(In theaters, January 1999) An acceptable 90 minute WW2 movie mixed and intercut with a five-minute credit sequence, thirty minutes of a Discovery Channel special on the plants, animals and wonderful savage people of the south east-asian jungle, a fifteen-minutes experimental film by stoned freshmen philosophy students and another forty-five minutes of footage that the editor forgot to cut, probably because he fell asleep at the editing console. I really loved the camera work, the cinematography and the war scenes. I also liked the characters, but I just wish they’d been featured in a better movie. Saving Private Ryan it ain’t, because Spielberg never forgot that great movies entertain as much as they’re art. Now, could someone re-cut The Thin Red Line and chop off all the simplistic philosophy, repetitive romantic imagery and non-sequitur interludes? There was a great film in there, but director Terrence Malick choked it to death it with his disillusions of cinematographic grandeur. I’ve seen better reflections on the nature of war in men’s adventure novels, and those were entertaining.
(In theaters, January 1999) I expected nothing from this film and wasn’t entirely disappointed. Sure, it’s even worse than its prequel, but at least the supporting players are fun to watch (with distinctions to Jack Black’s stoned hippie) and Brandi’s irresistible charm did a lot to raise my opinion of the film. (Not to mention her tight clothes.) The remainder of the movie is a representative example of a genre that should have remained dead for some more time.
(In theaters, January 1999) This does nothing to enhance my low opinion of scriptwriter Kevin Williamson. If he’s supposed to be so clever, then why is the movie so ordinary? A particularly bland entry in the “psycho killer” genre, I spent hours trying to find something distinctive to say about it, but in vain… At least, the (mostly-teenaged) audience I was with regularly snickered and laughed out loud at moments that were supposed to be scary or tender. Whether this reflects the unredeemable cynicism of our generation or good movie-watching sense remains an exercise to the reader.
Harper Prism, 1998, 222 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-105026-1
TITLE: Brute Orbits
AUTHOR: George Zebrowski
STATUS: Hardcover Science-Fiction Novel
SUMMARY OF PREMISE: In the near future, Earth has successfully brought several asteroids to Earth orbit in order to mine them. Once the precious core has been extracted, some bright guy has the idea of transforming them in habitats, stuffing them with prisoners and sending them away in ten, twenty, thirty-year long orbits before they come back to Earth. Of course, it’s not that difficult to make a “mistake” and send the asteroid for an even longer orbit.
SUMMARY OF PLOT: There isn’t much of a plot. The massive space and time frame covered makes it difficult to have a unique protagonist. So Brute Orbits follows a few prisoners and historians, each vignette trying to tell a facet of the story. In one series of linked chapters, a super-intelligent prisoner tries to manage his micro-society of fellow criminals as they head away from Earth. In another, a political dissident talks with other exiles until the asteroid’s indoor lights go dark. In another, a historian tries to piece together the history of the Rocks. These are pretty much the only three sustained stories; other passages feature characters we seldom see again.
SUMMARY OF THEMES: Zebrowski here attempts to use his premise as a vehicle for argumentation about the judicial system’s corrective branch. As with any work dealing at length with criminality from a serious perspective, Brute Orbits exhibits a dark and violent viewpoint. Unlike most of these other works, however, Brute Orbits strongly suggests that not all prisoners deserve their fate and that society -not to mention more specifically society’s elites- ultimately define and causes crime.
SUMMARY OF VIRTUES: Brute Orbits‘s premise is exceedingly clever, forcing us to contemplate virtually escape-proof prisons, and the realization of a “just throw’em away together” social phantasm. Zebrowski’s writing is also, with a few exception, quite readable. Some good scenes. Good grasp of the hard sciences. His argument that society is the biggest criminal is a provocative systemic self-examination on the level that SF does at its best.
SUMMARY OF FLAWS: Though other readers might disagree to the “flaw” designation, the “vignette-sequence” structure of Brute Orbits has its disadvantages. Probably the most important of those is the lack of attachment to characters. Without those, Zebrowski is hard-pressed to illustrate his ideas convincingly. Not only does Brute Orbits reads like a fix-up, but the stories of the fix-up are all interleaved with each other. It’s not only difficult to read as a whole, but doesn’t really convince. Unfortunately, Zebrowski’s charge that society-is-criminal really needed a good dose of sympathy and credibility. This is lacking.
VERDICT: Not worth buying in hardcover, and a risky choice in paperback given the wealth of competent storytelling out there. Readers intrigued by the strong premise should consider borrowing from the local library.
Millennium, 1998, 295 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-85798-552-4
Greg Egan’s reputation is already established: A hard-SF writer of considerable ambition, he invariably integrates stunning ideas in his fiction. Even though his shortcomings are significant, there’s no arguing that he’s one of the defining SF writers of the nineties. His influence is considerable, given that he now seems to exemplify Hard-SF. (It will be noted, though, that Egan seems to have few political ambitions and thus will not promote himself as heavily as other writers.)
His first short story collection, Axiomatic, was an impressive compilation of unflinching Science Fiction. Egan tackled the Big Themes head-on, producing stories that might have been slight in literary qualities, but iron-clad in concepts. To say that Luminous was heavily anticipated is to understate matters.
Was it worth the wait? Well, mostly yes for the fans.
The best news are that Luminous shows that Greg Egan has lost none of his willingness to confront the big themes. Tackling Happiness, Mathematical Certitude, Genetics, Cosmology, Sexual Orientation and -oh, that too- Consciousness, Egan is a perfect poster-child for SF’s grandest literary aims. It’s not quite as well executed as it’s attempted, but still…
The title story has a strong beginning. It doesn’t really meshes well with the remainder of the story, but draws you in effectively. “Mitochondrial Eve” is a good satiric story, with an impeccably readable style. “Cocoon” forces you to think twice about sexual politics. “Our Lady of Chernobyl” is a futuristic Private Eye mystery that’s as enjoyable as anything else written in the sub-genre. “Reasons to be Cheerful” is fascinating in the exploration of a few key assumptions.
Other stories are less successful. “Silver Fire” ends as it was just beginning to take flight. “Mister Volition” is almost a rambling monologue about some ill-defined point. “The Plank Dive” lays on the science too thick: I love Hard-SF, but this went over the limit. “Transition Dreams” is an interesting horror story à la Dick, but dragged on. “Chaff” is like a lengthy description of an neat idea, with two pages of plot at the end; it took me two readings to grasp the point, and it’s not much of a stunning one.
Containing only ten stories, Luminous is also a disappointment in its length. Still, it’s an essential part of the Egan bibliography, and a key piece of nineties SF. Wait for the paperback, sure, but don’t miss it then.
BRIEFLY: My conclusion after reading Egan’s Diaspora: I must stop reading Greg Egan on the bus. If, for some reason, you’re unable to concentrate, you won’t be able to extract all the good stuff from Egan’s concept-heavy writing.
A huge tale (both in space and time) of humanity’s expansion in the metaverse, Diaspora inverts most of the standard cliches of SF and, even then, presents some inspiring thoughts. If you even felt uncomfortable at the silly STAR TREK-style space exploration paradigms, this is the book for you. It’s not especially readable, or gripping, but it’s almost endlessly surprising. I’ll definitely need to re-read this one again in a few years. But not on the bus.
Prentice Hall Ptr, 1998, 416 pages, C$27.95 tpb, ISBN 0-13-095284-2
This review will look silly in two years.
But that’s okay, given that the book I’m reviewing is going to look even sillier in two years.
Personally, I love the idea of the Y2K bug. It appeals to several archetypes that I find just irresistible: The failure of improperly managed technology; the trans-generational ticking-bomb suspense of it all; the signal that computers really ruled the late twentieth century… Plus, the timing just couldn’t be better. Just as we had half-convinced ourselves that we were rational creatures that didn’t really fear an arbitrary year-symbol increment, here comes this wonderful doomsday problem, sprung up from half-buried secrets and whose consequences could be as terrifying as anything we could imagine…
If it wasn’t a science-fiction story (and it was, cf: Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghost of the Grand Banks, 1989 —my first exposure to the Y2K problem), well, gosh-darn it, it should have! It’s just too good for it!
Of course, the mercantile instinct has awaked in the shadow of this impending catastrophe. Since they’re saying our money might become worthless, some people are quite ready to take it away from us right now!
How many “miracle solutions” newscasts will we have to endure before the madness ends? Well, Time Bomb 2000 will at least tell you what’s in store, given that there’s no such thing as a magical Y2K silver bullet.
Time Bomb 2000 looks at the Y2K problem on twelve sectors from three perspective. For Jobs, Utilities, Transportation, Banking/Finance, Food, PCs, Information, Health/Medicine, Government, Embedded Systems, Education and Telephone/Mail, the Yourdons (father/daughter) estimate the chances of day-long, month-long and year-long disruptions. Their conclusions, as might be expected, aren’t very optimistic.
Their conclusion is both rational and chilling: Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Given this premise, the Yourdons gently suggest that it might be better to be over-prepared than caught without necessities. The authors remain quite confident despite everything. They don’t predict the fall of civilization as we know it, but they’re not ready to call it a non-event at this point. Seems reasonable to me. If anything, being over-prepared for the Y2K might be a good idea in case of extraordinary snowstorms, etc…
(Readers who think that I’m being too gullible on the subject of disaster preparation should know that during January 1998, the whole Eastern Ontario/Central Quebec area was paralysed by an ice storm of extraordinary proportions. Though my hometown was spared from any ill effects beyond a twenty-four blackout, it did hammer home the usefulness of a wood stove, a good set of preparation, candles and a positive attitude in the face of these event. Other areas went without electricity for almost three weeks. When people ask me about Y2K, I usually answer by telling them to prepare for another ice storm.)
Consider Time Bomb 2000 mental insurance; even though you might not follow each suggestion or take each threat seriously, at least you will have the choice to make up your mind. As for me, I must say that the book forced me to take in consideration a few factors. Given that I’m planning a major lifestyle change (buying a house is a major lifestyle change) the potential Y2K systemic failures described in Time Bomb 2000 led to establish a timeline that takes in consideration at least the possibility of Bad Stuff happening… just in case.
Ace/Putnam, 1998, 425 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00558-6
Thirty-three bucks for a tour of the solar system. How does that sound to you? Even better: Wait a year and get it for ten bucks. Or rush to your library and get it for free! But given that it’s a new John Varley novel, why wait?
My first exposure to Varley was tardy, but significant: An impulse purchase of a (discount) hardcover edition of Steel Beach. I loved that book. Varley’s style -a chatty, lively first-person narrative loaded with fascinating asides about an original future- make than made up for a weak narrative structure and deliberately shocking details.
It was only later than I discovered Varley’s most successful works: The short stories assembled in The Persistence of Vision and The Barbie Murders. I wasn’t really ecstatic over the “Titan-Wizard-Demon” trilogy, but liked Millennium and loved The Ophiuchi Hotline. So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I was waiting for the arrival of Varley’s first novel since 1992’s Steel Beach: The Golden Globe.
Even casual students of the Elizabethan era will infer that this novel has some relation with Shakespeare and/or the famous theatre in which many of his plays were first performed. But Varley gives another meaning to the title by referring to the cornerstone of his imaginary “Nine World” sequence: Luna.
Taking place a few years after Steel Beach‘s “Big Glitch”, The Golden Globe is a gigantic travelogue through Varley’s most celebrated future history. Kenneth “Sparky” Valentine is a once-famous actor, now running from the law after a few rather illegal acts on Pluto. He’s a spectacular thespian, a student of Shakespeare, a con artist and a terrific narrator. As with Steel Beach, Varley opens with a shock sequence as Sparky plays both Mercutio and Juliet in a rowdy representation of the Bard’s classic—including the sex scenes.
Before long, however, we’re on the run with Sparky as an unkillable Charonese (think “Silician”) mafia assassin is aiming for him. A few flashbacks, a few exotic locations, a few action scenes, a sudden new plot, a sudden conclusion and you close the cover on one of the best SF books of 1998.
There’s no denying that The Golden Globe is a shaggy-dog story. Fans of complex plotting won’t really find what they want here. Varley’s talent is in writing short stories, and he does the next best thing here by offering a string of vignettes, mini-adventures, tourist visits and linked flashbacks. Some will find it tedious; others will read it with glee.
In this regard, it’s very similar to Steel Beach, which also spent a lot of time describing future life on Luna, and included unrelated vignettes here and there to either sustain our interest or divert us from the main action. I may prefer the earlier novel by a nose (I’m more partial to a journalist protagonist than an actor) but the bottom line is that readers who loved Varley’s previous novel will also like this one.
Reader references run deeper, as it’s difficult to talk of this novel without mentioning Heinlein at least once, and Double Star at least twice. Much like Heinlein’s Lorenzo Smythe, Valentine’s narration is a compulsively readable mix of classical theatre and street smarts.
Indeed, it’s difficult not to like Varley’s protagonist, and in the end, that’s what carries the novel through. Even the travelogue aspect of The Golden Globe should not be a disadvantage given that SF has a long and illustrious history of such novels (Clarke’s 3001, Niven’s Ringworld, large segments of Robinson’ Mars trilogy, etc…)
So get the book, sit back and enjoy.
The show is just waiting to begin.
(On VHS, December 1998) Another of these movies whose opening sequence might be too strong for its own good. We’re very convincingly introduced to Daryl Zero, an utterly eccentric modern-day Sherlock Holmes and the plot is set rolling by a series of rather fun scenes. But then, the movie begins to takes itself seriously, Zero loses a lot of his peculiar nature (and doesn’t use his amazing deductive powers as much as we’d like) and the result, while reasonably good, is somehow disappointing. Too bad, given Bill Pullman’s good performance and the potential of his character.
(On VHS, December 1998) My hopes might have been slightly too high for this film, given that this was a John Woo film. The nuance is that this is Woo’s breakthrough film; a promising cop/criminal drama, but nowhere as eye-popping and exciting as his best movies (Hard-Boiled, Face/Off) or even his first American disappointments (Broken Arrow and Hard Target). On the other hand, unlike his two first Hollywood effort, A Better Tomorrow keeps the strong emotional core that’s so characteristic of Woo’s work. The result might not be a kickin’ action masterpiece, but remains an enjoyable movie. Curiously, Chow Yun Fat is under-used as the sidekick.
(In theaters, December 1998) This reminded me, like the X-Files movie, of everything I really hate about the source TV series: Lousy science, complete lack of durable character evolution, horrendous dramatic structure, boring stories and the grating certitude that it’s written by people far from being as smart as they think they are. Above all, it’s the smug “see how intelligent / technical / philosophical we are?” attitude that’s insufferable, especially since nothing makes sense if you examine it closely. “Don’t ask” says Picard’s love interest after a particularly unexpected “magic” trick. Well I’d like to, but I’m sure that even the writers don’t have the answers. Even though it follows Star Trek’s well-known odd=bad/even=good sequence, it must be said that the final product nevertheless manages to entertain (and isn’t as bad at either Star Trek 5 or Generations) a bit. If you don’t expect much.
Avon, 1989 (1998 reprint), 338 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71027-7
Even though I usually borrow the books I review from the library, or otherwise acquire them at used bookstores, I’m still a firm believer in the voting power of a dollar. You might see me reading a Harlequin romance, but you’ll never catch me buying such a book. Looking back at the past six months, the list of authors I’ve bought in new bookstores (excluding French-language books) goes like this: Greg Egan (x3), John Cramer (x2), Robert J. Sawyer (x2), Charles Pellegrino, Bruce Sterling, John Varley, Thomas M. Disch, Peter David, Joe Haldeman, Stephen Bury, Paul di Filippo… It’s no coincidence if most of those authors best represent my idea of SF.
The relationship has two components, of course: I’m buying a book from a good author to support him, because s/he usually writes a book good enough to make me feel my money was well-spent. Charles Pellegrino’s Dust, for instance, contains so much stuff that it’s almost a bargain to buy the hardcover at full price.
It’s a bit of an overkill to speak of an author as “reliable” after only two books, but John Cramer is exactly the kind of author that I want to support with my hard-earned dollars. A working physicist by day, Cramer dons his secret identity by night and writes ultra-hard science-fiction for the enjoyment of (mostly) everyone.
In a field too often dominated by hand-waving technobabble at even the most basic level (think “Star Trek”, for instance), it’s refreshing to see some true SF where the magic is carefully confined to a far-away place. The technobabble isn’t gone, but it sure sounds better.
In Twistor, we get a story that has been done a few times already: A scientist discovers a way to switch a volume of space between various alternate universes. While he works on this revolutionary discovery, a greedy businessman and a non-less greedy supervisor try to wrestle the discovery away from him…
Familiar territory, but it’s all in the execution. The first virtue of Twistor is to establish its credibility with a careful assortment of details and of real-life procedures. Even though we’re still dealing with a scientist-and-his-female-assistant, the verisimilitude of this cliché isn’t as grating as could have been, given that the female assistant is a very strong character, and the relationship is initially explained as a teacher/graduate student situation.
What may be the biggest difference between Twistor and inferior SF is that the author is willing to play the game of “Yeah, but…” with the reader. It’s a blast to think of objections to the plotting… and then to see them answered two of three pages later. (eg; the section taken out of the tree affecting its stability) Less rigorous writers usually ignore these objection; Cramer confronts them head-on and the novel feels even more real because of that. He’s also willing to explore all the possibilities of his initial premise.
Like most hard-SF, Twistor has the usual flaws in writing and dialogue. It should be worth noting that even if Cramer isn’t a stylist on the order of, say, Kim Stanley Robinson, he does have a stronger grasp of plotting and characterisation than his hard-SF colleagues.
It should be obvious by now that I’m encouraging you to vote with your dollars, so rush out and buy Twistor if you feel that hard-SF is your cup of tea. While you’re at the bookstore, pick up a copy of Cramer’s second novel, Einstein’s Bridge for a pair of books that will not only give you faith in contemporary SF, but provide you with a few hours of very enjoyable entertainment.
(On TV, December 1998) The title offers many opportunities for rotten cracks on “hammy acting” and such, but it would be a mistake to pounce on this relatively enjoyable spoof of (mostly) Psycho, with bits of The Silence Of The Lambs thrown in for good measure. It’s far from being as polished as other spoof comedies, but still packs in an impressive array of jokes. Most are juvenile; some are hilarious. Probably not worth renting unless you’re in the mood for this stuff, but it’s a blast if you can catch it for free on TV.
(In theaters, December 1998) Unarguably one of the best movies of 1998. Why? Pure Magic. Who would have thought to be enchanted by a hilarious film taking place in Elizabethan times, starring William (“Will”) Shakespeare as the romantic hero? Doesn’t sound promising, but the result is magnificent. Great acting by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow as the leading couple, plus Judi Dench as the second Elizabeth worthy of an Oscar nomination this year. (Shakespeare In Love does makes a perfect companion to the rather humourless Elizabeth) The film played exceedingly well to a demographically heterogenous audience, drawing laughs from both Shakespeare scholars and teenagers less familiar with the works of The Bard. (It also played quite well to your crusty “anything-but-a-chick-flick” reviewer…) It’s a testimony to the power of film that Shakespeare In Love will finally make you understand the greatness of Shakespeare and the magic of theatre; while not perfect, it’s good enough to land on my yearly Top-5 without hesitation. A shame it’s not widely released; don’t miss it!
(On VHS, December 1998) Not as good as expected. Sure, Julia Roberts is at her best. Sure, it’s a more balanced romantic comedy than most. Sure, the script has its moment. But the movie cannot escape its own intentions and contradictions. If the result is more mature than the typical Hollywood love story, it’s also much less satisfying. On the other hand, the movie takes life every time Rupert Everett is on screen; he turns a potentially dreary role in a scene-stealing performance. That’s probably why I loved the last scene as much as I did.
(In theaters, December 1998) As a fan of Desperado, and as a wisecracking MST3Ker, I had high hopes -but low expectations- for The Faculty. Written by “look how postmodernist I am!” Kevin (Scream) Williamson (who, I’ll maintain, is a hugely overrated screenwriter) and directed by Robert (From Dusk Till Dawn) Rodriguez, The Faculty should have been something quite special. Unfortunately, its eagerness to spoof “alien invasion” movies clashes with its intent to scare and its rather poor script. There are logical plotholes everywhere and even though we’re not supposed to notice them, they really do grate after a while: some of the “twists” are really conjured out of nowhere, without an inkling of how they should be possible. Still, don’t get the impression that I didn’t enjoy myself: The movie plays well once underway (much like the other teen-supernatural drama The Craft, the first 30 minutes are insufferably tedious but the movie picks up once the basics are established) and there are a few nice scenes here and there. (Shoot me; I liked the football sequence!) The result is an unexplainably ordinary film, perfect on video for a slow Friday night.