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Doctor Who takes the A-Minus Train

Image: Clara raises a glass to the last hurrah. Screenshot from 'Mummy on the Orient Express'.

I know, I know. This series' ninth episode aired yesterday and here I am, posting about the 8th. I have no excuses, except that of "Life got in the way."

To those who'd wondered where I'd gone (and missed me) I say, "Mea culpa and that I'll try to do better with 'Flatline'." To those who'd wondered where I'd gone (and hoped I'd stay away), I say only, "You can't get rid of me that easily! But if it's any consolation, my reappearance comes with a surprise: I quite liked 'Mummy on the Orient Express'!"

What a difference a good script makes.

I was all-too-ready to dislike "Mummy On the Orient Express" as much as I did last week's "Kill the Moon".

MOOE's title suggested only another tired homage to, or rip-off of, someone else's creation. But what do you know! MOOE was funny and intriguing (if poorly-directed), with a believable interpersonal drama and Peter Capaldi's best performance yet.

In just 45 minutes, Jamie Mathieson managed what Steven Moffat and his previous collaborators could not in seven episodes: to make Clara's doubts about the Doctor believable.

Was "Mummy on the Orient Express" a perfect episode? Not quite. But it was better than most and a lot better than we have become accustomed to in recent years.

As usual, my full review is spoilery. Not so usual, it is hardly angry at all (which might help to explain why I am so late in its delivery). Also not so usual, this might be the first time I find myself in fundamental disagreement with Patches365. Which kind of makes me wonder if I'm wrong.

Click here for Clara's Choice.

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Abort the moon!

Image: Screenshot of spiders - or is that giant bacteria? - on the moon? Screenshot from 'Kill the Moon'.

If Steven Moffat isn't trying to abort the program he has had under his control since 2010, at the very least it's clear that he doesn't care what happens to it once it grows up and moves out of his house.

"Kill the Moon" could be watched as a personal drama about the Doctor and Clara Oswald; it might be viewed as a girls' own adventure, with trouble-maker Courtney Woods finally given her chance to shine; or seen as a feminist fable, with three women — maiden, teacher, crone — deciding the fate of all humankind. Could. Might.

Other interpretations will no doubt be constructed; there are among Doctor Who's fandom those as creative as they are forgiving.


Transcripts R Us!

For those interested in the program's thematic debate, I confess I went to the trouble of transcribing the key minutes.

I don't know whether to apologize or to brag, but it is here if you want it.

I am not part of that wing. I don't want to "fix" the program with fanfic nor weave intricately-constructed academic analyses to fill in plot-holes and justify self-contradictions of character and story. All I want are stories that don't insult my intelligence.

Is that really so much to ask?

Apparently so. "Kill the Moon" offers as the basis of its plot a "physics" whose idiocy would have appalled Newton — or even Douglas Adams. To add insult to insult, "Kill the Moon" is an unsubtle morality tale pushing a political agenda that adds a kiloton of fuel to the idea that Steven Moffat is not exactly, shall we say, a feminist-friendly thinker.

In other words, Won't somebody think of the embryo?!? Angry words and spoilers — they all live behind the cut.

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"The Cold War" weds mediocrity with subtle brilliance

Jenna-Louise Coleman becoming a revelation

Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara, screenshot detail.

April 19, 2013, OTTAWA — Late again, I know. Life and an episode of back-aches has kept me busy.

And more, I found it hard to find my focus on this episode. An entertaining tale on the surface, dig just a little bit and you find in the Mark Gatiss-penned "The Cold War" only another stop on Steven Moffat's Travelling Medicine Show of Intellectual Horrors.

An idiot plot, in other words.

But there was an upside, beyond the mere fact this episode made for the second in a row that managed at least to be an entertaining distraction on first viewing. That is, that Jenna-Louise Coleman is starting to look like the best regular actor to grace this series since maybe as far back as Christopher Eccleson's turn as the Ninth Doctor, and certainly since Catherine Tate played Donna Noble.

I know, I know, it's early days, and so I stand to be corrected, but so far Coleman is doing remarkable things with often ludicrous material. "Click here to read more, and to watch a video aide. Spoilers, as always. Links to my Series 7 reviews can be found at Edifice Rex Online.

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The Rings of Akhaten" is solid Doctor Who

Decent space opera fun is welcome tonic in a dismal era

The Rings of Akhaten, screenshot detail.

I really enjoyed this episode on my first viewing and, despite hearing from some quarters that it was awful — worse even than "The Bells of Saint John" — I liked it well enough the second time 'round, too. But then I've always had a preference for off-Earth adventures and have a fondness for space stations, so possibly I cut it more slack than I otherwise might.

In any case, "The Rings of Akhaten" suffers from special effects more ambitious than successful and, maybe, from a script that was cut down hard to make a two-part story into a single episode, but still managed some decent space opera fun, a welcome dollop of secular-humanist scepticism courtesy of the Doctor and our first chance to get to know Clara Oswald as more than just a mystery with a fetching smile, but as a genuine character.

For my full review, visit "Good news from the Rings, someplace (almost) awesome". Spoilers as per usual.

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(I know, I know, I know; Doctor Who again. I thought I was done with it too ...

But I ain't; in fact, my intention (because working on a full-length book and driving 26 days in March doesn't take up enough of my time) is to blog every god damned episode of Steven Moffat's fershlugginner version of Who.

In order to spare those of you who don't give a damn, I'll keep this entry brief.

  • The teaser is up on here, currently at the top of Rex's front page;

  • The new Series 7 section introduction is here; and

  • the review proper is right here.

One of these days, there will be something personal in this space as well. But not today. (And possibly, a poll: I really wonder how many people on my friends' lists — LJ and DW, but especially Livejournal — still actually pop in to read their lists. Lord knows, few enough of you are posting anymore.)

But for now, I'm off to cross-post, while the Habs game is playing in a small window at upper left. Ciao!.

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Or maybe there are and "chick flicks" should lose its pejorative meaning. Yoinked from my website.

Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker made Oscar history,
but real women's film and television still struggles to find an audience

Now that Katherine Bigelow has made history as the first woman to an Oscar for best picture, you might conclude that women have finally taken their rightful place at Hollywood's creative centre stage.

Or maybe not. Bigelow is, apparently (full-disclosure: I've seen only one of her films — the execrable Blue Steel, a distaff action-movie with less to say about women or feminism than her ex-husband's Aliens), a director known for action and horror and war movies, not romances or romantic comedies, and certainly not for pointed examination of the state of women in American society. Nevertheless, it is of some import that she has broken that glass ceiling, even if she has done so by "making movies like a man".

Pragmatically, she is probably on the right track, even if The Hurt Locker was lowest-grossing best-picture winner of all time, taking in only $16 million dollars worldwide on initial release, a number that has already changed significantly I typed the first draft of this article. A best-picture Oscar never hurt anybody's bottom-line.

Meanwhile, I'd like to talk about a couple of productions that haven't won any Oscars, one a recent Hollywood movie that did even worse box-office than did The Hurt Locker despite being released with a major publicity campaign, the other a mini-series released in Britain a few years ago which dropped a million fewers over the course of its six-episode run.

'The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard' DVD cover.
The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard
Written by Sally Wainwright
Starring Jane Horrocks
Original broadcast 2006, BBC One
DVD released October 2007
'Whip It' poster.
Whip It
Written by Shauna Cross
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Ellen Page
Released September 13, 2009
DVD release date unknown

Loosely-speaking, both the American Whip It and the British The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard are fantasies, though fantasies with nary a vampire nor zombie, nor even a strapping Hero, in sight. Indeed, men are very much in the background of both productions and there, I think, lies the secret behind the relative commercial failures that both of them were.

(I wonder how many readers stopped reading at the end of the previous paragraph; I'd be curious to know how many of you still reading were tempted to stop.)

Whip It is a coming-of-age story with twists enough to pull it above its own clichés; and The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard is a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging political fantasy which manages to convince the viewer that, yes, an ordinary, middle-class English-woman really might have led the upstart and ad hoc, nearly all-woman Purple Alliance Party to power in Whitehall in 2006.

Whip It got a lot of promotion when it was released last. Director Drew Barrymore and star Ellen Page made the rounds of talk-shows and magazine shoots, but it still tanked at the box-office, selling something like three thousand percent fewer tickets than did the about giant, transforming robots also released last year.

Considering that the movie they were selling was actually pretty good; and considering that Drew Barrymore has been a star most of her; and considering that Ellen Page (arguably the best actress to come down the pike in a very long time) had an actual hit with Juno and was, you know, Kitty Pride in the X-Men franchise — considering all that, there's something siginificant in the fact it took in a mere $13 million at the box-office. (I don't know what kind of promotional push The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard got when it first appeared on the BBC, but as I said above, it lost about one million viewers between its premiere and its conclusion.)

Whip It is the less ambitious production, a coming-of-age-through-sports story with a female twist and a gently humane sensibility.

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page once again playing a mis-fit teenager, a role one senses she is getting tired of; a brilliant actress, this time around I sensed page was acting-by-numbers, at least a little. It's more than high time someone writes this capital-tee Talent a role she can play an actual grown-up! But I digress) is a 17 year-old student pushed by her mother into beauty-pageant after beauty pageant. Her family is striving, working-class (at least, her mother is) from a small Texas town, and Bliss wants out of both.

Her opportunity comes through a chance encounter with members of a roller-derby team during a shopping trip to the big city of Austin, Texas. Bliss takes a poster and soon finds herself attending a try-out with a roller-derby team — naturally, a lovable bunch of losers called The Hurl Scouts. As you can imagine, our Bliss is a preternatural talent and thanks to her, the Hurl Scouts repent of their losing ways and learn to play to win.

As for Bliss, she finds a skill and a passion, she makes a break for her independence and, of course, she also falls in love.

But Whip It is not a love story and Bliss' relationship — neither its soft-focus begining not its harsh termination — stays far in the background of the movie.

The emotional centre of Whip It lies with Bliss' relationships with her team-mates and her family, her mother in particular. The story isn't anti-male by any stretch of the proverbial imagination, but it isn't about men, which I suspect goes more than some ways towards explaining its commercial failure.

Whip It is well-crafted, humane mind-candy, a romantic comedy in the platonic sense. The viewer believes in Bliss and comes to care about her passion for roller-derby (the film also very briefly makes it clear how the bloody game is played, something I never had understood before!) and in her rookie's ability to lead it to victory. As with any good sports movie, we find ourselves become fans; we start to cheer for the Hurl Scouts and we by-damn want them to win that inevitable championship game! Solidly entertaining, it stands up to repeat viewings and deserves to find success on home-video that it couldn't find in theatres.

Even more deserving of a second chance is Sally Wainwright's The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, a far more ambitious, more sophisticated and much more complex story about women which addresses feminism head-on while not being "about" feminism — Wainwright is far too good a story-teller to fall into the trap of didacticism, even as her characters discuss the ins-and-outs of, for example, budgetary policies.

And yet, I don't think it was the very realistic backroom politics nor the emphasis policy questions, which caused The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard to bleed nearly a million viewers between its first episode and its sixth.

No, besides the lousy numbers, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard shares only one other significant element with Whip. Namely, that it too features men (and not too many of them) only in supporting roles.

The story opens in a way that, by all rights, ought to appeal to anyone who has watched Question Period or a press conference with a politician and thought or exclaimed, "I could do better than that!

Rozz Pritchard is a wife, a mother and the manager of a grocery store. She's a competent and canny boss who nevertheless is well-liked and well-respected by her employees, character facts Wainwright provides in a tightly-scripted introductory scene of only a couple of minutes duration.

So, when she confronts a pair of campaigning politicians who have come to blows outside her the store, the viewer believes her when she shouts them down and agrees with the clerk who tells her she ought to run for office.

Needless to say, she does and, by the end of the first episode, finds herself the Prime Minister-elect of Great Britain. (No more spoilers; I permitted myself that one because there really isn't a series without that early victory.)

The next five episodes explore an unrealistic conceit in a rigorously realistic fashion. Like a serious science fiction what-if story, Wainwright posits one major change to the reality we know, then explores that change's repercussions with a keen wit and (fortunately) equally keen sense of humour and of personal drama.

With the exception of then-unknown Cary Mulligan, Mrs. Pritchard is cast almost entirely of women middle-aged or older, few of woman are shaped like the women from Desperate Housewives and none of whom dress like them. To make matters worse (or "worse"), Mrs. Pritchard is also almost entirely devoid of significant male characters. Of the two in evidence, one is a callow youth involved with a much older (and much more powerful) woman, the other is Mr. Pritchard, somewhat unhappy in his unexpected role as the Prime Minister's husband, and harbouring a dangerous secret, to boot.

And, as I said above, that is the common trait the series shares with the movie: women's friendships and rivalries are the story, not how their lives interact with men. And for some reason, it seems as if even women aren't much interested in watching such stories. Which is strange (or ought to be strange), since no one seems to give a second thought to films that don't include a woman in any significant role at all — but the reverse seems to be problematic, a problem made worse by the apparent fact that women seem little more interest in stories about women than men are.

And that's a shame, because the more often such stories fail to find an audience, the harder it will be for another one to be made.

Sally Wainwright and Shauna Cross, with the collaborators, have both created entertainments that by all rights should have found broad (no pun intended) and enthusiastic audiences.

Though International Women's Day has come and gone for another year, women and men can still strike a small blow for a more inclusive world by voting for something different with their wallets. It would be a small gesture, but not an insignificant one, to hunt down and rent either the movie or the series — and a gesture you'll enjoy, too boot.


Oh yes, and while I'm pimping myself, I suppose I ought to mention the editorial I wrote for this weeks True North Perspective.

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I know that a number of you are artists, some professional and more of you of the aspiring variety; it is the latter towards whom this poll is primarily aimed: those who are self-publishing or working with very small presses (or whatever is the equivalent in your particular medium/media).

When wearing my critic or reviewer's hat, my inclination is to accentuate the positive, particularly when dealing with the "small fish" of the arts and especially with those exploring self-publishing and/or open source methods of distribution. In other words, I'm inclined to simply ignore work that doesn't interest me or which I find inhabits that large grey area between Bad and Good. (Unless of course I'm being paid for my opinions or something truly repugnant is also dangerously popular.

But neither of those latter conditions is likely to apply to the marginal and the up-and-coming artists out there.

Hence the poll, below. I am curious what creative folk think about reviews. Is any publicity good publicity? If someone (er, that might be me) on your friends' list reads or views or listens to your work and doesn't think too highly of it, do you want to know it or would you rather I just keep my big mouth shut?

(For the record, I'm willing to risk the hurt feelings; if I release something, I'd rather a bad review than none at all.)

[Poll #1496171]
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(Cross-posted from my blog.)

Giving oneself over to an episodic drama, produced over years, is always a gamble on the part of the reader or viewer. Unlike a novel or a feature film, the reader or viewer must take a leap of faith and trust that the creator or creators, essentially know what they are doing, that — even if they are open to making changes as things move along, organically evolving as they are surprised by their own creation — they at least have the ultimate end-point, the climax, always in view.

During its first two seasons, Battlestar Galactica showed every sign of being that rarity on commercial television, a show that was meant to be seen as an organic whole, with a begining, a middle and an end, rather than a series of adventures intended to go on (and on — see the eternal recurrence of Star Trek, for example) so long as it has enough viewers for advertisers to continue financing production.

The program was smart, funny and often brutal; it dealt with serious issues without recourse to easy (or sometimes any answers offered to the viewer as the "right" one. The show's characters — even the noblest — were realistically flawed and very far from the virtually ideal usually served up in television and filmed attempts at science fiction.

To say that I quickly became a fan is an understatement. In truth, Battlestar Galactica was, in my opinion, the best show on television, asking its audience to think as well as to feel. (Since then, I've encountered such programs as Deadwood and The Wire, the former sadly cancelled before it's time, but the latter allowed to go on until it was truly completed.)

To tell you the truth, I lost my faith that Ronald D. Moore knew where they were going with Battlestar Galactica at some point about mid-way through the third season, when the series began running what were basically "stand-alone" episodes typical of network dramas that did little or nothing to further the progress of the series' main story: I read reports at the time suggesting this was due to network interference, to bean-counters messing with the creators in hopes of expanding the show's audience, but the Friday's final episode leaves me doubting that it was not, in fact, Moore who was responsible for the series' decline. Neverthless, right up until the final episode, I had home, if not faith, that he might surprise me, despite the apparent impossibility in pulling the program's myriad sub-plots and thematic threads into a well-realized whole.

Though I was sceptical about Moore's ability to pull it off, I didn't expect a dénoument that I can only characterize as, well, a cheat.

(Note: the following necessarily contains spoilers. Since I can't even recommend watching the episode, I don't think it matters, but stop reading now if you want to pass judgement yourself and have not yet seen the episode.)

* * *

In a nutshell, Battlestar Gallactica posits a society destroyed by its own creations, the Cylons. Cylons are robots who gained sentience and rebelled against their position as slaves; following a half-century of peace, the Cylons returned, destroying the Twelve Colonies with nuclear weapons, and leaving only 50,000 survivors out of the twelve planets. The series follows those survivors, who are both trying to escape from the Cylons, bent on finishing their extermination of the human race, and to find refuge on possibly mythical planet called "Earth".

Despite the fantastic, science fictional trappings, Battlestar Galactica managed to provide pointed, non-didactic commentary on current events, such as the invasion of Iraq, the use of torture and the complexities of democratic politics with a sophistication sometimes matching the best of serious fiction. Even better it made concrete such abstractions as compromise and second-thought (as well as power-mongering and corruption) in its presentation of politics.

At its best, the program explored ideas, posing questions rather than offering Answers.

Even more, Battlestar Galactice provided some of the most complex characterizations I've seen on American television. Despite the military trappings and the dramatic structure, there wasn't a major character on the program who didn't make major mistakes. There were no easy answers, even for essentially "good" men and women; at its best, the program was "about" the creative tensions between conflicting understandings of right and wrong, about the difficulties inherent in balancing power with morality, of choosing the "right" course of action in times of crisis.

But having now seen the final episode, the climax, I can only feel betrayed. It seems clear now that Moore either did not after all actually know where the story was going to end up or, perhaps worse, that they did.

For decades, books and articles on the writing of science fiction have included a list of ideas that have been done to death (if you'll forgive me the cliche), of cliches to avoid.

Much of the time, the very first cliched idea to avoid is the "Adam and Eve" story, in which a couple or perhaps a larger group of survivors of some calamity crash-land on a pristine planet, only for it to be revealed that — gosh! — they were our ancestors!

Proof that Battlestar Galactica succumbed to a failure of creative imagination is that its ending was the above-noted cliche.

And how did the fleet manage to find Earth in the end? Through multiple acts of deus ex machina, that's how.

Our protagonists' arrival on Earth, perhaps 50,000 years ago, is "explained" by angels. Yes, literally angels, representing a kind of midieval Divine Providence.

I won't bore you with the details; if you're a fan of the show you probably already know them and, if not, this review is unlikely to convince you to invest a close to a hundred hours of your time in order to find them out.

Suffice it to say the finale reveals that our "heroes" have been endlessly manipulated by divine intervention, as if the mental and imaginative lives of Moore are one with Homer's. The gods are hidden, but live among us, nudging us here and there, in hopes that someday we can escape the wheel of eternal recurrence.

The endlessly venal and self-serving Balthar, along with Caprica Six are revealed as some (unexplained) sort of divinities. Kara Thrace, once one of the most unusual and strong famale characters ever portrayed on American television, herself turns out to be some kind of angel — literally, it is more than implied; she in fact very literally disappears into thin air — presumably taken bodily back to heaven — following the completion of her "mission" (leading the survivors to Earth).

Galactica has always included a paranormal or religious element, a mystery that we were implicitly promised would be explained. What we were given however, makes a vaguelly-mystical hash of explanation, let alone of logic.

I suppose one can intuit an over-riding rationale for the events presented in the final episode (and, by extension, in the series as a whole) but this reviewer, at least, has his doubts. The dénoument reeks of a failure of imagination, if not necessarily of courage.

Battlestar Galactica is a series which has included some of the best television writing I've seen come out of North America, but if one accepts the conceit that it is to be taken as a single work, as a single dramatic narrative, it must be judged an almost tragic failure.

If a success, it is the success of an essentially pagan vision, in which the Gods are with us always, inscrutable, mysterious, incomprehensible and apparently arbitrary but acting with a Purpose we are not given to understand.

Despite its technological trappings, in the end, Battlestar Galacticta turned out to a fantasy after all and, like most fantasies, it is essentially reactionary in philosophy, denying the existence of individual volition, of free will, in favour of mysterious Destiny, where reality is beyond even the hope of human understanding and where — despite the often-supperb characterizations throughout the series — the individual human being is important only when he or she is a tool of that mysterious Destiny.

What a let-down. What a tragic waste of a lot of sometimes brilliant work.

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Bias alert: I know Nalo Hopkinson. It would be a stretch to claim a close friendship, but we've socialized and we exchange hugs when we see each other. Had I not liked this novel, I would most likely have noted it here, but otherwise passed it over in silence. I did like it, though — a lot — but think it only fair to let you know the context in which I write about it.

Midnight Robber Cover
Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
# ISBN-10: 0446675601
# ISBN-13: 978-0446675604

One of SF's major claims is that it is a "literature of ideas", whether exploring the possible implications of new technologies or the ramifications of therefrom. Implicit in both is that the reader should be prepared for something new and unexpected — but most of the time, the cultural subtext is entirely mainstream, western and white (not to mention, usually male, though that at least seems to be less and less true as time goes by) and no matter how exotic or alien the background, most SF and fantasy reads like it was written by Some White Guy in a small apartment somewhere in Middle America.

Nothing wrong with that, but you'd think a literature at home in the past, the future and on other planets might be a little more willing to play with language and cultural assumptions more than it usually is.

Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber does both, and in spades.

On the level of the plot, Midnight Robber is a fairly standard coming-of-age story, female version.

Tan-Tan is eight or nine years old, and a real daddy's girl, when her daddy — mayor of Cockpit County on a world long since colonized by a Caribbean diaspora — murders his wife's lover and the story, Tan-Tan's story, really begins.

The world of Toussaint deals with its dangerous criminals through exile. Not to another continent, but to yet another world entirely, New Half-Way Tree, with no way back. New Half-Way Tree, or at least the small part of it in which the novel is set, is a jungle world, full of exotic and sometimes dangerous life forms, including at least one other intelligent species, the Douen, an avian species with a remarkable (and surprising) sexual dimorphism.

The power in Midnight Robber comes not from its setting (though that is more strange and better thought-out than many another book set on an alien world) or its plot-turns (though here too Hopkinson's story finds nearly virgin forests where most plow well-furrowed ground) but from its subtle characterizations and, especially through its use of language.

Though she's been a Torontonian since the 70s, Hopkinson was raised in Jamaica and Trinidad before coming to Canada as a teenager, and she has clearly reached back to her roots to tell this story.

It takes some getting used to, if you're used to SF's standard "plain prose" style. A significant portion of the narrative — and all the dialogue — is written in (what reads to me like) a sort of creole. I'm ashamed to admit that the opening pages stopped me more than once before I managed to break through the mental barrier.

Oho. Like it starting, oui? don't be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you little bit one anasi story:

It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree was she planet.

The main narrative is written in something closer to standard Canadian English, but small twists of usage and slang serve to remind us that we aren't in Toronto anymore.

Tan-Tan's story begins with privilege and falls from exile to exile. When she hides in a basket in order to see her father, Antonio — a monstrous but entirely human figure — decides to take her in exile with him, the first of his genuinely abusive acts.

Antonio is a weak man, and so a proud one, given to rage and violence and as Tan-Tan grows closer to womanhood the reader, dreading it, is not surprised when his abuse becomes sexual. Over the course of the first half of the book, Antonio grew from a character I disliked to a man I loathed. Hopkinson is too good a writer not to empathise with her characters, even when they are monsters.

But this is a coming-of-age story. Tan-Tan escapes her father, running away into the jungle and that is when the novel really comes into its own, both as science fiction and as genuine bildungsroman. Hopkinson juggles world-building with psychological growth while always telling a fascinating story with an almost poetic prose in a way few writers can manage. The "legends" of the Mightnight Robber, interspersed with the main narrative, feel entirely real, as do Tan-Tan's own closely-related adventures.

This is science fiction as it it is meant to be: literary, rigorously imaginative, emotionally intense and moving, and utterly believable, no matter how strange its setting.

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I've long maintained that, while far from the being the "best of all possible worlds", socially, Canada in the late 20th and early 21st centuries arguably represents the best humanity has had to offer thus far, with legal equality for all races and between men and women, close to legal equality for gays and lesbians and, on the street, an argumentative but live-and-let-live attitude among an extremely heterogeneous population. By long-term historical standards we are doing very well and arguably better than any society that has ever existed (for simplicity's sake, let's leave first and third world economic disparity out of the equation).

Among other things, the criteria upon which I base that judgement is an intuitive mix of such things as economic disparity between rich and poor, acceptance and intermixing by and among people of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and especially, the status of women - i.e., if you step outside at night in a big city, the more women you see walking around by themselves, the higher the probability that city is a safe one, with a reasonably robust social infrastructure or "civil society".

In other words, I see in this country an historical, clumsy lurching towards a future world that will truly be one of liberty and justice for all for the very first time in history.

Having, with so many, believed that civilization (defined here as city-dwellers, including government more complex than those found in hunter-gatherer societies) first emerged in the "fertile crescent" only five or six thousand years ago as savage, war-like city-states, which immediately set-upon conquering and/or slaughtering their neighbours, Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade offers a provocative analysis of recent archaeological discoveries, one that asserts the late Neolithic Age harboured actual cities (of up to 100,000 people(!) and a Mediterranean/European civilization with sophisticated trading relations. And more, that these were cities without defensive walls or much at all in the way of weaponry.

When my mum pushed the book on me, I resisted, thinking it would be yet another piece of feminist historical fantasy, of some Golden Age when a universal Matriarchy ruled over all under the beneficent gaze of the Great Goddess. I had to force myself through the first chapter, but was gradually won over enough to at least take her thesis seriously (although, having now had the chance to glance over her website, I am less sure than I was about her general credibility. As they say, more research is required before I come to any firm conclusions. But I digress).

In short, Eisler does not claim that the late Neolithic civilization(s?) she describes were matriarchal, although she does assert that a Goddess appears to be the primary divinity. Rather, her thesis is that those cities were structurally organized differently from all known historical civilizations, in which a top-down hierarchy is the structural basis of organization. In Eisler's view, these society's were instead organized according to a "partnership model", which featured cooperation rather than coercion as the organizing principle.

Although some of these cultures (in particular the late civilization on Crete) apparently possessed at least a rudimentary written language, most if not all the evidence Eisler presents is based on physical rather than textual evidence. Thus, by definition, her conclusions about ways of life are inferential and deductive.

Nevertheless, that evidence seems to me to be compelling. And mostly, because of what isn't found in the digs, rather than what is. No defensive fortifications; no weapons, save for those appropriate for hunting; no significant differences in the size of habitations; little or no depiction of warfare; no monumental palaces or other buildings suggestive of extreme hierarchy; no significant difference in the lavishness of grave-sites. She further asserts that the artistic evidence (painted pottery and frescoes, for instance) suggests that men and women played roles in all aspects of society, from the ceremonial to sports and even, to some degree, in work.

She claims that these civilizations flourished for about 3,500 years, from circa 7,000 B.C.E. to 3,500 B.C.E. when Crete was over-run by one of the patriarchal barbarian hordes we know so well from everything from the Bible to general history.

If her reports of the archaeological findings are true, The Chalice & the Blade appears to me to make a strong case for the idea that the common view of our past is quite simply wrong.

Eisner believes the findings summarised above are not only of historical importance but are also important in that they provide "proof" that humanity is not foredoomed to exist according to a hierarchical model (or "dominator model") of civilization. She believes that knowing something different existed in the past will help us to build a better (and different) tomorrow. (As she repeatedly points out, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, there will be no future history for humanity if we don't find ways other than war to settle our conflicts.) But as modern feminism and other progressive movements have shown in the past few decades, we are quite capable of imagining a different future without having recourse to a similar past; nevertheless, it can't hurt to know that - yes! - things were different once upon a time.

It is as a prognosticator that she lost me towards the end of the book. The final chapter provides an overview of what a future Partnership Civilization might look like and here Eisner does in fact come across as a naive, New Agey, thinker, with all the silliness that implies (she goes so far as to predict that her future will include "improved yoga techniques").

Unfortunately, I am not (yet) in a position to judge the quality or honesty of the evidence Eisler presents, but the book is copiously foot-noted and I caught no significant errors in areas in which I do have some knowledge. On the surface, she makes a very strong and very interesting case for her historical thesis. So, despite my reservations, this is a provocative and exciting look at what - to me, at least - had hitherto been a long chapter in human history about which I had been almost entirely ignorant. Recommended, if only for now.

If anyone out there can point me towards recent archaeological findings which might support or refute her, I'd be most grateful.
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Much Ado About Nothing

I somehow came late to cyberpunk, not reading William Gibson's seminal novel, Neuromancer until the late 80s or early 90s.

I don't remember much about the book at this point, but I do know what my reaction to it was was I closed it: Is that what all the fuss was about?

Sure, Neuromancer came dressed in a (ahem) gritty, decaying urban guise, all cynicism and punk-rock, but beneath the mohawks and shabby leather was, I thought, just another take on the old science fiction trope of the Lone Hero battling impossible odds.

New bottle, old wine; if I wanted escapism I prefer that it spam the galaxy, not the back alleys of San Francisco, thank you very much.

Still, when I came across a copy of John Shirley's apparently even-more seminal 1980 novel, City Come a Walkin', with a foreword by none other than Gibson himself, I picked it up.

Gibson's foreword acknowledges City as a vital influence on his work. "I was somewhat chagrined, rereading it recently, to see just how much of my own early work takes off from this one novel."

If my own memory of those few novels of Gibson's that I've read is true, his acknowledgement is legitimate. Shirley's novel is set in San Francisco's punkish demi-monde, circa the year 2000, a bleak, nihilistic world of violence and self-destruction, heading quickly to becoming ruled, quite literarly, by organized crime.

Until the City itself, product of its citizens' collective unconscious comes to life and walks into Stu Cole's club, The Anesthesia on a crowded Saturday night.

Shirley write's a staccato noirish prose and his chapter titles are self-consciously funky. Too funky - "Wun!", "-Tew!", "SEV-uhn!" &cetera. But maybe they're appropriate, because when stripped of its style, what's left is a novel that might have made for a decent Frank Miller comic during his Ronin Phase - ie, stylistically interesting, but ultimately derivative and shallow in terms of content.

Club owner Stu Cole is the protagonist, an upright, arts-supporting businessman who is resisting the influence of the Mob, a cabal which has infiltrated the computer-run economy and is poised to take it over completely.

For reasons which never do become clear, "City" chooses Cole to be his human accomplice as "he" begins a bloody campaign to quite literally eliminate the gangsters.

We then follow through a series of adventures, in which he fights a losing battle against City's control of his own self, culminating in his transformation into some sort of being who can wander time and space, though this reader at least never did understand why or how that happened.

Shirley certainly appears to deserve Gibson's introductory credit for writing the first cyberpunk novel, but the question of why cyberpunk itself deserves any attention remains an unanswered question in my mind. As I said, I prefer a little more imaginative meat on my escapism than is provided by a nihilistic worst-case vision of what might happen, "if this goes on".
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Sixty Days and Counting, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Spectra, March 2007 - 388 pages

It has been said that patriotism is a scoundrel's last refuge. Like most adages, there is truth in that statement, but not the whole truth. In reality, there are (at least) two kinds of patriotisms, and two kinds of patriots - the negative and the positive.

Where negative patriotism is based largely on fear - fear of change, fear of The Other - and is always on the look-out for scapegoats when troubles arise, positive patriotism is confident and outward-looking, based on a healthy love for one's country and having the courage to face up to its short-comings.

By these criteria, Kim Stanley Robinson is a patriotic American in the very best sense of the term, a writer other Americans owe it to themselves to read and whose thoughts they should be debating. He is also an American whose vision encompasses the rest of the world (not to mention the past and future as much as it does the present) and foreigners like myself also owe it to ourselves to both enjoy and consider his works. Read More )
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The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin, 2006; 406 pages, $35.95
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror. A naif blessed with the perspective of innocence has a clearer perception. Winston Churchill's son Randolph somehow contrived to remain ignorant of scripture until Evelyn Waugh and a brother officer, in a vain attempt to keep Churchill quiet when they were posted together during the war, bet him he couldn't read the entire Bible in a fortnight: 'Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud "I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible..." or merely slapping his side & chortling "God, isn't God a shit!"' Thomas Jefferson - better read - was of a similar opinion: 'The Christian God is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.' (The God Delusion, page 31.)

To read my review, click here to see below the cut; but be warned, it's a long one. )
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Blogger's note: It is with a measure of personal irony, that one of my most literate lj friends recently posted a screed in which he decried a tendency among some bloggers who seem to believe that reading a certain number of books is a mark of some kind of achievement. Not that I have set any such goal for myself, but at the same time Colin has announced that he will review fewer books, I had decided that, this year, I will try to say at least something about every book I do read this year.

Will I prove to have much to say about them? Time alone will tell.

Space Opera Is Alive and Well and Living in Britain

Well, there's "space opera" and there's space opera. The former, at its best, is Stars Wars written with at least some consideration of internal consistency, if not with the laws of physics. The latter, on the other hand, can go toe-to-toe with the best non-genre popular fiction and Alastair Reynolds, a relative new-comer to the field, is a heavy-weight, writing with a sure hand novels and stories of epic scope, well-drawn characters and a healthy dose of scientific verisimilitude.

Reynolds' latest is a collection of stories set in his "Revelation Space" future history, one spanning tens of thousands of years.

The stories in this volume are printed chronologically - not as written, but in terms of when they are set. The first takes place a couple of centuries in the future, the last ends around the year 40,000. However, unlike too many SF story collections, Galactic North makes no pretense to being a novel (and yet, I can think of some "novels" that hold together as a single narrative less than this collection of stories does).

Reynolds' future is one of spectacular and sometimes disturbing change, yet his characters - even those barely recognizable as human - still manage to be people in whom the reader can believe, even on those occasions when they are repellent.

From war and treachery on Mars, to genetically-engineered humans living 100 kilometres below the ice of Saturn's moon, Europa, to the far reaches of insterstellar space, Reynolds' book kept me turning the pages with pleasure and anticipation.

If you enjoy adventure that makes you think, if you take pleasure in comtemplating the complexities - good and bad - the future might hold, Galactic North seems to be an excellent introduction to Reynolds' universe.

Interestingly, Reynolds seems to stick pretty scrupulously to what is currently known to be at least scientifically plausible (if not necessarily likely). Though there are star-farers galore in his universe, there is no faster-than-light travel or miraculous gateways in time, no god from the machine.

Along with other recent writers of high-end space opera like Stephen Baxter (another Brit), one is tempted to suggest that Science Fiction risks entering a second "golden age".
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(In which the author discusses his preference for one good magazine over another; digresses briefly on the value of short fiction; and argues that you should subscribe to one or both, if you care about the long-term survival of popular short fiction.)

10 times a year I open my mailbox and am rewarded with the latest issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Briefly, I hop up and down like a 5 year old on Christmas morning when I feel the centimetre-thick package then, with excited reverence, I pull the gift from the slot and press my lips to its mylar wrapping.

Less often, I will pick up Analog's sister magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction from one of the rare newstands that actually carry such low-volume, awkwardly-sized and probably not-very-profitable publications.

This month was one in which I read both current issues and so this seems a good time to discuss them both, and why it is that I prefer one over the other.


Analog has the longer pedigree as periodicals count such things. Established in 1930 under the name Astounding Stories of Super Science, it is science fiction's lone survivor of the pulp era.

Asimov's was founded in 1977 and - if the Hugo Awards are anything to go by; its editors have won 18 for best magazine during that time, while Analog has won precicely zero - quickly became the prestige magazine in the field. There is certainly no denying that Asimov's regularly presents more "literary" stories, with arguably better writing and definitely a greater emphasis on psychology, imagery and mood than Analog's "nuts-and-bolts" approach.

Why is it then, that I subscribe to the latter and only occasionally pick up the former? The question becomes even more pertinent when I think about the (very) few forays I have made into writing science fiction; my own work would definitely be a better fit with Asimov's than with Analog.

And so it behooves me to examine the December 2006 editions of both publications.

For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen my subjects well. Both are fairly average issues, highlighting each publications' strengths and weaknesses. The vagaries of surface mail being what they are, I picked up the December Asimov's a couple of weeks before Analog found its way to my mailbox, so I'll start with the former.

The issue begins strongly. Editor Sheila Williams for once eschews her normal, bloglike musings with an essay on American copyright law and the ways in which it serves to limit what has historically been the conversational nature of art, ie, that quoting from another work is not necessarily theft, but building on ideas from the past. (The science fiction field itself is very liberal in this regard; as a single fer'instance, I have seen Ursula K. LeGuin's faster-than-light "radio", the ansible, used by more than one writer.)

Regular columnist Robert Silverberg discusses and highly recommends a book about the history of science fiction magazines. A major writer in the field for decades now, Silverberg's article is too personal for my taste, but certainly of interest to people who care about the field and its history.

Finally, in terms of the articles, Peter Heck's book column was entirely forgettable to me, and I don't have the energy to re-read it for this essay. (The issue also contains 4 poems about which I will also remain silent; probably sadly, I don't do poetry as a rule.)

All right then, what about the fiction?

The first story, Paolo Bacigalupi's "Yellow Card Man" is a strong, dystopian story set in a post-global warming Thailand. It is a story of a former Malay Chinese businessman reduced to penury in a harsh new world. Well-written, it is nevertheless too typical of "literary" SF in that it is, first, depressing and second (and to my mind,more importantly), it addresses a situation that could as easily have been set in any present-day country experiencing an influx of unwanted refugees.

Simarly, and although it is set in a much stranger, more "science fictional" place and time, Robert Reed's "Plausible" is an engaging story, a coming-of-age tale, of sorts, but one that ultimately could as easily have taken place here and now. It is a story of luck, coincidence and the kindness (and meanness) of strangers as experienced by a young boy who loses himself, for a while, at a parade.

Calgary's Susan Forest's "Immunity" is actually set in space, on a mining colony of a moon orbiting one of the solar system's outer planets (I don't remember the precise location). It is a powerful story of a mother's love in conflict with her responsibilities to the colony of which she is administrator as a plague breaks out. It is also a story of guilt and forgiveness, with personally tragic undertones as Trine, the protagonist, is unable to forgive her self for a decision all others understand and have forgiven. "Immunity" is a very good story, though it too could - with not much re-working - have been set in the modern world with no loss of thematic meaning.

Brian W. Aldiss' "Safe!" comes close to being a story that is science fiction in the sense it could not take place in the modern world. A satire of sorts, it concerns an astronaut on a one-way mission to Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, and the repercussions of his hitherto unrevealed madness. En route, he murders his fellow astronaut and upon landing, proceeds to develop the "Laws of Psychospheres" which, we are assured, will forever change life on earth. Aldiss' story is written with the practiced hand of an old master, is engaging and sometimes funny, but still feels like something the writer tossed off, rather than a fully-realized work.

Christopher Priest's "A Dying Fall" is not science fiction at all, to my mind. One can read it as fantasy or as psychological fiction, but it is the sort of story that seldom interests me. It is well-written, with a reasonably engaging protagonist who undergoes a near-death experience after being pushed onto the subway tracks but - like most fantasy - the story's arbitrary fantastic elements left me cold and mildly frustrated because of that by the tale's end.

Ian Creasy's "The Golden Record", on the other hand, is more to my taste. A story that opens with the recovery from deep space of Voyager 2 by one Andrew Pitt, of Houston Spaceflight Museum, in 14 pages, "The Golden Record" offers commentary on the state of our world, a race in space, an encounter with a terrorist and a possible (and pathetic) future for the United States, along with a strong argument in favour of the idea that humankind owes it to itself to reach for the stars.

Finally, Michael Swanwick's novella, "Lord Weary's Empire" seems to me to exemplify everything that is right and wrong with Asimov's Science Fiction.

To be fair, it is not a stand-alone story, but a sequel to one that appeared in Asimov's 2 or 3 years ago. That said, if I read its predecessor, I don't remember it, and so must judge "Lord Weary's Empire" on its own.

Written with the literary flair and confidence of a writer in full control of his craft, "Lord Weary's Empire" is by turns moving, exciting and intriguing. It is also a cheat, as at the end, we learn that nothing that happened before was true - rather, the protagonist, Will, is victim to an illusionist. This is much like ending a fantasy with "and then he woke up"; the last writer to get away with it in my books was Lewis Carroll.

All of which is to say, if you like this sort of thing, Asimov's is an excellent place to find it. But if fantasy and slice-of-life fiction are not your cup of tea; if you prefer extrapolation plain philosophy instead, you would be better off having a look at Analog.

Like the December Asimov's, the current issue of Analog is fairly typical of the magazine, neither extraordinarily good nor bad.

Editor Stanley Schmidt opens the issue with an editorial questioning the purposes of public education. In a tradition decades-old, he does not offer prescriptions for any particular current problem, but rather asks his readers to think, to consider what should, and what should not, be part of a public school's curriculum.

The December issue's "Science Fact" article discusses the scientific probability of the existence of "float worlds", planets entirely covered by water and the likelyhood they could develop complex life. As usual, it contains graphs and scientific notation; not written for scientists, it nevertheless presumes its readers are not liberal arts majors with no grounding in physics or mathematics.

The second article, part of the ongoing The Alternate View, takes a German PhD Students dissertation and explores the cutting-edge of quantum physics and the possibility of sending messages into the past.

Analog's regular book reviewer, Tom Easton provides a typical run-down on recent books - brief synopses and his opinion as to whether or not the books under discussion are worth his readers' while.

As for the fiction, as I have said, this issue of Analog is pretty typical, its strengths and weaknesses both on display.

The opening novelette, "Imperfect Gods", by C. Sanford Lowe and G. David Nordley is one of a series, a type of story Analog often runs. Not quite a serial, the stories in these kinds of series will nevertheless often end up collected in a book, featuring reccuring characters and, often, a single narrative thread.

"Imperfect Gods" takes place on a cold world, in the early stages of terraformation, the process of using technology to change a planet (Mars is the classic example) into an earthlike sphere capable of sustain human life.

"Imperfect Gods" is not, however, "about" terraforming. That's the background. The foreground is a long-term, very difficult experiment, and the conflict between the scientist charged with overseeing it and a government that has become influenced by a religious movement that claims the experiment is too dangerous to allow to come to fruition. Nordley and Lowe do a good job of admixing thriller, romance and human weakness into a story that, arguably, could only be told as science fiction, no matter that the political and religious elements clearly echo trends and events of our own world.

Grey Rollin's "Double Dead" is another installment of a series, in this case an entertaining but ultimately forgettable hybrid of film noire and tongue-in-cheek SF. I enjoyed reading it, wanted to find out what happened next - but a month from now, I won't remember a thing about it.

Craig Delancey's "Openshot", on the other hand, is a lovely example of why I kiss Analog on its arrival, as well as read it.

The conceit is as follows. A competition modelled on the X-Prize (which recently saw the launches of a reusable Earth to orbit (privately built) spacecraft), has this time instigate a return to the moon.

One ship, piloted by the "crippled" former test pilot, T.J. ("Colonel Bianco" to her enemies), was built on the open source model, the other by a private company.

The plot is fairly simple. The private space-craft has experienced a catastrophic technical failure and is in need of help. Its open-source competitor is (of course; I don't think the story provides a specific date, but it could plausibly be set 15 years in the future) the only ship that can rescue it. Of course, despite much bitching, T.J. does rescue her competitor (and is betrayed by him), but the heroes are nevertheless triumphant.

There is a long-standing libertarian tradition in (particularly) American science fiction in general and in Analog in particular, as exemplified by such writers as Robert A. Heinlein and, more recently, by John Varley.

What I find exciting about "Openshot", beyond that it is a good story, is the way in which it engages with - and advances - an ongoing discussion within science fiction (and, it should be needless to say, in the rest of the world). That is, how do we best organize the world? Collectively or privately, or in some combination of the two?

Delancey has taken something new from our world - the open-source movement - and extrapolated a way in which it might function in the near future (and very expensive!) world of space exploration. That Analog, which has long been home to the laissez-faire political point of view would publish this contrarian piece speaks volumes about why I so often enjoy it.

Jerry Oltion's very short story, "Diatomaceous Earth" is a cute but forgetable stroy of an archeologist who is more interested in his side-line as a plant-breeder than his (non)place in history as the man who completely altered human civilization.

Similarly, Wil McCarthy's "The Technetium Rush" is briefly entertaining, and a mildly interesting take on fraud and science - but I won't remember a thing about it come next issue.

The December issue's penultimate story, on the other hand, is at once touching and intriguing. The place: somewhere in northern North America. The time: a long ways into the future. In Catherine H. Shaffer's "Long Winter's Nap", the earth is in the midst of another ice-age, and LittlestOne is suppose to retire with her family for winter's hybernation. But she doesn't want to sleep; she wants to see Santy Clawr, who (she believes) comes during the deepest cold of winter.

So she stays awake while the rest of her clan falls into a deep sleep and creeps out into the cold, only to be "rescued" by people who have clearly not been bioengeneered to survive the brutal ice-age cold. Only 8 or so years old, her "saviors" ignore her when the 8 year-old tells them she has to return to her family.

A "christmas story" of sorts, "Long Winter's Nap" is also a coming-of-age tale with a lovely hint of sugar but not an iota of sacharine.

Finally, there is the 3rd instalment of Toronto's own Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel, Rollback.

Sawyer is a prolific and, I believe, a very popular writer and is certainly an Analog mainstay. This is far from the first of Sawyer's novels it has serialized (an archaic but, to my mind, charming practice which only Analog among the SF magazines continues to do on a regular basis.

Rollback in many ways is the quintessential Analog story, in every way.

On a "literary" level, Sawyer is a terrible writer. His prose is clunky, his characters nothing but sketches, and Sawyer - always (in my limited experience; did I mention that Sawyer is prolific?) as the omniscient author - tends to digress to a degree that would embarass even one as prolix as myself.

And yet ...

And yet the man knows how to tell a story. And he tells stories that could only be science fiction stories.

Rollback is set in the mid-21st century. Donald Halifax, a retired journalist with the CBC, is married to the Sarah, the woman who decrypted the first message received from an alien race, in 2009. In 2048, the aliens "write" again and a billionaire backer of the SETI project, offers Sarah a new lease on life, so that she can continue her work: a "rollback" of her age. Sarah accepts, but only on the condition that her husband Don also gets the treatment.

This being dramatic fiction, Don's treatment works, but Sarah's does not.

And so the reader is offered two stories. The first, the mystery of the aliens' message, which 87 year-old Sarah struggles to decode. The second, Don's reversion to a physical age of 20 or so, with a newfound libido to match his full head of hair.

A gentle page-turner, Rollback is nevertheless as frustrating as it is intriguing. Sawyer's understanding of human nature is strong; his ability to show it, rather than to tell you about it, is almost non-existent. Sawyer is an old-school science fiction writer, taking as a starting point, "What if ...?" and the following the assumption to its logical conclusions. (What if someone was able to scientifically prove the existence of a soul? What if Neanderthal's had survived; what sort of society would a species strong enough to break ribs with a single punch develop? Or, in his latest, what if a loving 87 year-old husband was suddenly given the body - and hormones! - of a 20 year-old, while his (also) 87 year-old wife was still alive?)

Needless to say, I can't comment on how Sawyer ends the novel, since December's issue contains only part 3. I'll have to wait another couple of weeks for the finale. But whatever my complaints about the prose, I'm looking forward to the conclusion, as I'm sure Sawyer will surprise me, at least a little.

(A side-note, particularly for you Canucks and especially for those who aspire to write commercially. Almost all of Sawyer's books are set in Canada, feature Canadians and Canadian places. Yet he is published in the States, and not only in Analog. There is no need (or at least, not much need) to pander to the geo-prejudices of the Yanks, if you tell a story that people will want to read.)

The December 2006 issues of Analog and Asimov's are both exemplary editions of the magazines. If you prefer dystopian slice-of-life, poetic prose or quasi-fantasy, subscribe to Asimov's. If your mind is more attuned to politics and philosophy, Analog will more likely be your cup of tea.

But if you enjoy good fiction, especially good short fiction and SF in any form appeals to you, for god's sake subscribe to one of them. Magazine economics are such that if even 10 of you do it, you'll make a difference towards deciding whether these forums for up-and-coming (and established) writers survive.
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Mission (Partly) Accomplished

John le Carre is one of the few writers whose novels I buy in hard-cover, sight unseen, reviews unread.

Unfortunately, although by no means a bad book, le Carre's newest novel, The Mission Song is a disappointing follow-up to Absolute Friends his brilliantly prescient, and thoroughly enraged, take on the still-ongoing invasion of Iraq.

Once again, le Carre brings us into the dark and cynical world of espionage, this time through the person of Bruno Salvador. Known as Salvo, he is a 29 year-old orphan, son of an Irish-Catholic missionary and a Congolese woman, now living in Britain and proud to be there. He is married to a rising (and unfaithful) journalist and makes his own living as a translator; he is fluent in several African languages, along with several European tongues.

By the time the novel opens, he has also begun to work in a part-time capacity for the British secret service, now called upon to perform his deepest (most "deniable") work yet: a two-day conclave on a mysterious Island, where are gathered together an anonymous group of Western financiers, East Congolese warlords, and a man known as the Mwangaza, an almost saintly figure (or so he seems) who is determined to bring peace to his wartorn land.

The bulk of the novel occurs over the course of that two-day conference, during which Salvo loses his innocence, if not - yet - his faith in the basic goodness of the powers-that-be in England.

Like all of le Carre's recent novels, The Mission Song once again eloquently portrays a world - the Western world, our world - that is economically and politically corrupt and exploitative, calling plunder "aid" and imperialism "trade", where true idealists are used, then tossed aside, sometimes figuratively, often literally.

However, unlike the masterful Absolute Friends, which managed to triple-balance a thrilling adventure, deeply-wrought characters and two intense relationships along with le Carre's own rage at his own country's betrayal of all of its self-proclaimed virtues, The Mission Song feels more like the work of a professional writer going through his paces than it does that of an artist at the peak of his abilities.

This reader, at least, never quite believe in the character, Salvo, let alone in the nurse with whom he so improbably - and improbably intensely falls in love. Possibly this was due to the fact both characters are Congolese immigrants, but the whole novel feels more like a mechanical le Carre exercise than it does an organic le Carre work of art.

If you already know le Carre's work, wait for this one to come out in paper; if you haven't read him yet, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of his previous book, Absolute Friends.
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In January or February of 2001, I angered my then girlfriend Darcy by snapping my fingers in a light-hearted effort to get her to follow me through a brief break in traffic on Bathurst Street. Darcy did not appreciate the gesture, considering it disrespectful and condescending at best. We walked in tense silence to a bar around the corner, where we were to meet up with Neil (her old friend and now her spouse) before heading on down to the Canstage theatre on Berkley Street.

Darcy had been staying with me for a couple of weeks in order to save a month's rent, as she was soon to be on her way to Stratford and a job in the costume department of the Festival there. As sometimes happens, living together had revealed that the cracks in our relationship were in fact yawning chasms. Even before this particular snit I was counting the hours until she was gone.

I had picked her up at her work, a second-floor factory just south of Bloor Street, in which she laboured making costumes for The Lion King. I had been in good spirits, but her grumpy silence ruined mine - that I found Neil a prattling bore (one of those guys who will tell you everything you didn't want to know about, say, making wine) only made matters worse.

The three of us shared an uncomfortable beer, then took the TTC for our ride south, during which we managed to get into a ridiculously heated argument about the merits of the life-size moose then infesting Toronto's streets as some sort of tourist draw (Darcy thought them charming, I thought they were silly - at best).

By the time we reached the Canstage theatre, we were barely speaking and I could think only of how much I wished she wouldn't be coming home with me.

But Ronnie Burkett's marvellous play, Happy, took me away from my failing relationship. Working with wooden marionnettes, Burkett play was a revelation to me, by turns touching, hilarious and deeply empathetic toward the human condition. And his mastery of his marionettes was quite simply amazing to me - who knew that solid wooden carvings could be so very expressive?

Two years ago, when Burkett's next play, Provenance, came to Canstage, I had just met Laura, but did not feel comfortable enough yet to invite her to join me at the theatre (a decision I've regretted - in a small way - ever since, but there's nothing to be done about it now). Provenance didn't hit me with quite the force that Happy had done, but I was not disappointed.

Well, Burkett has a new play in production, and this time I sure as hell was taking Laura.

And so it was we celebrated our 1st anniversary as co-habitants (yes, another anniversary; please remove your claws from my oh! so delicate back, Gentle Readers) on Friday night at the Canstage theatre.

In essence, 10 Days On Earth is a simple story, about Darrel, a middle-aged mentally retarded man who lives with his mother. She dies in her sleep and Darrel spends 10 days alone, unaware that she hasn't emerged from her room because she is no longer alive. Darrel carries on his routine - he works at a shoe-shine stand, hangs out with Lloyd, a homeless man who believes he is God, and spends time with his favourite book, a children's book about Honeydog and Little Burp, who are searching for a home.

As before, Burkett's performance - as a voice-actor and puppeteer - is sublime. As before, his story is delicate admixture of both the joy and the agony that accompanies existence. While I really felt for Darrel as the days went by, and he grew hungrier and more lonely, I did so not because he was pitiful in his childlike innocence and ignorance, but because he was a fully-realized character, one that I cared about in a way that only the best art can accomplish.

10 Days on Earth is a small gem, a subtle, personal drama that nevertheless explores the universal experiences of love and loss, of hope and joy.

Burkett's show is like nothing you've ever seen before, Gentle Readers. Those of you who are in Toronto, call Canstage and book tickets now, before the show hits the road. Those of you who live elsewhere, keep your ears and eyes open and hope that he brings his production to someplace near you, before it is "retired" like his early ones.

10 Days on Earth is unique and ephemeral. You owe it to yourself to experience it.
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Kim Stanley Robinson ought to be the most important novelist in the world, his ideas debated in the corridors of power, his books enjoyed and discussed by readers everywhere.

Boldly inventive, he has made a career out of exploring Big Ideas without ever forgetting a novelist's chief obligation - to tell an entertaining and engaging story, with characters a reader can care about.

(Cross-posted to my journal, my website and elsewhere.)

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Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter ...

For the past few weeks it's been impossible to unaware of the name. No amount of Madison Avenue hype could have created the genuine fascination, the very real enthusiasm, that has been evident online, onstreet, onsubway. Adults and children, carrying the thick, colourful sixth volume; people on my friends' list saying "goodbye" for 2 or 3 days; Laura reading as I have never before known her to read, drowning for hours between the covers of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

So, at last, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

Enjoyed the first two as entertaining childrens' books with just enough meat to keep an adult curious to find out what happens next. Waited a couple of days and entered into the third volume, to find myself reading it every free minute I had.

I don't have anything to say about the series that hasn't been said before, so I'll keep this brief and do my best to avoid any important spoilers, since J.K. Rowling has written a very old-fashioned kind of book(s), in which plot and twists their in are important.

As a prose stylist, Rowling is no threat to the memory of Virginia Woolf, or even Isaac Asimov. She has a number of amateurish bad habits, the worst of which is the entirely unnecessary use of adjectives applied to the word, said. Unnecessary, because her dialogue is more than good enough to make it clear when a character is angry, or sarcastic, or surprised. These should have been caught and corrected before she was famous enough that no one could edit her without her permission - but now is not the time to bemoan the decline in the field of redaction within the publishing industry.

Another flaw is that it is clear she is making things up as she is going along. Harry Potter's world is not a fully-realized "secondary creation"; there are times one can see the backgrounds being moved quickly into place. Her secondary characters (particularly the grown-ups) are often thinly-sketched, though that is at least in part due to the story being told from the point of view of a boy largely cut-off from the adult world.

Judging by the first 6 volumes, the Harry Potter series will not take a proud space on the shelf of Great Books. It may well, however, find a permanent spot on the shlf just below, where sit the Flawed But Still Wonderful Books; certainly it will remain among the Great Childrens' Books for a very long time to come.

Rowling's strengths are strong indeed.

The world of Harry Potter is told from a child's point-of-view, and Rowling never lets us forget it. During the first 3 volumes, I found myself constantly siding with Hermione, wishing that Harry would put his faith in Dumbledore and tell (or McGonagall, for that matter), but it made sense that Harry, an orphan long mistreated by his adoptive family would not be quick to trust any adult.

Rowling brilliantly shows us a child's world, where interclass rivalries and sports are far more important than the goings-on in the outer world. For most of the series, Qiddich is in Harry's mind at least as (and much of the time, more) important than facing Lord Voldemort. In the emotionally complicated friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, particularly as they enter their teens, Rowling shows a master's touch in her depictions of jealousy, crushes, and the teenagers terror at revealing what is in his or her heart.

Though the Harry Potter books are almost as heavy on plot and surprise as an Agatha Christie mystery, there is a great deal more there than just mystery (and adventure) to hold our attention. I cared enough about Harry and Ron and Herminone to be sad when they were sad, happy went things went well - I even managed an interest in Qidditch, a game whose 150 point Snitch bears far too much resemblance to barroom pool's 8-ball for my taste.

Rowling also knows how to show - without telling - kids growing up, changing. A review of The Half-Blood Prince I read complained that Harry had become too much of a complainer, too bitter, to be a fully-sympathetic character.

Well, of course Harry was bitter. He was 14 years old! He was under enormous pressures, he was (as Dumbledore would admit, near the end of the 6th volume) wrongly kept in the dark about the reasons for his involvement in matters far beyond his experience.

Beyond the characterization and the plot-driven mysteries of each volume but the last (the only one that doesn't come to a satisfactory conclusion of its own), Rowling brilliantly keeps the reader wanting to find out what happens next. Not interested in pleasing academe or theoretions, she is instead intent on telling a tale on its own terms. Like Tolkien, another author largely despised by academics who want an artist to footnote his or her own work with roadmaps to their metaphors and symbolism, Rowling instead has created a world (and never mind that her puppet-strings occasionally show, that makes sense on its own logic.

There are clear parallels (or so I choose to believe) between Rowlings world and our own - government more keen to promote the public's confidence in itself than to do its job, unconcerned about "mistakes made" or the innocent men and women who sometimes take the fall for the real villains' deeds; uncomfortable, but not really concerned, about its alliance with the Dementors, creatures whose only pleasure is to suck all joy - all life - from the living. It is easy to sea political parallels with Rowling's New Labour England - but it is clear to me that Rowling is only using her experience from the times in which she lives to tell an entirely different story. Should the reader choose to draw those parallels, he or she is free to do so (and I suspect Rowling would not object if he or she did), but she is not writing allegory, she is "only" telling a story.

And that story is almost all that a good story should be. Engaging, exciting, frustrating, relieving, even moving.

I have spent almost every waking hour of this long weekend immersed in a wonderfully-realized story and I can hardly wait until the 7th volume appears, so I can visit it again - and find out what happens in the end at last.

July 2017

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