Die Trying, Lee Child

<em class="BookTitle">Die Trying</em>, Lee Child

Jove, 1998 (2005 reprint), 434 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-14224-7

This second novel in my Lee Child Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until we’re done”) also happens to be Child’s second novel, and the one where his formula gets an extra push in the right direction. It still relies on an abominable coincidence, but one that happens on the first page rather than halfway through the novel like in his previous Killing Floor. Like all of Child’s novel, it also cleverly masquerades the true nature of the plot until midway through, and provides plenty of opportunities for Child the chance to spout credible technical information.

Child’s early novels seem undermined by coincidences, but Die Trying at least has the decency to put it in the first chapter and go on from there, after a perfunctory comment by the characters about the unlikeliness of it all. It just so happens that Jack Reacher, ex-Milityary Policemen, master of all trades, roving vigilante, series hero, is walking down a downtown Chicago street when a woman he bumps into is kidnapped. Caught between the woman and her abductors, Reacher is told to get in the car along with the woman and not ask any questions.

Reacher, naturally, is quick to understand that he’d better do what he’s told: There are too many people on the streets of Chicago to risk an immediate confrontation. Later on, though…

But first, Reacher and his unwilling companion get to make closer acquaintance. She’s a brilliant FBI agent and the daughter to an influential soldier. As Reacher and her are thrown in a van and carried across a good chunk of the country, the reader spends the first half of the novel wondering just what kind of plot is going on here. Why the abduction? Where are they being taken? Scenes presenting the FBI’s frantic search for the kidnapping victim help raise the suspense, to say nothing of a few creepy scenes in which an escape-proof holding cell is built and tested with violent results.

True to the series’ motif of hiding the true shape of the story with a lengthy prologue, Die Trying doesn’t put its cards on the table until page 150: Reacher’s companion has been kidnapped by a right-wing militia to exert leverage on the US government as they plan on declaring independence for their territory. Reacher is obviously going to spoil their plans, but that’s when the fun of the novel kicks in: Not only is he able to make sense of situations long before anyone else can (he accurately deduces his companion’s identity within minutes thanks to a few simple details), but his abilities border on the superhuman. Die Trying has a few set-pieces demonstrating Reacher’s uncanny time-sense (which he uses to fake out a credulous member of the opposition) and another hard-hitting demonstration of his sniper skills. It’s not entirely believable (some skills erode when not in practice), but Reacher’s entitled to a few super-abilities in his own series, and those sequences allow Child to set up some intricate technical demonstrations.

It all amounts to another highly satisfying reading experience for Child fans: the action moves at a steady pace, the prose is never less than compulsively readable, and it all wraps up in a gigantic explosion for those who deserve it. Written in a slightly different fashion by a less-capable author, the Jack Reacher series would feel like bargain-basement men’s adventure series. But Child is a capable professional, and so his series steadily hits its target with unnerving accuracy. Now, if only Child could get out of the habit of using coincidences as plot drivers…

Enter the Babylon System, Rodrigo Bascuñán & Christian Pearce

<em class="BookTitle">Enter the Babylon System</em>, Rodrigo Bascuñán & Christian Pearce

Vintage Canada, 2007, 360 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-679-31389-2

The link between guns and modern hip-hop is as obvious as the genre’s music videos, but serious explorations of the subject aren’t quite as common. While the subject is good for alarmist sound-bite news reports, a serious exploration of the subject would require journalists with some understanding of hip-hop culture and the capability to analyze both the statistics and the human elements of the situation.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what we get from Rodrigo Bascuñán and Christian Pearce’s Enter the Babylon System, a book-length exploration of the link between urban culture and firearms. “Unpacking gun culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cents”, as the subtitle suggests. Both authors are co-owners of Pound, “Canada’s largest hip-hop and urban culture magazine”, which speaks well of their interest and affection for the culture put under the microscope. But if you were expecting the kind of mealy-mouthed excuse that so often seems to come from groups under fire, think again: Both authors are quick to admit that there is a problem in hip-hop’s fascination for guns. The opening pages of the book make it clear that gun culture has a price measured in lives, as innocent bystanders and not-so-innocent criminals are both caught in the crossfire. The authors aren’t interested in denying the link between guns and hip-hop: They’re keen, however, on exploring the roots of that fascination, and its consequences.

After a vastly entertaining introduction that hints at the decidedly entertaining style in which the book is written (mixing statistics, news reports, hip-hop lyrics, artist interviews and well-penned editorializing), the book spends its “first chamber” discussing “the trade of the tools”: The weapons so often rhapsodized about. Readers who can’t tell the difference between a Glock and an AK-47 will be well-armed after reading a chapter that takes a hard look at weapon manufacturers, their products and their self-serving rhetoric. Latter meaty chapters discuss the gun distribution circuits (a process that involves a surprisingly low number of known crooked dealers), the way guns are depicted in popular culture outside hip-hop and the myriad of ways guns are used, from crime to suicide to military operations.

It’s a lively, entertaining, enraging book. Definitely written from a Canadian perspective, Enter the Babylon System doesn’t even attempt to excuse facilitators of gun violence. It’s difficult to come away from the book, for instance, without feeling that the NRA, regardless of it’s members’ purest intentions, is a borderline psychotic association that has taken a pro-violence mandate that goes far, far beyond protecting gun owners’ rights. The United States are quite naturally blamed for the influx of illegal gun in Canada, but one of the book’s surprises is an exploration of Canada’s home-grown gun makers.

Unfortunately, the book sometimes steps upon its own qualities. Utterly knowledgeable about hip-hop culture, the authors often assume the same understanding from their readers. And, as entertaining as the author’s style can be to read, some transitions and linking passages can feel forced and deliberately opaque, dampening the reading experience.

But even with those minor issues, Enter the Babylon System is a brilliant piece of engaged investigative journalism. It weaves together an impressive amount of material into a compelling storyline, one that goes beyond easy summaries to truly delve into the roots of gun culture. It’s compelling reading about a distasteful subject, and it’s a shame that the book was only published north of the frontier rather than down south where it could do some greater good.

Implied Spaces, Walter Jon Williams

<em class="BookTitle">Implied Spaces</em>, Walter Jon Williams

Night Shade, 2008, 265 pages, US$24.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-59780-125-6

It’s not entirely true that Walter Jon Williams has been away from Science Fiction for a long time; it just feels that way. In the years since Aristoi (1992), Williams has written a space-opera trilogy, several well-received short stories, a mainstream catastrophe novel, a Star Wars novel, a yet-unfinished urban fantasy series and has been involved in writing alternate reality games. But from a certain viewpoint, Implied Spaces looks like William’s first standalone far-future pure-SF novel in sixteen years, and it’s somewhat of a return to form for him.

If Aristoi was ten year ahead of its time, Implied Spaces often feels like a mix CD of the coolest bit of contemporary SF. It first looks like epic fantasy, but is eventually revealed to be far-future pure Science Fiction, with an immortal adventurer slumming in artificial worlds with a powerful sword and an even-more-powerful cat to his side. Before the story is through, we’ll deal with a renegade AI, zombies, grandiose space battles, and oodles of other stuff in a relatively short 265 pages. S.M. Stirling, in his back-cover blurb, calls it a “Sword & Singularity” novel, and it’s a better description than most.

What’s certain is that Williams is having fun: the entire novel is written with a carefree eye toward fancy set-pieces and high-tech twists blending together the entire catalog of modern SF tricks and gadgets. It’s a fast read, and one that gets more than a few smiles along the way.

It’s also a great deal less conventional than you’d expect. Thanks to the novel’s post-human artificial environments, the structure of the story seems to oscillate between set pieces in exotic locales, followed by quiet chats in relaxing rooms where the novel’s stakes are raised and explained. Once the pattern becomes clear, it almost starts being amusing as the story’s Big Ideas become nothing more than exposition sequences forming the connecting tissue between otherwise-unrelated fantasy sequences. One wonders if the novel could be adapted for the theater with a few minor tweaks.

But peer closely at the novel’s architecture, and something else emerges: the awful suspicion that we’re in the hands of an author deliberately aiming at fan-favorite targets. AI using a cat proxy? Check. Pirates, ninjas and zombies? Check. Antagonist/Protagonist? Check. “Using a star as a flamethrower” [P.183]? It was awesome in E.E. Doc Smith’s time, and it’s just as awesome today.

It’s terribly unfair to suggest that Implied Spaces is a made-to-order romp that uses the familiar elements, or “power chords”, of contemporary SF in a deliberate and calculated fashion. But up to a certain point, Williams’ last spate of novels may have conditioned readers to think of it in that fashion: Since 1999’s The Rift, Williams has been trying to reinvent his career in different fashions, with media tie-ins and a military SF trilogy cold-bloodedly similar to many best-selling such series. Assuming the worst, which is to say an author deliberately returning to the heart of genre SF by writing a novel playing with the last decade’s buzzwords, it’s still not a bad thing: Implied Results is an interesting and entertaining novel, and it seems to have garnered Williams some of his most sustained genre attention in years.

SF writers have always written to market, and there’s nothing wrong with that —except when the rivets show. Frankly, it’s good to have Williams back in the genre-SF pool, competently speaking the language and riffing off the sense-of-wonder expectations of his readership, earning a place alongside the current heavy hitters of the genre. It may or may not be from the heart, but it’s certainly worth the price of a hardcover book.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

<em class="BookTitle">The Bonfire of the Vanities</em>, Tom Wolfe

Bantam, 1987, 690 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-27597-6

I’m not sure what makes a middle-brow classic, but I think that The Bonfire of the Vanities qualifies on most counts. Let’s see: it was widely-reviewed, sold really well, was adapted in a big-budget Hollywood movie (which tanked spectacularly, forever earning another place in history) and has earned 155 amazon reviews so far, which it pretty darn good for a book published ten years before the whole Internet thing took off. Better yet: Tom Wolfe is still writing and commanding attention today, lending further heft to the importance of his first novel.

The assignment, should we choose to admit it, is to read 1987’s The Bonfire of Vanities and see how well it holds up today. Once the novel has moved from contemporary headlines to historical context, does it retain the energy of the period, or does it fade away in irrelevance?

The Bonfire of the Vanities certainly feels like it couldn’t exist anywhere but in mid-eighties New York. A pre-Guliani New York riddled with crime and racial tension, home to the poorest and the richest, playground of the self-styled “Masters of the Universe” ruling over Wall Street and, by extension, the rest of the world. Sherman McCoy is one of those men to whom everything is owed: He can make multi-million commissions by moving around billions of dollars in government bonds, eking out massive profits from razor-thin percentage fractions. He lives in a multi-million-dollars apartment that he can barely affords, owns the requisite Mercedes and has a just-as-requisite affair with another married woman. But a late-night tryst turns sour as he makes a wrong turn in the Bronx and his car ends up hitting a young black man. Outraged media reports quickly lead to an investigation and a very public trial of Sherman’s entire life. In the process, we get to study New York society in action, as Sherman becomes the focus of the media, is thrown to the wolves by his former acquaintances, tries to salvage his honor and loses everything along the way. Right, wrong, fair or unfair become distant considerations in the face of a hefty look at that society at that time.

But beyond a modest crime story anchoring a rich study of characters in distress, The Bonfire of the Vanities is written with self-conscious verve. Passages are written in quasi stream-of-consciousness style, allow us inside the confused minds of the characters. Sherman is quickly exposed as an insecure man barely holding on to his social position. His latter passage through the New York prison system is as harrowing a sequence as anything written in a suspense novel. As flawed as he is, Sherman almost looks like a hero compared to the venal and petty characters that surround him.

The novel is filled with terrific set-pieces, lucid explanations of the way things really work, from the stockbroking room to the justice system or the complexities of upper-society New York. Tom Wolfe may be a media-friendly self-promoter, but there’s a real interest in his prose, even when it becomes flashy and self-indulgent to the detriment of storytelling. It succeeds where other writers would fail miserably, and remains interesting even when it loses its way.

So, yes, The Bonfire of the Vanities is still worth a read even today. It’s a terrific throwback to another era, and a novel that manages to combine ambitious literary goals with a clear and intriguing storyline. The set-pieces are terrific, and the prose is unique. Ah, if all mainstream fiction was just as good, I may never need to read genre fiction again…

[October 2008: Amusingly, I ended up reading The Bonfire of the Vanities at the beginning of the Credit Crisis of 2008, a time where Wall Street finance salesmen ended up in the news again. Strikingly, a good number of the articles and news reports discussing the crisis (nearly 2000 as I trawl news.google.com in mid-October) referred to the brokers as “Masters of the Universe”, the expression coined by Wolfe in the novel. Now if that’s not a proof of an enduring classic, I’m not sure what is…]

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

<em class="BookTitle">The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao</em>, Junot Diaz

Riverhead, 2007, 340 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59448-329-5

During the summer of 2008, the drums of the genre-SF critics starting passing along shocking news: for the second year in a row, the Pulitzer prize for fiction had been given to a geek-friendly book. A year after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it was Junot Diaz’s turn to walk away with the prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a mainstream novel about a genre-obsessed nerd. After earning raves from the mainstream press, the novel then proceeded to win over SF reviewers, who got a copy from the general fiction stacks and Declared It Good.

There are plenty of reasons to be so enthusiastic: Diaz’s first novel is an enthralling mix of multi-generational family history, immigrant experience, macho storytelling and geek references. It’s got a little bit of magical realism in-between tales of the Dominican diaspora and American geek name-dropping.

At a distance, the story is simple, as narrator Yunior tells the story of the titular life of Oscar Wao, a former roommate whose life was shaped both by a terminal case of geekness and a family curse dating back to 1940s Dominican Republic. The story moves both forward and backwards in time, following Oscar in one direction as his life begins in 1974, and up generations as the tale discusses Oscar’s Mother’s childhood and then deeper in time to Oscar’s Grandfather’s life immediately after World War 2. Three shadows always loom over the narrative: Oscar’s own shortcomings (especially in the romance department), the terrible legacy of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and the even more unnerving menace of the fukú curse placed over Oscar’s family. As the title suggests, the story may not have an entirely happy ending.

But don’t get the impression that this a dour novel, because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao shines brightest when the narrator’s confidently sarcastic voice goes riffing on the beauty of Dominican women, the absurdities of life under Trujillo or Oscar’s burgeoning nerdiness. Yunior, we’re supposed to understand, is the type of pure Dominican male who hits the gym thrice weekly, knows the hippest clubs and leaves a trail of conquered women. (If the novel will have a weakness for some readers, it’s that it’s written in a very masculine voice.) Yet when comes the time to tell the story of Oscar , nothing short of SF&F references will allow Yunior (who refers to himself as a Watcher) to do justice to the tale. So one gets to read passages such as…

Beli, who’d been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power. Like the accidental discovery of the One Ring. Like stumbling into the wizard Shazam’s cave or finding the crashed ship of the Green Lantern! [P.94]

If nothing else, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao features the strongest narrator voice you’re likely to read this year, a near-perfect blend of literary ambitions and genre references. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel quite like this, nor one that exemplifies some of the best aspects of (North-)American culture blending like this one. It’s both a terrific mainstream novel and an even more fulfilling geek-friendly novel. A full understanding of the novel is probably impossible outside comic-friendly hip Dominican readers, but don’t let that dissuade you from giving this novel a read. It’s got much to teach to anyone who thinks the values of mainstream literature are incompatible with genre readers.

War, Inc. (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">War, Inc.</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Sharing political outlooks with the film’s writers doesn’t necessarily imply that I’m more favorably predisposed to forgive the film’s increasingly annoying missteps. A mess of good intentions and weak satire, War Inc illustrated how difficult reality has become to parody: The idea of a wholly-outsourced war sponsored by big businesses isn’t that funny or outlandish, and the film flops from weak smiles to even weaker laughs. Worse is the idea to turn the film in some kind of redemptive experience for a paid assassin: it never totally works, and stops the film dead whenever time had to be spent developing this particular storyline. For a comedy, War, Inc remains curiously dull, as if the jokes were all taking place on an entirely different plane of humor, sometime intersecting with ours. The direction can’t patch to holes in this low-budget production, and the script (co-written by Mark Leyner, of all people!) clearly has no clue what to prioritize and what to leave behind. Some of the earliest laughs even come at the expense of the pictures, as it presents a fantasy version of “Iqualuit, Nunavut” that has nothing to do with the real place. The film isn’t a complete disaster thanks to good but misused actors such as John Cusak and the always-cute Marisa Tomei, but it’s a great deal less impressive than it could have been. Even the film’s leftist politics are more annoying than anything else: anti-capitalism and anti-war targets are so easy that it takes some effort to miss those targets. I may be on the picture’s political side, but is it too much to ask that the film be, at least, smart?

The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman

<em class="BookTitle">The Accidental Time Machine</em>, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2007, 275 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-441-01616-7

Joe Haldeman may be an acknowledged master of Science Fiction, but his work has been quite uneven over the past decade an a half. This, of course, is a polite way of saying that he’s capable of the worst (Forever Free), the dull (Forever Peace), the competent (Camouflage) and the intriguing (The Coming) without warning. One never quite knows what to expect from a Haldeman novel, largely because he rarely attempts sequels or series, but also because his track record so far spans the entire range of critical opinions.

So to say that The Accidental Time Machine is a surprise isn’t entirely surprising. The title is accurate, given how it describes the adventures of a young disaffected MIT student stuck with a sophisticated custom-made lab device that surprisingly ends up sending itself forward in time. As Matt Fuller discovers, this machines works according to precise rules: Every time he activates it, the machine sends itself in the future for a duration twelve times that of the last jump. From micro-second jumps, Matt activates the machine to jumps days, weeks, months and then years in the future. Then things get interesting.

The most obvious attraction of The Accidental Time Machine is the time travel element itself. As Matt jumps from era to era, the world changes, slightly at first, then more radically as the jumps span decades and centuries. Many readers loved it when the protagonists of Haldeman’s The Forever War came back home from decade-long missions only to find utterly transformed societies, and this novel occasionally offers the same kind of conceptual kick. Matt goes through theocracies, post-scarcity economies and strange far-future adventures, and the result is a satisfying grab-bag of speculations, none of them radically new, but all intriguing to some degree or another.

But the real star of the book, for once, aren’t the ideas as much as the characters experiencing it. Matt is our anchor through the novel: recently single, generally apathetic, troubled by job problems, Matt is the ideal character to send through progressively farther futures. He’s both smart enough and isolated enough to look forward to the next jump. He learns much during his trip, including how to woo a comely young woman he accidentally picks up during his jumps. The conclusion, which would have been a nightmare from certain perspectives, ends up being a true charmer in great part because our characters are so happy through it all.

It’s no accident if “charm” ends up being The Accidental Time Machine‘s single most distinctive trait. It’s a short book in an age of bloated monstrosities, and it flows without a hitch. Haldeman’s prose is classic stripped-down elegance, and there’s no reason to stop reading. This is partly a throwback to an earlier kind of SF, but not necessarily a less-successful piece of work. Even with a subject so familiar as time travel, Haldeman finds a few clever wrinkles and wisely doesn’t neglect his characters. While The Accidental Time Machine may not create the kind of gob-smacked admiration as more ambitious contemporary works of SF, it’s got most other contenders beaten down in sheer likability. This is mid-list SF as it should be: Accessible, interesting, short and warm. Readers who have been let down by some of Haldeman’s latest few books ought to be pleased by this one.

Traitor (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Traitor</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) It’s too bad that two films seem to compete for attention here. First, a contemporary thriller that jumps from continent to continent, looking on as a dastardly terrorist plot is put together and detected by intelligence agencies. Second, a more intimate drama in which a double-agent confronts his conscience and the respect of his peers as he infiltrates a terrorist group on behalf of American interests. The first movie crackles when it gets moving; the second one is annoying even in the best of circumstances. Fortunately, Don Cheadle is always excellent as the man torn between his various loyalties. It’s just too bad that the entire film couldn’t have been as good as its best sections. (Plus, am I the only one who wasn’t entirely satisfied by the way the terrorist plot thread was wrapped?) What could have been a decent companion piece to Syriana only ends up an inconsistently interesting attempt with a side-order of yawns. Its intentions are at the right place, but the final result just isn’t all that compelling.

Righteous Kill (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Righteous Kill</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Fans have been waiting for a true DeNiro/Pacino match-up since their all-too-brief common scene in Heat, but it’s not a B-series vehicle like Righteous Kill that will satisfy them. Not that any film starring those two is any guarantee of quality these days, as the two men seem perfectly happy on playing their own caricature. Pacino’s always good for a hoo-ha moment or two, but DeNiro’s sliding fast toward irrelevance, and this film won’t do much to change prevailing wisdom. But never mind the creepy Gugino/DeNiro on-screen pairing: the worst thing about this film is from the script: It’s the blatant lying that frames the picture that gets old real fast, as the film withhold just enough details to make it obvious that we’re not watching the entire story, leading to a painfully predictable conclusion and a far too long third act that can’t resist exploiting a female character’s vulnerability for no good reason. What’s really annoying is that Righteous Kill does have a few good ideas rattling around: the material about how “everyone respects the badge” offers a grittier view of men in uniform than most police thrillers, but what could have been a really fascinating theme in a stronger picture seems wasted in a routine potboiler. Much like the lead actors, Righteous Kill is a pale shadow of what could have been.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Plan 9 From Outer Space</strong> (1959)

(On DVD, September 2008) It’s impossible to watch this film today without thinking about its reputation as “the worst movie ever made”, or its place in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). So it may not be so surprising that the film is surprisingly engaging, even with its numerous production errors, stilted dialog, incoherent plot and campy acting: for a number of reasons, it remains compelling. For all of Ed Wood’s ineptness as a writer and director, some aspects of the film are unexpectedly solid: the dramatic construction of the scenes, for instance, has all of the right elements arranged in more or less the right order, albeit torpedoed by the terrible dialog, stiff acting and lousy production values. The earnestness factor also plays a role: despite the film’s laughable execution, there’s always a residual feeling that a lot of it is intended to be taken seriously, and indeed some much-cited passages, such as the “Stupid! Stupid!” speech, betray an inner core of sentiment that wouldn’t be out-of-place in more successful works. It’s a far cry from the “so bad it’s good” hype. All in all, an essential piece of movie history: don’t miss it, but try to see it with a crowd.

Igor (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Igor</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Is it too much to ask that animated comedies for kids be at least pleasant to look at? Igor‘s art design is among the ugliest I’ve seen on-screen, and even a vague intention to replicate the counter-cultural charm of Tim Burton’s most successful films aren’t nearly enough to make this film a more pleasant experience. As a gothic romance between a hunchback and a patched-up Frankenwoman, Igor remains hampered by its kiddy-friendly PG rating, terrible screenwriting and the previously-mentioned ugliness. It may be “for the kids”, but that’s not much of an excuse at times where family films like Wall-E prove that clever writing remain essential. If nothing else, Igor proves that computer-animated features are now cheap and common enough that they can find a place in the B-movie ecosystem. This is one film that will sink away from memory soon after its DVD release.

The Execution Channel, Ken MacLeod

<em class="BookTitle">The Execution Channel</em>, Ken MacLeod

Tor, 2007, 285 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1332-4

Trying to discuss Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel is a lot like chasing a slippery bar of soap over a slick floor: It never stays still, defies any strong grip and presents serious potential for bruised shins in the effort. The novel cloaks itself in misleading genre protocols before revealing itself to be something entirely different, shoving optimism where readers have been conditioned to expect the worst. Alas, a good case can be made that the novel is never as good as when it’s being really, really awful.

Like all of MacLeod’s novels so far, it’s an intensely political piece of work. But unlike most of McLeod’s books so far, it’s a near-contemporary thriller that benefits from our familiarity with today’s world. Taking place in a near future where terrorism has grown even more vicious, The Execution Channel begins with a nuclear detonation on British soil, then follows a group of characters as governments go through an acute period of rage in trying to identify and catch the terrorists. There’s a conveniently well-connected family at the center of the story, one with a pacifist daughter, a solider son and a traitorous father. But there’s also a coordinated disinformation effort, a few conspiracy theorists, strong international tensions and a mysterious “execution channel”.

One thing’s for sure: MacLeod can do dark like few other writers. From the opening pages, we’re presented with a world that teeters on the brink of irremediableness, a world where the value of bad information has become higher than the true story. A world where viewers can tune in to a channel that solely presents violent executions. A world where conspiracy theorists are markedly better-informed than their saner relatives. A world where paid government operatives deliberately seed misinformation on blogs. A world racing to nuclear war and ever-more powerful weapons. “The War on terror is over. Terror won” says the front-cover blurb, and the impact is profound: Reading The Execution Channel is like taking an all-expense trip to a vision of how bad things could get within half a decade.

It’s written like a techno-thriller and reads like a particularly paranoid one: MacLeod has never been so accessible and so depressing. It uses just the slightest amount of future shock to sends current trend to a break point, and seeds just enough new ideas into the mix to please SF fans.

But if The Execution Channel looks like something at first, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will stay like that until the end. Throughout the course of the book, MacLeod betrays expectations three times. The first betrayal, that of the world in which the story takes place, is more amusing than consequential. The second betrayal, which shifts the novel’s genres in a fairly spectacular fashion, is clearly announced both by the author’s pedigree and by significant in-story clues. It’s the third betrayal that hurts most, ironically by providing an optimistic conclusion after nearly three hundred pages of increasing grimness: By that point, the fact that some characters will survive the story seems like a disappointment after so much grimness.

The biggest irony is that The Execution Channel serves the exact same science-will-save-us-all conclusion that’s been one of SF’s most reliable motif over its decades of existence. But by juxtaposing it onto a realistic framework of real-world horrors, it makes it feel hollow and undeserved. Whether this is reading a message where none were intended, or if the author is trying to tell us something about SF readers’ unrealistic expectations, is left to the reader to articulate.

Gwoemul [The Host] (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gwoemul</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Host</strong>] (2006)

(On DVD, September 2008) This Korean monster movie is most notable for two things: First, for daring conventional wisdom by showing its monster early on, in full daylight, in the middle of a screaming crowd. That sequence is terrific, certainly among the best depiction of mass terror put on film, and promises much for the rest of the story. Alas, The Host is also famous for its refusal to play by the rules of Hollywood happy endings. So much so that the film ends with a sweeping wave of resentment and futility, as the object of the character’s sacrifices is dispensed with. It doesn’t help raise the overall appreciation of a film that is alternately depressing, slow, stupid and dull. The characters act in ways that are moronic enough to drive the plot forward, which makes it almost impossible to empathize for them. There are several plot-holes in the story which become impossible to justify over the several days that the story takes place: a tighter time-frame (a few hours, say) would have paved over several problems, but here they’re just excuses for knocking characters in unconsciousness, killing cell phones, gratuitous chases and incompetent military forces. There’s still a lot to admire about the film (I’m particularly impressed by the sequence in which the image of a Molotov-throwing rioter is transformed into an operatic slow-motion portrayal of a selfless hero), but it’s a film that seems almost determined to undermine any attempt at sympathy. After having seen Cloverfield, it’s not because it’s not from Hollywood that it’s necessarily better.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Hunter S. Thompson fans are in for a treat with this documentary that unearths a number of archival clips to follow “The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” from beginning to end –with an explosive epilogue. Talking head footage with people ranging from Tom Wolfe to Johnny Depp and Jimmy Carter is inter-cut with archival footage of Hunter’s life and film interviews to present a coherent but too-short overview of a remarkable rabble-rouser. Thompson fans will be surprised to see archival footage of, say, Thompson’s appearance on a televised game show following the release of his books on the Hell’s Angels. Those who know nothing about Thompson will be served with stories of his worst excesses, his prodigious appetite for drugs and guns, his prankster instincts (including the politically-significant Ibogaine incident) and the particular nature of his prose, read off-screen by Johnny Depp. Thompson’s latter-year decline is discussed but not dwelt upon, a compromise probably made necessary by his suicide. The film is bold enough to suggest that the act was one of cowardice, but viewers will be left to make their own conclusions. The nature of the character is such that any simple film is bound to be disappointing: too many stories left unmentioned, and too quick an overview to really satisfy those who want more. But this documentary is still a bright spot in an otherwise meaningless cinema landscape: I’m glad I caught it in theaters.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Clockwork Orange</strong> (1971)

(On DVD, September 2008) Alternately dull and fascinating, this classic has endured a lot better than you’d expect. The lengths of the film are deliberate traits of Kubrick’s style, for one thing, and not remnants of an outdated editing style. A plot summary seems superfluous given the film’s place in contemporary pop culture and the myriad of references made to it. (Even people who think they recognize the references may be surprised: I was shocked to realize that Rob Zombie’s “Never Gonna Stop” makes a bunch of references to the film, up to and most visibly the “Durango 95”) Yet there’s a lot more to this film than Alex, his droogs and the famous brainwashing sequence: the entire third act is something that tends to be given short thrift in references to the film, and so becomes perhaps the most interesting thing about it. I still don’t believe that it entirely clicks together: the opening act suggests a far more barbaric social breakdown than what is suggested by the rest of the film, a hint that this is best considered as a fable than a serious SF film. Our modern jaded sensibilities may not be appropriate to judge the controversy that the film raised upon release: While “the old ultra-violence” seems ordinary and the torture sequence merely icky, it’s the frequent nudity and the stark symbolism that seems most controversial today. See it at least once to firm up your cultural referents.