Month: October 2007

The Quorum, Kim Newman

Pocket, 1994, 311 pages, £4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-85242-6

It takes some skill in which to write a satisfying horror novel in which no one dies.

(This isn’t a spoiler as long as you remember that there are fates worse that death.)

Most people, after all, entertain a vague idea of karmic retribution: Do good, and good things will happen to you. But what if, through supernatural intervention, this wasn’t true? What if the persecution of a specific person could ensure success and happiness? If you’re intrigued by the idea, mull on this: What if you were the persecuted person?

Such is the Faustian bargain at the heart of The Quorum, a wholly unconventional and unnerving horror novel from Kim Newman. At times, it looks as if the unpredictable Newman excels at everything he does, and it’s not The Quorum that will diminish his consistently brilliant reputation. It works as a horror novel, as a time-capsule of Britain between the sixties and the nineties, as social satire and as a mesmerizing page-turner.

From the second chapter (past a creepy prologue introducing Derek Leech, the game-player behind the scenes of this novel), we understand that things aren’t right. As three childhood friends spend their time talking about a schoolmate’s bad luck, we’re led to understand that there is a connection between all of them. And so the first section of The Quorum describes how four friends meet at a boarding school, go through the usual trials of an English education, and end up splitting up on a winter night. One of them is left in a car; the three others as seduced in making a chilling deal with Leech: success against misery. Their success, their friend’s misery.

There are rules, but the intent is horrifyingly simple: As long as their friend suffers, the three other men will succeed. As the book begins, one’s a comic-book artist, another is a television star and the third one is a well-regarded novelist. (Some resemblance with Newman’s contemporaries may not be accidental, but is definitely not mean-spirited.) Meanwhile, their victim struggles through life after disastrous romantic affairs, a series of mysteriously terminated jobs and a higher-than-average run of bad luck.

One of The Quorum‘s best aspects is how it naturally leads to a contemplation of luck and the flow of lives. The little accident that lead to big decisions, the small inflexion points where someone could play dirty tricks. The ways in which another person’s life can be made unbearably miserable.

This having been established, The Quorum moves into another phase as the more supernatural elements of the tale are revealed. Derek Leech is a devil with a purpose, and his victim-by-proxy has a specific place in his plans. But is it possible to torture someone eternally? What happens when there’s no more suffering to extract?

The last section of The Quorum is dramatically weaker than the other ones: The conflicts have been more or less settled, all that’s left is retribution. How quickly can success turn sour? And yet, through this triple descent into madness (literally, in most cases), it’s Newman’s wit that holds the novel together. It’s seldom been more fun to see deserving people fall from grace. In fact, Newman does it so well that we can’t help but feel a bit of compassion for the new victims, regardless of their absolute cruelty in the first sections of the book.

While the English cultural references can fly thickly, The Quorum remains a deceptively smooth read, with a surprising amount of narrative momentum given that the dramatic apex of the book takes place two-third of the way through. After an initial muddle of “M”s, all characters are clearly defined and go through their own dramatic arc. There’s even a solid romance to sweeten the whole book, and a happy ending for some.

This isn’t your typical horror novel, and it’s definitely more successful because of it. At time vertiginous in the way it deals with lives and luck, The Quorum is yet another example why Kim Newman remains a solid choice despite a body of work that seems to sprawl everywhere.

(Sharp-eyed readers will even spot that Derek Leech narrates another of Newman’s book, Life’s Lottery. The links between the two novels aren’t accidental, although Life’s Lottery places the reader in the position of the torturer who makes the choices manipulating the book’s protagonist for simple entertainment.)

The Rising and City of the Dead, Brian Keene

Leisure, 2004-2005, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

The Rising: 2004, 321 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8439-5201-6
City of the Dead: 2005, 357 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8439-5415-9

One of my goals in attending the 2007 World Horror Convention in Toronto was to learn more about the field of horror, and to which authors I should pay attention. As it turned out, one of the most interesting panels of the entire convention was a round-table discussion about zombies starring writers such as David Wellington and Brian Keene. Wellington’s work still awaits in my stack of books to read, but if it’s anything like Keene’s debut novels, I’m in for a treat.

At first glance, there’s not much to distinguish The Rising from other traditional horror fare: Evil has escaped, the dead are coming back to life and the survivors must band together against evil. We’ve seen this story before.

But we haven’t seen it quite like Keene had in mind. Because Keene has seen those movies. He’s read those books. He’s familiar with those clichés. So what we get is a self-aware, hyped-up take on zombie mythology. Keene has been credited with part of the recent resurgence in zombie horror, and The Rising‘s full-throttle forward drive shows what a clever writer can go with that material.

It helps that there’s a strong plot-line at the heart of the story, beyond the usual “civilization falls!” atmosphere. In The Rising‘s first chapter, Jim Thurmond receives a cell phone call inside the makeshift bunker where he’s holding off the undead hordes. It’s his son, a few states away, calling for help. There’s no chance that Jim will make it there alive and even less of a chance that his son will still be intact when he does. But he has to try, and The Rising is the story of this quixotic quest.

There are complications, of course. One of Keene’s innovations is that the zombies retain a good chunk of their intelligence, leading to car chases, firefights and ingenious traps. Worse yet, humans aren’t the only ones coming back from the dead: anything bigger than a mouse is also trying to get a chunk of living humans, and that makes THE BIRDS look like a prologue.

Thanks to a good cast of characters (including a scientist who, like those poor saps in so many science-fiction stories, opened the gateway to hell with high-energy physics experiments), we get a sweeping view of the post-apocalyptic landscape, of the desperate bands of survivors trying to figure something out, and of the chilling organized threat that the zombies represent. There’s a delicious whiff of military techno-thrillers and science-fiction in The Rising, another sign that Keene is aware of the tropes he’s playing with.

There’s also enough gore, drama and action throughout the book to satisfy everyone. Despite a few lengths, most of The Rising is a solid horror thriller and a spectacular debut for Keene. Yet nearly every single review of the book has to mention the ending, which steps back from the abyss and remains suspended in mid-air. It’s not that it’s a pessimistic ending; it’s that it’s not an ending. But even Keene admits the problem in interviews, and got the chance to fix it with City of the Dead, which uses The Rising‘s epilogue as its first chapter. Don’t make the mistake of reading the first book without having the second one in reserve.

While City of the Dead isn’t as intense as The Rising, it gets points for a number of amusing set-pieces (including a man with a carnal interest in zombies), and for ending like The Rising should have ended. The mythology behind the zombie uprising gets a massive upgrade, which allows Keene to get chills from plants moving on their own.

But both of those books, as entertaining as they are, are early example from Keene’s career. The author’s biography now includes over a dozen books, from publishers known and less-known. The folks at the World Horror Convention weren’t just mentioning him in panels to be nice; they were simply talking about one of the genre’s hottest writers. Expect more reviews of Keene’s work here soon.

Dread Empire’s Fall: Conventions of War, Walter Jon Williams

EOS, 2005, 677 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-380-82022-1

I may be one of the few who still remembers that in the wild and woolly days of 1997, Walter Jon Williams launched a short-lived on-line SF criticism magazine called “Hardwired”. It was meant to be by and for working SF writer trying to advance the state of the art and warn against the perils of commercial publishing. The second issue was dedicated to Fat Fantasy, the pernicious tendency of fantasy to be spread over lengthy volumes. (The magazine disappeared from the web in 2005, but The Internet Archive remembers everything!)

But fast-forward ten years later, and even the snarkiest writers can do things that their earlier selves might have found ironic. So it was that between 2002 and 2005, Walter Jon Williams saw the publication of a space-opera trilogy called Dread Empire’s Fall. A big straight-to-paperback 1,500-page trilogy.

There are probably excellent reasons for this. Despite William’s continued brilliance, he has never completely caught fire commercially. Brilliant early-nineties novels like Aristoi might have anticipated the post-human SF craze that gave rise to Charles Stross’ Accelerando by a good thirteen years, but they haven’t made Williams a best-selling SF writer. The post-Aristoi phase of William’s career was marked by attempts to broaden his scope as a writer, but those efforts didn’t pan out as planned: His ambitious fantasy trilogy begun with Metropolitan remains unfinished (a victim of publishing industry reorganization, we’re told), and the fat disaster novel The Rift (by “Walter J. Williams”) wasn’t followed by any further attempt at the mainstream thriller market.

What we got next was Dread Empire’s Fall, a trilogy going after the same military-SF audience that have made David Weber a bestselling author. Clever career move? Maybe. As a reader, I’m only qualified to say that the trilogy felt less interesting than Williams’ previous novels, and the thing that fascinated me the most about it was how it wobbled more than what it did well.

I haven’t reviewed the first two volumes of the series in part because they seemed a bit light: The plot-to-page ratio felt closer to Fat Fantasy than to most contemporary SF. As Williams set up his universe, his characters and his plot, the trilogy seemed stuck in one set piece after another.

(For reference, a nutshell summary of the trilogy: The last of the galaxy-controlling aliens dies, plunging the “Dread Empire” in a civil war that’s roughly humans-against-nasty-aliens. Against that backdrop, competent but badly-connected captain Gareth Martinez falls in love with the ruthless pilot Caroline Sula. Numerous complications due to the highly rigid nature of their society make their love difficult and their military career dangerous.)

The good news is that Conventions of War delivers a satisfying (albeit not happy) conclusion to the entire trilogy, and that it ties up the subplots that took so long to set up in the first two thirds of the trilogy. Williams writes entertainingly no matter what he does, and so Conventions of War is a pleasant diversion from beginning to end. His characters alone are worth the ride: Martinez is sympathetic yet beholden to an awful system, whereas Sula is a force of nature that’s as deadly as she’s worth cheering for.

But the series feels like a badly-controlled experiment, and the third volume is worse than the others in reinforcing that feeling. At roughly 50% longer that the first two volumes, Conventions of War physically gives the impression of a story that has sprawled out of control. The move away from space battles into ground-side resistance and shipboard murder mystery also smacks of a runaway plot: in order to give interesting alternating chapters as he flips between his two protagonists, Williams finds himself spreading the story thin. And, throughout, the same thoughts bubble up: Is there a point to making this story 1,500 pages? Couldn’t this have been done in a single volume?

Because even with the triumphant space battles at the end, even despite the amusing details about a society engineered to be rigidly hierarchical, Dread Empire’s Fall feels like a minor work, a writer playing games on his readership. The society described here feels too stunted to survive long (it does change during the trilogy, though not enough to preclude further volumes) and the overall feel is closer to a comfort fantasy trilogy than an authentic work of extrapolative science-fiction. But, then again, this is meant to be a military space-opera, and as such, Dread Empire’s Fall is more interesting than most examples in the genre. Williams certainly earns point for delivering an uncomfortable conclusion that remains true to the emotional arc of the characters.

Not having access to Bookscan numbers, I can’t say whether this side-trip in Fat Space Opera has been fruitful for Williams. It’s certainly not a complete artistic success despite good moments here and there. But that only makes my anticipation for his next book even bigger: What will he try next?

Ender’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card

Tor, 1999, 379 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86860-X

Over the past few years, it has become acceptable in some Science Fiction circles to deride Orson Scott Card as, to put it bluntly, a homophobic pro-Bush religious nut who -as a side cheap shot- doesn’t write anything worth reading anymore. Look on the web (better yet, search for “Orson Scott Card” and any of these keywords) and you will find a deep and widely-shared assessment that, at the very least, Card doesn’t write novels like he used to. The glory days of Ender’s Game and Speaker of the Dead are long past, and Card’s latest work doesn’t seem to appeal to the largely left-wing secular SF constituency.

This makes 1999’s Ender’s Shadow fascinating for all sorts of reasons: Billed as a “parallax novel”, it follows more or less the events of Card’s classic Ender’s Game, but from the perspective of another character rather than Ender Wiggins himself. Cynics like me are usually quick to see the lucrative possibilities of such a novel and hindsight proves us right: the built-in name recognition automatically attracted attention and virtually ensured best-selling numbers. Ender’s Shadow even made it on the New York Times’ famed hardcover bestseller list. At a time where the only ways to sell SF books seems to be to capitalize on sequels, series, media tie-ins or celebrity names, a “parallax novel” seems like just another way to make a living.

So you can say that I came to Ender’s Shadow with low expectations. But the surprise is that, even with a number of significant annoyances, this is a novel that ends up working well, and meshes better than you may think with the existing framework of Ender’s Game.

It’s partially a triumph of emotional manipulation. Card’s success has often felt grounded in cheap deliberate stunts that leave little room for interpretation: By touching upon taboos, stock situations and easy unpleasant sentiments, Card has often been able to exploit built-in prejudices in his audience. Ender’s Game itself seemed like a product deliberately designed to appeal to the Science Fiction readership: The archetype of a poor misunderstood super-genius hero who ends up saving the day despite himself is, shall we say, deeply comforting to a number of SF fans.

And if it worked once, well, it can work again: Card doesn’t seem to have any scruple in making Bean an even smarter and even punier protagonist than Ender Wiggins. This is often pushed to a ridiculous extent: Bean isn’t just a small smart kid: he’s a genetically modified ultra-genius who escapes from an eeevil lab at an age when he crawls better than he walks. Then it’s the life of a homeless kid in a hellishly socialist Europe for him, where he’s eventually saved by a nun and packed off to meet Ender Wiggins in orbit… but not before encountering yet another exceptional genius who will give him trouble later on.

From afar, Ender’s Shadow teeters on the edge of credibility. But Card hasn’t become a New York Times best-seller without some writing skills, and the biggest surprise of the book is how readable it remains even as it covers familiar events with a slightly skewed perspective. It goes without saying that Bean, being a super-genius and all, figures out the “twist” to Ender’s Game long before Ender, which scatters the cards somewhat for the readers who come into the book already knowing the outline of the story. But it works, and the characterization holds together so well that when I went back to re-read the original “Ender’s Game” novella, Bean’s role still fit perfectly well with the extra knowledge of Ender’s Shadow.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a particularly good novel. The religious rants from “Sister Carlotta” are tedious, and the smarter-than-Ender shtick wears thins. Ender’s Shadow remains a stunt for everyone who would pay again to relive Ender’s Game: Comfort fiction meant to push the same buttons than the previous experience. But as derivative products are concerned, this one is better than most. Better yet, it marks a significant notch in Card’s decline as a favourite writer of the SF crowd. In retrospect, you can see hints of the opinions he would loudly adopt during the Bush presidency; Ender’s Shadow may have been Card’s last acceptable book before his entire mental framework turned inside-out.

[January 2008: Alas, the trilogy that follows Ender’s Shadow gives further comfort to the “Card can’t write anymore” crowd: After making my way through Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets, I’m not particularly motivated to read, much less pay any kind of money to get any further book in the series. The focus of Ender’s Shadow is gone, and what’s left is basically a game of Risk starring teenage protagonists and an increasingly sillier view of geopolitics. The bad traits of Ender’s Shadow are magnified, and there’s little to make up for it. Neither the prose nor the characters rise above the dull plotting, and the increasingly strident echoes of Card’s obsessions do much to leaden the reading experience.]

Axis, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2007, 303 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-0939-6

Robert Charles Wilson fans anxiously waiting to pounce upon this sequel to the Hugo-nominated Spin may want to temper their enthusiasm, take a deep breath and maybe even wait a year or two. Axis is a follow-up to a book that didn’t need one, but it’s obviously the second volume in what could be a trilogy and unlike Spin, it feels like it’s setting up something else.

It begins much like Spin. The echo of a young boy witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon at night carries from the previous volume, even though in this case it’s ash falling rather than the stars disappearing that causes concern. Things get more interesting when the ash fall is revealed to be made of decayed alien machinery which crumble to dust. Clearly, the mysterious alien influences that drove the events of Spin are still being felt, and it’s up to the human characters to figure out what’s happening.

They are not the same characters that we followed in Spin. At one exception, this is a new generation of explorers, obsessives and drifters that have ended up on the new world where humans are struggling to understand their new place in the universe. The colony’s government isn’t completely benign, the question of the genetically modified Fourths continues to be controversial and the mystery of the alien presence continues to float above the plot.

But never mind the ideas, because the emphasis here is on characters. The woman looking for the truth that made her father disappear. The boy who discovers his superhuman abilities. The man who’s got nowhere else to go but the frontier. The elderly Fourth who hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes that still haunt her. Axis throttles back on the density of ideas and keeps up the emphasis on the people living through it all, a move that recalls Wilson’s first few novels. It’s no coincidence if Axis feels like a much smaller book than Spin.

The result, unfortunately, is also a novel that feels emptier than its predecessor. There isn’t as much to discuss, and whatever is in the novel seems to be waiting for the third volume before blooming to its fullest. The conclusion itself reads like a muddy abstraction, enough to mark the end of the novel but not clearly enough to provide much closure. It’s a frustrating state in which to leave readers, and I suspect that this wait-and-see attitude won’t reflect well on the novel until the next book comes out. As it stands, Axis doesn’t hold up very well without knowledge of Spin, and it feels unfinished. It would have been nice for the marketing geniuses at Tor to acknowledge a “second volume in a trilogy” mention somewhere on the book, but they haven’t done so yet on other novels, so why should they start being honest now?

Fortunately, there are other good reasons to read Axis: The characterization, as previously mentioned, is up to Wilson’s best standards, and so is his prose. Wilson’s matter-of-fact writing is just as accessible as it’s ever been, and the storyline is just compelling enough to lead from chapter to chapter. But this is definitely a novel that leads into the next one, so don’t expect a satisfying reading experience until you have the sequel on-hand.

Don’t expect much critical consensus on this novel either. This is Wilson’s first attempt at a series, and even if Axis is up to his prose standards, it doesn’t succeed as a standalone book and will depends on its as-yet-untitled sequel to satisfy reader expectations. In the meantime, there just isn’t much to say about the book. It’s like trying to decide the worth of an entire novel after reading a particularly uneventful middle third.

Halting State, Charles Stross

Ace, 2007, 351 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01498-9

I love the feel of sizzling neurons in the evening.

People read Science Fiction far various reasons. I’m in it for the rush I get when SF knocks a few new ideas in my head, links them to the world at large and asks if I’m ready to deal with them. It’s a cognitive pleasure that is seldom seen elsewhere in fiction, and Charles Stross excels at it. Even when he’s dealing with occult horrors or dimension-hopping economies, Stross is never too far from the “use the future to think about the present” ethos of the best SF. With Halting State, Stross attempts the most dangerous game imaginable for SF writers: a near-future thriller.

It’s a risky dare, because it carries along its own metric for failure. Never mind that Stross isn’t attempting to be a futurist: a surprisingly large number of falsely sophisticated readers will read his novel as a grab-bag of predictions and pass judgement on how closely his extrapolations will match our real-world 2010s. And there are no ways to win at this game: The slightest errors will be highlighted, and what does survive may not be detectable from the then-mainstream. (There are surprisingly few rewards for being prescient in SF.) Halting State is a novel with an ever-closer examination date.

It seems, at first glance, like a departure from Stross’ three existing strands of fiction. It’s not far-future post-Singularity SF like Accelerando, it’s not occult horror/thriller like The Atrocity Archives and it’s not a fantasy of finance like the series launched with The Family Trade. But look closer, because the links with his other fiction are all over the place.

First, Stross is still fascinated by how economics shape our societies. The trigger to Halting State is theft. Virtual theft, as an attack on a bank set in a virtual role-playing game results in a police and insurance investigation. This may be virtual money theft, but it quickly has real-world consequences as the lead investigative team is assembled: A computer expert who knows on-line gaming, an insurance investigator who wields a mean sword and a police investigator who finds herself bemused by the whole case. These three characters each get alternating viewpoint chapters, rounding out our perspective on a case that becomes more complex than anticipated. Because this isn’t just a game.

And this is where Halting State takes off, as it riffs on the nature of reality and fantasy like the best of Stross’ SF work so far. The theft is the tip of a much deeper business, one that has links to the setting of the novel. As it turns out, Stross doesn’t set his novel in a newly-independent Scotland just for the local atmosphere. SF used to dream about how the real could shape the virtual, but the current crop of genre fiction (including William Gibson’s surprisingly similar Spook Country) is busy describing how both the real and the virtual interact until it all becomes one single augmented reality.

But this vertiginous realization comes with the understanding that virtual universes have been with us for a long time, and that “The Great Game” keeps extending its reach as computers end up forming part of our identity. That’s the point at which Halting State is revealed to be tightly linked to Stross’ “Laundry” espionage/horror series, and where his usual mixture of horror, humour and speculation finds its ultimate expression.

Stross keeps on getting better with each novel, and Halting State is a tour de force in many ways: Stylistically, it’s more audacious than it has any right to be with a second-person narration, but even that works after a while. Thematically, it vigorously explores Stross’ usual preoccupations. Narratively, it features a number of strong scenes and carefully-measured revelations. Conceptually, it proves that high speculation is not incompatible with near-future settings. It’s a good thing that Stross is able to temper his extrapolations with a heavy dose of humour, because some of the speculations in here are enough to drive anyone to full-blown paranoia (an approach explored in Ken MacLeod’s not-dissimilar The Execution Channel.)

So who said that SF was running out of future? There are more fresh ideas in this “near-future thriller” than in most “far-future science-fiction” published this year. Stross made a dangerous bet in looking at a future well within the lifetime of most readers, and it looks as if he’s well-placed to win. Even if reality catches up to this novel (and I’m hardly the only one who caught recent news of virtual bank thefts in Second Life), doesn’t it suggest that you too should read this novel as soon as possible?

Shake Hands With The Devil (2007)

Shake Hands With The Devil (2007)

(In theaters, October 2007) Enough earnestness can carry any film over rough patches, and so it is that the first act of this bio-drama about Canadian general Romeo Dallaire’s experiences during the Rwanda genocide is clunky beyond belief, filled with rookie screenwriter mistakes and graceless film-making. The good intentions are there, but the entire film feels strained and amateurish. This feeling dissipates as soon as the violence begins, and as the situation becomes as fragmented as the film itself. Roy Dupuis completely disappears into Dallaire’s role, and some scenes really stand above others in terms of impact. It doesn’t become a faultless film (the framing device in the psychologist’s office, in particular, isn’t particularly well handled), but it improves and eventually packs a heck of an emotional punch. It also becomes something of a purely Canadian film: not only is it naturally bilingual, but it tells the story of an enormous failure, the only comfort being that at least someone tried to do something. (Dallaire fires his weapon in anger only once, and it’s portrayed as a deeply wrong moment.) I’m not sure that an American version of the same story would have been so honest. Viewers familiar with the far better-handled Hotel Rwanda will nod in recognition at the point during which the two stories briefly converge.

Rollback, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2007, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31108-5

From time to time, I like to think about well-known authors in terms of ecosystems: Once past a certain level of longevity or notoriety, the author earns a niche and becomes part of the vast machine of publishing. Truly well-known authors even become references for booksellers and casual readers. Stephen King means horror. Tom Clancy is still, two decades after his best work, Mister Technothriller. Dan Brown has become the first recommendation for contemporary historical thrillers. Here in Canada, Robert J. Sawyer has become the voice of Science Fiction in no small part due to a deliberate effort to write a type of science-fiction that is designed to appeal to the book-buying majority.

If a middle-aged reader walks in a bookstore casually looking for a science-fiction novel, Sawyer is an automatic recommendation: His fiction is cleanly written in straightforward prose, generally take place in familiar near-future settings and tackles issues of interest to the well-educated middle-aged readers statistically most likely to buy books. Add to that Sawyer’s uncanny media savvy and you end up with a natural, safe choice for everyone.

His latest novel, Rollback, clearly shows why Sawyer is at the top of his game. It’s a novel that couldn’t have been written by anyone but Sawyer, and it clearly illustrates Sawyer’s core preoccupations. It’s accessible in form, content and atmosphere, featuring a classical approach to science-fiction that many casual readers won’t find in many other contemporary works of genre Science Fiction.

Like many Sawyer novels, Rollback finds its plot in high technology and old-fashioned matrimony: When an astronomer working on SETI messages is offered a chance for expensive rejuvenation, she negotiates a similar treatment for her husband. But dramatically enough, her treatment fails even as her husband sees the decades roll back. But youth doesn’t always go well with experience as he deals with the unique complications of being an old man in a rejuvenated body. Home life is messy, and the world outside doesn’t offer much respite for a man out of time. Meanwhile, the decryption of the SETI messages reveals a surprise about the nature of the aliens at the other end of the line…

Readers of Sawyer’s post-Frameshift period will immediately feel at home: The prose is limpid, the protagonist is a Toronto-area baby-boomer and the themes once again revolve around philosophical questions. Sawyer has long been a proponent of “Phi-Fi” (“Philosophical Fiction”), and this attitude finds its best expression so far in Rollback as it describes questions of longevity and morality in a way that will feel relevant to most readers. Sawyer’s treatment of “old man in a young body” is rich in speculation, yet feels considerably more down-to-earth than most similar tales. Among other strengths, Sawyer is able to present solid Science Fiction without necessarily burying casual readers in a deluge of genre conventions. Combined to the easy style and the baby-boomer cultural references, it makes it easy to see why Sawyer is so successful in his chosen niche.

But this choice also carries consequences that will be most visible to demanding genre readers. More than any other Sawyer novel so far, Rollback feels like a book aimed at a specific demographic niche: The sheer accumulation of Toronto-area English-Canadian middle-class baby-boomer pop-culture references can be irritating at times. Some of the plot contrivances feel forced: it’s hard to believe that a successful rejuvenation patchwork of treatments would resist downward price pressures for so long given the near-universal demand for them. (But it can give rise to some interesting back-of-the-envelope calculations: How expensive could such procedures be?) Sawyer’s straightforward plotting can be obvious at times: Lenore Darby’s second appearance in the novel blatantly telegraphs her plot purpose. Rollback‘s adherence to Sawyer’s core themes can also becomes repetitive, as I couldn’t help but be amused at the revelation of the alien message content: “The aliens are interested in the very same things that fascinate Robert J. Sawyer? What are the odds?!” And while few casual readers will complain about Sawyer’s straightforward prose style (which is clear enough to be read in a distracting hotel lobby environment), it’s yet another element that sets Sawyer’s work apart from the generally more ambitious genre SF novels aimed at readers with tougher literary standards.

In some hilariously ironic sense, it’s possible that Sawyer has consciously limited himself to an mainstream-friendly, best-selling niche. In a sense, his novels are critic-proof: They reach their audience, give them a good time and so encourage the sales of his next novels. Better yet, they can’t be dismissed easily by the more nitpicky genre readers, who will still find something to like in the middle of specific cultural references and familiar Sawyer tics. If Robert J. Sawyer has become an ideal gateway to Science-Fiction readers, it’s appropriate that Rollback ends up being an ideal gateway to Robert J. Sawyer’s specific brand of SF.

Rendition (2007)

Rendition (2007)

(In theaters, October 2007) Let me say this again: Good intentions aren’t sufficient to make a good movie. I’m sure that Rendition had noble intentions at heart: show how the American government has come to support torture; show how someone becomes a terrorist; show how torture doesn’t work; show how terrorism backfires on the terrorists. But that’s really no excuse for the overlong mess that is the final film. In bits and pieces, the film sometimes succeeds: Jake Gylenhall’s character arc is compelling, Meryl Streep has a killer speech midway through and the parallels with the Maher Arar case are obvious. But the film would have been better had it focused on that particular triangle. As it is, showing the bomber, his girlfriend, her father, his sister and so on is just a pointless waste of time: it doesn’t strengthen the theme of the film, it makes everything feel even longer and the time-shift that occurs at the end of the film is a cheap trick that doesn’t really add anything else either. There’s a much better film struggling to get out of Rendition, and it’s sad to say that despite the good hearts of the filmmakers, the result just flops there and remains inert.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007)

(In theaters, October 2007) People change, and that’s the only explanation for why one of the most unpredictable horror/fantasy director of the eighties would grow up to be one of the dullest suspense filmmaker of the new twenty-first century. After the plodding A History Of Violence, David Cronenberg is back to small-scale crime drama with Eastern Promises, and the result isn’t more enjoyable despite a change of location to London. It’s not a badly made film: Cronenberg has full control of his film, and there’s never a time where we don’t feel in the hands of a master craftsman. But at the shining exception of a lengthy full-male-nudity fight scene in a bathhouse (which is going to seal Viggo Morgenstein’s Oscar nomination), there is little energy to this feature film. It sputters from one scene to another, sometimes with a twist and most often not. Low-octane and low-interest: at least it’s low-annoyance too. On the other hand, who’s going to remember anything about this film aside from the naked fight?

30 Days Of Night (2007)

30 Days Of Night (2007)

(In theaters, October 2007) There should be awards for high-concept premises, because this film would definitely qualify for a nomination: How about vampires invading a town so far north that the winter night lasts thirty days? Huh, huh, how about that? Unfortunately, there have been a lot of vampire movies out there in the past few years, and if a neat premise is a good way to distinguish any new film from the pack, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of quality. 30 Days Of Night may pass the grade as a decent vampire film (it’s certainly better than, oh, The Forsaken), but there are a number of logical and cinematographic problems that undercut everything good about it. If nearly everyone will remember the long continuous aerial shot of a main street riddled with vampires and their victims, most will also question the idiocy of a bunch of vampires taking over a town like this without much by way of resource conservation. The director has a few other problems of his own: whether the script was botched or pieces were left on the editing floor, there are numerous times during this film where things don’t quite make sense or flow from one scene to another. It gives a disjointed feel to the film that the now-boring “rage cam” action sequences don’t exactly improve. It all drives an intriguing premise into a dull film that won’t register too long on the pop consciousness, even for the vampire fans.

Chasing the Dime, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 2002, 371 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15391-5

Well, they can’t all be perfect.

Followers of my “Michael Connelly Reading Project” (one book per month, every month, until we’re done) probably remember how I’ve been impressed by every Connelly novel so far: despite occasional dips in quality, every Connelly book is worth reading. Chasing the Dime is far from being a catastrophe, but it proves to be the most ordinary novel that Connelly has written to date.

It’s one of Connelly’s off-Bosch novels: After the drama of City of Bones, Bosch is off to a well-deserved break as Connelly plays around with a different protagonist. Not explicitly connected to the rest of the Connellyverse, Chasing the Dime features Henry Pierce, engineer and founder of a nanotechnology start-up. Pierce may be at the cusp of a business breakthrough as his company seeks investor money, but he has other personal issues to deal with: Freshly separated from his wife, Pierce moves into a new apartment as the novel begins. One of the things to do in the process is to get a new phone number, and that’s where the trouble starts: calls start coming in for a mysterious Lilly, who proves to be an escort.

Listless, perhaps even depressed (and, unfortunately, motivated by a secret from his past), Pierce decides to investigate the calls. If Lilly is gone, can he find her? As unfortunate hints accumulate, our charmingly inexperienced protagonist keeps digging. But he’s messing with dangerous people: Before long, shady characters are sending him threats… and then enforcers who see no problem in using some physical violence to send a clear message. Pierce isn’t about to stop, of course, but the deeper the digs, the worse it gets for him and his company.

As a premise for a thriller, it’s both conventional and promising. The idea of an ordinary man being stuck in underground machinations through happenstance is something that most readers will be able to appreciate. In this case, Pierce seems determined to solve Lily’s disappearance by boredom, curiosity and the need to escape from the pressure at his start-up. Alas, Connelly can’t resist the urge to do something else with the story, and that’s why Chasing the Dime is generally better during its first half than its second. It’s also why it makes more sense when its at its most chaotic.

Explaining this fully would take us into serious spoilers, so let me take refuge in generalities and structural meta-principles. Take the role of coincidences in plotting, for instance. The traditional view is that coincidences (or bad luck, or arbitrary author intervention) is perfectly acceptable as long as it throws the protagonist even deeper in trouble. It’s also generally more acceptable at first, when putting the pieces of the plot in place. After that, favourable coincidences are dramatically unsatisfying: They reveal too much of the author’s influence on the plot, they resolve situations for the protagonists and don’t allow the characters to work out their problems.

But it’s possible to take this anti-coincidence attitude a bit too far into conspiracy territory, where every single thing that happens can be tracked back to a mastermind manipulating his characters in a grandiose plot that leaves little to happenstance and decisions. Chasing the Dime arguably falls into that category: It turns out that the innocent man trying to get himself out of a bad situation isn’t so innocent, and he’s definitely being nudged deeper in trouble by people he knows.

It doesn’t help that the second half of Chasing the Dime becomes far more predictable: A lengthy exposition sequence about nanotechnology is clunky both for the pages of technical information dumped in the narrative, and for the way it sets up the scene for the book’s final confrontation. Savvier readers will wait out the last suspense sequence by wondering when the protagonist will use a piece of technology so lavishly described earlier.

Fortunately, Chasing the Dime escapes complete disappointment through Connelly’s usual strengths: His prose is as compulsively readable as ever, his characters are effectively sketched, his pacing is strong enough to pull readers in, and the wealth of procedural details is compelling at the notable exception of the info-dump mentioned above.

This doesn’t make Chasing the Dime a bad novel (goodness knows that most suspense writers can’t even write a novel of this calibre), but it certainly makes it one of Connelly’s least-impressive ones. He has led his fans to expect something better, so it can be a bit of a shock to realize that, yes, the man can be humanly fallible from time to time.