Month: March 2005

Souls in the Great Machine, Sean McMullen

Tor, 1999, 448 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87256-9

As someone who provides technical support for libraries, I don’t have to be told about the awesome powers wielded by librarians. Sean McMullen may have dedicated my copy of Souls in the Great Machine with “watch out for strange librarians”, but that’s more of a reminder than a revelation.

Today, librarians may be cataloguing pieces of dead trees, but in two thousand years, who knows? In McMullen’s imagined future, librarians are the undisputed masters of high technology in a world where anything more advanced than steam power is strictly forbidden. Arguments about how to run the library are settled through pistol duels, city-states dominate the political landscape and humans are regularly harvested away through an irresistible “Call”.

Even though I many not be a big fan of post-apocalyptic futures, SF with epic fantasy trappings or massive trilogies, McMullen’s novel is strong enough, despite a few annoying writing flaws, to overcome most of my prejudices. For one thing, it’s SF that understand and espouses SF’s basic ideals. For another, it’s got enough sweep and scope to fulfil even the most demanding SF readers.

It’s not your typical post-apocalyptic future, for instance, given how it sets its narrative at a point where humanity is once again starting to look forward. As the novel begins, ambitious chief librarian Zarvora Cybeline is single-handedly revitalizing the Great Library of Rochester and putting the finishing touches to the Calculator, a Babbage Engine made to work using enslaved human components. What follows is an information revolution, a war, a re-discovery of this future age’s underpinnings and a revolt against what could charitably be described as gods of an ancient age. Fun stuff, well-told through a cast of delightful characters. Three strong female protagonists share the spotlight of this novel, through epic adventures filled with large-scale spectacles and intimate moments.

I could spend paragraphs describing McMullen’s constant stream of ideas, from human-powered computers to indirect space warfare. But that would spoil some of the book’s appeal while selling short its considerable reading pleasure. SF fans looking for a gigantic helping of ideas will be well-served by this book. Simply put, Souls in the Great Machine is a compelling read even at 448 pages, packed as it is with grand characters, great moments, compelling ideas and the comfortable sweep of an big, big story. McMullen’s writing is clear and clean, with occasional flashes of humour. (I was quite fond of the quote “Seneschal, allow [this character] to be harmed, and I will do something so pointlessly hideous that you will die as much from disbelief as pain.” [P.308])

There are, unfortunately, problems with this book that prevent it from being a complete success. McMullen, though gifted, is not a polished writer, and so Souls in the Great Machine is still rife with inconsistent viewpoints (sometimes switching in the middle of a section) and rough development. Months, sometimes years pass between chapters and sections, and better control over the pacing of the book could have done much to smooth over some of the book’s most jarring moments. McMullen writes fantastic characters filled with both good and evil, but in two specific cases, I found the abrupt transition of some characters to the dark side to be unconvincing and, ultimately, harmful to my appreciation of the novel. Some plot threads end spectacularly while others simply peter out. The “Call”’s explanation is lame. Several annoying coincidences abound, including “chance” meetings between our main cast of characters over and over again. A more experienced writer (and a stricter editor) could have fixed those problems. In the meantime, the impression remains of a great novel fighting its way out of imperfect writing. Frustrating, especially given how enjoyable is the rest of the novel. Curiously enough, this book may have been better with an added fifty pages’ worth of smoother storytelling.

But even so, Souls in the Great Machine achieves most of its goal as a solid and intelligent Science Fiction novel. Though not billed as such, this is the first volume of a series, and it ends on a high note that makes a sequel both superfluous and intriguing. I’m already on board for The Miocene Arrow (which feels like a sideshow more than a straight-up sequel) and you can be sure that I’m keenly interested in what McMullen thinks about next.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that I remain on my guard regarding strange librarians.

In the Country of the Blind, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2001, 549 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34498-X

In the history of the Science Fiction genre, few notions have captured readers’ imagination as much as psychohistory – the idea that given a sufficient number of people to study, sociology becomes as deterministic as classical physics. In Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, political movements can be described using mathematical equations, and a savvy psychohistorian can predict the future of the empire by running a few statistical models. It’s a seductive idea in part given SF readers’ fondness for hard science and cold equations, but also because it gives validity to SF’s pretencions of predicting the future. Why, yes, a sufficiently clever writer, well-versed in history and sciences, can say what’s likely to happen: Victory for Hugo Gernsback’s spiritual inheritors.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to see other writers jumping on the bandwagon from time to time. Michael Flynn (best known for the Hard-SF Stars series) did so in 1990 with In the Country of the Blind, a book now revised and republished with a nonfiction appendix. In this novel, ex-reporter, real-estate developer and all-around competent woman Sarah Beaumont gradually discovers the existence of a secret society, dating back more than a hundred years, that has figured out the elementary rules of “cliology”. Using calculating machines derived from Charles Babbage’s Analytical engine, this “Babbage Society” has spent decades subtly manipulating history to its own purposes. But now that Beaumont knows too much, well, she’ll have to be silenced…

I really, really wanted to love this novel and for the first hundred pages I truly did. Despite some too-hasty plotting and early characterization problems, In the Country of the Blind efficiently sets up a secret history in which history is silly putty in the hands of a few master manipulators. The means of The Babbage Society’s developments are convincingly portrayed (Chapter 1-IV features a wonderful discovery of an attic filled with analytical engines) and the story steadily moves forward.

It’s such a shame, then, that the book ends at this point. Oh, sure, there are twists and turns, revelations and betrayals, chases and gunfights for the rest of the book’s duration. But as a science-fiction novel, In the Country of the Blind essentially ends as Beaumont is welcomed into the society she discovered. The two or three refinements (that there are more than one such society, and that cliology just doesn’t work as well as one would think) are obvious from the get-go, and they’re not handled nearly as efficiently as they should have been. No, after page 101, In the Country of the Blind devolves into a standard-issue thriller in which the various parties could be just about anything. Replace “cliologists” by “industrial spies”, or “Nazi revivalists” and this novel wouldn’t change much.

And that’s a real shame given how, from time to time, we get a glimpse into cliology’s interest in a Science Fiction setting. The idea that the future is predictable and that we can influence it if we know where to act gives a realistic framework to exploit two of SF’s traditional obsessions: Given solid predictions and “inflexion points”, isn’t acting on these opportunities a form of preemptive time-travel? Isn’t this also a way to exploit the concept of alternate realities without actually alternating realities? Readers of this novel will be allowed a moment or two of intellectual vertigo as past, present and future, real or alternate, all merge into a solid whole of speculation.

What’s even more interesting is that since Foundation‘s publication in 1943, we are finding out that cliology may not be completely fanciful. Flynn gives out tons of examples in the non-fiction appendix that follows the book (a case of the appendix being more interesting that the previous novel), but you don’t have to look far elsewhere to find out how social sciences are becoming predictable. Jared Diamond did a lot to quantify history in his best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel. Political scientists are starting to understand how government falls or evolve given their social contexts. Wall Street is leading the way in building models to predict the evolution of markets, trends and economic activity. Even governments and corporations are getting in to the act with “strategic analysis” units.

If Flynn wants to use cliology as an excuse for a standard chases-and-gunfire thriller, fine. But as a Science Fiction novel, In the Country of the Blind wastes its considerable potential. It doesn’t make it a bad novel… just a very disappointing, very ordinary one.

Air, or Have not Have, Geoff Ryman

St. Martin’s, 2004, 390 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-26121-7

Early-21st century Science Fiction occupies a curious philosophical position. It has inherited a tradition of rational techno-optimism that has never been more relevant, at a time where the future has never been less predictable. SF knows that the world does not and will not look anything like what it has been predicting for the past fifty years. And yet it struggles to evolve, dying of a thousand weak Star Wars tie-ins and falling on its knees as the reality thunders past.

It’s in this context that Geoff Ryman’s Air arrives, like a bootleg Bruce Sterling novel, like a fusion between SF’s traditional ideals and the values it has to espouse in order to evolve. It’s a novel about then, about now and about soon, a novel that makes unlikely heroes out of people who wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineteenth century.

Most of the novel takes place in the small village of Kizuldah, somewhere in the fictional country of Karzistan (presumably set close to Khazakstan). Thirty families. Two or three cars. One stone bridge. A subsistence economy based on the culture of rice and a few odd barn animals.

The heroine of the tale is one Chung Mae, a self-styled “fashion expert” who acts as nothing more than a skilled conduct between the outside world and her faraway village. She’s doing well, but her entire life is about to change: Air is coming, and it promises nothing less than the ultimate connection to information. A test is run; things go wrong, people die and Mae is irrevocably changed. Shunned by her peers, stuck with a ghost in her head, obsoleted by technological changes, Mae nevertheless becomes an unlikely advocate for change. Illiterate and impulsive, she understands information trading better than anyone else, and wastes no time in adapting her village to the coming changes.

If you think that this is a parable about our own society and how it’s being changed by, oh, The Internet, you’re absolutely right. Air may plug your brain into an always-on T3 connection, but its impact on Mae’s village meets with the same type of change resistance seen in our world. Arguments raised for and against this technology are similar to what we’ve heard ourselves over the past decade.

But there’s more to it than just a thinly-veiled retelling of the Internet Boom. The product of a skilled storyteller, Air is first and foremost a story filled with good characters and a compelling plot-line. The scale of Mae’s village allows for a cunning personalization of issues: Access to information is initially restricted to one “TV”, then a second one, and then many more. Characters see their livelihoods threatened on a very basic level by the arrival of this opening on the rest of the world.

By setting his near-future story in the third world, Ryman also touches upon an under-exploited subject in SF, how the first world is as alien to the third-world (and vice versa) as any type of extra-terrestrial. And even how, thanks to modern communication technologies, the alien is only one address, one number away. Ryman never treats Mae and her villagers with even a hint of condescension; the result is the kind of world-literate novel that shouldn’t surprise us, but still does.

Air gnaws on the future and takes a big bite out of it. It’s almost a brilliant novel. The only things holding it back are the inclusion of a (quasi-magical) pregnancy subplot that seems too contrived even for its own good, and a general lessening of tension that runs through the entire second half of the book. Chapter 14 opens up a can of worms that is never fully satisfactorily explained, almost as if the novel has become too small for its own ideas, then abruptly brought back in familiar surrounding. The final crisis seems too conventional (and too drawn-out) for such a snappy and unconventional novel.

But those caveats aside (caveats that may be ways of saying “the book didn’t go where I wanted it to”), Air is still one of the best SF novels of 2004. It takes the best the genre has to offer and sets it in a situation that has relevance to us, right now. It may even have a thing or two to teach to other Science Fiction writers. Accessible to mainstream audiences and well-written, it’s an ambassador the genre has nothing to be ashamed about.

The Rainmaker, John Grisham

Island, 1995, 598 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22165-X

At his best, John Grisham delivers a satisfactory re-telling of his favourite story (“Young southern lawyer fights evil organization”) but never strays too far away from it. It’s a good niche, when you think of it: there’s regional colour, a crowd-pleasing plot, solid movie material and the potential for a sympathetic hero. (There are worse ways to earn a living than being a best-selling author.) But the real fun starts when Grisham starts playing tricks and variations on his familiar elements: Often, those quirks and structural choices can become the central point of interest of a book.

Nowhere else in Grisham’s oeuvre so far is this truer than in The Rainmaker, an obvious David-against-Goliath story whose courtroom component is one of the most lop-sided legal contest you’ll ever encounter in legal fiction. If the courtroom drama was the main focus of the book, we’d have a problem justifying the existence of The Rainmaker as a piece of fiction. But it’s not. For better of for worse, Grisham has other things in mind for the novel, and I’m not sure they all fit together.

The break from Grisham’s other books is obvious from the first page: For the first time in his career, Grisham uses first-person narration (present-tense, no less) to tell the story of one Rudy Baylor, a law student about to graduate. At the beginning of the story, most things seem to be running in Rudy’s favour: He’s got cash-flow problems, sure, but he’s also weeks away from a job with a well-regarded law firm. But then the hammer falls. In short order, Rudy loses the job, files for bankruptcy, moves out of his apartment and finds himself with next to no prospects. Still, he’s got a file in his hand, a civil suit that just may be worth millions…

Plot-wise, Rudy’s fight with the eeevil insurance company of Great Benefit Life is one of the most one-sided contest you’ll ever read. Sure, it’s the whole single-David against corporate-Goliath fight again, but Grisham stacks the deck so ridiculously in favour of his populist protagonist that the courtroom becomes the vicarious blooding of an easy target. Rudy’s corporate opponents make every mistake in the book, and face the added difficulty of having the facts against them. Rudy, on the other hand, has a sympathetic jury, a friendly judge, two or three dirty tricks up his sleeve and some killer pieces of evidence. It’s not much of a contest, and not much of a drama either (though it makes for cheerful reading).

If that was all there was to The Rainmaker, there wouldn’t be much point in going on. But there’s more. You could argue that the real point of the novel isn’t the insurance case, but the portrait of a young lawyer during difficult times. Rudy doesn’t come from a good family, can’t depend on a trust fund and doesn’t display prodigious legal abilities. But he works hard, never gives up and scrapes by on the strength of his conviction. The first-person narration is an ideal vehicles for the elliptical asides, the showy supporting characters and the day-to-day drudgery of being a working lawyer. Tasty stuff; fans of Grisham’s other thrillers won’t be surprised to learn that this novel is as compelling as Grisham’s previous onces. Set aside some free time to make your way through this one.

Still, the novel is also filled with loose ends and choices that don’t ring true. A number of those things (a mysterious fire, for instance) seem to be kept in reserve for a final revelation that, ultimately, never comes. All, including a romance, seems rushed and crammed in an ending that doesn’t conclude as much as it gives up and throws everything back onto the table in desperation. Conscious choices by Grisham, I’m sure, but the purpose of which still has me dubious: Sure, part of it is an attempt to subvert Grisham’s own favourite story… but the way it’s handled seems just as contrived as the one-sided courtroom theatrics.

But don’t let that stop you from grabbing a copy of The Rainmaker. Grisham devotees will note the blueprint of The Runaway Jury buried deep in The Rainmaker, what with the emphasis on civil suits and the passing mention of jury consultants. But even readers without an encyclopedic knowledge of Grisham’s fiction will be so completely swept along by the narration that the book’s problems will hardly register. And that’s a trick that sets the magicians apart from the other authors, whether or not they’re telling their favourite story all over again.

Mou gaan dou [Infernal Affairs] (2002)

Mou gaan dou [Infernal Affairs] (2002)

(On DVD, March 2005) Hong-Hong crime cinema’s traditional fascination for the criminal/policeman duality here finds its masterpiece. Tony Leung and Andy Lau play polar opposites as (respectively) an undercover policeman infiltrating criminal gangs and a criminal infiltrating the ranks of the police forces. After an effective opening sequence, the cards are on the table for all to see and the game begins as to which man will uncover the other before he is himself discovered. But the plot is only half the story as this tense crime drama is developed with great skill and grace. The direction is fluid and the suspense runs high. While some leads go nowhere, the film a s a whole is a superior cops-and-criminals drama in much of the same vein as Heat or L.A. Confidential. This is world cinema at its accessible best.

The Stepford Wives (2004)

The Stepford Wives (2004)

(On DVD, March 2005) When considering America’s evils, the culture war between conformity and individualism is far more important than the so-called battle between the sexes. The satiric potential of obedient wives may have found its audience in 1975 (hey, that’s the year I was born!), but thirty years later, it’s wasted when it’s placed besides such juicier targets as the need to conform to outdated ideals. This remake misses the point and yet, in its last five minutes, shows signs of at least understanding that. Rumours of last-minutes re-shoots may have something to do with the incoherency, but as it stands, The Stepfords Wives is a mish-mash of half-gelled ideas, contradictory information (what; robots and control chips?), lame gags, idiot plotting, absent suspense and groan-inducing developments. Watching this film today, after years of training in watching suspense movies, is an exercise in seething exasperation: how can characters act so stupidly? How can they miss the obvious clues? Gaah. A tiny argument can be made that this remake is really a parody, but that’s a hollow excuse for a bad film. At least Bette Midler is amusing in her un-Stepfordized character, and there’s maybe a handful of good laughs here and there. Otherwise, forget it: this film isn’t worth the aggravation of seeing the potential for good satire wasted on such tired subjects.

Robots (2005)

Robots (2005)

(In theaters, March 2005) It’s hard to be overly critical of this type of film. Sure, it’s no masterpiece –heck, it’s nowhere near the level of quality of Pixar’s CGI animated films. Plot-wise, it’s a Saturday-morning cartoon special: Young robot goes to the city, makes friends and enemies, saves the day. Robots may feature an all-robots cast, but it’s straight-up comedy rather than Science Fiction. But you don’t need to be flawless to be entertaining, and so few will fail to be amused by Robots: The level of wordplay and visual invention alone is worth a look, what with its joke-every-five-seconds pacing. It’s not high-level humour (Farts and big body parts: Comedic gold!), but there is an awful lot of it, and at least some of the gags are bound to amuse you. As with other recent CGI films (Monsters, Inc., for one), the elaborate animation allows for a few frantic action pieces and some amazing depth to the film’s imagined world. Tons of stunt voice casting may make for an impressive credit sequence, but they don’t do much to raise the interest in the characters –at the exception of Robin William’s usually hyperactive delivery. It all amounts to a quirky comedy that’s just too likable to kick too hard. It’ll do for kids, and it’ll do for adults too.

Assemblers of Infinity, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Bantam Spectra, 1993, 278 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-29921-2

The gradual endangerment of the Science Fiction mid-list over the past decade and a half has already been discussed to death elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it any less important. The conglomeration of publishing under ever-hungrier multinationals has increased the drive for clear profits. Authors who used to sell profitably but not spectacularly have been driven away in the hope of finding strings of best-sellers. This, in turn, has affected what gets into bookstores. Authors are encouraged to do series, to do novelizations, to “co-write” something with a celebrity.

Unfortunately, what has gotten lost in this evolution is what I call the meat-and-potatoes genre novel. The kind of adequate, but unspectacular standalone book that entertains despite not breaking any genre convention. Novels like Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason’s Assemblers of Infinity.

The story is one we’ve seen many times before: Twenty-five years in the future, astronauts on the moon discover a strange alien artifact that is both intriguing and dangerous. People die, scientists are sent to investigate and soon enough, we’re stuck in a race against time, between revelation and annihilation. Simple enough: that Anderson and Beason choose to exploit nanotechnology as the Danger Tech is a sign of the times, but otherwise there isn’t much that’s not instantly recognizable by SF fans.

Not that this is a bad thing: From the opening prologue, in which a discovery turns deadly, fans will slip into Assemblers of Infinity like in an old set of clothes. The technology-heavy vocabulary is familiar. The easy prose is unobtrusive and compulsively readable. The characters are engineers and scientists, bright folks with just enough back-story to avoid charges of cardboard characterization. In short, it’s a perfectly lovely hard-SF story in the Clarke mold, with enough ambiguity to make it interesting: the characters don’t neatly divide in good/bad bins, and that’s already nice enough. In retrospect, few fans will be surprised by the twists and turns taken by Assemblers of Infinity, though there are a number of pleasant developments here and there (much like the authors’ previous Lifeline, which tweaked a few genre conventions by the nose). The somewhat gratuitous suggestion of ESP power is old-fashioned, but not in an intolerable way: Everything ends up fitting together nicely.

Assemblers of Infinity is not meant to be innovative, but comforting. Working away from genre spotlights, the Anderson/Beason team has produced more than half a dozen interesting Hard-SF/techno-thrillers that are well-worth a quick read. Comfort food for the SF audience, meat-and-potatoes novels that are fulfilling but hardly spectacular. And that’s fine, because those mid-pack novels are the true backbone of the genre, the structural blocks that define what people imagine when they think about SF. The genre classics stand out over the background noise that is generated by novels such as this one. Without a strong fuzzy stream of good solid SF novels, there isn’t much of a genre. Assemblers of Infinity may be a middle-of-the-pack book, but there’s no dishonour in that.

Ultimately, this thought brings us back to why the much-heralded “death of the mid-list” hurts the genre. Without a support net of mid-list building blocks, SF is stuck without references, without a way to keep readers from abandoning the genre while waiting for the next Big Thing.

So authors adapt and evolve. Like Kevin J. Anderson, they start massive trilogies and series. They turn to comic-book writing. They shill themselves to cults and celebrities. They write novelizations. They try other genres in the hope that they’ll find a magic formula. But most of all, they stop writing those mid-list novels that define the genre. Assemblers of Infinity may not be publishable today (The Anderson/Beason team has certainly stopped writing anything like it), and that’s a real shame.

The Quick And The Dead (1995)

The Quick And The Dead (1995)

(On DVD, March 2005) The Western genre has rarely been faithful to the historical reality of the American west, opting for operatic grandeur and machismo myth-making over the true grime and uneventful routine of the era. This film cheerfully won’t do anything to correct the record: here, the wild west is only a backdrop to a series of shoot-em-up duels, aggrandized by ridiculously overblown personalities and heightened visuals. I say this like it’s a bad thing, but it really isn’t: The Quick And The Dead is most enjoyable when it goes for broke in its quest for the ultra-Western, and at its weakest when it tries to inject realism (or its boring cousin, “motivation”) into a framework that doesn’t need it. As a tongue-in-cheek take on the pistol-duel shtick, it’s hugely enjoyable. Too bad that it chose to saddle itself with a clogging revenge story, complete with lengthy flashback and barely-repressed rage. But that takes maybe ten minutes, and the rest of the film is a lot of fun: The impressive cast is awe-inducing even today: Gene Hackman has rarely been better at chewing scenery, and any film that managed to snag both pre-stardom Leonardo Decaprio and Russell Crowe is nothing to dismiss easily. Sharon Stone herself has lost a lot of starpower in the decade since this film (and her middling screen presence here may show why), but she looks cute enough as a female gunfighter. The fifth cast member worth noticing is director Sam Raimi, who infuses the film with some much-needed style. Realistic? Absolutely not. As tight as it could be? Heck no. Fun to watch despite everything? Oh yes.

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003)

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003)

(On DVD, March 2005) Fluffy, slightly original romantic comedy that shows promise but then devolves in the usual yadda-yadda. There’s interest in the basic premise (dual bets: she has to break up; he has to stay with her; hijinks ensue) but once it’s properly presented, it’s immediately discarded in favour of the usual idiot characters, dumb misunderstandings and wacky chase sequences. The whole film is contrived, but the last quarter hour overdoes things in this regard. It’s still not an entire waste of time mostly because of the charm of the two leads: Kate Hudson is even pretty cute in her “Kathie Lee Gifford on crack” mode. Matthew McConaughey is blander (in keeping with Romantic Comedy male lead tradition) but not entirely boring. It all amounts to a fair film, slightly too long but still pleasant enough.

Hostage (2005)

Hostage (2005)

(In theaters, March 2005) There isn’t much that is remarkable in this Bruce Willis film, if not for the fact that it brings to mind about half a dozen similarly unremarkable films in Willis’ career. Bland villains, by-the-number developments, pedestrian directing, somber cinematography: Without the big-name headliner, this could have been a straight-to-video release and few would have noticed. The gritty cinematography is annoying, but not as much as the lack of involvement with the characters. Daddy is a mob accountant and the bad people are teenage hoodlums: why is it difficult to care about these people? Even Willis is more of an enigma than a hero. Oh, there are a few quirks here and there, but almost nothing here comes to the level of The Negotiator, to name another relatively recent hostage-rescue drama. Made to fill the shelves of your local video-club, this film acceptably competent, but just that and no more.

Crush Depth, Joe Buff

Morrow, 2002, 449 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-000964-0

By now, Joe Buff fans should know what to expect from his third novel. Cutting-edge near-future submarine warfare. Shaky grasp of story-telling techniques. An absence of political complexity. A story that emerges out of the water mid-way through, to conclude with yet another duel between submarines. At least Joe Buff is getting better with every following book, though Crush Depth doesn’t show the same stark improvement that set Thunder in the Deep apart from the debut Deep Sound Channel. In fact, it’s such a small improvement that some readers may come to question why they’re reading the entire series.

For it is obviously a series, and there’s no hope that it will conclude anytime soon. Buff is slated to write nearly a dozen novels in the “Jeffrey Fuller” universe, each one describing a campaign in a fictional near-future war opposing English-speaking Allies to a new Germany-led Axis. In this third book, captain Jan ter Horst and XO Gunther van Gelder both return from the first novel, while our stalwart hero Jeffrey Fuller must once again go head-to-head against enemies that are as smart as he is. Plot-wise, that’s all you need to know: You can infer the structure of the novel from Buff’s previous ones: There will be a submarine fight, a terrestrial raid and another submarine fight. One wonders if all twelve Fuller books will suffer from the same structure.

What’s new here is a land-bound prologue in which Fuller and series love interest Ilse Reebeck tour a wartime New York city. Unfortunately, this segment only highlights how Buff’s political sense comes nowhere near his expertise in military affairs. What becomes obvious is that Buff is merely using his future history to re-fight “The Good War”: Wartime New York suffers from rationing and plays big-band music as if it had escaped from a romantic WW2 film, whereas the big bad Germans are only one snappy salute short of being total Nazis. Given the pacifist learnings of real-world Germany, let’s just say that a German civil war is more likely than them presenting a credible challenge to the Anglo-speaking power bloc. Buff constantly tries to hand-wave “nuclear weapons!” as the big equalizer, but that excuse doesn’t excuse much given, once again, the anti-nuclear forces at work within Germany these days. (Don’t try to make me believe that massive executions would resolve that problem.)

The political unlikeliness at the root of Buff’s future history have always been problematic, but it becomes even more so as the series advance and Crush Depth, for instance, suggests an escalation of warfare from countries lining up against the US. Now, I would pay good money for a military thriller in which the US was the antagonist that a righteous alliance of nations would try to contain (heck, we’re already half-way there today), but somehow I don’t think that this is what Buff has in mind. (Wouldn’t it be a fantastic twist, though?) Oh well, onward, what with tactical nuclear weapons raining down on our protagonists like so many cheap fireworks.

Buff’s strength has been in portraying submarine warfare as a complex interrelationship between psychological, military, oceanographic and technological factors. While the degree of innovation is smaller in Crush Depth than in the series’s previous two volumes, there are still a number of good ideas and scenes here and there. Particularly noteworthy is a third act taking place under the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf, though the final conclusion seems weak after all the build-up leading to it.

In terms of story-telling, Buff is still improving, though he still has a way to go before delivering a novel that can be enjoyed by laypersons: There are a number of hilariously unconvincing dramatic blunders in Crush Depth, including the clumsy introduction of Fuller’s father (“I haven’t thought about my father in months because I don’t like him… wait… who’s that man at the urinal? It’s my father!”) and a fake death that just isn’t unconvincing (no one will buy in it), but doesn’t even make sense in the internal logic of the series.

Given that even this type of stuff represents an improvement over the previous novels, you can see why I’m sceptical as to whether I’ll ever truly enjoy one of Buff’s novels. I happened to have the first three books on my shelves, but now that I’m done with them, it’ll be a challenge to convince myself to pick up the follow-up Tidal Rip. Maybe at a used book sale. Provided it’s really, really cheap.

Elf (2003)

Elf (2003)

(On DVD, March 2005) There are two movies warring for attention here: An innocent kid’s film about the meaning of Christmas through the antics of an elf lost in New York, and a silly comedy that has to please the adult fans of Will Ferrell. No surprise, then, if the film gives out such a mixed impression. Parts of it work, but they come from different films. Ferrell is sweetness incarnate as the Elf lost in New York, but Elf is equal part amusement and embarrassment as he’s confronted with the very grown-up streets of New York City. The romance and the last-act thriller may have worked in other contexts, but here they just feel forced and badly integrated to a kid’s film. Not entirely pleasant to watch nor particularly funny, Elf exists in a demimonde of conflicting goals. Only Ferrell’s compelling performance saves it from complete disinterest.

De-Lovely (2004)

De-Lovely (2004)

(On DVD, March 2005) I’ve never been able to let bad wordplay stand in the way of a nuanced review, and so I can’t help but write: De-Lovely is De-Boring. Granted, I know next to nothing about Cole Porter, but it’s not this tepid musical biography that will make me rush to know more. Granted, I did like some of the staging and the way some numbers were integrated into the overall story. But then the music starts and I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the types of show tunes Porter was known for. The framing device can’t do much to counter-act the increasingly wearying impact of the film, which runs about half an hour too long and gets less and less interesting as Porter’s life goes by. (“Just die already!” becomes the rallying cry in my living room) I suppose that devotees of musicals will get a kick out of it; as for myself, this movie just can’t make me care. Which is ironic because when you take a look at all the good material that’s stuffed in this film, you’d expect much better.

Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

(On DVD, March 2005) Now that’s how you make a zombie film. Re-inventing absolutely nothing and taking no ironic distance to its material, this entry in the undead sub-genre nevertheless manages to deliver the requisite amount of bloodshed, action and grim humour that is required of such movies. Director Zack Snyder knows what he’s doing, moves the story along at a decent clip and does surprising things with an average script by James Gunn. While there are numerous wasted opportunities (the satiric bite of the original film, for instance, has been completely eradicated), too many annoying characters and only occasional flashes of wit, Dawn Of The Dead at least fulfils the basic requirements of zombie film. “Shoot’em in the head” has seldom been more graphic than its depiction here. Stay during the credits for the full story. The DVD includes many, many extra features.