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AICN BOOKS! Adam Balm’s Back With Our First Review Of SPIDER-MAN 3... Sort Of!!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Adam Balm is working to find solid genre material to review for us, and so far, I think he’s delivered some great columns for us, and this month, he’s got another good one that includes his review of the novelization of SPIDER-MAN 3. Check it out, and then drop by The Zone to let him know what you think and to continue the conversation:

So summer is coming quickly upon us, and one cool thing about the SF book industry is, unlike the film industry, the blockbuster season and awards season are one in the same. Summer's when we got WorldCon and the Hugos, we got Nebulas the happening, the Arthur C. Clarkes, and we got the years best science fiction and fantasy collections. And this year we'll also see the last Harry Potter book and the last Dune book. I'm going to do my best to cover all of them, except for the Arthur C. Clarkes, and I'll tell you why. As many probably know, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day have been ruled ineligible because the UK publishers wouldn't provide the judges with free review copies. So in my eyes, the ACC's have lost their credibility this year, and I would encourage those interested to boycott the awards. Anyway, moving on... Spider-Man 3 [SPOILERS] by Peter David (based on the screenplay by Alvin Sargent) Pocket Star Even allowing for the fact that this is a novelization - and so granted there's always going to be some expanding to get a 100 page screenplay into a 350 page book - but even allowing for that, Spider-Man 3 feels like a lot thrown in at once. Much like X3: The Last Stand, it feels like they took the two or three directions they liked the most and decided to go with all of them at the same time. Or maybe it's just that there's too many plot threads to wrap up, too many new characters introduced that don't get the development they deserve. Peter David seems to be Marvel's go-to guy for novelizations these days. With the Hulk, he made a dark and bewildering movie a little lighter and easier to understand, and with Fantastic Four he made a light and funny movie a little...lighter and funny. I don't know how much is David's work here and how much is the original screenplay, likewise I don't know how what's changed since the earlier draft that David most likely would have worked off of, so a bit of a warning before I get into the nitty. And this whole thing is going to be spoiler territory so let them avoid, that must. The first thing we notice starting out is that this isn't the hated and misunderstood spidey of the first two films. His face is plastered everywhere, and not in wanted posters either, but up on billboards and the jumbotron in Times Square along with the words 'NYC <3 Spider-Man!' He's now the unofficial 'face' of New York. The board of tourism decided to use him as a way of making everyone feel safe again, in these crazy times. It's the only city that has a Spider-Man looking out for you. Peter has reached the top and has all he could hope for. All the conflict and indecision in him, the love unrequited, has all evaporated. People love him. And more importantly...Mary Jane loves him. Not too much has changed since we last saw him. He still works freelance at the Bugle, Harry still hates him but isn't making any moves. He has a new lab partner in Dr. Conners' class, named Gwen Stacy. And though he just met her, Gwen's actually known about him for a long time. Her father (Captain Stacey) was the first on the scene after Uncle Ben's murder, and he often retold the story of the grief stricken youth who watched his uncle die. The first third of the story takes place all in the span of one night, the night that Peter's (almost) perfect little world is shattered. It's the opening night of Mary Jane's big Broadway debut, and also coincidentally the night of a meteor shower. After the show, Peter and MJ go off to some secluded spot to watch the cosmic fireworks. It's here (as we already know from the footage online) that Peter realizes that he's going to ask Mary Jane to marry him. Peter can be forgiven for not noticing that after one of the meteors crash nearby, an alien goo seems to emerge and attaches itself to Peter's shoe. Afterwards is the scene that's been placed online where he heads to Aunt May's place to give her the news, and its on his way back that Harry attacks him in full on Goblin mode. This doesn't go to well for Harry, and he ends up in the emergency room flat-lining. Spidey 3 is actually a lot like Superman Returns, to be honest. This is a story of fathers and their children: Harry's quest for vengeance mirrors Peter's, Flint Marko's turn to crime was to provide for his sick daughter. It's ironic that Flint Marko's reasons for becoming a criminal (and ultimately killing Uncle Ben) are more noble than Peter's initial reason for becoming Spider-Man. (Naked self-interest, to win the wrestling prize money to impress Mary Jane.) I'm not sure where Eddie Brock fits in to that analysis, partly because I'm not sure how Eddie Brock fits in the story in general. He feels a bit tacked on, like he belongs more in a Spidey 4 than this movie. Which is sad because at least the way David portrays him, Brock is the most three dimensional of all the characters. Brock's dating Gwen, at least he thinks he is. And he's now Spidey's new personal photographer, at least he thinks he is. He's as pathetic and pitiful an antagonist as Peter can be as a protagonist. They cross paths when suddenly (after Peter working freelance for years) a staff job opens up, and JJ decides it'd be sporting to watch them go head to head for it. So he tells them that the first one who gets a shot of Spidey being the fake, the criminal, the menace that he knows he is...gets the job. One thing you can always count on from Peter David is the little in-jokes and nods to the comics, or to fandom in general. There's a part where Peter, upon seeing a kid spraying a toy Spider-Man webshooter, remarks to himself that he couldn't even begin to imagine how he would've built webshooters for himself if he didn't have the organic ones. A little forced? Maybe.. One annoying thing is how much Flint Marko's motivation and arc feel a little too much like Doc Oc from the last go-round. Which isn't too complex: He needs money, so he robs banks. Far more interesting is Brock's turn to venom, which sadly we only just get in the final act. One thing to ponder is how much of Venom is Brock, and how much of it was Peter. It's fascinating that it's actually harder to watch Brock's descent than it is Peter's. We're used to seeing Peter suffer. The final battle goes pretty much as has been rumored. I don't feel the need to spoil something twice. Everyone already knows how Harry figures in. By its nature, the fight scenes in a comic book film are going to lack a certain suspense: you know that the hero is going to be okay, and that the bad guy obviously won't. So I was surprised by just how violent the big four-man brawl really was, by just how bad Spidey gets his ass handed to him. You end up actually thinking to yourself "Could... this... be... the end of Spider-Man? *gasp*". In the end, I guess you could say it's a satisfying conclusion to the series, if they do decide to end it here. The last scene ties up nicely with that of the first film, and you walk away knowing that while there's always more stories to tell, it doesn't feel like they absolutely need to tell them. One door is closed, another opens. As it should be. Keeping It Real: Quantum Gravity Book One by Justina Robson Pyr Justina Robson is part of the much talked about 'new weird' coming out of the UK. Whether she considers herself that would be interesting to find out. Nearly everyone who has been placed in that category (Except China Mieville, probably has something to do with the fact that he created the category..) has disputed it. In that way it's a lot like the New Wave out of the UK 40 years earlier. Like most of the new weird, she's been a virtual critical darling. From the John W. Campbell award to the Philip K. Dick award, to the BSFA, and being short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke, she's had no shortage of buzz or acclaim. The reason I bring this up is that I wonder how many of those critics who gave that acclaim will respond to Keeping it Real. This isn't a novel by someone looking to win awards. This is a novel hard to define, and not in an artsy-fartsy way. This is a novel that, like the realities that shatter into one, tears apart all genre conventions and mixes them together into something new. And if that were enough to stack against it: In a male-dominated industry, this is a novel written by someone channeling their inner teenage girl, writing for teenage girls. Last month I spoke about SF needing to change or die. In an essay by Kristine Kathryne Rusch that appeared in Asimov's last year "In [2003], SF counted for 7 percent of all adult fiction books sold. In 2001, SF counted for 8 percent. The literary trend spirals downward while the media trend goes up. Half the new television dramas introduced in 2005 were science fiction, fantasy, or had a fantastic element. Most of the movies in the top twenty for the past five years have been SF. Nearly all of the games published have been SF." The print SF world has been falling behind for decades. It can expand to reach out to this new audience, or it can continue to be incestuous and cannibalistic. Right now the only entry point for new readers is media tie-ins. But Keeping it Real may turn out to be one example of the change that SF may want to embark on. Because this isn't SF for SF readers. This is SF for a generation raised on anime, manga, and MMORPGs. This is SF for the Wii gamer. Keeping it Real begins as a kind of Robocop-meets-The Body Guard. After death threats on the life of Zal Ahriman, lead singer of the No-shows, cyborg special agent Lila Black, is assigned to protect him. Normally this wouldn't be too interesting, but this appears to be a special case. Zal's an elf, and besides elves not being the most hard core lot ("OMGZ, Elves don't rock!") we learn that elves have cut off all contact with our world (Known as Ootopia, or what was once called 'earth' before the Quantum Bomb.) years ago. And not just any elf. We learn that he has carefully hidden his past, he has ties to Demonia, the realm of the demons, eternal opposites and enemies of the elves. He seems to have a part to play. We learn that he is a focal point, that his assassination could shatter all the six realms, separating them all for good. And if that's not enough problems for Lila, she appears to be caught in a 'Game' with the elf. Whoever loses will not be able to love again for the rest of their lives. Normally this could read like the worst Worlds of Warcraft slash fiction you could find on the net. "A sexy and mysterious cybernetic cyborg has to protect an equally mysterious and equally sexy elfin rock star, who she seems to be caught in magical version of 'playing hard to get'..." Which again, is probably another reason why KiR may not find itself as welcome among critics as her previous work. If that's the case, I think it's our loss as a genre. Space Boy by Orson Scott Card Subterranean Press Historically, Orson Scott Card has always been at his best when he's writing for kids. Besides Ender, you can look at his comic work on Ultimate Iron Man. But with Space Boy, to my knowledge, this marks the first illustrated children's book that he's done. How does he do? It's short, but sweet. It feels kind of like something he wrote on a Sunday afternoon, or something he might've told his kids as a bedtime story, or maybe something he did for the check...who knows. It does what it needs to do in a children's story. Your average everyday kid has an otherworldly encounter, and is swept off to adventure and yada yada. You get the idea. Todd is thirteen years old. By the age of four he had memorized the planets of the solar system. By seven he had memorized their orbits and distances, and by ten he had memorized all the constellations. That's about the height of his achievement. Despite his dreams of being an astronaut, he's no good at math or science, and he's no better at sports either. He's quite certain, even at this young age, that he'll grow up to be nothing spectacular. In other words, he'll probably be like his father, who he holds in contempt. The major reason for his dislike for his father, as we discover, goes back to his mother's disappearance four years ago. Four years ago his mother seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. His brother says the 'monster in the closet' took her. Todd had never believed his brother until the day Eggo, the elf from the parallel universe, was crapped out the anus of an interdimensional worm onto his front lawn. His mother, he finds out, has been trapped on their planet for the last few years, a tiny ultra-dense world where she can exist only as a kind of transparent mist. So of course Todd has to go journey to Eggo's tiny ultra-dense world, and though he has no idea how, he has to save his mother. This ends up involving sticking a garden hose up the interdimensional worm's butt. If this was anyone except OSC I'd ask "Were you high while you wrote this?" but I don't think his religion, nor his wives, would approve of it.... Anyway, strangely enough, it all seems to work. It reads like the kind of story you'd come up with as a kid, as the best children's stories should. Gradisil by Adam Roberts Pyr It's morning on October 4, 2004 in the Mojave desert. The sun hasn't risen yet on the west coast. It's the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the dawn of the space age. And here a man named Burt Rutan and a couple dozen of his employees are about to launch the first manned non-governmental space vehicle for the second time----and with it, launch a new space age. That was the goal of the Anzari X-Prize, a 10 million dollar bounty for whoever could launch a _ into space, and do it again within _ months. And I realized something: This was the first manned American spacecraft to launch since the break-up of space shuttle columbia over Palestine, Texas two years before. NASA still had its shuttle fleet grounded, its entire future in question. And here was a group of guys in the middle of the desert, literally working out of a garage, using airplane parts and off-the-shelf rocket engines. This wasn't the top-down space travel we were promised in 2001. This is bottom up. This is tweakers and hackers seeing how far they can push technology by themselves. This is the future that Gradisil explores. Modeled after Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy of greek tragedies, it's a multi-generational saga of man's colonization of the high frontier of low-earth-orbit. It's epic SF in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy or Allen Steele's Coyote trilogy, although it feels like it could have been written in the days of Heinlein. And perhaps most profoundly, it's a story about two Americas: The America that WAS (reflected in the rustic frontiersmen of the uplands) and the America that IS (reflected in the ambitious and expansionist US that launches a war to gain dominance of the new frontier.) In the story, a new technology has emerged that allows space-planes to coast along the currents of the earth's magnetic field. (No, it's not possible, but nevermind that for now.) Suddenly space is cheap, and space is there for anyone who can get there. Now the sky is filled with the 'up-lands', a new nation being born in space, born of tweakers and rich eccentrics and pioneers...all eager to slip the surly bonds of earth and escape to a new life, into the lawless and wild world that is the black sky above. It's a place free of the laws of the modern world, free for you to make whatever life you choose, a libertarian's dream. But the dream becomes a nightmare when Klara's father is seemingly murdered, and with no law in space, the authorities can do nothing to help but shrug with a sigh of 'sucks to be you.' We follow the life of Klara, her daughter Gradisil (from which the book draws its name) and her son Hope through war, tragedy, revenge, destruction and finally a kind of rebirth. Gradisil is written as if there hasn't been a dozen books and hundreds of shorts out each year since the 50s about this subject. It reads like this isn't the most overdone trope in the history of the genre. We've heard the criticism for decades, mostly from the British SF writers, that science fiction is mostly 'space westerns' (to use Stephen Hawking's term), that the old American tropes of frontiers and immigrants seeking a new life is a genre organ transplant that isn't applicable to space colonization. Gradisil reads like this subject hasn't been covered, re-covered, become cliche, been resurrected, brought out and tried discarded again and again every 20 years or so. Nearly every SF author or SF fan has been bored to tears by the 'space as the high frontier' trope. It was hauled out again and dusted off in the 90s, as ALH84001 and Sojourner made everyone excited about hard 'near-space' fiction again, but since then it's fallen once again into disrepair and sits in the used car lot of worn out ideas, waiting to be recycled. Adam Roberts writes like he's either ignorant or unconcerned with this fact, but there in lies the genius. With Gradisil...ignorance is bliss. The sins of Gradisil turn out to be its virtues. It's not trying to writing about something new, it's trying to write new about something. It takes someone who isn't decades-long-immersed in the subject to make it feel new again. It doesn't read like the trope is stale and tired. It reads like watching a wide-eyed child looking up at the sky, after you've sneered at the stars in contempt for so long. Inside every jaded SF fan you'll find the 12 year old Heinlein reader. We're all afraid to even get excited about space travel like we used to. It's not 'relevant'. Michael Moorcock told us all to explore innerspace, remember? It's interesting that Gradisil probably would have been rejected by Astounding. The magnetohydrodynamic space plane is physically impossible. Do a search for magnetic levitation propulsion on the net, and you'll find a million crank ideas on it going back decades, none of which have passed laboratory testing. But nevermind that. The technology is a mcguffin, it's no more important how they work than how James Blish's 'spindizzies' enabled entire cities to be lifted off the ground and cruise the cosmos faster than light. And despite the implausibility of central technology, there's an unbelievable amount of detail and research that Roberts has put into this. From little things like needing to wear CO2 scrubbing masks while you sleep (In zero g, your own breath hangs around right in front of your face, and your own respired carbon dioxide can asphyxiate you.) to the unfeasibility of huge '2001' ring stations because of the effects of Coriolis forces on the vestibular system, making your head swim every time you take a step. Both of these have been seen elsewhere in SF, but it's nice to see Roberts doing his homework. There's an old saying about good science fiction: Pick one. You can have good science or you can have good fiction. You have your Hal Clements, your Poul Andersons and Gregory Benfords whose science are unassailable but whose dialog and characterization are barely above Star Wars fan fiction; and then you have your Ursula Le Guinns, your Samuel R. Delanys, your J.G. Ballards and Brian Aldisses who are as interested in science as The Prisoner was interested in the criminal justice system. In choosing between good science or fiction, Adam Roberts works incredibly hard to reach the former, but he achieves the latter effortlessly. So stop by the Zone to discuss these and other books with me in the AICN BOOKS Forum, or drop me an e-mail if you've got something I should read. Thanks. Adam Balm.
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