Pandorum (2009)

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

(In theatres, September 2009) I had been looking forward to this B-grade horror/SF hybrid for generally nostalgic reasons: There hasn’t been any spaceship-monster-movie in a while, and I was starting to miss even dreck like Supernova.  But if Pandorum isn’t much more than a B-grade horror/SF hybrid, it’s at least a bit more ambitious than the usual “latex bug kills everyone” scenario: Subplots add up nicely until there are about half a dozen separate dangers threatening our protagonists, and while the conclusion is so stupid it burns, it does try something a bit more interesting than blowing the creature outside the airlock.  Sadly, getting there is more tedious than fun entertaining: Pandorum has an inordinate fondness for black-on-black color tones, and the pacing dwells far too long on the same pieces of soundstage locations.  There’s little connecting tissue between the film’s episodes, and that tissue disappears almost entirely during the lame shaky-cam action sequences that lift almost everything from 28 Days Later: Events in some scenes can only be figured out until they end, if at all.  No, this isn’t a minor space horror classic like Event Horizon, although the film has a few nice moments and both Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster both do well in their respective roles.  Pandorum does manage to fill its B-movie niche quite nicely, and has a few more ideas than the typical almost-straight-to-DVD feature.  Could have been worse, and it will do until the next spaceship monster movie.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Tucker Max

<em class="BookTitle">I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell</em>, Tucker Max

Citadel Kensington, 2006, 277 pages, C$17.95 tp, ISBN 0-8065-2728-5

Ah, Tucker Max. The champion of frat-boys all over America. The shock-jock of drink-and-tell Internet writing. The best-known thirty-something teenager. The perfect antithesis of, well, me.

Boiled down to its components, the quintessential Tucker Max story goes like this: Alcohol goes in Tucker; fluids come out. I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell (now a movie!) is 256 pages of essays detailing variations on that theme. Tucker drinks a lot; later, he vomits, excretes or ejaculates. Sometimes, he has friends along with him. Rude put-downs against whoever isn’t with him are often involved. Repeat.

Tucker Max became a niche celebrity, as many people now do, by writing a series of essays on his web site. He eventually grew into kind of a national phenomenon for a very specific demographic group. Indeed, for college-age frat-boys, Tucker Max is living the life: binge-drinking, bad behaviour, casual sex and earning a living by being celebrated for, well, binge-drinking, bad behaviour and casual sex.

So it is that we read about wild parties, outrageous semi-public sex in Vegas, the effects of Absinthe, various wild sex episodes, uncontrollable incontinence, Tucker Max’s scales for drunkenness and female attractiveness (they’re predictably related), and various other antics. Most stories have a happy ending in the massage-parlour sense of happy endings. Many will feel sullied for laughing along.

There’s a little bit more to it in that Tucker Max is a decent writer when it comes to writing about the party lifestyle. No matter whether the tales are invented or enhanced, the anecdotes are told crisply, with a good ear for dialogue and a mounting sense of outrageousness. He acknowledges his own humiliations (the funniest story in the book is all about potty humour at his own expense), writes compulsively readable prose and surrounds himself with vivid characters.

But no one will comment or review I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for the quality of its prose. Why do so when the book becomes a lightning rod for discussions of misogyny, college hedonism, man-children, limited intellects and carnal fixations? Anyone making the mistake of thinking that Max’s book accurately reflects the mainstream American college experience will come away from the book despairing for the future of the republic, if not the human race in general.

My own experience being so unlike Tucker Max’s life (you have probably figured this out on your own, but otherwise here’s the shocking revelation: I’m a nerd), I ended up reading I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell as an anthropological text, spying upon the cruel and merciless life of the americani fratpueris and thanking my own social ineptness that I’ve never been tempted by Max’s specialities. As a humour book, it’s not a bad read. As indicative of social trends, though: gaaah.

Unsympathetic as I can be about the frat-boy lifestyle, there’s not a lot I can admire in Tucker Max’s life… except for a somewhat disarming frankness about his own failings. He knows that he’s not a nice guy: the title of the book explains his posthumous expectations. It’s also noteworthy that in the vast majority of cases, the women he sleeps with have a good idea of what they can expect: Max’s stories are not about lying and false pretences, but the consequences of very deliberate lifestyle choices. (The question of whether Max is misogynist presumes that Max-the-literary-construct actually cares about women independently of his own primitive impulses –something still left open to discussion.) Many will mistake this subtle distinction and see Max’s example as a license to behave badly, ignoring the warnings that lies at the heart of nearly every Max story: the sunburns, the headaches, the legal consequences, the ways in which casual sex can backfire in ways people are rarely ready to deal with. The book ends on a hair-raising story that’s worth a PSA by itself.

In some ways, my vicarious glimpse at the life of Tucker Max is quite enough for me: whereas others see glitz and hilarity, I see situations in which I never want to see myself. If nothing else, Tucker Max has lived this lifestyle so exuberantly that there is no need for anyone else to try to outdo him.

(This is one of the few reviews where I think it’s necessary to point out that I bought my copy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell at a very-used-book sale. The laughable amount of money spent in purchasing this book went directly to the Ottawa Public Library’s acquisition fund. No Tucker Maxes were enriched in the making of this review.)

Surrogates (2009)

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

(In theatres, September 2009) It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that the best movies make you think.  But it’s a less-acknowledged universal truth that even bad movies can lead one to conclusions.  In this case, Surrogates is the kind of hit-and-miss film that makes one think that film really isn’t the ideal medium for idea-driven Science Fiction.  On a surface level, some things work well: Bruce Willis is his usual dependable self as a cop investigating unusual murders, Boston makes a great backdrop to the action, and director Jonathan Mostow has kept his eye for good action sequences and efficient storytelling –although, frankly, I would have liked longer cuts during the chase scenes.  The idea of a future where “surrogates” effectively allow one to decouple body from mind is rich in thematic possibilities, and the film does investigate a few of them.  If nothing else, Surrogates is a decent way to spend an hour and a half; at least it’s a bit more ambitious than most other movies at the theatre.  Alas, that’s not saying much, and the credibility problems with the film start with the first few frames.  In flagrant violation of market economics, human nature, bandwidth limitations and just plain logic, this is a film that depends on 98% of the (Boston? American? Human?) population relying on highly advanced and presumably expensive equipment just 14 years in the future.  Never mind that some people don’t even have cell phone today: Surrogates rushes into the bad clichés of a Manichean monolithic society in which everyone has and enjoys a surrogate, except for the easily-dismissible hillbillies and weirdoes who apparently choose to live in technology-free reserves.  Never mind that the world is usually a great deal more complex and that the kind of technological breakthrough that surrogates represents could lead to a world where the very concept of incarnation would be abandoned: Surrogates simplifies issues to the point where anyone with half a working brain will cringe at the way the film ignores possibilities and takes refuge in cheap movie mechanics.  The ending is particularly frustrating, as it all boils down to “press this button to save a billion lives!!!”  That a lot of those issues were present in Robert Vendetti’s script for the original underwhelming graphic novel isn’t much of an excuse when the film takes such liberties with the source material.  (If anything, Surrogates owes more to the I, Robot film than the graphic novel, down to James Cromwell in near-identical roles)  The contrast between Surrogates and thoughtful written SF is strong enough to make one suspect they’re barely in the same genre.  (Compare and contrast with Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon for a particularly enlightening experience.)

This Is Not a Game, Walter Jon Williams

<em class="BookTitle">This Is Not a Game</em>, Walter Jon Williams

Orbit, 2009, 369 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-00315-5

The first thing I like about Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game is the title: Direct, dramatic and as blunt as it’s possible to be.  The cover of the US hardcover edition appropriately displays it in big bold letters taking up most of the available space.  It’s a clue as to the nature of the story in more ways than one, especially in flagging how contemporary the novel is meant to be: In Science Fiction history, “This is not a Game” has sometimes been a Hugo-winning third-act plot twist.  It’s also a title that alludes to the recent wave of stories reflecting on the ever-shifting nature of reality at a time where it’s increasingly augmented with other sources of information.  Charles Stross, with Halting State, made quite a splash by looking at the boundaries between life and play and This is Not a Game makes use of similar ideas, albeit with a very different focus.

But outside the written SF community, the title is a fundamental credo for another interest group:  In the field of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), “This is Not a Game” is a design aesthetic that differentiates this burgeoning type of entertainment from other types of play: Designers of ARGs seek to present an experience to the player that spans the narrow confines of traditional games.  ARGs ask players to scour the web, make phone calls, investigate in person, solve clues and piece together very different pieces of information.  Already almost ten years old, ARGs are a particularly vivid reminder of the blurring distinction between pursuits we’ve been conditioned to consider separate.

Walter Jon Williams isn’t a stranger to either SF or ARGs: His decades-old SF track record is distinguished, and he has been involved in creating ARGs since 2005, when he collaborated on “Last Call Poker” for market leader 42 Entertainment.  In his newest novel, we get not only a gripping thriller set five minutes in the future, but a look behind the scenes of an ARG, as the puppetmasters writing the game have to deal with an alternate reality with no fourth wall.

But there’s a bit more at stake than a look at games that bring together thousands of people in a global clue-hunt: As This Is Not a Game begins, our ARG-creating protagonist Dagmar Shaw sees her holidays in Indonesia become a catastrophe as the country is shut down and riots break around her hotel.  Engineering her rescue away from this mess ends up being a problem that not even a well-financed Israeli security contractor can solve: In the end, Dagnar finds greater value in tapping the game-playing community and crowd-sourcing her own safety to the diverse talents of perfect strangers scattered around the globe.

And that’s just the first act, because once she’s back stateside, Dagmar’s life soon turns into a nightmare when friends are acquaintances are murdered.  It’s clear to her that this is not a game-related development, but the players of her ongoing ARG aren’t so sure.  When the police admit that the investigation may tax even their capabilities, Dagmar sees another opportunity to let the group mind of her plays chew on the evidence.  But as she eventually discovers, it’s hard to get away from the game once it takes over…

Williams has often challenged genre boundaries, and this latest book marks a return to high-end thrillers just a step away from near-future SF.  This is Not a Game inhabits the same ultra-contemporary territory as William Gibson’s Spook Country, albeit with a far more visible plot.  Given this, it’s unfortunate but forgivable that it’s that plot that ends up being the novel’s weakest link: While the look at the inner workings of ARGs is fascinating and the thriller makes good use of the mirrored halls offered by games that voluntarily don’t take place in an identifiable sandbox, Williams isn’t as successful at creating a sustained sense of suspense: There aren’t enough characters to pose a serious mystery, and the last stretch of the novel is annoyingly linear in how Dagmar turns the tables on the guilty party.  A lot of loose ends remain, but the promise of a sequel (which you wouldn’t guess from the jacket copy) may end up making use of a bunch of those.  There are also a few technical bugs for nit-pickers.  (Regarding P.336:  HTML is not case-sensitive; XHTML is supposed to be.  Web servers very well have to be.)

Not that it matters all that much: This is Not a Game is a more-than-honorary member of the SF genre partly because it’s a novel of demonstration.  It has a few great ideas and runs us through them.  The opening sequence in Indonesia can’t be equalled, but the rest of the novel remains an intriguing thought experiment, a thriller played with Science Fiction set-pieces that would have boggled minds even a decade ago.  There’s even some meta-commentary on the SF writers’ community and a few nods in store for SF fans with sharp eyes.  The prose is a pleasure to read, and the flavour of the novel is definitely of the times: This is Not a Game couldn’t have been written as such five years from now, and will probably date faster than most SF novels published in 2009.  In the meantime, though, it’s a welcome demonstration of Williams’ skills, a solid follow-up to his previous Implied Spaces and a novel that, given his background, only he could have written.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Jennifer’s Body</strong> (2009)

(In theatres, September 2009) Juno, Mamma Mia! and the Transformers have little in common except for how they set up expectations (and reactions) to this hum-drum horror/comedy movie in which a high-school sexpot is transformed in a man-eating succubus.  Would screenwriter Diablo Cody resurrect a tired genre with her lively dialogue?  Would Amanda Seyfried look less like a froggy muppet?  Would Megan Fox know what to do without giant robots around?  But while Jennifer’s Body is more interesting than most of the other teen horror movies out there, it’s practically the definition of a sophomore slump: Unsatisfying, disjointed and “off” in ways that are hard to pin down precisely. (Although if you want an idea of why the dialogue doesn’t always work, wait for the “Wikipedia” line.)  While the script shows moments of cleverness, genre-twisting and killer quips in answering the age-old question “what if the virgin sacrifice wasn’t a virgin?”, the plot as a whole seems to advance in unnatural fashion as determined by the screenwriter: Motivations are suspect, clichés abound, scenes don’t make much sense and even the self-conscious dialogue heightens the artificiality of the story.  Worst of all, Jennifer’s Body seems curiously unambitious in what it’s trying to do: the comedy falls flat, the horror is banal, the metaphors are weak and more than a few scenes seem to go through the expected beats.  At least some of the actors do well: well-cast Fox gets a bit more to do here than in Transformers, while Seyfried shows signs of being able to outgrow her current round-faced cuteness.  Overall, though, Jennifer’s Body is a letdown considering the anticipation surrounding its release, and a generally lacklustre film even taken solely on its own.  While its surface qualities are interesting (it’s a rare high-profile horror film written and directed by women, acknowledging teenage sexuality, and featuring two actresses with only secondary roles for the actors), it’s far less subversive than you may expect or hope for.

9 (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">9</strong> (2009)

(In theatres, September 2009) Being visually striking counts for much, but there’s a limit to how much it can compensate for a generally unsatisfying story.  Like many bad fantasy films, 9 falls into mystery-meat plotting, in which protagonists do things that they can’t explain for reasons less explained by organic motivations than setting up the next scene.  The film doesn’t survive even cursory scrutiny: The story is thin, the characters even thinner, and the general doom and gloom of the post-apocalyptic storyline eventually leads to a victorious conclusion that doesn’t seem appreciably more hopeful.  There’s a sameness of tone through the film that takes its toll (even for a mere 80 minutes), especially since it seems to play exclusively with a palette of blacks, reds and browns.  On the other hand, 9 is likely to be remembered for an unusual combination of imagination and design, leading to a steampunkish grimness that works well as a series of disconnected moments.  The mechanic dolls that form most of the film’s characters are intriguing creations, and the care with which they’ve been given form will leave more than one viewer awed.  (This is the first film in a long time that had me admire its sound design work: Ah, the sound of metal-against-metal…)  It nothing else, it’s an original vision even if the story seems like an overly-familiar mixture of mushy incoherent mysticism and epic fantasy.  I wonder if the film will survive a second viewing more favourably than most, once the element of plot novelty has been removed from the equation.  (Or whether it would have done better as a video game)  Perhaps it’s better to see 9 as another calling card of sorts for director Shane Acker, while we wait for his next film.

Extract (2009)

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

(In theatres, September 2009) This risqué yet generally amiable comedy by Mike Judge has little of the cubicle universality of Office Space of the striking conceptual strength of Idiocy.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit its appeal and give it little memetic traction.  In less pretentious terms, Extract is easily forgettable even if it’s not unpleasant to watch.  A good chunk of this appeal rests on the shoulders of the capable cast headlining the ensemble comedy.  The lead character of the piece, a harried chemist turned businessman now hitting a mid-life crisis pretty hard, wouldn’t be half as sympathetic if he wasn’t played with the good-boy charm of Jason Bateman.  Gene Simmons pops up as an intense ambulance-chasing lawyer, whereas J.K. Simmons is a bit wasted as a voice of reason in the middle of so much low-key craziness.  Extract’s plot scatters in multiple directions, with a number of small twists when characters don’t behave as they usually do in other comedies.  If the actual execution of the plot is hit-and-miss, Judge’s portrait of American working-class banality is just off-the-wall enough to keep viewers interested.  Time will tell if the film ends up producing as many catchphrases as the writer/director’s previous efforts, but a first glance suggests that this won’t be the case.  On the other hand, Extract does manage to hits its own targets consistently, and if a little more ambition (or class awareness) wouldn’t have hurt, at least there’s something to be said for decent entertainment.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs</strong> (2009)

(In theatres, September 2009) In the crowded field of computer-animated 3D movies for kids, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is worth a look.  A relentlessly imaginative and fast-paced fantasy that will appeal to younger audiences as much as it will amuse their older chaperons, this is a film that fully exploits the possibilities of computer-generated animation: The art direction strikes an ideal balance between believability and whimsy, while the visuals shown on-screen wouldn’t be possible (or pleasant to see) as live-action.  How else, after all, do you make a movie about a scientist who invents a machine that makes food rain down on his town?  Much of the film is a series of delightful moments in which the premise is milked for maximum laughs, at a relentless pace that will ensure a second viewing.  The smaller surprise of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the nerd-friendly characterization, in which a few courtship traditions are upended and pure geekiness eventually saves the day.  It’s hard not to like a movie that has a hero with a wall poster about “Nikola Tesla –ROCKSTAR SCIENTIST”, and even harder not to like a film in which the female love interest is said to be more beautiful after she starts wearing glasses again.  (Plus, hey, nice use of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.)  So it’s unfortunate that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs eventually damages itself with a number of ham-fisted emotional scenes that are too long and too obvious compared to the rest of the film.  But overlooking those moments isn’t difficult when contemplating the inventive imagination that powers the film’s set-pieces.  Now that there’s at least one computer-animated kid film in theatres per month, I’ll grudgingly suffer through one or two Igor if it means that I get a Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in exchange.

Buyout, Alexander C. Irvine

<em class="BookTitle">Buyout</em>, Alexander C. Irvine

Del Rey, 2009, 319 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-49433-7

There’s no rule saying that Science Fiction has to be predictive, but there’s no arguing that it can be –or, rather, that it’s uniquely apt to suppose a plausible change and follow its consequences.  So it is that Alexander C. Irvine’s first original SF novel, Buyout, feels like good old-fashioned Science Fiction with no tricks up its sleeves.  Not only is it a gripping read, it takes a premise and runs with it with more style and intensity than you’d expect from old-school SF.

The premise will only feel natural to actuaries: In a medium-term future (2040) where California’s private prison system is (still) bursting at the seams, a company makes a few calculations and ends up figuring that it would be more profitable to execute young prisoners condemned to life without parole and give a huge payout to beneficiaries of their choosing than to keep them around for decades.  The ethical implications of this cold equation are… interesting, and one of Buyout‘s pleasures is to see how the argument plays out.

The novel takes place in an all-too-believable future where water wars, omnipresent Internet connections and movie avatars have become unremarkable.  Our two viewpoint characters are Martin Kindred, an insurance worker who gets promoted to become the public face of the buyout program, and Charlie Rhodes, a cynical private investigator who recognizes in the buyout program something that can give him steady employment in checking motivations.

Much of Buyout is about dramatizing the implication of the novel’s central premise.  How do prisoners petition for buyouts?  Who benefits?  Is it right?  Is it possible for some of that buyout money to do some good?  Won’t people deliberately commit crimes that would lead to buyouts, thereby improving their family’s life?  What about the possibility that buyouts may end up executing innocent people?  In Irvine’s hands, all of this is examined fairly, although not always finely: the inclusion of an activist character calling himself Carl Marks give an opportunity to properly critique his premise as an ultimate instrument of degenerate capitalism, albeit in an all-too-obvious fashion.  Politically, Irvine obviously leans left, but he gives some intriguing arguments in favour of his own hawkish premise.

But while Buyout is obviously a novel of ideas (remove the premise, and everything fall apart), it also manages to do much with its characters.  Martin is in the terminal stage of his marriage as the novel begins, and the tensions of his position as the buyout spokesman inevitably lead to divorce, with consequent impact on his life and his relationship with his daughters.  Meanwhile, Charlie begins to doubt his friend Martin’s motivations as a personal tragedy starts erasing notions of cold dispassionate professionalism.  Characterization of secondary characters is sketched with professional skill, and it better be: with a conclusion that pushes both viewpoint characters as far as they can go, subtle nuances become crucial.  (On the other hand, Martin’s soon-enough-ex-wife is presented primarily from Martin and Charlie’s perspective… which is to say: not sympathetically.  But that’s characterization of a different sort.)

Buyout is also highly enjoyable for its overheated atmosphere, a sunny noir so typical of its Los Angeles location.  The nature of its plot brings together a variety of characters from the prisoner, activist, legal and policing communities, with fascinating interactions.  Close-enough comparisons can be made with the novels of Michael Connelly, especially given the world-weariness of the characters and the detailed procedural explanation of the buyouts.  Snippets from an underground podcaster give us a lot of third-party contextualization, especially when it comes to presenting Irvine’s imagined future and the reactions of the crowd to the ideas that directly affect Martin and Charlie.

Satiric (but not too much), reflective (but not too much) and idea-driven (but not too much), Buyout is not just a good read: it’s also the kind of novel that exemplifies what Science Fiction can accomplish in general, and what it doesn’t achieve when it retreats in the far-futures of space operas that might as well be labelled fantasy.  “Old-fashioned” and “Mundane SF” are not criticisms when applied to this novel, not when Buyout plays the classic SF game so well.  Irvine’s output since his 2000 debut has been scattered across many genres, but this solid first original SF novel should do much to leave an impression.  In the meantime, it’s one of the good surprises of the year so far.

The Informant! (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Informant!</strong> (2009)

(In theatres, September 2009) If the essence of comedy is to do something new and poke fun at sacred cows, then Steven Soderbergh’s irreverent The Informant! is well on its way to hilarity.  Whistleblowers, obviously, are supposed to be tragic and noble figures.  Not, as portrayed by a surprisingly unglamorous Matt Damon, as borderline-moronic eggheads with little sense and vapid inner monologues.  The film’s initial structure is familiar, as a scientist with ethical concerns comes to work for the FBI in exposing a price-fixing conspiracy involving his corporation.  (It’s all based on real events.)  Idiotic protagonist aside, it begins as a reasonably amusing feature that seems to derive most of its comedy from decidedly mundane surroundings: Blatantly taking place in the American Midwest, The Informant! seems mostly concerned with trivia and discomfort.  But that too becomes another deception as the final act of the film gets rolling and it turns out that our protagonist has ethical problems that go far beyond being clueless.  As the snowball of his lies goes downhill, we come to realize the wisdom of the agents obsessed with figuring out his rationale for turning informant.  And, in the process, we end up with a parody of stories in which the whistleblower turns out to be clean as driven snow.  Reality, suggest Soderbergh’s film, is always more complicated.  And frequently more absurd than we can imagine.  While I can’t imagine many people thinking “Yeah, I want to watch this movie again!”, The Informant! a cheeky piece of comic subversion, especially coming from the same director as Erin Brokovich.

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

<em class="BookTitle">The Lost Symbol</em>, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2009, 509 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-50422-5

Six years after the release of The Da Vinci Code (surely you’ve heard of it?), Dan Brown has a brand-new novel in store: The Lost Symbol.  The good and bad news are, indeed, the same: It’s an almost identical reading experience.

There are a few differences between Brown’s latest novel and its predecessors, but not that many.  Consider this: Robert Langdon runs around a world-class city with a beautiful scientist, piecing together historical clues to avert a terrible event while trying to outwit a spiritually-motivated antagonist with a penchant for self-mutilation.  Familiar?  Yes.  Good enough for a third go-around?  Well, why not?

This time, “Symbologist” (aka; trivia-master) Robert Langdon is called to Washington, where he gets to talk masonry with a woman studying pseudo-sciences.  They race around and under official buildings, survive attempts on their lives and spend half a day citing encyclopedia snippets at each other.  Surprisingly enough, it’s fun: While The Lost Symbol is a bit too familiar to create the same enthralling feeling as its predecessor, its accumulation of cheap stock thriller situations, short cliffhanging chapters, plausible-sounding details and compelling imagery makes it hard to stop reading.  It’s not refined but it’s got the essence of genre fiction entertainment.  The writing is even a bit better than in the previous books… or at least not quite as awful.

The Lost Symbol even shows that Brown can have a sense of humor about himself: Early on, he takes potshots at the controversy about his previous novel (“My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused!” [P.8]), his image (“He was wearing the usual charcoal turtleneck.” [P.8]) and, later on, editors complaining about the lateness of his novel (“You owe me a manuscript. [P.176]).  While the suspense is usually too talky to be gripping, there are at least two memorable sequences in the book, one taking place in a completely dark hangar, and the other one pushing the whole “Character’s dead.  Dead-dead-dead.” shtick as far as it can go, and then a little bit further for good measure.  Cheap twists abound, although Brown does manage to do a few interesting things with parallel storytelling at times.

Sadly, The Lost Symbol occasionally gets muddled on the shoals of yadda-yadda pseudoscience discredited back in the seventies but revived today as “noetic science” thanks to quantium jargon.  Brown may swear up and down that all the science in his book is true, but we know better.  (As a computer specialist, I’m usually disappointed whenever Brown discusses computers, and this novel has its share of IT nonsense as well.)  The pseudo-science, thankfully, doesn’t really affect the major plot lines of the book, but it’s a distracting-enough subplot that the novel could have dispensed with.

Ironically, it almost takes mental muscles shaped by science-fiction to truly appreciate what Brown is attempting in the last tenth of the novel.  What he frequently does well (and what many imitators often forget) is to present a series of conceptual breakthroughs, big and small, that reveal the true shape of the world to protagonists and readers alike.  This is rarely as obvious as in the last fifty pages of The Lost Symbol: Once past the final action climax, the main plotline of the novel has been wrapped up with a few chapters still left to go.  It’s all over but for a few more revelations, which may be more conceptually important to Brown than the end of the thriller plot-line: The novel concludes on a pair of scenes meant to evoke a strong sense of wonder, and science-fiction readers will have been trained to respond well to such revelations.

As for everyone else, well, the old saw hold true: “If you liked The Da Vinci Code, then…” yes, you’re going to like The Lost Symbol.  Conversely, those who hated Brown’s previous novels won’t be seduced by this one.  It is what it is, and if the same mixture of elements could have been quite a bit more interesting in better hands, it does manage to outdo many of the so-called “Da Vinci clones” in delivering the mixture of trivia, thrills, nonsense and fast pacing that we’ve come to expect from Brown.  It may be late in coming, but it does deliver.

(Amateur puzzle-solvers will be happy to note that the US dust jacket sports at least four puzzles, and a few Easter Eggs.  I wasted an enjoyable thirty minutes solving two puzzles before rushing to read the solutions on-line.  As for the Easter Eggs, one of them will make you feel better about the recent loss of the traditional Doubleday “Anchor” logo.)

Whiteout (2009)

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

(In theatres, September 2009) Thrillers are often as much about setting than about plot, and so the best thing about Whiteout is how it really tries to take advantage of its Antarctic environment.  It’s -50c outside on a white plain of ice, and the film occasionally does its best to give us all the claustrophobic, glacial, howling implications of that fact.  (The rest of the time; not so much, as any Canadian will tell you: no dripping shoes, no chapped lips, no frost-burn on the cheeks)  Unfortunately, there isn’t much more than that in store in this long-delayed B-grade thriller: The murder mystery is a bit of a bust, and the plot holes appear faster than the twists and turns.  Culprits are obvious early on (otherwise, why spend so much time featuring bit players?) and the way to the ending is littered with curious narrative choices: Why drag on the film for another 5-10 minutes after the action climax?  Why rely so heavily on coincidences, egregious oversights, dumb mistakes (such as, oh, not shooting someone coming at you with an axe?) and a generally linear plot?  Everything even remotely interesting is usually told twice (including flashbacks) and the intriguing fog of the first few minutes is so thoroughly dispersed that it has us wishing for more mystery.  (Can you believe four people wrote this?)  Even the execution feels off: it all leads up to a snowy fight in which it’s tough enough to know who’s who –let alone what’s happening.  Pretty Kate Beckinsale may have sold many/most of Whiteout’s tickets, but she’s miscast and overly made-up: an older, more world-weary heroine would have been far more believable. On the other hand, she’s not making any better impression than the film’s other actors.  As for director Dominic Sena, he’s done both better and more ludicrous in his career (Swordfish, anyone?) and either qualities would have been welcome here: he should consider going back to action movies.  As it is, Whiteout is just frozen in place, offering only a few meagre reasons to see it: people used to shoveling snow off their driveways every winter will have more thrills doing so.

Batman Forever (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Batman Forever</strong> (1995)

(Second viewing, on DVD, September 2009) In retrospect, the post-1989 Batman movies neatly fall into a trio of pairs, with Batman Forever being the first of the Joel Schumacher duo that would reach such a nadir with Batman & Robin.  While Batman Forever is noticeably worse than Burton’s Batman Returns, it still carries itself with flashy colourful blockbuster grandeur, with ridiculous set-pieces that nonetheless show a certain breadth of conception.  As a result, it hasn’t aged all that badly… but don’t expect much: there are still plenty of ridiculous moments in the mix, and Jim Carrey as the Riddler now feels like Ace Ventura in costume: his tics are so recognizably his that they don’t mesh all that well in the bigger tapestry of the movie.  The rest often feels overlong and underthought, with a campy atmosphere that never completely meshes with the rest of the film.  The special edition DVD is both interesting and disappointing in that it does present a number of interesting deleted scenes that deepen the film (and those themes would later pop up in the Nolan-era Batman movies) but almost never acknowledges its troubled production history.  Even Schumacher’s commentary presents a rosy view of Batman Forever’s production: it’s not an uninteresting commentary, but it seems to skirt around essential material.  The rest of the features aren’t much above promotional fluff.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

<em class="BookTitle">Infinite Jest</em>, David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown, 1996, 1078 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-316-92004-5 sept12

So, I finally made it through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.1

1. Since this is a novel that defies the notion of a novel, I can’t really review it.  But have a few notes instead:

  • For those who aren’t aware of Infinite Jest, here are a few essential pointers: It’s a 1078-pages novel with 388 endnotes (some of them with their own endnotes) spread over nearly 100 pages.  It’s dense and full of show-off moments: Pages without paragraph breaks are not uncommon, and Wallace seems determined to approach even the most ordinary scene with an oblique, ever-changing angle.  The novel takes place in a world that features “an entertainment” so compelling that it sucks viewers into compulsive re-viewing.  Still, the real point of Infinite Jest is a series of sequences about tennis players, addicts and separatists.  No plot summary will ever do it justice: there’s simply too much stuff in this novel.  It’s both elusive and verbose and fits just about every criteria that identifies experimental fiction.
  • It took me forever to get to it, and almost-forever to actually read it.  I had actually purchased the book years ago, thanks to its reputation, but kept pushing it aside for shorter reads.  It took the Infinite Summer online reading project to get me to finally get cracking on the book, and even then that wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped for: I ended up reading the first half of the book in early July (ironically, on a road trip from Ottawa to Montréal to Boston and back, which is pretty amusing given where Infinite Jest takes place) and the second half in a frantic week in September, just in time for the end of the Infinite Summer reading schedule.
  • A good chunk of Infinite Jest’s reputation is built upon an accumulation of intricate details about esoteric subjects that makes one reluctant to challenge the author’s authority.  Fortunately, the novel does deal a lot with French-Canadian themes, from French-language quotes in the text to frequent mentions of Québécois separatists as antagonists of the tale.  To anyone familiar with either separatism or the French language, however, it quickly becomes obvious that Wallace’s understanding of either subject is superficial at best: references to Quebec history are ludicrous, and about half of the French-language expressions in the text are simply wrong in ways that would be obvious to francophone grade-schoolers.  This, ironically, made the author seem more human and the novel consequently more accessible.
  • I rarely relate to novels as a writer of fiction, since my fiction output is infrequent, awful and thankfully unpublished.  But Infinite Jest made me realize how far one could go in the intricacies of writing fiction.  Much fiction writing is about finding a way to express world-building, character interaction, inner feelings or plot development.  Wallace goes so far in the direction of trivial overload (ie; putting meat around the bones of his plot, even if plot isn’t a primary force in his novel) that he ends up reassuring everyone unwilling to follow.  That revelation dawned on me during a ten-page endnote that appears to be a filmography but is really a chronology of some events in Wallace’s future history.  At some point, readers are bound to hit a wall of self-questioning and ask themselves not only why they’re reading Infinite Jest, but why they’re reading fiction at all.  What’s the point?  Why spend so much time and mental energy reading things that, to put it simply, don’t and will never exist?a
  • I didn’t like Infinite Jest as much as I admired its audacity and loved specific moments of it.  There are some terrific passages in this book (the history lesson on pages 391-410 is a tour de force, equal to the Eschaton wargame sequence and about a dozen other “good bits” as the highlights of the book), and its conceptual audacity has enough to warm the hardened heart of any jaded reader.  This being said, most of the time Infinite Jest seems to suffer from an acute case of verbiage.  My patience runs thin when I’m bored…
  • My confession: I invoked a good chunk of Daniel Pennac’s “Rights of the Reader” (PDF) while reading Infinite Jest, if only because they seemed essential to making it to the end of the novel.  I skimmed so many passages that it’s an open question as to whether I actually read most of the novel.  I re-read parts when something interesting started while I was reading diagonally.  I went on-line and memorized contextual material about the novel.  I read the novel anywhere I could carry it (which was limited by the book’s bulk).  I even read some of the good bits aloud to whoever was around.  I dipped in and out, and even began this review a hundred and fifty pages before the end.  In short, I read Infinite Jest my way, and don’t let anyone else try to tell you that there’s a right or wrong way to do it.  If you decide to spend time reading this novel (while you could read four or five others for the same amount of effort), be sure to make it yours.b

a. An answer to that question is to be found on page 200-211, a list of things learned in a halfway house that feels like a glimpse at the universal human condition.

b. But consider the advice of those who tell you that you’ll need more than one bookmark.

Songs of the Doomed, Hunter S. Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">Songs of the Doomed</em>, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1990 (2002 reprint), 355 pages, C$24.00 pb, ISBN 0-7432-4099-5

As my sequential reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s work progresses onward, I have to read about the worst years like I read about the best: After the glory years of the early seventies, Thompson’s output during the eighties became a lot more fragmented: Generation of Swine (1989) collected a hundred of his San Francisco Examiner columns, while Songs of the Doomed riffles through Thompson’s archives to present snippets of material written between 1950 and 1990.  It’s billed as a retrospective, but it feels a lot like the publication of redundant material wrapped around a few worthwhile pieces that followed The Great Shark Hunt.

Part of this impression is formed by my extensive readings about Thompson, much of it published after Songs of the Doomed.  While the publication of excerpts from The Rum Diary must have caused a sensation back in 1990, it’s more interesting today for comparative purposes given how the entire novel manuscript was revised and published in 1998.  Some of the letters included here are also available in one of the two books of letters published so far.  On the other hand, the snippets from Prince Jellyfish in Songs of the Doomed still remain today the only publicly-available chapters from Thompson’s first novel.

From time to time, it seems as if Thompson is either recycling notes, or reprinting familiar material.  It doesn’t help that we’re rarely told when excerpts are reprints or take-offs on familiar material.  “The Edge” passage from Hell’s Angels is reprinted as “Midnight on the Coast Highway”, whereas what looks like another draft of the high-water mark in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is presented as, indeed, “High-Water Mark”.  Thompson scarcely introduces his pieces either: in-between text, we get italicized anecdotes that don’t offer much to those who have gone through the rest of his (auto-)biographical material.

Still, there is some more interesting material at hand.  Thompson may have officially published very little outright fiction, but he kept having ideas for novels and stories, and some of those abortive segments are included here, including notes on The Silk Road (a crime thriller inspired by the influx of Cuban refugees in early-eighties Florida) and a promising beginning called “Fear and Loathing in Sacramento”, intriguing despite elements that approach self-parody.  The snippets of Sacramento were apparently published as part of Thompson’s final columns for the SF Examiner, and they go well with other pieces that seem just as determined to dip into pure fiction.

But the real gem of the book is one of the few gonzo articles written too late to be included in The Great Shark Hunt: “Love on the Palm Beach Express: The Pulitzer Divorce Trial” is one of the last articles that Thompson would write as a journalist, and it’s a savage look at the lifestyle of the rich and scandalous in Palm Beach, Florida.  Thomspon scholars already know that this was the article that made Thompson realize that he was too famous to keep doing journalism work: his presence disrupted the trial he was supposed to cover, although it’s ironic that we get no trace of this very gonzoesque incident in the article itself.

Even for those who start reading Songs of the Doomed with an open mind and the best of intentions, the sheer familiarity of the material makes it tough to disagree with the assessment that Thompson was a shadow of his former creative self by the eighties.  The last chunk of the book focuses on the writer’s early 1990 legal problems, but the impact of that section seems to operate on an entirely different level than Thompson intended: while he portrays himself as a downtrodden citizen persecuted by a police state for political reasons, many readers will see this section as the culmination of the rest of the book: after a life spent “in the passing lane” advocating drugs, insanity and violence, Thompson got caught.  Numerous Thompson biographers have noticed that the writer was never more comfortable than when he was the source of whatever craziness went around; his loud protests when he got arrested show how different things looked when he was at the receiving end of some good old-fashioned fear and loathing.  It’s enough to make one become a bit more sceptical of Thompson’s oft-quoted slogan “it never got weird enough for me.”