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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 05/23/97 -- Vol. 15, No. 47
Table of Contents
MT Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 908-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 908-957-5087 email@example.com HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 908-949-7076 firstname.lastname@example.org Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 908-957-6330 email@example.com Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433 908-957-2070 firstname.lastname@example.org Backissues available at http://www.mt.lucent.com/~ecl/MTVOID/backissues.html or http://sf.www.lysator.liu.se/sf_archive/sf-texts/MT_Void/. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
URL of the week:
http://www.december.org/pg/ns/macon/. Web site for THE BABY OF MACON (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), including Peter Greenaway's comments. [-ecl]
Tobacco and Alcohol:
Evelyn and I were discussing an article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about the World-Wide Web of all things. Actually they were talking about report from a watchdog group called the Center for Media Education about tobacco and alcohol ads on the Web. Evelyn was curious what I thought about these ads, being like her something of an outsider.
I should explain that I don't smoke or drink. This is not because I think that they are immoral. If I am a puritan, I am not a puritan by choice. Nor do I keep away from these vices for fear for my health. I would like to feel that fear for my health might keep me away from these pursuits, but I certainly eat more than is good for me and health-consciousness does not seem to be powerful enough to stop me. I guess the simple truth is that I never got involved drinking or smoking out of laziness and esthetics. Most vices are not pleasant when you first try them. Alcohol has a bitter flavor. Smoking feels scratchy on your throat and can make you cough at first. Those with perseverance overcome the initial unpleasantness and learn to enjoy the vice. I was never so stubborn that I could overcome my initial distaste for the vices. Whenever I tried drinking or smoking it was like starting from the beginning and I hates the flavor or the feel. In remember when I was in graduate school and it was quite legal I tried a screwdriver, homemade. I made it to the recipe and tasted it. Ugh! I added more orange juice. Ugh! Still more orange juice. Eventually I flooded it with orange juice and got to the point where it didn't taste too bad. It wasn't as good as orange juice, but it wasn't so bad that I didn't want to drink it. Then it put me to sleep. I decided not to repeat the experiment.
Well, some of us just are not intended to be drinkers or smokers. And if the truth be known, I am not at all unhappy hating alcohol or tobacco. I still have the nervous energy that some people channel into smoking. I channel it into biting my nails, I guess. I would like to stop that, but it is probably harder to stop nail- biting than to stop smoking, in spite of the fact that nobody is putting addictive additives in my fingernails. The problem is that you can put cigarettes out of sight. You can just make sure there is no bottle of alcohol in the house. But there is a limit to how for you can separate yourself from your fingernails. And considering the intensity that I put into eating and nail-biting, I might well have the personality type to be a real boozer or chain smoker.
So I am, and I admit I am, something of an outsider in the subject of drinking and smoking. Evelyn asked me what I think of the alcohol and tobacco companies putting web-sites with ads on the Web. I am actually surprisingly sanguine about it. People who go to a beer company's web site are really requesting a beer ad. The same goes for someone going to a cigarette manufacturer's site. Making available ads on demand is far preferable to forcing them onto someone in a magazine ad. You go to a web site only by request. I frankly think that the web is a good place for these people to get their advertising in. These are ads on demand.
Then Evelyn asked me a question I had not thought about before. Which I think does more damage, alcohol or tobacco? Certainly the spotlight these days is on the tobacco industry. But I think I surprised her by saying I would have to choose alcohol as constituting the greater threat. Tobacco gets the attention because it is the more obvious when you are around a user. It is like if you had a choice between eliminating AIDS or mosquito bites, the obvious objective choice would be AIDS. But I have to admit my knowledge of AIDS is academic, my knowledge of mosquito bites is much more personal and to date for me more physically unpleasant. Most of us non-smokers, I almost would say all of us, have had the experience of breathing someone else's secondhand smoke. It is neither pleasant nor healthy. But I think the reason that there is so much tension between non-smokers and smokers is that sitting in someone else's smoke for a non-smoker is immediately unpleasant. You can know intellectually that the smoke is unhealthy also, the real tension comes out of the discomfort of having to breathe somebody else's smoke.
Next week I will continue this discussion and look at alcohol. [- mrl]
THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest (St. Martin's, ISBN 0-312-14705-8, 1996, 404pp, US$24.95) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I have resolved to spend more time pointing out the wonderful books that people don't seem to hear about, and much less reviewing the latest "nth book in a heptology" or whatever.
And this is a wonderful book.
Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier were two Victorian magicians who through circumstance became not only rivals, but bitter enemies. Borden's descendent is a modern-day journalist who has been having strange "premonitions" of a lost twin, and eventually becomes entangled in the strange tale of his ancestor and Angier. Both Borden and Angier were masters of deception, and it is this bent towards deception and concealment that leads to their war against each other. That both perform a trick involving magical bilocation is part of their rivalry, but only part. How they perform their magic, and the implications thereof, are only slowly unfolded throughout the book. By the end it all makes sense if one accepts some science fictional conceits and a certain amount of misdirection. But then, misdirection is what prestidigitation is all about, and Priest manages his magic trick as neatly as Borden and Angier do theirs.
This is a book that you cannot read only once. As with a stage magic trick, there is a compelling desire after seeing the trick to go back and see if one can figure out how it was worked. (This has been used to excellent effect in a couple of movies of late as well. After reading it you'll know which ones I mean, but even saying which is giving too much of a hint.)
This is a magical book, and the one mystery is how it's managed to remain as invisible as it has, especially given that it won the World Fantasy Award. It would be a better trick to materialize it on everyone's night stand (though of course that would bypass the royalties for it). So I'll settle for giving you a strong recommendation for this book. [-ecl]
DISTRESS by Greg Egan (Phoenix, ISBN 1-85799-484-1, 1996 (1995c), 342pp, L5.99) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I believe this is scheduled for United States release later this year, but if you're ordering books from Britain, you could as well add this to the list and not have to wait.
As usual, Egan packs a lot of ideas into a single novel. Our protagonist, Andrew Worth, is a 21st century science journalist who seems to concentrate on the sensational. But rather than doing a story on Distress (a new mental disease in which the patients display, not surprisingly, extreme distress), he decides to cover a conference at which leading scientists will present their competing Theories of Everything. This conference is being held on a bio- engineered renegade island called Stateless. That's already five science fiction ideas, and we haven't even gotten to the main part of the book.
Egan also has Violet Mosala, a brilliant African physicist who serves as both the apparent target of assassins and a mouthpiece for some decidedly "politically incorrect" ideas. I do not mean this negatively. When asked, "It seems to me that your whole approach to these issues reflects a male, Western, reductionist, left- brained mode of thought. How can you possibly reconcile this with your struggle as an African woman against cultural imperialism?" Mosala replies, "I have no interest in squandering the most powerful intellectual tools I possess, because of some quaint misconception that they're the property of any particular people: male, Western, or otherwise."
Although the interplay of politics and science is part of what makes this book fascinating, the somewhat straightforward political intrigue centering around Stateless does seem like piling Ossa on Pelion. Everything else ties together reasonably well, but that seems somewhat detached. The core of this book is similar to the core of many of Egan's other works (including his Hugo-nominated "Luminous," and his latest, "Reasons for Feeling Cheerful," which is already on my Hugo list for next year): does knowing or understanding something, whether a single phenomenon or the whole universe, change it, or our reaction to it? Does a "law" exist before it's understood? To what extent do our perceptions and understandings control the universe?
Not being a physicist, I can't judge the physics, but there are a couple of small errors I did note. There are no pyramids in the Valley of the Kings and at one point someone is described as a "loose canon."
This is another great Egan novel. Yes, I know that's redundant, but I want to make sure you realize this is a very positive recommendation. I'm sure there's a good reason that it's taken two years to get this book published in the United States; I just can't imagine what it is. [-ecl]
THE BABY OF MACON (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: A vitriolic and razor-sharp attack on Catholic theology, this film was never even released in the United States until now. What may be a second Messiah is born in the 17th Century in a time of pestilence. The ignorance of the people and the Church turn the event into a far worse disaster. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4), 7 (0 to 10)
I think I always have one of two reactions to Peter Greenaway films. Either I dislike the film or I like it but feel it is un- recommendable. In the latter category were THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER and PROSPERO'S BOOKS. His BABY OF MACON [there is a circumflex over the "a" in "Macon"] also falls into that category, but I do not have to worry about people not liking it as much as I did, at least in the United States. It was considered either so controversial, so revolting, or both, that it just never found a United States distributor.
More than usual with a Greenaway film, it is difficult to tell exactly what is going on. Presumably the story is of a play being performed and/or set at the 17th Century Court of the Medici--it is hard to tell which since events in and out of the play seem to blend together. As would have pleased Philip K. Dick, how many levels of play-within-play there are is impossible to determine. The story is a sort of burlesque of the birth of a new Messiah, twisting as many of the traditional Catholic symbols as possible. It is a time of multiple pestilence's and all the women of the region are sterile. When an obese old hag actually succeeds in giving birth to a beautiful baby, the local women see it as a miraculous birth, even to the point of asking for the baby's spit to use as an elixir. The baby's sister (played by Julia Ormond), sees a good thing and claims the baby as her own child and "proves" the birth to be miraculous by proving she is still a virgin. The son of the Bishop (Ralph Fiennes) is a scientist and a skeptic who does not believe in the purported new Messiah and in trying to disprove the ersatz Virgin Mary is pulled into the symbolism as a latter-day Joseph. As Ormand's character tells him, "Too many proofs spoil the truth."
Somehow all this does not convey the throat-biting viciousness of this satire. By any objective measure, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was by comparison a gentle and reverent jibe. Greenaway is a Howard Stern for intellectuals and he keeps revealing that he has stores of untapped acid and bile still in him. While he has a right to express himself as he wishes, I think if I were Catholic I would be very uncomfortable with this film. As interesting as THE BABY OF MACON is, Greenaway makes it a real trial to sit through. He uses a stodgy, mock-neo-classical, dry style that sucks the interest out of a scene like fluids out of a baby. It is hard to imagine another director who could make so dull a scene that features full- frontal nudity from both Ormond and Fiennes. Perhaps the reason Greenaway gets away putting so much nudity in is films is that in doing so he completely sidesteps eroticism.
The production design skillfully makes each frame fascinating while at the same time making so many full scenes seem endless. This film had four reasonable endings and gave the impression of finishing all afternoon. Greenaway often tries to build to a sort of twist ending, but here the twist is much more expected than it was in THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER. Fans of Masterpiece Theater in the 1960s will no doubt recognize the main musical theme as well as an unsurprising plot twist near the end.
Julia Ormond could well prove herself the Ingrid Bergman of her generation. Like Bergman she is a B+ actress with an A+ screen charm, even in what is in this case a rather detestable role. Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, completely submerges his ENGLISH PATIENT charm and plays the rather pasty-faced son of the Bishop. The Bishop, incidentally, is played by veteran actor Philip Stone. I first noticed Stone in UNEARTHLY STRANGER, a great (but sadly now very rare) science fiction film from 1963. It is good to see him still acting.
The best Greenaway film is really a mixed bag of quality, and this one is more mixed than most. I would give THE BABY OF MACON a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 908-957-5619 email@example.com
Quote of the Week:
Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility. -- James Thurber