Month: August 2008

In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan

In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan

Tor, 2007, 348 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1355-3

If you’re wondering what use we possibly can have for awards, let me give you a hint: If Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times hadn’t won the John Campbell Award, I wouldn’t have bothered reading it. The author’s previous works haven’t grabbed me, the subject matter of this book seems to be dedicated to another audience, and while the novel got a favorable number of reviews upon publication, it didn’t seem to establish itself as one of 2007’s must-read novels from word-of-mouth buzz.

But it did walk away with the Campbell Award, and that strengthens its place in the SF canon. It doesn’t finalize it, of course: part of the attraction in reading this year’s Campbell winner was to determine whether the Campbell jury had succeeded in making a choice as awfully outdated as Ben Bova’s Titan, somehow selected as being a best choice of some sort the previous year.

From the first few pages, it’s obvious that the Campbell judges have made a better choice: Goonan’s prose is well-written, and her understanding of interpersonal relationships is better than many of her colleagues. From the first few pages, in which a young soldier is seduced and then left by a female scientist during World War II, we can relax: if nothing else, this novel will be well written.

But for a while, that’s all we get: despite a few ominous lines early on, this is the story of the young soldier, Sam Dance, as he’s shipped off around Europe (and then Japan) in order to take advantage of his top-notch technical skills. He builds a device according to plans left by his ex-lover, but it’s never too clear what the device is supposed to accomplish. Meanwhile, around him, both jazz and modern science are being invented, refined, applied and developed. Goonan’s musical knowledge has been obvious from Queen City Jazz onward, but here the characters have the chance to hob-nob with the early Greats of American Jazz, and readers who know anything about the form will be delighted to read about a few walk-in characters.

On the flip side is the portrait of the war as seen from Dancer’s eyes, sometimes via diary entries. We eventually learn in the afterword that those entries are excerpted from Goonan’s father’s own real-life WW2 diaries. Again, In War Times is best appreciated by those with some knowledge of the time and place. Four-seventh of the book are spent in WW2, and despite a few intriguing moments here and there, there are few reasons for this book to be classified as Science Fiction rather than historical drama.

The SF elements become more obvious after the war, although not by much until the last fifty pages. As universes diverge and the mysterious device changes by itself, Sam realizes that there’s at least another alternate universe out there, one that seems far preferable to ours. But then 1963 arrives, and Sam’s family has a chance to change things…

Other writers would have spent their time playing around alternate universes, cleanly explaining the time-and-dimension-hopping device and the paradoxes surrounding it. Goonan is interested in other things, most notably paying tribute to her own father’s experience. It works if you’re favorably inclined toward that type of thing: It’s really difficult to say bad things about this book other than its best target audience is carefully delimited. (That, and that the final segment of the novel is pure baby-boomer wish-fulfillment, with a dash of conspiracy theory.)

As a read, it’s worthwhile in that it takes us somewhere else, and does so in style. Does that make it one of 2007’s best novel? That depends, but for all of the Campbell jury’s enthusiasm for the book, it’s easy to see why it didn’t make much of a splash in the wider SF community: Competently written, well imagined, sure, but without the extra spark to make it something more striking. Parallels with Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, which also dealt in parallel universes, are instructive: McDonald’s novel may not have been as carefully controlled, but it had a ton of energy that made it a wild ride. That energy would have been misplaced for In War Times‘s WW2 setting, but any energy supplement would have been helpful in making the novel a more engrossing experience.

Infected, Scott Sigler

Infected, Scott Sigler

Crown, 2008, 342 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-40610-1

The recent resurgence of horror as a genre has been, so far, mostly confined to paperbacks, but there are signs that horror may be coming back to hardcover too. After Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, here’s another widely-available horror novel in hardcover from a new author: Scott Sigler’s Infected.

Sigler, like many horror writers of his generation such as David Wellington and Brian Keene, is currently breaking out from niche publishers and web fan circles to traditional publishers. Sigler’s been writing for a while, relying on podcast serialization to build a fan base and hone his skills. Now, with Infected, he’s been unleashed on an unsuspecting population of bookstore readers sure to be tempted by the cover illustration’s arresting triangular iris.

From a certain angle, Infected‘s not much more than another go on a familiar horror story: The idea of an alien invasion via radical body modification, and the fight to contain the infection. Zombies, Ebola, Pod-People: whatever the name, the tune remains the same. The novel may begin with people mysteriously turning psychotic and shooting down their families, there’s a sense that this is familiar territory, even as Sigler has mastered the art of intriguing the reader with hints of the menace looming over every character.

But the trick’s in the execution, and Sigler’s got a mean streak. If the whole infection plot-line is familiar, what’s far more interesting is the book’s main sequence, in which ex-footballer Perry Dawsey deals with the progressive stages of his alien affliction. From a bad flu, his infection turns into something far stranger. His body is hurting in seven different places, and Dawsey isn’t the kind of man to whimper all the way to professional health care. He’ll take matters in his own hands, especially when it becomes obvious that his infection isn’t a garden-variety plague.

Because his growing tumors start talking to him. And when he starts digging them out, they fight back using Dawsey’s own body. Faint echoes of other voices (intriguingly presented as chaotic typography) amplify and present a formidable enemy solidifying under the protagonist’s skin. No household implement is ignored as Dawsey cuts out, digs out, burns through or rips apart his growing antagonists.

Extreme bodily harm is the name of the horror-show in Infected, and it goes without saying that readers with known sensibilities to these kinds of shenanigans shouldn’t even attempt to read this book. Thrill-seeking horror fans, on the other hand, will be overjoyed at the inventive ways Sigler can find to induce winces and gags from his readers. There’s plenty of squishy, flesh-tearing atrocities in those pages, and the result is definitely memorable: every time you think it can’t get worse, well, it does. Our protagonist certainly doesn’t make it intact to the end of the novel.

In comparison, the overarching plot about fighting an alien invasion feels like a perfunctory attempt to provide some context and pad the story to novel length. The final climax is far more ordinary than Dawsey’s own story, and the entire book deflates a bit because of it. What prospective readers should know (despite this not being written anywhere in the hardcover edition) is that Infected is the first in an unannounced trilogy, and so the connecting material may end up becoming far more important when seen from the entire series’ perspective.

In the meantime, readers looking for a few gruesome thrills may want to read through Infected for its clean prose, bloody developments and scary self-harm scenes. There’s no deep social message here, nor even any attempt at literary respectability. But unrepentant horror has been absent far too long from hardcover shelves, and Infected is a welcome return to the hardcore rough origins of the genre. Sequel Contagious has already been announced in time for New Year’s Day 2009.

[February 2009: As the alien infection spreads out, Contagious attempts a bigger story. From the first scenes featuring a new President, the feel is less intensely claustrophobic and closer to wide-screen SF/technothriller. It’s a worthy follow-up (and despite being a second in an announced trilogy, it ends on a fairly definitive note) even though it’s somewhat less memorable than Perry Dawser’s appartment-bound fight against intruders in his own body. The mixture of horror and military elements is intriguings, and the confidence with which Sigler tells the story shows that he’s definitely writing for the big leagues now.]

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall

Harper Collins Canada, 2007, 428 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-00-200840-2

The intrepid life of a book reviewer is always thrilling, but some work-related afflictions are more dangerous than others. Somewhere in the upper tier of the job’s hazards is an insatiable lust for novels that play with the very notion of novels. Books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery or Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series: Not-entirely-serious experiments with the form, borrowing elements from typography, fiction theory, genre analysis and goofy ideas to produce something that can only exist as a novel, yet isn’t “just” a novel.

This may explain my odd affection for Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, even despite some damning problems with the book’s pacing, achievements and conclusion. It’s a novel that has fun with the idea of being a novel, and in its own way, it’s unlike anything else you’re likely to have read before.

Readers of the Canadian hardcover edition get a hint of what’s in store from the design of the book itself. A shark-shaped hole has been cut out of the front cover, giving us a glimpse at the text written on the book’s end-papers, which is a curious warning to the reader from the “curator of the Webster Fragment Collection” about the typographic effort spent in reproducing the original text as faithfully as possible.

For the first few pages of the novel, this is a story that jumps into weirdness. A man awakens with no memory: his name is Eric Sanderson and the only link to his past is a series of written instructions to call a psychologist who will help him make sense of it all. The official story is that Sanderson is prone to occasional memory-wipes, and that he’s erected an entire support network designed to help himself re-emerge from those memory blanks.

But there’s more to the story, and the story that emerges from the book definitely takes a turn for the fantastic: Sanderson seems to have become the target of a memetic shark feeding upon information, and the shark’s attacks are what debilitate Sanderson’s mind. In an effort to hide from the shark, previous Sanderson instances has planned defenses made of chaotic information and nonsense chaff, but this particular Sanderson iteration doesn’t intend to wait for the next attack: he goes on the offensive, investigates his own situation and comes to realize that he’s in the middle of a fight between opponents who make a memetic shark look downright plausible.

The best thing about The Raw Shark Texts are the odd bits of invention and whimsy that Hall manages to include in his story. A typographic pipe-bomb; a scene in which the shark is glimpsed in tiles; a flip-book sequence showing and approaching shark; keyboard code-breaking; a hideout made of books; memetic boat creation; various other typographical tricks and so on. There’s a clever smile every ten pages, which goes a long way to pave over the book’s other problems.

Because ultimately, Hall teases more than he satisfies. The glimpses at his imagined underworld are intriguing, but never cohere in a consistent fashion. The pacing of the book is uneven, with scenes of fascinated interest jammed between other scenes where nothing happens for a long time. The ending is one of those badly-paced sequences, never managing a clear victory where we should have felt triumph. Part of the problem is that Hall chooses to make his story flirt with horror, which invites greater scrutiny than, say, Jasper Fforde’s mostly-comic escapades.

This may or may not make the novel less appealing to readers who don’t care about genre-bending meta-fiction, but it may serve to explain why some jaded readers will give high marks to this book despite problems that would have poisoned a less-ambitious novel. If your last few reading experiences have been too ordinary, take a chance and leap in The Raw Shark Texts. It’s a promising and inventive debut: Hall’s next novel should be one to watch.

Zot!, Scott McCloud

Zot!, Scott McCloud

Harper, 1987-1991 (2008 omnibus), 575 pages, C$26.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-06-153727-1

These days, Scott McCloud is best-known as the thinker who came with Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, three of the most important analytical works about comics published over the past decade-and-a-half.

But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and for years before Understanding Comics, McCloud was best-known as the writer/artist behind the comic-book series Zot!. Until recently, though, only dedicated collectors or lucky readers could read McCloud’s formative work: Collecting single issues of older comics books has always been an enthusiast’s game, and a decade-old trade paperback reprint series hadn’t managed to collect all issues of Zot!

That’s partly what makes the news of this new Harper collection so exciting: for the first time, a good chunk of Zot! is back into print, along with restrospective comments by McCloud and some extra material thrown in for good measure.

Zot!, simply put, are the adventures of a young teenage girl, Jenny, after she discovers a portal to another dimension –a perpetual 1965 utopian retro-future in which lives Zot, a teenage super-hero who takes a liking to Jenny in-between battling super-villains. Jenny’s world is ours, and it’s suitably complicated: Jenny isn’t doing too well at school and finds no solace at home where her parent’s marriage is disintegrating. Zot is a rare ray of sunshine in her life, especially given how his 1965 seems to be incarnated perfection.

McCloud being McCloud, there’s a lot of clever material at play here: From a first half that seems to present light-hearted superhero stories with unusually good writing, Zot! gradually evolves along with its creator to a second half that’s grounded in our reality, tackling issues of racism, alienation and discrimination. The characterization in the last half of Zot! is daring for comics of its time, and it manages to hit emotional notes that are seldom seen in serial comics. There’s a remarkable five-issue sequence late in the book that simply follows five friends, and moments of it are heart-wrenching.

In short, fans of the Understanding Comics trilogy won’t be disappointed by McCloud’s “early work”: It’s already witty, ambitious and multi-layered. There’s a fair bit of experimentation here, and most of it does succeed at its own objectives. McCloud’s commentary helps in placing Zot! in its proper context, and reflect on how well his experiments have held up more than fifteen years later.

If there’s a problem with this Harper anthology, it’s that it doesn’t actually present the entire Zot! run. For reasons of economics in presenting a cheap volume, McCloud has opted to leave out the first ten full-color volumes of the series, along with a guest-illustrated issue. Let’s hope that this material will be collected in another volume entirely: despite McCloud’s assurances that the series was “rebooted” at issue 11, the first few volumes are like dropping into a party already in progress.

Fans who have some of the previous comics or trade paperbacks may also want to hold on to them for curiosity’s sake: This Harper trade paperback is a bit smaller than the Kitchen Sink full-page reprints, and McCloud has made a few changes to the art: While those changes are all justifiable in context as they clarify facial expressions, there’s a curious pleasure in comparing the before-and-after pages.

From a wider perspective, it’s interesting to see Zot! Being re-edited in a thick trade paperback, much like how mangas are published in Japan: given how McCloud’s been one of the pioneers in combining the strengths of both comics cultures, the physical form in which Zot! will earn its definitive run is a perfect way to give it form. Don’t be put-off by tags such as “McCloud’s first comic book series”: even today, Zot! more than holds up to careful reading. In fact, it’s a bit of a shame to see that the series ends at #36 when it reads like a prologue to an even longer sequence.

Blasphemy, Douglas Preston

Blasphemy, Douglas Preston

Forge, 2007, 415 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1105-4

Here’s the plot: In Nevada, a gifted billionaire-scientist has built a super-collider that will allow him to reach back to the conditions that existed at the beginning of the universe. As the inauguration of the machine is slowed down by technical problems, some religious groups politicize the issue. As delays and controversies heighten, the US government send an investigator to find out what’s going on. Deaths occur, and a full-scale mobilization of religious followers against the scientific project erupts even as the scientists on-site glimpse something unexpected in the first results of their experiments. Something is communicating with them via high-energy physics, something that claims to be of divine origins…

Here’s the spoiler-free review: Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy is a techno-thriller that tackles issues of science and religion, re-using characters from Preston’s previous novel Tyrannosaur Canyon. It’s professionally written, but flawed: it may look daring at times, but it’s really reaching for the hoariest compromise in sight. The conclusion contradicts much of what has gone on until then.

WARNING: Anything else will be a spoiler, so you may want to skip ahead to the next review.

If you’re still with us, a short recapitulation of the place of religious faith in American genre fiction may be necessary: While recent volleys of militant atheism have done much to move the goalposts of any discussion of religious belief in the contemporary United States, most genre fiction tiptoes around such questions as so to accommodate the sensibilities of a sizable minority of believers for whom criticizing the very notion of faith is tantamount to heresy. Most genre discussions of phenomenons that may-or-may-not be manifestations of religious beliefs ultimately resolves to a curious compromise in which nearly everything is explained away as science except for a tiny piece that may-or-may-not be divine intervention. Few authors will claim a clear stake in the does-God-exist debate. There are exceptions, of course (Left Behind on one side, many of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels on the other one), but the pattern is as annoying as it’s universal, from any of the Jesus-cloned thrillers out there (see Glenn Kleier’s The Last Days) onward.

So the tension in reading Blasphemy, at least for jaded readers, is in wondering whether Preston will clearly commit himself, or try another variation on the old “Aw, sucks, all of you can be right if you want” dodge. To Preston’s credit, he does manage to keep things in suspense for a while: the super-collider seems to open up a singularity of supernatural capabilities, up to and including an all-knowing entity communicating with them via a computer link.

But there are a few more twists and turns to the tale, especially when Wyman Ford (returning after Tyrannosaur Canyon) corners the brilliant scientist behind the entire project and manages to make him admit that most of it was completely made up, taking advantage of a few parlor tricks in order to create a new science-based religion. But just as we think that the rug’s been pulled in one direction, there has to be an added “Strange, though, it said a lot of things I never intended.” that sends the novel in comfortable maybe-land. (Yet the epilogue makes it clear that God moves in mysterious ways.)

There’s plenty of other stuff to discuss, such as Preston’s final ham-fisted way of portraying religious believers as bloodthirsty idiots willing to transfer their allegiances to a new religion (by the millions!) in a matter of a few days. Or how the book leaves Wyman Ford in a science-fictional world altered by the events of the novel (but don’t bet against a sequel that ignores it all). Ultimately, though, the title suggests that Preston is really about raising a stink, creating false opposition between science and faith, using the oldest non-compromise in the bag of tricks to provide a pat conclusion to satisfy everyone. It’s nothing new, nothing really unnerving. The novel tries to have it both ways, in the time-honored tradition of the hardcover popular bestseller. For all of its other faults, at least it’s a fast and easy read.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

(In theaters, August 2008) Can the clown honestly laugh at himself? That’s the big philosophical question to ask after seeing the big mess that is Tropic Thunder. A comedy about big-budget film-making co-written by two actors, Tropic Thunder feels like a broad attempt to hit an equally broad target. Some of the shots find their mark; others miss by such a distance that they defy the notion of a joke. Foul-mouthed and gory (with death played for laughs), Tropic Thunder has the bluster of a cynic but little of the wit: Once past the opening fake trailers and the initial premise, the film seems to lose itself in a vague haze. Occasionally, the jokes flicker back: You may recognize Tom Cruise’s voice, but his hirsute, balding, overweight expletive-spewing studio executive is so far away from his usual personae as to be unrecognizable. Still, Ben Stiller’s previous Zoolander has stood the test of time better than many comedies of its time: it’s entirely possible the Tropic Thunder will feel more interesting with time. But the scatter-shot nature of the jokes, the easy gags and the dumb characters don’t feel as if they’re the ultimate expression of what could have been done with the budget, that talent and that premise. Maybe the clown got complacent, falsely secure in the idea that the crowds would appreciate any attempt at self-deprecation while missing the point that even self-deprecation requires a modicum of effort and grace.

(Second viewing, on DVD, March 2010) A quick viewing of the DVD edition shows that either quite a bit has changed in-between the theater and “unrated” edition, or my memory hasn’t recorded many of the gags.  Either way, the film does seem slightly better the second time around, although that that much better.

Killing Floor, Lee Child

Killing Floor, Lee Child

Jove, 1997, 407 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-14142-9

After going through Michael Connelly’s entire oeuvre in a reading project that took a bit more than a year (“A book per month, every month, until I’m done.”), I set out to find another author I could follow for a while. After considering and reluctantly rejecting Carl Hiaasen (fabulous novels, but ultimately too similar to invite proper reviewing), I have finally selected my new target: Lee Child, whose “Jack Reacher” novels are about as good as grown-up versions of the men’s adventure genre thrillers ever gets. Killing Floor isn’t the first Child novel I’ve read (see elsewhere on this site for my reviews of the superb Persuader and One Shot), but it’s his first one and as such a logical start to my Lee Child Reading Project, as well as an intriguing glimpse at the Reacher formula before its perfection.

It starts just as the series’ protagonist, Jack Reacher, is arrested in a small Georgia town. Reacher happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time: a murder’s been committed not too far away, and Reacher’s been spotted walking on a nearby road. But as Reacher notices ever-stranger things about the small town in which he’s been arrested, it also becomes obvious that his alibi’s ironclad. Yet his inevitable freedom is just the beginning, because the murder’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Reacher won’t stop until he has found all the answers.

Child’s strengths as a thriller writer are obvious: He combines credible nuggets of technical knowledge in a narrative framework that clearly shows his genre awareness. Killing Floor, despite one huge structural problem and a few rough edges here and there, already shows how it works.

One of the best things about the Reacher novels I’ve read so far are how they initially masquerade their narrative nature. Killing Floor shows the way: from a singular murder mystery, it slips into a grander conspiracy mode as Reacher discovers more and more about what’s happening. For readers, it’s a sure sign that Child knows the mechanisms of the genre in which he’s writing. Better yet, it keeps everyone guessing as to where the story is going until, finally, we can see the whole picture. Most writers practice a form of this misdirection, but Child’s handling of this technique is steady.

Looking at the Reacher stories from the narrative ground up, the other distinctive aspect of Child’s thrillers is the convincing integration of technical trivia in the narrative. Reacher is an ex-military policeman, which gives him an expert’s understanding of expert procedures. His arrest in the first chapter is seen through his coolly detached perspective, analyzing the work of his opponents even as he’s the one being put in custody.

The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake. [P.2]

Thriller fans’ appetite for this type of detail is vast, but it really serves to provide considerable credibility to the narrative. Reacher knows more than the other characters, and that makes him both a good narrator and a formidable protagonist.

But for all the admiration that I have for Child’s novels in general, Killing Floor is his first, and it makes at least one horrible choice that severely harms the novel: the decision to balance the plot on a single whopper of a coincidence that involves not only Reacher’s wrong-place-wrong-time, but also ties it to his own family. Too much, too tidy: When even Reacher reflects that this is an unbelievable coincidence and decides to go with it, it’s a sure sign that the author’s planning has gone out of control.

Other than that (and I don’t recall such abominable coincidences in latter novels), Killing Floor is a strong thriller entry that roars along with paragraph-by-paragraph readability and overarching structural interest. The first few chapters fly past, the pacing is steady and the final battle is an expensive set-piece that would delight any Hollywood director. It’s not a perfect debut for Lee Child, but it’s an assured one, and a good reflexion of the strengths that would ensure a long-running series.

Consider this the first of the Lee Child Reading Project series.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

(In theaters, August 2008) It’s one thing to laugh at Star Wars as being for kids, but it’s another to see the franchise deliberately lower the bar to a point where there’s no possibility for derision: Clone Wars is not just for kids, it’s a pilot for a kid’s TV series. The cut-rate computer animation is sub-par (the dubbing is notoriously off), the plot is meaningless and there’s a teen heroine alongside Obi-Wan and Anakin to make it all even more attractive to the younger set. Not that the problems stop there: Voice impersonators have been hired to fill the roles of most of the live-action actors, the action once again returns to the familiar stomping ground of Tattoine, there’s little freshness to the sights, the anime-style designs are ugly, the beat-by-beat plotting is weak (Let’s hide in a box!) and the dialogue is dull enough to compete with lower-tier sitcoms. Not to mention that in the grand scheme of things, this entry in the Star Wars mythos is basically meaningless: it takes place between movies, doesn’t introduce any new revelation beyond what’s needed to set up the TV series: fans of the movies should adjust expectations accordingly to a quick cash-in product. On the relatively scarce upside, Ahsoka Tano becomes less annoying as time goes by (though making her a teen rebel makes little sense given what we’ve been shown of Jedi indoctrination practices: It would have been better to make her a by-the-book apprentice fit to be corrupted by Anakin’s go-for-broke style.) Some of the shots are set up in interesting ways, though the rest of the film is usually far more ordinary. Finally, Angelina-Jolie-styled antagonist Asajj Ventress gets more dialogue and time than the much-over-hyped Darth Maul, showing that Clone Wars is better than Episode One in at least one respect. But there isn’t much to report otherwise: This is a kid’s TV show pilot branded with the Star Wars logo, and nothing more. In a way, this film was oversold in theaters: it will feel a lot less pretentious once it’s part of the series’ DVD box-set.

Scarface (1983)

Scarface (1983)

(On DVD, August 2008) This film has escaped conventional film criticism to become a pop-culture symbol, so the shock for an uninformed viewer seeing this for the first time is how lengthy the film feels: As a rags-to-riches story of a Miami drug dealer, there’s plenty of time for duller scenes and lengthier moment in-between the scenes and quotes that everyone remembers so well. Fortunately, one of Al Pacino’s best performances ties the entire film together, along with a savvy script by Oliver Stone and what must still be one of Brian de Palma’s most accomplished films. It’s a big and grandiose story, driven by cinematographic excesses that match the featured protagonist. But it’s also emptier and lazier than its fans are willing to acknowledge: with a running time that almost reaches three hours, you can bet that there’s a lot to material to forget even as the rest is so memorable. The anniversary DVD edition makes a competent job at portraying the production of the film and describing what’s so memorable about it. (Unfortunately, it almost starts believing its own hype, especially when it starts talking about its own video game.). Sadly, there are no audio commentaries.

Pineapple Express (2008)

Pineapple Express (2008)

(In theaters, August 2008) Stoner comedies are not created equal, and if the idea of putting a weed-enjoying dude in a standard thriller plot worked well in The Big Lebowski, the makers of Pineapple Express seem to have indulged in soft drugs so often enough that they couldn’t be bothered to understand the genius of the Coen Brother’s film. Instead, we get repellent stoners stuck in a tale of violent drug dealing, filled with harsh language and gory violence that only serves to highlight the immaturity of the picture. The characters feel like kids playing around with dangerous toys, leading less to empathy than to feelings of pity toward the mentally retarded. The obvious counterargument is that you have to be under the influence to like this film, but think about it real hard: does it make sense to voluntarily diminish one’s mental capabilities in order to enjoy a film? More to the point, doesn’t it nullify whatever advantage this film may have over just about any of Hollywood’s dumbest films of late?

Journey To The Center Of The Earth (2008)

Journey To The Center Of The Earth (2008)

(In theaters, August 2008) The best thing I can say about this film is that it’s a pretty good roller-coaster ride, especially if you see it in 3D. Otherwise, well, there just isn’t much left for discussion. The plot mechanics are serviceable, the situation improbable, and the actors unmemorable. A very loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s work (a copy of which is used as a guide by the characters), this film isn’t much more than a technology demonstration for the polarized “Real 3D” process installed in so many theaters lately. It exists to feed the screens that have been adapted to show this type of film, but like most technology demos, it’s likely to be baffling to those who don’t have the equipment to see that the fuss is about: I actually question the value of seeing this on a non-3D setup. In terms of adventure, it’s weak stuff, and the plot is just a thread between 3D showcases. I don’t give it much of a life on DVD, as people with even the fanciest home theater setups will be wondering why the actors keep poking things at their faces. Hey, at least there are a few references to Ottawa, Canada.

Deep Storm, Lincoln Child

Deep Storm, Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 2007, 370 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51550-4

Long-suffering regular readers of these reviews are probably aware of my fascination for genre boundaries, and books that look as if they work according to a particular set of genre protocols but actually end up working from another set of rules. Sometimes it’s clever genre-bending, sometimes it’s sheer cluelessness for inexperienced authors. Sometimes, too, it’s simply hammering a cool but unusual story in a framework that faithful fans are ready to accept.

So it is that Lincoln Child’s Deep Storm, for the longest time, is a textbook example of a techno-thriller that eventually twists itself in a science-fiction loop before disappearing in a puff of mainstream cowardice. It’s half a superb book, and half a middling one.

Warning; a full discussion of the book requires spoilers. Readers sensitive to untimely revelations about the novel’s ultimate nature may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review.

As a genre reader, I must admit that I am in awe of the book’s first section, which sets up a mystery, then brings a capable protagonist to a remote high-tech environment in order to gradually learn about that mystery. As a techno-thriller element, it’s a well-worn plot device: The hero flies into a new environment, gets a guided tour and gradually learns a few things that don’t make sense. As the story and the threat both develop, the mystery is revealed in time for everyone to run for their lives.

In Deep Storm‘s case, the prologue sets up a deep-sea drilling operation that produces unexpected results. Nearly two years later, medical specialist Peter Crane is flown on-board the deep-sea station, then taken down to the new underwater headquarters of a brand-new, ultra-high-tech research station. As you may expect, things aren’t going well: researchers are being driven crazy by some mysterious forces, and there are hints of traitors inside and outside the station.

This hero-visits-research-station plot sequence is deeply embedded in the DNA of the techno-thriller genre, but Child is a reliable professional, and the first hundred pages of Deep Storm have the reassuring hum of well-maintained machinery. It creates anticipation for what’s to come, and sets up (sometimes quite obviously) everything we need to learn in the adventures to come.

The mystery at the heart of Deep Storm (LAST WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS) is actually quite intriguing: There’s a cache of alien weapons hidden under the Earth’s crust, and plenty of ultra-high-tech warning devices buried on top of it. As a science-fictional idea, it sustains scrutiny for about the length of a short story before the holes becomes apparent (such as, well, why not hide weapons in a place that is far less volatile than a geologically active planet with a virulently aggressive biosphere?), but it’s still a neat SF surprise at the heart of what was marketed as a mainstream thriller.

But there’s no fooling experience genre readers: The main difference between techno-thrillers and science-fiction, as genre, is not one of setting but of attitude. If the threatening breakthrough is understood, domesticated and becomes part of the human experience, it’s SF. If it’s destroyed with a naive assurance that no one will put those equations and components together ever again, then it’s a techno-thriller. Deep Storm, nods in the direction of SF with an extra kick in its epilogue, but tips its hand to the mainstream Child fans by destroying the station and the access path to below. To quote a character, “It’s a tragedy, but it’s over now. There’s no need to worry about others accessing the site. No foreign government can approach the dig interface; it’s too heavily irradiated.” [P.368] So it goes.

Genre-definition neepery aside, Deep Storm proves that Child has the thriller-writing business down pat. This is a book that cries out for a movie, and it plays to genre expectations beautifully until it gets stuck with an idea too good for its own intended audience. It may not be entirely satisfying after a moment’s thought, but it’s thrilling beach reading from beginning to end.

Gia (1998)

Gia (1998)

(On DVD, August 2008) There wouldn’t be any interest for this film nowadays if it wasn’t for the headlining presence of Angelina Jolie in one of her first striking roles as the titular fashion model. The plot is your basic story of addiction, fame, tangled relationships and tragic death. There’s a pseudo-documentary frame that more or less work, but it’s the fictional segments featuring Jolie that really pull the film together. The cinematography is a bit above what you may expect from a straight-to-TV feature, but it doesn’t take much to show the limits of the film’s budget. The look at the New York fashion industry during the late seventies is intriguing, but leaves viewers wanting more. As a biopic, it feels familiar: see it for Jolie’s performance.

Leatherheads (2008)

Leatherheads (2008)

(In-flight, August 2008) I had good hopes for this film: I’m fond of screwball comedies, and well-disposed toward George Clooney’s work. But while Leatherheads isn’t objectively bad, it does lack a crucial spark of interest and that emptiness seems only more damning in a genre that seems to difficult to screw up. The late-twenties era is credibly recreated, but it’s more difficult to pin down the genre of this film as it reaches for football, comedy, romance and war stories journalism. Both Clooney and Renée Zellweger are fine as the leads, but “fine” is as far as it goes: the script seems unable to bring up the energy level of the picture to what we could expect: only a mid-film sequence featuring them escaping from an illicit bar seems to tap into the possibilities of the concept. Otherwise, it’s a mildly amusing film without highlights, but so well-intentioned that it’s difficult to be mad at it. Old-fashioned to a fault, it manages to be disappointing without being frustrating.

Death Race (2008)

Death Race (2008)

(In theaters, August 2008) No one will be surprised to learn that this remake of a classic B-grade picture has twice the mayhem and none of the (thin) social commentary of the original. After all, it’s become somewhat of a signature move for modern remakes to go for the flash and forget the substance of what worked in the original. The inevitable result of such cutting, of course, is a lifeless piece of action cinema that barely manages to engage its audience. So it is with Death Race, which takes a nasty social premise and hammers it in a prison environment TV show where there’s no chance that any real issues can be discussed. Jason Statham is up to his usual gruff standards as a good tough guy manipulated in causing considerable violence, but the rest of the picture around him is as monotone as the processed industrial look given to the picture. Joan Allen is wasted as the mastermind behind the race, but then again most of the talent in this picture is similarly wasted. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a certifiable idiot, but at least he manages to find half a dozen good sequences and images out of this whole over-edited mess. Among the film’s least admirable misogynistic traits is the use of young women as race navigators, only to conveniently forget them during the various crashes and deaths that follow –at one gruesome exception. You don’t need to know much more about this strictly routine film: it’s going to be straight to the DVD bargain bin for this title, and then on to “I didn’t even know they’d remade Death Race” obscurity.