Month: August 2006

Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi

Tor, 2002 (2008 revision), 368 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7653-1771-0

(Also available online at )

Trunk novels. Just about every writer in the business has at least one: those early efforts that weren’t good enough to warrant publication and so await patiently, in the trunk (so to speak) to be reworked or abandoned entirely. Some writers eventually manage to revise and publish them while others seem happy to let them age away unseen. I know of one red-hot hard-SF writer who reportedly has ten of them, which is the kind of stuff that makes me feel better when I read his stuff and wonder how his “first” book out of the gate was so unbelievably good.

But in these wild and woolly Internet times where information actively schemes to be free, more and more writers are turning to a third alternative: Releasing the novel on the Internet as a free sample of what they can do and a piece of must-read history for their fans. Campbell Award-winning John Scalzi is now officially one of SF’s most sensational new writer, but the runaway success of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades masks the fact that those weren’t his first two novels: Another one, Agent to the Stars, was written in the late nineties and and released as a free download on his wildly popular web site in 1999, where it attracted attention and some generously donated money.

But then Scalzi sold other novels, which did quite well on the marketplace. This, in turn, raised Agent to the Stars‘ profile high enough that the fine folks at Subterranean Press crunched some numbers and figured they could make a profit re-publishing the novel as a special limited edition. There are rarely second chances for books, but there are also exceptions: this is one of them.

Those of you worried about quality can rest easy: While Agent to the Stars doesn’t quite make it as a first-rate SF novel, it’s good enough by itself, and quite reasonably good for what is, after all, a trunk novel. Scalzi is such a professional that it’s hard to imagine him releasing anything that wasn’t good enough for public consumption.

It’s also one of those relatively rare creatures: A light-hearted Science Fiction novel. The hook is simple: Successful Hollywood agent Thomas Stein is a bright young darling at his agency, and he’s lucky enough to have at least one rising superstar under his wing. Things are looking up for him, until he’s called into his boss’ office for a special assignment: Find a way to “sell” a race of slimy smelly aliens to the human public. The agent job of a lifetime… if Tom can handle it. Fortunately, the aliens are friendly (pretty funny, actually) and Tom seems reasonably confident that he can crack the problem. But this is Hollywood, and things have a way of not going quite right.

Before long, tragedy occurs and Agent to the Stars heads to grounds that will feel familiar to seasoned Scalzi readers: Ethical dilemmas arise, and with them the ideal excuse to use SF as a tool to explore a few big “What If?”s. The warm and gooey aliens end up teaching two or three things to Tom about what it means to be human, bringing the novel to a conclusion that will satisfy everyone.

On a writing level, Agents to the Stars is deceptively simple: The prose is immediately accessible, and Scalzi knows how to put his characters in genuinely amusing situations. The balance between comedy and drama is tricky to get right and if the tonal shifts can rough at times, the skill of the conclusion more compensates for it. Scalzi has a lot of experience writing about movies and he uses that knowledge to paint a convincing portrait of the daily life of a Hollywood agent: Movie buffs won’t be the only ones who benefit from Agent to the Stars, but the novel will pack a special fun for them.

This being said, it remains a trunk novel, even if it’s exceptionally pleasant to read. It’s a bit linear and fluffy (though less so than you can imagine, thanks to the dramatic turn taken in the second half of the book), with a few dramatic shortcuts that make sense in a comedy but wouldn’t pass inspection in a more rigorous tone. The speculative elements are few, though well-developed and reasonably consistent.

But as a Scalzi fan, I’m just thankful that he’s been generous enough to allow random readers to have a look at his first effort. In some ways, I suspect that Agents to the Stars reflects Scalzi-the-author a bit better than his first “official” novel Old Man’s War: it’s funnier, looser, a bit more explicit in its ethical concerns and not as worried about mass-market appeal. As time passes, I think that Agents to the Stars will find its place not just as an unusually good “free novel on the web”, but as an essential piece in the Scalzi bibliography, the one piece that announces a strong career.

Digital Knight, Ryk E. Spoor

Baen, 2003, 378 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-7161-X

Nowadays, everyone struggles under the shadow of Buffy.

Hey, it’s what happens when a sub-genre gets strip-mined. Vampire hunters (or, more generally speaking, monster-slayers) have been with us for a long time in popular lore: As you imagine horrors, the next step is someone who will protect you from it. But as the nineties evolved, as Buffy and The X-Files took over the fantastic sub-genres for easily digestible weekly stories, it became simultaneously trivial and impossible to re-imagine the genre. Suddenly, you couldn’t walk into a bookstore’s horror section without being clobbered by dozens of sexy vampire hunters who may themselves be vampires, alongside other furry tentacled critters who may or may not be prime relationship material.

Half a decade later, the situation isn’t much different. Anyone tackling the contemporary monster-slayer sub-genre has to contend with the dozens, maybe hundreds of other writers who each had their own unique take on the idea. And so it goes with Digital Knight, a contemporary monster-slaying book with its own particular strengths that still feels as if it’s playing with well-worn material.

I may not respect that sub-genre too much, but I didn’t pick up the book by accident: Ryk E. Spoor, under a different alias, has been a long-time contributor to the Usenet literary SF community, and I was curious to see if his incisive commentary on genre fiction would carry over to original fiction. Would he manage to escape the shadow of Buffy, or not?

“Maybe” ends up being the most charitable assessment I can give.

First, the good and favourable impressions: Spoor can write the type of accessible prose that has come to exemplify the Baen line. His hip and sarcastic tone carries well to his chosen protagonist, an information specialist with a number of similarities to those most likely to read the book. If nothing else, Digital Knight is a lot more information-aware than most of its brethren, and that give it a nice little edge, a truly contemporary flavour that seems to be missing from a lot of vampire-hunting stories seemingly stuck in a Stoker mindset. Better yet: Protagonist Jason Wood is a geek, and I can identify with that.

What’s more, Spoor’s approach to his stable of critters is a lot more science-fictional than fantastic: Among the biggest strengths of the book is the acknowledgement that actions have consequences. One of the early stories sees Wood develop a werewolf sensor: later on, the devices are selling briskly as the world realizes that there are such creatures out there. As far as monster-slaying stories go, this is pretty much the way things should be.


But this is a first novel, and an episodic one at that: More fix-up than sustained narrative, Digital Knight is consciously structured around what we could call episodes, each one developing and extending the mythology of the series. It could work as a miniseries, but as book form it leaves readers with an assortment of unfinished or hastily-tied plot threads. On the writing front, the book never totally shakes a certain lack of grace in the prose, which isn’t as important as you may suppose, but does nothing to enhance the experience. Beginner’s stuff, probably less intrusive in the next novel.

Then there’s the Buffy factor, or (broadly speaking), the idea that despite the neat touches and the contemporary gadgets, we’ve seen all of this before —ad nauseam. Jason Wood can be the best and hippest monster-slayer on the block, he’s still working in a clearly identifiable mythology mash-up where everything is readily recognizable despite the twisted allegiances and careful justifications. If you’ve had enough of “that stuff”, Digital Knight remains “that stuff”, however well it’s handled.

I suppose readers with a higher tolerance for this sub-genre will enjoy Digital Knight a lot more than I did, much like I tend to be far more generous to hard-SF books than to other types of stories. Otherwise, well, I’m happy to see Spoor working professionally and earning money for the wit he demonstrated on Usenet… and I’ll certainly consider any hard-SF book he cares to pen. But as far as monster-slaying is concerned, I’ll stay on the side-lines a while longer.

[December 2006 update: Ryk E. Spoor wrote to clarify a few details, some of which I knew but didn’t acknowledge properly in the review. With his permission, here are excerpts of his message…

[Digital Knight] *was* written as separate stories originally (the first three were “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish” and “Viewed in a Harsh Light”; the other three sections were added in two months after Jim Baen expressed interest in it but said that it was too short). I felt (and Eric and Jim agreed) that given the type of story it worked reasonably well in an episodic format and thus I didn’t do a huge amount of work to somehow try to integrate it into some overarching plotline.

“Gone in a Flash” was written in … 1989 – 1990, I think, while “Lawyers, Ghouls, and Mummies”, “Live and Let Spy”, and “Mirror Image” were all written in one short stretch of 2002. (From my PoV, of course, it’s the X-Files and Buffy who are the latecomers; the two genre influences I would credit with Jason Wood’s birth would be the Nero Wolfe novels (for Jason’s tone) and Kolchak the Night Stalker (for the basic concept).

[Digital Knight] is also, as I’ve also put it to other people, a sort of “compressed intro” to my multiverse. Jason Wood intersects (sometimes unknowingly) with just about every important aspect of my multiverse in his career, and his stories get correspondingly more complex as time goes on. Even apparently quite minor events have more significance than may appear at first glance.

Mr. Spoor’s graciousness in dealing with my review was enough to make we go out and finally buy his follow-up novel Boundary, which I’d been meaning to get for a while.]

[January 2009: After spending years on my reading stack, my double-authographed copy of Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor’s Boundary proves to be classic, enjoyable, light-hearted adventure Science Fiction. It may be predictable and too long by about a hundred pages, but it’s SF that will make long-time readers smile. Good sympathetic characters, intriguing glimpses at the lives of scientists (in this case, an archaeologist whose discovery almost proves too revolutionary to be taken seriously) and straight-ahead narration make this a pretty good choice for a wide readership.]

Night Fall, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2004, 692 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61662-1

Looking over my notes about Nelson DeMille’s fiction, I keep seeing a common theme: DeMille is not just a reliable thriller writer, but he often manages to find success where other lesser writers would flounder. His books are regularly longer than they ought to be, deal with themes that shouldn’t be interesting, use the same repertory of characters from one work to another –and yet DeMille is one of the surest values in the thriller market, churning out hit after hit.

With Night Fall, he comes perilously close to failing –although I haven’t yet made up my mind about it, and I don’t expect to for a long while yet.

The first and most important difference between Night Fall and the rest of DeMille’s oeuvre is that he sets it against a very specific time period: The action begins on July 17, 2001, five years after the TWA Flight 800 explosion. Returning protagonist John Corey (Plum Island, The Lion’s Game) heads out to a memorial celebration in company of his wife, but she’s got a complete show-and-tell in mind. By the end of the day, Corey has determined that there’s something rotten about the way the TWA investigation was wrapped up, and decides to investigate further. Warnings from superiors quickly come and are discarded at some peril.

The first question that readers should ask is why DeMille would want to pick Corey as a protagonist and very specifically why we would want to set a novel in 2001. The answer, of course, is obvious… and so the book takes on a very special quality of impending doom, a quality that becomes more and more obvious as the characters make plans that bring them to That Place on That Day.

As suggested above, Night Fall isn’t an unqualified success. On one level, it certainly places the novel on a different register. DeMille knows that by his specific story choices, he can bring the reader to do most of the emotional heavy lifting of the novel. We know what’s coming and the character doesn’t (though the author certainly does, as demonstrated by the number of references that are obvious now but weren’t then.) and that is the very definition of suspense and dramatic irony. The novel rushes along to its inevitable conclusion even as the reader hope against all other evidence that something will happen to prevent the inevitable.

But the very same factors that given strength to Night Fall also contribute to the impression that DeMille is blindly cheating his readers. Think back to the reasons why DeMille, after nearly a dozen novels loosely tied to contemporary times in general, would specifically tie himself to a specific time period. Why show a protagonist uncovering a conspiracy three years before the publication date of the book, if we know perfectly well (reading the morning newspaper) that the conspiracy is not going to be exposed in time for 2004? As the novel started building steam toward an ending and the days were counting down to That Day, I found myself contemplating the upcoming crash and muttering darkly that DeMille really shouldn’t go there nor do that.

But he does, and arguably negates the preceding investigation, burning up 600 pages in smoke because Something Else happens that, of course, Changes Everything. Did he lock himself in a box and only thought of burning up the box because nothing else worked? I can’t say. I can only testify that Night Fall left me unsatisfied, which is probably a first in the entire DeMille oeuvre. Worse yet is the feeling that this is completely deliberate: DeMille knew what he was doing, and it falls to the reader to decide whether it worked or not.

If I’ve spent so much time discussing the ending, it’s because everything else is up to DeMille’s standards: The crystal-clear prose, the engaging characters, the sardonic narration, the beautiful integration of exposition… it’s all there, slickly developed. There are a missteps or two, like the unlikely reappearance of a character for pure pummelling purposes, but the rest is DeMille solid gold.

It’s just the ending that stick out like an undigested bone, and it’s not inconsequential because it hangs over the book like an albatross. The date tells you to expect it and dramatic theory suggests that it’s going to be pretty tragic. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that DeMille has chosen the easy lazy way out.

In this light, I’m really curious to see if DeMille’s next book, Wild Fire, will acknowledge or even confront some of those issues. It’s said to feature the same characters in (once again) a free-flowing contemporary setting: we’ll see if Night Fall will have any lasting impact on them, or if the big Reset button will be pressed.

World Trade Center (2006)

World Trade Center (2006)

(In theaters, August 2006) Five years after “the day that changed everything” (yeah, right), movies about 2001-09-11 are finally emerging out of the woodwork. I suppose that radical or even subversive takes on that day will have to wait a bit: In the meantime, we’re stuck in the first stage of recovery: recognition. World Trade Center is a surprise in that it’s just about as anti-political as it’s possible to be. Like United 93, it focuses on the real events of the day and dramatizes what happened to real people. But unlike United 93, it’s a slick and glossy piece of Hollywood film-making that never hesitates to ham it up on the altar of family, religion and good old American values. That’s an issue for sophisticated moviegoers, but it’s nowhere near as annoying as the movie-of-the-week script that buries its characters in the rubble for what feels like the 18 hours they spent there. To be entirely truthful, the first act of World Trade Center is gripping stuff: As the day begins and the event start to unfold, we’re stuck along the uncomprehending characters, swept along the flow of history as the towers start to burn and then fall down on our characters. (The boom-Boom-BOOM sound of the towers pancaking over the protagonists echoes one of my particular nightmares about that day.) That part is handled with a deft hand and recreated with conviction. Unfortunately, all forward momentum stops dead in its track once the characters are stuck under the debris. From then on, it’s protagonist-thinks-about-his-wife, cut to wife-worries-about-her-husband, repeat ad coma, occasionally leavened by a creepy Marine impostor who would be right at home in a serial killer movie. It gets old real fast, and for a long time the movie coasts on its association with events that still touch a nerve. But the script could have been retooled to be about miners stuck in a coal mine with very little effort, and that film would have been poorly reviewed even as a TV movie. If World Trade Center would have been the first one out of the gate about “that day”, it might have gotten a slightly better rating. But United 93 showed how it could be done, with intensity, respect and catharsis. While I suspect that most of us can identify with plane passengers stuck in a plane commandeered by hijackers, few of us will identify so readily with police officers rushing into a dying building. While I’m glad that Oliver Stone will get rid of his unfair “conspiracy nut” image with this apple-pie of a film, I wonder how a nervier directory could have handled the same material. Oh well; maybe in another five years?

Why We Fight (2005)

Why We Fight (2005)

(On DVD, August 2006) It occurred to me, watching this film, that the “documentary” label as attached to film may be about to need further definition. Much like libraries aren’t divided with multiple favours of fiction and one big “non-fiction” section, it may be time to make a few distinctions, perhaps starting with “opinions” and “facts”. No, I don’t believe any documentary can be completely objective, even if it’s only in what it chooses to show and what it doesn’t. But comparing a piece like Gunner Palace, which is almost all found footage with very little context, with Why We Fight, an avowed opinion piece with supporting footage, makes one wonder. Let it be said that Why We Fight somewhat accurately reflects my own views on the American industrial-military complex: That it has taken a life of its own and that the thousands of people working in that sector of industry all collectively pull American society in a direction that is radically at odds with the rest of the civilized world. But I couldn’t repress some annoyance at how Why We Fight sometimes anthropomorphized the phenomenon, giving the occasional impression that there was sort of a master plan at work in the development and usage of the military arsenal. (Although even I am not above some hasty generalization, as the above few lines demonstrate.) Still, Why We Fight is a much-needed exploration of how aggressive tendencies present in American society have been institutionalized, even glorified as all-American values. There’s tremendous depth to the argument and if Why We Fight often forgets to focus on its main argument, there are a lot of effective moments here and there, individual stories worth telling and contextualizing. The variety of interview subjects is impressive, including people that you may not expect in left-leaning documentaries. This opinion piece asks a lot of good questions and if the answers can be a bit weak at times, I prefer to see this film as a stepping stone or a subject of contemplation. While the musical montages can be unsubtle, the film covers a lot of ground and leaves viewers with plenty of material to digest. Fans of The Corporation will love it.

Snakes On A Plane (2006)

Snakes On A Plane (2006)

(At the Gruman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, August 2006) The best news about this film are that it delivers exactly what you’d expect from the titles. There are snakes, there is a plane and the snakes are on that plane. Genius. But beyond the best pop movie title since Dude, Where’s My Car?, there’s actually a decent B-grade monster movie in here. Thriller fans will fondly recall director David Ellis’ previous Cellular and rejoice during the film’s first few minutes as the plot is set up with a ruthless efficiency just so we can get to the creature feature. At least the payoff is fabulous: When the snakes start attacking, the film goes crazy for a few moments and truly earns its title. Samuel L. Jackson plays a caricature of his own film personae with relish and the other actors wisely stay out of his way. Alas, Snakes On A Plane stumbles with a sad attempt at a third act, which is almost a preordained problem given how the entire “snakes on a plane” conceit can only be milked for so many victims. The third act is weak, resorting back to cliché with some typical winking but few surprises left in store. Don’t fool yourself: this isn’t some minor classic nor even a particularly noteworthy thriller. But for a one-joke film, it’s a good joke and the storyteller has some talent. Ideal for a B-movie marathon. Just don’t bring expectations.

(Second viewing, On DVD, June 2007) Yes, the joke is old and tired. But it has, at least, sprung for a decently entertaining B-grade movie, and justified a fully-loaded DVD edition that fully acknowledges the silliness of the premise. Far from the hype, Snakes On A Plane still succeeds at entertaining its audience, and even the dumbest plot twists are acknowledged with a wink. Goofy fun, perfect for an unpretentious evening. The DVD comes complete with an above-average number of special features, the best of which has to be a lively commentary in which Samuel L. Jackson truly earns his salary as an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project. Other extras will answer every single question you may have entertained about making a movie with snakes, and give a glimpse into the Internet fan phenomenon that Snakes On A Plane sustained up to the moment of its release. Me? I still like it.

Scoop (2006)

Scoop (2006)

(In theaters, August 2006) As a standalone film, Scoop is rather nice and innocuous, dipping in magical realism to deliver a serial murderer comedy. Still, it finds its best resonance when compared to other Woody Allen films. Most of the comparisons will focus on Match Point, a film to which Scoop almost acts as a counter-point: Both are set in London and feature Scarlett Johansen, of course, but they almost act as thematic mirror images to each other: While Match Point was a deadly serious thriller with occasional moments of deep humour, Scoop is a crime comedy with occasional moments of deep darkness. The use of outmoded supernatural devices also refers to The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion. But Scoop also refers back to classic Woody Allen in how it allows Allen to ride his old stand-up routines once again, fully playing up to the neurotic personae he created for himself early in his career: There an undeniable pleasure at seeing Allen hamming it up, perhaps for the last time. His script and direction are impeccable, particularly so during the no-nonsense first act which roars from scene to scene by taking supernatural shortcuts and cutting away all the superfluous material. In this light, it’s a shame to see parts of the script make less sense as the conclusion wraps up. (Ask yourself who murdered the secretary, and why an oar wasn’t used at a crucial moment.) Scarlett Johansen also seems to have so much fun as a young journalist that it almost feel curmudgeonly to point out the film’s contradictions between crime and comedy, or the fuzzy third act. After Match Point, it’s certainly another very pleasant work by Allen, who finally seems to shake off the creative doldrums that afflicted him so visibly since the mid-nineties. If nothing else, he has the decency to cast himself as Johansen’s father rather than his lover: small favours, but we’ll take it.

Star Dragon, Mike Brotherton

Tor, 2003, 352 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34677-X

Some comparisons can hurt as much as they help. If I say that Mike Brotherton’s Star Dragon is a book in the purest tradition of Robert L. Forward’s hard-SF, is that a rave or a rant?

Some some, it’ll be a buy-on-sight commendation. Forward was long known as the hardest or the hard-SF writers, an author whose books could be enjoyed as pleasant diversions by College-level Physics students (as I myself found out while reading Dragon’s Egg during a Physics 201 course dealing with high-energy magnetic field lines.) SF readers of the hardest variety can often be heard bemoaning the lack of “old style” Science Fiction where you really got your degree’s worth of extrapolation.

But Forward’s fiction has simultaneously alienated at least a generation of readers through shaky characterization, textbook dialogues (as in “reading from textbooks”), indifferent prose style, amusement-park plotting and lack of literary depth. This isn’t a slam as much as it’s an acknowledgement of Forward’s intentions. Science Fiction is large and contains multitudes: if someone wants to push the envelope of rigorous scientific exploration, why not celebrate that achievement rather than criticize the book for a lack of virtues that neither author nor ideal reader particularly care for?

And that brings us to Star Dragon, Mike Brotherton’s debut novel. Like Dragon’s Egg, it’s a novel about a bunch of humans investigating an exotic alien life form living in a very different environment. Like Forward’s work, it’s exquisitely well-researched and backed up by solid mathematical equations. Unlike Forward’s work, it attempts characterization. Like Forward’s work, alas, it will fascinate whoever is fascinated by this sort of things, and leave the rest of the audience groaning for some relevance.

It starts promisingly enough, on a future Earth where biotechnology has become a dominant science. Brotherton’s imaged tomorrow is a wonder of icky soft surfaces, custom-grown biological tissue and easy body manipulation. Our protagonist is a top scientific mind who is offered an unusual mission: A centuries-long trip to another star where strange phenomenons (probably not entirely artificial) have been detected. It’s a chance to do real science, but it comes at a price: a few years of travel spent with only a few other people, and a one-way trip hundreds of years in the future thanks to the marvels of relativistic space travel. As setups go, this is classic but promising. While the prose style has a certain initial stiffness, it suggests a fun hard-SF adventure.

But things start to sour between departure and arrival, as the six main characters are locked in a sentimental psychological drama that, blandly speaking, fails to engage. The AI is modelled after Hemingway while the five humans have serious psychological problems that proves that future personnel screening in this novel owes a lot more to psychological sadism than to mission objectives. (It’s as if the HR director of the mission was trying to put together a cast for a reality TV show.) On one hand, I have to compliment Brotherton for attempting some human drama in a hard-SF tale. On the other, I have to wonder what was he thinking. Given the choice between flat characters and others that are flat-out insane (seriously planning to impregnate the entire human female population, for instance), I may pick and choose the dull ones, because I can at least empathize with dull people. This is one area where Brotherton may still have something to learn from Forward.

But that, as they say, it not the main presentation. That comes later, when our intrepid dysfunctional crew is faced with the alien life-form orbiting SS Sygni. There the comparisons with Forward kick in high gear: If you’re fascinated with star dynamics and impact thereof on wholly hypothetical living creatures, then Star Dragon is the book for you. Others (myself included) are likely to feel their eyes glaze over and whimper “too much… too much…” In some sense, here’s a favourable review: “This hard-SF will break even so-called hard SF fans.” Sensawunda? Sensawhoaaah.

But I’ll allow for some leniency, given how my reading conditions for this novel were less than ideal and how hard-SF tales often require a specific frame of mind. Star Dragon still feels like a bunch of good ideas ill-presented, in sore need of tighter editing and less psychological silliness. But as a debut, it’s promising and not without its share of strengths. I may not rush out to buy Brotherton’s second novel, but I’ll pay attention to the reviews. Writers who write adequately are a dime a dozen, but writers who can play alongside Robert L. Forward are rare and precious, even if their work can be problematic at times.

RV (2006)

RV (2006)

(In-flight, August 2006) Sometimes, I wonder at what can happen between the time a lead actor reads the script and the moment where the audience stares wide-eyed at the disastrous mess spooling away. What was Robin Williams thinking? Couldn’t he see that R.V. had all the ingredients of a cheap straight-to-video mess from the words on the page alone? It’s obvious that nothing in the latter production of the film actually improved the results: As a “family goes travelling” film, it still gets mauled by National Lampoon’s Family Vacations. Heck, watching people get their luggage at the airport is funnier than Rv. Perhaps the nicest thing one can say about it is that it’s completely harmless: indeed, even the copious scatological humour is more exasperating than offencive. The overall dramatic arc is a mish-mash of trite family values and hypocritical warnings against the evils of working too hard –something the filmmakers have obviously embraced. RV would be instantly forgettable if it wasn’t for the reminders that ten years ago, the news of a Barry Sonnenfeld starring Robin Williams would have been awesome. Right now, it’s just something to be ignored as long as possible.

The Ring Two (2005)

The Ring Two (2005)

(On DVD, August 2006) I’d write “oh, how the mighty have fallen”, but that’s pretty much the case with all horror sequels, right? The American remake of The Ring was one of the few Hollywood horror film to truly mess with its audience’s sense of dread. As a horror film, it was dramatically effective, so much so that it looked like a happy accident. The sequel proves that no one learnt anything from the previous effort: The Ring 2 is an uninviting sequel that barely raises any hackles, dilutes the mythology of the first film by extending it and frankly doesn’t make much sense. Often unintentionally funny and not the slightest bit creepy, this is a case study in how crass commercial intent can manage to suck all the promise out of an interesting work. Here, the video tape gimmick is jettisoned early on, voiding a major source of interest and reducing the film to your standard mom-protecting-child bugaboo. Despite one or two interesting images (and a number of hilarious sillier ones, such as the all-CGI deer), The Ring 2 seems made on auto-pilot, with everyone phoning in performances for the sheer love of the dollars. Do everyone a favour: don’t make the mistake of wasting yours.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

(In theaters, August 2006) Note to twenty-first century filmmakers: If you have a clever premise and you’re capable of a pleasant execution, make damn sure that the core of your film isn’t based upon a festering pile of misogyny. In this case, consider the potential of a superhero film mixed with a romantic comedy. Now consider the skills of Ivan Reitman and Luke Wilson, neither of whom could offend anyone even under an extreme case of Tourette’s Syndrome. It all points to a nice little comedy fit to counter-program against Superman Returns, right? Well, half-right: My Super Ex-Girlfriend is considerably more interesting than the latest Superman, and most of its gags are perfect summer fare fodder: slightly naughty, accessible to everyone and completely innocuous. But don’t look too closely at the female characters because once you do, the ugly core of the film comes exposed: Females either come as humour-impaired harridans, pliant male-toys or hidden psychos. (Not the mention the old exasperating “brunettes with glasses are less attractive than blondes” clap-trap.) In your life, you probably know that guy who dismisses all of his girlfriends with the easy slam “she was psycho” caricature, not realizing that the insult tells us more about him than her. Well, My Super Ex-Girlfriend is a lot like that, exposing the core of misogyny that is still embraced by many so-called men out there. As a guy who really does like girls with backbones, I sat aghast at a third-act development in which the male characters actively conspire to rob the titular ex-girlfriend of her superpowers: why not throw in a lobotomy and a club-sized bottle of Prozac if you really want her to be so meek and compliant? Eeek. If I manage to stop hyperventilating, it’s true that the film eventually finds a harmless way out and a fun conclusion. But it takes a very unpleasant path to get there, and never quite shakes off its ugly side. Given that the rest of the film is so unremarkable (only a high-rise shark attack stands out as a sequence worthy of the film’s premise), let’s just say that this is one movie where occasional flaws more than manage to overwhelm the general amiability of the whole.

Monster House (2006)

Monster House (2006)

(In theaters, August 2006) The good news, I suppose, is that this film definitely has its moments: As an animated feature, it’s perfectly poised to exploit its premise of a monster house, from its ambiguously unnerving introduction up to and including the stomping crashing conclusion. There are a number of dynamic set-pieces, decent one-liners and imaginative details. Unfortunately, Monster House definitely leaves audience asking for more, and for better: The back-story is weak (even more so when it seems to belong in a different genre), the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with its female characters (who are far more interesting than its male protagonists) and there are some annoying lengths here and there. The animation is generally decent, though the character design never loses its innate plasticity. It’s not really a bad film, but it shows just enough of its cards to whet our appetite for a tighter, leaner, more clever work. Oh well: at least the sound mixing is good.

The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon

Orbit, 2002, 424 pages, £6.99 mmpb, ISBN 1-84149-141-1

Few topics continue to frustrate and fascinate Science Fiction critics like the definition of the genre. Like most literary categories, “Science Fiction” means nothing and everything —from the stereotypical “stories in the future” to the more interesting “stories that SF fans love to read.” The Nebula Award-winning Speed of Dark won’t do much to calm down the debate given how it puts interesting fuel in the fire.

In a few words, it’s a story about an autistic narrator, Lou, who comes to decide whether he wants to be “cured” or not at a time where such cures are medically feasible. Lou isn’t your usual autist, though: functioning at a reasonably high level, Lou has been able to turn his condition in an asset, working as an analyst for a big corporation. For the longest while, Speed of Dark is a mainstream novel about autism taking place in a future world not terribly different from our own. Despite the high-tech details, this is chiefly a novel about autism: the strictly SF element is raised late in the story, and has a measurable impact only in the last few chapters.

Consequently, proponents of a “purer” definition of SF may have a hard time seeing this book as Science Fiction. It’s very, very tempting to re-label this book as, essentially, a mainstream writing exercise in SF clothing: In this theory, Elizabeth Moon (herself the mother of an autistic son) wanted to write a novel about autism but knew it wouldn’t sell ten copies on the mainstream market. A few conventional SF elements later -tada!- there’s something fit to be sold to the usual genre markets where she made her reputation. Pure cynicism, but plausible enough. The Turkey City Lexicon even has an entry for the “Abbess Phone Home” syndrome: “Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.” And bang.

But such a glib dismissal fails to take in account that the relationship between SF and its audience if far more complicated than a checklist of elements that may or may not be present in the story. It also fails to take in account the power of Moon’s writing in this novel. Lou, simply put, is a character with whom many Science Fiction readers will identify.

I myself could relate to Lou’s impatience about the sillier elements of everyday life and so-called “normal” people. There is a fabulous grocery store sequence in Chapter Five which pretty much describes all of my pet peeves about going to the supermarket. I could certainly recognize in Lou’s habits most of my own tendencies pushed to eleven. By making her protagonist a high-functioning autist, Moon has also made a savvy decision to go after the readership most likely to identify with her protagonist –Science Fiction fans.

It’s well-known, for instance, that self-identified SF fans are liable to be measurably more obsessive than “normal people”. Less patient with everyday trivia. More likely to identify with concepts than people. Less socially gracious, to put it mildly. The preponderance of people affected with Asperger’s Syndrome is usually higher in SF fandom than any other normal sampling. We already know that: Obsessiveness has been a fundamental part of fandom (any fandom) since its very beginning.

And so we come to an amusing conclusion: the best possible audience for a novel about an autistic protagonist and his struggles with daily life is the existing community of SF fans, already quite used to the idea of “special” and “normal” people. If I could recognize myself in Lou, you can bet that I’m not the only one. In some ways, Speed of Dark is a novel about the SF community more than it is an SF novel. That it happens to be an exceptionally readable, warm and engrossing story is just a special bonus on top of a book that goes straight for its audience’s throat. It doesn’t matter that Speed of Dark may or may not be a mainstream story with a sprinkling of future fairy-dust: It matters that Speed of Dark is liable to be a book that SF audiences want to read.

Mirrormask (2005)

Mirrormask (2005)

(On DVD, August 2006) Neil Gaiman. David McKean. What else do you need to know? Mirrormask blows away most other fantasy films by presenting a very particular, very original vision of fantasy. Once in the dream world of its protagonist, I don’t think that there’s a single frame of this film that looks as if it belongs in a “normal” film: Everything else is wonderfully twisted, straight out Gaiman’s script and McKean’s visual imagination. The script is top-notch, as you would expect from one of the savviest, most popular fantasy writers of our times. The images are spectacular, as you would also expect from one of the best fantasy illustrators out there. In fact, the small wonder of the film is how it was made at all: it’s so pleasantly off-the-wall that it lends credence to the film’s “give us a small budget so that we can have complete control” making-of rumours. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that it certainly takes its time getting from point A to point B, and seems to exemplify John Clute’s “thinning” fantasy archetype. Still, this is not the kind of film you would expect to see on either big or small screens. In its level of quality, it’s fully equal to at least a Young Adult fantasy novel. Its existence is mind-boggling: fantasy fans should rush to see it if they already haven’t done so.

Layer Cake (2004)

Layer Cake (2004)

(On DVD, August 2006) From the assured opening narration (from an unnamed narrator who credibly claims to be a businessman whose trade happens to be illegal), we’re easily swept along this criminal tale. There are twists, there are turns and there’s a joyously mean ending twist. As a movie, this is somewhere between Guy Richie and Martin Scorsese, mixing wry dark humour with an insider’s look inside the criminal trade, carried along with a tight plot and interesting characters. Daniel Craig continues to demonstrate why he was picked to be the next Bond with a performance that is both intelligent and brutal. It’s hardly perfect (there’s at least one abrupt change of heart for the protagonist, and one development that’s hard to justify), but it’s fun and ultimately that’s more than enough to satisfy anyone looking for a fix of glamorized crime fiction.