Month: November 2010

Age of Wonders, David G. Hartwell

Age of Wonders, David G. Hartwell

Tor, 1996 revision of 1984 original, 319 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86151-6

I must have read Age of Wonders three times in either of its incarnations, so I’m a bit surprised that I have never formally reviewed it on-line.  But my own search engine tells me that I haven’t… so here’s a quick recommendation for one of the best book ever published on the American Science Fiction genre and its subculture.

(I might as well make a few pre-emptive disclaimers before going any further, since there are a number of links between Hartwell and myself: : I’m on a quest to collect all issues of his New York Review of Science Fiction magazine, he has edited novels by people I consider to be friends, I’ve got a handful of his books personally dedicated to me, we have shared a number of conversations throughout the years, I have moderated at least one panel with him and he has –briefly- driven me around Orlando.  We are, in other words, just a bit more than nodding acquaintances.)

Originally published in 1984, Age of Wonders was last revised in 1996 to incorporate a number of changes in the field.  While that revision is now fifteen years old, don’t let the pre-Web publication date distract you from the book’s vast and timeless understanding of Science Fiction.  Its first point of interest is the way it explains why “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve”.  It’s at that age, after all, that bright teenagers pick up a chronic reading habit, a reading regimen that often contains a large proportion of Science-Fiction.  From his understanding of the field, Hartwell shows how disaffected teenagers often find in SF a literature that appeals to their sense of the world, and how they never completely let go of their affection for the genre after that.  Ask around SF conventions, and you will often find people who correspond exactly to this profile –including myself.

Hartwell then proceeds to sketch a history of the fannish subculture that has, since the beginning, surrounded the Science Fiction genre.  It has forever been in the nature of SF’s readership to communicate among itself, and the presence of fandom is one of the things that still makes the SF genre so different from other literary fields: It fosters SF’s awareness of itself as a distinct entity, structures the conversation within the field and provides authors with encouragement that, in some cases, is more valuable than the potential monetary rewards offered by a wider readership outside the genre.  Science-Fiction fandom is small, but it’s concentrated.

Age of Wonders also spends quite a bit of time discussing the nuts and bolts of the impact that SF has on its readers.  Hartwell dedicates entire chapters to the study of the “Sense of Wonder” so particular to SF, to the tortuous relationship that Science Fiction has with real science and reality, to the reasons why clear prose has long been SF’s dominant stylistic requirement and to the biggest historical controversies within the field.

Hartwell illustrates those points with anecdotes drawn from fandom’s long history, quotations from other writers, informed opinions and, in one case, a deconstruction of a short story to see how it works.  It’s worth noting that Hartwell writes Age of Wonders from a well-rounded perspective drawn from his experience as a fan, an academician and an active editor within the field.  While the book is immensely useful as a pedagogical resource (it comes with a few appendices to provide a solid bibliography of essential works), it’s clearly written and immediately accessible to non-academician.  Its affection for the genre is obvious, but that doesn’t blind it to some of SF’s structural faults.

Whether you’re an insider looking for a theoretical framework, or an outsider trying to understand what makes Science Fiction so different, Age of Wonder is an essential resource. Reading though it once again, I was struck by how much material I once knew and had forgotten since then: it reminded me that, without any doubt, Hartwell has forgotten more about SF than I (and most other people) will ever know.

Fifteen web-dominated years after its publication, it’s worth pointing out that in many ways, Age of Wonders reflects a certain experience of Science Fiction that will remain of its era.  Today’s SF fan is markedly likelier to discover the genre through media sources (film, TV or video games) than to come across paperback spinners at their local drugstore.  The factors leading to a chronic teenage reading habit (ie: isolation, boredom) may not be as acute given today’s multiplicity of web-driven entertainment options.  The experience of fandom has also changed dramatically over the past decade and a half, web sites taking the role once played by local generalist conventions as gathering places for the casual fan.  Conventions have grown at once bigger and more specialized, as Hollywood-dominated Comic-Con now makes headlines while literature-focused Readercon can still thrive.  Most notable, however, is the way the geek experience that Hartwell describes has become a fairly mainstream lifestyle in-between massively successful entertainment such as Halo, Inception and The Big Bang Theory.

I would be the first in line to buy a third edition of Age of Wonders.  Any update would have to navigate a path between a historical acknowledgement of the fannish experience, and the way geek culture has become just another market segment.  Is there anything in the written SF subculture that still distinguishes it from a more casual acquaintance with SF media?  Is written-SF still a vital side-stream of American culture, or is it merely another competing entertainment option?  Is there still something significant to a love for Science Fiction that links with a lust for the future, sympathy for technology and a self-imposed marginalization from society?

Leaving aside the still-hypothetical question of a third edition, 1996-era Age of Wonders remains an essential component of any serious non-fiction collection about Science Fiction.  It clearly and usefully describes the genre, its readers, its reasons for existing and its essential inner workings.  It’s good enough to re-read every decade, no matter which edition you can get.

Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton

Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton

Harper Weekend, 2010 reprint of 2009 original, 419 pages, C$13.99 tp, ISBN 978-1-55468-811-1

A close look at Michael Crichton’s bibliography shows a sometimes-baffling mixture of commercial instincts and contrarian beliefs.  Crichton always wrote to market, and this eventually came to justify novels that challenged orthodoxy; his belief that he was smarter than everyone else meshed well with the commercial opportunities offered by controversy, and that’s how we ended up with carefully crafted alarmist screeds such as Jurassic Park, Prey and Next, or critic-baiting reactionary tracts such as Rising Sun, Disclosure or State of Fear.

Pirate Latitudes, published after Crichton’s death, is another, happier kind of commercially-driven project.  Seizing upon the perennial craze for pirate-related material, it’s a novel that delivers swashbuckling action and adventure in a strictly conventional fashion ripe for cinematic adaptation.  It’s a lot like Congo or Timeline in that it exhaustively explores the dramatic opportunities a place and time (17th century Caribbean), every chapter showcasing a new thrill.  Stripped of political controversy and free to exploit the new dangerous technologies of a bygone era, it’s a novel that lets readers enjoy the core strengths of Crichton’s writing without suffering from any of its assorted baggage.

The hero of Pirates Latitudes is a capable British privateer named Charles Hunter, hired by the Governor of Jamaica to take advantage of an unusually profitable opportunity: A Spanish galleon has been left behind by the main fleet, and is believed vulnerable to attack while it’s moored at a nearby island.  Gathering capable crewmembers, Hunter prepares his expedition and sets out for plunder.  As you may expect, the way to the treasure and back won’t be simple or easy: The 17th century Caribbean is a dangerous place, and readers are right to expect a steady rhythm of thrills and adventure on the high seas.

Whether it’s navigating shallow waters, taking on other ships in naval combat or fighting off a kraken, Pirate Latitudes delivers everything we’d expect from a pirate-themed novel.  It’s perfectly balanced between fiction and fact, with a sea monster and an uncommon series of adventures on one side, and careful descriptions of the era and nautical details on the other.  Crichton’s fiction has seldom been subtle, but it has usually been skilful and the way Pirate Latitudes can exploit the popular idea of the pirate (as depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, most notably) to develop it half-realistically is one of the novel’s most charming aspects.  There’s a ton of trivia about navigating sail ships cleverly meshed in the narrative, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable.

Narratively, the novel is almost a complete success, save for the initially curious ending.  Unlike what you’d expect from a pirate novel, it doesn’t actually end with a massive naval battle and an all-out boarding assault: those occur earlier in the novel, as do the sea monster attack, dangerous island expedition and triumphant assault on the gold-filled ship.  As the first section makes it clear in rounding up the members of the expedition, Pirate Latitudes is structured around a caper plot rather than a more conventional kind of pirate adventure.  The ending will seem underwhelming if you’re not familiar with the kind of vengeful double-cross that the form dictates.  The characters are all exceptionally accomplished in their own way, which creates a lot of opportunity for extraordinary acts and solid dialogue.

It all amount to a fun novel: not terribly deep nor as meaningful as Crichton’s other controversy-seeking contemporary thrillers, but a decent companion to some of Crichton’s more entertaining books.  It’s also, in its own way, a decent send-off for Crichton, who deserved better than the bitter aftertaste of State of Fear and Next as his final send-off.  One last novel by Crichton reportedly remains to be published, but it’s going to be assembled from notes and a partially-written manuscript: Pirate Latitudes is the last novel truly written by Crichton, and it’s a reminder that before he became the darling of contrarians, he had an impressive career as a fine popular entertainer.  Readers might as well enjoy the experience of a master craftsman deftly delivering one last crowd-pleasing work.

Even if you can’t read, don’t worry; it’ll be adapted as a movie sooner or later.

Zendegi, Greg Egan

Zendegi, Greg Egan

Gollancz, 2010, 332 pages, C$24.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-575-08618-0

After two quasi-incomprehensible novels that pushed the edge of what even jaded hard-SF fans were willing to stomach, Greg Egan’s latest novel Zendegi is a return to a more accessible style that will remind his faithful readers of Teranesia.  Set in a near future and focusing intensely on mid-step technological issues, it’s notable for its attention to characters, openness to non-western culture and pessimistic contradiction of previous Egan novels.

Structurally split between a first third set in 2012 and a second section set in 2027-2028, Zendegi first spends time with Australian journalist Martin Seymour as he travels to Iran and gets involved in a second Iranian revolution.  While this first half is mostly told as a techno-thriller set five minutes in the future, a subplot featuring Nasim, an expatriate Iranian scientist working in neurobiology, suggests the novel’s ultimate SF goals.

Fifteen years later, the novel comes closer to the kind of future imagined in Egan’s other novels.  Virtual Worlds are now fully immersive, and new techniques are helping digitize aspects of human behaviour as semi-autonomous agents.  It’s not quite artificial intelligence, but it’s steadily getting closer.  So close, in fact, that when Seymour is diagnosed with a potentially incurable cancer, he contacts Nasim to be partially recorded in order to provide guidance to his soon-to-be-orphaned son.  Meanwhile, the convergence between human brains and virtual models is raising both hopes and controversy –leading to a few scenes of virtual vandalism with a darker purpose.

With Zendegi, Egan takes a closer look at the middle-steps on the way to the kind of fully-digital futures he described in books such as Diaspora.  SF traditionally assumes an intermediate “…and something magical happens…” in-between the present and an AI-enabled future, but a few writers are occasionally willing to dive into the morass and set stories in the messy interim period.  (Recently, both Robert J. Sawyer with his WWW series and Ted Chiang in The Lifecycle of Software Objects have treaded upon similar themes.)

Accordingly, there’s nothing simple or optimistic about Egan’s treatment of the subject in Zendegi.  Various approximations, shortcuts and compromises are required before having even the simplest simulated personalities up and running, and much of the effort is motivated by strictly mercenary gain as various online services compete for profit.  The main plot of the novel itself is a mournful race against time, and it doesn’t end as optimistically as you would expect –especially if your idea of Egan’s fiction was shaped by his earliest novels rather than the more nuanced material he’s been writing in his short stories.

The best thing about Zendegi as compared to Egan’s latest Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence is that Egan has taken a step back from the abyss of incomprehensibility and delivered an accessible novel with credible human characters.  It feels a lot like Teranesia in that it allows Egan to dial down the speculation and develop a richer recognizable extrapolation of our present.  With its deep immersion in Iranian culture, Zendegi also suggests that Egan can write near-future globalized SF à la Ian McDonald.

Unfortunately, Zendegi also leaves itself open to more common criticism.  If Schild’s Ladder and Incandescence could use “I didn’t understand most of it” negative reviews like badges of honour, Zendegi won’t benefit so much from charges that it is short story material padded to novel length.  Focusing strictly on the SF elements, it’s possible to lose much of the novel’s first third, a good chunk of the redundant segments set in the Zendegi virtual world itself, and considerably shorten the remainder of the novel.  The resulting novella would feel a lot more energetic while delivering the same extrapolative charge; it would also feel closer to Egan’s recent short fiction than his novels.

While the finished results will please readers looking for either a more realistic take on the near-future of mind uploading or globally-aware genre fiction, Zendegi also carries a penalty by virtue of being published under the Egan brand name: It’s more timid, less fizzy, and nowhere near as interesting as much of his other books.  It is, in many ways, a wholly average SF novel.  Not bad, not fantastic; just ordinary.  This will be a relief to some, a disappointment to others, and maybe even both at the same time.

Tales of the Madman Underground, John Barnes

Tales of the Madman Underground, John Barnes

Viking, 2009, 532 pages, C$23.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06081-8

One of the paradoxes of genre publishing is that it can be as comforting in its ghetto-like nature as it can stifle those looking to try something new.  Genre fans can provide a certain predictable sales baseline, but convincing them to try something outside the boundaries of the genre can be difficult.  For every Dan Simmons able to write equally well in science-fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, there are a plenty of other SF writers getting no success trying to sell techno-thrillers.

Then there are those who seem to relish breaking genre conventions.  John Barnes is, in many ways, the model of a mid-list SF genre writer, but his lengthy bibliography is filled with oddities and small surprises.  In addition to a solid core bibliography of Science Fiction novels written for adult and young adult audiences, Barnes also wrote less conventional speculative fiction: From a trilogy of men’s adventure thrillers to a light-hearted fantasy to a meta-SFictional tall tale to hard-SF novels written in collaboration with Buzz Aldrin, Barnes manages to defy and subvert expectations once every two or three novels.  I’ve got most of his bibliography (Heck, I even have his early obscure “Time Raider” trilogy in my stack of things to read) and I’m still surprised by what he dares to do.

Now, with Tales of the Madman Underground, he turns his attention to mainstream young adult fiction.  Taking place in 1973 Ohio, this YA novel shows a few hints of Barnes’ SF pedigree: The main character read Philip K Dick and has to turn to a convention-going classmate for explanations.  A few other references can be read as reassuring winks to Barnes’ existing audience (who may be familiar with Barnes’ other young-adult Science Fiction novels), but Tales of the Madman Underground is otherwise a completely mainstream teen novel.

It takes place over the first six days of Karl Shoemaker’s senior High School year.  He has the best of intentions: To be normal.  “Normal”, in Karl’s case, is a challenge.  Not everyone lives with an unstable widowed mother and dozens of quasi-feral cats.  Not everyone works five jobs and has to hide their money from their flighty mom.  Not everyone is a recovering alcoholic teen.  Not everyone has been branded a psychopath, sent to group therapy and pre-emptively condemned to a permanent psychological record.  Karl’s goal is to take his last year one day at a time, and be as normal as possible to avoid returning to “the Madman Underground.”  It’s not that his best friends aren’t Madmen… but he’d rather try to be normal for a while.

I’m not going to attempt guessing how much of Tales of the Madman Underground is nostalgia for Barnes (who was 16 in 1973); it’s more useful to note that this is a novel by an experienced novelist, and that the result is a solid success.  The atmosphere of a small Midwestern town is described with idiosyncratic flavour and the characters that surround Karl are richly sketched.  The titular Madmen may have been designated as broken minds by the system, but the novel shows how even the most distressed of them can depend on each other for support and so deserve our sympathy.  (In one of the book’s best scenes, they show up the school’s newest therapist… and find out that she’s an unexpected ally.)  Karl himself is a likable protagonist, emboldened and hardened by situations that others would find desperate.  We root for him to a rare degree, and the small victories that constitute his ultimate triumph are earned many times over.

Karl’s narration is direct, suitably profane, and addictive from the very first few pages.  The terrific dialogue is a joy to read, making the 500+pages book seem much shorter.  The narrative flow isn’t complicated, but it’s enlivened by numerous subplots (many of them relating to Karl’s numerous side-jobs) and a series of stories about the Madman Underground’s most memorable adventures.  Set in 1973, it seems just as relevant today.

Anyone who has read more than two Barnes novels knows that he can write dark-and-repulsive like the worst of them.  And while Tales of the Madman Underground has its share of uncomfortable moments (including a sequence where we’re temporarily brought to doubt the reliability of the potentially-psychotic narrator), it features one of Barnes’ most sympathetic character yet and it leads to an unusually triumphant conclusion.  The obstacles facing Karl are formidable, but they’re overcome fairly and the last few pages are smiles upon smiles.  It adds up to one of Barnes’ most enjoyable books yet, and a rare one of his that can be described as unabashedly upbeat.  Even die-hard genre SF fans willing to genre-hop and follow Barnes in his historical adventure will get much out of it.

Skyline (2010)

Skyline (2010)

(In theaters, November 2010) First of what seems to be a long list of alien-invasion films to appear in 2010-2011, Skyline takes a low-budget high-concept approach to a well-worn story: Aliens attack Los Angeles, and a few human characters are stuck in a high-rise apartment watching the action.  Perhaps the most astonishing film about Skyline is its reported cost of about ten million dollars, only half a million of which was spent on principal photography.  The rest is all CGI, and the on-screen result veers between digital home-movie quality and feature-film CGI effects.  It’s an audacious bet, but the film does feel a lot bigger than its budget.  Unfortunately, intentions aren’t the only thing that matters, and so Skyline missteps badly in about three major ways, two of whom are related to its ending.  (Spoiler ahead!)  The first issue is the lack of interest in the characters, none of whom have enough personality to be sympathetic.  Their self-indulgent dialogue is annoying, and there’s not a lot of sympathy to be felt for overgrown teenagers living large in a luxurious condo.  Skyline laboriously sets up its first act and then slowly moves through its second one; only the last thirty minutes truly move.  But the film’s most interesting characteristic is also the one that kills it: Anyone criticizing why alien-invasion movies always end up with the humans winning may want to take a look at Skyline to understand why it’s a better story to cheer for the human underdogs rather than letting the aliens do whatever they want anyway: it’s the difference between a short film and feature-length one: Don’t turn around in circles for 90 minutes to say something patently obvious from the moment the film’s premise is explained.  Skyline’s final problem stems from the second one in that it stops at an awful moment, either five minutes too late or fifteen minutes too early, ending with a futile nihilism that will make viewers turn against the film in its entirety.  (I’m not even going to comment on the patently absurd rationale of why the aliens seem to invade.)  Oh, there are plenty of things to like in the film’s individual moments: The special effects are often as good as any other alien-invasion film put on-screen.  (It helps that the Strauss Brothers writers/directors have an extensive background in visual effects.)  In the end, however, we’re left with a poisoned alien-invasion candy, not worth revisiting again knowing how it ends.  Skyline makes marginally more sense as a horror film rather than a science-fiction one, but not that much… and not enough to care.

Under the Dome, Stephen King

Under the Dome, Stephen King

Scribner, 2009, 1074 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-4850-1

Frankly, there’s just one thing you need to know about Stephen King’s Under the Dome:  It’s big.  It’s really, really big.  Count the pages and recall the two other King novels of similar heft: The Stand and It.   The page count shows that Under the Dome is King’s third-longest novel, and it certainly feels epic.

The premise is simple: When a small Maine town is cut off from the world by an invisible but impassable barrier, its residents struggle to understand what’s going on and survive the experience.  But such a plot summary glosses over the totality of King’s presentation of the event.  He’s got two thousand viewpoints to play with, and if the action wisely focuses on half a dozen main protagonists, at times it feels as if the omniscient narration gives us a glimpse of every single citizen of Chester’s Mill.  The first chapter alone takes a kaleidoscopic view of what happens when the dome falls, with crashing vehicles, cut-off body parts, interrupted streams, accidents of fate locking some people in or out and other assorted phenomenon.  The omniscient narration can be chatty, but it also goes quiet when it’s time to focus on the main characters.

Because there’s a lot more to Under the Dome than a town physically cut off from the rest of the world: Chester’s Mill has its share of bad apples, and they control the place.  When media attention brought on the city following the fall of the dome threatens to expose secrets that the guilty would rather keep hidden, the dome itself becomes less dangerous than the people inside … Psychotic murderers, crystal-meth entrepreneurs, power-crazy policemen and panicked citizen all show their true colours during the days that follow the fall of the dome.

But it’s the details through which King tells his story that make Under the Dome such an impressive and frustrating book.  On one hand, there is enough time and space here for elaborate plotting, reversals of fortune, copious inner monologues and ample character growth.  When King activates his omniscient narration, it’s like floating above a small town and having direct access to two thousand minds in all their diversity.  On the other hand, that amount of verbiage slows the action down and frequently makes readers wish for the next plot point.  King pulls a bit too obviously on familiar plot threads about religion, serial killers, corrupt authority and civil unrest to avoid a feeling of familiarity throughout much of Under the Dome.

There is, however, quite a bit of allegory going on under the surface of the text.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the parallels between an isolated and paranoid Chester’s Mill and Bush-administration America.  The division of power between a ruthless sheriff and incompetent politicians has real-world parallels, and much of the popular hysteria cuts a bit too close to headlines of the last decade to be entirely accidental.

Where Under the Dome doesn’t do so well is in its ultimate justification for the Dome.  It moves the novel from the Horror to the Science Fiction genre.  This is not by itself a bad thing, but it will make a number of more rigorous readers cringe given the thinness of the premise and the somewhat arbitrary way the novel is resolved.

Still, that ending is preceded by an apocalyptic sequence that leaves few people standing, so it all evens out.  While Under the Dome can occasionally be exasperating, annoying and underwhelming, it’s also a novel that disappoints because it attempts so much: Even if he misses a few targets along the way, King still manages to hit plenty of them.  The result may not have the quasi-mythical heft of The Stand or the tight focus of “The Mist”, but it’s the kind of wide-screen horror/thriller that has become a bit too rare lately.  King being King, it’s also a book written with clean prose, compelling characters and a thicket of plot developments.  It is, in short, a perfect book for those who want to sink into a lengthy reading experience and blink their eyes back to reality a long time later.

In its own four-pounds fashion, it’s also a powerful advertisement for ebook readers.

The New Face of War, Bruce Berkowitz

The New Face of War, Bruce Berkowitz

Free Press, 2003, 257 pages, C$41.00 hc, ISBN 0-7432-1249-5

Released in March 2003, just as Americans were invading Iraq, Bruce Berkowitz’s The New Face of War is already showing a bit of its age.  Seven year later, thanks to two ongoing wars involving the most powerful military force on planet Earth, we’ve seen the new face of war: It’s about IEDs and insurgency and asymmetrical force projection and wireless communication and missile-armed drones.  Then again, age can also mean respectability: How best to evaluate a book dealing with future war than to measure how right it has been years later?

Perhaps the first thing to do is to ignore the all-encompassing title.  The New Face of War doesn’t present a set of prescriptions and predictions for future warfare as much as it focuses on the changes already imposed by information technology.  It doesn’t get down into the nitty-gritty of what weapons soldiers will be using in the future as much as it charts how military forces have been refining their use of information technology to shorten their decision cycle, read enemy messages, or mount elaborate deceptions.

For a book dealing rather heavily in abstract strategic concepts of no use to most lay readers, Berkowitz does an impressive job at vulgarizing his subject matter and offering interesting ways to ease into his most esoteric concepts.  In order to explain how information technology is revolutionizing warfare, he starts by drawing an analogy between NASCAR and Formula One, illustrates his point with a lengthy description of the Gulf War’s logistics innovations, touches upon the creation of ARPANET and ends up summarizing his main points about “the new face of war”. [P.75] It takes a special kind of military nerd to jump enthusiastically into a book that draws parallels between the Internet and warfare, but Berkowitz makes it easy with plenty of illuminating links and a helping of wry humour.

Berkowitz knows his stuff, and the book goes deep in historical examples that are fascinating in their own right.  Perhaps the most interesting parts of The New Face of War are the illustrative digressions taking a quick trip down military history in order to show the evolution of information in warfare.  There’s a fascinating side-note about the development of torpedoes, for instance (including how they relate to The Sound of Music), and a much longer explanation of how accurate positioning systems were developed (from finding a reliable way of determining longitude to the post-Gulf War civilian co-optation of the GPS).

It probably goes without saying that Berkowitz writes from the paranoid school of military analysis: His view of the world presupposes that America is constantly threatened and that most means are subordinate to the cause of maintaining American superiority.  This can be a bit annoying for foreign readers, or people who don’t have a built-in terrorism persecution complex.  On the other hand, Berkowitz can be reasonable in his analysis: A chapter-long discussion of the ethics of strategic assassination ends up concluding that there is no defensible rationale for it –a far cry from the right-wing pro-torture apologists who seemed to bloom so bloodthirstily during the second half of the Bush administration.

In evaluating whether The New Face of War had survived the past seven years without losing too much credibility, the conclusion is that the book remains just as interesting and through-provoking now than in 2003.  Events since then have suggested that the information component of warfare remains crucial –US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan vastly out-powered their opponent, but local knowledge allowed insurgents to strike back effectively through very different tactics.  In dealing with a conventionally powerful enemy, insurgents have understood that they must attack in ways designed to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their exposure –a point that Berkowitz explains through the example of terrorist strikes.  Perhaps most striking is what has not happened since the book’s publication.  Berkowitz, despite spending much of his time discussing information warfare, remains sceptical about “cyber-war” and the myth of hackers bringing down modern civilization (or at the very least power plants) through the web –and in fact, there have been no significant incidents of the type since 2003.

In this light, the years have been kind to Berkowitz’s theses as developed in The New Face of War.  The only disappointment in reading the book is to find out that the author doesn’t seem to have a blog or web site on which we can read about his latest publications.  One wonders what he’s thinking these days…

Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2010, 384 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34431-9

Lee Child’s fourteenth Jack Reacher novel, 61 Hours, ended in a cliff-hanger of sorts, with the plot resolved but Reacher desperately running for his life.  An epilogue took delight in suggesting that nobody had survived the climactic explosion that ended the novel, worrying fans of the series: Would Reacher be back?

Of course he is.  As Worth Dying For begins, Reacher is once again travelling through small-town America, this time in the flat wilderness of wintertime Nebraska.  The narrative is obviously taking place after 61 Hours: Reacher is not only bruised and battered; he’s also heading to Virginia in the hope of meeting a character introduced in the previous novel.  Unfortunately, we only get a partial explanation of how Reacher made it out of the dire situation at the end of the last book –if you’re expecting a full answer, you may have to wait until he makes it to Virginia.  The rest of Worth Dying For has nothing to do with 61 Hours.

In the meantime, Reacher’s got problems to solve in Nebraska.  Outraged by the sight of a beaten-up housewife, Reacher can’t help but investigate the situation and eventually understand how the small community around him has been completely taken over by a family of abusive men.  Add to that a decades-old mystery about a long-missing girl, and Reacher can’t leave such situations alone.  But there’s nowhere to hide in the flat prairies of Nebraska –especially not when multiple teams of enforcers are sent to take care of him.

Reacher fans won’t be disappointed by this new entry, as routine as it can be at times.  Once you forgive the awkward bridge between 61 Hours and Worth Dying For, it’s another typical adventure for Reacher as an errant knight travelling throughout the US, helping those in distress and dispatching whoever tries to stop him.  He’s a quasi-supernatural protagonist, and it’s sometimes better to consider him as a semi-mythic incarnation of righteous fury than a believable character.

Still, Child plays the thriller game almost better than anyone.  If Worth Dying For is a bit more stylistically straightforward than the previous clock-ticking 61 Hours, it’s still as good as it can be in describing Reacher’s mixture of brawn and deduction.  In a weakened state, Reacher is more dependent than ever in anticipating his opponents’ actions and the outcome of his duels (one of them pitting him alone against a truck in a field) is highly satisfying.  Anyone worrying about a weakened Reacher just has to wait until he kills a bad guy by punching him in the heart –a medical factoid transformed into a feat of utter machismo that even seems to amaze the protagonist.

One thing that the novel also does well is exploiting the characteristics of such a desolate location.  There are only two dimensions in late-winter Nebraska, and every single point of human interest within dozens of miles is easily identifiable: When Reacher tries to act, he finds himself limited by a visible lack of options.  Cars are essential to go from anywhere to anywhere, and there are no secrets when human figures and car headlights can be spotted from such great distances.

Otherwise, there’s not much to report, and that’s part of the novel’s let-down.  For such a grandiose title, Worth Dying For deals in small potatoes: small town, evil family, generic henchmen, desolate settings.  For Child, it’s an achievement to wring that amount of entertainment out of such limited elements, but it comes soon after the small-town drama of 61 Hours, and doesn’t stick in memory like other novels in the series did.

Still, Worth Dying For is a good standalone entry even despite the disappointing transition between the previous novel and this one.  This being Reacher’s fifteenth adventure, his fans won’t be too disappointed yet, and Child’s continued ability to charm readers is nothing short of admirable.  But 2010 marks the first calendar year in which two Reacher novels were published, and if the results confirm that this is still the best thriller series out there, enough questions have been raised by 61 Hours’ cliff-hanger to suggest a bit of caution.

Red (2010)

Red (2010)

(In theaters, November 2010) By now, the action/comedy genre is so familiar that everyone should cheer whenever a quirky off-beat project tries to do something differently.  While originality isn’t always an advantage (Knight and Day showed that quirkiness can’t replace solid screenwriting), films like Red can tweak the usual formula and make it feel just a bit fresher than usual.  The story is familiar (a renegade secret agent tries to find out who wants him dead, accompanied by a reluctant love interest), but the details aren’t as overused:  The agent is retired, his allies are old and paranoid, his enemies are deep within the government and his would-be girlfriend initially has to be tied, drugged and dragged along before she comes to appreciate the action-comedy lifestyle.  Red flies around the United States, literally showing postcards along the way –which may give you an idea of its particular sense of humour.  Bruce Willis may be the Red’s headliner, but the real appeal of the film is through Mary Louise Parker’s wide-eyed evolution from house-bound kitten to adrenaline junkie.  Helen Mirren is delightful as an aging assassin, while John Malkovich has a typical turn as a deeply paranoid retiree.  Action highlights include a shootout in New Orleans and the use of heavy artillery in a Chicago hotel parking lot.  Much of the plot is routine, but the film is a lot more enjoyable during the comedic moments between the characters.  Fans of the original comic book may want to forget all about the source material, because Red is quirky and light-hearted whereas Warren Ellis’ story was sombre and nihilistic.  While Red often goes spinning too fast in all sorts of directions to be truly effective, the result isn’t too bad as long as you don’t expect the sort of straight-ahead action-with-quips blockbuster: Red is handled with another kind of sensibility, and if the result is often a bit too off-beat to be fully enjoyable, it delivers what is expected with a little bonus that no one asked for.

Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1997 mass-market paperback reprint of 1996 original, 462 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-671-87845-0

Given how much I like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Science-Fiction novels, I was recently surprised to realize that I hadn’t read all of them.  I was particularly embarrassed to remember that I hadn’t even read Memory, often considered by fans to be one of the major books in Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series.  I had read most of what came before and all of what followed, but never that particular novel.

It’s a mystery as to why I waited this long to finally read it.  Much of Bujold’s SF writing is set in a single universe, revolving around the character of Miles Vorkosigan and his extended family.  Not every Vorkosigan story is told in the same mode or has the same importance: They range from military SF to romance, and they can go from simple entertainment to gut-wrenching drama.  Memory is one of the key texts in the Vorkosigan saga: Deceptively summarized by the publisher as “Miles hits thirty: thirty hits back”, it’s a major novel that marks a definitive transition in Vorkosigan’s life and in the makeup of the series.  There’s definitely a pre- and post-Memory era in the Vorkosigan saga.

As Memory begins, Miles is still having fun as his alter-ego “Admiral Naismith”, leading his own fleet of mercenaries through dangerous adventures. For him, it’s definitely a more interesting life than being stuck at home as Lord Vorkosigan in a rigid aristocracy.  But things aren’t necessarily going well: Miles is feeling the consequences of a major medical trauma, and is liable to suffer unpredictable debilitating seizures.  This has serious consequences during a hostage rescue mission, and Miles finds himself temporarily grounded as superiors and colleagues review his actions.  Throughout Memory, Miles has to confront the end of his boyhood fantasies, liquidate his invented alter-ego and finally face his future as himself.

Coming-of-age novels usually feature younger characters breaking out of childhood into something like adult maturity, and the Science Fiction genre certainly has its share of such stories.  But growing up isn’t a binary condition: Kids don’t suddenly turn into adults until the end of their lives: Even adulthood has its stages, and Memory squarely confronts a tricky transition.  It’s a difficult assignment made even more so by the dramatic demands of an action-adventure SF series: Having Miles run around the galaxy blowing stuff up is certainly more exciting than seeing him confront his obligations as part of the aristocracy.  Bujold took huge risks in removing the exciting half of Miles’ identity and definitely scrapping those plotting avenues.

It also forces Memory to take place largely within Miles’ head.  Oh, there’s a mystery for him to solve in trying to piece together who’s trying to sabotage Imperial Security’s leadership –but that’s thematic underpinning for Miles’ own personal reintegration.  The novel’s most satisfying moments are in seeing Miles come to grip with his life, deciding to get rid of a crutch he had created to fulfill outdated needs, and joining a more challenging society of peers.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Memory is how Bujold is able to create a gripping novel out of self-contemplation.  This isn’t a surprise, of course: Bujold has long been one of SF’s most gifted writers, and the depth of the characterisation she brings to Memory, even through its tangle of subplots, is what fans can expect from her –but the result is satisfying to such a degree that it still feels like a minor achievement.   The self-awareness of the central character is scathing (rare enough in a sixth book in a series) and the process through which he comes to realize how best to live his seemingly diminished life is a crucible that feels just as real to the reader.

I’m not in a position to suggest how accessible Memory can be to those who haven’t read the rest of the series.  It surely means most to those who care about Miles and his adventures, but my own memories of the series were dated and fuzzy, and the first few chapters of Memory do a fine job at re-establishing the important relationships required to understand the shifting that occurs later in the novel.

While the mystery aspect of Memory isn’t much of a mystery, the rest of the book’s subplots and central dilemma easily make this one of the important entries in the Vorkosigan series.  Everything clicks, from the plotting to the characters to the prose to the impact of individual scenes.  It ends not with a sense of closing options, but with new opportunities and revitalized characters.  More series should go through this type of premise-defying shakeups.