Improbable, Adam Fawer

Harper Torch, 2005, 447 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-073678-1

Before even discussing the content of this novel, let’s first congratulate the designers of the mass-market paperback edition of the book for making me pick it up. I’m not exaggerating: I must have passed over the trade paperback of Adam Fawer’s Improbable a dozen times, but it just took one look at the lenticular 3D full-page mass-market cover to convince me that I had to have this book in my collection. It’s a beautiful curiosity, and a hit whenever I show it to other people.

But the novel, you say, what about the novel?

Well, the novel itself is just as unusual as its cover: A present-day suspense from a popular fiction imprint that’s really science-fiction in disguise, with enough hard mathematics to quality as hard-SF yet over-plotted like an overgrown thriller.

We realize early on that protagonist David Caine is an exceptional young man, even if his gambling problem earns him the attention of the local mob in the first chapter. His formerly-promising academic career derailed by debilitating epileptic episodes, his ability for calculating probabilities is no match for a run of bad cards and so Caine agrees to an experimental treatment in the hopes of paying back his massive debt and regaining some measure of control over his life. But the treatment has unforeseen effects: before long, Caine can calculate the future with enough precision to make predictions, and change his actions based on what he foresees. And as other forces take an interest in his newfound talents, he comes to realize that there are much, much bigger secrets out there…

In order to explain its unlikely premise, Improbable features more exposition scenes than you’ll find in a typical hard-SF novel. Statistics and quantum mechanics don’t come easily to the vast majority of people, after all, but Improbable features a few delicious exposition scenes (including one literal lecture) to explain it all. Don’t worry: They’re a delight to read, even for those with or without significant mathematical backgrounds.

Where the novel falters, actually, is in the overabundance of more familiar thriller elements. There are, at some point, over four different organizations tracking down Caine, including an improbable number of double-agents and mercenaries. It gets confusing, and the novel wastes far too much time keeping those strands moving when it should be concentrating on its more unique elements.

But those elements indeed make up for a memorable reading experience. Probabilities and quantum mechanics have been a staple of Science-Fiction literature for a long time, especially when used as a way to meditate on fate, predestination and the nature of choices available to us. One of the most memorable moments in Greg Egan’s Quarantine involved a chapter beginning in a different universe than the one resulting from the previous chapter. In a more fantastical setting, Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book played plotting games with decreasing levels of entropy. More recently, the last act of Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow offered a scene in which various possibilities were described before consciously settling upon one outcome. Without suggesting any filiation, Improbable has a number of equivalents scenes, including a spectacular moment in which Caine sees the probabilities in disposing of a powerful explosive. Smaller, less spectacular demonstrations of improbability also carry their own conceptual kick, such as a series of events leading to a non-stop train ride from one destination to another. Isn’t it cool when the novelist can fiddle with his plotting in plain view of the audience?

On the other hand, some elements overplay their welcome. A lengthy sequence tying a lottery win into a grander plan for humanity feel forced and a bit sadistic for the victims of the events. The slingshot ending inevitably delves into mysticism, a twist which may not be entirely earned by the overwrought thriller mechanics of the rest of the novel.

A tighter plot would have clarified the importance of other elements and made the reading experience more satisfying, but Improbable‘s sheer originality and genre-bending audaciousness make it good enough to recommend even with those flaws. The lenticular paperback cover isn’t just a gimmick: It’s a fairly good indication that there’s something unusual under that cover.

(On the other hand, don’t be surprised if the cover actually makes it harder to read the novel: I don’t consider myself a particularly tactile person, and yet I found the sensation of the plastic strips under my fingertips far too close to numbness for my tastes, and ended up holding the novel by its first few pages in order to read without distraction.)

The Electric Church, Jeff Somers

Orbit, 2007, 465 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-316-02172-2

It’s possible to read far too much in a new publisher’s first book. In ten years, no matter what kind of critical reception awaits Jeff Somer’s The Electric Church, few people will even remember that it was the first title ever published by the US imprint of Orbit, the legendary UK SF publisher now replacing Warner Aspect on the North American continent after complex corporate shenanigans. The novel will ultimately stand on its own: we shouldn’t read too much in its failings.

It just wouldn’t do to dismiss US Orbit as a bread-and-butter publisher of conventional genre fiction based on a single data point, right?

It’s particularly unfair since Somer’s novel is unusually susceptible to external factors. In this case, I ended up reading The Electric Church too soon after Richard Morgan’s Black Man, and the similar territory covered by both novels (as “tough-guy Science Fiction”) made it hard not to make comparisons, usually to Somers’ detriment. While The Electric Church novel is not unsuccessful, it’s a surface read that seems to remain content with shoot’em-up heroics and cardboard dystopia.

So let’s try to focus on just this novel rather than burden it with expectations of what it means for the future of genre publishing in general.

The Electric Church largely takes place in the kind of dystopian future that can be appreciated only with gen-X cynicism and a thirst for fighting the power: After blurry social upheavals, most of New York has reverted to a city-wide blend of anarchy and authoritarianism, with criminals trying to fight their way through life and avoid being trapped by the debilitating weight of the central authority. Rich and happy people presumably exist elsewhere, but those might as well be abstractions for protagonist Avery Cates, a professional assassin who has survived an increasingly unlikely life in the streets of Manhattan.

As the novel begins, Cates narrowly escapes a police raid, reflects upon his sorry life and runs afoul of the titular Electric Church, a growing cult that promises eternal life to its recruits at the cost of their individual selves. Hints abound that the conversion process may not be entirely voluntary if ever the Church sets sight on a specific recruit. Cates soon gets the chance to dig deeper in the Church after getting a particularly dangerous assignment from an even more dangerous client.

The rest of the story is a familiar riff on caper crime drama and hardboiled heroics, with the recruitment of helpful rogues, early reconnaissance skirmishes, ever-rising stakes and dramatic shootouts. As Cates comes closer and closer to his targets, the body count rises and the guns get bigger. An increasing number of assassins crowd the cast of characters as The Electric Church leaves behind low criminality in favour of high insurrection.

I’ll give it as much: The style is deliciously noir and the pacing steadily pushes forward. Somers, through Cates-as-narrator, isn’t afraid to be hardboiled to the point of self-parody and it certainly gives a distinct flavour to the prose. The short chapters (written for serialisation) make for easy reading, and the plot is efficiently structured around its twists and revelations.

On the other hand, this is all very familiar material, without much depth or originality. The setting seems taken from the “it’s a good future for being a bad person” bin and smacks more of teenage video-game alienation (with guns and authority figures to shoot down) than any serious attempt to piece together an extrapolated future. Science-fiction as a backdrop to gunfights rather than a way to explore issues. It takes all kinds, I suppose: Most casual readers shouldn’t care as long as the entertainment value is there (and it is), but crankier readers who have seen this type of material many times before may feel their eyes glaze over. Superior alternatives like Morgan’s Black Man only deepen the dissatisfaction.

But I’m measuring the novel against unrealistic standards. Giving The Electric Church what it deserves without unfair comparisons, it’s a promising debut from a writer who’s got potential as long as he shakes off the more derivative aspects of his fiction. The prose is enjoyable, the characters are generally well-drawn and if the plot owes too much to familiar genre mechanics, it’s executed with competence. I may not be particularly looking forward to the upcoming direct sequel The Digital Plague, but I’ll pay attention whenever Somers breaks away from that particular dystopian future.

[June 2008: As feared, The Digital Plague is more of the same: While the adventure is slightly less linear, it kills off most of the secondary characters and ends up being tiresome. The prose style is still more interesting than the actual story, which promises much for Somers as soon as he gets out of the Avery Cates rut.]

The Wild Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson

Ace, 1984, 371 pages, C$2.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-88870-4

As an avid reader, I obsess about things that are completely meaningless to the rest of the world. I wonder, for instance, about how tastes change over time. About how genre familiarity destroys some books and enhances others. About how it’s possible to be unimpressed by an author, only to re-discover him years later with surprise and pleasure. Even if my tastes have remained largely unchanged over time (sometimes to my dismay), authors like Kim Stanley Robinson give me reason to hope that I’m become a better reader.

I wasn’t overly impressed, eleven years ago, with his first short story collection The Planet on the Table. But as the years went on, I found more and more to like in his fiction, until he became a standby in my list of authors to buy on sight. I don’t think I would have appreciated The Wild Shore as much ten years ago; I may even like it more in another ten. Who knows what else I’ll know by then?

For instance, The Wild Shore is best appreciated with a knowledge of post-apocalyptic fiction. Here, a nuclear attack has devastated the United States sixty years prior to the events of the novel, plunging the country in a primitive collection of city-states carefully monitored by foreign powers. We eventually discover that the lack of advanced technology is not an accident: bad things from space tend to happen to anyone who attempts to re-develop advanced technology on American soil. The Japanese keep patrols on the west coast to make sure that things stay under control.

This state of affairs soon proves unbearable to young Henry, who emerges from a generally content childhood in Orange County, California, with ideas on how to fight foreign influence. Dragged in an emerging war between neighbouring cities and the Japanese overseers, Henry sees a bit of the world, undergoes a number of adventures and grows up a bit. There’s not much more to the plot, but it’s competently portrayed.

The Wild Shore remains Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel and structurally it’s not quite as tight as it could be. Among other annoyances, the novel includes several chapters of a travelogue by an American travelling around the world, which take away from Henry’s tale. The attack that destroyed America isn’t particularly believable (3000 suitcase nukes?!?), and some passages rely heavily on coincidence, such as Henry’s unbelievable luck in meeting his friends after a nautical odyssey.

But the book is more interesting when it’s measured against so much of the nuclear post-apocalyptic sub-genre that formed such a part of SF in the seventies and eighties. In The Wild Shore, the American nationalists who want to rebuild America to its former glory are misguided. Indeed, the first surprise of the book is in seeing how pleasant Henry’s life seems to be. This first volume is meant as the “post-apocalyptic” element of the trilogy, but things aren’t always as bleak at they appear.

(The quarantine of the United States by other countries is seen as a necessary evil, and that particular idea finds a justified resonance in Robinson’s follow-up volume The Gold Coast. Among other things, Robinson has intended The Wild Shore to be part of an unusual trilogy: Three views of the future, set in California’s Orange County, more or less independent from one another. )

In terms of prose, though, it’s easy to recognize in this first novel the same prose style (not entirely dispassionate, not entirely exempt from showy cleverness) that would follow during most of Robinson’s career. The Wild Shore is hardly a perfect novel, and the nuclear theme may not be entirely credible today, but it’s a fine book and a good portrait of the author as a budding utopian. I’m glad I read it today rather than years ago, and I’m looking forward to the day where I’ll be able to re-read it with even greater pleasure.

[March 2008: And now I know something I didn’t when I read The Wild Shore: its kinship with Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague” (1912). Thanks to Donald Alexandre for pointing out the parallels at an ICFA presentation.]

Hard As Nails, Dan Simmons

St. Martin Minotaur, 2003, 357 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-99468-0

It’s a widely-held belief that Dan Simmons can excel in any genre he chooses to write. While that’s not always true, it’s hard to find counter-examples. (In hindsight, his foray in techno-thriller, Darwin’s Blade, was enjoyable but ultimately ridiculous thanks to an accumulation of talents in its protagonist.) With Hard as Nails, Simmons at least keeps proving that he can write a hard-boiled mystery series as well as anyone.

This is private investigator Joe Kurtz’s third adventure, and it’s just as harsh and unpleasant as Hard Case and Hard Freeze. Buffalo-area Kurtz’s life so far has been filled with shootouts and broken bones (his and others), so we know that Hard as Nail is going to remain true to form when the novel begins with “On the day he was shot in the head, things were going strangely well for Joe Kurtz.”

Both Kurtz and his parole officer end the first chapter at the hospital, badly wounded. But Kurtz wastes no time in getting pampered by the American medical system: he self-checks out a few pages later, popping aspirins and putting himself on the case. It’s not as if he’s got too few enemies to suspect: in between decades of lousy behaviour, a stint in prison, and the events of the first two novels, Kurtz is going to have more trouble finding out who doesn’t want to kill him. Especially given how most of those who don’t want to kill him always add “…yet.” to their reassurances. By mid-book, headache-ridden Kurtz has been promised death so many times that it looks as if his first-chapter survival was just one more bit of bad luck.

It wouldn’t be a Kurtz book without multiple antagonists, and so Hard as Nails multiplies the complications, landing Kurtz in the cross-hairs of rival criminal gangs, a mafia princess, the police and a serial killer who enjoys what he does. Recurring paid assassin “The Dane” is soon added to the mix. If you think that Kurtz will need an army to make it to the end of the book, well, you’re not wrong.

The muscular nature of hard-boiled mysteries is ably reflected in the author’s no-nonsense prose, which charges forward without fuss or fanciness. Simmons is a professional, and he knows when to stick to efficient prose: At a snappy 357 pages, Hard As Nails is a pleasure to read and a remarkable page-turner.

It’s also, obviously, a bit of a mess. There’s a price to pay for outrageous plotting, and Hard As Nails often goes over the top. As in Hard Freeze, the mixture of straightforward mob crime drama and grotesque serial killer mystery remains a challenge to manage efficiently, and it’s the serial killer angle that ultimately exasperates with self-conscious labels such as “The Artful Dodger” given to the serial killer in question. There’s also a tendency for the plot to become so complex that readers will stop trying to piece it together and just accept what happens, shrug, and go on. It would also be best for new readers to read all three Kurtz novel in short order in order to keep in mind all of the various bit players in Kurtz’s life. It may be no accident if the ending comes as a bit of a melodramatic deus ex machina that cuts through complications with a precise kill, exactly like the end of the second volume.

All of which may explain why, five years after publication, Hard As Nails remains the last volume in the Joe Kurtz series. I presume that Simmons’ well-demonstrated desire to keep writing new things is at play here (Hard as Nails was followed by the SF dyptich Illium/Olympos, then by the horror-thriller The Terror), but genre fatigue may also be a factor when it looks as if every single hardboiled plot device has been crammed in those first three books.

But even if this ends up being the last Joe Kurtz adventure, the result is a generally enjoyable third volume in an equally good series. Joe Kurtz has taken more damage than anyone would reasonably expect: A little rest can only do him good.

Black Man, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2007, 546 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-575-07767-6

Anyone can get an idea, but the measure of true professionals is what they do with it. It’s the difference between luck and talent: how an author masters the tools of the trade in order to deliver a satisfying experience. If anything, Black Man shows how much progress Richard Morgan has made over five novels, from a gifted amateur to a solid professional.

At first glance, Black Man struggles to distinguish itself from so many thriller/SF hybrids: It’s a serial killer novel. It’s a genetic discrimination novel. It’s a buddy-cop story. It’s a near-future thriller with chases and fights and mysteries and United Nations operatives. Worse yet: whatever elements do come up in plot summaries are the kind of tedious clichés seen so often seen in naive small-press Science Fiction: a race of men genetically engineered to be killers, an America divided between liberal blue and conservative red states, and so on. We’re far from the high-concept sleeving of Altered Carbon and its two sequels, or the corporate advancement through car combat in Market Forces.

But don’t let any of this fool you: Black Man is written by a professional, and there’s a lot of clever material under the surface sheen of this SF thriller. Morgan is able to take all of those elements and spin them into a thought-provoking, genre-savvy exploration of issues that even seem fresh once he’s done with them.

The hero of the tale is one Carl Marsalis, a genetically-engineered “variant thirteen” whose talents include an innate propensity toward violence. This seems to be a good asset in his chosen career as an enforcer for the United Nations. Though never called a “blade runner”, his job is to track down and take care of unregistered thirteens. Things don’t always go well, however, and within chapters of the opening, he’s in a Florida prison for moral offences against the ultra-conservative government of the “Red” United States. When agents from the “Blue” States come to him with an offer to track down a thirteen who came back from Mars and left behind a trail of partially digested bodies before even landing on Earth, he’s unusually receptive to their offer.

The ensuing chase takes place on three continents and in virtual reality, but Morgan has much more in mind than a simple adventure tale. Before even realizing it, we’re tackling speculations about the feminisation of western society, the need for aggression in protecting metaphorical flocks of sheep, the role of genetic determinism, the place of politics in shaping our futures and the lasting consequences of what seemed like good ideas at the time. As the title of the book suggests, it also has something to say about racism and gender. (Although regular Morgan readers may be excused if their first though upon hearing “Richard Morgan’s Black Man” is thinking “cool; covert ops” before seeing the more literal meaning of the title.)

Best of all, Black Man discusses those issues in ways that ground their pedestrian description in credibility. Setting a novel in a world where “Jesusland” is a reality smacks of cheap Internet memes given form, but it works really well in the novel itself, as the reasons of the split between the two United States feel plausible (indeed, the “Blue” states are the breakaway states) and are described with enough detail to make them feel natural. Much of the same care is spent in making the “genetic determinism” issue more complex that it may seem at first glance. Marsalis himself is a classic Morgan protagonist stuck between his alpha-male base impulses, his awareness of his flaws and everyone else’s view of him. In the end, there isn’t much to differentiate him from other humans, and that, of course, is the entire point. (And so is the recognition that violence is a non-optimal problem resolution strategy. In a chase thriller. Now that’s either being clever or hypocritical.)

If there’s a significant flaw with Black Man, it’s to be found in the amount of prose it takes to tell its story. As complex and nuanced as Morgan may want to make his story, no thriller actually deserves to go over 600 pages. The numerous tangents do nothing to tighten the impact of the story, and the consequent impact on the novel’s narrative drive is unpleasant. The contrast with the rush-ahead pacing of Market Forces is telling.

But even with superfluous hundred pages, Black Man still manages to find a place atop the year’s best SF novels. It’s particularly impressive for the way it manages to overcome overused SF elements and make something worthwhile out of them. Morgan’s attempt to look at his own tough-guy preoccupations is just another facet of his growing effectiveness as a writer. There may not be anything radically new or original in Black Man, but the end result is worth a look, and even a thought or two.

We Own The Night (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">We Own The Night</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) The setup is familiar but interesting: A man flirting with the wrong side of the law is asked to do the Right Thing for once. Joaquin Phoenix is up to his usual high standards as the man torn between his shady ambitions and his squeaky-clean family, but the film refuses to follow the usual plot-line: surprises keep coming and the film twists itself in unusual shapes, even allowing itself a terrific car chase as the turning point for the third act. The result is a bit too goody-goody to be entirely credible, and the languid shot-to-shot pacing of the film clashes with the speed at which the bigger plot evolves, but We Own The Night also owns your attention throughout. There are a few neat touches here and there, including showy sound editing (as would befit real-life gun battles) and a radiant Eva Mendes. The rest of the cast is respectable, but doesn’t really do much to fill the roles with something that would bring this film to the level it would deserve. The lacklustre ending, poised between arty slow motion and a drawn-out unsatisfactory climax, seems to exemplify a number of the film’s fault. The contrivances pile up, and if the final result isn’t anything to mock, it’s not quite as important as it seems to believe. Finally, am I the only one to picture this film in the 1970s despite the stated 1988-1989 time-frame? The script does little with its time and place… and suffers from any comparison with The Departed.

Unlikely Utopia, Michael Adams

Viking Canada, 2007, 180 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06368-0

Despite occasional setbacks, the twenty-first century has been a remarkably good time to be Canadian. Steadfastly progressive politics despite occasional conservative leadership, strong economic indicators and amazing social cohesion: for a country that many counted for dead in the early 1990s, Canada has bounced back and a new feeling of smug nationalism has swept the land. One of the cheerleaders of this new conception of Canada is pollster Michael Adams, whose perspective on the opinions of the land make him a privileged commentator on current trends. His 2003 dissection of Canada/USA differences, Fire and Ice, remains one of the most illuminating essay on the social differences between both countries.

After 2005’s American Backlash, which tried to apply many of the same polling results to analyze the American character, his newest pop-sociology book is Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism. As the unsubtle subtitle indicates, this is “a good-news story about Canadian multiculturalism”. Contradicting many, Adams attempts to prove that the Canadian experience in dealing with immigration is producing exceptional results.

This is a faintly daring thesis for a number of reasons. Over the past few years, national evening news have relayed a stream of mini-crises and events almost designed to make us feel as if the Grand Canadian Experiment with multiculturalism was reaching saturation point: Controversies over religious (ie: “non-Christian”) symbols in schools, the Herouxville debacle (in which a tiny Quebec town passed an explicitly racist code of conduct), racially-tinged crime reports in Toronto, public hearings on cultural accommodation in Quebec, and so on. Not knowing any better, one would think that there was nothing to do but turn back the clock, barricade the borders and go ask the Queen for advice.

Then there’s the typically Canadian gift for self-doubt. Adams scores the book’s first rhetorical victory early on when he points out that Canadian have a quasi-pathological need to put themselves down. Few Canadians will agree that their national social model is inherently superior: for every success, Canadians will feel obligated to ward off accusations of smugness by pointing our the country’s failing in dealing with first nations, with immigrant’s educational equivalents, with the country’s history of racism, with systemic discrimination. “Canadians seem to expect, if not downright savour, bad news.” [P.xviii]

Adams sees things differently. In the first of the book’s four chapters, he looks at recent immigrant survey results and finds more cause for celebration than concern: 85% of respondents would still come back to Canada if they had to do it again, 75% of all Canadians think immigration had a positive effect on the country (a result far above other countries) and 85% think that multiculturalism is important to our national identity. He finds evidence that the average Canadians think the system is in trouble for other people, but not for them.

In the second chapter, he looks at numbers from Statistics Canada to find out that so-called “ethnic enclaves” in Canada are hardly homogeneous, but reflect the increasing diversity of Canadian cities. Further finding show that immigrants consistently rank the weather as what they like least about Canada, that Canada is doing better than other western countries in integrating foreign-born residents in politics, and that intermarriages between ethnic groups are skyrocketing, having “increased by 35 percent between 1991 and 2001.” [P.82] “If Canada is becoming a hopelessly segregated society, rising rates of intermarriage are a strange symptom of the alleged disease”.[P.85]

Chapter Three focuses on Muslims in Canada by presenting the results of a special survey conducted in late 2006. Again, Adams finds few causes for concern: Large majorities of respondents are proud to be Canadian (94%), think that Muslims are better treated in Canada than in other Western countries (77%) and believe that most Muslim want to adopt Canadian customs (58%). In fact, Adams finds little cause to think that the Muslim experience in Canada is any different from any other group of immigrants.

Finally, Adams, looks at Quebec’s own complex feelings about multiculturalism, concluding (not unreasonably) that the frenzy of controversy about “reasonable accommodations” is more a reflexion of Quebec’s own insecurities as they see their culture as being already threatened by the English-speaking masses outside the province’s border. To that, one should add Quebec’s ringing rejection of religion as a dominant cultural force during the past few decades, giving rise to self-consciously secular society that also seems threatened by both the immigrant arrivals and the conservative forces outside Quebec.

But beyond the data, there’s a lot to like in the way that Unlikely Utopia is written. Pop-sociology has rarely been so much fun to read, and considerable praise should be heaped on Adams’ shoulders as he manages to bring all the numbers together in a coherent thesis. Unlikely pop references abound, as do common sense put-downs and snarky attacks against paranoid right-wing pundits.

Unlikely Utopia is amusing, clear and rhetorically deft. Adams must have a fantastic team of beta readers, because time and time again, the book manages to spot and handles objections even as they come up in the readers’ mind. For instance, Adams answers the questions raised by the Paris riots by pointing out at the lack of ghettos in Canadian cities, and deals with the obvious question of “home-grown terrorism” by pointing out that such things are always statistical outliers that don’t reflect majority opinion or social trends. He adds “If -horribly- a terrorist attack does occur on Canadian soil, there is no need to throw out this book; nothing in it will necessarily have been proven false. But if one day you wake up and read on the front page of the newspaper that tens of thousands of cars have been burned by angry, excluded youth in the suburbs of a Canadian city where unemployment among ethnic minorities approaches 40 percent, by all mean throw the book out. I’ll have already used mine as kindling.” [P.145]

The other bit of Unlikely Utopia that is worth pondering is the supposition that “diversity seems to work better the more there is of it. As American society has shown us, a society with only two major racial groups – one affluent, the other persistently much less so – is anything but easy to manage. In Canadian society, although we have a long way to do, the sheer scale of our diversity may come to offset issues of prejudice and discrimination – or as one commentator put it, we may one day simply have too many races for racism to survive.” [P.60]

Some will find this ridiculously optimistic, but I think that Adams is on to something here, and that his entire book presents are far more nuanced portrait of the situation than the evening news choose to highlight. The unseen majority of the immigrant experience in Canada is uneventful in the way most lives are lived in Canada. As a diversity-loving multicultural liberal, I happen to be in
Adams’ target audience for Unlikely Utopia, but the numbers seem to be on our side for once.

But for all of my admiration for Adams’ work here, I’m stopping short of recommending the book as a purchase. Like American Backlash, the amount of material in the book’s slim 180 pages hardly warrants the high price tag. Wait for the paperback or put yourself on the waiting list at the nearest library. It’s an entertaining book with a positive message and a fantastic sense of the New Canada growing under all the chaff thrown up in the media, but it’s hardly worth $34.00. You can get a far cheaper illustration of the triumph of Canadian multiculturalism by looking over the food court at the nearest mall.

Rashômon (1950)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rashômon</strong> (1950)

(On DVD, November 2007) Here’s one classic that lives up to its reputation. As the title of the film has become a by-word for a specific situation (namely, situations where witnesses tell a different story about the same event), it’s interesting to finally do one’s homework and watch the source of all the fuss. Surprisingly modern for its time, what with the moving camera, subjective reality and muddy moral alignments, Rashomon may not be without its long or strange moments, but it rewards the attentive viewer. While there may not be as much substance here as believed (and too many establishing shots), the cinematic technique is fascinating, the performances are worth a look (Toshiro Mifune, in particular, is fascinating as a caged criminal) and the basic idea of the film has seldom been done better, even after nearly six decades of imitations. Now that the film is freely available on-line, what’s your excuse?

No Country For Old Men (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">No Country For Old Men</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) One of the least-useful conflations out there is the idea that familiar genre structures go hand-in-hand with inferior work. That ignores the lengthy tradition of genre storytelling, the centuries of experimentation to find out that yes, audiences are happier when the story ends with a nice bow and flourish. Mess with these expectations at your own peril and cranky comments. So it is that for 90% of its duration, No Country For Old Men is crackling crime drama film-making, up to the Coen Brother’s own best standards. The pace is measured, the story takes interesting twists and turns, the cinematography is almost perfect and the characters are interesting enough. As one character tries to escape with a suitcase full of money and an implacable killer decides to grab the loot for itself, there are a few terrific suspense scenes, and the film itself is simply mesmerizing. But then there’s the ending. In an effort to stick as closely to the Cormac McCarthy novel as possible, the Coen Brothers deliberately send the film spinning out of control, leaving the plot threads dangling loose as the conclusion dissolves in ever-less-relevant scenes. There are several points at which the film would have been better had it stopped there: hope for equipment malfunction at the right moment. Which is a shame, because otherwise No Country For Old Men ranks as of the the better Coen films. Oh well; nothing perfect.

Michael Clayton (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Michael Clayton</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) When a top lawyer comes to realize that he’s working for evil and evil starts hitting back, it’s time for the fixer to take care of himself. The plot summary may sound like a thriller, but the title suggests otherwise: Everyone in this film is flawed, and that includes the titular fixer with problems of his own. Character study? Oh yes. But that’s not all: George Clooney has been going some pretty cool things on both sides of the camera lately, and this soft-paced, elliptically told film finds a place alongside other socially-conscious films like The Good German and Good Night And Good Luck in telling tough stories about today’s world. Clooney’s performance is enjoyable (the monologue he gets at the end is terrific), and reinforced by good supporting turns by Tom Wilkinson as a unhinged motormouth manic-depressive and Tilda Swanton as an executive clinging to self-control. What doesn’t work so well are a few coincidences, some redundant time-shifting and a well-controlled pace that doesn’t seem interested in hurrying up. Nonetheless, it’s an entirely respectable film, and another one of those recent thrillers where even rampant cynicism can eventually allow a glimmer of hope.

Lions For Lambs (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lions For Lambs</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) The particularity of this film isn’t as much in what it says that in how it says it. Sure, this is one of the boldest examples of 2007’s crop of movies asking “that war in Iraq wasn’t a good idea, wasn’t it?”, but the way it reflects upon the past few years is what sets it apart. While the trailer promises an action/adventure survival thriller partly set in Afghanistan, this aspect ends up forming a thin slice of the film, most of which is spent in a pair of conversations. First up is an interview between a journalist played by Meryl Streep (atoning for her turn in Rendition) and an unctuous senator played by Tom Cruise. The second conversation takes place between an ageing university teacher (Robert Redford, who also directs) and a student played by newcomer Andrew Garfield. Both conversations are battles for the souls of the people involved: Cruise is terrific as a senator selling a political stunt as a bold policy proposal, and gets one of the film’s best moments as he thanks the media for being complicit with government policies. Streep ends up being the one in the hot seat as she has to wonder where her ethics have gone. Meanwhile, Redford is trying to shock his student into doing something worthwhile with his life, with direct resonance for the audiences of the film. The give-and-take between the actors is good, and one could easily see this script being adapted for the stage theatre without much trouble. But as good as the dialogue is, Lions For Lambs falls short as a piece of cinematic entertainment: The static nature of the film isn’t patched by the tense Afghanistan segments that tie the two other conversations together. Those who enjoy a bit of philosophical discussion and talking-head films will get a kick out of the film, but audiences unwilling to play along may be bored out of their skulls. Still, it’s an unusual film, top-heavy with acting talent, and it finds a neat place in the national discourse. At a theatre otherwise dominated by Fred Claus and Bee Movie, that’s already not bad at all.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

Pantheon, 2007, 287 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-375-42486-1

Superhero revisionism is in. Which is in keeping with the times, really: Following the success of the first X-Men movie in 2001, superheroes jumped from the comics page to mass pop-culture consciousness, leaving open the door for reinterpretations of the concept from the execrable MY EX-SUPERHERO GIRLFRIEND to the instant-classic THE INCREDIBLES. But true superhero revisionism waits for no movies, going back to Allan Moore’s Watchmen and Robert Meyer’s Superfolks, if not earlier to DC’s own self-parodies. Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible is the newest brick in that particular wall.

I’m not going to go over the plot: Once you know that it’s going to be a superhero novel, you can guess that this will boil down to the classical ur-plot about a madman taking over the world.

But what Grossman tries to do here is to meld the sensibilities of hip mainstream fiction with the kind of overblown plotting we usually in superhero comics. Alternating between the viewpoints of super-villain Doctor Impossible (he’s not evil, just deranged) and super-heroine Fatale (she’s not just cannon-fodder, honest), Soon I Will Be Invincible takes the superhero world as given and then tries to make it sound credible.

Which isn’t the same thing as parody. In fact, one of the novel’s best feature is how it works both as a pastiche and a homage, depending on the baggage you bring to the book. Those who already find superhero comics to be the dumbest sub-genre on the face of the planet will find plenty of ammunition for their disdain here; others with a forty-dollar-a-week habit at the local comic book store will just enjoy the book as a prose version of their favourite stories. Everyone in-between will be able to find some satisfaction in Grossman’s work.

Certainly, the prose style is amusing enough to make this book a fast read. Both characters are an excellent excuse to explain the super-hero world in all of its unsavoury details. Being a super-villain isn’t as much fun as one would assume, and being converted from an ordinary woman to a super-powered cyborg carries along its slice of psychological trauma.

For comic-book fans, part of the fun is in finding where Grossman’s mythology is meant to intersect with existing superhero canon. Superman, Batman and Wonder-Woman are predictably easy to spot, but don’t think that this is just a JLA story under a new name: Grossman’s modified mythology allows him to have more fun that could have had if he had set out to write a straight parody. Doctor Impossible’s biography is crammed with the kind of eventful memories that can only result from a monthly publication schedule, but trying to map a specific Marvel/DC super-villain to his past isn’t helpful: He’s an archetype for all super-villains, including the usual grandiose plots and unnerving escape abilities.

Fatale, on the other hand, is a far more specific superhero, a superhuman cyborg with a shady past that too-conveniently turns out to be related to the matter at hand. Her role isn’t as active as Doctor Impossible, and it’s partly because she doesn’t work alone: Through her viewpoint, we get to learn all about “The Champions”, the team of superheros trying to track down and stop Doctor Impossible before he does take over the world. It’s a lively bunch, especially when past squabbles keep bubbling to the surface.

Unfortunately, Grossman’s approach carries along it own problems. The structural decision to go back and forth between Doctor Impossible and Fatale is often problematic, especially at the end of the book where a more sweeping perspective on the climax would have been more helpful. Instead, Grossman has to cut his chapters more closely, which results in a conclusion where we almost miss what’s happening. Another problem is that Doctor Impossible’s viewpoint is generally more interesting than Fatale’s characters, which doesn’t sustain the pacing of the novel very well. On the other hand, Doctor Impossible often sounds annoyingly emo, in a whiny “I was beaten up in school; I will take over the world” fashion. Through a powerful message against bullying, it does smack of an easy rationale for turning irremediably evil.

(On the other hand, Grossman’s integration of technological, noir and fantastical elements reminded me that comic-book superheroes may have been the first and dominant form of slipstream, or genre fusion, for decades now. Now that’s an insight I wasn’t expecting from a comic super-hero romp.)

But little of that matters in the novel itself, which is fun and hugely enjoyable to read. It may not be as good as it could have been, but it’s still a terrific piece of entertainment for anyone with any awareness whatsoever of the rules of super-hero stories. Which, given the resurgence of such movies, may very well be all of us by now.

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gone Baby Gone</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) It’s become fashionable to beat up on Ben Affleck for poor career choices, but this adaptation, co-written and directed by Affleck, should mark the end of that particular fad. It’s not a particularly memorable film, but it’s quite good at it what it tries to do, and it does try to do difficult things. It starts like many other crime thrillers: someone has disappeared, and someone else is hired to find them. But the story, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel, quickly starts picking at sensitive issues with a story about children abuse, what parents should be, and how to atone for past mistakes. The story takes unexpected twists and turns, only to end on a choice without happy alternatives. The ending is more thoughtful than conventionally satisfying, but at least it clearly shows its cards early on, and as such doesn’t betray the intent of the film. The direction doesn’t call attention to itself, but does well in presenting the story simply and without a fuss. The only exception are the action scenes, which show more confusion than skill. But the rest of the film is pretty good, although Michelle Monaghan’s role seems underwritten given its place in the plot. Not a classic, no, but definitely a film that will remain with viewers a while longer than most of what’s out there.

Beowulf (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Beowulf</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) Hollywood can make dumb mincemeat out of everything, and classical English literature is no exception. High School teachers everywhere will be devastated to see one of their favourite form of Olde Englishe torture defanged forever by an adaptation that reaches for low comedy, high action and cheap 3D effects. That last item, incidentally, is why the movie is best seen on an IMAX 3D screen: Director Robert Zemeckis is so naively obsessed by the technology that he crammed his film with arrowheads, spires and people being flung at the (virtual) camera, all of which look silly on a regular 2D screen. But they’re far from being the silliest element of a film that borrows from Austin Powers in order to present a naked hero fighting a monster. Yet little of this is as annoying as the not-quite-there quality of the CGI actors, which suffers from the Uncanny Valley cliché as they stutter without grace from one mo-capped pose to another. Pieces of the second Grendel battle are so jerky that they look like a deliberate homage to Harryhausen stop-motion claymation. But if we’re going to list all of the bone-headed ideas of this film, we’re going to be here a while: What about Angelina Jolie’s kinda-naked scene, complete with high-heeled feet and Transylvanian accent? Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the way John August and Neil Gaiman’s script ends up feeling silly, clumsy and forced: Their intended mythical gravitas ends up swept under the carpet of a generic fantasy film with 3D effects. The only enjoyable part of the film comes late, as the elderly Beowulf fights off one of the finest dragons yet seen on-screen: the action beats are numerous, well-designed and completely thrilling. But then the 3D effects kick in again, and the film flops on a series of meaningful glares that leave us uncertain as to whether the film was supposed to be a comedy or not. In any case, it’s miscalculations upon miscalculations for a film that has more value as a technical showpiece than an actual plotted story.

American Gangster (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">American Gangster</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) Sometimes, it’s a relief to watch a film and realize that it’s made by professionals for a wide audience. This dramatic biography of 1970s-era drug kingpin Frank Lucas may take a few liberties with the truth (read the original article to spot a few of them), but it’s a slick piece of cinema that never feels too long despite clocking in at a touch more than two and a half hours. Chief among the film’s assets is the unflappable Denzel Washington, always the coolest guy on-screen despite the strong presence of Russell Crowe as his policeman antagonist. Washington is so compelling that it’s hard to think of him as a bad guy, even as he shoots people in the forehead or beats an associate with a piano. The other big star of the film is the period re-creating of early-seventies New York, completely convincing even as it avoids flashy set-pieces. American Gangster deserves its iconic title, and if the result isn’t quite up to Goodfellas or Scarface, it’s close enough to warrant a passing comparison. Without insisting on it, it actually portrays a thick mess of police corruption, criminal economics, easy racism and power relationships. The careful construction of the story makes it irrelevant that the two lead actors don’t meet face-to-face until a few minutes before the end: few moments are wasted along the way. While I’m not sure that the film will sustain multiple viewings as the other best-of-class movies in the gangster category, it’s good enough to deserve at least one good look.