Month: June 2007

Brasyl, Ian McDonald

Pyr, 2007, 357 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59102-543-6

It’s hard to over-state the impact that River of Gods has had on Ian McDonald’s career. A solid, but generally under-appreciated veteran author, McDonald suddenly became one of Science-Fiction’s hottest authors: The book was nominated for the Hugo Awards, earned effusive critical praise and was snapped up by Pyr for republication in the United States, rejuvenating McDonald’s American career years after Bantam Spectra’s unsuccessful efforts. Pyr and McDonald benefited a great deal from each other, which may serve to explain why his follow-up Brasyl ended up published in the United States by Pyr, to significant critical expectations.

Like River of Gods, Brasyl is partly an attempt to recast familiar SF elements in new cultural environments. Surfing on the SF globalization wave first anticipated decades ago by Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (and his own earlier books such as Evolution’s Shore), McDonald imagined a sprawling SF novel in India for River of Gods and now does the same for Brazil with his latest. In doing so, he takes conventional SF ideas and restates them in a setting that is different in time and culture. The impact is more profound that one could think: River of Gods felt fresh and invigorating because it looked at familiar SF clichés from a different angle of interest, a particularity that added to McDonald’s usually strong narrative and characterization skills.

Brasyl is not River of Gods Part 2, but it’s definitely in the same vein. Here, somber quantum mechanics conspiracies unite three different sub-plots, taking place at three different eras in Brazil’s history. But whereas River of Gods was massive and sprawling, Brasyl is dynamic and sprightly. This is not the same country, this is not the same culture, and this is not even the same prose: Brasyl‘s McDonald is nervy, fast and not particularly concerned by good grammatical form: He gets away with fragmented sentences that mix Brazilian speech with hi-tech slang and dispenses with commas. Reading Brasyl is, at times, like being stuck in a whirlwind of cultural and technical references that all accumulate to give the prose a dense texture that has a unique quality of its own. Beautifully written, Brasyl is another one of those contemporary SF novels that proves without discussion that cool techno stuff isn’t necessarily incompatible with fantastic prose.

But even that prose style deliberately varies throughout the book: Divided in three temporal streams, Brasyl simultaneously takes place in Brazil’s past, present and future. The current subplot concerns a reality-TV show producer who comes to realize that a Doppelgänger is ruining her life. Meanwhile in the eighteenth century, a Jesuit operative must go up the Amazon to find a renegade priest. Finally, a small-time hustler in 2032 São Paulo gets romantically involved with a dangerous woman who meets a violent end… only to re-appear a short while later. All of this comes together thanks to the magic of quantum mechanics and parallel universes, but not before a wild ride of sword-fights, superhero fetish sex and a present-day plot that seems even stranger than either Brazil’s history or its possible future.

As a sustained narrative, Brasyl is not quite as successful as River of Gods for a few reasons: Not all three plot-lines are created equal, for instance: After the tornado-like intensity of the present and future segments, the historical subplot can seem like a lull in the action. And while the middle of the book is filled with intriguing mysteries, the resolution of the entire arc can feel like a more conventional let-down. McDonald’s usual knack for describing conventional scenes with unconventional prose can often feel like a distancing mechanism when the book’s action set-pieces occur.

But even with those slight flaws, Brasyl still ends up feeling like one of 2007’s most vital Science Fiction novels. It’s fresh, slick and exciting. It feels, simply put, like no other SF novel to date. When the pieces finally come together, the unusual nature of the plot and the prose lead readers straight to serious kick-ass coolness that wouldn’t feel out of place in a big Hollywood blockbuster film. McDonald takes a serious option on award nominations with this book, and proves that his career renaissance is well-founded: Everyone who discovered (or rediscovered) the McDonald oeuvre thanks to River of Gods now have something new to enjoy, and Brasyl easily satisfies expectations.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, Ed. Chris Ware

McSweeney’s, 2003, 316 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 1-932416-08-0

I took years, but I finally snagged a copy of the quasi-legendary “McSweeney’s 13”, the “comics issue” of the relentlessly innovative fiction periodical from the fine folks at McSweeney’s. Whoever says “periodical”, after all, suggests a limited availability, followed by endless trips to used-bookstores in the hope of finding a copy.

But McSweeney’s isn’t a disposable sort of periodical, and so you may still have some luck, years later, finding latter printings shelved in the “literature” section of your neighbourhood monster bookstore. Don’t look for a brightly-coloured onion-paged digest: Look for a massive saran-wrapped hardcover with a strange cover featuring muted iconic drawings. If you know Chris Ware’s work, just look for his signature style: Not only has he edited the content of the issue, he also designed it –including the beautiful wrap-around cover.

It’s impossible to review McSweeney’s 13 without spending some time discussing its design. It’s no accident if it costs more than the average hardcover novel: not only is the book solidly bound in a slightly bigger format than most hardcovers, it sports full-color pages and a dust jacket that is much more than a dust jacket. Unwrap it and you will find not only two bonus comic-books hidden within the folds, but also a full-colour, two-sided, newspaper-sized (gilded!) comic by Chris Ware.

The biting, cynical, nihilist, self-referential, vaguely historical nature of Ware’s work sets the tone for what’s inside McSweeney’s 13: In assembling a special comics issue for one of the foremost literary periodical of our times, Ware has decided to play on two themes. First, that comics are good and literary and worthy of respect –a familiar tune for long-time fans. Second, that the type of comics showcased here would be almost absurdly literary in an autobiographical vein. If you’re looking for good superhero comics, or even accessible genre adventures in a graphical format, well, look elsewhere: McSweeney’s 13 won’t allow such populist riff-raff to sully its pages. Peanuts gets a pass on account of being old and respectable, but otherwise the only time you ‘ll hear about superheroes is through the nostalgic prose essays scattered throughout the periodical.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’m coming to McSweeney’s 13 through the comic-sized door, but an equal if not superior number of readers must be picking it up because it’s the newest McSweeney’s and it happens to talk about comics. This is the audience that has to be convinced, not the existing comic fans.

On the other hand, it leads straight to a theme anthology where you get your pick between a sad autobiographical tales of everyday life, and another dozen so-called edgy pieces whose meaning lurks out of context. Your choices: Be baffled or depressed.

If you’re not happy with the newer material, you can always gawk at the perfect reproductions of historical pieces, from the first American comic book, to an early Mutt and Jeff, to sketches seemingly stolen from Charles Schultz’s trashcan, to other pieces of American comicana. Also; a handful of essays from such notables as Michael Chabon, Chip Kidd or John Updike. (I suppose that I won’t be the only one surprised to learn that Updike can sketch relatively well.) All of this material accumulates to leave the impression of an affectionate tribute to the art form, of a memento of interest to comic book enthusiasts with long memories.

Alas, despite the tremendous labour of love that this edition represents, many (most?) of the pieces are not original to McSweeney’s 13 and can’t even stand on their own. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is quoted here, as is Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, to cite only two work with which I’m immediately familiar. Some other pieces leave us hanging, deprived of both context and resolution. McSweeney’s 13 is least satisfying when it’s acting as a sampler than an homage or a polemic.

But it’s hard to truly being critical of this book. I have mentioned the design a couple of time, but McSweeney’s 13 is truly that rarest of literary object: One that feels as if no effort was spared in order to make it as realized at possible. Time and time again, small touches remind us that several people have agonized over this as an object, not a disposable pop culture artifact. The sampler approach can work at driving newer readers to other works, introducing new and little-known artists to the McSweeney’s readership. One can quibble with part of it, but the whole is much greater than the sum of its part. As a entity, McSweeney’s 13 is close to its own kind of perfection.

It’s not an accident if I can see myself pulling this book from my shelves the next time some one visits and say “You have to take a look at this…”

Rant, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2007, 336 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66349-6

It’s done. Chuck Palahniuk has finally turned to Science Fiction after years of teasing us with the possibility. The promotional material remains hush-hush on the issue and many reviewers will tiptoe around the evidence, but Rant is the novel where Palahniuk finally crosses the border into unarguable Science Fiction. After teasing us with a research-heavy writing style that often felt as hard-SF, after revelling in social extrapolations only one step away from SF satire, Palahniuk finally owes up to the genre.

Everyone saw it coming, of course. Palahniuk’s stock in trade, from Fight Club onward, has always been to imagine the possible. The “What if?” so beloved of SF writers. It doesn’t matter how unlikely it is, if it is possible. Not many people actually like beating up other people and getting beaten up in return, but it is possible, in today’s world, in much the same way bodily modifications can twist a narrator’s identity or how someone can fake choking for a twisted con game. Reading Palahniuk’s fiction is already an exercise is suspension of disbelief.

It helps that Palahniuk has never been a rigorously mainstream writer. His last three novels, from Lullaby to Haunted, more or less dealt with fantastical concepts. Haunted even included two short stories that, squinting the right way, could be read as classic fifties-style SF. Rant, despite tackling the very science-fictional trope of time travel, is not such a big stretch: Palahniuk can’t be bothered by technological or scientific explanation and reaches straight for the woo-woo bag of tricks. Time travel via the wish fulfilment of Jack Finney rather than the machine-aided rationality of H.G. Wells.

(I’m not spoiling much: A close reading of the first thirty pages of Rant pretty much give the game away.)

So this new infatuation with another genre may not be as interesting than it seems at first glance: This is just Palahniuk going further in one of his usual directions, after all. Far more interesting is the way he tells the story: Rant is written as an oral biography, a style of writing that allows Palahniuk to have some serious fun with the way he structures the novel. Nominally a way to present different perspective on a same subject, oral biography is here twisted to serve Palahniuk’s style: He uses the “different voices” motif to create a collage of perspectives that each describe an aspect of the character and the world. The cacophony of voices acquires a pleasant montage-like effect, every bit player whispering something worthwhile in our ear, even if we can’t recognize it at first.

Rant Casey himself ends up being a side player in his own “biography”: From a strong Trickster-like presence at the beginning of the novel, Rant fades against the lively background that Palahniuk puts together as the book unfolds. Progressively, we’re made aware that the world in which Rant exists is not our own: that substantial social differences exist, and that they mask something even more hideous lurking under the surface. In a way, that’s always been one characteristic of Palahniuk’s oeuvre: presenting a society that may superficially look like ours, but is really not. In this case, though, no amount of rationalization will manage to take in account the radically different world in which Rant exists, even if most of the concepts (party-crashing cars in each other, for instance, in an acknowledge nod to Fight Club‘s main conceit) are at least theoretically possible.

Those used to Palahniuk’s style won’t be shocked to find that Rant is once again all about, well, shock. Disgust, decency and logic are the three virtues one must learn to ignore in order to read a Palahniuk novel and this one is no exception. It doesn’t always add up, naturally, but Palahniuk’s books are rides more than they’re sustained arguments. Part of the thrill of Rant is in seeing unfamiliar words, concepts and icons gradually become clearer and clearer as the book unfolds. Besides the SF elements, this is another sign of Rant‘s belonging to the Science-Fiction genre: Palahniuks wields exposition like a master and often lets slip strange blips before we’re ready to understand them.

But also like a Science Fiction novel, the world of the novel eventually overpowers the main character. Rant, after our promising expectations, eventually become a shell of a character in a far more intriguing world. The repetitive ending grates a bit as it goes back to Rant to back-fill obvious parts of his back-story.

Yet it doesn’t matter much: Rant is easily one of Palahniuk’s most enjoyable piece of writing in a while. The acknowledged SF influence seems to allow him a bit more freedom that usual (which is saying a lot), and the oral biography form shakes up some of Palahniuk’s stylistic quirk. A strong entry… but not for everyone.

Angels Flight, Michael Connelly

Warner, 1999, 454 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60727-4

One of the known problem of my Michael Connelly reading project (one book per month, in order of publication, until I’m caught up) is that I have already read many of the high points of Connelly’s career. After The Last Coyote, for instance, I could skip over The Poet, Trunk Music and Blood Work. This landed me three novels later in Angel’s Flights, with a slightly different Harry Bosch now re-integrated with the police force and struggling through a marriage I barely remembered. Having read Trunk Music nearly eight years ago, it took me a while to get back up to speed with the latest developments.

Fortunately, Connelly makes it easy to get back into Bosch’s mind: his best-known protagonist is still as taciturn, still as clever, and just as likely to find himself at the centre of a complicated investigation. This time, Bosch is chosen by the LAPD’s high management as the lead inspector on a case with the potential to revive racial riots: the murder of a black attorney who specialized in cases against the police. Worse: the victim was killed in a way that suggests a policeman with a score to settle. Already marginalized by his colleagues, Bosch finds himself stuck with investigators he can’t trust and a mystery some people don’t want to see resolved.

As the clock starts ticking, the investigation roars into gear. Bosch doesn’t have much time: Already, the media is driven to a frenzy of speculation by the killer-cop angle. Before long, Bosch realizes that the investigation is a poisoned gift: No one inside the LAPD particularly wants it to succeed, and even Bosch’s team may not be entirely trustworthy. As if that wasn’t enough, it seems that the deceased attorney had a source deep inside the police force…

But it gets worse. Seemingly impartial people turn out to have a web of connections to the victim, including one of Bosch’s ex-partners. Pulling on all the threads revealed by his investigation, Bosch starts paying renewed attention to a case that everyone thought closed, a sordid child murder that may not be as simple as everyone had figured. The title of the book eventually acquires another meaning as Bosch is forced to investigate something he’d rather leave to others…

This may not be among Connelly’s best novels, but it’s certainly up to his usual standards. The writing is clean and immediately absorbing. The characters are efficiently introduced and developed, which is of even bigger importance here as the cast seems much larger than in previous books. The plot keeps moving forward relentlessly, making it hard to stop reading once it gets going.

This technical proficiency makes it easy to forget about the thick density of issues tackled through the novel. Angels Flight is, first and foremost, a novel about Los Angeles in the nineties, as it recovered from the scars left by the 1992 riots. But it also weaves in themes of lost innocence, of police violence, of what makes good people go bad. Bosch has never been a happy character and Angels Flight seems grimmer than most, especially given how it really doesn’t solve any of Bosch’s romantic problems.

What doesn’t work so well are some of the technical details: Written in 1998, Angels Flight still has a gosh-wow approach to the then-Internet, and some of the vocabulary used to describe the investigation as it move on-line is just wrong. Not a big deal for most, but frustrating to the knowledgeable readers in the context of a police procedural where details should sound right.

The other nagging element of the novel is the ending, which manages to be predictable and frustrating. Twenty pages before the end, you can practically predict what will happen to who, based on nothing but the situation and the knowledge that American crime fiction would rather kill a villain than punish him through the course of law.

But these are small issues in such a successful novel. While Angels Flight doesn’t have the extra boost to propel it among Connelly’s best novels (of which there have been more than a few), it holds its own as another decent entry in his oeuvre. The Michael Connelly Reader Project continues at a good clip with nary a misfire in sight.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

Gollancz, 2006, 505 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07802-2

Hype is two-edged sword: If it’s true that I wouldn’t have read Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora had it not been lauded on-line, it’s also true that it made it impossible to pick up the novel as “just another fantasy book”. This is, after all, the novel that touched off the Great Blog Critic-Payoff Crisis of 2006, which contributed to the end of Emerald City and megabytes of bitter debate about the nature of on-line criticism.

It almost makes me want to avoid reviewing the book.

But I’ve got a monthly quota to fill, and The Lies of Locke Lamora has spent more than its fair share of time on my bedside table. So here goes.

The most intriguing thing about Scott Lynch’s debut is how it marries the conventions of caper thrillers with the environment of a fantasy novel. Our titular hero is a master con artist, a man able to fool just about everyone into handing over their money. Locke Lamora isn’t particularly smart or handsome, but he’s got what it takes to be a gifted con artist: a gift for gab, a murderously effective education and a strong circle of friends with unique areas of expertise. The Lies of Locke Lamora is built around a structure that follows Lamora during a particularly stressful period, and interleaves that story with interlude that explain who Locke Lamora and his friends are, and what has made them the way they are.

This is where, as an infrequent (and, frankly, generally uninterested) fantasy reader, my impressions part ways with the critical consensus. While many have lauded the completeness of Lynch’s vision of Lamora and the city he lives in, I found myself skipping ahead whenever I hit another historical interlude –which is to say every other chapter.

I have no major problems with the bulk of the novel’s plot: As Locke thinks he’s pulling off a grand coup by defrauding a rich merchant, troubles comes looking for him as a mysterious “Gray King” decimates the local criminal power structure. Blackmailed into doing the Grey King’s bidding against his own boss, Locke has little time to figure out how to pull his own skin out of the fire. If he does manage to do so, it’s not certain that he’ll be able to do the same for his friends… Before the book is over, Locke finds himself rediscovering his conscience, using his illicit skills for the greater good and doing things he would never had imagined doing pro bono.

If The Lies of Locke Lamora had just been about that plot thread, chances are that I would have been far more upbeat about the book: the fusion between caper plotting and fantasy setting is interesting, and the low-key nature of the fantasy (save for the magicians, one could almost squint and imagine Locke running around a slightly different version of medieval Venice) doesn’t overwhelm the particular nature of Locke’s story.

But the constant flashbacks do drag down the story every couple of pages. They alone explain why the book spent nearly three months on my bedside table, even as I was tearing through other books: Though I was enjoying myself in Locke Lamora’s world, I would close the book every time I’d hit another flashback, and feel no particular impulsion to pick it up again.

I can only hope that the further volumes in the Gentleman Bastard sequence are finished with the flashbacks and will proceed at a faster clip. The richness of Lynch’s prose is satisfying, and the inclusion of modern sensibilities in the dialogue (which is to say: frank Anglo-Saxon swearing) is pleasantly honest in a sub-genre that often tiptoes around harsh expletives.

Not being much of a fantasy reader, there are definitely limits to how much I can like the book, but that’s all right: such reactions come along with the Hype, and fantasy readers who somehow happen to read this review are far more likely to like this book than I did. I see with some satisfaction the The Lies of Locke Lamora landed Scott Lynch on the Campbell award shortlist: a fitting achievement for a novel that, despite its length, is already reasonably successful.

Not entirely successful, but if all it takes is a bit of selective skimming… the hype may have a solid basis to it.

Surf’s Up (2007)

Surf’s Up (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) If you think you’ve seen enough movies about penguins, make room for one more: Surf’s Up may not be much more than a fun film, but it’s well worth a look. The most obvious difference of the film is how it presents itself as a mockumentary, and sustains the form for the entire duration –even though the illusions gets less transparent during the last half. The story isn’t complicated and you’ll see the twists comes up well in advance, but it’s handled with a competent touch, and it features a bunch of good characters. (Even the chicken gets a few laughs.) As a CGI film, it shows that water effects are pretty much a solved problem: the film seldom hesitates to go into the surf, showing off iridescent green waves in such a way to make us regret that this isn’t a real film. The irony, of course, is that despite the cartoons and the script made for the younger ones, Surf’s Up manages to explain the Tao of surfing a lot better than more realistic movies about the subject: You just have to see the penguin protagonists touch the back of a tubular wave to understand how much fun surfing can be. It all adds up to a pretty satisfying time at the movies, and one that quickly dissociates itself from either Happy Feet or March Of The Penguins.

A Princess of the Aerie, John Barnes

Warner Aspect, 2003, 319 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61082-8

Veteran John Barnes readers were shaken by A Duke of Uranium. the first volume of his “Jik Jinnaka” series: Here was a John Barnes with no horrid violence, no non-consensual sex, no last chapter that killed everyone in sight. In fact, the novel was practically a Heinlein juvenile with a bit more sex and action: an old-fashioned SF novel that tried real hard to please everyone and made a serious stab at the YA market. Knowing Barnes’ tendency to drop the hammer on his characters when they least expect it, could he sustain such an atmosphere in further volumes of the series? Follow-up A Princess of the Aerie answers that with a resounding “Oh, you knew what was coming…”

But before explaining what didn’t turn out so well, let’s take a moment to be grateful for what has been carried over from the first novel. The quasi-Heinleinian narration is back, with its mixture of future world-building, unusual slang, snappy dialogue and efficient prose. It doesn’t take much time to be sucked into A Princess of the Aerie, especially not when Jak gets a cry for help: His old girlfriend (previously established as a princess in the previous volume) needs his help in dealing with a big problem, and Jak’s covert training is perfect for the job.

So far, so good. But the wind starts to turn once Jak gets to the Aerie: Much to his dismay, he avoids being killed, discovers that the cry for help was an authentic fake, and that his ex-girlfriend is now deeply into kinky domination games. Barnes’ streak of books without non-consensual sex ends shortly in A Princess of the Aerie as Jak is manipulated into sexual mind-games for his ex-girlfriend’s unabashed entertainment. (The unspoken moral of the story is something like “don’t let a super-powerful girlfriend mess with your brain chemistry, despite the hot sex you may think you’re getting out of it.”) Suffice to say that the novel solidly establishes itself as one that all Young Adults will want to read… despite their parents’ objections.

It’s handled with a smile, but a bittersweet one. Jak eventually realizes the extent to which he has fooled himself, and what an absolutely corrupt person his ex-girlfriend has been all along. But he doesn’t get much time to think about it: before realizing it, he’s exiled on what’s called an important covert operation on service to the Aerie.

That is the breaking cue for another interplanetary travel sequence that may bring back memories of the first volume. Some characters return and some familiar games are played, leaving readers with an impression not only of deja-vu, but also of a broken plot: why spend so much time on Jak’s betrayal if the real story is going to take place elsewhere?

Jak and friends eventually end up on Mercury, where Barnes explains what he didn’t have to in the first volume: In the world of Jak Jinnaka, Mercury ends up being the lowest rung on the lowest ladder, a hellish place where everyone is naturally exploited by physics and the way the economy is structured. The planet’s only output is precious metals, and the working environment isn’t for wussies: Everyone works hard and dies young. Police enforcement is practically non-existent. Amazingly enough, things are getting worse: The normally metastable power dynamics of the competing factions is upset by the arrival of a ruthless new faction, and it’s up to Jak and his few friends to correct the problem. Class credits may be at stake.

Jak’s universe constantly gets darker and more dangerous throughout the novel, and if the outcome of his mission is never truly in doubt, the real meat of the novel is in the sacrifices he has to make in order to settle the issue. Progressively, we come to understand the bitterness of the opening foreword in which Jak is dismissed by his ex-best friend. As Jak progresses, he finds out the lies and dangers in being turned into a hero. Poor guy: finds out his ex-girlfriend is a witch, loses his friends, has his reputation trashed on system-wide media…

And yet, one comes away from A Princess of the Aerie with the unaccountable feeling that this is, in fact, a pretty fun book. Despite the plot that goes awry, despite the gathering clouds, despite the foreboding that Jak is going to be way over his head in the third volume, the reading pleasure of this volume remains intact. I may still not be convinced by the girlfriend’s abrupt revelation as a Machiavellian sociopath, but I’m not going to complain (much) either. What is noticeable, though, if how the series now seems more aligned to Barnes’ known track record. Despite knowing better, I’m really looking forward to In the Hall of Martians Kings.

Sicko (2007)

Sicko (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) Progressive rabble-rouser Michael Moore is back with a film that delivers exactly what fans and foes are expecting from him. This time, he takes on the shameful American health care problem, which doesn’t make for much of a challenge: the system is so broken that it hardly seems sporting to criticize it. The film is a series of heart-breaking anecdotes showing by example the plight of ordinary citizens in a country where everyone has convinced themselves that universal health care is a luxury that no one can afford. Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Cuba are trotted as counter-examples –even with the understanding that Moore cherry-picks his examples. But subtlety isn’t the name of the game here, and even the most jaded cynics will find it hard not to emphasize with the victims. Ironically, this is perhaps the film where Moore does the least grandstanding: save for an obviously dumb stunt near the end of the film, Sicko is the most emotional, least annoying Moore documentary yet. It does lack the panache that made Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 such memorable pieces, but it’s just as effective in raising everyone’s hackles. This time around, the lines aren’t as partisan as in previous films: While recent Republicans come under fire by sheer dint of incumbency, both Nixon and Hillary Clinton get their share of harsh words… and down in the street, people bankrupted by health insurance don’t exactly wear their partisanship on their forehead. Fans of Moore’s work will recognize the threads of Moore’s meta-narrative being pieced together: Moore’s over-arching thesis is that manufactured fear, poverty and desperation are the things keeping Americans from achieving their true potential, and that explicitly gets stated in the film. As usual, I find myself hoping that one day, Moore will piece it together and deliver the film that will blow open everyone’s minds. In the meantime, Sicko is a step in the right direction: hopefully, it will find some political traction and play in the 2008 election. Seeing the history of American activism, though, I’m not particularly optimistic. Let me hug my Canadian Passport once more.

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) After the self-indulgent disaster that was Ocean’s Twelve, expectations were low for this third modern Danny Ocean adventure. Fortunately, director Soderbergh is back to his audience-friendly persona this time around, and if the result may not be terrific, it’s good enough to warrant another look at the crew. This time, the plot goes back to Vegas and the action gets more diffuse: rather than rob something, our bunch of criminal protagonists avenges a friend by cracking open a casino for all takers. The multiplicity of schemes doesn’t make for a focused caper plot, but it provides enough choice for everyone: if a particular subplot is dull or vaguely uncomfortable (such as the hotel-from-hell contamination), just wait thirty seconds and something more interesting will come along. This buffet approach makes for an audience-friendly vibe that is reflected elsewhere in the film: the characters are at easy with each other and if the dialogues are still elliptical, they’re quite enjoyable. Even the walk-on roles get their chance to shine: Eddie Izzard gets a particularly good five minutes as an expert who demands exposition. It all amounts to a sweet caper film. While the emotional charge of the film is thin and the speaking female characters can be counted on one hand, Ocean’s Thirteen is a decent way for the trilogy to end –we don’t really need a fourth one.

Mr. Brooks (2007)

Mr. Brooks (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) Wait long enough and you’ll see everything. In this case, Mr. Brooks takes the current trend of glorifying serial killers and turns it into a feel-good film about such a protagonist. It’s meant as a black comedy, but the execution often isn’t too sure of the intended effect: The presence of a cackling John Hurt as the imaginary anti-conscience of Kevin Costner’s Mr. Brooks makes for some amusing sequences, but the bloody suspense of the piece doesn’t play nice with the cynical grins. It doesn’t help that the script never knows when to quit: Starting from a mildly intriguing premise about a serial murderer troubled by his conscience, Mr. Brooks spins up more and more subplots until we’re left with almost a half-dozen killers (including potential ones) running around at cross-purposes. It quickly gets ridiculous. Other signs suggests that the script was either badly constructed from the start or damaged in editing: a hideous coincidence during the third act hint at a plot point that is never brought up again. When the false-trick ending comes up, it doesn’t feel as cheap as it could have: why that point in the movie, we’re just wondering how ludicrous this is going to become. At least it remains interesting: for all of its faults, there are enough promising things about Mr. Brooks to keep our interest until the bitter disappointment of its ending. If this film is remembered at all, it will be as a sort of apogee for post-modern serial killer plotting.

A Mighty Heart (2007)

A Mighty Heart (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) The worst thing about this film is the knowledge that things won’t end well. The tragic story of Daniel Pearl is well-known to the public most likely to see this film, and so it unfolds like a tragedy in the making: despite the efforts toward a happy ending, we just know that it’s not going to happen, and this sadness permeates any reading of the film from beginning to end. This lends instant respectability to the film, but it also makes it easy to dismiss as Oscar-driven pap. For instance, Angelina Jolie does well with a role that merely requires her to look stunning and speak with a French accent. But even hot Oscar-baiting grandstanding can’t completely drive away the true continuing appeal of the film, which eventually plays like a rough and merciless police procedural in the darkness of the Islamic third-world. The most fascinating character of the piece becomes a Pakistani counter-terrorism captain trying to solve the mystery even as his efforts are stymied by the very environment he lives in. The sights and feel of Karachi are oppressive in their claustrophobia: here the setting makes the action seem that much more fantastic, suggesting intriguing possibilities for future fictional thrills. Even the casual use of high technology seems all that more exotic and uncomfortable in an environment where data cables are loosely tied to outdoor pipes and where even laptops look like intrusions from a Science-Fictional world. Alas, those thrills are quickly tempered by the known futility of the efforts, and the anticipated roar of the heroine’s grief. Remarkably apolitical yet immediately recognizable as a film shaped by today’s world, A Mighty Heart may not be guilt-free fun, but it’s far more fascinating than you would expect from the documented premise.

Year’s Best SF 12, Ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer

EOS, 2007, 484 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-125208-2

“The theme of the year is catastrophe and how to recover from it” warn editors Hartwell and Cramer in the introduction to their latest Year’s Best SF volume, and they’re not kidding. Of the twenty-six stories assembled here, a good chunk deal with The End… regardless of whether it’s followed by a new beginning or not.

Apocalyptic fiction isn’t a new subgenre of SF, of course, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the chosen few of this anthology are writing about fresh horrors a privileged knowledge of what it feels to go through a catastrophe. Unlike the writers who wished the Cold War away by describing nuclear Armageddon, every writer represented here has seen the World Trade Centre fall; has waited for SARS to bloom into something bigger; has seen the United States invade another country on thin pretexts; has seen a tsunami wipe out hundred of thousands of people; has mentally scratched New Orleans from their holiday destinations. The first few years of the twenty-first century have been rough on everyone, and this Year’s Best SF is showing the accumulating damage. The goal is no longer to triumph against adversity, but to cope with it.

In many ways, the opening story of the volume tells you everything you need to know about the anthology: Nancy Kress’ “Nano comes to Clifford Falls” describes the economic dislocation that comes with the arrival of SF’s archetypal nano-technology economy. It’s both a fresh and fascinating shorty story, and a small wonder insofar as it has taken up to 2006 for someone to tackle an issue that’s been obvious to everyone since the first glimmers of nanotech. The writing is crisp, and the story deals with real issues. The end state is unlikely to please everyone, which makes the story that much stronger.

But it’s far from being the last good story of the volume, and even farther from being the last catastrophe story. I have discussed Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” in my review of his Overclocked collection, but the story remains the same: As catastrophic events mysteriously (some will say “arbitrarily”) isolate a community of hackers from an outside world that stops responding, it’s up to them to hold everything together… even if they’re not too sure if that’s the right thing to do. I still get a chill out of the last paragraph.

Other stories in the post-apocalyptic vein include Claude Lalumière similarly improbable “This is the Ice Age”, in which quantum ice ravages Montréal. Michael Flynn’s Hugo-nominated “Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth” hits a distinctly post-9/11 nerve despite being being about something very different: It’s perhaps the clearest example of how, in the wake of September 2001, everyone has become far more adapted at seeing the ramifications of catastrophe. Daryl Gregory makes a welcome returns appearance with “Damascus”, which goes all the way through coping with catastrophe to study those who embrace it. “Expedition, with Recipes” by Joe Haldeman isn’t much of a story, but the conceit fits perfectly with the anthologists’ thesis. On a smaller scale, Ian R. McLeod’s “Taking Good Care of Myself” is about being confronted to one’s death in a very literal way. The more we read into this Year’s Best SF, the more we seem stuck in disaster. Even Robert Reed gets into the spirit of things with “Rwanda”, which looks at the wreckage left in a curious post-invasion future.

Even the stories that don’t directly feature some kind of apocalypse aren’t a cheery basket of kittens. Heather Linsdley’s “Just do it!” (which gets my vote as one of the volume’s top stories) is pitch-dark social satire with a twist that’s almost too mean to stomach. Superb. Meanwhile, Alastair Reynolds’ detective story “Tiger, Burning” manages to temper a victory of sort with a strong sense of melancholy.

At some point, one starts to wonder if the apocalypses that lurk through the book aren’t contaminating the rest of the stories. Even the usually jubilant Rudy Rucker seems down this year with a funny story that also happens to deal with ultimate catastrophe. It’s amusing, uplifting and indescribably weird… but it still deals with the end of the world. Again.

But don’t reach for that straight razor just yet: The last word belongs to Charlie Rosenkrantz’s “Preemption”, a darkly amusing catastrophe tale that seems even funnier give the grimness of the preceding stories. Hartwell and Cramer are seasoned pros at the anthology business, and the placement of that story alone earns em extra points for style.

But all you truly need to know is that for those who can take the depressing nature of the year’s story, Year’s Best SF 12 is once again a superior best-of anthology. The thematic component seems unusually strident, but that’s almost a bonus feature. What’s no catastrophe, though, is the selection of the stories. Once again, Year’s Best SF trumps the official Hugo-nominated selection, with only a few overlaps.

4: Rise of the Silver Surfer aka Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007)

4: Rise of the Silver Surfer aka Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) To say that this is a better movie than the first one does no one any favour: It’s like praising a casual acquaintance by saying that s/he’s probably better than Jack the Ripper. Chances are that everyone will feel slighted by the pointless comparison. It’s perhaps more useful to say that if this sequel isn’t as exasperating as its predecessor, it’s still pretty dumb and still not much fun. Fortunately, it does have a certain basic interest: the painful original story being a thing of the first film, the Fantastic Four are here presented at the height of their powers, with consequent public attention –though still flying coach. There is, simply put, more joy here than in the first film. They’re also faced with a decent problem in the form of an all-reflective Silver Surfer that goes and pokes holes around the Earth. Some power-switching shtick makes for passable comedy, though the script also misstep badly with an embarrassing “bachelor party” sequence and a pretty complete lack of any chemistry between the too-be-wed couple. Bad dialogue completes the whole, especially when it surrounds snippets of passable writing. (I liked the “triumphant nrrrd” speech, for instance, but it feels clumsily pasted in the middle of a contrived scene.) At least guys will have something to look at, in between the action scenes, Kerry Washington and a bespectacled plastic replica of Jessica Alba. Heck, the film even allows itself an anti-torture PSA when it points out that excessive torture will tarnish the finish of even the best silver surfers. Now that’s quality film-making with a moral centre! Otherwise, well, this sequel spares no effort to raise itself to the level of mere competency with a side-order of silliness. It’ll do for the younger members of the audience, especially given the bloodless nature of the action.

Live Free Or Die Hard [Die Hard 4.0] (2007)

Live Free Or Die Hard [Die Hard 4.0] (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) The good news are that the fourth instalment of the Die Hard series is a very enjoyable return to the roots of the good old action film: explosions, dastardly villains, a wisecracking hero, spectacular action set-pieces and things we haven’t yet seen. The not-so-good news are that it falls short of being a good Die Hard film. Over the long run, I suspect that it won’t matter: the two previous Die Hard sequels initially disappointed moviegoers who then grew fonder of them as time went by. At the very least, an older “John McClane” is back, fighting terrorists who are really robbers and trying his damnedest to save family members from consequent harm. The story is a pack of silliness (Hackers! National infrastructure! Turning all traffic lights to green!) with more logical howlers than you can imagine (including a convenient absence of traffic when needed), but at least it gives Bruce Willis something to do and plenty of opportunities to look good with an increasing number of cuts and bruises. Though the villains are a bit wasted (Timothy Olyphant’s villain never projects too much menace, while Maggie Q is wasted as a sidekick who can’t help but go “yah!” as she’s kung-fu fighting) and the direction is too scattered to be truly inspiring, there are a number of really good action sequences here and there. There’s a bit of parkour, a wall-smashing gunfight, at least one flying car, some hot jet-on-truck action and a crumbling symbol of American power. Good stuff, though I’d like a cleaner look for the action than the fashionable CGI-boosted shakycam stuff. More globally, it’s fascinating to see a mainstream American action thriller take on a plot-line that would have been pure science fiction (in concept and execution) barely twenty years ago: our heroes use cell phones, shrug over memories of 9/11, do some social engineering via OnStar and stare intently at webcams even as McClane is derided as “a Timex in a digital world”. It’s too bad that this is a different McClane than the one who starred in the first Die Hard, but I won’t complain: Fast-paced action movies are rare enough that I’ll take what I can get.

(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2008) I’m shocked: This film actually works better the second time around. Free from the initial impact of silly plotting and logical howlers, this fourth Die Hard installment surprises by how well it understands the mechanics of the character, while the direction is a cut above the jerky style commonly used nowadays. The pacing is steady and the climax delivers on its promise. The bare-bones DVD version still includes a fairly entertaining commentary with Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman (who redeems himself after the two Underworld movies): it explains a fair bit about the conception and the making of a project that was a long time in the making. I didn’t actually expect this film to hold up to a second viewing, but it does do quite well.

1408 (2007)

1408 (2007)

(In theaters, June 2007) To borrow from The Prestige, all horror films have three phases: The setup, filled with unspoken horrors and the promise of upcoming chills; the turn, in which the supernatural becomes apparent and characters are confronted with mounting madness; and the prestige, in which an explanation is offered and a resolution is attained. 1408 does its setup exceptionally well, gets sillier during its turn and falls apart during its prestige. None of this is the fault of anchor John Cusack, present in almost all scenes as a writer who’s forced to confront his past while trapped in a homicidal hotel room. The beginning of the film is a small gem of foreboding, as the nature of room 1408 is explained by an ice-cold Samuel L. Jackson. Cusack himself is pudgier than ever, but looks comfortably back in the charming screen persona he exemplified in the mid to late nineties. But as the hotel room starts to spin its evil tricks, our minds start grasping at an overarching explanation that never quite gels. The phenomenons in the room are chilling but don’t add up to a coherent set of powers and capabilities: just a series of jolts and impossible events. To be entirely fair, though, 1408 is quite good in its minute-by-minute execution: the direction is slick, the pacing is satisfying and the quality of the images couldn’t be better. Even the script does a fine job at stringing one thing after another, including a cute moment near the end that will make savvier film-goers mutter “I really hope it doesn’t end like that”. The true ending is a bit pat, but at least serves the primary purpose of any conclusion. It’s a shame that the pieces don’t all fit together (something that may be blamed on the adaptation of Stephen King’s thin short story) and that we’re left with a curious sentiment of dissatisfaction: as it plays, 1408 is one of the best horror films in recent memory… and it does so within the creative constraints of a PG-13 rating.