Book Review

Executive Orders, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 1996, 800 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14219-3

[This review contains serious spoilers for Tom Clancy’s previous book, Debt of Honor However, since Executive Orders is a direct sequel to DoH, nothing here isn’t revealed in the jacket blurb to EO]

Reviewing books is difficult. For one thing, the honest critic has to assimilate the object of his review completely. The reviewer must watch the entire movie, listen to the record or read the book without falling asleep or having his attention distracted. Then there is the problem of forming coherent critical opinions about the said work of “art”. Finally, the last step may very well be the most difficult: Fuse all these strands of opinions into a sustained thesis, i.e.: a Review. (If the vocabulary’s confusing to you, don’t worry; it’s meaningless to me too.)

The difficulty arises when the object of the critic’s attention is bland, featureless or just ordinary. Bad things are easy to review: Just get that trusty thesaurus out and let the insults fly. For good measure, style points can be awarded for questioning the intellectual stability of the publisher(s) and gratuitous ad-hominem references to the creator(s) sex life. Boring things are a boon to the reviewer, since s/he can condense his/her review to “Zzzz” and get the paycheck anyway. Good things are embarrassing, since the readers will eventually think you’re paid by someone to talk that way about the review’s subject.

All this has no practical relevance to mega-bestseller Tom Clancy’s latest book except to say that this book is a reviewer’s dream. The story in itself is complex (always a plus when you’re trying to fill up wordage by resuming the plot) and wildly uneven, which lets this particular reviewer use one of his favorite expression. (it being “wildly uneven”, of course!) But beyond the story itself, the book-as-a-physical object is interesting, and beyond that, the theme of the book can open the doors wide open for a gratuitous analysis of the American psyche.

Stay with me, you’ll understand what I mean.

Clancy fans remember that at the end of his last book, Debt of Honor, a 747 crashed in the Capitol, reducing it to rubble, and incidentally killing off most of the US government (This meaning President, Staff, Congress, Senate, Supreme Court, Joint Chief of Staff, FBI and CIA directors, etc…) The occasion being celebrated in this meeting-of-the-honchos was the accession by Clancy’s all-American hero Jack Ryan to the Vice Presidency. Ryan miraculously escapes, and as DoH wraps to a close, he is now president-without-a-government.

This is where bells begin to ring in most reader’s minds.

After all, this isn’t only about Ryan rebuilding the government. This is also about Clancy himself rebuilding the government. Suffice to say that the line between fiction and propaganda in this case is very easy to cross. Many great authors have fallen into this trap, with unpredictable results. (SF fans will shudder, remembering latter-year Asimov and Heinlein efforts)

At the same time, there is the chance for the author to make a few statements about America, and how it should work.

Clancy mostly avoids the propaganda, but succumb to the irresistible lure of Making a Statement.

Executive Orders is a novel about many things, the most central of these being the difficult apprenticeship of John Patrick Ryan, President of the United States. Coming from a humble background, stockbroker-cum-historian-cum-CIA Analyst-cum-occasional Field operative-cum-CIA DDI-cum-National Security Adviser-cum-Vice-President Ryan (Told you he was an all-American hero!) is politically inept. He doesn’t have a clue about how to deal with the media, and his radical policy changes (simplify the tax code, downsize governmental bureaucracy, things like that) aren’t popular inside the beltway. As if the hostile media wasn’t enough, enemies both stateside and external are planning violent acts against the seemingly weak president… Ryan has many friends, but will they be enough?

Enough about the plot: How is the book?

“Overlong” seems a good place to start. This has to be one of the most fluffy novels I’ve seen. Even at 860-odd pages and 9-point typography, there is an enormous amount of detail. The bad guys do not simply built their evil weapon: They assemble it, research its efficiency, put it in place… Clancy and his readers alike relish details but enough is enough! Not all plots threads are equally interesting. Surprisingly, this time the military subplots are the most boring.

In fact, “Overlong” was also the biggest flaw of Clancy’s previous book The Sum of All Fears. (TSoAF) This time around, however, the payoff isn’t even near what TSoAF had to offer. While TSoAF was a slow fuse with a LOUD bang, Executive Orders doesn’t exactly fizzles, but the explosion at the end will let many readers wonder “Was that all?”

Make no mistake, it’s a good book anyway. But it could have been one corker of a thriller if a competent editor would have slashed two hundred pages or so. Oh well… Maybe in a few years, we’ll get a “cut” version.

[Mark my words: This will be the first 10$Can. mass-market paperback.]

[January 1998:  Close; 10.99 $Can.]

This is not a good book for Clancy neophytes: There are too many plot threads that essentially depends on previous books. At the very least, one should read DoH beforehand.

The rest is classic Clancy: Okay characters, okay prose, superb plotting, the old friends are back, lots of details, good action sequences. Fans know what to expect, but they should be warned that it isn’t Clancy’s best effort.

At least, Clancy manages to avoid turning his book into straight propaganda for his favorite political party. This is not to say that Clancy’s right-wing sympathies do not show up (they do, most notably on the subject of abortion and drugs) but they’re held down at an acceptable level. He does succumb to the lure of making a few comments about how the government should work. Nothing too revolutionary, of course: Simplify taxes, give a chance to the average worker, cut the bureaucracy… No flag-burning ideas here.

A sequel is probable but not immediate. And finally, this might be the first time Clancy is accused of subtlety. (See last page)

Okay. The book has been reviewed. My job is completed. You can either go to the next review, or stay a while to hear me blather about the subtext of the book. Fair enough?


If you’re still hesitating, let it be known that I do not like make statement about subtexts, author’s intentions or “thematic concerns and symbolism.” Those kind of essays are best left to English Lit. Major, who probably don’t have much more of a clue about what it’s all about, but who can conceal this ignorance with better vocabulary.

The reason I dislike doing it is that, frankly, I’m wrong most of the time. The author might not be trying to pass the message I’m perceiving, or is trying to say something I completely missed. Anyway…

[End whistling]

For those who stayed, here are a few more thoughts:

The theme of Executive Orders is fa
scinating. It shows good old America staggering under a heavy blow, but recovering in time to kick some numerically superior enemy butt. Essentially, it’s saying “America may be decadent, but we’re still able to make you do what we want.” I don’t dwell much further into that, except to remark, fascinated, that the basic plot of Executive Orders is uncannily reminiscent of Larry Bond’s The Enemy Within, in which Iran sends terrorists in America to distract the USA from their activities in the Gulf. Hmmm… Also, -but I might be picking at details,- the ultimate resolution of Executive Orders also echoes another Bond story. (“Expert Advice”, in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible.)

Both Executive Orders and TEW, published at a few month’s interval, show that Fortress America is feeling threatened. (Cynics will say that they’re dang straight to be concerned!) It will be interesting to see how this thread evolves, especially when you think that in the next few months, we’ll see the first wave of novels written after Oklahoma City. [December 1996: And now, unfortunately, after the Atlanta bombing.]

It also shows where thriller writers are going for inspiration, now that the Evil Empire is down (even if no particular attention has been given to the off-site backups). the drugs cartels of Columbia are less visible and Saddam himself gets an annual Tomahawk whuppin’: Home is where the action is.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, John Clute

Dorling Kindersley, 1995, 312 pages, C$50.00 hc, ISBN 0-7894-0185-1

Chance helps those who help themselves, they say. Or whatever. In this case, patience reward the deserving… or so I like to think.

Explanations: When the SFBC came out with their own edition of the quasi-legendary Encyclopedia of SF at better than half the price of the 90$ volume, I was ecstatic: Having borrowed my university’s copy of the encyclopedia more time than I like to think about, I salivated over the prospect of owning my very own copy of the bible… er… encyclopedia.

Same thing when the Illustrated encyclopedia came out. I spent many minutes in the bookstores, trying more or less spectacularly to keep my drool from dropping on the copies I was shamelessly studying. But the price tag of 50$ had a certain effect on my spending urge. Nevertheless! I vowed to myself: Once upon a time, this book WILL BE MINE! (I’m rotten at verb tense, but the store security people were really impressed by my delivery. They even asked to do an encore performance outside the store. No, really.)

But time dragged on, the effect of Pepsi wore off, the summer job kicked in and the idea faded. Until a certain day when an SFBC notice arrived in the mail, saying something like “Oh, you haven’t bought anything from us in six months. Awww… Here’s a coupon: Buy one of this month’s book and get another free.” Surprise, surprise: The month’s letter contained a flyer hawking the charms of both encyclopedias at 37,95 each. I decided… to sleep on it.

The morning after, it STILL seemed like a good idea. Off went the coupon. Final price? 47,02$ Can. for both books. Tee-hee-hee. That’s right. Both volumes for a bit more that half the cover price of the 1,300 pages encyclopedia. Ahem. Well, I did have to gloat somewhere, didn’t I? Fear nothing; Here’s the reviews:

The 1,300 pages Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction belongs on every serious fan’s reference bookshelf. More than a list of SF authors and bibliographies, it includes critical commentary, movie reviews, coverage of most medias, general themes essays and a lot of non-US material.

It is immensely useful: Even a few months after I’ve received it, I’m still using it regularly to check facts, dates or just for general entertainment.

The biggest flaw is inevitable: Obsolescence. Published in 1992, it’s beginning to (!) show its age. Some major writers of nowadays (Egan, Sawyer, Stephenson, even Straczynski) are absent, or casually dismissed on the basis of a single book.

(The book also contains quite a few errors, I’m told. My edition contains a 16-pages errata appendix, and some of the errors contained there are glaring. Researchers are advised to check there in every case after reading any article: Most major writers have an errata.)

Anyway, this is a bible, and should be treated as such.

The Illustrated encyclopedia of SF is an entirely different book. Do not be fooled by the author’s name (John Clute) because the IEoSF isn’t a subset of the EoSF.

For one thing, this book would have been better titled An Illustrated History of Science-Fiction or somesuch. In addition of settling the confusion between the IEoSF and the EoSF, it would also better describe the scope of the book.

Most of the IEoSF‘s bulk is composed of several retrospectives through SF’s history: Once by decade for themes, once by decade for historical context, once by four “eras” for magazines, one by half-decade for authors, once by decades for major titles and another time by decade for movies. Graphic works and television series are also covered historically, but in a less formal manner.

This book works at several levels. At the lowest, “gee-whiz-what-nice-pictures,” it succeeds pretty well, reproducing great book covers and pictures of the authors. It makes a great coffee-table book for the SF fans in the family. (It also makes a great source for scanning material, but… ahem… I digress…) On another level, it offers many pleasant surprises for the knowledgeable SF fan: Classic books covers, oft-needed author’s portraits (“Hey, that’s Nancy Kress? She’s kinda cute!”), fun 50’s magazine covers. Finally, the commentary that “surrounds” the pictures is worthwhile in itself.

Of course there are flaws. Not every author has a favorable picture of him/her; the covers offered are not always the most aesthetically pleasing. The definitely British origin of the book will jar a few readers’ perceptions. The critical content will probably please no one completely, and we often get an exasperating impression of superficiality from the bite-sized comments. Finally, like the EoSF, this book is firmly fixed in time, which is to say 1994. Although not a big problem yet, it will come…

Purely subjective fannish nit-pick: The mention of “Babylon-5” as being a derivative of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is indicative of sloppy research and perception from John Clute, but this particular judgment is colored by my intense devotion to the TV series… [In a recent interview with the Webzine Science-Fiction Weekly (, Clute basically admitted that his opinion has changed since.]

Nevertheless, this is a magnificent book. Even my uncle (far from being an SF fan) spent a good ten minutes just poring through the illustrations in the encyclopedia. Impressive to fans and non-fans alike, it offers what very well may be the most comprehensive historical view of the genre, and thus deserves a place on the bookshelf of even the most casual reader.

Just be sure to get it back once you’ve loaned it.

The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 1992-1996, ???? pages, C$???.?? hc, ISBN Various

Red Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1993, 519 pages, ISBN 0-553-09204-9
Green Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1994, 535 pages, ISBN 0-553-09640-0
Blue Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1996, 609 pages, ISBN 0-553-10144-7

In the early nineties, a spate of books about Mars began to appear on the market. After being relatively ignored by SF writers since the first half of the century (when Edgar Rice Burrough’s romantic fantasy “Mars” series and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles first appeared), the fourth planet was once again a ripe ground for extrapolation. Building on the initially-disappointing discoveries of the Viking missions, a new spate of Martian books began to appear, minus the little green men, canals or crystalline cities.

This new breed of books was mostly realistic, and either concerned with the first expeditions to Mars or the use of Mars as a background to realistic adventures. Thus, we had Mars (Ben Bova), Moving Mars (Greg Bear), Climbing Olympus (Kevin J. Anderson), Beachhead (Jack Williamson), Martian Rainbow (Robert L. Forward)…

But the “biggest” entry in this field was made by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. From the beginning, the trilogy prefaced by RM was destined to be a classic. One should only read the pages of lavish praise contained at the front of the paperback copy of RM to be convinced.

What was surprising, however, was the author’s name. A trilogy about the terraformation of Mars had a natural feel to it, almost an obligatory part of the genre… but to have Kim Stanley Robinson write it?

I would have expected Benford to write such a trilogy. Clarke, in his good days. Brin, perhaps. But Kim Stanley Robinson? My previous experiences with his short story collection The Planet on the Table had been underwhelming at best… While the Mars trilogy was getting good reviews all around, I was prepared to be bored.

I acquired RM in 1994, when I bought the CD-ROM “Hugo and Nebula Anthology 1993” This superlative CD, published by Clarinet Inc. (, contained all 1993 Hugo-nominated fiction, plus all of the 1993 Nebula-nominated short fiction… It’s an incredible CD: Buy it. I had the intention of reading everything on it, but with my growing stack of (physical) books, and lack of time, and reluctance to read a 500-pages on a computer screen… I stumbled upon a mint trade paperback of GM in May 1995 for a ridiculous price. (Bought it and laughed all the way home.) So there I was, with the two books, and not about to make the same mistake as when I started to read Stephen R. Donaldson’s ‘Gap’ cycle three years before the last volume was published. So I waited. And when BM came out in hardcover, I took a deep breath, went to a trusty library in Orleans that has a permanent 10%-off policy on new hardcovers and plunked down the 32,04$Can. Therein ends the story of how I got the trilogy.

Now, for the wrongness: There, I admit it: I was wrong. The Mars trilogy is one of the best thing I’ve read this year.

A lot of SF books usually deal with a new planet/gadget/concept in two ways: The first, common with “sense of wonder”-type of stories, is about the discovery, the initial rush of ideas that occur to a competent scientist or the adventures of a team of explorers setting foot on a planet for the first time. The second attitude is to use the said gadget as a part of the background. Think of hyperspace: There are stories where the intrepid scientists first stumble upon the hyperdrive, and countless other tales in which characters take a hyperspace liner like we would take the bus. But few stories deal about the various problems a hyperdrive company would have in perfecting its product from prototype to unspectacular piece of machinery. In Martian terms, Bova’s Mars is the discovery story while Bear’s Moving Mars is the backgrounder-type of novel. (Which isn’t true, actually, but let’s not quibble with my piece of reasoning, okay?)

If the reader retains only one thing of the massive 1,700+ pages saga that is contained in these three books, it’s the absolutely stunning display of subject range from Robinson. The Mars trilogy is a masterful virtuoso performance from one of the most talented authors in the English language. (How’s that for a blurb quote?) Robinson tackles on geology, history, environmental sciences, personal dynamics, politics, physics, rigorous scientific extrapolation, sociology… The reader is surprised, delighted and astonished at the sheer amount of meticulously researched detail.

In fact, one is so impressed that it seems almost too restrictive to call the trilogy mere “science-fiction”. At the same time, one also takes comfort in the fact that this sort of grandiose intellectual accomplishment wouldn’t be possible in any other field than SF. (Except, perhaps, classified Pentagon work… ahem.)

There is something in these 1,700+ pages for everyone. Hard-SF readers like me will foam at the mouth reading all the polysyllabic exposition terms. So-called literary aficionados will make small cooing sounds over Robinson’s careful prose. Readers who like a good story will skip the big words and be swept along with the onrushing tide of this epic.

The Mars trilogy begins where Mars left off: The first historical mission is over, but now we’re going back, this time to stay. Red Mars takes the reader from this point to the first Martian revolution. The other books take the story forward.

Red Mars is the best volume of the three. Mostly self-contained (you could stop reading after the first book, but who would want to?) it is the most pyrotechnical volume, and perhaps the most fascinating: SF often postulates that once mankind gets off Earth, it will suddenly become gentler and kinder… Not quite what happens in RM. People fight over power, money, rights, (in)equality. In fact, RM should be read for the simple statement that No, things are not going to be easy if we want to colonize Mars.

I was fascinated by the chapter in RM where the original colonists build the Underwood base. Seen through an engineer’s viewpoint, it’s suitably nuts-and-bolt to satisfy even the most unbelieving reader. Other highlights include the catastrophic effects of the first Martian revolution, again seen through the coolly calculating eyes of Nadia, the Siberian engineer.

Which brings us (clumsily) to the characters. While RM build most on the setting and the initial story, the two subsequent books really kick some dimensions in the characters. I have rarely felt an attachment to fictional constructs as I did at the end of Blue Mars, when I was almost moved to tears over the reconciliation of t
wo major characters. Not every character is as powerfully evocative. Some will be annoying to many readers, but that’s quite intentional. (Since you asked, my favorite characters were Sax (The Scientist), Nadia (The Engineer) and Art (The… er… corporate spy.)

The setting is also exquisitely realized, Mars taking on an almost-real texture. The changes in the planet’s atmosphere are sharply drawn, and also completely convincing. While Robinson takes a few risky assumptions regarding the composition of Mars’ crust, it makes for good fictional material.

The sweep of the events described in the trilogy is impressive, covering more that a hundred years of history. The solar system at the end of the trilogy is completely different from the beginning. This is an epic to relegate mere grandiose stories to a lesser status.

The three books are unequal. The first one is the most readable, as well as being the most exciting. The two others may contain less action, but fully develop the story. The conclusion is a bit disappointing, lacking a sense of grand finale that the series deserve, but at this point, any reader will feel disappointed at the close of such a rewarding trilogy.

As stated before, the scope of Robinson’s intent is impressive. He delivers as entertainment a series of thoughtful reflections on our common future. His extrapolations on the consequences of widespread longevity are -as far as I know- unequaled anywhere else in SF.

Facing such an ambitious intellectual achievement, it would be too easy to trivialize it on the basis of the few errors that Robinson made: One get the feeling that despite the fancy new words and political parties, things haven’t changed much in 100+ years. (This criticism is mostly invalidated by the last volume) Also, Mars seems a bit much like a really big park, where one can get from point A to point B effortlessly. The characters, at times, are like well-developed stereotypes (The Cynic Politician, the Mad Psychologist, the Nutty Scientist, the Unemotional Engineer…) Finally, the advances in robotics depicted are a bit… optimistic, shall I say?

Nevertheless, these are small inevitable imperfections in the magnificent Persian rug that is the Mars trilogy. It is easily one of the most important SF work of the nineties. So powerful, that I fear the terraforming field of SF may live for a looooong time under this series’ shadow.

Only the genuinely patient and inquisitive reader will retain the most from the Mars trilogy. For those with the time, however, it is a series not to be missed.

[June 1998: The Memory of Whiteness (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1985) could have been so much better, especially given what Robinson was able to do with his latter (1992-1996) Mars trilogy. This particular novel describes a far-future solar system tour of a classical orchestra, mixing music and physics. It’s not all bad or boring, but it’s incredibly long in spots: Robinson hadn’t quite mastered the narrative verve he later exhibited in his other works, and the result is an intermittently interesting novel. The Memory of Whiteness is all about music, so readers not familiar with classical composers will feel slightly lost. But the remainder of Robinson’s imagination is good enough that even when you think you’re lost-you’re not. (Especially laudable is the noteworthy effort of describing coherently some very-advanced physics.) Interesting, but imperfect.]

The Enemy Within, Larry Bond

Warner Books, 1996, 483 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51676-7

Fortress America is under siege: Everywhere, rebellious Americans are challenging the authority of the federal government. Bombs are exploding, the FBI is feverishly investigating, the public is scared…

Fiction or Fact? In recent years, America has finally wizened up to the fact that terrorism isn’t something that only happened to Others. The danger is clear and might even be contained Within…

Larry Bond is perhaps better known as the phantom co-author of Red Storm Rising, the gigantic WWIII superthriller by Tom Clancy. But Bond has since acquired a reputation by writing (along with phantom collaborator Patrick Larkins) tense, thick, very satisfying technothrillers.

The first, Red Phoenix, dealt with a second Korean War. Vortex with a South African crisis. Cauldron with a renewed threat by a France/Germany union. All three were complex 500+ pages, tightly-typeset epics, with a huge cast of characters and multiple twists all the way.

The Enemy Within takes a more intimate view: Mainly dealing with a Special Operations officer named Peter Thorn, it’s both less complex and more formulaic than his previous effort.

It’s also less satisfying, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The premise is as simple as it is disturbing: In an Iran shaken by a power shift, a general plans to distract the USA’s attention by a series of carefully-planned terrorist acts on America’s soil. It’s up to Thorn to unravel the Why of these acts, who all look like they’re coming from extreme elements in the Unites States themselves.

Bond is still in top-flight form when he’s dealing with machinery, weapons and weapons-effects. His mastery of the clinical, cold omniscient POV is nearly absolute: His prose neatly dissects the effects of three pounds of C4 explosive placed in the gas tank of a 18 wheeler.

But when dealing with personalities, Bond still have lessons to learn. This isn’t as much a criticism of Bond as the genre itself: Technothrillers, much like SF, is a literature of gadgets and ideas. The Plot is King.

In Bond’s previous effort, the love story was a carefully hidden subplot that was overwhelmed by the other events. Whatever happened, the love story was nice and everything, but it wasn’t why we read the book, right?

In The Enemy Within, the Love Story is a major part of the story, as is the Revenge Story, the Betrayal Story and the Gonna Get’em Story. But they’re all centred on the Hero, contrarily to his other books where these Stories were dispersed on multiple subplots.

A much more personal book, but also one that ultimately disappoints slightly. The Heroine gets in trouble, the Hero goes to the Villain for Revenge. yawn. We’ve seen this before, I believe?

Still, techno-nerds like myself will delight in the meticulous technical details and the apocalyptic feel of a total telephone shutdown over the American Midwest. Internauts will find no faults in Bond’s use of the Net. The plot unfolds at a carefully controlled -if sometimes unequal- pace.

But -in addition to the restricted focus- Bond manages to have a disappointing conclusion that looks quite a bit forced and also trivialises what had earlier seemed as a Big Problem.

Sad, really. Bond had accustomed us to excellent thrillers, and he only delivers a better-than-average effort. He’s still on my must-buy list, with the hope that his next effort will be better.

In the meantime, Fortress America will read about right-wing extremists, I guess…

[September 1996 Footnote: Believers in synchronicity might want to read Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders for a subplot that echoes eerily of The Enemy Within, down to the Iranian villains using the Net for their dastardly devious acts of terrorism… and a climax that reminds me of Bond’s short story in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible. ]

I, Robot: The Original Screenplay, Harlan Ellison (based on Short Stories by Isaac Asimov)

Warner, 1994, 271 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-67062-6

The friendship between SF legends Harlan Ellison and the late Isaac Asimov is well known. But despite being good friends, the two had never collaborated directly on a book.

Until I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (IRTIS), that is. As related in Ellison’s foreword, Asimov had received numerous offers to put the material contained in I, Robot to the big screen. All offers were less than satisfactory: The anthology format suggested by a collection of short stories isn’t a big favourite of movie-going audiences.

Enters Ellison, who writes a script combining fours short stories by Asimov into a script inspired in part by nothing else than “Citizen Kane”.

Simply put, a journalist decides to investigate famous robot designer Susan Calvin. Who is she? Why was she at the president’s funeral? The journalist has to visit several person before he happens on the truth, a truth that is as unsettling as it is satisfying…

The script, written in the seventies, has gathered dust on Warner’s shelves ever since.

Now, everyone can read the result of the collaboration, illustrated by the exceptional art of Mark Zug.

The result, simply put, fully lives up to its reputation of “the best Science-Fiction film never made”

The script displays an uncanny fusion of Asimov’s Hard-SF ideas with Ellison’s usual flair in characterisation and literary qualities. For those of you who haven’t always been able to stomach Asimov’s usually dry prose and Ellison’s sometimes incomprehensible works will find here an unusually readable script.

What impressed me the most about this script is that in addition of writing a story with great, sheer soul, Ellison has fulfilled the primary requirement of visual SF: Making us visit strange, impressive, real places. He doesn’t make the usual clichéed choices: Instead of making two people meet in a bar, he puts them in an arcology, etc… This might not sound like much put this way, but it’s handled superbly in the book.

Of course, a good part of the credit for the visualisation of the script goes to Mark Zug, who has drawn/painted for this volume a series of absolutely beautiful work of arts. These add considerably to the worth of the book. In fact, the greatest compliment I can think of is a criticism: There aren’t nearly enough of them!

In his introduction, Ellison states that the reader will be the judge of whether this would make a good movie. Well, for me at least, the verdict is clear: Yes. I’d pay without asking for an I, Robot ticket. In these times of insipid remakes of even more insipid past SF movies, I, Robot comes out as a contender with brains, looks and class.

Definitely recommended reading for Asimov and Ellison fans, as well as everyone in between. This isn’t like sitting in the theater, but it’s the best thing we’re likely to get…

The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die, Stephen R. Donaldson

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 564 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-07180-7

Capsule review: The Gap series offers a collection of riches rarely found elsewhere in SF, but for a very patient -and tolerant!- audience. Forget star ratings: This is Good Stuff.

I originally wanted to make this a review of the fifth and final book of the Gap Series, but reconsidered in favour of reviewing the whole story instead.

This is only fair, after all: This isn’t a series of unplanned, loosely-connected books. As Donaldson makes it perfectly clear in an afterword at the end of the first volume, five volumes were planned in this saga loosely inspired by Wagner’s The Ring opera cycle.

The series starts off “innocently” enough. Well, in a matter of speaking: While the first book is only 200 pages long, it does contain acts of cruelty only matched by the second book of the cycle.

Subsequently, the books get longer, and much more complicated. By the end of the fifth tome, the story is far removed from the original “love” triangle.

Simply put, in the first volume, a woman cop (Morn Hyland) gets captured by a pirate (Angus Thermopyle) and then gets rescued by a valiant hero (Nick Succorso).

“But that, of course, wasn’t the real story.”

The real story is that Angus is really the Victim, Morn the Rescuer and Nick the Villain. But then again, that isn’t the real story…

The Gap series fully moves on three axis: The one most familiar, the axis of action; the one so beloved of literary fans, the axis of (character) development; and finally, the favourite axis of conspiracy nuts, the axis of significance.

In other words, the “What’s Happening”, “Why it’s happening” and “What it really means.”

The “love” triangle has a meaning far, far removed from the three participants. All the way to forces controlling human destiny… but that’s a spoiler.

I still have a few reservations about the length of the series. It would have been possible to compress it into four, or even three very dense books. The reasons lies in Donaldson’s style: Events are seen from the point of view of one character at a time, one chapter by character. Evens often happen three, four times in prose, seen from the POV of different participants.

Donaldson also excels in atmosphere-building. He doesn’t write phrases like “and then he told her what had happened”. He tells it all, pages at a time. The dialogue doesn’t seem hurried: There are a fair number of useless lines. We are there. Characters constantly flashback to bits of phrases said earlier.

While engrossing, this makes the series far longer than some will tolerate. Events don’t happen at a break-neck pace -which will no doubt displease many- but half the pleasure’s in the build-up.

The conclusion is very satisfying, a change from some lacklustre finales we’ve been seeing recently (“Rama” for one). Some people die, some live, some are promoted, some get the retribution they crave…

But nobody will feel cheated by the ending. No gratuitous death. An optimistic outlook. Destinies accomplished.

Classification fans will have a tough time with the Gap series. What is it, exactly?

This isn’t hard SF. Donaldson takes far too many liberties with science, and even goofs up on light-speed delays in communications. Characters are unusually developed. Gadgets are tools, not ends in themselves.

This isn’t science-fantasy space-opera, even if it looks like one and is even inspired by one: The attention to detail displayed by Donaldson, the maturity of the books and the character-driven plot are not usual hallmarks of space-op.

Or if it’s Science-Fantasy SpaceOp, it’s a darn good one.

Characters, as mentioned before, are exceptionally handled. Even if far from sympathetic, they do engage our interest. (I personally found, however, that the “minor” characters -Hashi Lebowl, Min Donner, Koina Hannish, among others- were more interesting that the three stars of the cycle. Go figure…)

After 2,500 character-driven pages, you can’t help knowing them. This is something I wouldn’t mind seeing elsewhere in SF… but not necessarily in other 2,500 pages epics!

One final wish: The story is completed, done and over with. In clear, this means that it’s perfect as it is: No sequel, please.

I’ve mentioned before that this is a very hard-edged story. I mean that: The violence here is explicit and Donaldson doesn’t shy away from extremes. If you can read past the first half of the third book, the rest is less violent.

This isn’t Star Trek: Characters go through extremes that change them. And the extremes are extremes. Not a few casual SF, media SF and fantasy fans will be turned off by the subject matter. But those who can tough it out will find an extraordinary tale of power, abuse of power, betrayal and personal redemption.

I am tempted to liken the Gap series to an exceptionally rough endurance contest: Only the fittest make it to the end. But no one who does will be disappointed by the journey.

Now that the entire series is out (soon in paperback), readers who want to lose themselves in a marvellously textured world, who don’t mind a few lengths and who aren’t afraid of a darker tone will certainly want to read this.

Endymion, Dan Simmons

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 468 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10020-3

The original Hyperion (Considering both Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion as a single volume) was one of these books that comes one in every decade or so: A brand-new universe, incredible characters, suspenseful plot and a heaven-sent style. What was fascinating about it was the ingenious re-use of several traditional SF elements, re-used in a terribly fresh way.

Thus, it wasn’t difficult to get excited about a sequel. Questions abounded: Given what happens at the end of Fall of Hyperion, is it even possible to have a sequel? Is Simmons able to maintain the same frenetic idea-throwing imagination present in the first book? Is this going to be another one of those insipid sequels?

Well, the book has been read and it’s very probable that you’ll only half-like the answers.

First off, an important caveat to the would-be buyer: Endymion is the third volume in a four-book series. Yeah, I was flustered too, especially when you consider that this isn’t explicitly mentioned anywhere on the cover…. Be reassured, however, that Endymion offers a real sense of closure, unlike other books that we shan’t mention…

Endymion is the story of Raul Endymion, a young man assigned to protect a young girl named Aethena. The book, predictably, is a succession of adventures on various worlds where Raul protects the girl. Fair enough? Of course, things are more complicated than that, involving TechnoCore AIs, a renewed church, multiple deaths and resurrections (literally) and, of course, Simmons’ usually delightful prose.

Casual and litt’reary readers alike will devour this entry of the Hyperion Cantos with gusto. However, chances are that most will feel a little disappointed with the meal. Why?

For all it’s various qualities as an adventure novel, Endymion is just that; an adventure novel. Of course, portentous things happen and we get a few tantalising glimpses of What’s Going to Happen in the Next Volume, but that’s it. Most of Endymion is Raul and Aethena and A. Bettik battling the odds beyond any reasonable chance of survival. Fun, no doubt about it, but once expects more from Simmons.

A good novel, certainly worth the price when it’ll come out in paperback, but smarter readers will read it when the sequel is published.

Well, here we go for another year on the painful coals of anticipation…