Tuesday, January 30, 2007

From The Old School Of Fairy Tales: "Pan's Labyrinth"

I left the theatre tonight with my mind running around like a rat in a maze. My wife was weeping. We’d finally managed to get around to seeing Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”.
This film is a fairy tale in the finest old tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. A perfect yarn for a winter’s night where the cold, clear stars are gradually shrouded by a fog as thick as concrete that’s come skulking in off the sea. There are children in peril, a wicked step-parent, castles in the woods, ancient relics, hidden identities, monsters (both human and otherworldly), sadistic and bloody killings, heroes in the rough, desperate escapes and plenty of magic. In the course of the story, del Toro frightens us, plucks at our heartstrings and gives us hope.
Don’t look for a syrupy, Disneyfied romp with giggling fairy godmothers in pastel blue ballgowns who burst into song every ten minutes. The atmosphere of this movie is as dark and heavy as the air under a pile of blankets at two o’clock in the morning when you’re five and worried the boogeyman’s creeping out of the closet.
The story is set in fascist Spain of 1944. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother are taken to a small castle/big house in the forested mountains to live with her mother’s new husband (and the baby’s father), the cruel Capitan Vidal. At the edge of the yard lies the entrance to an ancient maze. As her mother’s pregnancy is wracked with problems and the Capitan brutalizes the locals in an attempt to weed-out rebels who some of the civilian household staff are conspiring with, Ofelia meets an insect that morphs into a pixie who leads her through the labyrinth to a portal watched by a lanky faun. The mysterious creature offers the girl a chance to escape from the harshness of her new home to a mystical underworld where she will reign as princess. But to do this Ofelia must undertake some frightening tasks using magic that has very serious consequences. Life under the Capitan gets worse, the pressure from her supernatural guide mounts and soon Ofelia must make some tough decisions about which path she will take.
There are many fascinating elements to this yarn, my favourite of which is the character of the faun (played by Doug Jones). He offers Ofelia hope, encouragement, comfort and a sense of greatness in a world that repeatedly marginalizes her. And yet this fae guide is rather menacing. He evades the girl’s question when she asks for his name (a nod to the belief in many cultures that to learn a thing’s name is to gain power over it). The household’s chief maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) notes that local folklore says fauns can’t be trusted. He’s gangly, twisted at odd angles, moves strangely, creaks like a tree in a wind storm and looms tall over the child. On one visit to the heart of the labyrinth, Ofelia finds him chomping indifferently on a hunk of unidentified meat. The megalith at the centre of the portal has a carving of a girl and a baby with a man standing possessively behind them which the faun points to and says “That’s me.” The faun orders the girl to descend into terrifying supernatural lairs haunted by horrible beings, to retrieve arcane artifacts that are sometimes unsettling and to use magic that is sometimes disturbing in appearance of its ingredients and requirements. This faun is about as far from the sidekick “Newton” on the old “Hercules” cartoon (from the same crew that inflicted “Rocket Robinhood” on us) as an anaconda is from a worm. And yet, that is in keeping with old style stories where magic wasn’t for the squeamish, heroes were in genuine danger, hope didn’t come for free and otherworldly companions were quite alien in their presentation and motives. And when it came to his motives, I admit, the faun had me fooled for a while.
As for the fact that the film is in Spanish, I don’t mind reading subtitles when they’re well done, and the text at the bottom of the screen in this case is impeccable - well-paced and most importantly, presented with proper grammar (there’s nothing more distracting to a viewer and more destructive to a foreign-language film than clumsy translation). I am left wondering (as is the case with many translated works) if some of the subtleties of the story have been washed out in translation. Regardless, I enjoyed what was presented immensely.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” was worth every cent of the full price of admission. Oh, this fairy tale isn’t for the faint of heart, kids. It’ll keep you up at night listening to every creak in the floorboards as the house settles. But sometimes that’s what a really good fairy tale does.

A Bad Blind Date - "The Divorce of Buddy Figaro"

Cracking open a new book is kind of like starting a new relationship. Sometimes, regardless of whether you’re absorbed in it for a long or short period of time, it’s intriguing and seductive – you put everything else aside to give it your full attention. Sometimes, as the story gradually reveals its inner secrets to you, not only are your emotions stimulated, you also learn more about yourself and the world – this is something you always want to have at your side. Or it can be a quick, shallow fling that you enter just for fun. Others are ho-hum experiences where you’ve clocked your time going from cover to cover but won’t be revisited and will never stand out. And then there are those really bad reading experiences where you’re left angry and annoyed at why you wasted your time on such trash and you might even be tempted never to go back to where you found the thing – and that’s if you even manage to get to the end of the story. And good or bad, the impact of some books can stay with you forever.
By extension, trying a book which hasn’t been reviewed, or where you’ve missed the review, is rather like a blind date. “The Divorce of Buddy Figaro – A Taoist Comedy Novel” was just such an experience. And, as many people have bemoaned about blind dates, this book was a gamble that didn’t pay off.
David Silverberg’s story centers around Buddy Figaro, an overworked Moncton, New Brunswick neurologist with a love of music, bad puns and windsurfing, three kids and an alienated wife who’s about to ditch him. One night a tiny, marble-like entity – something called a “chi transducer” – named Taro comes sweeping in from the farthest reaches of the universe, nestles itself in Buddy’s ear and proceeds to tell him he’s humanity’s last hope in a cosmic trial of merit adjudicated by a superbeing (really a collection of independent bodily organs working in concert – sort of) with the monicker of Peng. Seems Peng’s taken a dislike to humanity because it sees mankind as a potential rival. Peng’s already decided to unleash its hordes of Fierce Creatures (the prototypes of Mongolian warriors, as it turns out) to put an end to the Earth’s upstarts, and Buddy’s been summoned simply to go through the formalities of a show-trial. Things don’t go over so well for old Peng when Buddy decides he’s had enough and beats the big guy to death (from the inside-out no less) with its own penis. And returns victorious to a safe-and-sound Earth, right? Nope. See, these Mongols, er, Fierce Creatures, made invulnerable by their own chi transducers, already had their marching orders and have taken up residence in the woods outside Moncton, waiting for the right time to unleash their fury upon an unsuspecting Terra and harvest human beings for the buffet tables of the starving masses on their barren homeworld. With a lot of pluck and the help of the beautiful alien princess Tyger Tyger, Buddy sends the baddies packing with a plan to rebuild their planet into a kinder, greener place. And, oh yeah, amidst all that he gets divorced, develops a real hate for his ex, then eventually learns to accept the hand Fate has dealt him, consider his ex-wife’s point of view, and more-or-less move on with his life. One plot line is supposed to be the background for the other, and they sometimes switch places to establish primacy.
In the hands of a more skilled author and a determined editor, this story might have had some hope. Coulda/woulda/shoulda. Instead, this tale was like one of those dates where you listen to the other person’s interminably boring recounts of their failed relationships, you nod politely at the end of the evening, get in your car and promptly forget the whole thing. If this book were a person you were dating, it would need a lot of therapy.
First, there’s the endless repetition. The plot is re-summarized nearly every chapter. Is this some profound metaphor for the circular nature of life and the physics of space curved back on itself? Nope. Just bad writing.
Then there’s the clumsy gear-shifting between Buddy’s intergalactic adventures and the challenges of life at home and his divorce. I think doing a more subtle job of interweaving the two plot lines would have been more effective. Silverberg could have also chosen the tack of keeping one plot permanently in the foreground and left the other as a backdrop to highlight events or insights.
And then there’s the repetition. Did I mention that already?
How about the legion of spelling mistakes? There’s no excuse not to use a spellchecker before mailing or emailing ye olde manuscript in these modern times. Still less if you’re an editor sending a book to print.
I also got real tired real fast with Buddy’s bad pun fetish. Somehow I doubt it was a deliberate character device to make the reader more sympathetic to the ex-wife. Buddy’s puns aren’t even smart, which is odd, given that his high level of education and love of a variety of types of music should show that he’s got an active and flexible-enough mind to be quick on the draw and inventive in his word play. Nope. We get to hear his rehashes of the happiness/ha-penis double-entendre from Marlon Brando’s “Last Tango in Paris” again and again and again (and uncredited, might I add). This isn’t good writing. It’s self-indulgence.
Then there’s the idea that these Fierce Creatures, the ancestors of mankind, have been plaguing the universe at the bidding of Peng for so long that they wiped out the dinosaurs and left a human colony on Earth (never mind how scientifically problematic that is and a rather tired old SF trope to boot), have continued to survive on a wasted planet, and yet have undergone no physical, spiritual, intellectual or cultural evolution in that entire time? This Peng can’t be that powerful, especially if it couldn’t even predict or notice the rebelliousness of its stomach and some of its chi transducers, or prevent Buddy from bludgeoning its other organs to death with its, well, organ.
Did I mention the repetition?
At one point while reading the novel, I wondered if it was the product of a vanity press that had somehow been marketed with a huge amount of personal coin to the point where, incredibly it had bought itself a space on the shelves of the Chapters big box chain across Canada. Surprisingly, no. Turns out it was published by a legitimate small press company, Manor House, that even gets a little funding from the federal government. I feel disheartened (and not in a weird, Peng-like, internal battering kind of way) that some of my tax dollars may have gone into this book.
Admittedly, because I know very little about Taoism, there might be any number of deep insights and cute inside jokes buried in this collection of pulp that I’m missing. Somehow I doubt it though. This book reads like a stoner’s ramblings scribbled onto a coffee-stained Post-it note pad in a college dorm the Friday night a week before March break.
Well, after a bad date we always tell ourselves or our forlorn friends that there’s plenty more fish in the sea. And that’s certainly true right about now. No more blind dates for me. Some nice-looking new novels by top-notch authors like Minister Faust, Dan Simmons and Cory Doctorow have just come smiling into the bookstore looking for an attentive reader like me to take them home, and who am I to say no?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Strawberry Cough Amidst The Screams

It took long enough, but I finally got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” last Friday and I’m glad I did. What a fine piece of storytelling.
The movie is set in the not-too-distant future (please, no singing the theme song of MST3K) where for some reason human beings aren’t having babies anymore. Anarchy runs amok because the world has lost hope. The madness of the species is so ramped-up that it’s inconceivable there will even be a last human being at the burnt out candle end of humanity’s life (to paraphrase Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree”) dying of old age because this degree of chaos will leave no-one alive to reach old age. In fact, the government even encourages extinction by distributing euthanasia drugs for free and crushing political or social opposition with wanton slaughter. As the movie lurches on, the picture painted is of a world is so full of violence and despair it could only be more bleak if Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” had been included in the soundtrack. In the middle of all this, the protagonist, Theo Faron (played with great control and feeling by Clive Owen) is roped into helping his ex-wife (Julianne Moore) smuggle a girl out of a totalitarian Britain. What makes the girl special is that she’s the first woman in years to a) get pregnant; and b) successfully carry the child to term.
Now, there are those who took potshots at Cuaron early on for altering the story or reconceptualizing that laid out in the original novel by P.D. James. But I don’t think that’s fair. Admittedly, I haven’t read James’ book yet. But I’ve never subscribed to the theory that a movie that’s based on a novel has to be exactly the same as its forebear. I think deviation is perfectly acceptable as long as the movie’s storytelling can stand strongly on its own. Take Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” (the Director’s Cut, naturally). Quite a few deviations from Philip K. Dick’s original “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, but a truly brilliant story in its own right. Same with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While Jackson tried to stay close to Tolkien’s masterpiece, he did do some tinkering and it did work. In fact, I’d argue that there are some cases where the film is actually better than the text that inspired it. Case in point (you might want to look away if you’re a slave to the canon): John Harrison’s Sci-Fi Channel production “Frank Herbert’s Dune”. While I enjoyed reading Herbert’s “Dune”, and have done so several times, Harrison’s tribute is more fluid with characters who are more believable. To be fair, many movie adaptations flop – like David Lynch’s take on “Dune” – but Cuaron’s film isn’t one of them.
Getting back to “Children of Men”, one thing I noticed was that it resembles Don McKeller’s quieter, much lower budget, but non-the-less high-quality “Last Night”. Both films take an orgy of violence as a given for the backdrop for the fall of humanity caused by some force of nature we’re seemingly powerless to stop. And yet, in the midst of it all, both films are about hope and redemption.
In the final six hours left to McKellar’s world, society is but a memory as mobs party in the middle of highways, youth kill because they can, suicide pacts are made, the incompetent take centre stage, families turn their backs on their fellow man and hipsters dive head-first into every hedonistic whim they can conceive of – all because there’s no point in self control when the end has arrived. And yet there are still moments of humanity - “music in the dark” as Sheridan and Kosh would say on “Babylon 5”. Sandra Oh’s character is willing to walk the length of the city to try to reunite with her husband. McKellar’s widower gives in to his better nature and puts his self-indulgent moping aside to help her, reconnecting with humanity and compassion and rediscovering purpose. A power company employee stays behind at the office to make sure the lights stay on right up until the end – or at least, until the prospect of one last passionate connection comes up moments before the final flash. The ubiquitous radio station DJ stays at his post too. And in the end, Oh and McKellar’s odyssey brings them together in a kind of determined love.
Similarly in “Children of Men”, Clive Owen’s character is literally yanked out of his alcoholic slump of depression over the loss of his long-dead son when he’s kidnapped at the behest of his ex-wife who needs his help to smuggle the girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) out from under the government’s nose to the safety of the scientists of “the Human Project” aboard their ship where she can have her baby. For all intents and purposes, Theo Faron goes from being dead to resurrected. In some ways, the “Strawberry Cough” strain of marijuana bred by Faron’s hippy father (played wonderfully by Michael Caine) is a metaphor for what happens to the protagonist – while the initial reaction to the experience is a harsh cough, it surprises him with a forgotten sweetness that makes him sit up and take notice. Amidst the deafening explosions, loss of his old life and loved ones and the constant terror of being hunted on all sides, Owen’s character is forced to truly live – to think quickly and protect and care for people other than himself. This film is not so much about the deathknells of a species or the birthpangs of a new hope for civilization as it is about a man’s rediscovery of himself and reconnection to other people.
Some critics have argued that both the film and the book suffer because their founding premise, that human beings are not having babies, is inconsistent with current trends in biotechnology and computer science which will likely offer a number of solutions to this kind of problem in the very near future. These could come in the form of cloning, genetic engineering, consciousness uploads into individual computers or entire consensual software realities, cybernetic replacements, life prolongment (perhaps indefinitely) through drug or retrovirus cocktails or nanotechnology, or a host of other possibilities.Fine. The story doesn’t take good old-fashioned human ingenuity in the face of extinction into account. So what? What’s important though is that despite a flimsy premise, the film tells a good story about human drama. And when there are so many stories out there based on rock-solid premises, but which suffer from boring or one-dimensional characters interacting with their world and each other in uninteresting, unbelievable or unsatisfying ways, personally, I’ll take the good yarn with the shaky starting supposition.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Winter Is Coming - To Your Television

Permit me to engage in a bit of fanboy gushing. A few days ago I was scrolling through SF Signal and came across word that George R. R. Martin has inked a deal with HBO to produce a limited television series (one season per book, as I understand it) for his “A Song of Ice and Fire” books.
Given the quality of productions like “The Sopranos” and “Rome”, Martin made the right choice in going with HBO.
On the downside, it’s going to be a long, long wait for some of us. As Martin notes on his “Not A Blog”, it’s still really early in the process and it’ll be a while before the project goes to production and eventually hits the air. Longer still for those of us up here in the land of winter – Canada’s cable companies won’t carry HBO, so we either have go try our luck with a satellite system or wait until Space or one of the other cable channels decides to pick the series up, likely a year or two after it’s already begun airing in the US (witness the sad example of how long it took to pick up “The Sopranos”) or hunt for bootleg taped copies provided by our neighbours to the south.
They say patience is a virtue. Well, I have a feeling there will be a few of us fans up here in the Great White North who will be extremely virtuous by the time we get to lay eyes on the “A Song of Ice and Fire” television series. I hope it’s worth the wait.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Farewell To Yvonne De Carlo

I hadn’t thought about Lily or the other Munsters in years, but it all came back today when I read the news that Yvonne De Carlo had passed away.
Born Peggy Yvonne Middleton in Vancouver, BC in 1922, she had a long list of acting credits, including the role of Moses’ wife Sephora in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments”, but most of us will remember her best as Lily, vampirish matriarch of the 60’s classic: “The Munsters”.
I think my earliest memory of De Carlo and “The Munsters” comes from when I was a kid living in the country in Ontario. On Sundays around noon, one of the few TV stations (I can’t remember which) that we could pick up on the aerial tower would air old comedies like the Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges features and shorts, and one rainy afternoon it was “Munster, Go Home”. How could I not love it? The flick was mock-horror silliness at its campy best. And there, in the middle of it all, clad in her pale gown and calmly steering her ghoulish family through the chaos like the captain of some great, ugly scow, was the darkly beautiful Yvonne De Carlo as Lily.
Years later as a teen in BC’s Lower Mainland I would watch “The Munsters” TV series airing in syndication on one of the cable stations out of Bellingham or Seattle, alongside equally ancient reruns of “The Addams Family”. It was obvious that even under all that makeup, De Carlo was still quite a beautiful woman, even though she was in her early 40’s when the series was shot and they didn’t have all of the youth-prolonging treatments (which, granted, often have hideous results) available today. In fact, as monstrous TV moms of that era go, Lily Munster was far more attractive than her counterpart, Morticia Addams. While the needy Morticia primped, posed and did her feline best to show she had it, Lily’s normal behaviour was vastly more sexy just for her even-keeled confidence alone, never mind her breath-taking looks.
That big lump Herman Munster was a lucky guy to have Lily. All of us in the TV and movie audience were lucky to be able to watch Ms. De Carlo.
Yvonne De Carlo died in the Motion Picture & Television facility in suburban Los Angeles on January 8th of natural causes. She was 84.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Night At The Museum" A Sweet Dream For Kids

We went to see “Night at the Museum” on Friday and while I didn’t regret it, I wasn’t blown away by it either.
You’ve probably heard the plot by now… Ben Stiller signs up as the overnight security guard only to find out that the museum’s contents come to life at night, mayhem ensues, and it’s his job to make sure nothing gets out and everything’s back to normal come morning. The trio of retiring guards, played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs have more on their minds though than just handing over the keys and wishing the kid luck. Stiller not only has to figure out how to keep a skeletal Tyrannosaur happy, how to keep the peace between a cowboy and his neighbour the legate Octavius, how to unite a former president and a famous First Nations guide, how to appease Attila the Hun and how to foil the schemes of the three elderly guards, but also how to hold down his job and regain his son’s confidence at the same time.
Overall, the kids in the audience, and many of the adults, got a lot of laughs out of this flick. I’ve gotta admit, I chuckled a few times myself. Ultimately, it’s very much a family-oriented movie and I can’t say it’s a bad one at that, because it’s not. It does what it sets out to do – tells a funny, heart-warming story with a lot of action and reasonable special effects.
But in the end I found it forgettable. It wasn’t funny enough, or surprising enough, or enough of a unique story that I’ll be running out to rent it as soon as my nephew’s old enough to understand it.
I think there are family movies out there that do a much better job. Take Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” or “Howl’s Moving Castle”. What about “The Incredibles”? All of these movies were very entertaining for both kids and adults and their depth of imagination will ensure they won’t date easily. Better yet, how about that 1979 masterpiece “The Muppet Movie”? When I stumbled upon this gem buried at the bottom of the shelf in a store just after Christmas, I didn’t hesitate to fork over some gift money to buy it while I could. Hensen and his crew took the well-worn trope of the American road movie and turned it into a rolling festival of Muppet wackiness filled with their signature double-layered humour. My only regret is that recent generations of kids have had only sporadic exposure to the genius of the Muppet productions and thus won’t likely know to look or ask for this classic. Case in point: during our honeymoon last year at Disneyland, my wife and I made a point of going to the park’s Muppet Theatre. Despite a good production, the joint was nearly empty and the kids who were there didn’t seem to have any recognition of what they were seeing.
Getting back to the point though… I certainly wouldn’t discourage people from seeing “Night at the Museum”, if you’ve got kids, it’ll probably be a good night out for the bunch of you. If you don’t, wait for it to air on TV where you won’t have to pay for it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Travel Assistance For SF Bookworms

I caught a great little footnote on SF Signal today about a website designed to help all of us speculative fiction bookworms when we’re abroad. Collecting Science Fiction Books is cobbling together an interactive map to help you find bookstores dedicated to selling science fiction, fantasy and horror books, well, anywhere. Let’s say you’re taking a vacation/you’ve been kidnapped by little green men and released in a small potato field in a town that’s not your own/you’re away on a business trip/you’re on walkabout/whatever, you finish or lose the book you’re reading, you don’t have a replacement, the news stands or chain bookstores nearby only have crap and you really need a fix of something good: all you have to do is go online (okay, fine, since you’re hitting the net anyway, you could go to any one of a number of online magazines or e-book sites, but I’m one of those old-fashioned types who’s just gotta have the security blanket feel of paper [hardcover or soft] in hand), punch in the web address, point to where you are and you’ll find the nearest SF book emporium. And because it’s interactive, we, the book-buyers of the world, can add our favourites to the list. Genius!


As you can see, (at the time of this posting) the list of locations is still pretty small – a rag-tag band of bookstores huddled in California and the lonely little point of White Dwarf Books up here in Vancouver, BC, Canada (which I added to the roster just this evening). That’s why all of you have got to head to the site and make that list more comprehensive! Whether you live in Newfoundland & Labrador, Ohio, Brazil, Denmark, Turkey, South Africa, Hong Kong or New Zealand, it’s time to tell speculative fiction nuts from around the world where we can go to buy the best SF books if we’re in your neck of the woods.
Now, you may be worried that his site is or will turn into some kind of freebie marketing billboard for bookstore proprietors to shill their wares. And yeah, for a cynical second, so did I. But you know what? As long as the site stays focused on listing the whereabouts of SF-oriented bookstores, so what? Most of these specialty bookstores are independents and the men and women who operate them work damn hard to keep their businesses alive against the crushing competition from huge corporate conglomerates which may be able to discount prices, but have poor selections, no older stock and staff who rarely know what they’re selling. Think of it this way, your local SF niche bookstore comes through for you in terms of keeping a wide variety of stock on hand and by giving you recommendations for new titles and authors that you can trust because you’ve probably built a relationship, so, it isn’t asking much to go a little bit beyond giving these small merchants your business and recommend them to the world. We’ve gotta look out for each other.Log on to Collecting Science Fiction Books and add your local SF specialty shop to the list.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Which Way To Mediocrity? "North of Infinity II"

First of all, a belated Happy Holidays! to everyone. All the best to ya in 2007.
The past couple of weeks have been a season of short stories for me as my wife and I headed to Ontario to visit family and friends. Anthologies and magazines are perfect when I’m doing a lot of traveling: ideally they’re full of great material which, being short, allows me to digest complete stories when I’ve only got a few minutes to read in a terminal between flights or waiting for someone else to get ready before hitting the road. And my recent selections have offered examples of the right way and the wrong way to assemble a collection of short stories.
I started the holidays reading the disappointing “North of Infinity II”, edited by Mark Leslie and published by Mosaic Press, released (apparently) in June of 2006 but not on any bookstore shelf out in this neck of the woods until November. It’s not that the selected tales were bad, merely drab (with two exceptions). It’s a given that in any anthology there will be a couple of less-than-stellar selections, but Leslie seems to have chosen a majority that are utterly forgettable.
And that’s an important point… when I finish reading an anthology or magazine, I don’t deliberately try to memorize them and I may not be dwelling on each and every story six months later, but if they were good stories, you only have to mention the title, author’s name, or a point or two about the plot and the whole thing refreshes itself in my mind nearly instantly. The best anthologies contain short stories that I can recall years later. And more importantly than their ability to stimulate recall, the best anthologies full of the best short stories have the power to continue to stimulate thought and emotion. Good examples of anthologies that meet the recall/emotion/thought criteria are the “Northern Stars” and “Northern Suns” collections edited by David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant, “Ark of Ice” edited by Leslie Choyce, “After the King” edited by Martin H. Greenberg, “Dreaming Down Under” edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb, or the “Tesseracts” series, or any one of the marvelous “Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories:” collections from the late I.A. and the afore-mentioned Greenberg (a series of anthologies I picked up as a teen and used to educate myself about Golden Age and new era of SF). “North of Infinity II”, however, falls well short of the mark. I had a tough time remembering what was in it after a couple of days, and that wasn’t just the effect of jet-lag. Most of the authors’ contributions are unoriginal and suffering from lackluster writing. The only high points in the collection are Robert J. Sawyer’s dino tale “Forever” (although it would be a surprise if a master like Sawyer didn’t do a great job) and Nancy Kilpatrick’s unsettling “Metal Fatigue”.
What’s worse is that many of these weak stories are years old – one that jumps out as I flip through the pages now is dated 1996. If you’re going to assemble a collection of short stories to fit a theme and the date of original publication isn’t a concern (if you can’t round up enough stories that have been written recently or enough authors to write on assignment), if you therefore have all the time in the world to select and assemble the perfect combination of speculations from the past decade (or farther back), then you better make damn sure that you are collecting the very best - stories so explosively groundbreaking, intelligent and emotionally gripping that they’re guaranteed to knock a reader off of his chair. Those in “North of Infinity II” are not. They were mediocre when they were published and they’re mediocre now. There was no reason to resurrect them.
To add insult to injury, the book was overpriced. $20 Canadian/$17 US is way too much for a trade paperback that’s only 128 pages long containing only 12 stories and one editorial. By comparison, “Tesseracts Nine”, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman, released in May of 2005, was $20.95 Canadian/$16.95 US and weighed in at a portly 391 pages with 25 stories and 2 editorial essays. What’s with the price squeeze on “North of Infinity II”? I’ll admit I don’t know much about the economics of the publishing industry, but I have to wonder if the Leslie book’s price is so inflated because of a limited release or something. If that’s the case, given that this collection is so limp, I think I would rather my local book seller had been passed over in getting a couple of the scarce copies.
As much as I hate to say it, I think “North of Infinity II” will probably sit quietly in a back corner of my bookshelf unremarked except for the rare decade when I might reorganize things, glance briefly at the cover and say “Oh. That.” and have to flip through it for a second just to remind myself why I can’t recall anything about it.
In contrast, after slogging through that anthology, I had the pleasure of devouring a bunch of back-issues of On-Spec and the latest from Neo Opsis. Now these are what short story collections should look like! While I can’t say every single tale was a hit, I will say that on the balance the majority were memorable, thought-provoking, gripping and original. In fact, I give extra credit for magazine editors who repeatedly pull off successes like this because in the tough world of marketing SF magazines, it only takes a bad issue or two to convince readers to spend their money elsewhere and put you out of business. In fact, a magazine editor is under even more pressure, having to sift through the heaps of submissions to find the best, sort through the logistics of building an issue and get the thing to print and distributed in a matter of months, as opposed to a book editor who can take years to piece together an anthology. I have the highest respect for the magazine editors who do this three or four times a year (or more frequently with larger publications), year after year, and manage to create, on the balance, worthwhile collections.