The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

<em class="BookTitle">The Omnivore’s Dilemma</em>, Michael Pollan

Penguin, 2006 (2007 reprint), 450 pages, C$19.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0

I should preface this review by saying that I worked several summers on my uncle’s farm, and that I’m no stranger to that end of the food production chain. Several of the experiences described in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma aren’t so strange to me: I have moved cattle from one field to another, shoveled excrement, held on to carcasses being gutted and everything in-between the life of a farm hand from dusk to dawn. When I eat steak, I can tell you where it came from, how it was processed and why cows deserve to be eaten.

But few North-Americans can say the same about what they eat, and the nature of the modern food-processing industry is such that no one can vouch for the provenance of the stuff they eat. It’s that realization that led Pollan to embark on a major documentary project: Trace the origins of what we eat, and do so using the excuse of four different meals.

The first meal in an all-American McDonald’s lunch, and it’s the most hard-hitting part of the book. While many people (myself included) still harbor quaint notions of family farms, feeding North America requires an industry that is more about chemicals and overproduction than free-range cattle. In a few eye-opening chapters, Pollan describes entire agricultural landscapes taken over by the monoculture of corn, floating on virtual oceans of oil given how non-renewable substances are essential in pushing corn growing well beyond self-sustainability. In a few cogent passages, Pollan directly links government policies and subsidies to the corn-saturated diet of all Americans, a diet whose deleterious impacts are still being discovered. Corn has come to invade nearly every single aspect of food production, even in food that seemingly has nothing to do with corn: the modern chemical industry has found hundreds of derivative corn-based products, and a similarly robust effort to re-create artificial smells and flavors can seem to transform corn into just about anything. That’s the first of the many revelations in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the shocks keep piling up as Pollan tries to learn more about how beef is grown and raised on the gigantic meat factories of the Midwest. (There’s a limit to what he can find out when the biggest meat-producers forbid him from getting inside their factories.) Pollan’s first meal tastes of chemicals and oil in more than metaphorical ways as we’re left to contemplate a system engineered for cheap food, not necessarily for good or healthy or sustainable living.

But is there an alternative? Pollan’s second meal is assembled from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods supermarkets, but his research into “Big Green” suggests that the Organic movement is little more than a feel-good label on environmentally unsound practices. Better than McDonald’s, sure, but still nowhere near self-sustainability: on the way from the hippies to Whole Foods, the process was co-opted and corrupted by the very same corporations that Organic food was supposed to run against.

Pollan’s third meal is a little more encouraging. Wearing overalls for a week, Pollan finds himself on Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm, working for his food in a highly optimized ecosystem where few things are ever wasted. As luck had it, I ended up reading this section on the family farm, and my descriptions of the various ways in which Polyface recycles and reuses its ecosystematic components caused a number of favorable comments from family members better equipped to evaluate the process. Pollan finds some peace and contentment in putting together his third meal from the environmentally-sustainable Polyface products, but he’s more than ready to admit that the process doesn’t scale up: Trying to feed North America using a Polyface model would require a lot more land and farmers than we’ve got.

But the experience of cutting chicken necks on Polyface soon leads Pollan to his fourth meal, for which he intends to gather all the material himself from local sources, from killing a wild board to gathering salt from the ocean. His experiment doesn’t always go as planned (the salt from the San Francisco Bay seems too toxic to consume), but the digressions along the way include meditations on being a hunter, and the strange sub-culture of mushroom-gatherers.

But a bland recitation of Pollan’s four meals misses the point that this is a fantastic non-fiction exploration of food and how it’s tightly integrated with the environment, with economics, with society and with our own biology. This is investigative journalism at its finest, as Pollan not only finds the facts, but manages to present them vividly. The Omnivore’s Dilemma has a nearly perfect narrative drive (the only exception being Pollan’s chapter-long exploration of vegetarianism, which isn’t something in which I’m terribly interested) and plenty of jumping points for personal inquiry.

I found myself wondering, for instance, whether there was an appreciable difference between Canadian and American diets: given the role that US sugar subsidies have played in promoting the use of high-fructose corn syrup in just about every facet of American food; can there be other differences between Canadian and US food? Despite its climate, is Canada closer to food self-sustainability than the US?

But chances are that everyone will find themselves looking at food differently after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Going to the supermarket becomes a different experience once you can picture the oceans of corn that are distilled into making up a significant fraction of what’s on the shelves. Ingredient labels become fascinating. Processed food become less appealing. Heck, even a locally-grown stalk of broccoli is somehow ennobled by Pollan’s book.

It helps that Pollan isn’t quite as strident as other food writers (such as Susan Powter, for instance) in convincing us to change our rotten ways. Most of his argumentative power comes from implication. Environmentalism may be an unarguable conceptual virtue, but it’s more sobering to consider that the end of cheap oil will have a profound impact on our food supply. Self-sustainability means planning for the long term, and our food supply chain in its current form definitely isn’t built to last.

Good non-fiction is always a pleasure to read, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma goes beyond that to become a mesmerizing experience, filled with revelations and questions. It will spur you to learn more (Pollan’s own follow-up In Defense of Food was written partly to answer some of the most nagging questions left by this book) and maybe even nudge you gently toward more responsible lifestyle choices. Even, especially, if you’ve never worked on a farm.

The Last Theorem, Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl

<em class="BookTitle">The Last Theorem</em>, Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl

Del Rey, 2008, 299 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-47021-8

Any critical commentary regarding this novel takes a back-seat to a simple fact: This is Arthur C. Clarke’s last novel, and it’s a collaboration with Frederick Pohl, one of the most respected veterans of the Science Fiction field.

Everything else is practically irrelevant. The Last Theorem is practically critic-proof: no matter how good (or bad) it is, there’s a good chance that it will be read by a large audience over the next few years, as fans of both authors make their way to a quasi-legendary collaboration between two giants of the genre, and to “Clarke’s last novel”.

So what’s left for a poor reviewer to do?

The best ones will use this opportunity to link the novel to the co-authors’ careers. Those who know that Pohl wrote the novel based on Clarke’s outline won’t be overly surprised to find out that the book’s structure and themes most closely resemble a collection of Clarke’s usual obsessions, and that the writing style is closer to Pohl’s usual clean prose. (Not that Pohl usually wrote in a wholly different way from Clarke, mind you.)

The story itself is closer to biography than to thriller as we spend the book following the life of one Ranjit Subramanian, a Sri Lankan whose tortuous life ends up chronicling an entire future history. Ranjit is unusually fascinated with mathematical proofs, and his pet obsession is Fermat’s Last Theorem. Unsatisfied by Andrew Wiles’ 1994 proof, our hero sets out to solve the theorem with a far more elegant proof. But there’s more to his life than mathematics: His confused love life, his semi-willing abduction by pirates and (later) his work for the United States, involvement in the establishment of a world government and the construction of a space elevator all come into play sooner of later. And that’s not even mentioning the coming alien force mentioned in the early pages of the novel.

If you think that this gives a scattered quality to The Last Theorem, you’d be right: As a combination between a fictional biography and a collection of the author’s latest pet preoccupations, it’s not bound to the rigid demands of time, theme and place. It veers between eras, sometimes jarringly (pirates?).

But if you think that’s a major problem, well, you haven’t read enough Clarke novels. The latter stage of his career (roughly from Imperial Earth to The Hammer of God, but especially toward the latter half of that period) produced a handful of utterly admirable works of pure science-fiction, generally less concerned with plot than neat ideas and concepts that he couldn’t wait to tell us about. Few other authors have dared write such novels, and even fewer have succeeded at it. They remain unique fiction artifacts, among the purest and oddest long-form SF texts the genre has produced. The Last Theorem is often best seen as a slightly more structured example of that form.

Needless to say, it’s best appreciated by lifelong Clarke/Pohl fans than fresh-off-the-street readers. For civilians, The Last Theorem will be self-indulgent, packed with infodumps and without much suspense. The narration is intrusive (the three preambles leading to the novel and three postambles leading from it, many of them about Clarke, Pohl or Fermat, are a good example of the authors directly addressing the reader) and the authors often can’t be bothered to show rather than tell us outright what’s happening.

It’s a strange reading experience, and one that trades heavily on nostalgia. But the last pages of the book only solidify the thought that many had upon learning about the book: This is Clarke’s last novel, and it’s a collaboration with Frederik Pohl. Everything else is irrelevant.

Skipping Christmas, John Grisham

<em class="BookTitle">Skipping Christmas</em>, John Grisham

Doubleday, 2001, 177 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50841-7

Western civilization (if there is such a thing) has a very strange relationship with cynicism. It is, for many people, a defense mechanism. A way to feel above a system in which we are all co-conspirators; a way to show how much better we are than everyone else; a way to assert that we’re better than our neighbors, our parents; our former naive selves. Pushed too far in that direction, cynicism can be over-used to disengage from the world and create a solipsist personal reality from which everything else looks stupid. And yet cynicism is necessary at a time where we’re bombarded with a web of emotional manipulation hiding commercial intent.

Yes, this is a review of John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.

You see, it begins as our protagonists peek behind the sham that is the Christmas frenzy. Left home alone after their daughter’s departure, the Kranks make a few calculation and discover that they can afford a lavish cruise holiday as long as they refuse to spend the $6000 they usually put aside for the holiday celebrations. It means no tree, no party, no gifts, no charitable donations, no decorations.

The first reaction of most readers will be something like “$6000? That’s your first problem right there!”, but never mind: We’re in American upper-middle-class fantasy-land, here, and sympathizing with idiots is the first requirement of this inconsequential fable.

It helps that the Kranks, as stupid as they may be, aren’t the biggest idiots around: their entire neighborhood is even more moronic, exerting considerable peer pressure to make the Kranks reconsider their worst Christmas-blackout intentions. Their street is obsessed with decoration conformity; various charities are socially mugging them for money; everyone expects a party.

That first asocial section of the novel is enjoyable as long as you manage to identify with a single-income couple blowing $6000 on Christmas holidays and weeping about it. If you happen to read the novel in the maniacal run-up to Christmas Eve, part of it will make you want to cheer and say “Good for you , Kranks!”.

It’s when the plot meets a major contrivance (along a seemingly endless succession of contrivances) that things take a turn in another direction. Forced to dramatically change plans, the Kranks bow frantically to peer pressure, outspend their way into a last-minute celebration and end up saving that elusive spirit of the holidays by bowing down to the golden altar of social conformity. Minor characters provide emotional catharsis. Readers who applauded the novel’s initial cynicism are made to feel like chumps for ignoring the true meaning of Christmas.

That’ll teach you to be cynic.

So who’s the target audience of Skipping Christmas? Everyone and no one. Much like its protagonists, it tries to dismiss Christmas yet can’t help but pay tribute to it. People who love the first half may not be quite so taken by the second one (and vice-versa, although it works better in that direction). To give some credit to Grisham, though, the novel is never less than a joy to read, even if you almost violently disagree with what it’s trying to do: there are a number of good laughs here and there, and as long as you buy into parts of the premise, it’s amusing to see the protagonists flail away from Christmas, then back to it.

If nothing else, this is the kind of flawed novel that is fascinating to discuss with others: Like it or not, it features plenty of things to argue about. After all, what was the last Christmas-themed novels that gets a reviewer going about the nature of cynicism in Western civilization?

(I’ll note in passing that the movie adaptation -which I haven’t seen yet- got excruciating reviews.)

So Yesterday, Scott Westerfeld

<em class="BookTitle">So Yesterday</em>, Scott Westerfeld

Razorbill, 2004, 225 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-59514-000-X

At this point, I don’t have to be convinced anymore that Young Adult fiction can be just as enjoyable than adult fiction for older readers, but Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday clues me in that there are some issues that are best discussed within the frame of a YA novel.

I’m not necessarily talking about novel about specifically teenage issues. Obviously, YA is a natural choice for discussing first loves, teen angst, coming-of-age narratives or high school odysseys. But there are issues of universal importance that are best tackled by teenage protagonists.

The issue of cool, for instance.

Or, more specifically, the issue of how cool is identified, formalized and marketed to the population at large. How individual quirks can be marketed as counter-cultural icons and end up defining a demographic category. How culture is co-opted for strictly commercial goals, and how the landscape of our identities is shaped by other people. This is the kind of material that is important to all of us, no matter our age, gender or social demographic. But if you’re going to look at cool, what better protagonist than a teenager whose quest for cool occupies a significant chunk of his life?

Meet Hunter Braque, New Yorker. His job is to spot the new trends, and report them back to his employers. If something new walks down the streets of the Big Apple, it’s up to him and his colleagues to pass it along so that marketing directors and ad agency designers make use of it. From New York to the rest of the world is just a matter of data transmission: It’s not a stretch to say that Hunter has the power to alter culture around the globe.

But it’s not his job to worry about such things. He’s just supposed to live in the city and report on the new things that catch his eyes, snapping pictures along the way. Occasionally, he’s asked to comment on ad campaigns or walk around to demonstrate fancy new products. But everything takes a strange turn when his boss is kidnapped and he discovers a well-orchestrated marketing effort whose goals he can’t understand. A lavish launch party turns surreal when the invited jet-set is drugged and provided with party gifts of unexpected capabilities. Who’s calling the shot? And what are they selling?

If you’ve read at least one issue of Adbusters magazine (and you should), you will figure out that Hunter has fallen through the rabbit hole into the plans of a few culture jammers. The mystery soon turns to thriller as Hunter is chased for having discovered too much. Along with a few friends, Hunter is stuck between curiosity and paranoia as he comes to realize how cool is manufactured…

As a YA thriller, So Yesterday isn’t without flaws: There are questions raised about counter-culture financing that the novel never bothers to address, even when the answers would have been even more thematically pernicious. But on a surface level, this is a quick and efficient novel that rushes through a number of good ideas, features compelling characters and has more on its mind than a simple adventure through the streets of New York City.

By its nature as a YA novel, talking to readers whose identities are directly shaped by marketing forces, So Yesterday also manages to tackle its themes in ways that are far more intriguing than any adult novel may have been able to do. That’s quite an achievement, and it’s a good lesson for writers who may be tempted to submit a YA book proposal. In retrospect, the thematic links between So Yesterday and Cory Doctorow’s acclaimed Little Brother (also concerned with teenage cultural sedition) are intriguing, and quite specific to YA. You won’t find quite the same stories in adult fiction; why not see for yourself if what the kids are reading is all right?

Wild Fire, Nelson DeMille

<em class="BookTitle">Wild Fire</em>, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2006, 519 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-57967-4

I used to believe that Nelson DeMille couldn’t do wrong, that even when he padded a wildly implausible story with hundreds of useless pages, there was always something to rescue the wreckage and send it soaring about the norm. Night Flight was the novel that disabused me of the notion, and now Wild Fire is the one that confirms that DeMille is a fallible writer after all.

What’s dispiriting is that Wild Fire repeats a good chunk of Night Flight‘s mistakes, and indulges in a few more along the way. It’s almost as if DeMille was at a point where he didn’t have to care anymore. As a thriller, it’s botched from the get-go; as a sequel, it’s well within diminishing-returns territory; as a reflection of the zeitgeist, it’s ridiculously paranoid.

But let’s start with the essentials: Wild Fire is John Corey’s fourth adventure, after Plum Island, The Lion’s Game and Night Flight. Like its predecessor, it’s voluntarily set in the recent past, taking place in September 2002, which is to say a year after the events of Night Flight and sometimes between 9/11 and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The historical setting is part of the conceptual problems that plague Wild Fire like they plagued Night Fall. We know how, in large strokes, the story is going to end. Given how DeMille spends his first 120 pages explaining a plan to nuke two American cities, this becomes a bigger problem than in Night Fall. We knew that Night Fall was going to run into 9/11. This time, we know it’s not going to run into a nuclear apocalypse. This transforms the novel from a suspense thriller to a procedural one, as Corey uses his skills to discover and defuse the conspiracy.

That’s not necessarily a fatal problem: DeMille has certainly managed to produce strong novels from weaker premises. But the alpha-male charm of DeMille’s usual heroes, often the single best things about his stories, here seems to run on empty. Corey’s narration often plays up his loutish humor at the expense of his real skills as an investigator, but Wild Fire overindulges in the regard and Corey seems more like a caricature than ever before, a smart guy playing a shtick to the benefit of the peanut gallery.

It doesn’t help that DeMille seems bored with the proceedings, throwing bones to his audience more out of expectations than organic plotting. When a much-hated recurring characters makes a brief appearance before being taken out again, it feels like a wink and a shrug rather than the culmination of a long enmity. The macho banter between Corey and just about every other character (flirtatious with the women, aggressive with the men) feels tired and ready to be taken out.

Maybe it’s a sign that both Corey and DeMille still feel shell-shocked by 9/11. Corey can’t shut up about it, while DeMille indulges into paranoid plotting in which the American conspirators plan the deaths of millions of Americans with a sense of dutiful glee. The title of the novel itself refers to a doctrine (secret to us, but apparently known to all terrorist sponsors) in which terrorist nuclear attacks on American cities will result in the retaliatory glassification of most of the Islamic world. In some ways, Wild Fire accurately reflects the Bush-era paranoia of an American population feeling stuck between bloodthirsty terrorist and an uncaring government. But in others, the idea of a government-led conspiracy to kill Americans is fast becoming a cliché as thriller writers try to re-fight the last 9/11: Wild Fire may have been one of the first novel to touch upon that notion, but since then there have been quite a few more, including Steve Alten’s even more paranoid The Shell Game. It’s time to move on.

And by “move on”, that includes the notion that DeMille may be better off writing original novels again. For an author who, from 1978 to 1997 wrote ten independent novel, DeMille has turned to the dark side and produced a string of five sequels, up to and including 2008’s The Gate House. Enough is enough; just kill Corey once and for all (yes; I’m at the point when I’m actually cheering for his demise) and go do something else. Because the current 9/11-obsessed, sequel-writing, formula-set DeMille is a shadow of his former self, and it’s exactly the kind of slide into self-absorbed irrelevance that has doomed a number of his thriller-writing contemporaries. He has pulled some improbable writing challenges before, but the biggest one is going to be to save his own career from implosion.

The Martian Child, David Gerrold

<em class="BookTitle">The Martian Child</em>, David Gerrold

Forge, 2002, 190 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30311-6

In Science Fiction writing workshops relying on the “Turkey City Lexicon”, there is a derogatory expression, “Abbess Phone Home”, to describe “any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.” The expression is flippant, but the sad truth remains that genre writers can often found themselves trapped into their own literary ghetto when they try to break into a foreign market with a perfectly good non-genre story that could be published by their usual channels if only it had one or two genre elements.

I won’t try to guess how David Gerrold came to write The Martian Child or how the genre elements found their way into what is otherwise a mainstream story, but there’s no denying that the Science Fiction elements of this novel are largely irrelevant to its greatest success: portraying with frank honesty the tough process of adopting a troubled child. The idea of a kid who may be an alien may be enough to get Gerrold’s faithful SF-reading audience to pick up the book, but it’s hardly what makes the novel so interesting. (One note without further comment that while Gerrold’s novelette that formed the kernel of the novel was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1994 and went on to win both a Hugo and a Nebula award, the film that was adapted from the novel kept none of the science-fictional elements and was marketed as straight-up drama.)

Like many of Gerrold’s short stories, The Martian Child weaves fiction with fact, featuring first-person narration from a David whose biographical details (gay; Californian; SF writer) are very similar to David Gerrold’s own. SF fans will feel a little chill of name recognition as Daniel Keys Moran, Todd McCaffrey and Steve Barnes each make small cameo appearances in the narrative, alongside a mention of Theodore Sturgeon. If nothing else, even the cover says “based on a true story”.

Because Gerrold did adopt a child nearly fifteen years ago, and there’s no doubt that the experience fueled this novel. As we read all about how a single man adopts a “hard to place” child, it’s the day-to-day frustrations and incidents of the adoption, more than the hints that the child has supernatural powers, that drive this novel forward. Never mind how the child may (or may not) be evidence of an alien invasion plot: it’s the temper tantrums, the petty theft, the threats of walking away from a budding father/son connection that are the real suspense elements in this novel. This isn’t a treatise on adoption, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the experience, and gives all of the right believable details.

For such a short novel, it packs an emotional charge far more intense than you’d expect. Part of The Martian Child’s power is how it focuses on a narrative featuring two main characters and little else. It takes place in a contemporary reality, although it may not be immune to the occasional earthquakes and Hollywood movie props. Gerrold has always been a writer with an impeccably accessible style and it doesn’t fail him here: Every word in this short novel is there for a reason, and you may very well end up reading the entire thing in one sitting, as it is probably intended.

Given all of this, it’s a bit strange that the deniable SF elements of the novel end up feeling like a bit of a genre-friendly side-show, or a way to distinguish the novel from other similar narratives. The real meaning of “Abbess Phone Home” stories aren’t always that they fail at being genre stories, but that most of their interest lies elsewhere. So it is that The Martian Child may attract readers looking for alien changeling, but hit them with the force of a story about real humans.

Twilight (2008)

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

(In theaters, December 2008) It’s too easy to blast this film for lousy special effects, ridiculous pandering to its audience, gigantic plot holes and lousy direction. The truth is; this is not “a vampire movie” as much as it’s a film made specifically for teenage girls, sublimating pubescent anxieties into an overtly fantastical metaphor. Plus, it’s based on a wildly popular book that half the audience has already read: The director’s got her hands tied to insipid voice-over narration, slow-motion introduction of the romantic hero, and a plot that stops mid-way through. Fans will presumably be pleased, although the rest of the audience will just stare in amazement at the hollowness of the “Twilight phenomenon”. There are rare moments of sunshine in the middle of the morass: a conventionally amusing scene shows how dinnertime conventions are different between humans and vampires, while some particularly lousy lines will have anyone laughing at the ineptness of it all. (For those who aren’t fans, consider this: Imagine the dullness of Star Wars Episode 2‘s romantic subplot stretched over 90+ minutes.) Basically, it’s OK to love or hate this film, as long as you pre-identify as being part of its public or not.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Punisher: War Zone</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, December 2008) The only thing that distinguish this awful film from so many run-of-the-mill C-grade action movies is the unbelievably over-the-top violence that push its R-rating. Exploding heads; clouds of blood; pierced bodies: take your pick, gore-hound, because this film’s all about red pulp. For anyone without a fetish for violent dismemberment, however, this third attempt to create an action franchise out of one of the less likable comic-book superhero comes across as reprehensible. The violence doesn’t serve any artistic purpose and feels even more gratuitous than usual. Charmless, witless, meaningless: no wonder it’s going to be forgotten within moments.

Echo Burning, Lee Child

<em class="BookTitle">Echo Burning</em>, Lee Child

Jove, 2001 (2005 reprint), 420 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-515-14382-9

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series have always been built around the idea of the knight errant: Reacher is an ex-Military Policeman, now roaming around the United States and picking up adventures along the way. He’s not much of a sensitive man, but he knows right from wrong and seldom hesitates to do what needs to be done. But no novel in the series has made the knight-errant connection so explicitly as the scorching Echo Burning.

This time around, adventure finds Reacher on a Texas highway, as he’s picked up by a woman in need of protection. The story that she tells Reacher doesn’t quite convince him, but he can see that she’s got real problems: Her abusive husband is about to be released from prison after a few years locked away, and she fears what he may do to her upon his return. The husband isn’t just mean; he’s also rich, and has powerful friends. Reacher soon finds himself out of his usual elements when he’s stranded on a Texas ranch far from everywhere else, hired as a ranch hand despite knowing nothing about horses.

One advantage of a roving character is that every novel can take place in a different environment, and so it is that Echo Burning is likely to be most vividly remembered for its depiction of summertime in deep rural Texas, a place that can kill a pedestrian within a single day with heat unfit for human survival, a place where you pretty much have to drive hours in order to get from one place to another. There’s nowhere to hide in the sun-baked plains, and the novel eventually acquires a feel not terribly dissimilar to a modern western.

But, true to Reacher’s mission, it’s also about protecting a woman and her daughter against whatever dangers surround them. This being a Child novel, the nature of the danger isn’t always what we expect, and thank to the kind of plot reversal so characteristic of the Reacher series, the story takes a different direction midway through, just as readers are likely to ask if the novel can run a few more hundred pages on the initial premise. The woman’s husband isn’t the most dangerous thing around, oh no…

Most of Child’s distinctive skill in writing a thriller are just as successful in this novel: His lean but elegant prose, his unusually credible accumulation of details, his assured skill at plotting and characterization do much to keep us interested even as we’re waiting for things to happen. Only the ending drags a bit too long; not for what it contains, but for the way it takes too long to settle what should have been resolved earlier. But by that point in the story, it’s too late to stop reading.

In-between the country-trotting stories of Running Blind and Without Fail, Echo Burning marks a welcome change of pace for Reacher, who gets the chance to show his skills in a restricted setting, involved in a more intimate story than usual. Even the conspiracy that is suggested by the first few passages, as a team of assassins ply their trade, is a restrained affair. One of the strengths of the Reacher series is that every novel has its own set of distinctive features (which isn’t something to be said about other long-running series), and Echo Burning is easily one of Child’s most assured book so far. It is also one of Reacher’s purest quest, focused on helping the innocent and untainted by dubious personal connections to his past. If you haven’t hopped along the Jack Reacher series, it’s not too late to start, and Echo Burning is one of the better entry points into the character.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, December 2008) I wasn’t a big fan of the original, so the fact that this sequel seems a bit better than the original shouldn’t be interpreted as a particularly strong recommendation. For some reason, the characters are less annoying, the cloying sentimentality is toned-down and there are more penguins than in the original. There are at least one or two genuinely funny moments, from dirty union negotiations to a very determined shark. Otherwise, there’s not much to say: It still falls far below the best-of-category CGI films, but it’s marginally tolerable and that’s already not bad.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Day The Earth Stood Still</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, December 2008) Hollywood really should know better than to attempt remakes of decent films, because this latest snore-fest is the perfect example of why some things shouldn’t be revived. Cold War parables can’t always be adapted to modern sensibilities, and Hollywood now often seems dumber than ever: taken together, both of those truth hints at why this remake is so unbelievably dull. It’s most obvious with Keanu Reeves (who manages to portray alienness so successfully that he feels more robotic than the actual robot), but the script he’s got to work with is utter trash, with leaps of logic and incoherent plotting. While the film can’t avoid a few nice moments (the nano-cloud effects are good, and so are some of the early scenes of impending doom), it seems determined to annoy the maximum number of people with unsupportable performances by Kathy Bates and Jaden Smith. Again, see the script for the problems with their roles. Muddled morals, tepid pacing and superficial intellectual content are hallmarks of our era. The film ends up being a powerful argument for the extermination of our species. Recommendation for Hollywood: Don’t mess with what’s not broken, because you will make it worse.

Bolt (2008)

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

(In theaters, December 2008) Thematic resemblances between Bolt and Pixar movies may not be accidental: With Pixar alumni John Lasseter producing the film, the themes and methods tend to the tried-and-true, what with an animal protagonist living a fantasy, going through a series of action set-pieces to reach an emotional objective. It’s conventional (the ending can be seen coming a mile away), but it works thanks to good characterization, effective direction and considerable artistry. This being said, the film’s never quite as enjoyable as when it’s taking place in fantasy-land: the opening action sequences is so good that the rest of the film pales in comparison. Bolt remains strangely limited in other areas as well. Beyond the thematic richness of a dog forced to confront his own ordinary dogness, there isn’t much here to justify a second viewing. Still, Bolt succeeds at most of what it attempts, including delivering a satisfying film to the whole family. That’s already not too bad considering that the computer-animated-film subgenre is getting crowded, and the level of quality is more uneven than ever.

Red Lightning, John Varley

<em class="BookTitle">Red Lightning</em>, John Varley

Ace, 2006, 330 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01364-3

Every decade has its own John Varley, who went from a ground-breaking newcomer in the seventies to a Hollywood exile in the eighties to a mysterious absent in the nineties to, now, a mid-list entertainer perfectly content to tell familiar stories in aw-shucks narration.

Nominally a sequel to Red Thunder, this novel picks up a generation later. Mars has been colonized thanks to the bubble drive, and our narrator Ray is the son of the first volume’s Manny Garcia. As the novel begins, the Earth is struck by something, and the resulting tidal wave is enough to wipe out Florida where Ray’s grandmother still maintains the family hotel. Within hours the entire Garcia clan is on the move, headed for Earth, and then into dark devastated Florida in search of their relatives.

But it’s one of Red Lightning‘s problems is that even though the Florida expedition takes up nearly half the book, it’s not really the story that Varley wants to tell. No, the real reason for this novel is an umpteenth tale of how extra-terrestrials stage another American Revolution in Spaaace. Never mind the disaster special in the novel’s first half: Soon, we’re back on Mars, fighting against mysterious Earth forces, and using bubbles to terrorize Earth so thoroughly that no one will even think of taking over the plucky Martian colonists.

Yes, it’s all terribly familiar. Except that instead of political sophistication, Varley has magical bubble technology on his side. The solution to pretty much every problem in the book is “more bubbles!” It gets old fast, even when Varley gets all aw-shucks-y with us.

Fortunately, it’s the same narration that keeps the novel from being just another forgettable mid-list SF novel. Even when he’s seriously misguided, Varley’s narration is compelling on a sentence-by-sentence basis. It’s a combination of engaging storytelling, an accumulation of clever detail and a voice that doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s hard to dislike someone like that, even when they’re telling hackneyed stories that appeal to few others than libertarians looking for another hit of that extraterrestrial revolution. (They’re probably the same people who won’t mind the convenient appearance of mysterious extra-governmental forces terrorizing Mars.)

Given the colonial rebellion that takes up most of the book’s last half, it’s ironic that it’s the low-tech dirty trip through Floridian devastation that ends up being Red Lightning‘s set-piece. But even then, the quality of the segment can be difficult to reconcile with the science-fictional setting. What would have been perfectly mesmerizing in a contemporary setting becomes impossible to justify a few decades from now. Take, for instance, the way Florida is left to fend for itself under media blackout after a tidal wave. Yes, Varley has been informed by the events following the Katrina hurricane, but there’s something too pat about the lack of foreign sources of information and ad-hoc communication networks. (Also: not every future government will be as willfully incompetent as the Bush administration.)

The result feels disjointed, a double feature of stories that don’t go well together, jammed into a structure that can’t accommodate both a destroyed Florida and a rebellious Mars. The easy prose may make Red Lightning a fast and pleasant read, but it does nothing to patch the broken shape of the book, or the more problematic elements of its conception. Varley, of course, has been a genre Science Fiction writer all of his life. But this is one instance where stepping back from the future and writing a contemporary thriller would have been a better choice. In trying to stick to genre formulas, Varley is well on his way to diluting his own brand.