Month: May 2008

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

Harper Collins, 2007, 414 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-00-714982-7

This book’s a mystery to me.

Yes, I know it’s a genre mystery: Stories of policemen investigating murders can’t be anything else, even when they take place in an alternate reality where a Jewish state was established in Alaska at the end of the forties. Think of elements of police mysteries, and they’re in the book: the down-on-his-luck investigator, the victim, the mob, the clues, the investigations, the romantic complications… Michael Chabon has written a good solid piece of crime fiction, and that part’s no mystery. And if that’s not enough, there’s bits of fantasy, thriller, science-fiction and romance here and there.

No, what really grabs me as I finish the novel is how little I cared for it even as I can recognize all of the elements that usually compel me. To put it bluntly, it took me weeks to finish the book. I never felt any desire to pick it up, except for the duty to finish it. Even as I noticed clever bits, they never gave me a reason to be involved with the story. I now read other reviews, and they all seem to be talking about a much better book, even when I can vouch for their factual exactitude. (And that’s why you should really look elsewhere if you’re hoping for a meticulous and dispassionate analysis of the novel’s characteristics.)

From afar, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has it all: Murder mysteries? Alternate histories? Geopolitical implications? Bring them on! The idea of an Alaskan Jewish territory is novel enough to be intriguing, and the mechanics of setting a mystery in an exotic settings has worked for other writers from Tony Hillerman on down. Even the Wikipedia summary of the book has me recalling neat moments and telling details.

But the reality of reading the book is different. Part of it is the Yiddish question. It may seem strange to criticize a book for the density of its imagined cultural references when I’m an enthusiastic graduate from the school of SF With Weird Aliens, but the key is that the Yiddish culture of the book isn’t that imagined. Every page of the novel carried along the sound of specific references whooshing over my gentile head. Every. Single. Page.

Worse: a lot of the in-jokes and clever references were not decipherable from the text itself, as is usual from wholly-imagined alien cultures. Lack of knowledge is a terrible and difficult thing to admit, but so I must confess for you to understand why I didn’t get from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union the charge that other readers seems to have enjoyed. As I (weakly) edit this review, the novel (a mainstream bestseller) has won the Sidewise, Nebula, Locus and Hugo Awards: an rare coup that suggests that a lot of people actually loved the novel. (Whether it deserves any of the “best science-fiction novel of the year” accolades is another bloody debate for another time.)

So, hey, I report and you make up your own mind.

This being said, I’ve got the feeling that this is a book that I may enjoy a lot more the second time around, probably shortly after the movie inevitably makes its way to theaters. That’s the great thing about objectively good books that don’t quite click: there’s always another chance to change our minds.

The Resurrected Man, Sean Williams

The Resurrected Man, Sean Williams

Pyr, 1998 (2005 reprint), 529 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 1-591-02311-4

(Read in French as Reconstitué, Bragelonne, translated by Pascal Huot)

As a reasonably-bilingual francophone with easy access to English bookstores, I seldom have any need to read fiction translated from the original English. But occasionally, some titles slip past me, only to pop up years later in French translation.

In the case of Sean Williams’ The Resurrected Man, the oversight may be simpler to explain than most: Originally published in Autralia in 1998, the novel was republished in 2005 by Pyr, then a brand-new publisher with minimal distribution in Canada. Things have changed since, but not in time for The Resurrected Man to be readily available or widely reviewed in North America.

And yet, Sean Williams’ name isn’t completely unknown: In collaboration with Shane Dix, he has written a number of imaginative SF series published by Ace Books. So it wasn’t a complete surprise if The Resurrected Man proved to be so interesting. What was more surprising was to find out by way of a French translation of an American republication.

A hybrid between classic Science Fiction and police procedural thriller, The Resurrected Man has the merit of taking an idea, and exploring it until all the juice has been squeezed dry from the concept. In this case, it’s all about teleportation: In a future where instant transportation around the globe is the norm, a murderer is making copies of young women in transit, for torture and murder. When a man finds himself in his apartment after months in limbo, authorities are quick to suspect him of the crimes, and if not him, then another copy of him. It quickly gets more complicated.

One one hand, The Resurrected Man is a beautiful example of extrapolative SF. There’s an entire new world in this novel, a world that turns around a crucial piece of new technology whose facets will drive nearly all aspects of the plot. Williams is merciless in teasing out the implications of his imagined system, constantly racing past the obvious and not-so-obvious plot points. The idea that a copy of our hero may be the killer is brought up no latter than the first fifth of the novel, leaving plenty of time for stranger theories.

In lazy or inexperienced hands, this way of writing SF can be overly schematic: See novels such as Kevin J. Anderson’ Hopscotch for plot twists that are obvious from the moment the universe is explained. Williams, to be entirely honest, isn’t immune to dumb developments: The book hinges on a basic security flaw, explained by graphs, so glaringly obvious that it would send any self-respecting network engineer in hours of uninterrupted debugging: it’s a small wonder that it’s a tolerated at all in the universe of the novel.

But small nits aside, The Resurrected Man plays the extrapolation game well and adds an extra layer of geopolitical complexity on top of it: A refreshing mish-mash of cultural influences and non-American slang add flavor to the novel, making it fit perfectly well in this decade’s trend toward more world-aware SF. (I’ll note that several of the most representative books of this trend, from Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods to his Brasyl to Joel Shepard’s Killswitch, all come from Pyr’s group of non-American authors.) I was very amused to find out that bits of The Resurrected Man even take place in Quebec and my Ottawa/Gatineau area. (although, when Williams wrote the book, it was still called Ottawa/Hull.)

The Resurrected Man‘s checkered publication history let it slip past many genre observers, and that’s a shame: Slickly-written and well paced, it’s a novel that has survived admirably well the past ten years, and which holds up well to today’s more demanding standards. SF purists and fans of futuristic murder mysteries will love it; I, for one, am genuinely sorry that I missed it when it was republished in 2005.

Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger

Da Capo, 1990 (2000 revision), 357 pages, C$10.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-306-81425-0

This is going to sound like a cliché, but trust me: This may be a book about football, but you certainly don’t need to know anything about the sport to enjoy it.

That’s largely because H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights is less about football than the people who care about football. In 1988, a thirty-something east coast journalist moved across the country in an effort to spend a year living in Odessa, a small Texas town whose high school football team attracts twenty thousand fans every weekend. For a year, Bissinger would use Odessa’s legendary passion for high school football as a prism through which to study the town. The result of his experience would prove to be even more striking than he expected, mixing sports, culture, class, race, gender and politics in a landmark book.

For a 1990 book, Friday Night Lights has left quite a mark. Hailed as a significant work (“Sport Illustrated’s #1 Football Book of all Time”, says the back cover), well-adapted to the big screen in 2004, even spawning a well-received TV show, Bissinger’s work has obviously touched a nerve going well beyond “a football book”.

The reason for this enthusiasm is perceptible from the first pages of the book, as Bissinger’s smooth prose immediately tackles its subject. Not the Permian Panthers football club, but the madness surrounding them in Odessa. The issues facing the town: rusting industries, ingrained racism, feelings of class resentment against the neighboring white-collar town of Midland, and so on. Then there’s the team: Bissinger efficiently portrays the very different young men on the team, and the expectations facing them.

One of those young men is “Boobie” Miles, an academically-disadvantaged teenager with bright prospects for a football-filled future. The Panthers come to depend on him, which proves to be a dramatic trap when Miles is injured early during the season. This story, out of so many, comes to form the dramatic backbone of the book in-between chapters dealing with bigger issues.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Football is Odessa’s religion, not after the colorful way that Bissinger describes the town: The professional-grade football stadium next to the school (raising issues of academic funding, especially when it’s revealed that the health-care budget of the team is bigger than the textbook budget of the entire English department), the radio talk shows, the signs in people’s lawns, the celebrity attained by the players: small wonder if, after graduating, the Odessa players feel such a let-down in college football.

But to many readers without a strong interest in football, it’s Bissinger’s social study of Odessa that will hit the mark. Football is essential to the city, and just as essential in understanding its issues of racial segregation, gender roles, anti-intellectualism, political preferences and class. Bissinger makes effective use of well-written anecdotes, statistics, eyewitness accounts and third-party sources to give a convincing portrait of the events of life in Odessa during 1988-1989. (Sadly, the book lacks an index.)

This paperback movie tie-in edition makes effective use of the intervening years by presenting a satisfying postscript describing where the players are, ten years later. Cinephiles will note that the excellent movie adaptation only focuses on the football team, leaving much to discover in the book for socially-minded readers.

Absorbing and fascinating like only the best non-fiction can be, Friday Night Lights has escaped its initial billing as a sport book to become a capsule social study. It’s a wonder to read and a thrill to recommend: don’t miss it, even if you don’t know anything about the finer points of football.

Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk

Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2008, 197 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66468-4

Chuck Palahniuk has always been a writer defined by gross excess. So when he announced that Snuff was going to deal with the pornographic film industry, readers cringed in anticipation: what kind of novel would that turn out to be?

The fun with the book starts before even cracking it open: The striking cover art, dominated by an open lipsticked mouth, features letters carved with outlines of women and copulating couples. The theme carries inside, with end-papers making a good attempt at presenting the Kama Sutra’s top positions. The book itself is entirely printed in brown, dirty letters running for almost two hundred pages.

The content is initially up to the worst expectations: We find ourselves on the set of a pornographic film, where an aging porn-star is trying to set a record. There are six hundred men in the green room of the studio where the movie is being shot, and they are all expected to perform on her. Palahniuk, of course, doesn’t miss a detail as he describes the logistics of the event and the horrible consequences of double-dipping when unmentionable bodily fluids have to be managed with precision.

Four characters end up sharing the novel’s point-of-view: Mr. 600, a veteran porn actor; Mr. 72, a young kid with a sentimental streak; Mr. 137, with his mysterious past and even murkier intentions; and Sheila, the producer working hard to keep the show rolling. The interactions between the characters run deeper than expected: Palahniuk hasn’t chosen his viewpoint characters randomly.

As the novel progresses, a central complication emerges: The characters realize that this is meant to be the porn-star’s last film, that she means to die on camera –forever sealing her legacy and her world record. But nothing is ever so simple, and Palahniuk’s still got a few dramatic revelations up his sleeve. Stylistically, there’s a certain interest in the structure of the novel, which almost works as a one-set theater piece with no nudity; alas, flashbacks and a few last chapters taking us out of the warehouse and onto the set damage the restraint of that aspect of the book.

This is a very short novel: from quick word-count estimates, it can’t be more than 60,000 words long, and probably ends up much shorter than that. But even at that length, it feels a bit bloated and repetitive. Even though Palahniuk’s usual catchphrases are toned down (the closest ends up being the “…Back Door Dog Pile” titling motif that seems to dominate the cited porn film titles that aren’t puns or parodies of something else.), the novel seems to grind itself in place between the time the hook is explained and the moment where the characters reveal who they really are. The conclusion feels like a lame placeholder put there while waiting for a better idea.

That this is a joyless novel isn’t much of a revelation: Palahniuk’s dark humor may be entertaining, but it’s not the kind of thing to make you smile once the book is over. The emphasis on the pornographic industry carries its own problems: it’s almost by definition a field so shameless as to be un-parodiable, and what Palahniuk comes up to try to shock his readership isn’t even up to the industry’s own horror stories. So the reader ends up in a limbo where laughs, eroticism and interest are kept far away.

It’s certainly a Palahniuk novel, but it also ends up being one of his most disappointing, especially after the impact of his previous Rant. There’s an irony, I suppose, in the idea that a shock writer would be defeated by a shocking setting. But Snuff leaves the impression that it would have been tighter and more interesting had it been boiled down even further, either as a short story or an alternative theater play. Regular Palahniuk readers will enjoy it (since they know what they’re getting into), but this is not likely to be a book that will gain him new ones. In a way, Palahniuk has set himself up to fail: the book is too extreme for the average reader, too tame for the fan, and not showing anywhere near the new directions felt in Rant. A minor work, while everyone waits for the next one.

Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008)

Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008)

(In theaters, May 2008) So Morgan Spurlock, having done his best to anti-super-size America, now goes abroad in an attempt to find Osama Bin Laden. No, he doesn’t find him, but I don’t think he ever means to: the real goal of the film is to go abroad and provide an ordinary-man’s view of the relationship between the USA and the Middle East in these turbulent times. The conclusion will be obvious to anyone: People don’t like the American government’s policies, but are OK with Americans because, hey, we’re all alike. It’s hardly a stunning revelation, but I suppose there’s always a place for Geopolitics 101 in the Blockbusters of the nation. Spurlock’s faux-naive act can be grating at times (randomly asking Arab shoppers “do you know where Osama bin Laden is?” isn’t exactly hard-hitting documentary skill), but he’s a sympathetic figure and the variety of techniques at his disposal (songs, false video-games, interviews, more interviews) is enough to keep anyone interested. There are even two remarkable sequences in the film: one where Spurlock raises the ire of an orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Israel, and another one where his questions to Saudi high-school students lead to the abrupt end of the interview. People expecting much more than a reasonably entertaining documentary will be disappointed, but I think that the real audience for this film needs to hear some obvious statements before any real progress is made. Whether they’ll ever see the film itself is another matter entirely.

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

(On DVD, May 2008) Nicolas Cage is rarely dull even when he’s not very good, and Vampire’s Kiss is one of the first citations on the list of his oddball projects. While everything about the film suggests a supernatural connection between a man and the vampire seductress who bit him, the reality of the film is far more fascinating, portraying an unrepentant womanizer sinking deeper and deeper in madness after convincing himself he’s turning in a vampire. While it does have a number of darkly humorous moments, it’s one death too far to be a funny film. It’s not an entirely successful one either, as Cage overacts with a grossly annoying British accent in the middle of a script that’s not quite focused enough. Still, some of the scenes are showpieces (yes, this is the film in which Cage eats a live cockroach) and the unusual re-use of vampire mythology is enough to earn this film a dark little place in any horror fan’s heart. Special note much be made of the splendidly multicultural female casting in this film, from an early role for director Kasi Lemmons to Jennifer Beals (as the vampire) and Maria Conchita Alonso as Cage’s terrified office assistant. Plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle details hint at the film’s thematic ambitions, which may warrant a second viewing for viewers mystified by the entire experience. The DVD, fortunately, contains an enlightening commentary by Cage and the film’s director.

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2008, 382 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1985-2

As a mild-mannered reviewer, I try to avoid throwing around terms like “importance”. But reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, it’s hard to avoid thinking that of all the books I’ve read recently, this one has the best chances of carving its own little place in history.

If it does become an important book, it won’t be by accident: Doctorow has deliberately set out to write something controversial with this book, and even the broadest-minded readers may experience twinges of discomfort at some points.

It begins with a group of high-school friends skipping school to play an alternate-reality game in downtown San Francisco. But the game is soon interrupted by a terrible terrorist attack, and soon our narrator Marcus (otherwise named W1n5t0n) is apprehended on suspicions of terrorism. Roughly interrogated by authorities, he’s eventually released… but not all of his friends are, and San Francisco is soon overrun by police forces intent on maintaining an excess of peace and order. What’s a teenager to do? Rebel against the overreaching authorities, of course.

Little Brother is literally written to rouse the young ones. A tale of hip high-tech resistance, this is a novel made to be put on the YA shelves of your local bookstore, read by disaffected teenagers and passed around in impromptu book clubs as the coolest thing ever. It makes Science Fiction (or at least techno-thrillers) look good, and serves as yet another reminder to adults that the hottest, most vibrant corner of SF is now written for young adults. Unlike past attempts at SF-for-teens, this doesn’t take place in a far deep-space future, but within the next five years, and tackles issues that are of vital interest to everyone right now.

Best of all, it’s shamelessly, almost aggressively didactic. Marcus is pissed at the system, and his narrative is filled with tips and tricks on how to defeat it. Confound sensors, detect cameras, burn out RFIDs and hack the Internet using the how-to tutorials in this book. If Doctorow’s learned one thing about the Heinlein juveniles, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with a lot of exposition as long as it’s entertaining, and so Little Brother partly becomes an instruction manual on how to live in today’s world using today’s technology.

This novel, more than many other “forward-looking” works of SF, lives in the now. It’s not a 9/11 novel as much as it’s a post-9/11 story that deals with our response to those events. Beyond the hacking tricks, this is also a novel of social engineering, one that ties together digital activism with the fight for civil liberties. In Little Brother, Doctorow finds the ultimate fictional expression so far of the mindset he espouses daily on the wildly popular blog Boing Boing. What looks like “digital rights management” to some actually becomes “civil rights restrictions” to others, and it’s difficult to separate one threat from another in the big cauldron of issues.

So difficult, in fact, that chunks of Little Brother feel both reasonable and seditious at the same time: As Marcus fights the system that has unjustly harmed him, he espouses notions that are uncomfortably close to an anarchic strain of libertarianism. If there’s a serious political objection to make against Doctorow’s novel, it’s that Marcus’ rebellion is flashy and cool, but the other side of the revolution –the steady pressure from the less-radical masses —is given short thrift as an agent of change.

But that wouldn’t be nearly so cool, and the novel does nod in the direction of mass opinion as Marcus finds himself too close to the middle of a movement that has escaped him. Doctorow’s techno-utopianism has a big bad enemy, but has no use for the little anonymous jokers who would use the very same tools to make trouble simply for the lulz.

But we’re getting deep in considerations that would be wasted on lesser novels. As it stands, Little Brother is not just a joy to read, it’s a wonder to discuss. Its emphasis on civil rights is unusual no matter which segment of the population it’s marketed to, and its modern vitality is a welcome breath of fresh air in a field that seems content on paying homage to the past. As a part of Doctorow’s bibliography, it eclipses his previous books to become his masterpiece so far: I may like Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the anger of Little Brother, and the intensity of Doctorow’s preoccupations match that of Overclocked as a faithful representation of the author’s defining themes.

Young or old, conservative or liberal, SF fan or not, Little Brother is a novel of the here and now, carefully attuned to the era’s pet psychosis and designed to make us question what we take for granted. It’s the rare novel that tries to create better citizens. Time will tell whether its impact will survive its own print run, but it’s already making waves and creating discussion.

[August 2008: Huh, look at that: there a quasi-Orwellian “1985” encoded in the ISBN of the book. Happy accident?]

Speed Racer (2008)

Speed Racer (2008)

(In theaters, May 2008) The Wachowski’s post-The Matrix return to the big screen as writers/directors may not be profound (it is an adaptation of a kid’s Japanese TV animation show), but it clearly shows their gift for pedal-to-the-metal visual storytelling. Big, bright and colorful like few other live-action film, Speed Racer sticks close to its source material and feels like a trip to a surreal parallel universe where gravity is a suggestion and eye-popping architecture is the norm. Few frames in this film aren’t green-screened, color-corrected and CGI-enhanced. For moviegoers interested in the state of the cinematographic art, this is it. It’s a shame, then, that it’s slaved to such a simple story geared to the younger set, a story that missteps by mixing up cute monkey sidekicks alongside corporate machination and a family-friendly message: There doesn’t seem to a be coherent audience for what Speed Racer has to say. But even with that handicap, there’s something fascinating in the way the Wachowskis choose to structure their story: It’s not rare for the film to play with storytelling by featuring flashbacks-within flashback, flash-forwards, inter-cut segments and all sorts of neat storytelling tricks that are wasted on the material, but manage to make the film far more interesting that it would have been if told in a more straightforward fashion. The dizzying structural tricks blend with the flashy visuals for a pure cinema experience that may not make much sense afterward, but certainly feel cool enough in the theater as long as anyone’s brain can sustain the assault. As with other Wachowski films so far, the details are often more interesting that the main film itself: beyond the bland Caucasian nature of the Racer family, the other characters are pleasantly multicultural, if not counter-cultural (a black viking?!), and there are tons of small jokes hidden in the corners of the screen. The images can be breathtaking even as their meaning is bland. Sure, Speed Racer could have been better, but it’s already a remarkable achievement despite its flaws.

Run Fatboy Run (2007)

Run Fatboy Run (2007)

(In theaters, May 2008) The problem with “likable loser” movies is the balance to find between the likability and the loserness. Simon Pegg is gifted enough to put the audience on his side as the titular Fatboy, but the script doesn’t give him much to play on: Throughout Run Fatboy Run, saner members of the audience will wonder how and why his ex-girlfriend (Thandie Newton, who has seldom looked better) almost married him. And that’s before the screenwriter cheats and actively sabotages her relationship with her new beau. To be fair, however, the entire third act of Run Fatboy Run is a huge unbelievable cheat, destroying a character at the benefit of another, and pulling the type of Hollywood finish that doesn’t do much more than remind us that things never happen like that in real life. As with so many romantic comedies, the fun of the film isn’t in the main story as in the secondary characters, the subplots and the details. Alas, some of the material is so interesting as to overwhelm the rest: I was captivated by India de Beaufort’s presence, and wished more of the film would have been centered around her, or Dylan Moran’s more-interesting sidekick. While Run Fatboy Run itself isn’t particularly bad or irritating, it’s curiously uninvolving and never earns its conclusion as much as it tries to manipulate it more blatantly than most.

(On DVD, May 2009) There isn’t much to say about the DVD edition of the film: It’s still an average comedy, and the DVD commentary doesn’t do much to give us insight in the film-making process. On the other hand, India de Beaufort is featured in a number of deleted scenes, so it’s not as if revisiting the film on DVD was a complete waste of time.

Redbelt (2008)

Redbelt (2008)

(In theaters, May 2008) David Mamet makes very personal films, and that can be a boon as much as a problem depending on the end result. In some ways, Redbelt is a perfect follow-up to films such as The Heist and Spartan: all take place in rough milieus, featuring laconic men to exemplify Mamet’s idea of solid masculinity. All involve aspect of crime and deception. But what worked so well before seems overblown and unnecessary here: As a martial-arts instructor is conned into participating in a tournament, the plot twists itself beyond logic and plausibility, showing the heavy hand of the screenwriter as characters are manipulated toward a specific end. The film itself feels long and dull, Mamet’s hypnotic dialog not making the film any easier to take seriously. Even the ending, with its unconvincing staging and abrupt conclusion, fails to do much to redeem the rest of the film. I suspect that Mamet fans will find much to like, but viewers unwilling or unable to adapt to Mamet’s particular way of seeing things may not be so lucky.

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man (2008)

(In theaters, May 2008) After so many disappointing superhero films leadened by dull origin stories and barely saved (if at all) by their action scenes, it’s refreshing to find that Iron Man is a superb first entry in a franchise that succeeds through sheer attention to character more than impressive pyrotechnics. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely perfect as arrogant super-genius Tony Stark: his bad-boy manners are compelling in simple dialog scenes, lending credence to the theory that superheroes are only as interesting as their secret identities. He makes the film click long before he suits up and punches through tanks. As for the action scenes, they’re not as numerous as you may think (four, maybe five of them) and they definitely take a back step compared to more unconventional scenes in which Stark thinks, designs, refines and tests his Iron Man suit. A decent sense of humor underscores the entire film, and if there are a number of plot issues (not all of them relating to Stark’s medical condition and the steps he takes in order to solve it), the entire film flows far more quickly than one would expect. While there’s still plenty of room for the series to improve (there isn’t much of an antagonist this time around, for instance), this a solid and confident first entry, well worth a look.

A People’s History of American Empire, Howard Zinn

A People’s History of American Empire, Howard Zinn

Metropolitan Books, 2008, 273 pages, C$19.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-8050-8744-4

A book doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be fascinating. In fact, it can be more interesting to criticize a flawed work than stay inadequately mum when faced with perfection.

So when I say that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire is fascinating, understand that I mean “interesting, frustrating, revealing, naive, clever and annoying” at the same time. It’s a look at American History like no other, but that shouldn’t mean that readers should leave their skepticism at the door. It also means that there are a lot of other things to take in account beyond the strict confines of this didactic book.

Because there’s no doubt that A People’s History of American Empire is out to reshape a few minds. It’s in its pedigree, in fact: I understand that Howard Zimm’s A People’s History of the United States is now a standard college textbook for left-leaning history classes, or just anyone who wants a slightly different flavor of American history than the triumphant tribute to the glory of the nation that is so popular with bipartisan school boards. This “Graphic Adaptation” of Zimm’s work is practically an original work, focusing on the notion that the American Empire was built on the back of oppressed workers and war-torn foreign nations.

Then there’s the nature of the graphic adaptation itself. It’s a comic book, for goodness’ sake. It’s designed for easy reading. It’s not even twenty dollars! Forget EC Comics: Frederick Wertham was after this kind of material when he was complaining about the innocents being seduced by them illustrated funnies. A People’s History of American Empire is a painless, accessible way to understand American History from a more socialist perspective. The art may be rough and too-dependent on processed photographic reference, but it’s hard to stop reading: you have to admire the way the authors use the strengths of their medium to make casual readers absorb a colossal amount of information that would otherwise be too dense in any other format.

The main thesis of the book is that the American Empire was created thanks to a set of foreign and domestic policies designed to maximize corporate profit and encourage military domination. So we get to read how the United States government manipulates its population, over and over again, to cheer for foreign wars that have substantial economic benefits. (The historical precedents to the Iraq invasion as numerous and reach early in American history: The Invasion of the Philippines and the war with Spain over Cuba, as presented here, offer clear parallels with recent history.) On the home front, the American Empire was strengthened by periodical purging of labor movements, both to keep corporate profits up and to keep the population hungry and cowering.

To non-American readers, this seems like a surprisingly reasonable thesis: The willful and baroque justifications of so-called “reasonable pundits” against labor movements, national health-care and deep cuts to military spending can often look like pure comedy –until we realize that most of the US population pays dearly for those “moderate policies”. (And that the US’s continued neurosis is holding other countries back from even fairer societies.) Zinn’s book is preaching to the converted as soon as it crosses national borders.

But sometimes, the book overreaches. I’m not too fond of conspiracy theories when social pressures do just as well, but conspiracy theories are often simpler to explain than taking apart entire systems of self-justification, self-interest and self-reinforcement. The weakest moments of A People’s History of American Empire are those where Zinn and his co-authors anthropomorphize deep social tendencies and suggest we blame a small cabal of politicians, operators, lobbyists or businessmen: Not only do those moments get close to conspiracies, but they take away from the bigger problem of a population massively deluded into doing harm to their own best interests.

A similar complaint concerns the numerous personal testimonies used in the book, from union leaders to soldiers in foxholes: while evocative, they remain isolated data points in a much bigger context. The plural of anecdotes is not data, and it can be frustrating to see the book rely on an illustrated diary account to make points that can be dismissed by “Oh, that’s just one person’s experience.” While it’s one of my favorite maxims that history is something that happens to people, it doesn’t feel as if Zinn, in this book, has earned the right to hinge part of his argument on eyewitness testimonial. Said testimonials often work better when their context is familiar: The chapter on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, for instance, feels like one of the book’s highlights because the rest of the story is so familiar. Other chapters dealing with Zinn’s own autobiography are also more interesting, because they are presented as one man’s brush with history and not history itself.

This feeds into the other big problem of the book (and, I’m supposing, Zinn’s source material) in that it’s conceived as being in opposition to the mainstream view of American history. If you don’t know mainstream American History (and I’m not an expert either), it often feels as if you’re missing another half of the story entirely. (And the half that Zimm presents does regrettably downplay a lot of the better episodes in American history.) This is a didactic work, yet it often forgets to mention crucial chunks of the material being discussed. The often-episodic structure of the book probably makes sense in a bigger context, but if interludes like “The Jitterbug Riot” and “The Cradle of R&B Fandom” are fun to read, their relevance to Zinn’s larger argument (ie: disenfranchising more segments of society keeps it from demanding more rights) is best felt by inference.

But as I re-read chunks of the book for this review, I’m struck at how these issues aren’t problems per se as spiderweb threads leading from this book to a more sophisticated understanding of American society and culture. There are many sources out there for those who want to tear down the happy facade of American triumphalism to take a look at the seedy underpinning of the American Dream, but it’s books like this one that will allow readers to make their own first connections between what hey haven’t considered before.

My first reaction to this book was to find someone, anyone else with whom to discuss it. As simplistic as it may often feel, it contains a lot of material for thought, and would make an ideal choice for book clubs. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a welcome broadening of the conversation in a social context when even so-called left-leaning Americans hold opinions that would be considered profoundly conservative in other countries. Buy it (it’s cheap), read it and think about it.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)

(In theaters, May 2008) No movie could match the expectations regarding the further adventures of a now-archetypal hero. The most this fourth entry could do was to avoid disaster, and that’s generally what Spielberg and the gang manages to do here: Among other smart moves, they acknowledge the age of the character but doesn’t makes it a target of easy jokes, they adapt the tone to fit the fifties-setting of the story and they wink at the other films without drawing too much upon them. This being said, they do indulge and make some easily-avoided mistakes: The revelation of Mutt’s lineage is too obvious to be much of a shock, the film’s numerous missteps in mysticism are unnecessary (so are the gratuitous CGI groundhogs) and the film’s huge plausibility problems defy even loose pulp standards. Jones himself remains a remarkably passive protagonist, the last few minutes of the film unfolding without much participation from him. Even the thrills seem dulled: a retracting staircase sequence ends up giving the characters nothing much than a mild dunking. Yet the film itself fits with its three predecessors, never touching the superlative greatness of the first volume, but duking it out with the two others in overall ranking. It’s hardly perfect, but it ought to satisfy most even as it introduced the short-lived expression “nuking the fridge” into the vernacular.

Hunting Grounds [Terre De Chasse] (2008)

Hunting Grounds [Terre De Chasse] (2008)

(Special Screening, May 2008) Chances are that you will never see this ultra-low-budget French-Canadian Horror/SF hybrid, and that’s too bad: In the realm of such features (let’s say “sub-50,000$ budgets”), Hunting Grounds is surprisingly entertaining, with eye-popping special effects, some well-controlled scenes, two big thematic concerns and a few clever ideas up its sleeve. Director Eric Bilodeau is a fast-rising star in the Quebec media SF circuit, and this film will prove to be a fantastic calling card for further things: think El Mariachi with zombies. There are even two rather good performances in the film (Patrick Leblanc and Patrick Baby) despite the obvious difficulty of French-Canadian actors stuck with largely English dialog. Viewers unfamiliar with ultra-low-budget films may want to cut Hunting Grounds a bit of slack: The dialog is blunt, the editing isn’t as tight as it could be and the staging is often at odds with the demands of the story and the often-digital sets. But even with those production handicaps, I was seldom bored and kept wanting to see what else would happen next. I’m hardly the most uninterested reviewer for this film (I helped organize a screening at our local SF convention and am coincidentally wearing the film’s T-Shirt as I write this), but you could do worse than hunt for the upcoming DVD edition to see what’s coming up in French-Canadian SF. (And while you’re at it, search for “Spasm SF Volume 1” for more Quebec-SF goodness.)

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007)

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007)

(On DVD, May 2008) The futurama gang is back from cancellation in style with the first of four feature-length episodes. After an opening sequence featuring a number of jokes at the expense of the “Box Network” executives that grounded the crew, the subsequent story tackles the binary incantation for time travel, evil aliens, Bender’s insatiable appetite for the cool crime of robbery and makes another trip to Fry’s last moments in 1999. Even Al Gore makes a return appearance. Some of the jokes feel a bit forced, but if you already love Futurama, there’s little else to add here: it’s a good extended episode, and the sheer joy of seeing another bit of the smartest SF cartoon series ever produced will do much to enhance the experience. Don’t miss the Math lesson hidden in the DVD supplements, or the Hypnotoad episode.