A Hidden Place, Robert Charles Wilson

<em class="BookTitle">A Hidden Place</em>, Robert Charles Wilson

Orb, 1986 (2002 reprint), 220 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 0-7653-0261-6

One of the small ironies of voracious reading is the occasional hollow realization that there are forgotten books out there. Even knowledgeable fans of an author occasionally find out that they’ve missed one or two early titles. So it is that despite having nearly all of Robert Charles Wilson’s books on my shelves, I somehow missed out on his first two novels. Memory Wire is out of print, but A Hidden Place has been available in a nice trade paperback reprint edition for a while now: it took a chance meeting in a bookstore to remind me that I still had a short way to go to complete the Wilson set.

But reading this book now, years after formerly-underrated Wilson became a Hugo-award winning author (with 2005’s Spin), is a different experience than it must have been to read a first book from a promising novelist. A Hidden Place is now read more as a set of clues about Wilson’s ongoing career than a novel in itself. It’s a bit of research more than entertainment.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not a fine book on its own. For a novel of its time, especially a first effort by a newcomer, it’s got quite a few strengths, and its weaknesses will not be a problem for all readers.

Being firmly set in Wilson’s pre-Harvest period, the book is light on SF elements, and rather conventional in the way it deals with them. Set in Depression-era middle-America, A Hidden Place begins by describing the adventures of a mysterious vagabond named Bone, but soon turns its attention to a young man, Travis Fisher, as he travels to a new town and accidentally starts unraveling the mystery surrounding his new foster family. He’s come to a new place to escape the shadow of his mother’s death, but there’s no shortage of drama in his new home: Whether it’s the mysterious woman living with them, or the growing conflict between Travis and his uncle, A Hidden Place crackles with early conflict, and it’s one of Wilson’s distinguishing characteristics, even in this first effort, that the novel is often more interesting for its mainstream drama than its SF elements. As Travis struggles under mundane concerns such as keeping his job, arguing with his relatives or deciding which girl he wants to date, A Hidden Place becomes a charming small-town historical novel well before delving into the more mind-expanding vistas of Science Fiction. The historical details are convincing (our protagonist gets a job in an ice factory that’s starting to feel the effects of consumer refrigeration), and there’s a real pseudo-nostalgic charm in spending some time in a simpler era.

When the SF elements appear, they’re so watered-down as to take the quasi-mystic form of fantasy, with alien visitors sharing symbiotic links and transcendental travel mechanism. Frankly, I ended up liking the more realistic aspects of A Hidden Place better than the SF moments. But this, too, is a part of Wilson’s continuing development as a writer. His emphasis on recognizable character interaction has always been one of the best part of his fiction, but it took until The Harvest for his SF imagination to catch up with the quality of his writing, and then until The Chronoliths to really develop both aspects of his craft to a level that the wider SF community would stop to acclaim. It’s no accident that his best work to date, Spin, successfully manages both tight character drama and large-scale SF ideas.

A Hidden Place is certainly recognizable as an integral part of Wilson’s career: With its clean prose and attention to character, it shows a writer with high literary ambitions. The strengths remain in latter works, as the weaknesses disappear and the result is one of the best SF writers in the business today. Everyone has to start somewhere, and A Hidden Place is a respectable debut. Even fans weaned on latter-day Wilson will find much to appreciate here.

Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama

<em class="BookTitle">Dreams From My Father</em>, Barack Obama

Three Rivers Press, 1994 (2004 revision), 457 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-4000-8277-3

Sometimes, the most important part of a book isn’t the text.

So it is that the most vital line of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father is found on the back cover of the 63rd printing of the book’s revised paperback edition: “Barack Obama was elected President of the United States on November 4, 2008.” Much to the dismay of the author who, in 1994, promoted his autobiography-so-far as an original contribution to the ongoing American racial debate, most people will read the book knowing much about the author as a career politician.

Written in the early nineties, Dreams From My Father predates Obama’s formal political career and, as such, offers a very different type of memoir than you would expect from a politician. It’s essentially a narrative of a young bi-racial man as he tries to navigate the shoals of America’s racial identity issues. From a very unusual background (white American mother; black Kenyan father; born in Hawaii before being raised in Indonesia; then back to studies in Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago), young Barack Obama ends up trying and rejecting various ways of thinking about himself: He learns racism, rejects black nationalism, meets people of all kinds of backgrounds and tries to come to grip with the absence of a father in his life. The book leads almost inevitably to a defining visit to Kenya, where he comes to learns about his father’s true history and where that leaves him as a person.

Dreams From My Father is written as a personal narrative that incorporates elements of fiction-writing: dialogues are recreated, scenes are pieced together, composite characters are meant to represent various ideologies, and so on: It’s a surprisingly readable book, and if the language can become occasionally florid, it’s a book that people will read while hearing Obama’s voice. (Sometimes literally so, as the audio book of the book -occasional profanities and all- was read by Obama himself… and netted him the first of his two Grammies.) After eight years of a president who barely appeared literate, it’s a bit of a shock to find out that an actual author (and a pretty good one at that, even allowing for the possibility of editorial assistance) is actually now sitting in the While House.

But my ideological colors are showing. It’s still a bit of a shock, though, to read a long passage about social inequity, about how black/white divisions can be a distraction from class issues, and realize that this contentious community organizer, this careful, conflicted young man (having outgrown early drug experiences –yes, he does talk about how “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” [P.93]) is now sitting in the White House, shaped by his experiences and ready to apply his best judgment to the crises confronting the nation. It almost enough to warm the heart of even the most comfortable cynics, although those same cynics may have trouble reading the weepy grave-sweeping epiphany that serves as the book’s conclusion.

Because, no matter what the author may have intended in 1994, we are reading this book to get clues about the current president: where he comes from, what experiences had an impact on him, and how he’s likely to react from this depth of knowledge. Modern readings of Dreams From my Father turn the book’s initial goal inside-out: We’re not reading about an unknown author considering overarching issues, but reading about a specific person’s thoughts on those specific issues. Some Obama fans are bound to be disappointed at the book’s early genesis (Michelle barely makes an appearance in the book’s closing pages, and we get almost no glimpse of Obama’s post-law school experiences), but that’s the nature of the first tome in any autobiography. The follow-up volume, The Audacity of Hope, has been out since 2004… and no matter what happens, Tome 3 and beyond are being experienced right now. They’ll make fascinating reading.

The Hard Way, Lee Child

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

Dell, 2006 (2007 reprint), 477 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24103-4

After ten Jack Reacher novels in a decade, it can be difficult to find something fresh and interesting to say about every entry in the series. By now, Lee Child’s strengths are obvious: He’s a top-notch thriller writer who fully understands the genre and the permutations it takes, writes in a clean and efficient prose, knows how to imagine tough-guy protagonists, never loses sight of the telling details that make his prose credible, and can be counted upon to deliver a satisfying experience every single time. Even his weakest novel so far (Running Blind) is still better than most average thrillers, and if The Hard Way isn’t one of his best, it’s still the kind of novel that has earned Child his legion of fans.

It starts, like too many of Child’s novels do, with a simple coincidence: Reacher happens to be sitting in a New York cafe for the second night in a row when he’s asked a few probing questions by men who appear to know their business: Has he noticed anything strange about some guy entering a car the day before? It wouldn’t be a Reacher adventure without our protagonist being a master of detection: His precise and insightful description of what he’s seen the previous night soon leads to a meeting with an employer who wants to retain Reacher’s service.

As it turns out, coincidentally enough, Reacher has seen the payoff to a kidnapping: His new employer is a rich ex-mercenary whose wife and daughter has been abducted, and he needs Reacher’s help in tracking down the guilty parties. Reacher may have doubts about his employer, but the knight-errants archetype of the series won’t let him walk away: despite the promise of a lavish pay-off, Reacher is really tracking down the woman and child for their own sakes.

The now-expected twists aren’t long in coming. Reacher’s new employer and colleagues have spectacularly nasty pasts, someone else is tracking them down, and the whole thing quickly becomes something else than a simple kidnapping case. After books such as One Shot, few will be surprised to find out that the climax of the book pits Reacher against a numerically superior force in an isolated location. The novel itself spends its time going from the urban richness of New York to the wide-open landscapes of rural England. (This is the first time that part of a Reacher novel takes place in the United Kingdom: quite a milestone for a writer who lived there prior to the publication of the Reacher novels.)

What’s slightly different this time around is that Reacher is starting to feel his age: He’s been out of active service for years, now, and his detection skills are getting rusty. The Hard Way sees him making bad assumptions and knock down the wrong doors. More so here than in previous novels, Reacher is conscious of his slowing body and his failing intuition: what that portends for the rest of the series will have to be seen.

While the novel’s last-third migration to rural England may take away from the tension of seeing Reacher rampage through New York, The Hard Way is as good as the series’ high standards. While it’s true that the series is repeating itself at this point, this tenth entry is starting to acknowledge its own tiredness. Hopefully, Child will know how to take advantage of this idea while winding down the series to a satisfying conclusion or another character. It’s getting harder to keep Reacher going through the same motions (significantly, he never seems to acknowledge the fact that London is where one of his ex-girlfriends stayed for a while), and I wouldn’t be surprised if Child starts a new series soon –although given the author’s penchant for pseudonyms, this may have already happened.

In the meantime, The Hard Way doesn’t detract from the fact that Lee Child is at the top of the tough-guy thriller genre, and is likely to stay there for a while longer.

Content, Cory Doctorow

<em class="BookTitle">Content</em>, Cory Doctorow

Tachyon, 2007, 213 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-892391-81-0

Cory Doctorow’s non-fiction collection Content is both essential and redundant.

It’s hard to imagine that there’s someone out there who knows Cory Doctorow but isn’t aware of his stance regarding intellectual property. Doctorow’s an Internet celebrity, and everything he does seems influenced by his copyfighting, from editing Boingboing.net to writing novels celebrating open-sourced resistance to working for various organizations as a political/technology activist. He has written extensively about those issues on-line, and a book collecting those essays hardly seems like something worth much more than a passing note.

What’s more, copyfighting seems so native to the Internet that the idea of a paper book about it has a quaint mustiness. Nearly every piece printed in Content already lives on the web, where they can be linked, discussed and annotated as times goes by. Since the debate around intellectual property seems to evolve on a weekly basis, is it useful to time-bind Doctorow’s essays in a permanent format even as the context around the book keeps evolving?

And yet that’s a fairly narrow view of things. It may be hip to dismiss those paper-ink-glue devices from the virtual pulpit of a web site, but there’s no denying that by virtue of their collection in Content, Doctorow’s non-fiction pieces become something grander than what they are at the moment. Because, as strange an idea as it may seem to plugged-in cyber-nerds, not everyone is so taken with ideas circulated on the Internet. There is still a place for paper-set arguments, for respectable books that take actual space on a desk, on shelves or in briefcases.

In short, there’s still a physical life out there for Internet-native advocacy pieces. The nebulous notion of “Cory Doctorow’s ideas on intellectual property” gets an actual rectangular shape with Content, with the non-inconsiderable benefit that the object can be sold, bought, lent or cited. Content becomes something from which others can book conferences or consulting gigs.

Then there’s the old-fashioned entertainment aspect. While Doctorow’s non-fiction pieces are usually read on-screen between two (or two hundred) other things, Content can be read at leisure, with a good bookmark. It’s a pleasure to read in more ways than one: Not only are the ideas interesting, but the style in which they are expressed is vivid and argumentative, with plenty of examples and extrapolations.

There’s a flip side, of course, one that becomes nearly inevitable when putting together a number of similar essays: repetition. Cory Doctorow’s advocacy tends to revolve around a few common themes, and the examples can be very familiar. Many will note that Content doesn’t package all of Doctorow’s non-fiction between 2001 and 2007: It picks a few more famous earlier pieces (such as his 2004 DRM talk to Microsoft), then skips ahead to a more diverse selection of his 2006-2007 pieces, including a number of columns for Locus and Information Week. Readers may want to let some time elapse in-between essays, or risk quite a bit of deja lu.

The other nagging issue about this book is how instantly dated it was. For every timeless piece like his ever-relevant 2001 essay on the illusion of the semantic web, other essays are already creaking under dated references and shifting goalposts. Content may be as fresh as 2007, but 2009 is already a different world from two years ago: Many of Doctorow’s points have already been conceded by industries that have come to terms with economic realities: Both the RIAA and MPAA are far less aggressive about intellectual copyright than they once were (losing a number of court challenges hasn’t helped), and “DRM-free” has become an actual selling point for no less a former enemy than iTunes. Meanwhile, TV networks are voluntarily putting freely-downloadable material on the web. Finally, Cory Doctorow himself is not the Cory Doctorow of 2007: He’s now a proud father, a husband and a New York Times best-selling author thanks to the runaway success of Little Brother —a book that widened open-computing principles to include not only copyfighting, but civil disobedience in the face of eroded freedoms.

So it is that “a science fiction writer” (a description that never totally quite fit Doctorow’s full-bandwidth activism) is well on his way to becoming no less than An Authority. A book like Content can be invaluable in the process: it can be placed on reading lists, passed around firewalls and content filters, cited in major newspapers (even if they’re moving to the web themselves) and bought by the crate-load whenever Doctorow’s speaking at conferences. It’s a neat bit of irony that most of this review has been spend arguing in favor of a real book: in some ways, Content is its own best demonstration.

Gradisil, Adam Roberts

<em class="BookTitle">Gradisil</em>, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2006, 458 pages, C$12.99 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07817-0

I’m not the first person to link the old “familiarity breeds contempt” with the new “uncanny valley”, but I don’t think anyone yet has used to expressions to refer to Adam Roberts’ interestingly flawed Gradisil.

Every one of Adams’ novels so far has tackled different sub-genres of science-fiction along with some stylistic experimentation. Results have been mixed: Roberts is very clever, but this doesn’t always translate in a satisfying reading experience.

I’ve been waiting a while for the Adams novel I would wholeheartedly embrace, and I had high hopes for his hard-SFish Gradisil. After all, hard-SF is the type of SF I know best and like most: I’m considerably more lenient about it than I am about other kinds of science-fiction. But I hasn’t counted on the possibility of someone trying to write hard-SF and getting it wrong.

We can quibble endlessly on the definition of hard-SF, or on whether getting the details is more important than portraying the correct attitude. Given Roberts’ iconoclastic output so far, it would have been unrealistic to expect slavish devotion to the often-simpleminded ideals of the crudest hard-SF, but that doesn’t excuse any of the gigantic science blunders that repeatedly slap readers across the brow as they try to make it through Gradisil.

The first and most obvious one almost gets a pass: The idea of harnessing unexplored properties of electromagnetic fields to get to space more efficiently than chemical rockets is pretty unlikely, but it’s integral to the rest of the novel. But what does not manage to suspend disbelief as well is the conceit that private individuals would seize upon this to colonize near-earth orbit while NASA, the military and large telecommunication companies keep struggling with traditional launchers. You would think that after a few successful private launches, the Big Players wouldn’t just move into the field, but would own it outright.

But Adams’ insistence on presenting a deformed mirror of American-libertarian hard-SF is pure enough that he ignores historical precedents, real-world technology and elementary physics on his way to the story he really wants to tell. In his imagined future, for instance, the might of the American military has somehow forgotten to track orbiting objects the size of buses, even while real-world satellite tracking is something that’s not much more than a Google query away. This gets pretty hard to explain when entire subplots of Gradisil depend on people hiding in plain sky while authorities look befuddled. Other blunders are much funnier to anyone with a good understanding of high school physics: The orbital colonists of Gradisil are somehow able to suck refreshing oxygen from the atmosphere out of 50-kilometer long capillaries and pumps that are somehow more efficient than, oh, space itself.

Sometimes, it’s hard to decide whether Adams is just kidding, because even his heart doesn’t seem into it. At the end of the novel’s first section, he introduces a fan-based pseudo-gravity system (in which, yes, big fans push you to the “ground” of a space station) that is so stupid that even the characters complain about it. It’s justified as another one of those dumb military innovations, which is perfectly in-character for a novel that tries to portray the military as being both terminally stupid and dangerously clever at the same time. After so many mistakes and missteps, the real question about Gradisil becomes why Adams has attempted to write something that looks like a hard-SF novel if he thinks so little of the form.

Because Gradisil is a pseudo-hard-SF novel. It attempts to disguise itself under jargon and science, but its obvious lack of authenticity only reinforces the fact that it’s an pretentious poser. It ended up annoying me like few novels I’ve read recently. It got on my nerves with a loathing born out of familiarity. I won’t always try to defend hard-SF’s failings, but it’s got a real heart underneath the mechanical trappings: A vision of a better world through human ingenuity and advanced technology. Good old-fashioned hard-SF may be too blunt for the rarefied sensibilities of the literary set, but it’s literature for the rest of us readers who would rather play around with high-tech toys than discuss literary theory. Gradisil makes a big show of being literature for engineers, but it ends up looking foolishly like a snarker dressing up with oversize glasses and pocket protectors. It’s not fooling anyone, and it falls right in the uncanny valley of novels that pretend to be “down with it” but really don’t have the slightest clue what “it” is and think they can fake it with big brains and fancy language.

I haven’t mentioned the characters or the story yet because, in many ways, they’re the most disappointing part of the novel. In another twist from the hard-SF gold standard, the characters are built to be hated. Meanwhile, none of the hilarious science errors are redeemed by the overlong multi-generational plot that barely warrants the “saga” description, nor a narration that gets increasingly showy as language drifts away from turn-of-the-century standard. It’s very clever, see, but it’s not doing much to make the novel better.

The flip-side of my annoyed, vaguely disgusted reaction to Gradisil is the very real possibility that someone else without as big an attachment to hard-SF would like it a lot more than I did. That’s OK in more or less the same ways I used to like some pop-music groups before learning better. Gradisil is, like many of Roberts’ novels, an outsider’s attempt to play with the toys of a subgenre. The problem is that in many cases, those toys are tools, and Robert doesn’t know what to do with them. Faced with such a flawed simulacrum, I’d rather see Roberts doing something else.

Watchmen (2009)

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

(In theaters, March 2009) As someone who has read the original graphic novel about four times since the mid-nineties and owns the deluxe slip-case Absolute Watchmen edition, I’m really not the reviewer to go to for a cold appreciation of the film as a film. But as an adaptation of a dense and iconic source, it’s about as good as it can reasonably be: the thrill of the film becomes the variations where director Zack Snyder (who here directs his best film to date) plays a bit with the source. The opening credit sequence is a wonderful example of respectful deviation, and the squid-less ending actually works better than the book in reinforcing the whole “you must kill your gods” theme of the material. Not so good is that the implicit thematic rumblings of the source become dull explicit dialogue when they’re simply not left behind entirely. (I suspect that for all of the gore in the film, it’s a bit thematically bloodless, and never quite gets down to ordinary people) Meanwhile, the soundtrack choices are of the hits-you-on-the-nose variety. Characters are faithfully rendered, although some (namely, Silk Specter II and Ozymandias) shine less brightly than others. While the film is more than two-and-a-half hours long, its never feels dull –although the pacing of the film felt far less urgent than I would have preferred. On the other hand, there’s a lot of material to process here, especially for those who can’t quote the lines along with the character. I hope that the upcoming DVD extended edition (which I will faithfully buy) works a little bit better as a film rather than an adaptation. But you will have to ask others regarding that, because at the moment, I’m a happy fan.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sita Sings the Blues</strong> (2008)

(Downloaded, March 2009) They say that you can find anything on the Internet, and that’s usually a code phrase to describe the depravity of humanity. But it also includes the best along the worst, and so it’s thanks to the Internet that we can download and view the absolutely delightful animation film Sita Sings the Blues, an endearing mixture of Indian mythology irreverently remixed with American jazz songs from the 1920s. It doesn’t sound like much (and the first ten minutes are a bit too long), but when it gets cracking, it’s utterly charming. Deftly mixing four levels of narration with tons of hilarious sight gags, cleverly integrated music and lush visuals, Sita Sings the Blues exudes artistic merit and entertainment, stomping over most Hollywood features with ease. It’s a lot funnier than it has any right to be, and the animation is an eye-popping mixture of styles and approaches. It’s coquettishly feminist, intensely personal, multi-layered and toe-tapping infectious at once. A gem, purely and simply.

Sly Mongoose, Tobias Buckell

<em class="BookTitle">Sly Mongoose</em>, Tobias Buckell

Tor, 2008, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1920-3

With three linked novels under his belt (plus a New York Times best-selling Halo tie-in), Tobias Buckell has established his own brand of Science Fiction: action-adventure in the classical mold, but filtered through a sensibility that differs from the usual SF norm.

The first surprise in Sly Mongoose is that it takes place decades after the events of Ragamuffin, at a time when the Satrap Hegemony has been thoroughly dismantled: Those who were expecting a series of novels describing the war between humans and their former masters will have to make with an epilogue. But the aftermath of war is never pleasant, and as the novel begins, recurring series hero Pepper crash-lands on a floating city to warn them of an impending threat: “groaning, stumbling, dumb-as-f…, old-school zombies.” [P.46.]

Oh yeah; zombies. But just to make things a little bit more interesting, Buckell isn’t content with your run-of-the-mill planetary apocalypse scenario featuring mass-minded fast zombies. Oh no: this time, the zombie plague takes place far above the surface, first in a spaceship and then on the floating cities above Chilo, a Venus-like planet where the only livable environment is above the clouds of sulphuric acid.

That’s where we meet one of our two protagonists: Timas, a teenager working in the sulphuric muck of Chilo, but stuck with outdated equipment that can’t accommodate his increasing size. The arrival of series protagonist Pepper in the middle of Timas’ life doesn’t happen gracefully: Forced to crash-land on Chilo after jumping out of a spaceship without a parachute (hey, these things happen), Pepper’s arrival leads to the death of one of Timas’ friends, an event that will have consequences through the story.

In-between Pepper’s zombie warnings and the city-smashing finale, we get new models of politics, an expansion of a culture first introduced in Buckell’s debut Crystal Rain, severe character trauma, big alien schemes, galactic repercussions and all that good stuff. As with his previous novels, Buckell is able to integrate a high concept (Zombiiies! In spaaace!) and make it work within a far more complex framework.

Sly Mongoose is also an evolution in Buckell’s work in that it explores Pepper’s recurring character in a deeper fashion than before. We know that when Pepper’s on the scene, things will blow up and be solved. What this third novel shows is that these actions don’t happen in a vacuum: The relationship between Pepper and Timas is strained by the heroics required of an action/adventure novel, and it leads to a pretty good scene in which Pepper tells his younger companion that he wouldn’t ask him anything he wouldn’t do… which isn’t too reassuring considering what Pepper’s enhanced body and ruthless mind can conceive and sustain. A strong epilogue will reassure Pepper fans by suggesting that there are quite a few more adventures in store for him.

Placed in the context of Buckell’s output so far, Sly Mongoose doesn’t have the structural problems that plagues the second half of Ragamuffin and the ever-leaner prose shows Buckell’s improving tradecraft since Crystal Rain. But this third novel stops short of kicking Buckell’s fiction to a superior level. Now that he has shown his mastery of basic SF plot templates, this reader’s expectations become more demanding. As it is, his three novels so far show a competent mid-list SF writer with an unusual skill for cultural details… but what’s stopping him from more ambitious material? Now that he’s added “New York Times best-selling author” to his list of credentials, let’s see him move to the forefront of SF writers.

Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Race to Witch Mountain</strong> (2009)

(In theaters, March 2009) I have no knowledge of the original book/films, so never mind me when I say that this often smells like a moldy old remnant from the Close Encounters of the Third Kind era. The problems start at the source, I guess: As Science Fiction, this “kid alien must fight the government return to their flying saucer” is so trite and basic it barely qualifies as SF. It seems radically out of context nowadays, and it’s the rare flashes of self-awareness from the script that make it all tolerable. Dwayne Johnson makes a capable protagonist, but there’s little that’s distinctive here, and that stands for the film as a whole: Not terrible, but hardly memorable, although some vocabulary choices, overall level of violence and a generally cynical world-view in which kids are taught to trust ex-cons against the government may push the limits of the genre’s kiddy-creds. The script is generally too dumb for adults, while pushing action a tad too far for the kids; who knows who’s left to watch? Despite some older-skewing gags here and there, the linear plotting is definitely for the kids. Among amusing gags to watch for is a cameo by Whitley Strieber. Otherwise, well, it’s a film headed straight for cultural amnesia.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Monsters vs. Aliens</strong> (2009)

(In theaters, March 2009) Although still not quite as consistently polished as the Pixar films, this latest Dreamworks effort is a definite step in the right direction. Starting as an homage to horror B-movies (Attack of the 50-ft Woman. Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Fly. The Blob; and Mothra), Monsters vs. Aliens quickly becomes a generally satisfying action film for kids, mixed with a few jokes for the grownups and a sly message of female empowerment. The uneven script mixes unsubtle moments with a number of sharper jokes, but it sometimes push farther in one direction than you’d expect: the portrait of the renamed heroine locked away as a strategic resource is unsettling, alas dropped at the first opportunity. The rest of the film is a carnival of strong action sequences and one-liners. It’s pretty spectacular in 3-D, but doesn’t rely on it as blatantly as many similar films. It’s a short film, and it seems to go by even faster. While a more solid script would have been a blessing, there isn’t much here that’s blatantly wrong. Best of all, it should have enough content to please both the kids and the adults.

Knowing (2009)

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

(In theaters, March 2009) What a strange, strange film this is: A mixture of impressive scenes loosely connected by a tissue of stiff characterization, convenient coincidences, and lame textbook screen-writing. It starts as a middle-of-the-road supernatural thriller, but watch out –because the last twenty minutes are pure hard-core apocalyptic Science Fiction. (Fans will know what to expect when I mention Childhood’s End and The Forge of God.) In-between, there are two stunning and vicious disaster sequences, a couple of mildly enjoyable sequences and suburban fun with power tools and fast pickup trucks. Director Alex Proyas has a number of surprises in his bag, but it’s a shame that the whole of the film can’t cohere: Nicolas Cage doesn’t help with a bland performance, and the carnival of convenient plotting does nothing to lend the film any credibility. This being said, the high points are high indeed: the subway crash is a piece of high action cinema, but the plane crash alone is an anthology piece, pieced together to form a nightmarish single shot that lasts much, much longer than anyone would expect. See it for the high points, don’t have high expectations and you may be pleasantly surprised.

La Jetée (1962)

<strong class="MovieTitle">La Jetée</strong> (1962)

(Downloaded, March 2009) Best known as “the film that inspired Twelve Monkeys”, this film is often lauded as a small masterpiece of experimental sixties filmmaking, or hyped as better than the Hollywood rip-off. But those for whom “experimental” is synonymous with “uh-oh” may not be overly impressed: The central conceit of telling a story through narration over still black-and-white pictures is the kind of thing that works better in practice than in theory, and the film is about twice too long even at just 26 minutes. Fans of the Terry Gilliam film will notice that this has a rather more optimistic fillip into the future, but otherwise the story is broadly similar, with a narrative closure that can be seen coming from the very beginning. In SF terms, there isn’t much here to satisfy, with a basic time-travel plot that is barely justified or rationalized. The rest feels very French-Sixties-experimental, which may or may not be a selling point.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas</em>, Hunter S. Thompson

Vintage, 1971 (1998 reprint), 204 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-679-78589-2

I wasn’t planning on re-reading this book. My “Year of the Thompson” didn’t include another pit-stop in Las Vegas given that I had read this book in 1999 and I don’t usually re-read books unless I have good reasons. But the amount of Thompson biographical information I’ve been consuming lately naturally led back to another look at he book, a look that became even more urgent once I searched my archives and realized I had never formally reviewed the book at length. So here goes:

This is a book that comes with a lot of baggage. It’s Thompson’s best-known work, and arguably the single item that made him popular with casual readers. On a surface level, it’s fiction about two wild and crazy guys doing drugs (and I mean a lot of drugs) and behaving badly in Las Vegas at the beginning of the seventies. But the more you know about Thompson or about the sixties, the more the book becomes something else, starting out by acting crazy, but eventually finding that it all leads to a hollow place, an artificial recreation of a failed ideal, or an excuse to be unpleasant to others.

It does start out in an amusing fashion. I defy any fan of the book to resist the impulse to read the first few lines out loud, or linger a bit longer on the description of what’s in the protagonist’s suitcases. In the first two pages of the book, you can already find the unique mixture of craziness and world-weary knowledge (“There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.” [P.2]) that fuels most of the novel.

But the influence of drugs and a thorough knowledge of depravity aren’t quite enough to characterize Thompson’s narration, which wouldn’t be complete without the certitude that the good times have ended, that civilization is in decline and that the nuclear-powered apocalypse may begin at any moment. This, I often feel, is what separates the good Thompson imitators from the superficial ones. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may describe irresponsibility, as its characters ignore their professional obligations, steal hotel soap in bulk and trash the rooms they’re given. But they’re doing so out of the conviction that none of it matters, that they will be dead by the time their credit ratings will be revised.

This sense of impending doom constantly floats above the novel, but it becomes more and more apparent as it goes on. War in Vietnam, Nixon, the atonal passage on the high water mark of the sixties… it all leads to feckless recklessness, until the terrible scene where a waitress is pushed too far and (unlike a previously-scared maid) cannot be brought back into the protagonist’s shared madness which, by this point, is starting to wear thin and veer in either paranoia or depression.

Particularly empathic readers will catch this nuance that eludes those who read the novel as a drug-addled jaunt through Vegas: As our characters get away with acting rudely, it’s not hard to feel poorly for those they leave behind in their wake. The characters may come to realize the consequences of their actions late in the book (“I’d abused every rule Vegas lived by –burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.”) [P.173], but by that time a number of readers will have rejected the idea that they are in any way admirable. (The movie adaptation is broadly faithful to this interpretation.)

Those who know Thompson will get more out of the book than those who discover Thompson through it. There are references to Hell’s Angels and San Francisco and to Colorado, but also a sense that it’s through fiction that Thompson could spread his wings at the widest, writing more casually about his true themes. The Rum Diary and other short fiction aside, it’s a shame that Thompson was never able to revisit the same place. But maybe it couldn’t be revisited.

For those who haven’t read Thompson before, well, it’s a trip of a different sort. It’s a very short novel (barely over 50,000 words), but it’s dense in events and hard-hitting narration. Take your time, savor one chapter every day, don’t see this as a guide to emulate, and everything will be fine. Which is more than we can say for Thompson or his alter-ego.

Duplicity (2009)

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

(In theaters, March 2009) High-intensity romantic films for adults aren’t that common, so it’s a bit of a treat to see writer/director Tony Gilroy turn from drama (Michael Clayton) to comedy with a smart romance set in the world of corporate espionage. He’s an ex-MI6 agent-runner; she’s an ex-CIA infiltrator; but together, they commit crime! The only problem is, can they stand each other long enough to get away from the prize? Do they really love each other, and how can they be sure of it? Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are wonderful in the lead roles, and if the result can occasionally turn in circles, it’s a clever film that does a nice job at asking the audience to keep up. The look at corporate espionage alone is a unique mixture of high stakes and ridiculous rivalry: the complexities of frozen pizzas have seldom been so amusing. The ending is bound to surprise and maybe even disappoint a few, but it’s one of those conclusions that make more and more sense the longer you think about it: the last shot ends up being a perfect conclusion to one of the film’s lingering questions.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, March 2009) This low-budget, high-cheese short (45-minutes) film has quite a few things going for it: a new concept for straight-to-audience Internet fiction, a trio of capable leads, some clever writing and a delightfully oddball sense of humor. Superhero romantic musical comedy? Well, it’s no Repo but it’s not uninteresting. With Joss Whedon at the pen, it’s both geeky and funny, although the late turn into drama smacks more of gratuitous shock than a satisfying conclusion. The DVD has a number of extras over the Internet version, although it’s not as clear as it could have been in explaining the whole direct-Internet-distribution for people coming at the piece cold. On the other hand, it does feature a massively overproduced audio commentary in the form of a musical, plus another more regular commentary. A few more extras (including ten fan-made videos of uneven quality) round off the disc.