Monthly Archives: September 2003

The Recruit

Interesting CIA/espionage training film with the clearly signposted motto: “nothing is what it seems.” Computing whiz James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is recruited out of MIT by veteran CIA operative Walter Burke (Al Pacino). The first half of the film is based around The Farm, the CIA’s training grounds, where “everything is a test.” The second half finds Clayton washed out of the training programme (or is he?), and working undercover for Burke to try and hunt down a mole amongst his former fellow trainees (or is he?). Because you know that there are going to be plot twists involving misplaced loyalties, it’s easy to spot them a mile away. Still, the action rolls along nicely and comes to a satisfying, if not hugely original conclusion. (However, will filmmakers please stop using fake computer techniques and mocked-up screen animations as key plot points? It’s stupid.)


Vampires and werewolves fight each other a centuries-old battle to the death, with guns and lots of slo-mo, post-Matrix pseudo-goth pseudo-cool. There’s nothing wrong with doing a new take on old legends, but unfortunately nothing here is new. There are too many sub-rivalries and sub-enmities going on, with no strong central antagonistic relationship. The screenplay makes a molehill out of the primary plot twist, and it doesn’t even have any decent existential angst going for it. It does have Kate Beckinsale in a black PVC catsuit (mmm…worth a bonus star), but even that’s not enough to save Underworld from the scrapheap.

William Gibson – Pattern Recognition

Cayce Pollard is a cool hunter, a woman with an instinct for the next big thing, and an allergy to excessive branding. She is also a dedicated follower of something called “the footage,” a mysterious series of film fragments that someone, somewhere, is posting on the web. No-one knows who they are, what they mean, or even if the clips are from a finished film or a work in progress. While working on a big job involving a major corporate rebranding, Cayce gets persuaded to find out where the footage is coming from.

Although the hunt for the footage makes for a fine plot, driving the action from London to Tokyo to Moscow, it’s really Cayce herself, and the people she meets that make the book more than a simple mystery thriller. (Which is just as well, because the ending suffers from Sidelined Protagonist Syndrome, although not as much as, say, Greg Bear’s Vitals.) Hubertus Bigend, the charming entrepreneur; Parkaboy, the enthusiastic footagehead she interacts with via forum and email; Voytek, the artist who collects old ZX-81 computers; Dorotea, the über-bitch designer and former industrial éspion; and so many more.

Gibson’s prose is smooth like Belgian chocolate, and cool like an Armani glacier. The last third of the book is more plot-driven than character-driven, but Pattern Recognition is never less than a delight to read. Each page is an adventure, each sentence a treat. Exceedingly worthwhile.

Richard Morgan – Broken Angels

Broken Angels is Richard Morgan’s second book, a follow-up to the excellent Altered Carbon. Although they both feature the hard-bitten Takeshi Kovacs as the hero, they take very different tracks. Altered Carbon was a dark, SF detective thriller; Broken Angels is a fast-moving treasure hunt adventure with mercenaries, greedy corporations, mysterious alien artefacts, sex, and guns. Lots of guns. Morgan’s writing is graphic and assured, and the plot rips along at a roaring pace. There are a lot of twists and betrayals–perhaps too many for an action-based book like this. Not all of them can be resolved during the climax, and so there is a long cool-down chapter afterwards, in which the characters have to explain everything that couldn’t be worked into the main plot. Nevertheless, it’s a cracking read–classic space adventure for the modern eye.

William Goldman – Which Lie Did I Tell?

This book is quite clearly pitched at the intersection of people who love movies, and people who love writing, i.e., aspiring screenwriters. (It suited me down to the ground.) The first part of the book consists of fascinating and funny anecdotes about his long and successful career as a screenwriter, mixed with snippets of advice about writing for the movies. In the next two sections, he goes into more depth about screenplays and how they work. In the last part, he presents a rough draft of a new screenplay–written for this book–and critiques of it by other famous writers. I love reading and listening to people talk passionately about their craft, whether it’s joinery, cooking, or writing. Goldman has a witty, self-deprecating yet simultaneously confident tone, and he is a joy to read. Which Lie Did I Tell? is an informative, and highly entertaining book.


Competent crime thriller about a gang of grifters pulling a big con in order to repay a crime boss for $100,000 they accidentally stole from him. The con is layered like an onion, and it leaves you guessing all the way to the end about who is playing whom. It has bags of style, but not enough substance to make it into a classic. (It’s not in the same league as The Grifters or The Sting.) Ed Burns looks cool, but lacks depth. Ditto Rachel Weisz. The only convincing characters are Paul Giamatti as Gordo (one of the gang), and Dustin Hoffman as The King (the crime boss). Hoffman is the prize: his hyperactive kingpin appears harmless enough, but turns dangerous and creepy in an eyeblink. His part is small, but it leaves the biggest impression.

The City Buffet, Perth

Buffet-style chinese dining (or lunching), yum. For a fixed price (£5.49 weekday lunchtimes, a few pounds more than that in the evenings), you get to fill your plate as often and as high as you want from their massive catering dishes. Kung-Po chicken, crispy fried beef, various kinds of sweet and sour, lemon chicken, satay, noodles, and lashings of fried rice. There are starters and desserts to choose from as well, and they even have a few Western options (chips, fish nuggets, etc.) to choose from if you so fancy. It’s a very simple setup, and certainly not someplace you’d go for a romantic dinner date. But for a quick, filling, tasty, and satisfying bite to eat on your way to, or back from something else, it’s pretty hard to beat.

David Brin – Kil’n People

Argh–this book had the potential to be really great, but it falls apart about two-thirds of the way through. It starts out as a fast-paced science-fiction detective story. We’re not quite a century into the future, and the technology of has enabled people to make temporary copies of themselves. These copies are called golems, or dittos. They’re made of specially engineered, recyclable clay, and they only last a day. At the end of a day, they have to inload their memories into their original, or they will run out of stored energy and die. But they are true copies, with all the intellect and emotions of the real people they are copies of.

Albert Morris is a “ditective”, a detective specialising in ditto copyright violations and other property crimes. Dittos are considered as property. They are expendable, and have virtually no rights. The story starts by following a green copy of Morris (all dittos are colour-coded) as it tries to escape from a band of thugs, so that it can return to the real Morris, and inload a set of memories that are crucial to the case he is working on. Brin proceeds to use the structure and voice of a detective novel to elaborate on the society that this ditto technology has created, on the benefits, problems, and practicallities inherent in having copies of yourself running around, and on the philosophical consequences of self-multiplication. It’s a beautiful blend of SF and crime fiction, and Brin’s light narrative touch makes it a sheer joy to read.

The problem comes when Brin deviates from the detective thread, and turns the novel into “pure” science fiction. SF relishes taking a world in flux, or a society on the brink of enormous change, and cutting to the heart of the issue. It finds the people directly involved with the technology/conflict/disaster, and puts them under a microscope in order to tell the larger story through these characters. This means that ultimately the story is not about the characters themselves: they are secondary to the “Big Idea” the author wants to write about.

This is where Kil’n People goes wrong. It starts off being about the characters, and then switches to being about the Idea. The Idea happens to be really good and interesting, but it’s the characters that drew me into the book, and I was disappointed when it wandered off into metaphysics rather than staying with the murder mystery. The pace, and the whole feel of the book changed, and not for the better. Had Brin stayed with the mystery, and resolved it without trying to explain the whole nature of his fictional universe, it would probably have been the best SF detective story I had ever read. He could have carried it on as a series, and he would have had me hooked for life. But he didn’t, and so it has to go down as a just another good SF story, full of ideas, with interesting characters and a satisfying plot. Good, but not great. Damn.