Last Call, Tim Powers

Avon, 1992 (2005 reprint), 535 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-380-71557-2

Nowadays, it’s impossible to read every interesting author out there. The pace of publishing makes it tough to keep up with the current stuff, let alone try to dig back what’s been missed. But there’s an odd comfort in knowing about pockets of unread excellence: The assurance that if ever things turn sour and the current stuff sucks, there’s always a bunch of surefire classics to read. (That, incidentally, explains the unread stack of Michael Connelly novels in my library) So it is with Tim Powers, award-winning fantasy writer: I hadn’t read anything by him before Last Call , but frequent recommendations had led me to accumulate a number of his books in the vague hope that someday, I’d get around to his stuff.

Well, that day arrived this month as I cracked open Last Call and was immediately sucked into a muscular, densely-packed prose serving a story of hardboiled contemporary magic. Within pages, I knew that the recommendations were right: I could sink in the rest of the novel knowing fully well that I was in the hands of a master.

A dense novel like Last Call is always problematic to summarize, but you can’t go wrong by starting with the cards. Today’s playing cards are fun things, but they really date back to the original tarot card set. In this novel, Powers uses the cards as doorway to an occult world that permeate ours, and where sufficiently sensitive (or trained) characters can perceive and use those portents. Powers’ Las Vegas is where the real meets the not-so-real, where a vast battle will take place to crown a new king of the land.

Poker player Scott Crane is one such pretender to the throne, perhaps the best one of the lot. His origins are too fantastic to describe properly, and his current situation is almost desperate. After nearly forgetting almost everything he’s known about the mysterious power of cards, he finds himself brought back into the game through a series of events that owe as much to thrillers than to fantasy.

There are a lot of things to love about Last Call: The scrumptious writing, the narrative drive and the sharp characters are only three of them. But the real star of the story is really the way Powers manages to cram an entire mythology within 1990-era California and Nevada, in a way that guns are as important as what the cards will tell you. Ghosts and gangsters, family and fate all intersect, and the mixture is a great deal more interesting than anything else on the fantasy shelves. This, I want to shout, is what real fantasy feels like, not the addled sword-and-sorcery ripoffs that have come to define the genre.

It’s also amusing to realize that the territory explored by Powers is not dissimilar to the one covered in cheap horror films, but feels freed from the artificial shackles of too-pat mythologies or the limited imaginations of screenwriters. There are scenes of uncommon power in Last Call, simultaneously more subtle and more gripping that the usual explosions of CGI demons that seem so prevalent in the “modern” contemporary fantasy films. (There is, in particular, a scene in which Crane frightens a tarot reader beyond reason and while I’m not sure the same scene would work on-screen, it’s deliciously effective on the page.) It helps that Powers’ written style is densely packed with details, while retaining an essential clarity of prose.

As good as it is, Last Call is not without its particular problems. Some of the last-half characters feel a bit extraneous, and the complexity of the final twists can make anyone if Powers isn’t playing card tricks in the dark for an ingrate audience. In much of the same way, Powers’ straightforward prose style can be misleading: readers may be tempted to rush forward based on sheers forward momentum, but I found that the book worked far better when I deliberately limited my reading speed to truly capture the feel of the story.

Though fantasy generally isn’t my genre, Last Call has the overall appeal of a minor classic. Suddenly, I find myself at the edge of another good and reassuring pool of unread books. I may be late at the Tim Powers party, but consider this: I’m assured of at least eight other books to consider. Expiration Date is next, with Earthquake Weather to follow.

Farthing, Jo Walton

Tor, 2006, 319 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31421-5

After successfully combining Jane Austen and dragons in Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton is mixing genres once more in Farthing, this time throwing together a cozy English murder mystery in the pot along with an alternate history political thriller. While the result may not be perfect, it’s certainly good enough to warrant a good look.

Putting an alternate history in a thriller template isn’t new, of course: Len Deighton SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland also did so (to reach for the first two obvious examples), but neither managed the transition between the personal and the political as well as Walton does in Farthing. As a murder investigation spirals upward and outward into a political conspiracy, the novel shifts from a comfortable mystery to a nightmarish alternate history where everyone is at risk.

Alternating between first-person narration from a bubbly privileged girl and third-person segments following the investigating detective, Farthing initially feels like a classic murder mystery (“The butler probably did it!”) with a few unsettling details. Through various hints and careful exposition, we learn that this “Farthing set” of politicians has successfully negotiated peace with Hitler, freeing the Nazis to go fight Russia and letting Great Britain stand alone as an increasingly fascistic America keeps to itself.

These details take on a special importance as our narrator’s husband is suspected of murdering the victim. If Farthing seems to dawdle along pleasantly during its first two thirds, it eventually leads its readers to an abrupt break with reality as everything catastrophically changes and our cozy mystery becomes a conspiracy thriller. The last fifty pages are a fine example of dystopian political fiction with troubling echoes with today’s worst conspiracies. (Isn’t it fascinating how fascism-rising parallels find a whole lot more traction now than five or ten years ago?) What seemed like a charming book with unfortunate background details becomes a full-throttle chiller, reflecting the speed at which things can turn ugly when everything has been meticulously planned…

And let’s not kid ourselves: As a murder mystery set in Nazi-threatened England, Farthing is fun but not special. But as the description of how one’s country can suddenly slide into fascism, it roars up and demands notice. The ending makes the book in many ways: My initial issues in seeing the action leave Farthing Manor and scatter itself through the countryside were resolved when I realized that this expansion of setting mirrored the widening political intent of the book. It also takes some of the weight off the murder mystery, which simply isn’t as strong as the other half of the book. Finally, the heightening of the dramatic tension also contributes to re-shape our understanding of the characters as they take dramatic action to cope with the unexpected.

On a page-per-page level, Farthing is compulsively readable, readily accessible from its very first pages onward. Walton is a skilled storyteller, which makes the book’s few artistic mis-steps a bit puzzling. First among those is the almost comical accumulation of gay and bisexual characters. [September 2007: I seldom redact reviews after publication, but what was here instead of this parenthesis was, upon further reflexion, useless and stupid. Feel free to imagine the worst.] The “instant revelation” of a character’s pregnancy may also put off a few readers, though elementary research suggests this is anecdotally frequent.

But these are small details, and they pale when considered against the power of the conclusion. It reaffirms Jo Walton’s growing stature in the field, as someone able to combine good prose with high concepts. (I’d call Walton the “mistress of the hybrids” if it didn’t sound vaguely kinky in a Science Fiction fashion.) Two books set in the same world have been announced: we’ll wait for the details.

[November 2006: Jo Walton linked to this review from her blog, saying “Christian Sauve is fairly positive with reservations and clearly also knows fewer gay people than I do.” Well, yes. Two of her commenters weren’t so kind on me, citing the section redacted above. Lesson learned.]

[September 2007: Strange things happen, and “being asked to discuss issues in Farthing on a panel alongside the book’s editor, at an event organised by the author” is one of them. It went well, but I learned that I still have a lot of growing up to do.]

Phobos, Ty Drago

Tor, 2003, 431 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34454-8

Calling a Science Fiction novel “old school” usually carries along a grudging respect, a tacit acknowledgement that the novel in question eschews modern complications in order to deliver a comfortable reading experience. Old school SF is what some older readers are looking for when they evoke the memory of Asimov and Heinlein, or any of the writers that were active when said readers enjoyed reading SF.

But when I call Ty Drago’s Phobos an old-school Science Fiction novel, I’m deliberately using the word as criticism: I mean that the book does not have the level of sophistication we can expect from today’s SF. It features sub-standard writing, stock characters, conventional plot elements and numerous plausibility problems. I’m not a demanding reader in terms of prose style and other literary values, yet found myself grinding my teeth during the entire book.

I would say that the few pages are promising, but that’s not quite true given how they set a tone that can only be improved upon. In short order, Drago sets up a problematic universe in which colonized Mars is a hotbed of prejudice between the Terrans and the Mars-born colonists. This would be fine if it was developed with some skill, but this bit of invented racism never really rises above the level of a handy plot convenience. (“Cheap convenient bigotry! Straight out of central plot emporium! On sale all week!”) From the first few pages, it’s obvious that the writing doesn’t rise above utilitarianism, and that Drago’s references are so old-fashioned that they reek of pulp mustiness. (The Martian characters use dynamite, of all the explosives out there… Can’t someone talk to them about the price/power value of post-nineteenth-century explosives?)

Such conveniences abound, of course, especially when you start looking too closely as the inner workings of the book’s universe. There’s “Barsoonium”, for instance, a handy alloy that somehow can only be mined from Mars —being apparently impervious to any industrial replication process… in a society where nanotech nonetheless seems to be working quite well.

This sloppiness carries over to the arid prose, which carries the story along but can’t do anything to hide the biggest problems with the plot, or even the clumsy way everything is put together. Drago doesn’t show any more subtlety with the swearing, with the infelicitous choice of “Deimos!” as the epithet of choice. The book is chiefly concerned about a monster-hunt, but never mind plausibility given how the mystery ends up being caused by a magical application of nanotech that should have been obvious to half the characters out there. There’s some frantic hand-waving about a gravity-creating device, but by that time my plausibility meter was well into negative values, so this didn’t do much to change my opinion of the book. Politically, scientifically, culturally, this is amateur-hour stuff: It never holds up to scrutiny and is the clearest indication of the difference between this “old school” pulp-era novel and the more sophisticated contemporary SF.

As for the plot itself, well… it’s a plot. Things happen. Characters do things. Silly things, mind-numbing things, didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-earlier things, but things nonetheless. From the point of view of an undemanding audience, Phobos at least has the required elements for a reading experience. But if you’re expecting something more… oh, are you setting yourself up for a disappointment.

Given the somewhat indifferent quality of the book, I’m very, very surprised this was published in its current state by Tor. Goodness knows I was expecting something better than this when I bought it -–in retrospect, the lack of editor credits on the copyright page might have been a hint that it wasn’t up to their usual standards. In picking a book from the slush-pile for publication, some fall squarely on the publish/don’t publish line. This is a perfect test case: Neither good enough to be a sure-fire pick, but not bad enough to be dismissed out of hand.

Given my above caveat about describing this book as “old school”, the remaining saving grace of the book (in fact, the reason why I’m not being as gratuitously sarcastic as I usually am with substandard novels) is, indeed, that it’s an old school Science Fiction novel. I’m a big-enough fan of the genre that even when it’s less than satisfying, I have the warm and fuzzy feeling of slipping in a comfortable environment where even the silliest mistakes can feel like forgivable missteps. But chances are that not everyone will share my unconditional comfort with such books: It would pain me to recommend this novel to anyone else, especially if they’re looking to disprove their worst misconceptions about SF.

[November 2006: This review got a fair amount of traffic from, a gated online community that features, among other authors, Ty Drago.]

Pompeii, Robert Harris

Arrow, 2003, 397 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-928261-5

Given Robert Harris’ track record in mining the twentieth century for inspiration, readers may be surprised to find out that his fourth novel, Pompeii, goes all the way back to the Roman Empire. Granted, even the title spoils the story: The well-known destruction of Pompeii by the Vesuvius volcanic explosion is a matter of historical record –even though we’re still waiting for the major motion picture about it. As pure drama, it’s hard to beat: even non-fiction books about it such as Charles Pellegrino’s Ghost of Vesuvius have this innate dramatic edge that we can easily transpose to modern-day disasters.

Here, Harris takes a techno-thriller approach to the disaster: His first viewpoint character is Marcus Attilius, an engineer investigating why the aqueducts feeding the city aren’t working. Earthquakes and sulphur odours gradually bring him to the truth, though there’s plenty of period detail to enliven matters. The events are known and the plot can be deduced from the first few chapters: But the real reason to read Pompeii is elsewhere, in the description of the time and the place.

Fortunately, Harris is up to the task. Through three more characters (a rich man, his teenage daughter and no less than historical figure Pliny the Elder), he offers himself the luxury of digging through the layers of Pompeii’s society, showing telling details and demonstrating cultural norms on his characters. As the engineer uncovers not only an impending eruption, but also a vast network of corruption, human enemies add up to natural dangers to place him in situations of ever-increasing jeopardy.

But don’t get excited too quickly: Harris has never been the most dynamic of thriller writers, and Pompeii really isn’t as interesting or as gripping as it should be. Despite the impending destruction of Pompeii (signalled by section sub-titles such as “two days before the explosion”), Pompeii seems to be moving (at least initially) at the leisurely pace of a guided tour more than a disaster movie.

Fortunately, good characters can do miracles, and Pompeii is blessed with several of them. The story’s protagonist, young engineer Attilius, is a good and likable hero: competent, fallible, incorruptible and constantly in danger. Of the other characters, I was particularly impressed by the portrayal of Pliny the Elder: not only did I have flashbacks to the Roman classics course I took nearly a decade ago in which Pliny was a featured historical figure, but Harris does a really nice job with the melancholy in being The Most Learned Man in the Known World. Knowing the fate of Pliny only added to the tension of the book’s last section, as you just want to shout at the other characters to stay the heck away from him.

On the other hand, the wealth of period detail really makes me wish this book would have around back when I followed my Roman History course, or that I should have refreshed my memory with a few historical pointers before starting Pompeii. Harris does all he can do to make the setting accessible, of course, but starting completely cold can be a challenge in trying to piece it all together. But some of it works well: The technical details about aqueducts will prove absolutely fascinating to techno-thriller readers, and mesmerizing to anyone wondering about the “running water” aspect of civilization.

What’s unfortunate, though, is that the plot of Pompeii is a distant runner-up in the list of reasons why to read this book. The explosion of the Vesuvius is so spectacular that it takes almost all of the interest of the novel, followed distantly by the details of the Roman society as it existed in Pompeii. Characters and Plot jostle for the third place, but almost as an obligatory requirement.

As I await the big-budget film that will do for Pompeii what TITANIC did to the disaster of the same name, Pompeii proves interesting, though not quite as fascinating as Pellegrino’s afore-mentioned Ghosts of Vesuvius. The dramatic aspect of Harris novel is nice, but it can’t really compete with the real-life examination of the disaster. I suppose that it does the job (and if Hollywood producers are toying with a film concept, they could do worse than combining Harris and Pellegrino’s books into one single script) and sometimes, that’s just enough to keep us interested while waiting for the fireworks.

Vectors, Michael Kube-McDowell

Bantam Spectra, 2002, 370 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29824-0

The end of a story is important.

Maybe not as important as some unsophisticated audiences may think it is: it’s not as if a happy ending can magically transform a bad story into a masterpiece of fuzzy comfort. It’s not as if an ending where everyone gets hit by a bus somehow imbues literary qualities to an incoherent novel. There’s no magical axis with good stories on one side, and some types of endings on the other.

But at the same time, there are many novels on my shelves that are memorable for everything save the ending. I will remember premises, characters, scenes and specific quotes, but the ending itself remains a blank. Even who dies or not can fade away with time. Endings are less important in novels that are sure-footed from the get-go. It’s those tightrope novels (“Is it this or that? Do I like it or not?”) that really live or die on the basis of their endings.

Appropriate endings solidify the effect that the author was looking for. Mishandled endings leave behind a doubt, either in the value of the story or in the skill of the storyteller. One particularly toxic type of ending, for instance, negates the entirety of what came before, making the reader feel as if the story was a big waste of time. You can’t kill your thriller protagonist, leave your romance heroine single or allow your Dark Lord to triumph without expecting some reaction from your readers.

As you may expect, this long-winded introduction does have some relevance to any discussion of Michael Kube-McDowell Vectors, a novel that teeters on the precipice of… something during almost all of its length, only to be pushed into the void by an ending that simply resolves which kind of novel it truly is.

At first glance, it looks like one of those good old follow-the-extrapolation Science Fiction novel, much like Kube-McDowell’s collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, The Trigger. Here, a scientist studying the nature of consciousness (through means that are only rationalized by an adequate amount of techno-mumble-mumble) lucks out by finding provocative evidence of reincarnation. After initially refusing to acknowledge the consequence of his discovery, our protagonist comes to embrace the evidence.

From this trite summary alone, it sure looks as if this is classic SF stuff, not too far away from Robert J. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment or any of the stories in which previously-rational scientists are confronted with very upsetting ideas. I’m actually a sucker for that kind of tale, which (when done right) can illuminate the difference between belief and reality, between theory and truth. For a while, Vectors works well on these terms.

It may not be a particularly sophisticated piece of work, but it’s readable enough, and can hold anyone’s interest. The writing is a bit rough in the usual SF fashion, but it’s clear enough that it scarcely matters. Far more troubling is the whole fast-love/quick-death subplot, which feels far too contrived to be effective. (From the first hot torrid glances, it simply sounds too good to be plausible.) There’s also plenty to say about a seemingly interminable segment at mid-book in which the protagonist goes in the wilderness to learn about reincarnation from real pros.

But even as our hero takes action to crack the puzzle and solve the problem, doubts begin to grow as the number of remaining pages dwindles down without much movement forward. The ending, when is comes, finally lets the novel fall into a different territory –that of a meditative, almost moody piece on the nature of consciousness. One that feels as if it stops right at the moment where things finally got interesting. The ending crystallizes incipient disappointment and (much like the main character fears) does feel like a cop-out, an absurdly easy ending that could have happened two hundred pages earlier, compressing much of the story to components that would have been perfectly well explored in a short story.

It is obviously a deliberate ending. One that is is foreshadowed, however weakly, in the earlier parts of the book. But much as the author may feel satisfied with the way he has chosen to end his story, the reader can be allowed some disappointment. Does the ending work? It does. Does it work in the same way the rest of the novel does? Maybe not.

Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches, Ed. Mike Resnick & Joe Scilari

ISFIC Press, 2006, 309 pages, US$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-9759156-3-9

In Science Fiction fannish circles, much is made of Worldcon’s place as the convention of the year for all SF fans. Regardless of your sub-genre affiliation, Worldcon is “the gathering of the tribes” of Science Fiction, the one general-interest convention where all fans can find something interesting to do. Worldcon has been running yearly since 1939 and one of its greatest achievement has been to expand and embrace the myriads of sub-groups that have sprung from the original crucible of SF fandom.

In this context, a collection of Worldcon Guest of Honor speeches has an interest that runs deeper that the merely fannish. What editors Mike Resnick and Joe Scilari have done with this book is give us a rare oral history of the genre, tracking it year after year as it evolved in a society itself in constant change. Some of the language of the book reflects its era all too well, for instance, as casual sexism is prevalent in the earlier half of the book, and racial issues in the Sixties are discussed (positively) as “the problem of the Negro”. Stilted language and period references to now-forgotten celebrities add to the flavour of the collection.

A number of speeches attempt to confront the genre and its place in contemporary society, which is interesting to compare as the decades move on. Robert A. Heinlein’s famous 1941 speech (you know, the one that said “even the corniest of [SF]… no matter how badly it’s written, has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change.”) marked a way of thinking about Science Fiction. Later, Robert Silverberg would confront the social turbulence of the late sixties by encouraging SF writers to “transform our readers with the intensity of what we see.” Reading those speeches is like getting a pure dose of manifesto fever, fit to inspire you about the possibilities of the genre as social driver and literary force.

Some other speeches are pure inner-fandom wankery: The opening salvo of the book couldn’t have been better chosen: Frank R. Paul’s address exemplifies the type of “fans are slans” thinking that came along the early days of SF fandom (and, by the same token, the first recorded geek groups): “The Science Fiction Fan may very well be called the advance guard of progress.” Paul isn’t the only one to stroke fans’ egos like this –though by the latter half of the book, you can sense a number of speakers consciously working against the temptation.

Other Guests of Honor want to change the world, and use their speeches as platforms. Many of the suggestions haven’t survived the years well: A.E. Van Vogt suggestions for self-improvement now smell like a mish-mash of positive thinking and straight-out woo-woo. Harlan Ellison’s (pre-written) exhortation to fight for the ERA now seems both noble and insignificant. Other suggestions to take SF and bring it closer to contemporary social problems (such as Silverberg’s) are generally more interesting.

Then there are writers who take full advantage of their tribune as Guest of Honor to talk about, well, themselves. Reaction to those pieces is unpredictable: I found George R.R. Martin’s 2003 childhood recollections to be uninteresting, but Joe Haldeman’s 1990 “How to Get a Job Like Mine” career overview was fascinating. Lest we forget, the SF community is a big extended family where the top writers generally know each other: Tales of SF careers usually bring along dozens of anecdotes about other SF names, and it takes a fan to enjoy this.

Two speeches are not speeches but interviews: One can understand the strange atmosphere of the Strugatsky Brothers’ 1987 interview (through an interpreter handling the English-to-Russian-and-back translation), but the result on the page isn’t all that interesting. Far more successful, at least in written format, is the 2002 Vernor Vinge interview by Gregory Benford: It’s a fascinating slice of two top-notch minds at play, peppered with scientific jokes and tossed-off concepts.

Then, finally, there are the one-off speeches, sui generis to the point of being unclassifiable. The most memorable of them is certainly Theodore Sturgeon’s 1962 speech, a piece best experienced than described, even in text form. (It must have been an amazing performance.)

The collection’s biggest disappointment is that Resnick and Scilari, despite what I assume must have been heroic efforts, have only managed to collect maybe half of all Worldcon GoH speeches: the rest are either lost or forgotten, though they haven’t stopped looking and hope to produce a companion volume when they finish collecting what can be discovered. I find it amazing that some of their “lost” speeches include numerous ones from the nineties (in fact, the book has nothing between 1990 and 2000), and I truly hope they’ll be able to find as many of them as possible. I also wouldn’t mind seeing even a “wrong” transcription of Harlan Ellison’s actual 1978 Iguanacon II speech rather than the explanation/article that took its place.

But Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches also makes one long for another type of book: An oral history of Worldcons in general, of infamous incidents, of organizational problems and small triumphs, of fannish scandals and professional woes. I was lucky enough to be there at a few of this century’s Worldcons, but I wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about the previous ones.

Tom Yum Goong [The Protector] (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tom Yum Goong</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Protector</strong>] (2005)

(In theaters, September 2006) “I want my elephant!” may be the signature line of one of the worst Simpsons episodes ever aired, but it serves as a handy plot device in Tony Jaa’s second film, which is once again just an excuse to demonstrate why Jaa can rightfully pretend to be Jackie Chan’s heir in terms of pure kinaesthetic action. Yes, it’s “just” a martial arts film with intricately choreographed fight scenes strung together by an inane “plot”. (Here, every character can meet everyone else by just walking down the street.) But ordinary martial art films can’t rely on breathtaking actors like Jaa, nor on the film’s mind-bending showcase scene: A long uninterrupted take in which Jaa kicks, punches and fights his way up four stories of bad guys in a circular staircase. Even jaded action fans will feel their jaws drop at that particular anthology scene. The other noteworthy element of The Protector is the antagonist, a mesmerizing, mature, sexy and ruthless “Madame Rose”, played to unnerving effect by Xing Jing (whom you should Google for a fascinating life story): short of having Condoleeza Rice play herself in a martial arts film, it’s one of the most enjoyable antagonists in recent memory. The performance, along with Jaa’s unbelievable dexterity, is what makes The Protector substantially better than its innate silliness.

The Illusionist (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Illusionist</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, September 2006) On paper, this film can’t miss: turn-of-the-nineteenth century magicians, Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biehl, etc. The trailer looked fabulous and yet… the film fails to elicit any enthusiasm. Why? Well, for starters, it’s a caper film where -even from the onset- it’s clear that nothing is quite what it seems. Alas, it’s far too easy to guess a good chunk of the ending before it happens, and the film doesn’t give you much on top of that to keep your mind occupied. Worse: in a film about stage magic, it would be reasonable to expect actual stage magic and not a reliance on CGI. But The Illusionist lacks the guts to either sustain or explain its lesser illusions. As a result, the film almost announces itself as untrustworthy from the first few scenes, and that eventually takes its toll. Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti are fine in their respective role, but they can’t transcend the screenplay. Much to my dismay, I realized that I found Jessica Biehl less attractive as the film went on, which bodes nothing good at all. In the end, she proves to be as disappointing at The Illusionist as a whole: a good film that could have been a lot better.

Lint, Jeff Aylett

Thunder’s Mouth, 2005, 225 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-684-2

Seen from afar, Steve Aylett’s Lint is a wonderful concept: A mock biography of wholly fictional Science Fiction writer Jeff Lint, from his beginning in the pulp era to his death in the mid-nineties. The potential for satire in mock biographies is rich (Robert James Bakker’s Boy Wonder is a fabulous example of the form, as it takes on Hollywood through the form of a mock oral history), and SF is what’s known as a target-rich environment.

Seen from up close, in randomly-selected sentences, Steve Aylett’s Lint is a small laugh-a-minute masterpiece. Small quotable gems such as “When the abyss gazes into you, bill it” or “On July 13, 1994, Lint had a near-death experience, followed immediately by death.” can be found here and there in the text.

But it’s somewhere between the concept and the epigrams that Lint fails to reach complete success. Rather than cohere, Lint runs from one gag to another without building up to something bigger. It never quite works as a biography, even a mock one. Those foolishly hoping for a sustained satire of the SF scene are going to be disappointed. Part of the problem lies into Aylett’s own style… but let’s rewind and take another look at the book as a whole.

Yes, “Jeff Lint” is more than a bit inspired by Philip K. Dick, especially in his progression from schlocko pulp writer to literary darling. More pointed jokes such as a reference to an “episode” in the seventies further fuel the resemblances. But don’t go into Lint hoping to find a roman-à-clé about Dick, because Lint is really just an excuse for Aylett to riff on post-WW2 American pop culture. Leaving SF behind, Lint features lengthy passages such as a digression about a truly “Magical Bullet” that manages to hit political assassination targets over a century-long period, a bit of Lint as gonzo journalist without any of Hunter S. Thompson’s talent, a discussion of progressive rock music and so on.

The good thing is that Aylett gets his references right. SF fans with good memories are going to chuckle over such things as John W. Campbell being misheard saying “Poppet, for a male you know how to dress.”, Lint getting his big break by submitting stories as “Isaac Asimov”, or the various pulp magazine titles imagined by Aylett: Awkward and Inconvenient Stories, Baffling Stories, Meandering Tales, etc. More in-jokes follow as Aylett/Lint takes on the world of TV animation, Comic Books, Star Trek, alternative music and Hollywood.

But it seldom amounts to more than a series of punchlines and weird word chains. Aylett’s usual comic style, it seems, is to join words that don’t necessarily go together, in the hope that the collision will somehow result in something funny. That’s not always true: Read over more than a few pages at a time, Lint quickly loses its interest. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Mark Leyner’s first two books, before Leyner disciplined himself, wrote more sustained pieces and produced his best work to date.

As an imagined biography, Lint remains a disappointment: The narrative is written with eccentric turn of phrases that aren’t that far removed from Lint’s quotations, and when this uniformity of style carries over to every other quotation, there is little room for featured lunacy. Conventional humour benefits greatly from reaction moments, and if everyone in the narrative is just as crazy as Lint, how do you highlight Lint’s distinctiveness?

It’s probably unfair to criticize Aylett for what he (judging from his other work) has no intention of doing: Sustained satire probably wasn’t anywhere near the top of this book’s objective, nor was anything like sitcom comedy. Perhaps it’s best to simply enjoy the punchlines (a few pages at a time) and stop worrying about how it could have been a far more enjoyable book. If all else fails, blame yourself and take a break from reading.

At least the book is decently packaged: In addition to the text itself, Lint comes complete with a number of illustrations, fake book covers, a collection of Lint quotations (they’ll save you the trouble of browsing through the whole book to quote the good bits) and some framing material —including an amusing fake bibliography. Surprisingly enough, a serviceable index is included, though it too has its share of fake and funny stuff.

Though Lint certainly isn’t for all tastes, it really works when it does work. The dense prose, careful vocabulary and humour-through-confusion takes a lot of energy, but the result is often worth it. If nothing else, read Chapter 10, “Catty and the Major”, for a representative dose of Lint. Those who already know about Aylett’s hyperactive non-sequitur style can rejoice in the thought that he’s been able to sustain it for more than 200 pages. Everyone else can hop in for the ride and see how it goes.

Huo Yuanjia [Fearless] (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Huo Yuanjia</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Fearless</strong>] (2006)

(In theaters, September 2006) If Jet Li sticks to his promise and truly retires from martial art movies after this one, it will be a perfect capstone to a career that spans films such as Once Upon A Time In China and Hero, other historical martial epics with a fierce nationalistic spirit. Somewhat more accomplished that the usual martial arts film, Fearless gives itself permission to explore the darker side of an accomplished martial artist, and the redemption that must follow excess. It can often feel like several movies blended into one, but it’s seldom less than interesting, and the conclusion does play into the “Jet Li’s final film” hype. There’s plenty of historical content for history buffs, and the fight scenes are often thrilling (with a special mention to the fight taking place on an elevated platform, though I doubt that the crowd on the ground would have been so thrilled.) A solid film, not the classic that was Hero, but a suitable last chapter to Li’s martial-arts phase.

Flyboys (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Flyboys</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, September 2006) Alas, another good concept that flounders on the actual execution. There is nothing wrong about a WW1 movie about the Lafayette Escadrille squad. (Well, nothing except side-step the real story of most WW1 pilots, because there wasn’t anything ordinary about Lafayette Escadrille.) But when it’s leadened with some of the worst structure and dialogue this side of the Star Wars prequels, it’s really hard to appreciate the whole. The word “excruciating” was invented to describe the feeling the audience gets while watching James Franco romance a French Girl (who’s not, as the movie takes particular pain to explain, a prostitute) –and it’s even worse if you do understand French. At least the historical recreations are interesting, and some of the dogfights are very cool despite the video-game aspect of the zeppelin scene. Structurally, the script is a trite collage of old-fashioned clichés, but some individual moments stand out… though it will take a masochist to watch the film over and over again. (Especially given how it lasts no less than two hours and twenty interminable minutes.) Worse, at least to modern audiences, is the lack of self-awareness about war and its toll on the men fighting it: the worse we get for the pampered flyboys of Lafayette is a man losing his nerve long enough to sustain dramatic tension. (And even that doesn’t work, as viewers can count down to his re-appearance in the story.) In the end, I suppose that Flyboys‘ greatest success and biggest failure can be described as having the same effect: It will make everyone realize their unfulfilled need for a really good WW1 dogfighting epic. Comparisons with Pearl Harbor, though insulting, are not unfair.

Crank (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Crank</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, September 2006) “Gloriously insane” is how I would start to describe this film, which seldom hesitates to use showy cinematic techniques whenever it gets bored, which is about once every twenty seconds. This meshes unusually well with a concept that goes straight to the heart of the modern action film: If you stop, you die. The director uses just about every single trick in the book to keep the film hopping and if the action scenes themselves aren’t all that spectacular, the mash-up of images, techniques and approaches makes for a deliriously cool viewing experience. Think Domino, Running Scared and a bit of Saw and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Jason Stratham is fabulous in the main role (the movie wouldn’t have a worked as well as it does without his pure action personae), but the real star of the show is the director and his catalogue of effects. Small touches like video-game graphics, satellite-picture scene transitions and gratuitous public sex basically ensure that I’ll pick up this title at least once on DVD, especially if it has an audio commentary by the directors. No, there’s nothing respectable or admirable about this mixture of nihilism, misogyny and absurdity. But damn if there isn’t something in this film to appeal to the baser instincts of the action crowd –or the postmodern hipster sensibilities of those who think they’re above all that. Surprisingly, Crank may actually be a lot more clever than anyone is willing to acknowledge.

The Jenny Casey Trilogy, Elizabeth Bear

Bantam Spectra, 2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Hammered, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 324 pages, C$10.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-58750-1
Scardown, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 368 pages, C$10.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-58751-X
Worldwired, Bantam Spectra, 2005, 398 pages, C$10.99 pb, ISBN 0-553-58749-8

In his introduction to his 1995 critical anthology Look at the Evidence, John Clute calls for “excessive candour” in criticizing science-fiction. He argues that even if the SF&F field is too small for the reviewers to avoid being in friendly contact with the authors, reviewers have to stay honest and avoid sugar-coating their judgement: anything else would doom the field to a counter-productive spiral of self-congratulations.

Clute first came up with the idea of excessive candour in the late-eighties, at a time when SF criticism was -despite the presence of fanzines- a far more exclusive club than it is today. Things have changed in nearly twenty years: now, it just takes a LiveJournal account to be able to write reviews that (thanks to search engines and ego-surfing) are almost certain to be read by the authors. More significantly, it also allows writers (once remote and distantly glimpsed at conventions, if at all) to appear far more accessible to readers: It’s almost too easy, these days, to read the blog of an author on a daily basis, see them struggle through life like everyone else, fool yourself that you know the person and let that perception colour the reading of a finished work.

It’s hard to avoid mulling over such issues when considering Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey Trilogy. Published in 2005, the trilogy marks Bear’s smashing book-length entrance in the SF&F field after a string of successful short stories. On-line, it’s hard to avoid Bear’s web site, or her frequently-updated blog. Its focus on the craft of fiction writing makes it an essential read for the entire SF&F community, and this high profile has paid dividends in terms of name recognition: Bear earned a well-deserved John W. Cambell Award for best new writer in 2005 and the 2006 Locus Award for Best First Novel for the Jenny Casey trilogy.

This makes it hard to pick up the Jessy Casey trilogy as “just another SF trilogy from a new author”. It makes it even harder to jot down a not-entirely-positive review. With time, the probability of her reading these words approaches certainty… and she’s known for blogging about reviews of her books.

[December 2006: A bit later than I thought, the review makes it to Bear’s blog on December 4th: “Christian Sauve mostly worrying about whether I’m going to find the review or not. …there’s some shallow sort of irony there, I guess. Curse you, Google Alerts!” Hee, irony.]

And that, in a specific example, is why Excessive Candour is more important now than it has ever been. It take a particular type of deliberation to review in a panopticon. It’s easier to be all sugar and honey when They’re Watching. It’s even easier to say nothing at all if something doesn’t work.

So: The Jenny Casey Trilogy is interesting, but not without its problems.

At first glance, from the first volume’s back cover, it just sounds like another half-baked cyberpunk derivative, ten years too late and a few ideas short : As a “former Canadian special forces warrior” brought back from a self-imposed exile through coercion and the promise of better cybernetic implants, Jenny Casey doesn’t look very different from many other SF heroines. The surface similitudes with Kristine Smith’s “Jani Killian” series (which features a similar cybernetically-enhanced heroine) are further highlighted by the same cover illustration boot-and-weapon motif.

But look closer: Beyond the initial inner-city setting, there’s a lot more at work here. Jenny herself, as an embittered veteran who has seen everything, isn’t quite the poster girl for hip female action heroines. The plot itself soon moves away from the cyberpunk or military-SF aspects some readers may have expected. By the time the trilogy reaches its conclusion, the overall feel is one of a general-interest SF novel that can’t be fitted in a pre-existing template. Unfortunately, these shifting goalposts can often make entire swaths of the story feel like sideshows. I first intended to review the books separately, but held off after feeling that the first volume was just revving up to other things. The irony is that after reading the entire trilogy, I still feel much the same way: The first volume contains a lot of material that isn’t strictly necessary and could have been axed by a more ruthless editor. Most of the Hartford scenes after Jenny has left the city are like that: intriguing at first, but increasingly irrelevant as the story moves on. The impression persists throughout the trilogy. A lot of material initially seems promising, but doesn’t truly pay off. (Then again, I usually feel that most trilogies can be distilled to single 500-page books, and this one is no exception.)

This lack of speed and focus does have advantages, though: It allows Bear to spend more time on characterization, and that’s where readers of the trilogy will find much to like. If the trilogy escapes the confines of its first impressions, it’s partly because Bear spends so much energy defining and developing her characters. She pays attention to emotional resonance with a grace that lacks from the work of many current SF writers, reaching for the throat of her audience with an unnerving assurance. Volume Two ends on an audacious tragedy that many writers would have tried to soften… but not here. Throughout all three volumes, Bear allows us to get into the mind of her characters like few other genre writers are able to sustain. I was seldom bored.

But not being bored isn’t always a mark of complete satisfaction. Unanswered background questions and constant annoyances can be very effective in keeping my interest up.

For instance, the trilogy takes place in a future where Canada has somehow emerged as the balancing superpower to China. Given how Canadians always crave attention from their American cousins, this is exactly the type of detail to make me purr and roll around with the book —after checking twice that the author is not, in fact, Canadian. (Though we may grant her honorary citizenship if she keeps it up.)

Alas, some of those same likable background details don’t make much sense. I kept waiting for an explanation why the United States weren’t the dominant power around, and got nothing much beyond the usual “religious right rising, urban fighting, etc” scenario. Worse; third-volume exposition drives home the fact that even in 2063, Canada’s population is still around thirty million people while the US weighs in at about 250 million: I have a hard, hard time imagining how Canada could develop as a major superpower (much less take the US’s place) with that population differential. Vague hand-waving about massive immigration from Europe and South-Asian support for Canada doesn’t cut it, nor does it explain why the US hasn’t simply taken over its neighbour in stark desperation. Oh well; at least “superpower Canada” has a nice ring to it.

But there’s something else. Something that will likely bother only a few dozen reade
rs over the trilogy’s commercial life-time: The French. Not Oh-no-French-I-can’t-understand-it, but Oh-no-French-I-can-understand-it-and-it’s-wrong. Jenny, after all, grew up in Montréal and is supposed to be a fluent Francophone. Alas, her French is nothing like what a francophone may say. While bad enough in the expletives (“Thank God”, for instance, is translated as the formal “merci à dieu” whereas “dieu merci” is -by far- the preferred form in colloquial French-Canadian. “Putain de marde” is a weird mid-Atlantic mash-up that just looks weird. And just try to use “trou de coul” [sic] on a French Canadian for guaranteed hilarity.), the trilogy’s “French” is riddled with elementary mistakes throughout, which severely affects the flow of the text. The climax of that problem is reached late in the first volume, where a tender lovemaking scene turns hilarious thanks to the ungrammatical French spoken by the characters in the heat of passion: It certainly had an impact on me, but not -I guess- the one that Bear intended. Thankfully, the other two volumes ease up on the quantity of French… though its quality doesn’t improve much.

But I’m not really holding the poor French against Bear for two reasons.

First, nearly every unilingual writer gets it wrong. From Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) to Dan Brown (Digital Fortress) to Robert J. Sawyer (Frameshift), every character speaking French in English-language fiction is addled with bad grammar, inappropriate use of the language and expressions that only make sense if you back-translate them into English. Writers without frequent bilingual interactions seldom have the sense of when it’s appropriate to switch back and both between languages, let alone master the finer point of grammar. Bear is no exception, and we can hardly blame her for something that happens all the time.

But as a French-Canadian, I also have to admit that there’s some cachet in seeing one’s mother tongue mangled by Les Anglais once again: It’s one thing to be a plucky minority on a continent dominated by English, it would be completely disheartening to find out that French can be picked up just like that (snaps fingers) by just about anyone. Ah, the self-esteem of obscurity…

Chances are that the vast majority of the trilogy’s readers won’t even mind: They’ll simply see French words and be charmed by this particular bit of exoticism. It’s those few dozen francophone readers who will spend a good part of the trilogy blinking, sighing and back-translating. I assume that part of the effect is intentional, to make the passages more accessible to English-language readers. On the other hand, I can assure Bear that “Enfant de chienne” is the right translation for “son of a bitch” on this side of the Atlantic.

But this kvetching aside, I remain reasonably happy with the trilogy. There’s a decent plot, fabulous characters (Elspeth rocks) and a number of other nice touches. (Bear uses Richard Feynman as the basis for her AI character, which just kept me grinning through the entire trilogy.) It may not be cutting-edge SF in concept, but the English-language prose is a bit better than the current standards of the genre. If nothing else, it should find a decent cross-over audience as entry-level SF: The usual props of the genre are nearly all in there, remixed to the author’s specifications but not out of reach for casual readers. As a first novel, the Jenny Casey trilogy is an auspicious debut for an author who will go on to do wonderful things. I may not be convinced enough to overcome my usual genre preferences and try Bear’s fantasy, but I’ll pick up her next SF book Carnival.