Vitals, Greg Bear

<em class="BookTitle">Vitals</em>, Greg Bear

Del Rey, 2002, 356 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-43528-1

Warning: This isn’t a review as much as it’s an explanation of why I pretty much ended up giving up on the novel mid-way through, then skimmed my way to the conclusion. While the platonic ideal of a review should only be written after a careful second re-read and with knowledge of the author’s entire oeuvres (along with a thorough knowledge of the author’s socio-cultural context), I happen to think that there’s a certain place for descriptions of failures along the way, if only as a billet d’humeur to recalibrate everyone’s expectations.

So it is that I should state up-front that Bear is the very definition of an uneven writer. While he has written some astonishingly great novels (Moving Mars, The Forge of God, Eon, Blood Music), many of his other books have been dullness given hard covers. His bibliography ping-pongs between good and bad so inconsistently that it may not be an accident if this if it took until 2009 for me to try anything he’s written in the 21st century.

In context, Vitals fits in Bear’s years-long flirtation with the technothriller. From the contemporary SF action of 1999’s Nebula-winning Darwin’s Radio to 2005’s Quantico, Bear spent most of a decade writing near-future stories with a thriller template. Vitals plays a familiar tune for genre readers, as it shows a Science Fiction-minded author tackling issues in current settings, usually with an eye toward a mainstream audiences and sales. See: Kress, Nancy; Williams, Walter Jon; Sawyer, Robert J.; etc.

The first few pages of Vitals are pretty good: As a scientist descends to the ocean floor in company of an increasingly perturbed submarine pilot, we’re introduced to the scientist’s work in life-extension. A few things are unfocused, but it’s just the beginning of the novel. By the time the pilot turns nuts in a confined space thousands of meters below the sea level, it’s hard not to become involved.

By the time our narrator has returned to the surface, seen other instances of people behaving badly, being almost accused of murder, and finding out that his twin brother is dead, two things are becoming clear about Vitals: It’s a story with intriguing ideas, and it’s being badly told. While well-paced thrillers ratchet up the tension with nearly-audible clicks, Vitals muddles forward and sideways and even back when, midway through, we switch narrators and go back a few months previously. There’s a mushy, indistinct quality to Vitals that’s hard to reconcile with the demands of a tautly-told thriller. The fact that the protagonists often have their head messed with isn’t much of an excuse; instead, it’s confusion and vagueness all the way through. The lack of clear characters doesn’t help, and neither do the various attempts to one-up the action with paranoid killer schemes. (This is another one of those novels where an exotic way of killing someone ends up used in every possible fashion, rather than more direct and effective methods that could end the narrative right there. Ah, give a toy to an SF writer…)

By the time we piece together a Soviet conspiracy that hides a microbial conspiracy, it’s far too late to care even about such a globe-spinning premise: Vitals has faded away, and the only reason to rush to the conclusion is to see whether it will conclude or just drop away. (Well, that and to spot the Stalin cameo.) But this novel does not conclude: it runs out of ideas, looks around dazedly, gives up and terminates. What kills Vitals isn’t the nature of the far-out ideas, but their lousy execution. Another writer would have been able to do something fantastic with them, but not Bear: Vitals is too long, too sloppy and too uninterested in what it’s saying —although I may be projecting that last flaw onto the novel.

It also justifies my continued coolness toward anything that Bear has written since 1995. (His new City at the End of Time? Not before I see it on sale, baby!) I don’t seem to be alone: Go look at the awful 2.5-stars average Amazon reviews for what seems like a consensus opinion on Vitals. This may have been a personal rant, but my disappointment hardly seems unique whenever this novel is concerned.

Death Match, Lincoln Child

<em class="BookTitle">Death Match</em>, Lincoln Child

Anchor, 2004 (2006 reprint), 388 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-307-27556-6

Here’s a pop quiz to test your genre savvy: You’re locked in a room with a string of murder victims on the floor. Around you are a cowboy, a vampire, an Artificial Intelligence, a ninja, a pirate, the President of the United States and a butler. You find out you’re in a technothriller. Who killed the victims?

That’s right: The Artificial Intelligence. Well done.

It’s never Lupus, but it’s always the Artificial Intelligence in technothrillers. It’s an impulse as basic as the class anxieties that led to an improbable number of homicidal butlers in British cozy murder mysteries: Technothriller writers are in the business of chilling their readers, and they calculate that since we already loathe our laptops and smart phones, we should be terrified of even smarter machines. The point at which computers become smarter than ourselves may already be here: looking at how many iPhones are already more intelligent than their teenage owners, it’s hard not to believe in the upcoming Singularity —not through machine intelligence, but thanks to increasing human stupidity.

And it’s human stupidity that finally brings us to Lincoln Child’s Death Match, three paragraphs in our review. Like Child’s two other solo novels so far, it deals with high technology run amok. It also shares with Utopia and Deep Storm, a fantastic first half that ultimately gets ground to generic platitudes by the end of the novel. Taken together, they make a convincing argument that Lincoln Child is the logical heir to Michael Crichton. This, however, may not be compliment.

But before getting there, let’s lay down the basics of the story: Our protagonist is one Christopher Lash, a “forensic psychologist” whose career at the FBI was cut down by an initially unspecified trauma. Lash is called upon by Eden Inc, a secretive matchmaking service: Apparently, one of their happily married couples has committed double suicide, and they want to know why. Eden, mind you, isn’t your usual matchmaking service: it asks for $25,000 up-front, requires a full day of wide-spectrum psychological and medical testing, and is vastly more accurate than any other matchmaking services. Eden doesn’t take failure lightly, and the suicide of one of their most successful success stories is more than a professional offense: it may be a problem with their entire approach.

So Lash is called on the case, peeling back the layers of Eden’s operations in an attempt to understand what went wrong. His attempt to undergo the usual Eden candidate screening process goes wrong, but it’s not the only part of his life that is suddenly troublesome: All around him, annoyances and threats pile up, from suddenly-unpaid bills to mysterious calls to toll booth passes suddenly not working.

And for all of the novel’s faults, the first half works well. Faced with an intriguing mystery (a foolproof matchmaking process; a suicide between a seemingly perfect couple), readers are asked to follow along the mystery. Some of the best moments in Death Match are strictly procedural, as something is explained to us via the protagonist, and we get to look at a complicated process. Mystery and secrets can do much to lead a reader along, and I’ve got not problem with that part of the novel.

No, the troubles start when the AI is introduced. At that point (and maybe even before), experienced readers will look at the book’s remaining 200 pages and wonder how long Child is going to take to tell us that, as in all technothrillers, it’s the AI whodunit. The rest of the book is considerably less graceful than the first half, all the way down to the evil machines “spitting sparks and belching ever darker gouts of smoke” [P.367] Ah yes, sparks and smoke; sure signals of evil computer engineering mastery.

As for the rest, well, it’s pretty much routine for Child: clean prose, slightly tepid pacing when not uncovering secrets, conventional end. Tons of issues are left unexplored, but the mechanics of high-tech matchmaking are relatively interesting and that’s pretty much the only thing saving the book from complete formula-photocopying. It’ll do if you’re stuck on a beach, in a plane or on a bus. Beyond those desperate situations, though, there are better choices.

Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds

<em class="BookTitle">Pushing Ice</em>, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2005, 457 pages, £14.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07438-8

My traditional objections to Alastair Reynolds’ fiction have been twofold: First, too many of his novels take place in a single future history that gets increasingly less interesting. Second; far too many of his books are overwritten to the point of tediousness. The rest of his work is pretty good, but endless Inhibitors stories still make up more than half of his bibliography. Fortunately, his most recent books have taken steps against the issue, either tackling new futures, or coming in under 350 pages. Pushing Ice is halfway OK: It’s still far too long, but at least it offers something new. Not coincidentally, it’s almost the best thing that Reynolds has written so far.

It starts twice in ten pages: first, in a distant future where humanity has conquered hundreds of solars systems. Then, again, in 2057 as a plucky crew of comet-mining operatives is hired to go and check out Janus as it runs away from Jupiter. But accidents keep happening, and before we know it the crew of the Rockhopper crash-lands on Janus as it accelerates away from the Solar System. From near-future hard-SF, Pushing Ice turns into a high-tech Robinsonade, then other even stranger configurations as relativistic effects take hold. The structure of the novel is such that the prologue ends up not merely being a framing device, but a plot arrow whose impact is felt two-thirds of the way through.

For experienced SF readers, one of the best things about Pushing Ice is the way it pushes through the future, taking us from a relatively conventional hard-SF setting of blue-collar space work to the exotic weirdness of a far future shared with a variety of alien species. The structure of the story is such that there are quite a few chills in recognizing future technology delivered, almost as an afterthought, within the hands of human characters still recognizably like us.

That set of characters is uneven, but they have their moments of infighting. Decisions made by characters in position of power have consequences that go beyond immediate repercussions: Over and over again, the Rockhopper crew reacts, takes sides and argues about their fate, trying to survive despite what they receive as leadership failures. The novel eventually switches focus entirely as one character is taken out of service and replaced by another. Bit players come and go, sometimes in fairly gruesome fashion: Reynolds has never been known as a particularly light writer, and if Pushing Ice isn’t as relentlessly gloomy as his other work, it’s still heavy-going at times, pulling plot dynamics out of interpersonal clashes and the cyclical nature of entire civilizations. Betrayals happen so often that it’s a wonder anyone trust each other by the end of the story. (…and they don’t entirely do.)

Where Pushing Ice could have been better is in tightening up the screws: There’s a tremendous amount of nothing-happening within these near-500 pages, and the well-worn nature of Reynold’s ideas (big, but hardly innovative) are such that the novel could have been written in more or less the same way at any point during the past thirty years: But Pushing Ice as published in the 1980s would have been considerably shorter, and the pace would have accelerated through the story, not dawdled along unevenly like it does so often here.

But Pushing Ice does manage to make me more receptive to Reynolds’ most recent and upcoming novels. (Much as his short-story collection Zima Blue proved that he was at his best when writing shorter fiction not set in the Inhibitors universe.) I’m not going to give up on the Reynolds two-strike rule, but as soon as something either short or standalone comes up, I’ll let you know.

Scarecrow, Matthew Reilly

<em class="BookTitle">Scarecrow</em>, Matthew Reilly

St. Martin’s, 2003 (2005 reprint), 464 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-93766-0

Let me tell you why I love reading Matthew Reilly’s novels.

Since an image is worth a thousand words, picture this: Ottawa in mid-February. A meter of snow everywhere, ice on the ground, snowflakes in the air, fierce wind whipping the countryside. Then focus on an infrequent bus, stained with salt, windows fogged with its passengers’ exhalations, plowing through the storm thanks to an aggravated driver whose schedule has already been smashed by the weather, out-of-synch traffic lights, bad pavement and passengers who don’t know how to behave. Now enter the bus and try to find a place in the middle of a crowded space, alongside surly teenagers, glum federal public servants, depressed shift workers and overburdened students. The noise is a monotonous mixture of wind, pavement cracks, coughs, sniffles and regular stop calls. One person, squeezed in-between two grossly overweight passengers, is smiling. Of course, he’s reading a Matthew Reilly thriller.

What you’re not seeing is that at that point in the novel, barely fifty pages in, top operative Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield has just escaped a crumbling high-rise by grappling onto a Harrier-like jet. The building hides a top-secret Soviet ICBM launch complex, Schofield has a $18.2 million dollar bounty on his preferably-severed head, bounty hunters have decimated the rest of his Marines and there’s a Typhoon-class nuclear submarine hidden nearby.

This, my friends, is high-class escapism.

Some commuters read romance, some read fantasy, some read science-fiction, some read murder mysteries —and some read them all. But give me a slick over-the-top technothriller, and I won’t even care if it takes twice as long to go to work or get back home: As long as I’m reading, I will barely be on the bus.

This being Reilly’s fifth novel, it’s got a track record to follow. Fortunately, Reilly amps up the action to ever more frenetic levels, not forgetting to throw in a few spectacular scenes (such as an aircraft carrier blowing up), fast cars, high-tech weapons (such as Metalstorm rifles), fake deaths and nick-of-time escapes. Not to mention a bare-knuckles fist-fight between two series regulars. By this time in his series, he can count of his reader’s familiarity with his tricks to build punchlines or gut-punch readers who expect something else. A recurring character dies here, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a really funny moment during which a character tries to emulate Schofield’s recurring mag-hook trick, only to find out that it doesn’t work… and then scream that this sort of thing never happens to the Scarecrow.

But one thing’s new this time around, and it’s thematic framework that underlies the action. While Reilly gets a lot of juice from his bounty-hunting antagonists (one of which is certain to make a return appearance in upcoming novels), he ends up providing his novel with an apocalyptic “third world against first world” justification that hints at greater degrees of political sophistication. But don’t make too much of it in Scarecrow, though, because most of it is jettisoned as soon as the last act rolls in.

But once the smoke has cleared, it all adds up to an unusually satisfying thriller experience. Reilly has mastered thriller writing not only in delivering the good to his readership, but doing in a way that practically absolves him of any criticism: Of course, his premises, means, justifications, characters, and plotting don’t sustain comparison with the real world; what’s your point? The real thrill here is in seeing a skilled craftsman plays magnificently with the tools of his trade. It’s beautiful, impressive, and completely absorbing. If ever you see me reading a Matthew Reilly novel on the bus, please don’t disturb.

The Wrestler (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Wrestler</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, February 2009) I’m never too fond of the tragic dramatic arc, especially when it’s applied to characters who are somewhat sympathetic. And that may be the greatest achievement of Mickey Rourke in portraying the titular washed-up wrestler: Give us the impression that despite everything else, he’s still a winner. But don’t expect glam or triumph here, as we go from New Jersey strip clubs to New Jersey gyms and New Jersey small auditoriums. The Wrestler is trying to piece his life back together, but as all great tragic heroes, he’s got a few flaws that make it impossible for him to do so. The film ends in mid-flight, but the ultimate conclusion is clear. Harsh and gritty, at times too much so, The Wrestler isn’t a particularly good time at the movies, but it knows what it’s attempting to do, and it revolves around a fabulous performance. Compared to most of the Oscar-worthy class of 2008, it’s already not too bad.

Valkyrie (2008)

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

(In theaters, February 2009) It’s Nazis-versus-Nazis in this film adapted from one of World War 2’s most intriguing footnotes: the culmination of various plans by Germans to assassinate Hitler and seize control of the government. Of course, the fact that the plot remains a footnote is the biggest problem facing the film: We know that it won’t succeed, and we can guess the fate that awaits the co-conspirators. But working within those limits, Valkyrie accomplishes a modest success: It creates enough suspense even through a tremendous amount of exposition, and seems to remain generally true to the historical facts even when they don’t suit the purposes of a conventional thriller. Tom Cruise himself is competent in the lead role, although the often-unrecognizable group of high-caliber actors that surround him often given more remarkable performances. It all adds up to an entertaining, respectable film, made with old-school polish. (There’s also a few strong links to be made between this film and other recent German depictions of WW2 from inside the Nazi regime, like Downfall and Black Book) Hollywood has a hard enough time with facts that any half-decent attempt to stick to them should be applauded.

Taken (2008)

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

(In theaters, February 2009) In the small universe of exploitation thrillers, there are few surer recipes than the old kidnapping plot. This one complicates the formula a bit by putting an A-list dramatic actor such as Liam Neeson in the protagonist’s role and making him an ex-CIA operative with serious skills. The rest is pure crunchy B-movie fun, with little deviation from the expected conclusion. It may not be deep, but it’s competent to such a point that it’s hard to believe that the same screenwriters responsible for this script also wrote the flaccid Transporter 3. Still, co-writer Luc Besson’s heavy touch may be lighter here, but it’s hardly unrecognizable: the French police forces are just as reliably corrupt as in his usual films, and he can’t resist goosing the premise with an over-the-top white-slaving excuse. The direction is unequal (the hand-to-hand combat is good, for instance, but the car chases are incoherent), but the whole film generally holds up better than most B-grade thrillers seen lately. Neeson gives the film some unexpected gravitas that goes much to make it look respectable. Hardly memorable, but generally irreproachable.

The Enemy, Lee Child

<em class="BookTitle">The Enemy</em>, Lee Child

Dell, 2004 (2007 reprint), 464 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24101-0

Every Jack Reacher thriller is slightly different, and The Enemy‘s claim to distinction is obvious from the second page: It’s 1990 again, and Reacher is a Military Policeman on duty as the world changes decades. Elsewhere in the world, Germany is tearing down the Berlin Wall, and American forces are chasing Noriega in Panama. But those concerns quickly become secondary to Reacher as he’s put on his first case of the year: The murder of a general in a motel where rooms are rented by the hour.

This looks bad, but it quickly gets worse after Reacher starts digging: The General’s wife is violently killed hours after the death of her husband, and more victims drop dead as the novel advances. Reacher, clearly, has a lot of work to do, which is all very curious since he’s just been transferred to his post. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as he discovers that he’s hardly the only MP to have been moved around in the past few days…

As a gimmick, the old prequel is fast becoming a favorite of writers of all stripes. It gives a chance to reset the clock, see the character in classic top shape, and provide cute nods for series fans as they get cameos from series regulars. The Enemy is no exception, but as you may expect from a Lee Child novel, it also has the decency to provide a solid story along the way.

For Reacher fans, The Enemy‘s most compelling aspect is to see Reacher in his element, firmly entrenched within the army, and at a level where his investigative skills can be brought to bear on interesting issues. Life within the US military is completely different from civilian life, and Reacher knows all there is to know about it. He’s in a position of minor power, with an assistant and a lot of leeway on how to do his job. But Reacher is always at his best against obstacles, and the massive reorganization of Military Policemen around the world also means that he’s got a new boss, and that his superior doesn’t seem all that competent. In fact, he pretty much orders Reacher to shut the investigation down, something that does little to stop Reacher. By mid-book, Reacher is essentially acting rogue, trying to pierce together the pieces of the puzzle before running out of time.

But the very-early 1990s are also a tough period for him: His mother isn’t doing so well, and it’s an excuse for Reacher to go visit her in France, along with his brother Joe. Before the end of the novel, Reacher will learn a few troubling things about his own lineage.

As with all Reacher adventures, The Enemy is a gleefully enjoyable mixture of procedural details and structural misdirection. It’s also one of the purest mysteries that Reacher has had to investigate so far: Despite the thrilling tank battle that marks the conclusion of the story, this novel is a straight-up investigation. The ramifications and reasons for the crimes Reacher is investigating go high up the hierarchy of the Army, but the investigation is a mixture of police work, tenacity and pure luck.

It goes without saying that it’s also delivered with some of the cleanest, most compelling prose in the entire thriller genre. Child is a best-selling professional, and The Enemy is a pure delight for fans and neophytes both. While newcomers to the Reacher series will be able to get by, those who have read the rest of the Reacher books will recognize a few familiar names, and there’s a good chance that The Enemy has seeded a few more familiar faces that we’ll see in the next few Reacher adventures.

As always, it’s tough waiting along for the next one; once readers have clued into the fact that Child is among the best, it’s hard not to read them all as quickly as possible.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Slumdog Millionaire</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, February 2009) For a feel-good movie about getting the money, the girl and the dream, this film will make you feel bad for quite a while. It’s hard to do otherwise, though, when picking characters out of the most unbelievably poor slums of Mumbai. The conceit that drives the tale (quiz-show questions alluding to the character’s life, as shown in flashbacks) is nothing short of clever, and the most interesting thing about the film may be how deftly it starts weaving through three time-lines, building a story out of snippets. As a look at contemporary India, it’s as depressing as it’s exhilarating, reflecting the real-life disparities to be found there at the moment. This being said, the payoff is long in coming, and the film’s self-assurance in building its premise isn’t always carried through in the lengthy over-explained segments that make up the bulk of the film’s content. Fortunately, the three set of lead actors are charming, and it all builds up to a great finale. In some ways, it’s old-fashioned film-making married to hip contemporary global awareness, and that’s got a lot going for it; no wonder the film did well on the Oscars nomination roll.

The Reader (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Reader</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, February 2009) Imagine, for a moment, hearing of a movie featuring “forbidden love between a young man and an older woman… nazis… women in prison”. Promising, right? Alas, all of this is ruined by the film’s dreaded “Oscar-worthy drama” pedigree, which makes fifteen minutes’ worth of plot turned into a two-hour film feel like most of a lifetime. Even Kate Winslet’s frequent nudity isn’t much of a selling point given how frequently she disrobes on-screen. If you have the patience to sit still through dull melodrama, there are a few interesting moments in The Reader: The filmmakers are good at portraying illicit passion, relatively competent at examining collective guilt and not too bad in portraying very flawed characters stuck in their decisions. But none of this actually translates into anything more than shameless pleas for Oscar nominations and superficial respectability. The moment you look closer at the plot, it falls apart: The film’s big dramatic moment (indeed, its title) depends on a secret that would never exist given the character’s biography. It all amounts to an exploitation film, but not the good kind of exploitation film that could have been titled Hannah, She-Wolf Of The SS. More of a feel-good-to-feel-bad formula drama to exploit the Holocaust once more, made without energy, wit or care for the audience’s time.

Push (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Push</strong> (2009)

(In theaters, February 2009) I wasn’t expecting much from this teen action thriller: Psychic powers are a bit lame in the SF field, and the first few minutes are so clumsy that it’s a wonder when the film does improve later on. But thanks to a few good characters, plot twists and clever sequences, Push manages to end up on an up note. No, the plot doesn’t make sense when you consider the knowledge that a non-precog character should or should not have had when writing a certain set of letters. But it hardly matters when the film rushes straight-ahead into the suspense and action sequences. It could have been considerably better, mind you: The direction is harsh and chaotic, the script is a bit too bloodthirsty and the art direction sees the Hong Kong location as an excuse to be as garish as it can be. But the same Hong Kong location makes up for spectacular backdrops, exotic location and an interesting Asian cast. In some ways, this is this year’s Jumper, what with young psychic people fighting against shadowy organizations in exotic locales. But in other ways it’s quite a bit better as long as you get past the film’s various annoyances and flawed direction. The ending blatantly leads to a follow-up: maybe, if there’s a sequel, it will be a bit better.

(Second Viewing, on DVD, May 2011) I think I like the movie a bit more upon a re-view: The script has moments of invention, Paul McGuigan’s direction is energetic, the actors bring something extra to the film (with special mentions of Dakota Fanning, Chris Evans and Djimon Hounsou’s work) and Hong Kong makes for a great location. Too bad the DVD isn’t anything special: The commentary (featuring McGuigan, Fanning and Evans) is about shooting experiences and them trying to understand the script. Of the handful of deleted scenes, one one actually brings something new. Finally, the only special feature is an obnoxious “Science behind the fiction” piece that relies on a single biased talking head to try to make viewers believe in psi powers. It’s disappointing when perfectly good unpretentious SF is ruined by those who take it too seriously.

Nacho Libre (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Nacho Libre</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, February 2009) Well, what can we say? It’s from Jared Hess, the writer/director of Napoleon Dynamite, so it’s hardly surprising if viewers either think it’s genius or lame. I’m much closer to thinking “lame” myself, although I have to admire the conceptual audacity of the premise: Making a movie about an overweight monastery cook becoming a Mexican wrestling champion ranks pretty highly on the “things I’d never thought would lead to a movie” scale. Alas, that one-note premise isn’t backed up by anything resembling comedy: assortments of odd moments don’t add up to jokes, and whatever laughs there are in the film often look like accidents for a script that seems determined to be more bizarre than funny. Jack Black’s usual shtick is toned-down to the point where it’s both inoffensive and dull; it speaks volumes that he’s considerably funnier on the DVD audio commentary track than in the movie itself. Otherwise, well, it’s obvious that this is one of those films that claims “It didn’t get it; it wasn’t funny” as a badge of success. Think about Napoleon Dynamite and let that film be your guide to how you feel about this one.

Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Perry

<em class="BookTitle">Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson</em>, Paul Perry

Thunder’s Mouth, 1992 (2004 revision), 274 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-605-2

Since I have declared 2009 “The Year of Hunter S. Thompson” in my reading list, I have decided to supplement my Thompson with books about Thompson. While the writer may have lived only one life, it’s rich enough to allow many different interpretations by biographers.

There’s a fundamental difference, though, in the books that were written while Thompson was alive and those published after his suicide in 2005. Much like there’s a difference between the books that seek to portray Thompson as the wild and crazy gonzo writer, and those who seek to go beyond the surface. Paul Perry’s Fear and Loathing, alas falls in the less-satisfying categories.

The biggest problem with Perry’s book is that it was written in the early nineties, and its 2004 re-edition barely adds four pages of meaningless fluff. While it’s true that Thompson’s most interesting work spanned only a few years in the late sixties and early seventies, it’s also fair to say that any book that does not deal with Thompson’s last years (including his resurgence partly fueled by the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film), and ultimately his death, is incomplete. Time has moved on, leaving Perry’s biography in place.

The other problem is that while Fear and Loathing acknowledges the gap between Thompson-the-legend and Thompson-the-man, it seems quite happy in printing the legend. In many ways, it’s the only possible choice when trying to fit Thompson’s life in less than 300 pages: cut the periods where nothing is happening, print the good stories, and keep going. This isn’t an entirely superficial book (although the lack of references is telling), but it’s best read as an introduction to Thompson, not a definitive biography.

It probably sounds as if I didn’t enjoy Fear and Loathing, but that’s really not true. After a rather dull and distant first section (up until Hell’s Angels, roughly), the biography picks up once Perry can interview people with stories to tell about Thompson the wild man. Ralph Steadman (who illustrated the cover and provided a small color portfolio of illustrations) is one of the book’s primary sources, and the energy of the narrative picks up once he’s able to talk, first-hand, about the Kentucky Derby, or the America’s Cup event they were asked to cover together, not to mention the disastrous trip in Zaire for the Ali-Foreman boxing match. It becomes even more interesting once Perry himself enters the picture as the Runner’s World editor who was able to convince Thompson to write an article on the Hawaii Triathlon. If Fear and Loathing has a highlight, it’s in providing a quasi-epilogue to Hell’s Angels by describing first-hand a meeting between Hunter and Ken Kesey, twenty-five years after separating. Another strong moment is in learning of dealings between Thompson and editing legend Ian Ballantine. The second half is a joy to read, even when it’s glossing over important moments.

But as suggested above, the book ends on a truly strange note, depicting 1990s Thompson becoming a fitness freak (in part thanks to Perry), mere paragraphs after discussing his 1990 arrest. This is a view somewhat inconsistent with the other profiles of Thompson, and though it provides a certain form of narrative closure, it seems trivial in light of the next fifteen years of Thompson’s life.

Now that the first wave of post-eulogy titles is firmly in bookstores, we’re getting not only the complete story of Thompson’s life, but well-rounded ones as well. I will admit that this review was written as I was reading William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist, a biography that is, in almost all respects, a better book that Fear and Loathing. But it’s also twice the size and is written by a journalism expert. Fear and Loathing, for all of its shortcomings, does manage to provide a short, coherent and quick overview of Thompson’s life: perfect for newcomers to the gonzo legend, or people with no time to spare.

Milk (2008)

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

(In theaters, February 2009) Even viewers with little specific interest in gay issues will find much to like about this didactic tale of political activism with a tragic ending. Based on a true story of Harvey Milk, “the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California”, the film is a time-capsule slice of San Francisco during the late seventies, a biography of a most unusual man and a primer on how to affect social change via political activism. As a result, it’s not exactly the most action-driven or funniest film on the planet. But it does represent a strong lesson in the way things work, and does so with a minimal amount of preaching. Covertly, it’s intensely relevant to today’s political issues: It’s hard to see the story of 1978’s Proposition 6 without thinking about 2008’s Proposition 8, or hear the anti-gay arguments of Milk’s opponent without thinking that they are seriously on the wrong side of history. Philosophically, it’s hard not to be impressed by a film that advocates steady political and social change over revolution, given how the latter is far more dramatic than the former. Alas, it’s the tragedy at the end of Milk’s life that acts as the dramatic driver to the film, mixing up a number of the lessons one could learn from it. (One also gets the feeling that the story of the Moscone-Milk assassinations was also far more complex than the simplified Milk-centric version presented on-screen.) Sean Penn is convincing in the lead role, while Science Fiction fans will be amused to see Frank M. Robinson (who was Milk’s speech-writer) in a series of cameo appearances. The period feel of the piece is remarkable and the film doesn’t overstay its welcome despite a relatively tepid rhythm.

Made In Jamaica (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Made In Jamaica</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, February 2009) More of an extended multi-artist music video anthology with added contextual material than a true documentary, Made In Jamaica refuse to provide narration or explanation, relying solely on captured footage and interviews. Alas, the filmmakers rarely question what their interview subjects tell them, and the result is a quick introduction to reggae-dancehall that quickly becomes a frustrating superficial look at a multi-faceted issue. While it touches upon most of the aspects of the modern Jamaican reggae culture (the poverty, the aggression, the misogyny, the roots/dancehall split), it says little on some of its most damning aspects and almost nothing at all about its regressive take on heteronormativity. There are about half a dozen junctions where the film ventures into something interesting, then shies away from it. For instance, a pretty good moment when the film contrasts Elephant Man’s rote statements about promoting peace with concert footage where he sings about killing other people, is as close as the film gets to questioning its subjects. Another example of the film’s occasional gems is Lady Saw’s frank admission that she became a rude girl for purely commercial reasons, buried in a too-short look at the genre’s troubling male-dominated culture. For a dancehall fan such as myself, one of the film’s big ironies was that the musical performances I enjoyed the most (Third World’s “96 degrees in the Shade”, Gregory Isaac’s “No Woman No Cry” and a wild cross-cultural take on “I Shot the Sheriff”) were firmly on the roots divide, and the smartest interview subjects were also the roots people. I have long suspected that I would like reggae-dancehall a lot less if I understood the lyrics, and Made In Jamaica went a long way in confirming this suspicion. Good but hardly transcendent, this is a gateway documentary that often works better as an extended video musical anthology: Some of the sights are spectacular, and it is a treat to actually see some familiar names signing.