In this follow-up to the Nebula award-winning Darwin’s Radio, Bear picks up the same characters 12 years after the first outbreak of the SHEVA virus. The first part of the book, ostensibly about the Rafelson family, can also be read as a highly critical commentary of topical Western issues: racism, domestic terrorism, SARS, HIV, universal surveillance and loss of privacy, the erosion of civil liberties in times of crisis, corrupt and uncritical media, and political power obtained without the consent of an informed electorate. Bear hits the point home hard: the vague “they” we fear are, in fact, us. Part two takes a more traditional science fiction route, following the heroes as they make their scientific, social and personal discoveries. Part three is about hope. Unfortunately, although parts 2 and 3 are necessary to wrap up the story, they lack the insight and urgency of part 1, and felt like a let-down in comparison. I think the book would have been much more powerful if Bear had decided not to go for the “happy” ending, but that’s his choice.
Vitals starts out well as a science fiction bio-techno-thriller. Hal Cousins is a freelance scientist doing research into longevity. He raises private funding from extremely rich people with an interest in living a long, long time. He thinks he is very close to cracking the problem. But then he gets some mysterious phone calls from his brother, the scientific expedition he is on is sabotaged, and his submarine pilot tries to kill him. When he makes it back to dry land, his funding is cut off, his lab is shut down, and he finds himself on the run from shadowy forces he doesn’t understand. Where the book goes wrong, though, is that this isn’t Hal Cousins’ story. About half-way through, we’re introduced to another character in an attempt to provide a different perspective on events, but it isn’t his story either. There’s a mysterious conspiracy happening, and there are attempts to unravel it. But too many important events appear to happen behind the scenes, far out of Cousins’ reach, with the end result that he is powerless to change anything. He doesn’t drive the plot–he’s just a passenger. That’s a pity, because the real story would have been very interesting.
Through a variety of unpleasant circumstances, eleven people find themselves thrown together in a Nevada motel, cut off from the outside world by rainstorms and floods. Then someone starts killing them, one by one…. The film builds tension quickly, using cuts and flashbacks to make you question the identity and motives of the key characters. Then it throws in a supernaturnal element, and you start to wonder if it’s going to change from a whodunnit into a whatdunnit. But that isn’t the last of the plot twists. Unfortunately the major twist removes a lot of the tension, and the last quarter of the film feels and anti-climactic in comparison. Still, a set of nice performances from John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and a host of good character actors set it above the average psycho thriller.
When you have kids, you start looking for different things in a restaurant. Fine wines and Michelin stars are all very well until the two-year old wants his pizza NOW. It may not be fancy, but Pizza Hut is perfectly tailored to the family trade. The food is tasty, the prices are reasonable, and the service is relatively quick. They even seem to hire real adults, capable of thinking and anticipation, as waiting staff. I find myself tipping on the high side most of the time I eat there. My only quibble: the children’s goodie bag, handed out with the menu, has a packet of biscuits in it. Ruined appetite, anyone?
The third book in the Ashraf Bey series started well, but left me feeling unsatisfied at the end. The narrative structure is similar to the first two books, with flashbacks providing deep background to the primary plot, and with multiple viewpoint characters exposing different sides of the story. The central mystery concerns an attempt to assassinate the Emir of Tunis, Ashraf’s father. Ashraf goes on a mission to Tunis to investigate this, and also to dig around in his own past. Although both mysteries are partly resolved in the closing chapters, there is a lot of unnecessary running around to get to that point, and some of the plot lines are wrapped up without much explanation at all. It lacks the drive and focus of Pashazade and Effendi. Still, it’s a worthwhile read if you’ve read the first two books. (Maybe not such a good introduction to El-Iskandryia and its characters, though.)
Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) is a “killing machine”, shaped by the military, and traumatized by Kosovo. L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) is the man who trained him, a legendary tracker and military adviser who “doesn’t do that thing any more”. Hallam, apparently driven insane by the ghosts that haunt him, kills some hunters in the Oregon forest. The FBI bring in Bonham to hunt him down. Capture, escape, capture, escape, near miss, final resolution. Yawn. There are occasional hints that these characters are more than just cinematic stereotypes: Hallam was involved with a woman and her daughter before he went AWOL; there’s the suggestion that his killing spree was actually a covert government/military mission; and was there a reason that LT never answered his letters? But the film never properly asks these questions, let alone answers them. As a result, it’s impossible to care about the characters and what happens to them. The film is tense and action-packed, but ultimately completely soulless.
The effects, stunts, and fight scenes are unquestionably amazing, but that’s not enough to make up for an overly dense and bloated plot. The Wachowskis seem to have become too wrapped up in the hype and over-analysis of the world they created, and disappeared up their own philosphical navels instead of making another kick-ass film. The fight scenes are beautiful, but they lack tension because we pretty much know that Neo is going to win. (In this respect the most interesting scenes are the ones that don’t feature him.) The fully computer-generated scenes aren’t as seamless as they would like you to believe. It’s a shame to have to fault the film because it isn’t as fresh and different as the first episode, but I had been hoping it would be another genre-defining moment. Instead it’s merely Matrix taken to the next level. So, it’s good…just not great.
Frank Martin is a transporter. He takes packages from one place to another, no questions asked. To do his job, Frank operates by a set of rules: 1) Never change the deal, 2) No names, 3) Never look inside the package. His carefully organised life starts to go wrong when he breaks rule 3…. The film opens with a fantastic car chase, and it keeps the pace up right to the end. Although it’s set in the South of France, it’s essentially a Hong Kong action movie. The fight scenes–of which there are many–are beautifully staged and deliciously over-the-top. The acting won’t win anyone any Oscars, but it is appropriate to the genre: the villain is a caricature of wickedness, the policeman is tired and cynical, and Jason Statham as the action hero is strong but sensitive. Great fun.
The second book in the Ashraf Bey series is as good as the first. It’s different: the relationships between the various characters have changed following the events of the first book, and the focus of the narrative is less on Ashraf himself, and more on Hamzah Effendi. Just as in the first book, the story spends a lot of time in flashbacks, bringing the history of its characters to light. We already knew that none of the protagonists were innocents, but in places Effendi is surprisingly brutal and violent. The action kicks into high gear for the last hundred pages, with a neat twist to bring plot home. The final showdown is a bit too easy, and most of the political sub-plots are unnecessary, but it’s a damn fine book nevertheless.
Part murder mystery, part post-cyberpunk cyberpunk, and part exploration of the fascinatingly intricate city of El-Iskandryia. The story begins with two mysteries: who killed the woman in the study, and who is ZeeZee? ZeeZee is a refugee from the USA. He has just found out that his real name is Ashraf al-Mansur, that he is the son of the Emir of Tunis, and that he has been brought to El-Iskandryia by his aunt so he can marry the daughter of the richest man in North Africa. ZeeZee/Ashraf is not a man to be confused by this, though. He is a natural chameleon, and he adapts to his new persona quickly. Grimwood weaves the two plot lines together skilfully with flashbacks and plenty of foreshadowing, but by the end of the book only one of the mysteries is resolved…. Brilliant writing, with well-rounded, interesting characters–something for mystery and SF lovers alike.