reflection on the nature of blood, that The Second Angel is best seen as a high-tech fable. To which I have to answer that if what you want to write is fuzzy philosophy, you shouldn’t be peppering your novel with technical details explained in luscious detail. That’s just asking for trouble, and a dissection from readers with a far more accurate sense of reality. It doesn’t help that SF, as a genre, has already gone over the metaphorical and literal consequences of AIDS-like diseases… at least a decade before Kerr set out to write his own take on things.

Keep in mind that this isn’t the first Kerr novel to fail so spectacularly: While I could tolerate A Philosophical Investigation on its own terms, The Grid was an atrocious mess of a techno-thriller whose lack of success is only exceeded by The Second Angel. If nothing else, Kerr’s monstrosity can be dissected as case study of the worst mistakes in writing SF. The back cover blurb of the hardcover edition says that the novel “assaults your ignorance”: you can’t make up quotes like that.

It’s certainly okay to hate him as an author. After all, he doesn’t think much of you as a reader.

Deep Sound Channel, Joe Buff

Bantam, 2000, 401 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58239-9

I’ve been reading military techno-thrillers for fifteen years now, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the peculiarities of the sub-genre. And yet I find the overspecialization of some authors to be a constant source of wonderment. The united markets of America are probably the only publishing environment in the world big enough to be able to sustain a handful of writers specializing in, say, submarine thrillers. You may already recognize the names of Mark Joseph, Michael DiMercurio and Patrick Robinson. Now you can add Joe Buff to this list of naval experts turned novelists.

Deep Sound Channel is the first in what promises to be a long series of naval adventures set during a future war between English-speaking Allies and a Berlin/Johannesburg Axis. Never mind that the antagonism is as sketchy as it’s implausible: The point here is to have an excuse to study future submarine technology in combat situations. The Russian navy is on the rocks and the Chinese one hasn’t impressed much over the past few decades: Why not take it all the way into fantasy-land and hand-wave a resurgent Germanic Empire? Let’s just be lenient and let this one pass.

What we’re quick to figure out is that circa-2011 wars are as nasty as the author wants them to be: This conflict is waged with so many tactical nuclear weapons that skyscraper-set snipers have a few at their disposal, and SEALs planning a raid can reliably expect to use a leftover nuke to cover their traces through excessive vapourization. Ahem. Letting slide the political ramifications of a tacnuke-driven engagement (hey, it’s nice to deal with a psycho enemy that doesn’t care about public opinion), let’s just say that this brings both an extra edge and an extra yawn to the whole novel: Sure, there are bigger explosions throughout the novel. On the other hand –where’s the buildup?

It’s not as if the plot is particularly complex: Six months after the beginning of the hostilities, XO Jeffrey Fuller is asked to assist on a daring mission on South-African soil: A team of SEALs sets off to destroy a biowarfare facility, and Fuller’s ship (the ultramodern Virginia-class “ceramic” attack submarine USS Challenger) is the only one up to the task of bringing them there and back. There is, as you may expect, an obstacle: The crew of the Voortrekker, another higher-tech German submarine. As this is a military adventure, you can figure out the rest of the story.

There are, to be blunt, plot problems throughout the book and a number of characters straight out of lazy characterizations class. Protagonist Fuller is too soft, too kind, and yet ready to jump off his submarine for a SEAL mission at the drop of a ping. The enemy captain often cackles in mad attempts to outdo B-movie dialogue, doing tremendous damage to the credibility of the novel. (“Idiots! Did they really think their engine tonals would be masked against the floes … Fools! Our merchant marine masters would never make that error. The Americans are soft, Gunther, I’m telling you, and desperate.” [P.78] and later, less triumphantly: “I underestimated the Americans. I took too much for granted, and I fell for their clever tricks. So be it, but I swear to you, no longer. Next time we meet Challenger, she and her crew will die.” [P.377]) As is the case with specialized military fiction, jargon and tedious procedural details (almost invariably discussed by professionals who should already know this stuff) often overwhelm the flow of the story.

But criticizing Deep Sound Channel on literary qualities would be misleading, for the true worth of the book lies elsewhere. Joe Buff knows his stuff, and his first novel brings something new to the military thriller field by exploring the cutting edge of submarine warfare, without falling over in Science Fiction. For those of you sub-fans weaned on Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October, (already more than twenty years old!) this novel is your wake-up call: Things have evolved since then, and Deep Sound Channel is crammed with new gadgets, nifty tactics and neat ideas. There’s an amazing amount of oceanographic information enmeshed with the military stuff, and the result is both clever and interesting. Despite my lack of enchantment with the narrative qualities of the novel, I often found myself finding something new in the combat passages. This cutting-edge material is the true reason to read Deep Sound Channel, not the characterization or the quality of the prose.

In fact, it’s good enough to make me look forward to the author’s second novel (Thunder in the Deep). Buff’s writing skill can improve, and if they start matching his ideas… watch out.

Stranger than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2004, 233 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50448-9

Chuck Palahniuk is justly famous for his weird fiction, but as a hot young writer he has also earned a place in every hip magazine editor’s Rolodex as an ideal writer of weird nonfiction. Who else but the writer of Fight Club to go and take a look at amateur wrestling? Who else but the writer of Survivor to describe sessions where people try to sell their life story to Hollywood producers? Who else? Over the past few years, Palahniuk has accumulated more than a dozen nonfiction credits in magazines such as Gear, Black Book, Playboy or The Los Angeles Times.

Now, Doubleday has packaged a real treat for fans of Palahniuk’s fiction: A collection of “true stories” (as the sub-title says) culled from Palahniuk’s work and Palahniuk’s life.

Some articles are straight-up reportage pieces. A look at a raunchy festival that would make fundamentalist reach for their torches and pitchforks. A few days amongst college wrestlers, cauliflower ears and all. Profiles of contemporary American castle-builders. A backstage pass at a combine demolition derby. Unusual subjects, but Palahniuk’s unconventional style works well in presenting you-are-there pieces. He even manages to make nuclear submarine living interesting and unusual to a steady reader of submarine thrillers. There’s even a curious sympathy to it all; by reporting without editorializing much, Palahniuk allows for the obvious conclusion that there are just other modes of normalcy in our big and diverse world.

Other pieces are interviews with people famous or infamous. Imagine Palahniuk’s choppy and gimmicky style used to do a profile of actress Juliette Lewis. Imagine the author of Invisible Monsters interviewing shock-rocker Marilyn Manson around a Tarot deck, then avoid whiplash as you consider a profile of conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan. In these pieces, Palahniuk’s acts less as a interviewer and more as a listener, an observer.

But other pieces are much closer to autobiography, as the line between journalism and confession is crossed over and over again, as Palahniuk experiences gonzo journalism to a degree that would surprise even Hunter S. Thompson. Who else would dress up as a dog for a walk through the city, bulk up on steroids, not follow instructions on a bottle of hair depilatory and then write it all up? For Palahniuk’s fans, these pieces are the real substance of the book: They reveal that author as one of his characters, intentionally or not fashioning an image much alike that of his protagonists.

For those fans, the book’s slim eight-pages introduction is almost worth the price of the book. Palahniuk tackles the American Dream (“Getting away from people”), his cyclical writing process, the nonfiction component of his novels and laces it all with introspection and tales of how his novels were written. It doesn’t really get any better than this, but it sets the tone quite well. After all, Stranger Than Fiction is part autobiography, what with Palahniuk dealing with his sudden fame, his experiences in Hollywood and the murder of his father. An interview with Amy Hempel (available online) says more about Palahniuk’s literary methods and lineage than about Hempel’s books —though it may lead more than one reader her way.

All in all, it’s an enormously entertaining, highly satisfactory book. It’s difficult to imagine how well-received it will be by people who can’t distinguish Palahniuk from Patterson, but it ought to please the fan audience quite well. The biggest problem with the book is endemic with non-fiction collections: Magazine articles are often commissioned with both a writer and a photographer: While the writer can obtain comfortable reprinting rights for the text of the article, photos are another matter entirely, and often an expensive matter indeed. So the articles in Stranger than Fiction don’t have any illustration, which isn’t a problem most of the time, but can be very frustrating: whenever you hit pieces about modern-day castles, combine demolition derbies or other visually intriguing subjects, the void can be annoying.

But when you’re dealing with a writer like Palahniuk, the lack of images is almost irrelevant. Anyone who has read even one of his books knows that he’s more than capable to keep our interest with just his words. And so Stranger Than Fiction is a treat, a pure dose of the writer looking at the world without the artifice of fiction. It almost ranks as an equal to Palahniuk’s non-true stories.

Fatherland, Robert Harris

Random House, 1992, 338 pages, C$26.50 hc, ISBN 0-679-41273-5

I’m not a big fan of alternate-history fiction, but even casual readers familiar with the concept know about Fatherland, Robert Harris’ highly successful 1992 debut novel. Whereas the alternate history sub-genre is often seen as a creation of science-fiction storytelling, Fatherland owes more to a blend between historical studies and crime fiction. While this may make the novel more accessible to general audiences (It was published by Random House, after all), I suspect that it also makes it a slight disappointment to experienced SF readers.

Fatherland takes place in 1964, in a very different Germany. The Reich has won World War II by playing it smarter on the Russian front and then coming to an arrangement with the United States. Don’t expect many details: Harris apparently thought it better to stay vague and not give any ammunition to overly critical readers. It’s not as if any of the counter-factual details are important anyway: the real intent of the novel in not to reimagine WW2 as much as it’s to explore what it would be like to live under a victorious Nazi regime.

As a “Nazi victorious” vision, it’s certainly more developed and interesting than, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which laboured under the handicap of taking place too soon after the Nazi victory. Here, things have had time to change. The German population is living the life of imperial citizens and the centrepiece of this victorious Nazi Berlin is a trip through a rebuilt Grand Avenue, an imperial showcase in which the 80ft Brandenburg Gate is a mere architectural footnote when placed next to Hitler’s Palace, the 400ft Arch of Triumph, the 3 miles long Grand Avenue or the 1,000ft-tall Great Hall. It’s no accident if the hardcover’s flyleaf contains an illustration of the area, or if all of Chapter 3 is a guided tour of the area.

But before you start applauding Harris for this spectacular setting, keep in mind that the details of this imperial Berlin were set out in Albert Speer’s architectural plans. Fatherland is not a work of imagination as much as it’s a work of historical scholarship, a fact that becomes obvious once the curtain starts rising on the book’s biggest revelations.

Plot wise, Fatherland begins with the discovery of a body, a discovery that, in time-honoured noir tradition, will reveal bigger and darker secrets, leading SS investigator protagonist Xavier March straight to the secrets of the Nazi regime. This “secret” is all too familiar to us real-world readers, so don’t expect to be surprised by the story as much as be a witness to March’s own aghast surprise.

Hence lies, I believe, the crucial difference between genre readers and general readers when looking at Fatherland. For genre readers, living in a Nazi regime is a hook and (perhaps more importantly), a good jump-off point to other things: If SF writers have taken so well to alternate history, it’s because they can then play with “what if?” scenarios and develop them in ever-wilder speculations. Here, living in a Nazi regime is the big concept and the point of the novel; all else plays within the margins set out by this cadre. I imagine mainstream readers reading this and going “Wow, Nazi Germany victorious!”, but genre readers going “Nice… but is that all?”

It certainly doesn’t make Fatherland a bad book: The investigation proceeds at a decent pace, the characters are interesting (especially March’s own growing dissatisfaction) and the emotional punch of the novel does manage to wring some interest out of familiar elements. It succeeds very well in presenting a society that has integrated the banality of evil, and has even convinced itself of its righteousness despite a gaping blind spot in its recent history. Early twenty-first century readers may want to read the novel with an eye on imperial mechanics, and how a steady stream of far-away terrorism and dirty little wars on the empire’s outskirts are seen as good for “perpetual alertness”.

On strictly literary qualities, Fatherland delivers more than enough interest to keep you reading. It certainly has found an audience over the past twelve years: Made in a movie in 1994, Fatherland has sold well and earned Harris a steady place on the best-seller lists with every one of his three other novels so far (Including Enigma, reviewed earlier). While a bit basic for SF fans, it’s a strong fiction debut, a satisfying read and conceivably a good introduction to the whole alternate history sub-genre.

ReVisions, Ed. Julie E. Czerneda & Isaac Szpindel

DAW, 2004, 312 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7564-0240-9

As an on-line critic (or, more accurately, “some guy with a web site”), I seldom meet the authors of the books I’m reviewing. In all honesty, that’s a good thing. Otherwise, I’d spend half my time apologizing for writing “literary abomination” when I really meant “not up to the author’s usual standards” and then see subsequent reviews contaminated for having spoken to the author in question. Imagine my inner turmoil whenever I’m at a Science Fiction convention.

All of which to say that this is a contaminated review. A while back, during my 2003 Prix Aurora Award roundup [May 2010: now offline], I bitterly complained about the quality of the nominated short stories and mentioned that “should I be forced to do so, I’d say that Isaac Szpindel’s ‘By Its Cover’ is a decent second choice”. Imagine my surprise when, looking through my web referral logs over the next few months, I started seeing hits from keyword searches on “christian sauve review szpindel”. Imagine my further surprise when, at Noreascon4, I found myself standing next to Szpindel. Fortunately, you won’t have to imagine my surprise when Szpindel proved quite amused by the comment and then turned out to be one of the friendliest author I’ve ever met.

How do you not buy the guy’s next book after that? How do you not go to the book’s official launch event? How do you avoid having your evaluation of the work stay unaffected by the encounter?

Well, you buy the book, you go to the reading, you get your autographs, you let yourself be influenced (that’s what signatures are about, right?) and you at least admit it up-front whenever you review the book. Onward, then.

ReVisions is another of DAW’s original theme anthologies, which at least has the merit of offering another book-like publication outlet to SF authors at a time where readers, myself included, aren’t particularly tempted by magazines. DAW usually does a pretty good job at finding niches for their original anthologies, and so ReVisions is a straight-up collection of alternate history fiction.

The pedigree of the authors’ contribution to ReVisions varies widely, and so does the quality. Veterans of past anthologies know to expect duds along with the nifty pieces, and as a reader, there’s nothing to do except go on to the next story. (As a critic, it’s perhaps best to highlight the successes and be silently nice on everyone else.)

As usual, you can depend on the first and last stories to deliver on their promises and so hard-SF veteran Geoffrey Landis opens up the festivities with “The Resonance of Light”, a pre-WW1-era story that I particularly enjoyed given my fascination with Nikola Tesla. On the flip side of the book, lesser-known Australian writer Jay Caselberg also scores a hit with “Herd Mentality”, a whimsical little vignette in which cloned Einsteins plot to take over the world in a kindly older-uncle fashion. Not much plot, but an amusing atmosphere, and I can forgive a lot to a story that makes me smile.

As it happens, ReVisions‘ best stories are, overwhelmingly, those who take chances with the “alternate history” premise and have a little fun on the side. Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross’ Unwirer is a lot like that, though their type of fiction is written in my native techno-English dialect; non-nerdcore fans may not get so much from this electronic civil rights tale. James Alan Gardner also tries an unconventional approach with the conterfactual angle, and so his oddly elliptical “Axial Axioms” works well, though it may require a second reading to fully appreciate. While “fun” is not a word we usually associate with Peter Watts, his “A Word for Heathens” is awe-inspiring in its unremitting pessimism, and almost delightfully enjoyable if you’re familiar with Watts’ oeuvre. As if it wasn’t enough, you can even call his highly unlikely story an exercise in converging history.

Other stories are fine, but lack a bit of extra oomph to make them succeed on all registers. Browsing through the book after a few days, the one that strikes me as having the most unused potential is Robin Wayne Bailey’s ultra-dark “The Terminal Solution”. Excellent concept (HIV escapes from Africa during the Victorian age, leaving pre-viral medicine completely helpless), fascinating philosophical implications (do diseases progress alongside medicine?) and familiar setting (London, 1864), yet the overall impact is muted. Unfortunate. I found less to remember about John G. McDaid’s “The Ashbazu effect”, but this Sumerian-printing-press story seemed generally more satisfying. Mad props, half-raised, go to Isaac Szpindel for “When the Morning Stars Sang Together”: This Galileo-influenced tale fulfils its relatively ambitious stylistic aspirations, but loses in impact what it gains in fine writing. Paging through the rest of the book, I’ll finally single out Laura Anne Gilman for the pleasantly hard-SFish underwater thriller “Site Fourteen”. The remaining stories may or may not be any better, but they fail my memory test.

Every story is followed by a “Revision Point” afterword, in which the author gets to explain where and why the short story diverged from our world. Some of those afterwords have an annoying pedantic edge to them, but others do offer some amusing or interesting insights into the short stories —often telling us more about the author than the stories themselves. Your mileage may vary, but I’m the kind of reader known for browsing through collections just for the interstitial material.

As expected, ReVisions is an average original anthology with the usual mix of good and not-so-good. While the cookie-cutter nature of some of the early material can give the impression that this is an anthology at the frontier between adult and young-adult categories (a “problem”, if you think it’s a problem, that also plagued editor Czerneda’s previous Space, Inc.), the rest of the book is more assuredly in the adult category.

As the product of two solidly Canadian anthologists, ReVisions includes more than its share of non-American authors, and will form essential reading for whoever wants to nominate stories for the 2005 Prix Aurora Awards. Heck, if two or three of the stories I mentioned above make it on the final ballot, I won’t even have to complain about a weak line-up this year.

What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, January 2005) This is a very frustrating film, one that drove me from one extreme to another in mere seconds. On the surface, it tries to be an metaphysical exploration of the limits of contemporary science, wrapped in a fictional frame story that leads off to interviews with experts. Fine. And, indeed, in some respects the film does an amazing job at presenting aspects of quantum physics in ways to make any science geek cheer in recognition. Time and time again, the film has a line or two that made me want to squeal little satisfied glees of agreement. And as long as it keeps this “isn’t it neat?” attitude, as long as it keeps up the pretence that we’re just joshing around with stuff we’re beginning to understand, there’s nothing wrong here. But then there is the other stuff. The framing story (featuring a lovely Marlee Matlin) is hit-and-miss: The beginning is painful, as it laboriously sets up its own set of visual metaphors and emotional triggers. The mid-point wedding sequence is good fun, as all the set-up pays off, and the party really gets going once the accordion is unleashed. Unfortunately, it soon bogs down under the weight of its growing self-importance, a problem that is shared by the entire film as a whole. You see, What The Bleep Do We Know? soon leaves amused scientific speculation to turns into yet another new-age “what you wish for will become true” crapfest. The interviewee’s identity are kept hidden until the end for a good reason: At least one of them is a crackpot guru with no scientific credentials; many of the rest are also heavily into the woo-woo stuff. (Too bad: I liked Fred Alan Wolf’s kindly-mad-scientist shtick) And that, in turn, explains the various moments in the film where you go “What? That doesn’t make sense!” It gets progressively more painful as the film descends into hard-core “science says wishful thinking is real!” nonsense. I can deal with limited amounts of “what if?” thinking, but this soon turns into “as if!” stuff. Pure frustration, and you know what? Real honest scientific speculation, the kind that doesn’t require feel-good new-age nonsense, is even more wonderful that this stuff.

Ray (2004)

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

(In theaters, January 2005) In a few years, they’ll put the poster of this film on the “vanity project” Wikipedia entry. That it happens to be a good film doesn’t take anything away from the fact that Jamie Foxx does wonder with a role written for the Academy’s consideration. Oh yes, Ray Charles is a genius, and Foxx is perfect playing him. Director Taylor Hackford makes a few unusual choices early on (eschewing the bulk of the usual “childhood” material at the onset, but -alas- putting it everywhere in the film), but the film really gets cracking during the moments where Charles’ music and life are seamlessly edited together. Very good, very interesting, very revealing. Unfortunately -and this isn’t a criticism of the “real” Ray Charles as much as it’s a comment on the way all celebrities’ biography seem to run- the good old guy-overcomes-handicap, guy-becomes-famous, guy-gets-addicted, guy-redeems-himself plot gets tiresome regardless of whether is presented with snappy editing or whether it’s a hour-long TV biography. Maybe the film couldn’t avoid that, but it probably could have meshed the themes better (there’s a point where the script seems to consciously put, say, an infidelity scene here, a drug scene there, a pop-music scene here… repeat as required) and it certainly could have avoided the pat “come to grip with your childhood trauma and everything will be fine” ending. Meh. If nothing else, downloads of Charles MP3 will spike after this film.

Primer (2004)

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

(In theaters, January 2005) Heh! I’ve always said that you can make a real science-fiction film with just two guys in a kitchen, but I never expected any film to embody this wisecrack as literally as Primer. Shot on a ridiculous US$7000 budget, Primer certainly sounds like a low-budget effort (pray that the DVD has subtitles!) and looks like a half-decent Digital Video film. But beyond the grainy look and the inaudible soundtrack lies an authentic work of science-fiction, told in a wonderfully elliptical fashion with enough fascinating ideas to keep your mind running for a while. The cheap look and feel of the film actually helps it in some ways: it looks so unpretentious and, well, cheap that suspension of disbelief is achieved without any trouble. It helps that writer/director/producer/etc Shane Carruth’s script goes where higher budget fear to tread: there is a quasi-documentary rawness to the dialogue that makes it compelling even as you desperately want the production qualities to improve. Just make sure to tough it out until after the thirty-minutes mark: It gets much much better as it goes along. I’m still not convinced that the plot makes complete sense (the sudden appearance of a third, um, traveller is still a head-scratcher, and so it the lack of a follow-up on both that and the sudden bleedings) but it makes enough sense to enchant. During a year where big-budget SF crashed and burned so miserably, it’s something of a wonder that what looks like two guys in a garage came up with a story about two guys in a garage that come up with… oh, but why spoil it? Just see it. With subtitles. I hate to harp on this, but you’ll agree with me after seeing the film.

On The Nose aka Delaney’s Flutter (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">On The Nose</strong> aka <strong class="MovieTitle">Delaney’s Flutter</strong> (2001)

(On DVD, January 2005) There is a whole universe of slight comedies out there on the “straight-to-video” shelf, and this one is no different than most. Featuring solid actors (Robbie Coltrane, Dan Ackroyd) in low-profile roles, a competent script without too much flash and an interesting idea or two, it’s exactly the kind of film completely unsuited to the massive Hollywood marketing machine, which would probably end up creating false expectations anyway. In fact, it’s best to come to this film without any preconceived notions. How else to enjoy a tale of a compulsive gambler who comes to discover the secret to infallible horse-picking through the preserved head of an aboriginal in a jar? (It naturally gets more complicated as the head becomes an object of interest for parties such as the mob.) No, you’ve never heard of the film, and neither have any of your friends. But that’s all right: just have a look. The story is no worse than any of the blockbusters, and the oddly unassuming charm of the production is a strength in itself. Not too bad, despite the thin and laid-back comedy.

The Partner, John Grisham

Island, 1997 (1998 reprint), 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22604-X

Ever since John Grisham started hitting the best-seller lists, critics have been saying terrible things about his fiction: His stuff repeats itself, deals in easy populist clichés, lacks stylistic flair, etc. For a long while, I bought into the anti-hype: After an indifferent reaction to Grisham’s first four novels (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client), I took a long break. It took the movie adaptation of The Runaway Jury to make me interested in Grisham’s fiction again, with pleasantly surprising results. Picking up The Partner and being equally entertained may be the beginning of a renewed appreciation for the author.

It starts as if it was a sequel to The Firm: After years spent running and hiding from his old life, ex-lawyer Patrick Lanigan is captured by men hired to find him. His crime? Faking his death, stealing ninety million dollars from crooks and slipping away. As you can guess, criminals can do many unpleasant things to get that much money back. Torturing Lanigan to find out the location of the money is one of the first things that comes to their mind once he’s safely handcuffed. But Lanigan has an accomplice, one that will engineer his transfer to lawful authorities and provide his defence lawyer with enough legal ammunition to keep things interesting.

As the story moves back to Mississippi, everyone is only too happy to welcome Lanigan with a flurry of lawsuits. His wife files for divorce; insurance companies sue him for fraud; everyone wants the money and the state charges Lanigan with murder to explain the fact that a body was certainly buried in his place… Welcome back, Patrick; this way to the courthouse, please.

Tortured, detained, swamped in unfriendly lawsuits, you’d think that Lanigan is merely a few courtroom scenes away from a crispy spot on the electric chair. But don’t be so sure: As the story of Lanigan’s disappearance is gradually revealed, there’s a lot more to this story than you may think. Maybe not much more than you’ll be able to guess, but more than enough to keep you interested.

Entertainment is what Grisham is all about, after all. The Partner is a page-turner of frightening efficiency, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that most of the book consists of exposition thinly disguised as conversations between lawyers. Lanigan’s capture is the defining action moment of the story, but The Partner often spends more time explaining, in painstaking detail, the way Lanigan got away with his fabulous escape plan four years earlier. Before long, it’s not hard to guess where the novel is heading. (I certainly had an early lock on the big final revelation, though the last-page twist caught me by surprise.)

From a technical perspective, Grisham often slips viewpoints between character without the adequate breaks, a sloppy lack of control that may annoy a number of readers. It’s not the book’s worst flaw: From the audience’s point of view, The Partner flounders a long time in search of a protagonist. Lanigan may have the lion’s share of the scenes, but he’s so secretive, even to the reader, that he’s more akin to an interesting phenomenon (a genius-level legal escape artist, one is tempted to say) than a sympathetic protagonist. Readers may come to rely on friendly defence lawyer Sandy McDermott as a stand-in, but even he is just another one of the supporting characters revolving around the bed-ridden mystery that is Lanigan. Too bad… but then again, if this is a procedural legal thriller, maybe it’s best to consider the convoluted escape plans as the book’s true stars.

But no matter, because it’s difficult to stop reading once the The Partner gets going. Frankly, it takes a lot of guts and skills for Grisham to immobilize his main character in a hospital room, set most of his action in a series of meetings and still manage to deliver a novel that reads at two hundred pages per hour. The writing may be featureless, but it’s perfect when it’s intended to keep the reader around for “just one more chapter”.

You could dissect The Partner until you’d be left with yet another populist southern-lawyer thriller written for speed over style, and you’d end up missing the point of the book: It’s fun, it’s surprisingly interesting and it leaves a good impression. Maybe even reason enough to pick up Grisham’s other novels.

Mystery, Alaska (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mystery, Alaska</strong> (1999)

(On DVD, January 2005) Starring a pre-megastar Russell Crowe, this movie tells the story of a hockey-obsessed Alaskan town that finally gets the chance to see its home-grown team face off against a pro NHL lineup. If you’ve taken screenwriting classes in the past ten years, you can plot the story yourself: The soap opera romances, the father-son conflicts, the small-town-boy-does-good, and so on. Marry it with a sports drama all leading up to a big final game, and you’ve got it all pre-packaged. To its credit, the film is almost invariably amusing. On the other hand, there isn’t a whole lot of originality to it. The dialogue is slightly better than average for this type of film (thanks to David E. Kelly) and the casting even gets some mileage out of Burt Reynolds. Not bad, except for the fact that we all know that it should have taken place in Northern Ontario.

Diarios De Motocicleta [The Motorcycle Diaries] (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Diarios De Motocicleta</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Motorcycle Diaries</strong>] (2004)

(In theaters, January 2005) Funny, dramatic, historically important and occasionally moving, this “Young Che Guevarra” adventure is the sort of thing that would be worth watching even if the protagonist wasn’t a man who would become a generational icon. You don’t have to be a pamphlet-carrying Marxist to enjoy this series of events as Guevarra and his best friend Alberto Granado try to cycle their way through South America. Chances are that you’ll laugh as they behave like ordinary horny young men, looking for silly adventures with pretty girls and ending up forging their philosophy for the rest of their lives. The script is a bit forceful, especially with you compare it with Guevarra’s own written diary of the events. Events are shaped and dramatized to be a lot more meaningful that they appeared to Guevarra at the time but, hey, this is a movie. On the flip side, this infusion of meaning also gives a far more accessible structure to Guevarra’s trip. I was sorry to see some his adventures stay on the page, but generally pleased by the way some things were best explained in a visual fashion. (And then I saw the credits, which state that it’s based on Alberto Granado’s book about the same trip; some material may be from this other source) As a gateway into life as it was known in South America (and still probably is, for all I know), it’s exceptional.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Million Dollar Baby</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, January 2005) Oscar season is once again with us, and that means a slew of painful movies about impossible odds, plucky heroes, heavy drama, famous old actors playing what may be the last great performances of their careers, and that type of stuff. It’s as if every year included its quota of such film made for the above-fifty contingent that makes up most of the Academy, and so Million Dollar Baby fits in this year’s slot. Oh, it’s not as bad as you’d expect. The boxing scenes (for it is a film about a woman boxer breaking into the scene though sheer self-determination… oh, you’ve heard this one before) are good, and I suspect that this film will teach more about the technical side of boxing than any other work of fiction. Efficiently directed by Clint Eastwood, this film plays it simply, slips up only occasionally (mostly in its depiction of a hillbilly family) and moves without any fuss. I suppose that it should be commended for an unpredictable third act, but the truth is that the said third act feels very long and pointless after that came before: The sports film veers abruptly into straight-up Oscar-bait drama and never recovers. The last ten minutes feel like a stretch of the inevitable. Bah. You know that the usual crowd will go nuts for the film; people like me barely have the luxury of complaining.

Here’s To Life! (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Here’s To Life!</strong> (2000)

(On DVD, January 2005) I know; if you’re not yet 65, there are few things less appealing than a comedy starring retirement-age actors on a self-discovery trip. And yet, given the chance, Here’s To Life! manages to be something worth watching for the entire family. Eric McCormack stars as the young guy kidnapped by an elderly trio intent on one last wild trip while they still can. That they’ll discover stuff, pass on some of their wisdom and maybe even expire on the way isn’t in doubt, but the film itself has a bunch of good moments and enough material to sustain interest during its entire duration. Fortunately, the film can depend on its veteran actors and lush British Columbia scenery. All told, it’s just a very very nice film. And that’s all there is to it.

Broken Angels, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2003, 400 pages, C$24.99 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07324-1

Few SF readers were left unimpressed by Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s enviable debut novel. A dazzling mixture of pitch-black detective fiction and hard-edged extrapolation, Morgan’s first book immediately announced the arrival of a promising new author, one who could build upon the genre’s traditions and bring them forward in the twenty-first century. While Broken Angels is a conventional side-step in a different genre, it offers plenty of rewards to anyone who won’t mind a bit of action-packed futuristic adventure.

Takeshi Kovacs, the hero of Altered Carbon, is once again the star of this follow-up novel, but whereas his first adventure was modelled on crime fiction, this one is straight-up military SF served with a touch of treasure-hunting. Stuck on a remote planet fighting a war he never believed in, Kovacs begins the novel in rehab after a particularly nasty battle. He’s soon contacted by a man with a tall story of alien artifacts and a lost starship. Pages later, Kovacs can be found leading the retrieval effort, making deals with amoral corporations and training his crew of intrepid special forces soldiers.

It’s no insult to Morgan to call him a white-knuckled writer of upscale men’s adventures. Altered Carbon‘s mix of hardboiled sex and violence made even jaded reader wince in shock. Broken Angels follows in the same path, even finding (not always successfully) a surprising amount of sex into a situation custom-made for action. Mercenaries, traitors, body-destroying weapons and humans sins are the norm in this thrill-a-chapter roller-coaster.

Perhaps the best thing about Broken Angels is how it builds on the hints left in Altered Carbon (Martians!) to create a far more complex universe featuring a long-lost alien race, dirty wars galore, complex power plays between governments and corporations, factions within factions and enough grittiness to make it all feel real despite the plot contrivances. Clearly, Morgan has made himself a playground rich enough to serve as the setting for a few more novels if he so chooses. (Early word suggests that Kovacs will return in 2005’s Woken Furies) Kovacs himself is far more in his element here as a gun-for-hire, thanks to top-notch UN Envoy training and tons of hard-won experience. You can’t ask for a better narrator, even despite his tendency to keep the emotional side of what he does carefully locked away from his tough-guy personae. (Which often works at the novel’s disadvantage —especially when he flips out and starts shooting in chapter thirty-nine.)

Perhaps just as interesting is Morgan’s explicit political positioning. After a number of rather heavy hints in Altered Carbon (where only the rich can exploit the advantages of “sleeve” technology, etc.), Kovacs’ reluctant-warrior reflections place Morgan squarely alongside other newish writers (Miéville, etc.) whose left-of-centre politics fully inform their fiction. Some will undoubtedly find this tiresome, but in many ways it’s a welcome shot in the arm for a genre who should be asking questions and upsetting the status-quo. In Broken Angels, the merciless portrayal of the corporations running the show is as nasty as the worst cyberpunk had to offer, but it’s partly influenced by the new anti-globalisation movement and developed with a great deal more skill and complexity. (More on this in the singleton Market Forces… at least if I understand the cover blurb correctly.) Despite the sex, the violence and the big guns, Broken Angels doesn’t have much in common with stereotypical military-SF nuke-em-ups. Imagine cyberpunk spliced into an anti-war novel.

Cynics will be quick to point out Morgan doesn’t innovate much when plotting Broken Angels: “Explorers of various backgrounds banding together to explore an alien environment” can date back all the way to Burroughs’s The Lost World and earlier. But Morgan succeeds reasonably well in updating this template to current standards. Every weapon description is peppered with enough techno-jargon to make you see the serial numbers. The last chapter has as many twists as an entire noir novel. As alluded above, even the generic “war is awful and corporations are bad, m’kay?” message is developed with enough skill to be palatable, maybe even engaging.

Nothing in Broken Angels is broken. Familiar, maybe, but in the end, what’s left is a fine slick read, with steady forward momentum and enough action to satisfy anyone looking for faster SF. Yes, Broken Angels suggests that Morgan could become a one-trick action/adventure writer if he so chooses. But it’s too early to tell: In the meantime, Broken Angels is a whole lot of fun, especially for reader who like stuff blowing up, but can’t face the prospect of yet another generic Baen military-SF book.