This right here is the movie that inspired me to write this series. Of all the movies I have discussed, or will discuss, this is the ’90s-est, action-est, movie-est.
While I obviously like every movie listed here, I could point to flaws in most of them. Terminator 2 is too cartoonishly violent, Last Action Hero has too many crude jokes, GoldenEye has Xenia Onatopp, and so on. But when it comes to The Mummy, I’m at a loss to find much fault with it. It’s a classic pulp adventure.
You’ve got wonderful characters, from the gunslinging American Rick O’Connell and the bumbling twit Jonathan Carnahan, to the mysterious Ardeth Bay and the jovial pilot Winston Havelock. Not forgetting the conniving coward Beni or the sinister High Priest himself, Imhotep.
And then, of course, there’s Evie Carnahan. I can do no better than to quote her description of herself, after she’s had a little too much to drink around the campfire one night:
“I may not be an explorer or an adventurer or a treasure-seeker or a… a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But, I am proud of what I am! I… am a librarian!”
All right, maybe that’s not Evie at her finest, although definitely she is pretty awesome even when she’s been hitting the bottle. But what I love is how she and O’Connell make such a good team. His adventuring skills and her thorough knowledge of Egypt help rescue them time and again from the wrath of the revivified mummy.
Everything about the movie is just fun. You can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, and why shouldn’t they? It’s a cracking good yarn of romance and derring-do. It’s one of those movies that, when you see it come on TV, you just sit and watch it before you even realize where the time has gone.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the better I like a movie, the harder it is to review it. How many ways are there to say, “this movie is awesome and I love it”? Not bloody many. This is probably why academic critical analyses of movies tend to focus on what’s wrong with them; that’s much more fruitful ground. But the result is that many words are generated on the topic of bad movies, and not so much on the good ones.
Well, I’m no academic, but I’ll give this a try: The Mummy is great because it offers us an immediately recognizable, yet still sufficiently different world we can escape into. People watch movies because they want fun. Critics, as a rule, don’t want fun. Ergo, critics aren’t people. Oops, wait; I’m a critic, aren’t I? Hmm.
My point is, if you want to write a 20 page paper on themes and symbolism and whatnot, this movie probably won’t furnish you with enough raw material for same. But who cares? Only weirdos like me sit down and write at length of their thoughts on movies; normal people just enjoy them. And joy is an underrated emotion when it comes to providing fodder for writing. Probably because it’s so far beyond words. There’s a reason that the most famous instance of a composition expressing joy was written in music.
In a way, writing critiques is just dodging the real issue. Could any review I write, no matter how clever, witty, or insightful, ever equal the sheer glee I had as an 11 year old kid watching Rick O’Connell mow down legions of zombie warriors? Of course not! Writing about it is just a way to relive the experience over again, and hopefully share the joy with others.
The real greatness of movies is never found in reviews; it’s found when you are sitting there in that theater, with your popcorn and your drinks, ideally with people you really like, sharing the pleasure of diving together into some fantastic, imaginary world full of excitement and suspense and adventure that you can talk about afterward not in the technical, fussy language of a critic, but with the burbling excitement of a kid playing in the backyard. Take that, Bembridge scholars!
There I was, thinking to myself, wouldn’t it be nice to read a cyberpunk book right about now? And then, thanks to a timely retweet from the incomparable Carrie Rubin, this book came to my attention. It was like it was meant to be.
The Copernicus Coercion is a cyber thriller about two hackers, Brock and Kathryn K, who quickly find themselves drawn into an intricate conspiracy. This book hits all the cyberpunk notes: we have hackers with embedded implants that provide continuous network access, shady back-alley surgeons providing illegal cybernetic augmentation, super-powerful artificial intelligences that become eerily human, a group of gray hat hackers operating out of an old church, and most importantly, sinister plots by shadowy elites.
Naturally, I ate it up. If you like cyberpunk stories, you’re probably going to like this. And despite the requisite tech-heavy aspects of the plot, Scobie was careful to make the characters strong, too. From the interaction between the two protagonists, to minor characters like the hacker-priest at the church or even an amateur carjacker, most of the characters in the book are interesting and memorable.
If I have any complaints about the book, it’s that the ending felt a bit rushed, and the character who functions as the final antagonist isn’t as well fleshed-out as the rest of the cast. It’s not a major problem, and generally, I’m of the opinion that if the journey is enjoyable, I can forgive a flawed ending. And The Copernicus Coercion is certainly an enjoyable journey.
In another serendipitous occurrence, I happened to be reading this book at the same time as I was reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The issues Kurzweil examines in that work of ’90s futurism are explored in an entertaining way in this novel, so it makes a perfect complement. If you want a fun story that also poses some interesting questions about humanity’s relationship to technology, pick this one up.
If this movie had been made a decade or two later, it would have inspired a fan backlash.
Do you doubt me? This is the film that transforms Sarah Connor from the ordinary young waitress of the original movie into a hardboiled commando, athletic and capable of handling firearms with ease. You can’t tell me that people wouldn’t complain about the change. As if that weren’t enough, now the T-800 is a good guy, fighting to protect the young John Connor. “But how did that even work?” the Comic Book Guys of the world may ask. “How does it fit with the established lore?”
But T2‘s biggest crime against the franchise is the subversion of The Terminator‘s original theme. The first film is fatalistic, with the coming nuclear war caused by Skynet understood as an inevitable outcome.
T2 says otherwise; that “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It totally undercuts the original’s theme. Not to mention opening a whole new can of worms about multiple timelines, in addition to the paradoxes that are implicit in every time travel story.
All these are valid criticisms. But it doesn’t change the fact that Terminator 2 is still a really great action movie. Yes, it replaces The Terminator‘s grittiness with some pretty over-the-top and cartoonish action sequences, most notably the use of an M134 minigun as a precision non-lethal weapon to avoid casualties. Just… no. Or rather, only in the movies. Though I am come to sing T2‘s praises, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s believable.
But look: this was the ’90s, and the ’90s were pretty optimistic. The Cold War was over! It had been won not with guns and bombs, but with blue jeans! It was The End of History!
This might sound silly nowadays, and yet, I think, it was the attitude that made ’90s pop culture so damn infectious. Terminator 2 is lighter than both The Terminator and Terminator 3. And that, I submit, is because it was made after the renewed US-Soviet tensions of the ’80s and before the post-9/11 2000s. It captures the mood of the era, by willing to be a fun Arnold Schwarzenegger movie where the killer robot says things like “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Is The Terminator a “better” movie? I dunno, depends what you mean by “better.” In some ways, sure. But in terms of being a fun action movie that you can just enjoy and walk out of feeling like the good guys won and the bad guys lost, Terminator 2 is better.
This is why I contend that Terminator 2 is the perfect movie to encapsulate what I mean when I speak of ’90s action movies. It kicked off a style of film that would rule the decade. And moreover, it was the last decade that films like Terminator 2could rule, exactly because fandoms had not yet organized to talk about them.
All the films I’m going to talk about in this series could not be made now, for one reason or another. And that’s partially why I want to write about them, because (you may laugh) I think these films say something about their time, and, perhaps, by way of reflection, our time as well.
But that’s only secondary. The main reason is that ’90s action movies are freaking fun, and that’s why I like watching them. James Cameron, for all his faults, sure knows how to make a good action picture. Even when he goes and makes something that’s nothing but a rip-off of Ferngully meets Dances With Wolves, the action sequences are still good. And here was Cameron at his peak, making a film with one high-speed action scene after another. I think the canal chase is my favorite part. You’ve got to love the way Arnold flips that shotgun around.
That said, let’s not forget the prelude to that sequence, when the T-1000 and the T-800 hunt John Connor through the mall. Watching it now, of course, I’m highly nostalgic. Malls are a feature of the ’90s that has since been devoured by the internet. In reality, it turned out that “Skynet” needed no nuclear missiles to take over the world; it just needed a ton of server space.
Sorry; I’m getting philosophical again. I do that sometimes when I write about movies. You’re still here, so maybe you like it, or at least are willing to tolerate it. Philosophy is a wonderful thing, and it’s delightful to find it sprinkled around the edges of our favorite movies.
But it can never be the main thing. Ultimately, movies are at their best when they show us a world we can get lost in, give us characters we can love and hate, and above all else, tell us a good story. The films I’m going to discuss all do that, and that’s why I’m revisiting them now. Come join me, won’t you? Or should I say, “Come with me if you want to live… the ’90s over again.”
Note the title of this post does not include the word “review.” This isn’t a review in the typical sense. It’s long and rambling, even by my standards. But I promised Trent Lewin that I would share my thoughts on it when I finally saw it. (You can read Trent’s take here.) So, here goes.
I reviewed the book Dunehere, on what was originally going to be the release date for the movie. I won’t bother rehashing everything I said there. Instead, I’ll just say that Frank Herbert went to write an article about sand dunes in Oregon, got fascinated with ecology and messianic leaders, and did a bunch of magic mushrooms. The resulting book is about what you would expect. It is interesting, multifaceted, and more than a bit bizarre. In some superficial ways, it’s just a good ol’ fashioned Sword and Planet adventure, with a hero who defeats his enemies, claims his birthright, and marries a princess… but if you’re expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn, your reaction is likely to be “WTF did I just read?”
Actually, that will probably be your reaction no matter what. It was mine, and I even (mostly) liked the book. It’s different, and I respect that. My biggest problem with the book is also a problem with the movie, so I’ll hold off on discussing that until later.
In the early 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt the book into an epic film. The project never got off the ground, but did result in a sprawling collection of interesting storyboards and concept art, which you can see here. The artists appear to have taken the magic mushroom elements and run with them. The project spawned a documentary, which I have not seen, but which Josh Sawyer describes the ending of as follows:
“Alejandro says that in the end the actual making of the film would have ruined it, because it was absolutely perfect in his mind.”
After Jodorowsky’s attempt failed, Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights, and hired David Lynch to direct an adaptation, released in 1984. This film is a cult classic, but in my opinion, it’s a mess. The worst part is the constant voice-overs used to convey characters’ thoughts. This is in keeping with Herbert’s writing style, but it just goes to show you what worked on the page won’t work in a movie.
All that said, the film does have a unique and unsettling aesthetic, which is probably the most essential quality for any Dune adaptation. There’s no doubt Lynch had a vision, though it was a weird and probably not mass-marketable one. Not to mention that the special FX of the ’80s were just not up to creating the stuff he was trying to portray.
Psych! First, I have to talk about some other Villeneuve movies. This is the third one of his I’ve seen, the others being Arrival, which was pretty good, and Blade Runner 2049, which was turgid. It’s hard to make something cyberpunk that I don’t like, and yet 2049 managed to do it. So, I can’t say I was super-optimistic going into Dune.
But I watched it. I even got the “limited edition pain box” version, because, well, how could I not, with a name like that?
So what is the deal with this movie? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Come to that, what is it supposed to do?
Uh oh. It looks like we’ve run into a problem before we’ve even started. We can’t analyze Dune without understanding what a movie adaptation should be doing. So I guess more work is needed. Hold the phone, everybody!
Before Lynch, even before Jodorowsky, Sir David Lean was offered a chance at directing Dune, but he turned it down.
I sort of understand this, because Lean wasn’t a science fiction guy. But nevertheless, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Because Lean was the director most qualified to direct Dune. Of course, I should stipulate that he would need his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.
Lean and Bolt created one of the greatest desert epics ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. If you read my review of the Dune novel above, you know my thoughts on Lawrence‘s influence on the entire Dune universe as Herbert conceived it. It’s profound. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible adaptation of an extremely complex book, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, it’s pretty much the gold standard by which I judge all other cinematic adaptations.
It’s a completely faithful adaptation, but not in the sense that Bolt took every single thing in the book and included it in his script. That would be impossible. Rather, it’s faithful in the sense that it captures everything Lawrence records in his memoir: his initial hopes for a grand future for the Arab revolt, his own conflicted psychological turmoil, and his ultimate disillusionment at the cynical manipulation of himself and the men he led by the generals and politicians of the Great Powers. You feel all of it in the final scene as the broken Lawrence rides off to return to England, a motorcycle engine growling ominously nearby as the screen fades to black.
Ultimately, Lawrence of Arabia is about how an introverted, troubled, brilliant officer tried to accomplish something great by playing the role of a leader that deep down, he knew he never could be. And Dune, as a series, is about much the same thing. Frank Herbert said:
“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”
“Lawrence of Arabia” was a hero. “Paul Muad’dib,” the “Kwisatz Haderach,” is a hero. But at some level, T.E. Lawrence and Paul Atreides know, more than anyone else, that it’s just a role; a story created to fit a preconceived pattern in the minds of the masses.
In a sense, Dune itself is an adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia, just in space, with psychic witches and sandworms.
On Heroes and Hero-Worship
Okay, I’m cheating now. That’s a book by Thomas Carlyle, which I have not read, although my understanding is it’s a series of essays about historical figures like Cromwell, Napoleon, etc. who rose to power. I suppose I should have picked a more creative title for this section, but what I actually want to talk about is hero-worship.
It so happens I’m reading Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic by George MacCaulay Trevelyan at the moment. It’s pretty much the definition of a hagiography, as Trevelyan makes no effort whatsoever to hide his blind adoration of Garibaldi.
Garibaldi is an interesting figure, with his own parallels to Paul Atreides. He too led a guerrilla war that battled great dynasties and inspired an impressive cult following in England with tales of his heroics. Indeed, he is one of those romantic figures of Mediterranean politics that should, I think, inform any interpretation of Dune, because Dune is heavily influenced by a powerful strain of Machiavellian political theory in its depiction of warring aristocratic houses and shifting family alliances.
Really, almost everything in Dune has some analogue in actual, if mostly forgotten history; which I suspect is why its world is one that so many people get absorbed in. It has echoes of things dimly remembered, or not even remembered, but somehow with a feeling of eminent plausibility, like having a dream that you think you’ve had before.
Villeneuve‘s Dune (For Real This Time)
Having established all that, we are now finally prepared to attack the question of whether the new Dune movie is any good or not. The answer will ride on whether or not it conveys the theme and mood of its source material.
The answer is… well, sorta.
Dune gets most of the little things right. The art direction is excellent. The acting is good. The atmosphere generally feels alien. Almost everything shown is a scene depicted in the book. Not only does it copy the things I liked about the book, but it even conveys the things I didn’t like. One of these is that I find Paul unlikable in the book, and I find him unlikable in the movies. Now, given the Herbert quote above, I think that may be deliberate. Because Paul isn’t a hero, but everybody worships him as such, you come away with the feeling that he’s a fraud. In every depiction, Leto is so much better and more interesting, and in both book and film, I feel like the story starts running out of steam at the point where he dies.
That makes the story weaker in my opinion, but I’m willing to give the movie a pass on this since I have the same problem with the book.
More significantly, though, there are places where Dune still feels like a product of the cinematic fads of the 2020s. One example is the damned washed-out lens filter. The scene that highlights this most is when Duke Leto and Gurney Halleck are looking over their newly-acquired holdings on Arrakis. Halleck tells Leto the sun is getting too high, and they can’t stay out. And sure, you can see there’s some sun, and imagine it’s probably hot.
But you don’t feel the heat. You don’t viscerally sense the sun beating down on you. In Lawrence of Arabia, you do.
This is the feeling I had throughout the movie. It’s good, it’s solid, but it’s also just not quite willing to take that extra step that propels it into timelessness. And timelessness is a very important quality for Dune.
If there’s one place where Lynch’s Dune has an advantage, it’s that the aesthetic is so weird it creates a uniquely alien vibe that really does convey the feeling that you’re in another world. I’m not saying that it’s a better film. It’s seriously not; it’s kind of a 1980s cheesefest if I’m being honest. But I am saying, Dune, more than most films, is one where a sense of aesthetics is incredibly important.
This is probably a little bit harsh on my part, I’ll admit. Every movie is of course a product of its time. Even Lawrence of Arabia, for as well as it holds up overall, has a few elements that date it as a 1960s Epic Motion Picture, like Maurice Jarre’s occasionally over-the-top soundtrack. If the problem could be reduced to a matter of lens filters, I wouldn’t complain about it. (Much.)
No, the problem here goes even deeper. And it goes right to the heart of what the core appeal of Dune is.
“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”
The universe of Dune is effectively a post-Enlightenment society. It’s not a coincidence that much of the book draws inspiration from pre-Enlightenment societies. In fact, the central idea of Dune is the rejection of rationality, from the Butlerian Jihad that destroyed Artificial Intelligences to the heavy emphasis on mind-altering drugs and visions. There is no evidence of Enlightenment concepts like “constitutional government” or “individual liberty.”
In my opinion, this is why the whole thing feels so weird and foreign. We are a society based on Reason, and on encountering a society that is not based on Reason, but on instinct, superstition, heredity and above all else, power, we feel like we have stepped into another universe altogether. (Although, if you think about it, considering the Enlightenment began in the 16th century, such societies are actually the norm, and we are the exception.)
This comes through very clearly in the book, which is one reason there are things in the book that, to be blunt, make absolutely no sense whatsoever. They’re not supposed to. Remember: magic mushrooms.
This movie, although it has no shortage of visions, hallucinations and other weirdness, doesn’t convey that. I’m not sure exactly why. Arrival did a good job of messing with the viewer’s mind to the point that if you want to understand the plot, you have to perceive time as a Möbius strip, which is also basically the state Paul is in by the time he meets the Fremen. Yet, I never got that feeling of otherworldly eeriness that’s so integral to the Dune experience.
Actually, no. There was one scene where I did get it. The creepy chant that plays while the Sardaukar soldiers are gearing up to attack Arrakis gave me the uncanny feeling of witnessing something completely alien to my own perception of reality. I liked that scene a lot.
Otherwise, though… it was an unremarkable movie. Not bad by any means, and with some enjoyable visuals and interesting shots. It just felt hollow and meaningless, which is in a way tragic because it tried so hard to be faithful to its source material that it lacked the boldness to do something truly unusual… which, paradoxically, is exactly what made its source material good to begin with.
But recall the words of Jodorowsky paraphrased above. Perhaps there can never be a perfect Dune adaptation because the universe of Dune can only be formed in the mind of the reader. And for every reader, it compiles slightly differently, as a unique and fragile structure, and to try and preserve or share this creation is a fool’s errand.
As I think most of you know, Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. But even I can go for a good Christmas tale. So naturally, a Christmas book that brings a witch into the picture is going to get my attention.
This book tells the story of Cinnamon Mercy Claus, who unexpectedly finds herself journeying to the North Pole for the holiday season. There she meets her grandparents: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves.
This would be a shocking enough discovery on its own, but she next learns that her grandmother is a witch and that she wants a divorce from the jolly old elf, who has been taking all her Christmas magic for granted. She angrily leaves her bewildered granddaughter in charge of handling all the arrangements for delivering toys to all the children of the world.
This is a lot to take in for Cinnamon, who is more comfortable working in the world of spreadsheets and number-crunching than of magic, but, with the help of the elves, she throws herself into the task.
The book is a lot like those made-for-TV Christmas movies that they broadcast this time of year. Which are not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but I happen to enjoy them. Yes, they can be predictable and sometimes overly-sentimental, but hey, what are the holidays about if not the comfort of something cozy and familiar? It is true that most of the time I prefer darker varieties of fiction, but when December comes round, there’s nothing wrong with little light trifles.
And that’s exactly what this book is; a fast-paced bit of Christmas-themed fun. Read it while eating some gingerbread cookies or something, preferably by a fireplace or under some decorative lights, and you’ll surely be filled with the Yuletide spirit.
The first thing I had to do before reading this book was try to forget everything I previously knew about James Bond. It’s not easy. Even if you’ve never seen a Bond movie, you probably have absorbed some things about him from pop culture references. I’ve seen most of the films, so I had to consciously purge all memories of Bond-related media I had seen before reading this
Because this is the first Bond book, the one that started it all, and it seemed best to try to view it through fresh eyes as much as possible. Fleming’s original character is a cold, efficient secret agent, and his mission is to defeat the communist operative Le Chiffre at baccarat in order to disgrace him in the eyes of The Party.
The first half of the book involves long and fairly complicated descriptions of baccarat, as well as some other casino games. Also, many of the terms are French, and Fleming assumes that his readers would be familiar with the language. Probably they were, because his intended audience was well-educated, not savages such as myself.
“He made a high banco at chemin-de-fer whenever he heard one offered. If he lost, he would ‘suivi‘ once and not chase it further if he lost the second time.”
Uh… ‘kay? To be fair, some of these terms get explained later on in the book. Vesper Lynd, Bond’s assistant on this mission, serves as much as a plot device to have this stuff explained as she does a love interest.
At first, I found it a little dull, but after a while I got absorbed in the high-stakes game. Fleming did a good job building the tension and making the reader sweat right along with Bond.
And so, from the blank slate I’d consciously developed, the character of Bond as Fleming saw him starts to come into focus. It’s funny to think now that the name is so iconic that Fleming’s reason for naming him “James Bond” was because it seemed to him such an uninteresting and ordinary name.
As for his looks, Vesper compares him to Hoagy Carmichael, who I had never heard of before, although Bond himself doesn’t see it. Myself, I started picturing someone on the order of Basil Rathbone: not bad-looking, but not terribly remarkable either.
Maybe it’s because Bond evokes another iconic English hero whom Rathbone did portray: Sherlock Holmes. He surveys everything with a calm detachment, and largely avoids falling prey to emotional entanglement. Or so he tells himself. But, during the first of those signature 007 car chases, his actions betray him. Sure, he may say to himself the woman he’s racing to save means nothing to him, but he is driving 120 miles per hour at night to catch up with her kidnappers.
In the end of course, it’s not just Bond’s actions that betray him. This is a spy thriller after all, and at the end of it, Bond is even more of a heartless, misogynistic, unsentimental S.O.B. than he was at the beginning.
Okay, I lied. I didn’t actually erase all my preconceived notions about Bond before reading this. But I promise, I did my best to forget about Connery, Craig and everyone in between. Who I kept in mind was Patrick Dalzel-Job, a British intelligence officer who served under Fleming’s command during World War II, and whose memoir, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, I recently read.
Dalzel-Job is thought to have been Fleming’s inspiration for the character of Bond. Although his service seems to have been, if anything, way more exciting than Fleming’s fiction. Dalzel-Job’s memoir records no glamorous casinos, expensive meals, or fancy cars, and quite a lot of hiding out night after night on the coast of Norway, spying on the activities of the Kriegsmarine.
On the other hand, Dalzel-Job does describe reassigning himself after the war without consulting his superior officer, in order to be closer to the woman he would eventually marry. Such roguish defiance of his superiors may have been in Fleming’s mind when he was crafting his fictional spy.
Anyway, I know I’m supposed to be reviewing Casino Royale, but I really do have to recommend From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy to anyone who enjoys reading about history. Dalzel-Job gives a clear, well-written and extremely humble account of his heroic actions during the war. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and some of his real-life adventures are more breathtaking than any Bond story.
But, back to Casino Royale. The last quarter of the book makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but in essence, a bunch of suspicious stuff is going on, and Bond is blithely ignoring it. It’s totally out of character for him based on how he behaved in the first part of the book, where he was meticulously paranoid about security measures, and proud of it. Then at the end he’s reckless about obvious threats, and the only reason for this seems to be that he needed to be to make the plot work.
I didn’t care for the ending at all, which was too bad, because I really liked the rest of it. It’s well-paced, interesting, and Bond was a good character… until he wasn’t.
To me, the book really should have ended with a fascinating conversation between Bond and his colleague, Mathis, where Bond is waxing philosophical about his profession:
“Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Can you imagine any of the cinematic incarnations of Bond saying that? I can’t.
Even better is Mathis’s parting advice to Bond:
“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.”
This was my favorite chapter in the book, and really made the characters feel much more real and interesting. And then Fleming had to go and make a mess of it at the end!
Oh, well. It was still a good book and I’m glad I read it. All told, I’d say I enjoyed it more than the majority of the Bond movies I’ve seen, including the 2006 adaptation of this very story. Even if you don’t like the Bond franchise generally, it’s still worth giving the book a try if you like thrillers.
All right, that’s the end of the book review. What follows is just me going off on one of my hobbyhorses. Don’t feel like you have to read it unless you are interested in minutiae.
At one point, Bond is described as arming himself with “a very flat .25 Beretta automatic with a skeleton grip,” which he checks by removing “the clip.”
The great comic novelist and book lover Noah Goats once told me, “Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.” This is a good example. After reading T.J. Brown’s excellent ghost story The Last Photograph of John Buckley, I looked to see what else he had written. And the first thing that grabbed my eye was the image you see at the right.
Well, I mean, how could I resist?
As the cover suggests, this is a raunchy, bawdy comedy. Emily Spankhammer is a young, widowed Southern Belle who runs a beaver farm. And in case you are wondering if that leads to many, many Are You Being Served?-style double-entendres, why, yes, yes it does. It is that kind of book, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me laugh.
In her quest to find love, Emily is aided by her spirit guide, a wisecracking pink unicorn named Sparkle. Despite his appearance, Sparkle is, shall we say, anything but pure or nice. As he explains to Emily, he has been forced by the Ancient Greek Gods into the role of spirit guide after his decadent hedonism indirectly led to the destruction of Atlantis.
I’m not doing it justice. Let me quote Sparkle verbatim:
“This is the realm of gods and monsters, you silly woman. They don’t have moral codes in that place. If you’d spent more time watching sword-and-sandal movies, you’d know that. This is the domain of passion, of jealousy, of revenge, blood feuds, and raging hormones.”
Sparkle and Emily’s relationship is a turbulent one. Actually, all her relationships are turbulent, whether it’s with a mechanic whose home is filled with fake owls, a circus ringmaster, or a Scottish Highlander. Are you getting a sense now of what a wild story this is?
The long and short of it is, it’s a hilarious, madcap adventure. It reminded me a little of Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolfand a little of Lindy Moone’s Hyperlink From Hell. It’s not a coincidence that the best comparisons I can think of are indie books. This is what makes reading indie books so rewarding: these are the kind of unusual stories that publishers are too risk-averse to take a chance on, but are an absolute delight to read.
Now, I’ll admit that some readers might not see the appeal in it. If you don’t like raunchy humor, then it isn’t for you. But if you’re in the mood for a zany, somewhat off-color, fast-paced take-off of romance novels, you should give this one a try.
“But Berthold, this is one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies!”
“I know, but what can I say? I enjoy them. Some are better than others, and this is one of the best.”
“But last year you said the same thing about Christmas Crush, and one of your friends saw it on your recommendation and thought it was terrible!”
“Well, Christmas Crush does have a very millennial sense of humor to it, which I think may not be for everyone. The jokes in it come from the awkward conversations and ironic coincidences. Not everyone’s cup of tea. I should have mentioned that.”
“Okay, fine. So, why do you think this movie is so good?”
“It really comes down to the relationship between the protagonists. Jessie Temple is a tough, no-nonsense cop assigned to protect witness Dean Cupo until he can testify. She’s not just waiting around for a prince to sweep her off her feet like many of the female characters in these kinds of movies. She and Dean do a lot of verbal sparring at first, which makes sense, but then gradually they bond over little things, like a shared love of old horror movies.”
“It’s still sounds cheesy to me.”
“Well, yeah; and I’d be lying if I said it’s not. But, it’s a holiday movie. You don’t go watching a Christmas movie in the hopes that you’ll discover some sort of edgy, avant-garde experimental film. You watch it because you want to see a cozily familiar drama performed by likable characters. See my comments about pantomime in the Christmas Crush review.”
“No, I don’t think I will. Can’t you stay on topic?”
“Sure. Most Christmas movies are just too saccharine for my taste. Nothing whatsoever happens. It’s like, ‘Oh, I fell in love with the Prince of Monte Carlo! Oh, but there was some trivial misunderstanding and now we broke up! Oh, but now it turns out we cleared it up and we’ll get married!’ It’s all so vapid.”
“Whereas a movie like A Christmas Witness has some real plot to it. How many Hallmark Christmas movies end with armed standoffs? I mean, yes, you know how the journey’s going to end, but at least you feel like you went somewhere.”
“I get that you’re skeptical, and I respect that. And I’m not saying, ‘Oh, man this movie is great! It should win all the Academy Awards! Go home, Lawrence of Arabia, we have a new cinematic classic!’ I’m not saying that.”
“It’s just that it’s pleasant holiday entertainment. When I sit down to watch a Christmas movie, I really don’t want my expectations subverted, or to get a dark, hardboiled mystery, full of mistrust and morally ambiguous characters. But nor do I want something so sugary-sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. This movie gets the balance just right for me.”
“I see. Well, I can’t say you’ve convinced me, but maybe some of those people out there will feel differently about what you’ve said. Thank you for your time.”
Normally, I’d hold off on reviewing a ghost story until October rolls around. But I read this after Lydia Schoch recommended it, and it was so good I couldn’t wait to share it with you all.
The book is about a man named Peter, a World War II veteran who is an expert on retouching photos. He is hired to fix a photo of a group of World War I soldiers which has a peculiarly smudged figure in it. In the process of what proves to be a difficult and frustrating procedure, Peter begins having disturbing dreams. As he already suffers from PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares are nothing new for Peter, but these are different. They depict scenes from the Great War, and gradually begin to turn into something very, very real.
What follows is a marvelously written story of betrayal and revenge. There are two distinct narrative voices: Peter, and the author of certain documents from World War I that he discovers. Both of them fit their respective time periods perfectly. The story is very short, but at no point feels rushed. It has a well-paced narrative arc that culminates in a very satisfying conclusion.
The book’s description says it is “a short ghost story in the M.R. James tradition,” and yes, it absolutely is. This is a perfect story to read around a campfire or on a dark, rainy night. If you enjoy ghost stories at all, this is a must-read.
I also struggled to figure out a good time to post this review. The book isn’t old enough for January’s Vintage Science Fiction Month, although it disturbs me a bit to realize 2004 was 17 years ago. Kids who were born the year this book was published will be voting next year. I am an old man.
Anyway… so you get the review now, because why not?
If you haven’t seen any Star Wars movies, you should know that the background to this book is that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there is an order of knights called Jedi who keep the peace in the Galactic Republic. Unfortunately, a bunch of star systems are trying to secede from the Republic, causing a civil war in which the Jedi are commanding an army of soldiers cloned from a member of a warlike race known as the Mandalorians.
Hard Contact follows Omega Squad, a group of elite clone commandos deployed to the planet Qiilura, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems is creating a nanovirus designed to target the clone soldiers themselves.
Omega Squad is assigned to destroy the lab and rendezvous with Jedi who are somewhere on the planet. Unfortunately, the only Jedi still alive on Qiilura is padawan Etain Tur-Makan.
Maybe saying it’s “unfortunate” is a bit harsh, but Etain often seems like she’s not even trying to follow the Jedi virtues. She’s emotional, impulsive, and annoyingly self-pitying. Then again, perhaps she just learned these habits from the so-called “Chosen One” himself.
More interesting is the main antagonist, Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian warrior whose job is to defend the lab and its science team, led by Dr. Uthan. I love Mandalorians. They are so cool. Even though he is a ruthless killer, part of me couldn’t help but like Hokan.
There were large portions of the book that really didn’t feel like Star Wars to me. It was dark, gritty and violent. At one point, although there’s nothing explicit, it’s mentioned that one of the thugs working for the Separatists is a rapist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in any other piece of Star Wars media.
This doesn’t make the book bad, to be clear. It was a pretty gripping military adventure. It was just that I would practically forget it was Star Wars at times, until somebody would pull out a lightsaber or something.
Actually, one of my gripes about the book is that sometimes it seemed to be trying too hard to shoehorn in references to Star Wars-y sounding stuff:
“She took a small sphere from the scattering of possessions on the mattress and opened it in two halves like a shef’na fruit.”
And then in the next paragraph we have:
“After a few bottles of urrqal, the local construction workers dropped their guard.”
I know this seems like a nit-pick, and to be fair, almost all sci-fi writers do this. I think I’ve done it myself, in fact. Anytime you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you feel a temptation to enhance the alien-ness of the world you’re creating. I wouldn’t mention this except I can’t help but compare it to my favorite Star Wars book of all time, Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith:
“Listen to me: if this ‘Darth Sidious’ of yours were to walk through that door right now–and I could somehow stop you from killing him on the spot–do you know what I would do?”
Palpatine rose, and his voice rose with him. “I would ask him to sit down, and I would ask him if he has any power he could use to end this war!“
[…]”And if he said he did, I’d bloody well offer him a brandy and talk it out!“
How much stronger is that than if Palpatine had said “offer him an urrqal”? The scene from Revenge of the Sith feels immediate and real. It’s the most vivid interpretation of Palpatine I’ve seen. Stover was a gutsy writer, and that’s why his book still sticks with me.
I’m not trying to rag on Traviss’s writing too much. Overall, it’s quite good. Peter’s review confirms my impression that the action scenes are very realistic, and the interactions between the characters feel very real.
Both the protagonists and the antagonists are well drawn. The only weak link is Etain, and even that actually makes sense in a way.
There is a moral conundrum here for the Jedi. They’re guardians of peace and justice, but they find themselves in a war, not of their making, one they’re ill-equipped to fight without the clone army.
Instead of exploring that conundrum, Traviss chooses to shove her view down the reader’s throat, of the Jedi as belligerent tyrants who feel nothing for the clones as they merrily send them to their deaths.
You can definitely see this happening towards the end of Hard Contact. It’s very clear we’re supposed to sympathize with the Mandalorians (on both sides) and their straightforward warrior ethos over the Jedi. The final conflict at the end of the book is when Etain disobeys a Jedi Master to help out the commandos.
Now, I could say a bit more about how I think this ties in with the larger Star Wars universe, and why I think it makes sense, although I can also understand why it’s a controversial point. But, it involves bringing in a lot of Star Wars lore, and ultimately it’s just a matter of interpretation. It’s probably not worth looking at in-depth, especially since it would involve references to lots of other Star Wars media. No need to go down that rabbit-hole today.
Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I’m gonna do it.
I think a big problem a lot of people have with the Star Wars prequel series is the way it demythologizes the Jedi. After they’ve been built up so much in the original trilogy, we meet them in the prequels and they are… kind of bad?
I’m not telling you they’re as bad as the Sith, of course, but the fact is, in the Late Old Republic period, we’re seeing the Jedi at a time when the Order is already deep in decline. They break their own rules to let Anakin Skywalker join. They join a war effort that is contrary to their deepest values. As Yoda notes, arrogance is “a flaw more and more common among Jedi.”
This is symptomatic of the broader decline of the Old Republic. They say the fish rots from the head, and what could be a clearer sign of civilizational collapse than the most esteemed, élite and virtuous of the institutions becoming corrupted, betraying its own internal rules, and morphing into a catalyst for the destruction of the old system itself?
My favorite scene in the entire Disney sequel trilogy was the one where Luke gives Rey an accurate and unbiased history of the final days of the Jedi Order:
Luke: Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.
Rey: That’s not true!
Luke: At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.
Now, again, this isn’t to say the Jedi of the Clone War era are monsters. Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi etc. are good people trying to do the right thing. But sometimes what appears to be the “right thing” in the moment means making some compromise of values that will come back to haunt them down the line. Even the best people in the world, after all, can still be hypocrites.
I think Hard Contact goes right to this point. Joy is exactly right that Traviss clearly prefers the simple, soldierly virtues of the Mandalorians, who fight for nothing but honor and the guy beside them, to the overly-complicated and compromised clerical institution of the Jedi. This contrast becomes especially clear when the clones, who still have much of the old Mandalorian mindset, are under the command of Jedi.
With all that said, I think there are many, many Star Wars fans who just didn’t want the Jedi demythologized. And, I can respect that. “You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger,” after all, and I think the Original Trilogy notion of the Jedi as an ideal, a glorious order of noble knights, is one that many fans prefer over the Prequel Era’s deconstruction. Idealism vs. Realism: the unending debate.
All told, it’s a good book for older Star Wars fans, especially those who are fascinated by the clone army and the Mandalorians like I am.