Month: July 2006

Camouflage, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2004, 296 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01161-6

That the 2006 “Best Novel” Nebula Award went to a relatively unknown novel rather than any of the deserving ones isn’t really a surprise. The SFWA’s Nebulas, after all, have long ceased to have any relationship to actual literary worth, instead boldly embracing a growing reputation as the leading industry back-scratching contest. Any relationship to what readers love to read, or what informed critics think is among the best SF/fantasy of the year, is purely coincidental.

So if you haven’t read Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage, don’t feel as if you missed anything spectacular: At best, it’s a competent SF novel that doesn’t insult the intelligence of savvy readers. At worst, it’s just another brick in the Great Wall of the SF mid-list and perhaps a further proof of Haldeman’s hypnotizing powers over the rest of SFWA. It doesn’t really deserve any top award, but what are you going to do? The Nebulas, after all, can’t even be bothered to focus on any single calendar year, nor have a sensible nomination process.

But if you do find a copy of Camouflage, perhaps at a remainder sale, have a look. You can do worse.

It begins decently enough, with some guy telling another about a mysterious artifact buried underneath the Pacific Ocean. Raising it to the surface is no problem, but dealing with it once it’s over the ocean gets to be an issue since the object it many more time denser than even the outer reaches of the periodic table of elements. Various exotic engineering tricks are required to actually put it somewhere it can be studied, and once it’s in place, no one can figure out how to get any information about its composition. Diamond bits and industrial lasers don’t even leave a scratch, leaving the scientists curiously flustered even as media attention is focused on their efforts. Set in a relatively near future (2019), this section of Camouflage makes good use of Haldeman’s travels in Samoa and ends up being a very enjoyable hard-SF tale tending toward old-school hard engineering fiction. It’s told in a crisp no-nonsense fashion that side-steps the feeling of déjà-vu by not wasting our time.

But as it turns out, it’s not even half of the novel’s story. No, Camouflage is really about one alien shape-shifter who, after spending various umpteenth years swimming around, finally comes aground in the early twentieth century to study those human creatures. Somewhat ignorant of social graces, it makes a number of mistakes (some of them fairly serious) before learning to cope with the rest of humanity. Its apprenticeship is long, fascinating and takes us forward ninety years as we figure out how the alien and the ship are linked. This section of the novel distinguishes itself by the way it snakes through nearly a century of history, and by the various details of a shape-shifter’s methods. There is a limpid logic to Haldeman’s writing in Camouflage that makes a lot more interesting that it ought to be, even when it side-steps into irrelevancy.

Such as when it tips the scale even more by introducing a second shape-shifter, a creature of almost comical evil that has also managed to survive throughout all of human history. It, too, is very interested in the alien ship… and you can bet that it’s the sworn enemy of our first shape shifter. We follow this second shape-shifter’s progress through history is such condensed fashion that it’s easy to see Haldeman pull the wool over our eyes. Gee, do you possibly think that it could become someone who figures in the first plot thread of the novel?

All three subplots eventually merge in the last few chapters, with a sudden and improbable romance that leads straight to a final confrontation and a conclusion that seems to say “that’s it, show’s over!” more than anything attempting a satisfying conclusion. At least it’s a relatively short book.

Camouflage certainly doesn’t do anything to heighten my opinion of Haldeman’s recent production. It’s middle-list fodder, exactly the type of novel we think about when we gesture in the direction of “all of those SF books out there”. In some ways, its primary purpose in the field may be as a yardstick, to make the really good stuff look good and the really bad stuff look bad..

And yet it’s written with a sure-footed assurance, plenty of crunchy details and interesting twists on the old shape-shifting idea. Looking at more information about Camouflage, I found that it actually won another award, walking away with half of the 2005 Tiptree Award. Given the treatment of shape-shifting romance in the novel, I can actually understand that. So amend that whole “doesn’t deserve any top award” crack with “(except the Tiptree)” and give me some time as I reflect upon the fact that I read and generally enjoyed a Tiptree-winning novel. Now that wasn’t something I expected.

Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge

Tor, 2006, 364 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85684-9

A lot of people were waiting for this book, with good reason: Over the years, Vernor Vinge has become a visionary with a new brand of future, a prophet for the Singularity. In the SF field, few will dispute his success: His last two novels both won the Hugo Award, and so did two of his novellas in 2002 (“Fast Times in Fairmont High”) and 2004 (“The Cookie Monster”). At this point in time, any new story by Vinge is an event. With Rainbows End, he doesn’t disappoint.

While it shares common elements with “Fast Times in Fairmont High”, Rainbows End is a reworking of the earlier novella’s themes, using the same setting and characters, but digging much deeper in the details. (Readers already familiar with the earlier story may experience some disorientation as the two appear to take place in closely placed parallel universes.) The first chapter of Rainbows End is a little gem of pace-setting: In a few short paragraphs, the stakes are raised again and again: Someone out there has developed effective mind-control technology and so the European secret service hire a very shadowy entity called “Rabbit” to track down and eliminate the treat. There’s one small hitch, though: The guy ordering the hit is the same one who’s developing the technology… and “Rabbit” is definitely more than he appears to be.

But as it turns out, this global framework is just there to allow Vinge to go back to Fairmont High School, and show us the wonders of his barely pre-Singularity future. The year, improbably enough, is just 2025 —but already everything is taking off. Some (but not all) debilitating diseases can be cured, high-school students can access manufacturing capabilities still beyond the reach of today’s governments, overlaid realities are far more popular than the un-augmented world, fine-grain wireless connectivity is everywhere and there just may be something artificial lurking in the channels of the global communication network…

And yet, despite its considerable ambitions, Rainbows End is about a small group of characters. There’s Robert Gu, an unpleasant man rescued from the abyss of Alzheimer’s just in time to give us contemporary readers a taste of a future experiences for the first time. There’s Miri Gu, his grand-daughter, an ambitious teenager who’s about to get in deep trouble. There’s Juan Orozco, the prototype of a teenage nerd fully exploiting the resources at his disposition. Then there’s Alice and Bob Gu, (how fitting for a computer scientist to name two characters Alice and Bob… I kept expecting Eve to eavesdrop) just waiting to be involved in the plot as the military is called to the rescue…

Many so-called SF novels try to give you a good dose of future shock, but Rainbows End actually delivers. For one thing, it’s set in a near-enough future that the tech on the ground often looks like better versions of current prototypes. For another, Vinge manages to cram an awe-inspiring density of ideas, concepts and eyeball kicks in a relatively slim but dense volume. I hope you’re up in your Google and Wikipedia skillz before attempting this book, because Vinge’s future is in large part a vision of massively collaborative computing: small entities, all contributing a tiny part to something far bigger than themselves. Computing capacity allows real-time virtual overlays through special contact lenses (I want my Epiphany OS!) and a substantial part of the job market seems to belong to people who can do stuff for others. Naturally, themes of identity become integral to the entire experience, as virtual presences can be shadowed, altered or even completely taken over.

Reading Rainbows End taps onto the main vein of Science Fiction thrills. It’s like taking big gulps of ideas and experiencing the sugar rush of new concepts. Late in the novel, a military action takes on a radically new form that both trivializes a lot of the current vogue of military SF and momentarily gives us a glimpse into what true informational war may become. At a time where young punks like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are the living emblems of the new information-dense SF, it’s amusing to see Vinge (who’s near retirement age) being able to out-hip his younger colleagues with cutting-edge work.

Even better: Vinge is smart enough to balance his universe with doses of humour and horror: For all the neat things that Vinge keeps on throwing in the air, his future is one that thrives on sink-or-swim competition, along with terrible new weapons and dumb ideas written large. One of the novel’s most darkly amusing scenes (for “hair-raising” values of amusing) is a take-off on destructive scanning techniques consisting in digitalizing a library by shredding its books and deep-scanning the resulting “shredda”. Yikes.

Yet, for all my enthusiasm for Rainbows End (and make no mistake: I think it already belongs on the Hugo Awards ballot), it’s hardly a perfect novel. After the continuous shocks of the first half, the story seems to lose its way shortly after the midpoint, ultimately settling for a scattering of sub-plots that don’t always mesh harmoniously with one another. It also becomes apparent, as the novel settles to a conclusion, that far too many threads are left dangling: Indeed, Vinge has stated that a sequel in in the work. Much as I usually prefer singleton works, I really can’t wait to see what’s next. (On the other hand, this is the second almost-fabulous novel in a year, after David Marusek’s Counting Heads, to loses points for setting up an unannounced sequel.)

Vinge is also known as a fairly hard-core techno-libertarian, and as a passport-carrying Canadian, I’m just bound to have problems with some of his basic assumptions. Vinge is far more bullish on free-market economics than I am: Like many libertarian ideas, his usually make abstraction that actual people are involved. In this context, there are a number of ideas in Rainbows End that I’d like to kick around in a context that allows for a touch more oversight and accountability.

But debating ideas like this is a huge chunk of what’s fun and fresh with Rainbows End. Forget about most of the other books in the “Science Fiction” section: This is the one you’re looking for. It’s SF for this decade: a dangerous cocktail of fun and speculation, wrapped up in good style. Vernor Vinge is back, and the wait has been worth it.

Polder, Ed. Farah Mendlesohn

Old Earth Books, 2006, 308 pages, US$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-882968-34-4

It’s impossible to pick a name and say “there’s the best science-fiction writer of our generation”: there are too many good ones, too many styles, too many different approaches. But it is possible to say “John Clute is the best science-fiction critic of our generation”, because it’s true: no one else comes close. No one else has co-written a standard reference encyclopedia (twice!), churned out enough critical essays to fill three books, even redefined the common language of genre criticism. He is a literary singularity; I feel blessed for having met him a few times at conventions over the years. And there’s another measure of success for you: How many other critics have their own fans?

With Polder, the time has come for the biggest fans of the Clutes (John and Judith) to come together and pay homage to the couple and their flat.

I’m not terribly familiar with Judith Clute’s work, but I suspect that text-heavy Polder isn’t the best way to do so: a coffee-table book may be the best way to discuss a visual artist’s work. In my case, I even lack to vocabulary, so I won’t even try.

Similarly, I’ve never been near 221B Camden High Street in London, so I can only shrug amiably at the reverent description of a flat crammed with bookshelves, art, a cat named Pepys and the Clutes themselves. Interestingly enough, Polder ends up presenting a number of stories and segments of SF novels where the flat figures prominently. Snippets of published works by M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Hand, Geoff Ryman or Kim Stanley Robinson are a testimony to the central location 221B Camden occupies for SF professionals passing by London.

A few stories were written specially for this volume, all of them taking the form of light-hearted pieces with good roles for the Clutes. Brian Aldiss’ “An Audible Anagnorisis” is a fun mainstream piece that reminded me of Wodehouse, whereas Ian Watson’s “What actually Happened in Docklands” enlists John Clute in a fight against evil. But the award for the most amusing story surely goes to Sean McMullen’s “Electrisarian”, an anecdote that tells what happened when a certain Sean McMullen started repairing 221B’s telephone system…

For those who want to learn more about the Clutes, a dozen of their friends got together to write warm and effusive portraits of the couple. Candas Jane Dorsey, Scott Bradfield, Neil Gaiman, Jack Womack, Ellen Datlow and Roz Kaveney offering fascinating recollections of their times with the Clutes. Kaveney’s piece is particularly interesting insofar as she describes the process of working on The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and even offers a version of how the word polder entered SF’s critical vocabulary.

This of course, leads us to Polder‘s considerable value as one of the best work of SF criticism (even meta-criticism) published lately. This is, after all, a book at least a third concerned about a critic. It goes without saying that many other big-name SF critics grabbed Farah Mendlesohn’s invitation as an excuse to discuss their fine art. Clute’s own critical work often inspires them directly: Graham Sleight talks about First and Last SF while Edward James muses on Thinning. At other times, it’s Clute himself who’s the subject of attention: Rob Latham double-tracks on his assessment of Clute’s New Worlds criticism, Damien Roderick does a bit of historical contextualizing, Javier A. Martinez shares his love of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (I could tell a similar tale about the Second Edition), Andrew M. Butler and Gary K Wolfe separately muse about Clute’s influence on the genre. And yet it’s Bruce Sterling who burns up the barn with his review of Clute’s Scores, a review that ends up as a springboard to a wider discussion of genre deficiencies. Just try to find a better all-star roster of SF critics in any other book this year.

Alas, it’s a bit of a let-down to see so many problems with this labour of love: Despite Old Earth Books’ best intentions, the finished product is peppered with typos, missing punctuations and other problems. The endnotes present a particular issue: Not only are they all relegated at the end of the book when footnotes would have been far more accessible (or even, at a minimum, chapter-by-chapter endnotes), but an error at endnote 110 makes it so that the remaining 60 footnotes are two digits out-of-sequence. Knowing John Clute’s impeccably-organized mind, I suspect that this mistake will bother him far more than the content of the book.

But content-wise, Polder achieves what it sets out to do: recognize people who deserve the acclaim. I’m a regular fanboy when it comes to Clute’s work, so there is no doubt that I will nominate this book for the Non-Fiction Hugo Awards next year: Polder may be for a very specific readership, but it hits all the right notes.

Chindi, Jack McDevitt

Ace, 2002, 511 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01102-0

The relationship between science-fiction and the unexplored frontier runs deep, perhaps all the way back to the origins of SF in pulp magazines, right alongside westerns. For many Americans, SF is synonymous with going “where no one has gone before”, replacing the old idea of a western frontier with another one: the universe as manifest destiny and Science Fiction as the only genre big enough to tell those stories. Conveniently enough, it’s also a type of story that needs no fancy variation: Go out there, explore, try to come back alive.

As it happens, Jack McDevitt has made a mini-career out of those type of stories. Chindi is the third in a series that riffs off the basic exploration plot, vaguely inserted in a Science Fiction universe that contains no surprises to even old-school SF readers. Much like The Engines of God and Deepsix (and, to a non-negligible extent, Ancient Shores and Infinity Beach), Chindi places a bunch of characters in front of alien artifacts, gives them a ticking clock and watches what happens next. This time around, series heroine Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, re-introduced via a gallant ship rescue operation, is hired by a bunch of eccentric alien-chasers to investigate a strange phenomenon. In the established McDevitt tradition, this leads them to an alien artifact, then another and another… Meanwhile, one member of the group usually dies at every stop in the way and no one even thinks about turning back. It leads up to bigger and bigger artifacts, and maybe even to one of those elusive still-alive aliens…

Of course, regular McDevitt readers already know what to expect. Mini adventures in an alien environment, unexplained alien mysteries that the author has no intention of tying together, gigantic forces counting down to total destruction and slasher-movie deaths slowly whittling down our cast of character. (Along with a curious lack of self-preservation sense from said characters, as they all agree to keep on going regardless of the mounting body bags.) And yes, that’s pretty much what happens.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of urgency to McDevitt’s style that makes it hard to care. Maybe I’m just getting more impatient with age, but despite the fun details, sense of exploration and clean-cut prose, I truly found it hard to get into the novel. See one adventure after another; guess which character is going to bite it. The last rescue sequence, while relatively original in the context of the series, takes almost a hundred pages of analysis and implementation. This is far too long at that point in the story, especially when the solution depends on a single line of dialogue that really stuck out earlier in the novel. Chindi grinds to a stop just as it should go flying. And as if that wasn’t enough, let’s just say that McDevitt has no more intention of wrapping up his enigmas than he did in previous novels. This presumably leads us to Omega, the next tome in the series.

It’s truly an old-fashioned SF adventure, though I’m not using the expression in an entirely kind manner. Beyond the alien artifacts and the fact that she’s gallivanting around the galaxy in a spaceship, there isn’t much that’s different in Hutch world’s as compared to ours. There’s no sense of a fully lived-in future: Technology is comfortably familiar (except for the FTL drive), society seems to have stopped evolving and almost everyone in the cast is a boring shade of American. While the Hutch sequence is all about deep-space adventures, its decor seems a bit too hastily put-together to convince. What’s more, McDevitt’s straightforward writing style brings nothing new to the table either. See me use “old-fashioned” as in “this could have been written at any time over the past thirty years.”

Of course, some people love that stuff. As entry-level material for neophyte SF readers, Chindi has the right attitude and nothing that a fan of Star Trek won’t understand. As a professional SF writer, McDevitt has enjoyed an almost unexplainable string of Nebula Award nominations —although it’s often hard to separate SFWA politics from literary value when it comes to the Nebula. I myself have enjoyed quite a number of McDevitt’s works (The Engines of God come to mind, not to mention the collection Standard Candles). But Chindi seems to be running over familiar ground once again, bringing nothing much in either style or content. Rather than recalling McDevitt as his best, it only shows McDevitt doing what he usually does, and that’s not quite enough to satisfy at a time where at least a dozen other SF writers are also turning out better material on a regular basis. I keep waiting for the McDevitt book that will reach above average and truly grab me, but I don’t see it coming. Maybe I should have a look at his latest short story collection.

Superman Returns (2006)

Superman Returns (2006)

(In theaters, July 2006) Far from successfully reinventing this particular superhero franchise, Superman Returns made me realize how much I loathe the character of Superman. It’s not the goody-goody two shoe routine that gets to me as much as the character’s complete lack of self-awareness and emotional maturity. He’s either a well-meaning twelve year old or a retarded thirty-year old: not, in any case, someone you would feel comfortable saddling with a son and the responsibility to save the world. And yet the film skirts all around this issue, going so far as to give Superman a number of creepy peeping scenes and romantic moments that are fit to cause more discomfort than endearment. There’s small comfort to be found in the film’s lavish visuals or envelope-pushing effects: Once the character is found worthless, the rest of the film soon follows. Kevin Spacey is easily the most enjoyable character, but his Lex Luthor is saddled with the lamest evil plan ever deemed fit to figure in a blockbuster. The less said about Kate Bosworth’s wimpy character the better: her performance recalls not Margot Kidder, but Katie Holmes’s similarly-ineffectual performance in Batman Begins. Worse: the dumb-as-dirt script can’t effectively maintain suspension of disbelief as is flies from one bit of silliness to the next, flagrantly ignoring how people actually react and how things actually work. For the first time in a long while, I kept being thrown off the film by its casual disregard for physics, journalism or even common sense. Not that it does better in terms of pacing or originality: It’s a good thing that Superman can lift heavy objects, because all of the problems he faces in this film can be solved through that particular talent. It all adds up to a dull and vaguely insulting film, one that actually takes away from the Superman mythos more than it adds to it: By skirting closer to the edge of reality, director Brian Singer invites greater scrutiny that the film can’t sustain. Give me an op-ed page, and it will be titled “The World didn’t need this Superman, and it sure doesn’t need another.” Oh well; everyone who was waiting for this summer’s big blockbuster failure can now stop looking.

The SEX Column… and Other Misprints, David Langford

Cosmos, 1995, 243 pages, US$17.95 tpb, ISBN 1-930997-78-7

Hail to the Langford.

Not many regular columnists can be fooled into thinking that their work has any value beyond historical ephemera. Magazine pieces are written to be expended by the time the next issue comes out. Topics come and go, magazines appear and disappear and the only lasting impact of most columns is the check that allows the author to go out and eat something. Still, the effort in producing those expendable words is staggering: Next time you’re at a magazine stand, take a look at those million words and weep at their monthly disposal.

But Langford is one of those columnists with enough skill and marketing appeal to be able to arrange for a collection of his columns. In this case, The SEX Column brings together no less than ten year’s worth of monthly columns for SFX magazine, or pretty much all that Langford wrote for SFX between 1995 and 2005. If you’re of the poorer disposition, rejoice in the knowledge that most, if not all, of this material is already available on Langford’s web site. But that’s not the point of this collection, which is about having a handy solar-powered package of wood pulp and ink.

It makes a very nice package. Yes, a few columns are instantly dated, as if kept in argon as a time capsule of What Happened Back Then: This is particularly noticeable with obituaries, reviews or convention reports. But Langford is a canny fellow with enough experience with print deadlines to know that a slick magazine doesn’t allow too much immediacy, and so most of The SEX column works as a collection of short standalone essays on various subjects related to the science-fiction field.

Promisingly enough, it starts off by wondering when The Last Dangerous Visions will finally be published. The rest of the SF-related material is just as good. “Sign Here” is a short tour of signatures sessions as seen by the authors. “On the Circuit” is one of many pieces mentioning convention horror stories. “Blurbismo” is about those mercenary one-liners.

Of the strictly ephemeral material, the best may be the review of John Clute’s Look at the Evidence (Langford being one of the few reviewers not meta-gobsmacked at the thought of reviewing John Clute) and Keith Robert’s epitaph, this last piece being noteworthy largely because it’s one of those blisteringly honest texts that don’t stoop down to simple eulogies: “…he could be utterly impossible to work with.”

The book is rarely better than when Langford walks down his amazing library to offer thematic essays on various subjects as brought up in Science-Fiction. Santa Claus in SF, Food in SF and even (yup) bad sex in SF. Prepared to be amazed at the obscure works, amusing concepts and strange juxtapositions. “This Title Was Different” is about books known under more than one title, “We Told You So” ticks off successful SF predictions, “The Case of the Red Planet” obviously deals with Mars novels while “Curse of the Typo” offers an amazing collection of embarrassing typographical errors. Don’t miss the “Choose your own column!” interactive piece.

Of course, anyone who knows the name David Langford knows that humour is an important part of his enduring popularity, and so The SEX Column often turns into an excuse for short comedy routines. “Lepermage of Elfspasm” takes on silly fantasy novel titles while “Noises Off” deals with onomatopoeia. “Future Christmas” reads like an outtake from “Our Dumb Century II”.

What more, it’s pure joy to see Langford unleash his scientific education and his literary erudition, sometimes on bad SF, sometimes on more deserving targets. “Would U kindly F O?” takes on UFOlogy: the title explains all.

Langford sometimes ends up the subject of his own columns, whether it’s reporting back on various conventions (including strange and wonderful events at the first two Discworld cons), commenting upon electronic publishing through his own experience and sometimes even discussing his long, long, long string of Hugo Awards. There is, of course, a strangely compelling British feel to the book, written as it was by a Brit for Brit readers. Americans have taken a long time to warm up to Terry Pratchett’s work, and so reading about the raucous reception of his work overseas takes on an air of almost alternate reality.

Cosmos books have been doing an awfully good job at publishing Langford’s back-catalogue, and The SEX Column is another winner. Yes, you can get most of the content on-line on Langford’s site. But wouldn’t you be better off with another half-inch of your bookshelves taken up by another of Langford’s excellent collections?

(Hey, look, “So You want to be a Reviewer” offers tips for wannabe reviewers. Oh my…)

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

(In theaters, July 2006) Richard Linklater mystified many observers with Waking Life, but all of the prep work finally pays off in A Scanner Darkly, which uses the curiously off-putting rotoscoped animation technique to good effect in representing the inner life of heavy drug users. Things are never what they seem as even the shapes keep shifting on viewers. Yet the heaviest irony of this science-fiction film is how the SF elements are the film’s least convincing aspect. For all of Dick’s clever positioning of his themes in a triangle between paranoia, surveillance and drugs, it’s the home life of his blasted-out protagonists that is the most interesting. When the glossy SF elements are introduced, they feel like a distraction from the story’s real content. Alas, the end result is a film that dawdles a long time before getting down to business abruptly and decisively. When it ends, we’re left contemplating a fascinating premise, an intriguing atmosphere, a merciless twist but a wafer-thin plot. While I remain unconvinced by the overall appeal of the film, it’s hard to deny that it’s crammed with a number of great moments.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

(In theaters, July 2006) Hail to the king of the summer, baby: This sequel has everything a blockbuster needs, and maybe even twice that. All of the characters are back, and while it’s hard to focus on the bland Bloom/Knightley lead couple when Johnny Depp keeps stealing the show, everyone gets a good moment this time around. (Even Jack Davenport’s Norrington gets a beefed-up role in this sequel.) The adventure/fantasy aspects of the tale are pumped up, leading to a different atmosphere (one where everyone acknowledges the supernatural from the get-go) but one that is conductive to a succession of thrills. The direction is crisp, the script is tight and the special effects are astonishing even at a time where we think we’ve seen everything. Bill Nighy’s “Davy Jones” has the potential to become a cultural icon and the meshing between his performance and ILM’s special effect team is a huge part of this effectiveness. For the rest, well, what’s left to say? Johnny Depp outshines all of the special effects, Naomie Harris is lovely as Tia Dalma and the film ends up on a fascinating cliffhanger. Don’t miss any opportunity to see the first film shortly before seeing this sequel, as the Elliott/Rossio screen-writing team were able to refer to several events and jokes from the first film.

Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice (2006)

(In theaters, July 2006) This is not Heat, but it sure looks a lot like Collateral. The grainy digital look is back, but what looked like a justifiable cinematographic choice in Michael Mann’s previous film now looks like a self-conscious affectation. For a while, it works mostly because the script doesn’t allow you one moment’s worth of respite: Miami Vice launches almost in mid-sentence, and the first act forces you to pay attention through bad audio, cryptic dialogue and a reassuring lack of hand-holding. But that initial interest soon peaks and fades as soon as a romance is hammered in place for no good reason except for the demands of the third act. At least Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are tolerable as the leads: they don’t really take over the roles of Sonny and Crockett, but that’s in large part due to the fact that Miami Vice shares only a title, a premise and character names with its TV series namesake: The rest is all brand-new, and unfortunately it recalls fonder memories of the Bad Boys series more than anything else. (The shadow of Michael Bay is obvious during the gunfights: they’re not particularly coherent, but they’re very very loud.) But this being Michael Mann, even his misses are more interesting than other people’s successes. What’s more, the film is partially redeemed by its female performances: While most male viewers will focus on Gong Li’s appearances, Naomie Harris handles part of the film’s emotional appeal, while Elizabeth Rodriguez is blessed with the film’s best line of dialogue. Ultimately, the film’s sputtering rhythm only serves to build interest in the inevitable Director’s Cut DVD.

Stinger, Nancy Kress

Tor, 1998, 342 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54038-7

You can call it the Crichton manoeuvre or the techno-thriller side-slip. But if its title may be in dispute, the move itself is highly familiar: If you’re a hard-SF writer looking at the bestselling list, it can be hard to figure out why techno-thrillers can reach such a big audience when their level of technical verisimilitude is either equal or inferior to traditional nuts-and-bolts science-fiction. Perhaps you voice your frustration to your agent, who then suggest that you try writing a conventional thriller. Perhaps the idea comes up by itself. In either case, the end result is a present-day thriller with gobs of actual science, emblazoned by the name of an author better known for SF. Examples abound, from Gregory Benford’s Artifact (1985) to Bruce Sterling’s The Zenith Angle (2004), with no end in sight.

In this case, it’s SF sensation Nancy Kress (Beggars in Spain, Brain Rose, etc.) who jumps on the thriller train, trying her luck and commercial appeal with Stinger, a self-styled thriller of biological terror. The cover blurbs does the rest: “Has a fringe hate group bio-engineered a weapon to decimate the black population?”, “Move over Robin Cook”, “it’s a bit like The X-Files with more interesting characters and a more sensible plot.”

At first blush, there’s a lot to like in Stinger. The prose is mass-market clean, and the action efficiently centres itself on two capable characters with enough flaws to make them endearing: Robert Cavanaugh is a fine FBI agent, displaced to Maryland against his will to fulfil staffing requirements in a state where nothing usually happens. His biography includes literary studies, a penchant for symbolic doodling and a failed relationship that still tortures him. Also up for protagonist status is Melanie Anderson, a black CDC expert with a chip on her shoulder that’s big enough to balance an entire history of racial oppression.

What brings them together is a shocking discovery: A mosquito-borne disease that causes fatal heart problems pretty much exclusively in black victims. Despite their problems, despite the fact that they don’t like each other, running against their supervisors’ wishes, the two vow to discover who is at the origin of the plague.

As a premise for a thriller, it’s hard to do better: Racial tensions always lurk beneath the surface, and there’s no surer way to prod at people’s sensitive prejudices that by raising the possibility that wholesale racial warfare may be possible. As you would expect from a hard-SF writer, Kress bolsters her notion with a convincing amount of technical detail reaching deep down bioengineering jargon. The rest of the novel’s verisimilitude is just as convincing, whether it’s in areas of law-enforcement or in how to collect wild mosquitoes for study. As the action briefly moves away from Maryland to another continent, we’re reminded that Kress can write, and that her sense of place is top notch. Her chops as a writer show up more obviously in agent Cavanaugh’s meaningful doodling and literary musings.

But despite all of the above advantages, Stinger only manages a whimper as a thriller. As much as I hate to write it, the main problem with it is that it’s too cerebral. The novel is almost completely free of action sequences, car chases, gun-play or just about anything you may remember from thriller movies. Characters talk and talk and talk and investigate a bit. The development of the novel is strictly intellectual, with procedural antagonists that are so distant that they may not exist. On one hand, it’s probably how things would unfold in the real world. On another, it does mean that you can accuse Kress of not delivering the goods, especially with the “thriller” label so prominent on the spine.

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard: hard-SF writers may be so used to the indulgence of SF readers in tolerating purely intellectual action that they may not realize the extra level of spectacle that seems to be de rigueur for modern thrillers. As it stands, Stinger seems a bit limp, a bit tepid. Technical details isn’t enough: some action and suspense would be nice.

As a convinced SF reader, it’s hard to avoid the idea, when reading those SF-infused techno-thrillers, that the author is slumming out of genre. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that modern techno-thrillers requires more research efforts than big SF novels (if only to keep it coherent with the real world), but to which end? Yes, we wish all SF authors the best of luck and embarrassing amounts of money. Sure, it’s possible that another Dean R. Koontz may emerge from the SF field. (Except that Koontz was never all that comfortable in the field.) But in the meantime, such attempts from hard-SF writers to write mass-market techno-thrillers usually end the same way: after one, two or three such novels, they’re back in the friendly SF ghetto with barely any mention of the side-step.

Hoodwinked! (2005)

Hoodwinked! (2005)

(On DVD, July 2006) The biggest problem with Hoodwinked! is obvious from the trailer: This is a low-budget CGI-animated film, with the lack of sophisticated animation this implies. While this may be off-putting after being used to the superlative work of Pixar and PDI/Dreamworks, it shouldn’t become an obstacle in order to enjoy this earned and light-hearted comedy. Yes, it’s made of kids (which only becomes intrusive when the songs run on for too long, or when some points are made too obviously), but it’s a lot of fun for adults too. Characters that should work eventually do (including the film’s single best character, a singing goat with interchangeable horns) and the initial lack of fluidity to the animation becomes charming in time. There are enough chuckles to keep anyone interested, and some of the film’s best moments pay off handsomely. It’s not completely original (the riffs off fairy tales will remind a few viewers of Shrek, while the hyperactive squirrel is immediately reminiscent of Over The Hedge‘s Hammy), but given the film’s long gestation period, it’s more a case of parallel development than anything else. Seen from a slightly wider perspective, Hoodwinked! may end up being the first of a new category of animated films made possible by the increased capacities of personal computers: Earnest, highly personal B-movies made as much to scratch a creative impulse than to produce corporate profits. Frankly, I’ll take ten Hoodwinked! over one cynical and overproduced The Polar Express.

Himalaya – l’enfance d’un chef [Himalaya] (1999)

Himalaya – l’enfance d’un chef [Himalaya] (1999)

(On DVD, July 2006) This film certainly deserves such a majestic title when you consider the beauty of its cinematography. From the very first images, we’re in for a treat: wide-screen isn’t sweeping enough to contain the mountains, the colours and the dusty rusticity of the Himalayans. The music is similarly haunting, and the film never loses an occasion to remind you of it. Alas, fans of actual plot-driven films will soon hop in expectation as the film takes its time to advance. What story emerges is a decent competition between two heroes (one of the film’s most appealing traits is that there are no villains beyond the weather and the environment), one that comes to showcase the Himalayas in their entirety. Not for hyperactive moviegoers (though Himalaya features what may be the first action scene ever to involve a yak), but still a satisfying experience. Especially if you stick it in fast-forward.

Grease Monkey, Tim Eldred

Tor, 2006, 352 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31325-1

A significant proportion of Science Fiction readers pride themselves on the fact that they see life with a cool steel gaze, conditioned by the genre to ask the next question, investigate beyond appearances and stay free from sentimentality. Which is all well and good, except that a good chunk of SF’s impact (its much-vaunted “Sense of Wonder”) is about going gosh in the face of the universe. In SF’s rush toward literary respectability and engineering believability, it’s all too easy to forget that SF is all about humans. We shouldn’t afraid to feel something when we ought to.

There is a sequence in Tim Eldred’s Grease Monkey , Episode 9, which ends on a note of such earnest sentimentality that seasoned readers may be tempted to laugh, right before catching themselves and feeling guilty for being so cynical. For me, episode 9 is where Grease Monkey came into focus after a rough start and misplaced assumptions. You probably heard about those who come to graphic novels expecting kids’ comics. In this case, I made the mistake of approaching a teen graphic novel with too-adult expectations.

For one thing, Tor is relatively new at the graphic novels game, a state of things that brings along a disorienting lack of expectations. Grease Monkey is -I believe- the second such recent effort, and I happened to pick it up solely on the basis of it editor, the inestimable Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Tor’s production efforts certainly can’t be praised enough given how Grease Monkey looks like what Graphic Novels should look like: A handy hardcover that looks comfortable alongside other novels, with sturdy binding, wide-enough margins and a reasonable price. The entire book, as an object, is packaged exactly like the rest of the Tor fiction line and that’s how it should be.

But if you’re coming to Grease Monkey with expectations that this is going to be the same reading experience as the rest of Tor’s adult SF line, the first few pages may be disconcerting. The writing is sharp, the art is accessible and the characters are introduced efficiently. But there’s a tone, not of naiveté, but of earnestness that’s so old-fashioned that it’s unfamiliar. Grease Monkey opens as young mechanic Robin Plotnik arrives on spaceship Fist of Earth, an outpost perpetually on the edge of combat readiness. His boss, as it happens, turns out to be Mac Gimbensky, an uplifted 800-pound gorilla with a gruff sense of humour. Bildungsromans are an old staple of SF, and this is another one of them as it follows Robin during his first year as a working mechanics. It’s a year of friends and love gained and lost, with plenty of action and humour to keep the story gears running smoothly.

It takes a few pages (indeed, until Chapter 9) to understand that this is primarily a teen graphic novel that happens to have considerable adult appeal rather than the other way around. Once that particular piece falls in place, the rest of Grease Monkey works very well, with a tone juggling between sharp sitcom jokes and heartfelt character development. The art and storytelling also get better, which may not be a surprise when you read the notes at the end of the book and find out that the novel was a long time in development. The story itself is seamless, but the way it’s told keeps on getting better until the end.

There are fabulous moments here and there, whether it’s Mac and Robin’s respective romantic tribulations, what happens when their fathers (rival political operatives) meet on station or the back-story of how the Grease Monkey universe came into place. All throughout, Eldred’s straight-ahead charm is simply disarming: Reading Grease Monkey is like being reminded of how inspiring SF can be, when it simply tells us to be as good as we can in even the most desperate circumstances. (This is the Christmas gift you should buy for your younger relatives.) The characters are intensely practical blue-collar workers and their concerns are very real. It doesn’t take much to consider them friends. I’m curious as to how many types of readers (young, old, naive, sophisticated) Grease Money could reach.

But as good as Tim Eldred’s graphic novel may be, the best thing about it may be what it could represent as a beginning. From the open-ended conclusion, it’s obvious that there are other stories left to tell in this universe (an impression confirmed by the afterword, which announces a volume 2). But if we’re really lucky, Grease Monkey also means the possibility of a line of graphic novels from a major SF publisher. And if that’s not enough to rekindle your child-like wonder at the possibilities, I don’t know what it will take.

Der Untergang [Downfall] (2004)

Der Untergang [Downfall] (2004)

(On DVD, July 2006) The last days of the Nazi regime are a natural dramatic point of interest. As the entire German infrastructure was being destroyed and the Russians were racing east, imagine the reactions of those left in Berlin. Based on several books and contemporary account, Downfall flits about Berlin as Hitler and his advisers retreat in an underground bunker. There is a lot of material to cover, perhaps more that can comfortably fit into a single motion picture: Downfall occasionally feels halfway between a miniseries and tighter film, with a result that feels long even though it should be interesting. Those hoping for a sweeping view of Berlin will be as disappointed as those who are hoping for a story exclusively centred on Hitler’s bunker. In any case, it’s hard to fault the actors as they attempt to recreate the slightly unhinged atmosphere of the time, or the claustrophobic cinematography as the walls come closer and closer to the characters. The script is graced with polish and a good amount of period details, down to capturing the essence of many historical characters. I suspect that WW2 buffs will be fascinated by the film, while others will want to snip entire segments of the film.

Clerks II (2006)

Clerks II (2006)

(In theaters, July 2006) That’s it, Kevin Smith is out of the doghouse: After the disastrous Jersey Girl, this film is a thematic retreat, but an overall progression for the writer/director. Sure, going back to the Askewniverse smacks of desperation for a sure-fire redemption. There are enough fans of Jay and Silent Bob to cover the production costs of the film and that’s all that counts, right? Still, it doesn’t necessarily imply an artistic regression: Smith’s progression as a director continues to impress: While Clerks II had nowhere near the budget of the studio-backed Jersey Girl, the direction continues to progress. There are even a few nice moments here (including a sing-along to the Jackson 5’s “A.B.C.”) along with a camera that moves (!) from time to time. The editing, on the other hand, could use some work: too many shots last just a bit too long, which saps the comic energy of the film. See the far-too-indulgent “donkey show” sequence for the best examples. But it’s as a writer that Smith continues to make the most progress. Even though Clerks II continues to rely on its usual crutches (pop culture dialogue, in-your-face shock frankness, fantasy characterization), there is a solid emotional core in the middle of the R-rated dialogue, and the conclusion puts all the pieces together with a satisfying thunk. Smith is also fortunate in his choice of actors. Here, Rosario Dawson steals the show by grabbing a character seemingly written as a male dream-girl and transforming it into something extra. The film certainly won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s a huge part of its charm: While you may not understand why it’s funny to insult a Transformer fan by calling him a “Gobot”, I can guarantee you that it’s hilarious in its proper context. Now all we have to hope is that after finding solid ground once more, Kevin Smith will try something else for his next film.