The Girl Who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland)

<em class="BookTitle">The Girl Who Played with Fire</em>, Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland)

Viking Canada, 2009 translation of 2006 original, 503 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06902-6

Second instalment in the massively popular Millennium trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers, The Girl Who Played with Fire continues the adventures of Larsson’s duo of righteous avengers by following up threads left open in the first volume in the context of a new mystery.  It’s a different type of story, and it leads straight to the final book in the trilogy.

It picks up nearly a year after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as Lisbeth Salander comes back to Stockholm after some time spent travelling around the world.  This set up a chain of events that eventually send Salander on the run, suspected of three murders –including that of her sadistic guardian so memorably neutralized in the first volume of the trilogy.  Meanwhile, boy-scout journalist Mikael Blomkvist isn’t too far away from the story, as one of the victims was working for his Millennium magazine in exposing a prostitution network.  The strange collaboration between Salander and Blomkvist resumes anew as the stakes are raised ever higher for Salander.

Much of the same strengths that made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an enjoyable introduction to the series are in full display here:  The intricate procedural detail; the left-leaning look at modern Sweden society in all its flaws; the indignation at violence against women; the intensely genre-aware character-motivated plotting and (certainly not least) the two lead protagonists themselves.  Salander, newly refurbished and rich beyond belief, is still considered a crackpot by Swedish society at large, and The Girl Who Played with Fire goes much deeper in her personal history than anyone would expect.  This is her big novel in terms of back-story, and it cleanly illuminates a number of the character traits established in the first volume: why she’s so asocial, brilliant and driven.  Meanwhile, Blomkvist holds steady as a gifted editor/journalist, though he gets little more to do here than piece together the whole story and race ineffectually on Salander’s trail.

That The Girl Who Played with Fire is Salander’s story is most directly reflected in its tone.  After a lengthy procedural first half, the novel gradually transforms itself in a revenge thriller, and the ending is nothing short of brutal for everyone involved.  While there is a mystery to solve, this second volume is more forward-moving than the first: it’s a thriller more than a mystery, and despite the Cold War flashbacks, we don’t go digging quite as deep in Swedish history.

The price to pay for this story, unfortunately, the amount of sometimes-ridiculous procedural detail that Larsson crams into his novel.  This reaches an apex of sorts as we follow Salander during a page-long trip at IKEA: We get not only the specific models of what she buys, but a total of what it cost.  For all of the fuzzy warm feeling that readers may get in realizing that they’re reading the novel on the very same Poäng armchair that Salander has in her apartment, there’s a point where it’s possible to wonder How much of this is really necessary? The novel goes far beyond Salander and Blomkvist as viewpoint characters, involving an entire cast of protagonists, antagonists, friends, police and helpful bystanders.  The thriller plot itself barely begins before the first half of the book is over, and only starts cooking in the last quarter.  If nothing else, reading the novel will affirm how skilful the movie adaptation was in keeping the truly essential elements of the story.

Still, seasoned thriller readers will find a number of interesting elements to savour.  The often-corrupt Swedish setting is just as interesting, whereas Larsson’s tweaks to the usual thriller plot templates can keep things interesting: Both heroes are kept physically apart until the very last moments of the novel, and two of the book’s big action moments go to secondary characters rather than the lead protagonists.  (In a note that will go unnoticed by most North-American readers, Larsson even gives a significant heroic role to real-life boxer Paolo Roberto, resulting in one of the best real-life cameo in any novel, ever.)

Readers with sufficient patience and attention span to last through the often-lengthy but usually delicious exposition will only be pleased by this successful second volume.  But anyone with even the slightest interest in reading more about those two characters should keep the third volume close by, since the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire leads directly to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Toy Story 3</strong> (2010)

(In Theaters, July 2010) Making a sequel to a beloved film is usually a loser’s game: We can all name follow-ups to classics that were derided, pilloried or (worse) forgotten.  But if anyone can buck the trend, it’s Pixar, a studio so sure-footed in its choices since the original Toy Story back in 1995 that even their most disappointing films have been a cut above average.  So there is no surprise and considerable cheer if Toy Story 3 once again proves to be an extraordinary achievement.  Even its status as a sequel becomes an asset as the story ages along its characters, features long-running payoffs (“The Claw!”) and hits an emotional climax that wouldn’t be nearly so effective if it didn’t mark the end of a 15-year journey: its surprising thematic depth about loss and renewal actually depends on it being a sequel.  As for the rest, it’s classic Pixar top-shelf material: Thrilling action sequences, numerous sight gags, honest character development, inventive sequences and a rhythm that makes everything go by the blink of an eye.  Any comparisons with the previous two movies will highlight the exceptional quality of the computer animation, which is particularly effective in dealing with human figures –and fortunately so given the importance that they play in the narrative.  But it’s the emotional impact of the film that will remain long after the incredible detail of its visuals have been forgotten: Unlike Up, the script wisely keeps its bawling moments for the end, and thus caps a complete film experience that delivers everything one could wish for in a mass-market entertainment blockbuster.  As usual for Pixar (not that they should be taken for granted), Toy Story 3 is a solid choice for year’s end consideration and one of the finest “Part Three” ever made so far.  The only way it could be better is if there is no “Part Four”. Ever.

Ware Tetralogy, The, Rudy Rucker

<em class="BookTitle">Ware Tetralogy, The</em>, Rudy Rucker

Prime, 2010 omnibus re-edition of 1982-2000 originals, 751 pages, US$24.95 tp ISBN 978-1-60701-211-5

Some authors’ bibliography can be described using a single word approximation, and so Rudy Rucker’s fiction can best be labelled weird.  Even by the imaginative standards of post-New Wave Science Fiction, Rucker pushes the limits of what genre readers are ready to accept as being plausible.  A mathematician/computer scientist by training and madman of the imagination by choice, Rucker has been at the periphery of SF for decades, and The Ware Tetralogy is a splendid career omnibus summing up the groovy, the bad and the wacky.  Bringing together Software (1982), Wetware (1988), Freeware (1997) and Realware (2000), it’s also a wild trip through the recent past of SF’s cutting-edge.

Reading Software today is an intriguing trip back to the founding texts of cyberpunk, at a time where SF writers were first trying to grasp the new ideas that the personal computer revolution were making accessible.  Mind as software?  Digitizing personalities and storing them as information?  Software was there before the rush: Given how thoroughly those notions now permeate the genre, it’s probably impossible to read it today and grasp how innovative this must have felt at the time.  Significantly, Software also happens to be the most accessible of the four books bundled here. It’s weird, but approachably so: There are a few chuckles at the chronology (lunar-based robots having rebelled by 2001, and mind-digitizing being common by 2010), but the protagonist’s issues are recognizable, and much of the (ahem) hardware is familiar.

This stops being true as Wetware and its two follow-ups unfold.  Technology growing ever-weirder in the universe of the series, humans start using drugs to merge at the cellular level, robots evolve into a kind of smelly malleable plastic compound, hyper-dimensional aliens stop for a chat and reality-bending technology (similar to the one imagined in Rucker’s own 1999 Saucer Wisdom) messes up everything.  The characters become increasingly incomprehensible (with a few exceptions, the most sympathetic being a perverted redneck with bad taste in partners) and so do their actions.  Reading The Ware Tetralogy at that point becomes a race from one comprehensible stepping-stone to another, trying to keep up with a flood of gratuitous strangeness.

It does help that as Rucker grows older, his stories become less mean.  Software’s biggest flaw is the way it suddenly races through its third act in order to deliver a bleak resolution.  Much of the same also happens during Wetware, as the shiny new toys he plays with are abruptly discarded, outlawed or destroyed by clueless characters.  This, in fact, becomes a distinguishing point between Rucker and much of his SF cohort: Despite its fanciful extrapolations, The Ware Tetralogy frequently turns its back on progress, and never so blatantly than during the final volume.  The result, unfortunately, is never a series we can trust to deliver the expected SF thrills: All four books have a tendency to pick up their toys and go home just as we’re starting to have fun.  Fortunately, Realware provides a conclusion that’s both satisfactory and kind –if nothing else, this should be reason enough to read the story to the end.

This being said, many of Rucker’s other writing tics are more admirable: If nothing else, he understands that humans in general are dumb, perverted and prone to taking counterproductive decisions that harm everyone.  Sexual obsession is a constant here, as are dim-witted characters struggling with future shock.  This may clash with SF’s brainy technophilic tendencies, but it does make Rucker a finer chronicler of the human experience than many of his colleagues.  (On the other hand, this advantage quickly turns to exasperation when characters doing really dumb things all lead to a small exclamation of “You idiot!”)  That’s the point of being a cyberpunk punk.

The Ware Tetralogy is a great example of everything that characterizes Rudy Rucker’s Science Fiction, both good and bad.  My own previous experiences reading Rucker have been hit-and-miss: While his extrapolations are usually top-notch, their packaging has often been maddening.  Trying to get back to his bibliography after years of neglect, I floundered on his most recent Postsingular/Hylozoic diptych.  Most Rucker novels begin rationally, and evolve into something much stranger: If you miss the exit to Bizarroland, you can find yourself stranded in a narrative in which seemingly retarded characters spout childish nonsense to each other.  I suppose that SF needs a mad genius or two, but the price to pay may be novels that are more ambitious than successful.

Still, I’m happy that, after years of casual book-hunting, I have finally managed to read the entire Ware series: Prime has done a fine job bringing back all four novels into print as one unified package (even though a few OCR errors made it through, the worst being the inversion of 2053 for 2035 at a crucial establishing moment), with an enlightening afterword by the author detailing the sources of inspiration and subsequent re-evaluation of each novel.  This afterword is said to be excerpted from Rucker’s upcoming (2011) autobiography Nested Scrolls, which I am now really looking forward to.

If you’ve got even the slightest interest in experiencing The Ware Tetralogy for yourself, you can download the entire massive four-book series from either the author’s web site in PDF or in many more formats from ManyBooks.

True Lies (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">True Lies</strong> (1994)

(Second Viewing, On DVD, July 2010) I hadn’t seen True Lies since it was first released in theatres, and while it has visibly aged since then, it hasn’t lost much of its appeal.  Beginning like a competent James Bond clone featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film soon takes a then-unusual turn in portraying a secret agent dealing with matrimonial issues.  While this trope isn’t so fresh now after such films as Mr and Mrs Smith (and was adapted from French film La Totale in the first place), it’s still rich in possibilities that True Lies exploits relatively well.  Unfortunately, what seems more obvious now are the pacing issues: There’s a mid-film lull that more or less coincides with increasingly unpleasant harassment of the lead female character by her husband, and even the reversal/payoff later in the film doesn’t completely excuse the bad feeling left by the sequence.  On the other hand, the action scenes are almost as good as they could be despite some dated CGI work: True Lies may be among director James Cameron’s lesser work, but it shows his understanding of how an action scene can be put together and features mini-payoffs even in the smallest details.  The last half-hour is just one thrill ride after another, culminating in a savvy Miami high-altitude ballet.  In terms of acting, it’s fun to see Eliza Dushku in a small but pivotal pre-Buffy role as the hero’s daughter or Tia Carrere as an evil terro-kitten –although it’s no less strange to see Jamie Lee Curtis get a few minutes of screen time as a sex symbol and I can’t help to think that Schwarzenegger, however great he is playing up to his own archetype, is singularly miscast as a character who should look far meeker.  Uncomfortable mid-film harassment sequences aside, True Lies nonetheless holds up fairly well more than a decade and a half later, thanks to a clever blend of action, humor and married romance.  What really doesn’t hold up, though, is the bare-bones 1999 DVD edition, which is marred by a poor grainy transfer and a quasi-complete lack of supplements.  We know about James Cameron’s reputation for excess during the making of his movies: There’s got to be an awesome documentary somewhere in this film’s production archives.

The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files #3), Charles Stross

<em class="BookTitle">The Fuller Memorandum</em> (<em>Laundry Files</em> #3), Charles Stross

Ace, 2010, 312 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01867-3

There are books I look forward to, and then there are new books by Charles Stross.  From the moment I saw The Fuller Memorandum in my local bookstore (a few days ahead of its official publication date), I knew that the rest of my day would revolve around finishing the book.  As an excuse to pull up a comfortable chair, a jug of ice tea and read uninterrupted for a few hours, I couldn’t have asked for anything better: I consider Stross’ two previous Laundry Files novels to be among the most enjoyable Science Fiction books of the past decade, and they’re only a part of why he’s one of the best SF authors working at the moment.

Initially launched at Golden Gryphon with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, Stross’ Laundry Files series blends together an unusual mixture of geeky humor, lovecraftian horror and espionage thrills.  Narrator Bob Howard starts as a geek whose explorations of higher mathematics landed him an irrevocable job within a British secret agency dedicated to protecting the world against para-dimensional Evil Ones.  The ideal target audience for this series is equally able to giggle at UNIX jokes, feel the vertiginous awe at alien horrors and appreciate the twists of spy-novel pastiches.  In short, the target audience looks a lot like me, and part of why I like the Laundry Files novels so much is the knowledge that I’m catching references that others aren’t –and missing out on quite a few as well.  (SF fans will be pleased to see The Fuller Memorandum nod briefly at David Langford, and give a much more substantial homage to Mike Ford.  Other chuckles include Bob’s weakness against shiny Apple products, and the real reason why the Laundry is so hilariously paranoid about paperclip requisitions.)

Still, the most interesting thing about The Fuller Memorandum as an entry in The Laundry Files is how it pivots Bob Howard’s adventures from two loosely connected larks to a much longer sustained series.  The narration is darker, the action stays close to the Laundry’s London HQ, Howard is physically damaged by the events of the volume and we’re starting to see how a number of threads are starting to fit together.  Many of them concern the terrifying Case Nightmare Green mentioned almost as a throwaway in the previous volumes, and that’s no laughing matter.  Among The Fuller Memorandum’s big revelations is the true identity of Angleton, and that has a number of unpleasant implications for the rest of the series as well.  Perhaps more significantly, it’s a volume that definitely exists as a part of a series: While The Jennifer Morgue could be enjoyed on its own as a Fleming/Bond parody, the Anthony-Price-inspired The Fuller Memorandum does its best to provide essential context but fits better in the continuity of the Laundry Files.

For instance, Howard’s growth as a narrator is best appreciated by those who have seen him discover the terrors out there during The Atrocity Archives and lose quite a bit more of his innocence during The Jennifer Morgue.  By the time this third volume ends, Bob has become something… very different and considerably more dangerous.  His relationship with now-wife Mo is further tested, and even his place as a narrator of the series isn’t quite so secure: Thanks to an elegant narrative sleigh-of-hand, Stross gradually trains us to be less reliant upon Bob’s first-person narration and that shift of perspective proves essential during the three-ring circus that is the climax of the novel.  The result, along with a far darker outlook on the universe of the series despite a just-as-light narration, is reminiscent of Stross’ other Merchant Princes series in how it chips away at the foundations of the series, and trends toward ever-grimmer plot developments.

The result is that even if The Fuller Memorandum doesn’t quite manage the kicks-per-page density of its predecessors, it’s very satisfying and lays down the groundwork for a promising series without locking the author in a repeating pattern.  Case Nightmare Green provides an anchor point for the next few volumes –and if Stross’ past stories are an indication, we may get a truly wide-screen apocalypse by the time the series reaches a conclusion.  Which is why, as I finally let go of the book after a pleasant afternoon of uninterrupted reading, I am satisfied but barely satiated by this third entry in the Laudry Files series.  Stross hasn’t even finished writing The Apocalypse Codex yet, and already I can’t wait for it.