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Book Reviews

Gore Vidal (1954)

Robert Burchette

"I shall attempt to evoke the true image of one who assumed with plausibility in an age of science the long-discarded robes of prophecy, prevailing at last through ritual death and becoming, to those who see the universe in man, that solemn idea which is yet called by its resonant and antique name, god."

Gore Vidal is best known as the author of corrosively witty and iconoclastic historical novels (Burr, Lincoln, Creation, and Julian to name just a few). But consistently throughout his more than fifty year career he has also produced works of speculative fiction - novels like A Search For The King, Kalki, Live From Golgotha, and The Smithsonian Institue. The best of the Vidalian SF oeuvre is his 1954 novel Messiah.

Messiah deals with the rise in the then-near future of the next great religion of Western Civilization, and the collapse and destruction of Christianity. The text itself is presented as the memoir of one Eugene Luther, a leading if somewhat half-hearted apostle of the religion's founder, John Cave. (In-joke here: Vidal's full name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal.) Luther long ago lost a power struggle in the church and is now an old man hiding incognito in the refuge of Moslem Egypt. He and his contributions have been erased Soviet-style from official "Cavite" history and his memoir is a futile attempt to recount the facts about the origins and early days of the faith. Futile in two ways: first, because his memoir will never see the light of day, and secondly because even as he writes it, strokes and the infirmities of old age are destroying Luther's memory of the events he is attempting to recall.

As an aimless young man Luther had been caught up with the group assembling around the unlikely Messiah. Cave had been a nondescript mortician until he had a simple but chilling insight: Death was not something to be feared, but something to be embraced; Death was good. Like all self-respecting prophets, he immediately went forth to promulgate the good news. He charismatically delivered his banal if counter-intuitive belief and it seemed to strike a nerve in an anxious paranoia-ridden society, spreading at a nightmarish rate despite the enmity of the established religions. Luther went along for the ride, ghostwriting the main texts of the faith and attempting (ineffectually, as it turned out) to promote what he saw as its virtues (its abandonment of superstition and its lack of fear of death) and to minimize its vices (the tendency to glamorize and even promote suicide as a positive good).

>From the perspective of the nineties, what is especially striking about the novel is how prophetic it is in both major and minor ways. Certainly the whole "cult of death" theme is eerily prescient when you think of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite, but more subtly and even more impressively Vidal is right on the money with the role he has media play in the amplification and acceleration of the religion's rise to power: "Cave certainly had one advantage over his predecessors: modern communications. It took three centuries for Christianity to infect the world. It was to take Cave only three years to conquer Europe and the Americas." At one point Cave is called before a televised Congressional Committtee which is hostilely investigating this frighteningly fast-growing cult. The results remind you of Ollie North and his sudden transformation into an American hero in a similar situation. Our current roller-coaster world was impressively foreshadowed.

Another strength of the book is Vidal's historical understanding. He knows the evolution of religions and uses that knowledge to add verisimilitude to the development of his fictional faith. Cavite beliefs, on the surface totally outlandish, are in fact rooted in Gnosticism, Stoicism, Buddhism and even to a certain extent Christianity. The events of its triumph are modelled on the victory of Christianity in the fourth century Roman Empire - in both cases the new religion has superior social services and the priests of the dying faith cynically flock to the new to maintain their power in the community, to cite only two examples.

This link with history is made overt in the person of Clarissa, another of Cave's apostles. A mysterious and ambigious figure, she privately claims to be two thousand years old and to have been present at the apotheosis of both Christanity and Islam. Definitive proof one way or the other is never given, though it's strongly hinted she is indeed what she says she is. Regardless, her presence and her conversations with Luther about the ultimate fate of civilization help to provide a needed larger perspective.

Vidal also knows that all religions quickly betray their founding ideals. Despite its austere beginnings in a single basic insight, Cavism has foliated into an elaborate tradition. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter are maintained under new names and are given different raison d'etres, and mariolatry has been revived under the guise of popular affection for Iris Mortimer, the leading female apostle. Even the pernicious delusion of an afterlife, the direct antithesis of Cave's original message, is beginning to be revived. Dissent is not tolerated and 'heretics' are indoctrinated into orthodoxy. Suicide is now encouraged. Priests have been replaced by Residents, liturgy has been replaced by the rituals of psychoanalysis and therapy, and churches by Centers, but really, it is suggested, all that has happened is one morbid cult has been replaced by another morbid cult with a slightly different and darker emphasis. Unfortunately this new cult offers no hope whatsoever for any form of individual freedom.

Messiah is an unfairly neglected dystopia. Its first-rate prose style marks it as superior to nearly all of the self-described 'masterpieces' of the era from within the genre. It's the insight into the latter half of the twentieth century, however, that distinguishes the novel as a truly exceptional work.

by Geoffrey McGuire

Reviewed by Shannon Sudderth

Wicked is one of those books that have been a trend in recent years: tell the familiar story from another person's viewpoint. Hitler's diary instead of Anne Frank's, the wolf in therapy over his struggles to eat some pork, the queen's version of Snow White's life. This time, we get (as the subtitle explains) "the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West". McGuire takes the Oz books and turns them around into a rich, involved, often amusing, and potentially moving book.

MacGuire starts by having a strange little green girl born to mismatched parents, a Munchkinland minister shaken in his faith and a disillusioned noble's daughter (who sleeps around). The story goes in fits and spurts: we see the child's toddler years as a strange and terrifying presence, then the next section goes to a university in the north of Oz and Elphaba (Miss Green-skin) sharing a dorm room with a dilettante named Galinda, then her years as a revolutionary against the tyrannical Wizard, and finally a period of penance and soul-searching among the Vinkus tribes. She has a sister, Nessarose, who was born without arms and was gifted a marvelous pair of shoes by their father. Elphaba has an affinity with animals from her love of Animals (the ones with souls & intellect who are repressed by the Wizard), eventually breeding her own Winged Monkeys, Wolves, and Bees. And in the final section, while Elphie is working furiously to prevent Nessa from becoming a deity in the eyes of the Munchkinlanders, a certain house drops from the sky . . .

I found the book tremendously enjoyable in many ways. Not having read any of the Oz books besides BaumÕs original Wizard, I caught fascinating glimpses of what other books must describe: tiktoks, the princess Ozma, etc. MacGuire can write well overall, but often overdoes the drama or pathos of a situation and doesn't pace a story completely smoothly. I loved the section of the college years, where Elphaba & Galinda/Glinda help form a kaffeklatch of friends including Munchkinlanders, nobles, and a Vinkus (Winkie) prince. I found the travel to the West and Elphaba's eventual evolution into a Witch much too slow and tortuous. And, although I was assured by a stranger on the bus who saw me reading it that I would cry at the end, I found myself instead rather dissatisfied. MacGuire has so much crammed into this book, yet shows glimpses of great ideas that are never developed: the deteriorating situation for the Animals, a grimoire that hides its words from the reader, the possibility of the green-skinned Elphaba as the Child of the Dragon in the way a Vinkus queen is the Child of the Elephant. It is overall a good read, but I would recommend trying to find a copy at a library or waiting for the slightly cheaper mass-market paperback.

by Anne Rice

Reviewed by Shannon Sudderth

One book I recently finished is by an author I thought I was through with, and now most definitely am unless it's a library book: Anne Rice. Like some of her fans, I loved Interview with the Vampire, thought Lestat was OK, grew impatient with Queen of the Damned, and gave up completely part way through Tale of the Body Thief. Then I noticed the paperback of Pandora, under the title "Tales of the New Vampires" (whatever), and decided to try it. Pandora was one of the few characters of Queen that truly intrigued me.

Rice can still write pretty well, and she falls into angst much less often in this shorter work. In it, a recently-made vampire named David (whom I vaguely remember from previous books) asks Pandora for her story - he's unable to completely give up the research bug. She spends the first 15-20 pages ruminating on the request and her reaction to it and finally gets started. We get her mortal life in the last stages of the Roman Empire in astonishingly coherent detail, including the fact that she knew Marius before either one was "vamped". Eventually her family is slaughtered through Roman politics and she escapes to Antioch, suffering dreams where she is a blood drinker. She attracts the attention of the worshippers of Isis, who are being plagued by some sort of blackened monster, then reencounters Marius, who isn't so willing to get close this time. . .

I enjoyed the retelling of Pandora's mortal life, which is well done overall, and the reinforced idea mentioned in Lestat (I think) of vampires who die and are reincarnated and seek the "Dark Gift" again. I did not like how Rice pretty much wrapped up the story once Pandora is transformed and the immediate crisis is dealt with. I'm sure Pandora was doing a lot of interesting things during her 2000 years, but all we see is another meeting with Marius at Louis XIV's court and that's it.

An okay read for anyone, probably interesting to Rice's devoted slaves, but I'll read mine from now on for free.

Daughter of the Blood
Anne Bishop

Reviewed by Shannon Sudderth

Reading a book by a new author can be compared to jumping into an unknown body of water. The book can be a refreshing mountain stream to stimulate one's intellectual thirst or a lake perfect to take one's imagination for a swim. It can be a disappointingly shallow puddle, not even good enough to splash a la Gene Kelly. It can be an ocean, profound and with depths too obscure to comprehend.

In the case of Daughter of the Blood, the first novel of a planned fantasy trilogy by Anne Bishop, I discovered quicksand at the bottom of the pool.

Most books in the multi-volume fantasy genre tend to open with sometimes ponderous setups or leap into action and indoctrinate the reader along the way. Bishop takes the second option, except that she never bothers to explain important features of her world with any coherency. We are given a list of "Jewels" with no explanation of what they do and a list of ranks with little indication of how they relate to one another, an interesting prologue, and then the chaos starts. Characters are presented acting in extreme ways with little motivation. There are witches and Witches, Black Widows and the demon-dead (essentially vampires who live in a Hell-like dimension). There are various races - I assume this by the details of wings, pointed ears, and others - but no explanation of the prejudices between them. There are dimensions that appear to be nothing but shortcuts between kingdoms. There is some sort of impending doom on the horizon, probably dealing with the fragmenting society but not defined. There are those blasted Jewels that each character possesses; the darker the Jewel, the more powerful the character (or so the theory goes). Other factors are one's rank in a nobility framework and whether one is "of the Blood".

The action in this fuzzy world starts in confusion and quickly revolves around the title character. Janelle is a young girl with the potential to be the most powerful Witch in history and a unifying leader of the disintegrating society. She is the focus of several characters' efforts for her protection or to their own ends. We have Daemon Sadi, a courtesan slave with too many secrets and too much contempt for everything. We have Saeten, a demon-dead who is the High Lord of Hell (surprise, surprise). There are a host of pretentiously-named characters, all with ulterior motives, axes to grind, or chips on their shoulders. And Janelle radiates a bucolic innocence (enough to cause diabetic shock) in the face of all that is Dark and will presumably redeem the worthy characters by the last book.

The narrative is often choppy and non-sequitorial with clumsy pacing, in keeping with the plot and characterizations. The action is thickly laced with heavy-handed S&M erotica, as if Bishop were trying to emulate another, better-selling Anne. And I am left with the impression that Bishop is half in love with her impossibly handsome, extremely powerful, achingly conflicted anti-hero Sadi.

Daughter of the Blood is a first novel and shows it. While that alone is not a sin (think of how Carrie weighs in against It or Dolores Claiborne), Anne Bishop is trying to juggle too many things at once and appears not to have a clear vision of the world she is crafting. I was left at the end with far too many basic questions and far too little concern for the fates of the characters. The impression is that of a haphazardly half-done jigsaw puzzle. I seriously doubt I will ever bother to finish it by reading the rest of the Black Jewels trilogy. In the style of Entertainment Weekly, I give it a D.

Holy Fire
Bruce Sterling

Reviewed by Stacy Powers

Without a doubt, Bruce Sterling has to be classified as one of the key figures in the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. But first with Heavy Weather and now with his latest novel, Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling has evolved his storytelling into a form that, if not outright mainstream, at least appeals to a much broader spectrum of science fiction fan.

Holy Fire reads like a traditional cyberpunk tale in the sense that there are multiple threads of the plot interweaving with each other and seen through the eyes of a single character. The story jumps from one locale to the next as can only be done in a truly Global Village setting. Like all the best cyberpunk, there are a wide variety of exotic and sometimes scary people along the way. Like the best cyberpunk novels, the protagonist in Holy Fire is living by her wits, improvising, making things up as she goes along, not so much with a plan as a goal.

But in Holy Fire, the rogue Artificial Intelligence programs are no longer the key characters. Most of the software in Holy Fire is well domesticated and even (somewhat literally) house trained. Unlike the traditional cyberpunk novel, cyberspace is not the primary stage in which the players interact. Cyberspace is there, but it is treated rather matter-of-factly by the characters in the story, much the way we take our phones for granted.

But the thing that radically breaks Holy Fire out of the cyberpunk mold is the protagonist, Mia and her quest to relive her lost life and to capture something elusively referred to as the Holy Fire. Mia is a 94 year old woman, living in the late 21st century where the world has just emerged from decades of plagues and other biological disasters. The world Mia lives in has become thoroughly democratized and totally focused on the preservation and the elongation of life. Since the government in Mia's world is strictly democratic and the population is aging more and more due to the improvements in medical technology, the elderly population have become the majority and the dominant voting bloc. This leads to self-perpetuating feedback loop in which global policy continues to be focused more and more on life extension technologies and young people become second class citizens. Mia is a "medical economist" and as such spends her life evaluating the cost/benefit ratios of various life extension technologies. So we see first hand through her eyes the obsession that her world has on preserving the body.

Early in the story, Mia attends the deathbed of one of her ex-husbands for whom she feels neither remorse nor love. In fact we find that she's very uncomfortable and even borderline disgusted at having to deal with bonds of past romances lost long ago. It is clear that in this world after you live to a certain age, people's attitudes about personal relationships changes dramatically. Their society refers to it as becoming "post-human". And it becomes clear to Mia through a chance encounter with a couple of "kids" in their early twenties, that the post-human condition isn't all it's cracked up to be.

While she can't quite articulate it, Mia realizes that she can no longer live in the medically obsessed world she helped create. So she signs up for the riskiest life extension treatment there is and walks out of it with the body of a 20 year old only to realize that her world is not going to let her live the life of a 20 year old just because she has the body of one. Instead they are going to treat her like a lab rat.

So Mia not only has to escape the clutches of her medical keepers, she has to fumble her way across Europe, trying to discover for herself what in life is worth living for. And along the way she finds a whole subculture, a lost generation of young people struggling to answer the same question in a world where all the power, success, and money is tied up in the hands of the gerontocracy.

Bruce Sterling explores that question from the viewpoint of many different characters in his book and with varying degrees of success they all reach more or less the same conclusion: That a long life, without the Holy Fire is no life at all. So while the story telling technique in Holy Fire is the tried and true cyberpunk format, the theme in Holy Fire is as universal and ancient as it gets.

The Lions of Al-Rassan
Guy Gavriel Kay
copyright 1995
HarperPrism Fantasy

Reviewed by Laura Haywood

Caveat: Dear readers, I must tell you that I've made a special study of medieval Spain, and as such, I found this book to be highly enjoyable. It's hard for me to say with 100% certainty that someone without my background would enjoy it just as much; it's my feeling that it would still be a good story even if one isn't completely familiar with the history behind it. - Laura

The Lions of Al-Rassan is filed under fantasy, probably because of Kay's other works, such as the Fionavar Tapestry, which are true fantasy. The most fantastic element of the story is one that's only mentioned in passing: the fact that there are two moons in the sky. Otherwise, the novel is almost pure historical fiction; much the same way that Katherine Kurtz' Deryni books could be called historical fiction, although it's a little more of a stretch with her since she does actually introduce a race of people who can do magic.

The setting of Lions is equivalent to 11th century Spain, with a few alterations. Here's a rough correspondence:

    Al-Rassan = Al-Andalus, aka Islamic Spain
    Cartada = Cordoba, the capital of Al-Andalus
    Jaddites = Christians
    Kindath = Jews
    Asharites = Moslims
    Rodrigo Belmonte = Rodrigo Bivar, aka El Cid, Spain's national hero

Medieval Spain is mysterious, enchanting, alluring - with the mix of Berbers from Morocco, Arabs from further south, a thriving Jewish poluation, and amidst all this, the struggle of the outnumbered Christians in the north to retake what they feel is rightfully theirs. The Arabs brought with them improved architecture, farming techniques, scientific knowledge, and an enlightened view of the other peoples "of the Book", as they referred to the Jews and Christians. For a brief period of time, these three cultures coexisted in relative peace, but it was a cautious, fragile peace. Such is the situation in Al-Rassan as the novel begins.

In Lions, Kay spins a tale of great and powerful men (and women!) from opposite camps who begin as adversaries, become friends, then must make tough choices as the Christia- errrr, Jaddites exert an ever-increasing hold over the Peninsula. Caught between two men and the two cultures they represent, is Jehane, a skilled Kindath physician who must make her own choices as she sees her people trapped between the Jaddites and the Asharites. Like a gazelle between two lions, both Jehane and her society must survive in an increasingly hostile environment.

Eventually, both in real life and in the novel, the peace is shattered, and lives are thrown into turmoil. Kay shows us those lives, and shows us the tough choices that face everyone in such situations. His characters come through it all with grace and dignity. Anyone who knows the legend of El Cid can probably guess what happens with Rodrigo Belmonte; however, some details have been changed and others elements have been fabricated to flesh out the story.

This is not a classical fantasy novel, with clearly delineated "good guys" and "bad guys" - with one or two notable exceptions. It really is a matter of perspective. I'm reminded of a quote from Babylon 5, "understanding is a three-edged sword - your side, their side, and the truth". In Lions, every side has its share of religious fanatics and its jingoism; who is right? It's a question that is especially relevant today, given the current situation in the Middle East.

Suffice to say I loved The Lions of Al-Rassan; I think it's one of the best things Kay has written. If you've read and liked any of his other works, I highly recommend this one. Additionally, if you like Katherine Kurtz, it's my opinion that you will also enjoy Lions.

Drinking Sapphire Wine
Tanith Lee

Reviewed by MLM

This is one of Tanith's two greatest books. Tanith Lee is known best for her Fantasy, but I think she missed her calling in not sticking with SF. DSW is an intoxicating look into a society where you can die as many times as you like, and come back wearing whatever body you're in the mood for. Just don't expect to stay dead. The robotic keepers won't let you - for your own good, of course. The cycle of birth and death is put on hold in this book, with not so predictable and utterly fascinating results. It was lauded at its publication for the slang she created to highlight this immortal and constantly dying society.

Fortress of Eagles
CJ Cherryh

Reviewed by MLM

FoE is up to Miss Cherryh's usual literary standards. Two complaints:

  1. The jargon gets a bit thick in places.

If you're the sort who likes to put a book down after a couple of chapters and come back a few days later, you'll spend a lot of time trying to remember what this or that particular unpronounceable name refers to. There are too many names that sound similar or look similar. As she's usually pretty good about making her names distinctive and unique enough to hang onto, I found this anomolous hazard a surprise.

  1. The editor evidently decided they could make more money selling two $24 hardbacks rather than one $30 hardback.

The story is rather arbitrarily broken in what appears to be the middle, leaving no satisfactory conclusion where we are left. The novel is called Fortress of Eagles simply because that's where the reader happens to be at the end of it.

Mission of Gravity
Hal Clement

Reviewed by MLM

It is a rare pleasure to read a SF novel that is about the Science. Or rather, have science that so integrally affects the characters that it is almost a character unto itself. For a quest story about the Marco Polo of an alien lobster race, this is as hard SF as they come - and an action adventure novel that will keep you eagerly turning pages.

The Colour of Magic
Terry Pratchet (1985)

Reviewed by MLM

This is the first of the discworld books. They're a very campy, tongue-in-cheek romp through the staples of fantasy. Poking holes in and fun at all the Tolkien templates everyone has borrowed from appears to be the main thrust of the series. They (Pratchett novels) can be quite charming, and Twoflower, the first Tourist, our fool and eternal optimist, quite endearing.

The only thing I found irritating is the constant repetition of Things-We-Already-Know. I would have liked more story and fewer (oft repeated) asides. This and the second book, The Light Fantastic, fell between Asprin's Myth series(my fave of light fantasy) and Anthony's Xanth series(at the other end of the spectrum) - with Pratchett's first two novels being closer to the Myth series than the Xanth books in my enjoyment of them.

Oath of Fealty
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1982)

Reviewed by MLM

I've heard the word 'polemic' applied to this novel, but I thought it an exciting exploration of what an archology can be and how it would affect the people living in it(explores an engineered society deliberately created for its environment) and around it. The novel points out the very real problems an archology produces, and doesn't make a straw man of them. The characters are fun and well drawn. This book is the reason I read SF and why I'm willing to wade through tsunamis of dreck for pearls like Oath of Fealty.

Brian Lumley

Reviewed by MLM

If you like the combination of supernatural monster doing battle with science and the paranormal human or two, this is the book to read. Gives an original spin on a spirit medium turning to international espionage and the horrors of vampire hunting.

CJ Cherryh

Reviewed by MLM

Miss Cherryh is a master at creating alien cultures. Anyone who can give us a joke in an alien psychology and let us catch why it is funny to them and not the human - without having to stop and put neon around it - should be worshipped. It is her typical fish-out-of-water plotline, but the atmosphere is so rich the fish manages to flop his way to a quite satisfying ending. This may be her best work next to Cyteen. It has strong echoes of the Faded Sun trilogy and Cuckoo's Egg, but feels like she finally got what she'd only attempted previously perfect for the first time.

A Game of Thrones
George RR Martin

Reviewed by MLM

Wow. This is what Robert Jordan wants to do when he grows up. Mr. Martin will leave you with that euphoric feeling of just having discovered an epic fantasy novel that gives you that same sense of wonder that Tolkien did, without being a Tolkien pretender. This is a Must Read for any fantasy buff.

The Postman
David Brin. Bantam hardcover

Reviewed by Dan Reid

Synopsis: A combination of factors has led to the destruction of industrial civilization in the early 21st century. In this new Dark Age, in what used to be Oregon, Gordon Krantz, a wandering minstrel/actor, finds and dons the uniform of a long-dead U.S. Mail Courier. Krantz simply needed the clothes, but the people he later meets believe -- indeed, they need to believe -- that he is, in fact, a bona fide postman, a representative of a vanished way of life. Krantz reluctantly continues the charade, and in the process begins to bring civilization and hope back into the Northwest. But a savage survivalist community threatens this progress, and Krantz must struggle against the well-armed and ruthless militarists.

David Brin has been one of the more significant science fiction writers to emerge in the 1980's. His first novel, Sundiver, was a solid piece of space opera -- even down to silliness such as a character named "Bubbacup" -- and did much to bring gold ol' fashioned sense of wonder back into the field. His second book, Startide Rising, won both the Hugo and Nebula and declared him, perhaps, as "the" "hard" SF writer of the day.

Yes, indeedy, Brin's reputation is as a hard science SF author. He's certainly got the credentials, including a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Of course, hard SF authors often carry other baggage: contrived plots, poor characterization, a tendency to preach and/or lecture while the story screeches to a halt. Of course, all writers preach/lecture to some extent, but hard SF writers often are more blatant and intrusive.

Well, Brin does indeed sermonize in The Postman. But don't despair, 'cause it's all rather spread out and, more importantly, it's a sermon I feel has been sorely needed in the field. So instead of saying "Enough!" I said "It's about time!" More on that later.

What really surprised me about The Postman is how admirably Brin handled a novel that is not hard SF. Then again, maybe I shouldn't be too surprised, since Startide Rising is certainly not a "conventional" hard SF novel. No, The Postman is a novel of character and human -- not galactic or alien -- values. It is, also, basically a very simple and straightforward book, which means good news and bad news.

Good news: Brin succeeds at what he intended. He tells a fine, engaging story, springs a surprise or two, incorporates some effective action and description.

Bad news: Brin sets his sights way too low. The characters are all one-dimensional, with one exception (Powhatan, not the main character). Each character is cut out nicely, but they remain chesspieces only, moving under Brin's rules and not their own. Remember, though, in the context of this particular book, that's not a damning criticism.

Now about that preaching. The general theme of the novel can be summarized by a quote from Ben Franklin (to whom, along with Lysistrata, the book is dedicated): "We must now hang together, or most surely we will hang separately." In the novel, "we" is us, everyone, humanity. And the glue Brin posits to help get us together after we've hated ourselves apart is communications -- letters, the post man.

It's a wonderful device, well handled. On the surface the postman scenario seems ludicrous, and so believes even The Postman himself, at the start. But the more I think about it, the more I believe, like Krantz -- The Postman -- that there might just be some magic behind the idea of a mailman and his charm of "Neither ran nor snow nor sleet or dark of night...."

A very specific target of Brin's polemics is the movement/"philosophy" known as survivalism. Brin trashes it, and I say "Hear! Hear!" It's about time a major SF writer portrayed survivalism as horrid and abhorrent. Survivalism's strong in SF circles; maybe now a few more readers will realize the perfidy of it. Move to Australia to escape The Big One is one thing, but living solely by Nietzchien Social Darwinism's another. Survival at any cost? Think about it, and if you don't see a tautology in it then your definition of "human" probably doesn't include me. Or your children. Or anyone. Except yourself and the survivalists.

Anyway, Brin's written an okay book. Not a blockbuster, but, as I've said, it succeeds on its own terms. Can't really argue with that, and Brin is definitely an important author to watch, especially since he's probably the most successful new author who's not a cyber-punk.

But that's another column, someday.

Movie Reviews

The Ratings System

Films are grade on a scale of one to five stars (original, I know), one being barely watchable, five being unbelievably awesome. Films that are so bad they are not watchable are awarded a road-kill possum. For those fetid pieces of celluloid in the class of Manos, the Hands of Fate, we have the special, reeking, three-day old road-kill possum award. Graphics will be coming soon.

Lost In Space, 1998

1 and 1/2 stars

Reviewed by Paul Cory

First, let me say that I come to this film with almost zero knowledge of the original series - I have never even seen a part of any episode of "Lost in Space." So I cannot comment on how closely the film captures to the tone of the series' first season, nor do I care. The film, for me had to succeed totally on it's own merits because it couldn't claim any good will based on nostalgic memories of watching the antics of Dr. Smith, Will, and Robot as I wee bairn. This is not to put down any other reviews done by folks familiar with the TV series. Reviews, after all, are merely statements of opinion no matter how you might dress them up with comments about the film maker's craft and other pompous statements. But now at least you know the background (or lack thereof) that I bring to this film.

Lost in Space is not worth full-price admission. Brief flashes of good writing, a memorable villain, and a big special effects budget cannot overcome the ghostly plot, the patches of horrible writing, and the complete lack of originality in the film. Yes, you can make the argument that there are no new stories. Even if that is true, though, we are least owed competence in theft, oops, I mean the retelling of previous stories. Lost in Space doesn't even deliver that.

What it does deliver is a thin plot, ocassionally amusing and witty writing, and jigsaw puzzle of scenes and effects stolen wholly from other science fiction and fantasy films. Which would be bearable, except that it's poor theft at that, as if the film's makers creative photocopiers were low on toner. I spotted effects, scenes and themes ripped whole cloth from: Apollo 13, Aliens, Batman, Babylon 5, Star Trek: the Next Generation (plundered thrice: for an automaton trying to achieve emotions, for a planetary crash scene, and for Wesley Crusher, which is an unpardonable sin), and The Empire Strikes Back. I got a villainous enemy (other than Dr. Smith) with a really stupid name that I have completely blocked out of my mind. And I got a cute, useless little creature tossed in to give the Robinson's youngest daughter something to bond with and add that emotional involvement factor - as if the story of a family lost in the vastness of space with a military man and a sabatour wasn't emotionally compelling enough on it's own.

The movie also staggers under the burden of a theme about the primacy of family before all else that is sledge hammered into the audience's head without any grace or fire or passion. It's all done with endless, banal talk about the lack of communication in the family. I agree with Tom Lehrer. If someone can't communicate, they should at least shut up.

The movie is not completely without redeeming qualities, however, which is why it escapes the road-kill possum category. Most importantly, Dr. Smith is one awesome villain, a monster by choice and completely aware of his own evil. His presence alone prevents the film from being ground into the asphalt by a passing Goodyear - he gets the film's lone full star and the ocassional sparkle in the writing and intermittent cool ideas gets the half star.

Final analysis: Lost in Space is Matinee and dollar theater bait. If you pay full price, you'll feel cheated. Unless of course you liked the original show - from the comments of other movie goers, that seems to increase the enjoyment one derives from watching the movie.