Month: July 2008

Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

Morrow, 2007, 374 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-114793-7

A lot of people think it’s easy to write a horror novel. Just grab a disgusting monster, sick it on unsuspecting characters and let the deaths pile up. But that’s the kind of assumption that leads to formulaic extruded product and exactly the kind of thinking that practically destroyed horror as a genre publishing category in the early nineties. The monster-kills-people type of horror is only the easiest story the genre can tell, and the best examples of the genres manage to do a lot more than that.

Joe Hill’s debut Heart-Shaped Box is exactly the kind of novel that the horror genre should aspire to: It’s recognizably a horror story (what with a vengeful ghost and all), but it uses the framework of an implacable menace to take its characters on a deeper journey of self-discovery. Along the way, it touches upon other sub-genres: It’s a rock-and-roll novel, a road novel and a southern gothic family tragedy.

It starts off with a strong lead character, a heavy-metal icon way past his prime living out a quiet life in upstate New York. After years on tour, Judas Coyne has settled for semi-retirement, collecting disposable girlfriends and macabre mementos. All harmless enough, until -one day- Judas end up buying a ghost on-line, and having it delivered to his house. Unlike most eBay hoaxes, this one is for real, and it has a very personal issue to settle with Judas.

Heart-Shaped Box being a novel rather than a short story, getting rid of the ghost will take more than burning up his suit and taking to the road: As Judas discovers alongside a girlfriend who proves less disposable than he thought, the road to the ghost’s secrets is leading them south, to Florida and then to Louisiana, where Judas’ family lives. There are many terrifying moments along the way, and considerable personal injury.

But what raises Heart-Shaped Box above the usual horror schlock-fests are the ways in which it ties itself and its horrors to deeper human concerns. Judas may be stuck with a vengeful ghost who simply wants him dead, but the story ties up Judas’ own worst excesses, the sordid history of another family, his complicated relationship with his girlfriend and the broken ties with his own parents. Hill is able to blend all of those elements together without seeming too mechanistic or deliberate about it, and the way the novel gradually moves on to a bigger canvas than just a horror story is part of the book’s delight.

Lest this review launches itself in incomprehensible praise about “the human spirit” of the novel, it should also point out that this is a wonderfully readable and entertaining piece of work. Hill’s invention keeps things going, and his ability to set his horror in believable contemporary American location (including Denny’s restaurants) seems effortless, yet escapes a lot of other horror writers.

In short, it’s a pretty fascinating debut from a bright young light of the horror genre. Shortly after the publication of the novel, it was revealed that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and while the revelation add little to the book’s already striking qualities, it does highlight that Hill’s ability to mix the mundane and the supernatural, to use familiar elements of American culture to strengthen the horrific aspects of his story are indeed reminiscent of King’s best work. Still, Hill is already forging himself a distinct reputation: his work is solid, and readers will have a hard time waiting for his next novel.

The Automatic Detective, A. Lee Martinez

The Automatic Detective, A. Lee Martinez

Tor, 2008, 317 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-7653-1834-3

One of the most interesting things about our genre-saturated entertainment culture is that everyone has at least some basic understanding of the specialized protocols that drive, say, mysteries or Science Fiction. We’ve caught enough TV shows rehashing the same plots, seen enough movies riffing off past ideas, read enough genre books that some useful fiction plot devices have become ingrained in our imagination. Talk about a robot, and everyone will picture a humanoid hulk of metal. Mention a Private Investigator, and everyone will see a smoke-filled office, a middle-aged guy in a trench-coat and a beautiful blonde asking for a simple favor.

For a satirist like A. Lee Martinez, it’s a natural vein to exploit. Why not combine the clichés on SF and hard-boiled mystery fiction to create a parody of both genres? Martinez’s novels so far, starting with Gil’s All-Fright Diner, have been amusing take-offs on popular segments of genre fantasy and horror. The Automatic Detective is his first look at SF clichés, but the same instincts that have served him so well on previous books are once more displayed here.

Mack Megaton is the hero of the story: a big, red robot designed to destroy but now trying to fit into normal society. Mack’s got anger issues, and his job as a taxi driver isn’t helping much. So when bad things happen to his neighbors and even worse things threaten Empire City, he opts for a career re-alignment and decides to do a little private investigation.

The Automatic Detective is not meant to be serious Science Fiction. Empire City and its citizen are straight out of Pulp SF clichés, with easy jokes, silly world-building and the obvious use of familiar tropes. The narration itself is pure hard-boiled machismo made metal, with Megaton and friends worrying about oil changes, electrical charges and rusting plates. Mutants, aliens and fancy technology all make appearances, highlighting the deeper truth that this is surface SF, maybe even science-fantasy, playing with quasi-outdated SF gadgets not because they make sense, but because they’re familiar to everyone. (There’s an intriguing comparison to be made here between this book and Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, which attempts to re-cast familiar SF archetypes in a plausible modern world-view.)

This sounds like a criticism of Martinez’s approach and it isn’t: From the way he piles up more and more of these references, it’s obvious that he doesn’t mean to pass this off as contemporary SF with deeper meaning: he’s out to write a romp, and he manages to reach his objective. The Automatic Detective is a good read, one that makes good use of its initial premises. Mack is a sympathetic character, and it’s not tough to cheer for him as his investigation continues. Martinez knows how to plot, and the book holds together well once the reader’s usual hard-SF nitpicking circuits are deactivated.

In lesser hands, this could have been a mess of surface SF, with gadgets used nilly-wily without any attention to plausibility. Here, there is some rigor and a sense that Martinez’ voluntarily pulpish milieu is tied into the conceptual framework of his jokes. It’s also a fast read, which helps smooth out some of the background inconsistencies that arise when blending together so many SF devices. Purely and simply, it’s a romp and it should make a number of readers smile regardless of whether they can quote chapter and verse from Asimov and Chandler.

For Martinez, it’s another solid hit that should solidify and broaden his reputation as one of SF&F’s most entertaining satirist. It’s not enough to have jokes: he’s able to beef up amusing premises with solid plotting, good characters and smooth writing. Best of all, his books should be accessible to a wider public who’s already familiar with the genres being parodied, whether they realize it or not.

The Uglies Series, Scott Westerfeld

The Uglies Series, Scott Westerfeld

Simon Pulse, 2005-2007, ???? pages, C$??.?? tpb, ISBN Various

Uglies, Simon Pulse, 2005, 425 pages, C$10.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-689-86538-1
Pretties, Simon Pulse, 2005, 370 pages, C$10.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-689-86539-8
Specials, Simon Pulse, 2006, 372 pages, C$11.50 pb, ISBN 978-1-4169-4795-0
Extras, Simon Pulse, 2007, 417 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4169-5117-9

If we’re to believe those with access to Bookscan sales numbers, Scott Westerfeld has become one of the best-selling SF author of the past decade without much attention from the genre SF community. Cannily, he’s been able to pass unnoticed by tapping the young adult market: Thanks to publishing silos, most YA publishing used to pass unnoticed from the adult fiction pundits. Things have improved somewhat over the past few years as YA’s bigger sales have shamed adult SF numbers, and one of the landmark works in the field has been Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, which was ideally poised to benefit from the success of Westerfeld’s previous Peeps series.

In the spirit of reportage, your fearless reviewer dared plunge into the unfamiliar murk of the YA section to bring back a boxed set of the Uglies trilogy (Uglies, Pretties and Specials) along with a standalone fourth book (Extras) set in the same universe. How does it stack up next to the adult fiction? Should we all make a stop at the YA shelves from now on? Are the kids reading this going to grow up to be good SF fans? Keep reading.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of YA fiction is that it usually features younger protagonists, and so the initial Uglies trilogy stars Tally Youngblood, a teenage girl living in a world where there’s been quite a few changes to human society: Isolated cities exist in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and the stages of life have been formalized into distinct stages: “Littlies” grow up to be “Uglies” until their sixteenth birthday, at which point they are medically transformed into “Pretties” who enjoy a vacuous life until they grow older and become “Crumblies”. The city in which Tally lives is segregated by age, which leads to the usual hijinks in which the young ones try to see how the glamorous older set lives.

But Tally’s not the kind of person to go with how things usually go, and so she quickly discovers life outside the city, along with hints of a past catastrophe, an underground for rebels and the disturbing secret of the medical procedures that transform Uglies into Pretties. In latter volumes, she goes through the “Pretties” transformation herself, then reluctantly gets recruited to become a “Special” operative to act on behalf of the city government. Before she’s through she’ll have time to love a few boys, start a war and completely re-shape the society she lives in. What fun!

(The fourth volume, Extras, takes place years later with a fresh new social system and involves a largely different set of characters, though its perspective on Tally is intriguingly detached.)

From an adult SF reader’s perspective, the series holds up a certain interest: The extrapolation of various trends in entertaining, and Tally makes for a good narrator. Where it differs from adult SF is that the explanations are more laborious and take far more time to be revealed: savvy SF readers will guess most of the twists ahead of time, and roll their eyes at the falsely-frantic pace that doesn’t lead anywhere. On the other hand, readers unfamiliar with SF in general may not find a better series to learn the particularities of the genre.

The first volume is most interesting, as the stakes are clear and there’s an entirely new world to understand. The second volume is a notable step back, as the protagonist’s goals are less clearly defined. The third volume is bigger and more interesting, while the unplanned fourth book is an acceptable epilogue with enough space for some new ideas.

If that’s the kind of SF that the kids are reading today, we’re in good hands: it’s not dumb, it’s not dull and it’s not fantasy dressed up in silver costumes. It’s also quite different from the Heinlein juveniles, and that ought to be a lesson for whoever wants to write SF for teens: they don’t want regurgitated ideas from the fifties, they want stories that speak to the hyper-connected present. One of the best legacies of Westerfeld’s success so far has been to open up the YA market to the adult audience, ensuring that we’ll be able to recognize the best SF authors regardless of who they’re writing for. And who knows; maybe the infusion of contemporary SF tropes will even invigorate the sometimes-moribund adult genre…

Multireal, David Louis Edelman

Multireal, David Louis Edelman

Pyr, 2008, 522 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59102-647-1

As a follow-up to David Louis Edelman’s debut novel Infoquake, Multireal improves upon a few problems from the first book, runs aground on the usual shoals of second-volumes-in-a-trilogy and promises much for the conclusion of the series. Fans of Edelman’s previous novel won’t be disappointed, and some skeptics will be reassured about the fate of the “Jump 225 Trilogy”.

Readers will remember that Infoquake ended with a mind-bending technology demo of “Multireal”, a technology that allowed control over future possibilities, allowing an individual to predict and select the best outcomes of the many choices confronted on a moment-to-moment basis. Multireal focuses upon this technology while following the adventures of the driven entrepreneur Natch and the rest of the group he brings together to manage the release of this new technology product. Things aren’t looking good for him as the novel begins: beyond the usual business rivals and rabid media aggressiveness, Natch also has to contend with officials who can’t bear to see a technology as promising as Multireal stay in private hands, and hidden enemies who can’t wait to see the much-damned Natch fail at something for once.

Perhaps the best things about Multireal, from a genre SF fan’s perspective, is how it manages to deal effectively with the possibilities of Multireal. The novel offers a series of showcases for the technology, from a flechette gunfight that ends in a perfect draw, to a stroll through London foot traffic, to a wild soccer demonstration to life-saving heroics in desperate circumstances. What seemed so far-fetched in the first volume seems natural, even inevitable this time around, which is a testament to Edelman’s growing confidence as a writer.

It’s not the only aspect of Multireal that feels improved upon its predecessor. Many of the less-believable aspects of Edelman’s imagined future are either refined or left unmentioned, lending greater credibility to a setting that almost looked like a parody at first glance. Many of the monolithic organizations that so bothered picky readers in the first volume are now fractured and inefficient in this follow-up: The government forces are notably more nuanced thanks to infighting and power plays, adding some much-needed complexity to the “Jump 225” world.

From a more conventional standpoint, Edelman may leave a lot of things hanging in mid-air by the end of this second volume, but he doesn’t hesitate to throw them there. Natch’s journey through this book goes from bad to worse as he suffers from black code implanted deep in his brain, loses almost every single source of support and struggles with his own beliefs. By the time A-type Natch is “reeling with ethical vertigo” on page 400, readers can be excused if they want to stand up and cheer; clearly, things are evolving. At the same time, Jara fans will be intrigued by her dramatic trajectory through the novel, as she emerges as a protagonist in her own right, trying to save the fiefdom from all enemies while trying to put away her infatuation for her former boss.

All in all, it amounts to a strong second novel that shows how Edelman is growing as a writer. As high-tech SF novels go, this is one of the year’s good choices. It’s fun to read, interesting to think about and suggests that the third volume of the trilogy will be even better.

[July 2007: Sharp-eyed readers will notice that a certain “Christian Suave” is hidden among the many, many Multireal blurbers. It’s my first printed blurb, and my name is misspelled. It’s a triumph both for both my ego and my integrity!]

Succubus in the City, Nina Harper

Succubus in the City, Nina Harper

Del Rey, 2008, 392 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-345-49506-8

I should probably start by saying that I’ve known Nina Harper for a few years as nodding acquaintances (back when she didn’t even call herself Nina Harper) and that I really wanted to enjoy this book. I should also make it clear, for calibration’s sake, that I read very little paranormal romance even though it has become one of the hottest SF&F sub-genre over the past few years.

At first glance, Succubus in the City is the kind of book with which I wouldn’t want to be caught. A mixture between Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada, this novel is narrated by a succubus who’s contract-bound to deliver victims to hell after sex. But don’t worry: she’s a good girl who takes delight in sending the bad kind of men downward, and who enjoys spending time with her three demonic girlfriends when she’s not busy working at a fashion magazine. She may be three thousand years old, but she certainly appreciates the amenities of Manhattan, from designer clothes to high-end ice cream.

In many ways, this reads like pure wish-fulfillment fantasy for the female urban professional set: Long litanies of expensive labels, blunt descriptions of shopping, sinful food, a heroine with an obligation to sleep around and send unworthy lovers to hell… Succubus in the City sometimes feels like a self-aware attempt to meld and exploit the tropes of paranormal romance with chick-lit. Not being among the target audience, I’m not sure how well it works, but I can tell you that it’s absolutely fascinating: There are probably a hundred pages in this novel that could have been cut without harming the plot, but the accumulation of brand names, hip references and upper-upper-class Manhattanite living makes for a neat reading experience: This may be an alien culture to me, but wish-fulfillment jumps gender barriers better than I expected.

But Nina Harper is smarter than you and I, and so Succubus in the City is more than a litany of Things Women Want: there’s a fairly sophisticated mythology at play here, one where angels and demons are two sides of the same coin, where hell lives up to modern management techniques and where Satan’s top lieutenants have been at this game for thousands of years. The narrator is a three-thousand-year-old minor princess, and Harper’s take on modern society via the eyes of someone who has seen it all can be more amusing than you’d expect. This is a lighthearted novel, after all, one where Satan’s reputation exceeds his worst traits, one where the victims all deserve it and one where hell’s minions have access to their own version of LiveJournal called MagicMirror. (“Meph” is a foodie with his own restaurant reviews.) Everything is handled with a light touch and a professionals’ eye for decent plot mechanics. The details of the novel are where it works best: I was particularly happy with the character of Azz, a librarian with the look and temperament of a cat.

Where the novel doesn’t work as well is when it tries to piece everything together. Narrator Lily and her friends are fun to hear, but it’s hard to reconcile some of their conversations with the personality of people who have lived through entire civilizations: the banter works for Sex and the City (which is explicitly referenced; the narrator thinks she’s Samantha), but for characters with that much experience in the ways of humanity… not so much. There are other issues of verisimilitude, starting from the curious lack of repercussions from taking so many people out of circulation. Most of those issues are hand-waved away with an omnipotent “Authority” that raises more questions than it satisfies: the real answer, of course, is that this is the type of fantasy where we’re not meant to ask too many questions. Which is a shame, considering the fun of Harper’s vision of hell and its servants.

I haven’t said much about the plot so far because it doesn’t seem particularly important, even to the characters who take off to Aruba, are temporarily stumped by Google and can’t be bothered to exhibit the appropriate paranoid response at the suggestion that one of their own is conspiring against them. Trying to put a thriller plot framework on a light-hearted wish-fulfillment romantic fantasy can be tricky, especially considering the breaks for extravagant consumption.

Add to that the considerable frustration of discovering that this is the first part of a series: the story doesn’t end as much as it is interrupted on the last page. What could have been forgivable with a “Book One of the Sexxubus Trilogy” warning ends up being a problem, at least until we are able to order the rest of the series.

Not that this makes this novel any less fascinating to read, even when I can feel the commercial imperatives of the genre being deliberately tweaked by the author. Some authors may talk about paranormal romance as female empowerment, but Harper is the one that writes about sending unsatisfactory lovers straight to hell. Even guys like me can learn something from this book.

[May 2009: Second volume Succubus Takes Manhattan is more of the same, with a few uneven differences: More descriptions of satanic rituals, more palace plotting amongst Hell’s minions, and a strengthened romantic intrigue between heroine Lily and her two men. On the other hand, the core strengths of the series remain: Harper doesn’t miss an occasion to go on virtual spees of wish-fulfilling indulgence. It’s all good fun, but those who haven’t been seduced by the first volume won’t have their minds changed by this follow-up.]

The Surrogates, Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele

The Surrogates, Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele

Top Shelf, 2008, 256 pages, US$19.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-891830-87-7

Good news, bad news: The Surrogates is a decently-imagined standalone Science Fiction story that deals with intriguing themes and stands alone away from superhero fantasies. On the other hand, the rough art is a tough sell in this era of slick computer-shaded photorealism, and the story has fairly embarassing plot holes.

As the mainstream comics publishing industry matures and tackles other things than the superhero fantasies that have been their backbone for the past few decades, one of the most promising developments has been the trend toward limited series later collected in trade paperback. The Surrogates was originally published in 2006-2007 by Top Shelf Comics, and this trade paperback collects all five issues of the miniseries along with extra making-of material.

The subject matter is intriguing: tackling the familiar SF idea of remote-controlled bodies, The Surrogates imagines a world where such technology has passed in common use: People purchase custom robotic bodies and stay home, living through their surrogates and their enhanced physical attributes. As the story begins, a masked criminal in Atlanta is destroying surrogates for reasons of his own. A policeman placed on the case quickly finds out what it means to live “for real” again when his surrogate is destroyed during the investigation. He suspects the intervention of a nearby preacher who cautions followers about mediated lives, but the truth is more complex than it appears.

The problem with comics tackling SF themes is that, bluntly speaking, they’re usually well behind the times in terms of genre sophistication. The Surrogates, as strong as it is in a few areas, is a perfect example of those issues. It’s never quite credible in making us believe that less than fifty years from now, everyone will be using surrogates whose components can be traced back to one company. Real technology diffuses into the real world in complex ways: there’s competition, multiple models, people who refuse to buy into the new technology and various other knots of complexity. I, ROBOT (the movie) was similarly dumb in its treatment of its principal plot device, and for the same reason: the plot hinges on One Way, One Truth and One Answer. Point out that, well, there’s an awful lot of iPod clones on the market today and the plot of these stories crumbles away.

Hence my dubiousness regarding the extrapolation in The Surrogates. From a written-SF fan’s perspective, it doesn’t help that the idea of surrogates have been explored in many stories for decades. It’s not an entirely original plot device. Anyone looking at the last decade alone can unearth Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies, David Brin’s Kiln People and (tangentially, but vigorously) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon as examples of the form, and that’s not even going into short stories.

But it is new in the comic book universe, and what matters is what the writer does with it, right? Fortunately, writer Venditti does better when comes the time to makes his characters come to life: His lead protagonist is a credibly beaten-down policeman who learns to re-discover his outer humanity, and the plot involves a good variety of interesting characters. Preachers are often mis-used in SF and The Surrogates doesn’t escape that trap, but at least it does something unexpected with it.

But where The Surrogates will really divide readers is at the surface level of the art, which is an odd mixture of pen sketches and computer-enhanced coloring. I found it dreary, unfocused and unpolished, like being stuck in a nightmare —but looking at other reviews, I see that it’s an approach that has fans. It’s a good thing that the script is the strongest part of The Surrogates: careful buyers will flip through the book before purchasing it to get an idea of whether they’ll have an allergic reaction to the art.

Despite everything, The Surrogates is worth a look to see where the comics medium is going regarding authentic SF ideas. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s a great deal more ambitious than most SF graphic novels on the market, and when it work, it really works.

(You won’t be surprised to learn that the big-budget movie adaptation will feature Bruce Willis and come out in summer 2009.)

Just Buried (2007)

Just Buried (2007)

(In theaters, July 2008) This Canadian-made low-budget film blew through a limited theatrical release, and that’s too bad given how well it succeeds as a very dark comedy. As a young nerdish man inherits a struggling small-town funeral home, he comes to realize, with the help of his new girlfriend, that mortal accidents are a great way to send paying clients to his business. But once you start killing people, intentionally or not, it can be hard to stop… Rose Byrne (looking a lot like Kirsten Dunst) is the film’s standout performer as a mortician with a keen interest in her job; regrettably, Jay Baruchel is saddled with a too-annoying character to be sympathetic, and the film flounders a bit on this lack of attachment. The script itself is a clever hybrid between small town comedies and disturbingly morbid plotting. At a time where “dark comedy” is labeled on just about anything, Just Buried is the real thing, a film that could have slid in outright horror with just a few tiny adjustments. Despite a few third-act problems, the film wraps up neatly with a merciless finale that ironically gives moral weight to the rest of the script. It’s definitely a low-budget independent film: even if the budget allows for a few impressive explosions and crashes, it takes chances that normally wouldn’t even be thinkable for a wider audience. If your tastes can handle murder for love and profit, well, scour the local video store for this one.

A Theatre Near You, Alain Miguelez

A Theatre Near You, Alain Miguelez

Penumbra Press, 2004, 370 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 1-89413-138-X

I must have passed on Alain Miguelez’ A Theater Near You in local bookstores for two or three years before finally buying it. As a lavishly-illustrated specialized publication from a boutique publisher, this wasn’t a book I could hope to see on sale at some point. What’s more, I do have a deep interest in the book’s subject matter: I spend most of my waking hours in Ottawa, and I’m a steady moviegoer: A book about “150 years of going to the show in Ottawa-Gatineau” is almost tailor-fit for my tastes, even if it ends up being one of my most expensive books purchased so far.

Fortunately, it’s worth every penny. Miguelez’ history of movie-going in the Ottawa area is a superbly-produced book that will certainly become the last word on the subject. It’s unbelievably well-researched (with 424 endnotes spread over ten pages), filled with a variety of historical facts, and it understands the economic, civic and cultural ramifications of its subject. A Theatre Near You deals perfectly with the language issues particular to Ottawa, demonstrates a keen understanding of the city’s history, and logically packages a complex subject in an easily-digestible structure. Its readability is also enhanced by clever graphic design: Nearly every single one of its pages sports visual material of some sort.

It starts earlier than anyone would expect, going back all the way to the mid-nineteenth century theaters founded when Ottawa was still lumberjack-shack Bytowne and Canada was still a vague notion. Miguelez then moves on to the electric era with the Nickelodeons, then the “Early Legitimate Cinemas”, the “Downtown Picture Palaces”, the “Talking Picture Theatres”, the “Post-War Theatre Boom”, a quick unabashed look at the wave of “Porno theaters” that briefly flourished when single-screen theaters tried to survive in difficult times, then the “Theaters in Malls and Office Complexes” and finally the current “Megaplexes” era.

Miguelez was able to sketch portraits of these eras with historical documentation and occasional memories from people who went or worked at those theaters. Each theater in Ottawa’s history (!) gets its own section, and the result is highly satisfactory. Miguelez himself becomes part of the story when discussing the closure of the Elgin or the Sommerset, and his first-hand knowledge of theaters in the area becomes more and more obvious as we move closer to the present day.

For the historical buff, A Theatre Near You is a fascinating open door on Ottawa’s history, and the place of cinema in the Canadian capital’s cultural life. Even longtime Ottawa residents may be surprised to find out about such things as the Russell Hotel, or the now-gone Canal Street. (The postcard illustrations of downtown in the first third of the book are amazing.)

I obviously never paid enough attention to my local history, because I was gob-smacked to find out about the existence of Le Français, the Regent or the 2,000+-seats Capitol and amazed at how much of Ottawa’ past cinema history remains visible in downtown today. The strange empty space next to the upper-Bank Street Staples is explained in this book, and if I stretch my neck a bit from my cubicle, I can see the empty space left behind the gas explosion that destroyed the Odeon in 1958. Those historical fact progressively mesh with my own memories as I recall the Sommerset (where one can now purchase milk where I was sitting at the premiere of GO in 1999), the Elgin sign that still stands proudly or the wonderful Mayfair still kicking after decades of continuous showings. One can easily imagine a walking tour of downtown pointing out the dozens of past theaters, some of which are still standing. (One of the most intriguing bits in the book is the suggestion, perhaps fanciful, that the Place de Ville theater has been mothballed, “the cinemas still in place, waiting for another tenant to occupy the space.” [P.311]) [January 2014: As of early 2014, the Place de Ville theater still exists in its mothballed state, albeit maybe not for long as this Ottawa Rewind article and this subsequent CBC news article suggests.]

General movie buffs may be more interested in learning that Ottawa may have been the site of the first public motion picture projection in Canada:

“Ottawa brothers Andrew and George Holland pioneered movie exhibiting in Canada. With their Edison license, their kinescope shows on Sparks Street were Canada’s first contact with the moving pictures. Holland Avenue is named after them.” [P.83]

More recently, Ottawa’s grandiose Capitol theater hosted many Canadian movie premieres. Best yet: There are credible arguments that the first Canadian multiplex was Ottawa’s own Elgin theater. (What is certain is that the owner who had the bright idea of creating “The Little Elgin” went on to become the president of the Cineplex chain.)

Despite a few annoying typos, a lack of an index and passages that could have been re-written once more, especially near the end of the book, A Theatre Near You is easily one of my favorite books of the year. I doubt that it will be particularly interesting to anyone outside the Ottawa area, but it’s the best book one could imagine on its particular subject.

It’s also likely to remain the definitive book on Ottawa-area theaters for the same economic reasons that are explained throughout the book: With the progressive passage of films to the digital realm and the consequent acceleration of direct digital distribution, I don’t think that we’ll get many more new theaters in the area. Since 2004, only one theater has opened in faraway Barrhaven, and despite the revival of the St-Laurent multiplex as a discount theater, the 2006 shake-up in theater ownership only suggests a dwindling market: The Mayfair and Rideau always feel on the verge of closing down, and plans for a new downtown picture house have not materialized. Once day-and-date direct digital distribution becomes commonplace (something that may be as near as five years away), theaters will become a charming upscale throwback to an earlier area.

But even if that happens, A Theatre Near You will be there to testify about cinema’s history in the Ottawa area. If you are or know an Ottawa-based cinephile who likes history, this is a perfect gift idea.

[January 2009: Alain Miguelez was kind enough to write and acknowledge the review. Thanks!]

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

(In theaters, July 2008) Director Guillermo del Toro delivers so much goodness even in his weaker films that it’s tough to be overly critical. So does Hellboy 2, much like its predecessor, remains interesting even despite some seriously flawed scenes and an offbeat sense of humor that fails as often as it succeeds. Often looking like a collection of outtakes for Pan’s Labyrinth‘s fantasy sequences, this supernatural action film goes heavy on the CGI, but with strong visual design that redeems it all. Even the worst creatures are almost endearing, to say nothing of the bleached twins fighting for the right thing, but against the wrong people. The story doesn’t do much than present a clothesline on which to roll out the visuals, which wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t for the ham-fisted emotional beats inflicted upon the characters. Obvious soap opera moments do little to bolster the charm of this film’s variety of heroes: sequences go on for far too long with unconvincing staging (witness the Hellboy-vs-locker scene) and contrived bonding sequences. At least some aspects of the mythology don’t feel entirely re-used from other sources, which is a bit of a relief. For some reason, though, Hellboy 2 remains stuck somewhere in the “okay” category, never ascending to loftier heights. Which, come to think of it, seems to be the norm in this 2008 “summer of adequacy”.

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2009) I’m not really surprised to find out that this film appreciates on a second viewing: Guillermo del Toro’s a canny filmmaker, and the level of detail he crams in even his lighter films is usually worth revisiting on DVD. In this case, however, there are a few more factors at play. As del Toro points out a few times in his commentary, there is a real subversive attitude at play in this film, where the antagonists have stronger morals than the heroes, and where violence usually has bittersweet (or ineffective) results. Even if you do understand this voluntary tweaking of conventions, a second look can do much to smooth out ruffled genre expectations. Otherwise, well, the usual array of del Toro supplements, from a great making-of documentary to a breathless director’s commentary (and a decent actors’ audio commentary as well.) Those who may have dismissed Hellboy 2 too quickly in theaters may be surprised at how well it holds up and improves on a second and third viewing, with some clues from the filmmakers.

Hancock (2008)

Hancock (2008)

(In theaters, July 2008) Oh my. If I was feeling generous, I would have a few nice things to say about Hancock‘s thematic depth regarding the tension between power and happiness, its unpredictability and the chances it takes with well-worn material. Alas, seeing Hancock doesn’t put anyone in a good mood, so let’s start swinging by saying that the film is picture perfect example of a good premise disintegrating as it goes along. The Big Problem of the film is that it’s two radically movies smashed together: a comedy about a drunk burnt-out superhero putting back his life together (the movie promised by the trailers) and a drama about superheroes who can’t live with each other (most definitely not shown in trailers). While it’s conceptually refreshing to see marketing campaigns not giving away the last half of a film, that radical alteration of the premise leads to a wholly different movie experience, and not a very good one at that: The suddenly-introduced mythology makes little sense and allows accursed screenwriter Akiva “massively overrated hack” Goldsman to indulge in his usual mystical nonsense. It’s bad enough that the back-story of the characters makes no sense (why would she move there, what did they look like 3,000 years earlier, what was in Miami 80 years ago, etc.), but the power-draining shtick is inconsistently applied for maximum tear-jerking impact. Over and over again, Hancock almost touches upon interesting issues: what would it take for a superhero to lose faith in the common man? But the final film is an uneven romp that wraps up after 40 minutes, leaving little but a far less pleasant last act as a so-called “climax”. It’s as if someone had received a mandate to torpedo a perfect summer blockbuster with extreme prejudice. As it stands, the only person who emerges from the debacle more or less intact is Will Smith. Director Peter Berg certainly doesn’t, mis-applying pseudo-documentary cinematic techniques to a film that doesn’t need any. Any half-way competent producing team would have been able to see the fundamental problem in Hancock‘s present form: but the final movie is nothing but a testimony to the power of how even large group of people can delude themselves into crashing a sure-fire production straight into a wall.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008)

(In theaters, July 2008) This may not be a perfect movie, but it’s almost as good as blockbusters ever get: There are ridiculously big explosions, car chases and fist-fights, but also a generous amount of thematic ambition, symbolism and subtext. Christopher Nolan’s camera seldom missteps and the cinematography finds a happy medium between credible grittiness and the slickness we expect from big-budget cinema. This is an unusually smart superhero film, and the script does amazing things within the constraints of the Batman mythology: The Joker’s origins remain blissfully unexplained, Batman struggles with his own actions, and we get a full-blown tragic character with Harvey Dent. The acting is often spectacular, with bit roles going to good actors (William Fichner!) and the headliners handling themselves with skill. For the fears that Heath Ledger’s Joker may have been over-hyped, the actual performance itself is remarkable. The rest of the film meets the high standards left by the script, acting and direction: Special effects? Top-notch. Dialog? Better than you’d expect, except when the action stops for a few grandiose and unnecessary speeches. Sadly, the film’s own success leads to a number of quibbles we wouldn’t notice in lesser films: The sound editing is terrible and drowns out dialog (and that’s when we don’t get the ridiculous Batman growling). Some of the plot points are glossed over in the film’s hurry to get from beginning to end. Finally, the last act of the film feels notably less interesting or urgent that the rest: The climax, in particular, falls flat after the dramatic peaks hit earlier during the film’s two-and-a-half hours. But it’s rare enough to see films succeed so well both on a popular and critical level: Let’s just revel in what’s been achieved here.

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

Ace, 2008, 323 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01594-8

One of the most vexing issues to face genre SF these days is the necessity to put away outdated futures. Seminal writers in the fifties may have have imagined glorious visions of housewives in space, but we know a bit better: We know that housewives will be rare in the future, and we suspect that space travel is likely to remain impractical for humans. Any modern SF writer worth his books’ cover price has to stop and consider whether the ideas hardwired in the collective DNA of the genre are still possibilities knowing what we know now.

Charles Stross is one of the smartest genre SF writers on the market today, so it’s a delight to see him come up with a novel that squarely confronts those issues in Saturn’s Children. It’s an updated homage to Heinlein and Asimov that seeks to tie classic extrapolations to a future we can still imagine from today. It’s a romp, it’s typical Stross (perhaps too-typical Stross) and it’s a terrific read for those weaned on classical SF.

While perfectly readable on its own, Saturn’s Children is best appreciated with a curriculum of previous reading experiences. Since it’s an explicit homage to Heinlein and Asimov, it’s best appreciated with some knowledge of those authors. In particular, it features a heroine, Freya, with strong similarities to the titular heroin of Heinlein’s Friday (the cheesecake cover of the American edition of the book may be too outrageous for some, but it is a blatant reference to Michael Whelan’s infamous Friday cover), tours the solar system much like in Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (along with descendants like John Varley’s The Golden Globe) and freely quotes attitudes from much of Heinlein’s middle-to-late period. Since Saturn’s Children also riffs on the power chords of the Three Laws of Robotics, familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is suggested.

It begins as narrator Freya contemplates suicide. You would too if you were in her situation, a female sexbot created to serve the needs of a human race that has since disappeared, now stuck above Venus with little means to her credit. Fortunately, Freya is one of many fembots cast from the same model, and they try to help each other when they can. Shortly after being summoned by one of her sisters, Freya is stuffed in a ship and sent off to Mercury, where her Grand Tour of a post-human Solar System only begins. Fans of Stross’ work won’t be surprised to learn that espionage, thrills, secret identities, romance and high-tech jargon are all included in the tour. The prize is a dazzling recasting of Heinleinian and Asimovian themes in something that feels convincingly modern, up to an including a neat extrapolation of the social vulnerabilities of Asimovian-wired robots left without human masters.

Saturn’s Children is most distinctive when it points and smirks endearingly at the trail left by Heinlein, Asimov and other well-respected SF legends. Heinlein’s well-known quote about the need for humans to be generalists is upended with a rude reference to trading other people’s skills for sexual acts. Other specialized jokes abound: A crucial poultry-shaped MacGuffin is referred to as a “Plot Capon” while the threat of humans being genetically re-created becomes “pink goo”. And so on; even if this a standalone book, the more you remember about SF, the more jokes you’ll get.

As a Stross book, it’s largely what fans have learned to expect from the author: it hits the usual techno-jargon, humor, romance, thrills and hints of horror that figure so often in his work. Readers who loved his previous books will completely satisfied by this one. (Conversely, those who still don’t get what Stross is trying to do won’t be any closer to an answer with this one.) Stross has attained the status of a reliable author a while ago, but at the price of delivering excellent novels that are perhaps a bit too similar. From an uninformed perspective, Stross writes very quickly: due to a number of factors, his fans have enjoyed twelve novels in six years, an insane pace that doesn’t allow any margin for error. As a result, Saturn’s Children may be superbly entertaining, but also feel just a bit too familiar to be truly impressive. (On-line chatter suggests that he’s aware of the issue and is about to slacken the pace a bit, which should be for the best.)

Small quibbles about Stross’ prodigious writing output aside, Saturn’s Children is another solid hit for him, and a superb example of genre Science Fiction at this moment in time. It makes interesting use of familiar tropes with contemporary thinking, and it’s a wonderful read from beginning to end. Stross has been accumulating fans ever since coming to prominence with his first novel, and this merely keeps up his winning streak.