MT VOID 01/16/98 (Vol. 16, Number 29)

MT VOID 01/16/98 (Vol. 16, Number 29)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 01/16/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 29

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-933-2724 for details. The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.

MT Chair/Librarian:
       Mark Leeper   MT 3E-433  732-957-5619
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  732-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  732-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
       Rob Mitchell  MT 2D-536  732-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  732-957-2070
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: James Joyce's ULYSSES for Dummies. [-ecl]

MT VOID: I have over a thousand magazines come for me to read in a year. I also get some unsolicited that I am not interested in reading, but there are over a thousand I do have some interest in. So that my magazines do not get ahead of me, I have cultivated the habit of reading a certain number of magazines each day. I keep track of it on my palmtop so that if I read fewer one day, the next day I have more. But I read just about the right number so that in the long run I stay ahead of the number that come in. However when I go on vacation I get far behind and because the processing rate is only a bit faster than the in come rate I can end up with months of backlog. I did some traveling over the summer, making it a big trip centered around going to the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio. So at this point I still have a big backlog and I am only now getting to a copy of PLOTKA, a British science fiction fanzine that in August reviewed the MT VOID. The reviewer is Alison Scott.

One of the things Alison Scott says is that her favourite bit is my weekly editorial. That I find rather interesting because every editorial is an act of sheer desperation. I mean the largest volume of what I write is film reviews and trip logs. Well, new films come out every week and I keep having vacations. So I always have a good idea what to write about there. But I have to come up with something new to say each week. I remember panicking in Junior High School because I had o go home and write two hundred words about a subject of my choosing. How would I choose? What do I have two hundred words to say about? Now I do that as a hobby. And I still have moments of panic.

You see every editorial you see in an MT VOID is an act of desperation. I am using up my last good idea. The editorial column is in the process of dying all the time. Then I hear something on the radio, or I make a joke, or I read something and I think that maybe I could write a few paragraphs on this new idea. I might be able to prolong the column one more week. My editorials survive a week at a time. There are those who would turn that into a metaphor for life. I remember one of my high school poetry teachers asked me if it wasn't true that the moment we are born we start to die. Not if you are born healthy, I said. I guess there are those who want to look at life as a fatal disease. And I suppose you can take that philosophy. Frankly if I want to be morbid I watch an old Universal horror film and get it out of my system. (1933's THE BLACK CAT may well be the most morbid film ever made. I love it. But I am digressing again.)

But the truth is that the weekly editorial is constantly in a state of dying. There are times that I am running out of ideas and nobody guarantees that there will be new ones coming along the way we are sure that there are new films coming out to write about. But since Alison was so nice as to write about the MT VOID, I can answer some of her questions.

What is the MT VOID? Is it a clubzine, a fanzine, or what? Well it is by origin the notice of upcoming events of the science fiction club at Bell Laboratories. Evelyn and I came to Bell Labs in 1978. The Labs sponsored a series of clubs to keep employees happy. They would throw a little money at them to help keep them going and let the clubs use their conference rooms over lunch hour. Now Evelyn and I had been in science fiction clubs in college and the three and a half years previous that we lived in Detroit. We figured at Bell Labs there had to be an active science fiction club. Nope. The closest they had was a bunch of people who pooled their money and bought the selections of the Science Fiction Book Club and shared the books through interoffice mail. Now this struck me as odd. These are supposed to be people on the cutting edge of scientific thinking. Every World's Fair they set up their big bulbous buildings to tell people about the world of tomorrow. Surely they must have a lot of people reading about the world of tomorrow. Science fiction is part of their stock and trade.

About nine months into our jobs Evelyn and I went to a science fiction convention in New York City. On the way home I made one of those suggestion that sounds small, but was really a live-changing suggestion for the two of us. We could found a science fiction club at Bell. There were some formalities, but we did it. We could read a book every couple of weeks and get together and discuss it. Bell Labs insisted for legal reasons that we not have "Bell Labs" as part of our name so initially we were the Monmouth County Science Fiction Club. Never mind that the only people in Monmouth County who could get to our meetings was people who worked at Bell Labs. These days just about everybody we know socially are people who we met through the science fiction club. Certainly the vast majority of the people who know our names would not have had we not founded the club.

Members had to be told what books we were intending to read and to be reminded of upcoming meetings so we started a notice, handwritten at first. There would be an issue just before each meeting to remind members to come. There would be an issue after each meeting to tell members what book was chosen. Soon that became dull so I started including a few of my own comments and some film reviews. Evelyn would contribute book reviews.

We were in Holmdel, New Jersey, a building whose inter-office mail code was "HO." Soon AT&T built two more buildings nearby, Lincroft with code "LZ" and Middletown with code "MT" Most of our members came from one of the three locations. We combined the three interoffice codes to rename our club, the Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society. It was not named for the mountain and only a year or so later we discovered there really is a Mt. Holz, in Switzerland if I remember rightly. At the time Mt. Holz could be found in a world atlas. These days I don't find it. Makes me wonder what happened to it.

In fact, at least for a while the name was a joke and was pronounced "Empty Holes." Following that concept we also redubbed the notice the "Empty Void." We are now mostly electronic. Anyone who can give us an e-mail address is welcome to get the MT VOID. Of course, due to AT&T splitting and taking the Middletown building we probably ought to rename the club and the notice. We have to give that some thought. We want to give the notice a name that is science fictional, but that nobody has used. Right now the front- runner for the name is "Last Dangerous Visions." [-mrl]

ILLEGAL ALIEN by Robert J. Sawyer [Ace, hardcover, copyright 1997. ISBN 0-441-00476-8, 292pp] (a book review by Joe Karpierz):

Robert J. Sawyer is rapidly climbing my list of favorite authors. In this age of multibook sagas and massive tomes that tell a 300- page story in 500 or 600 pages, Sawyer turns out standalone novel after standalone novel, none of which require a forklift to pick up or a suitcase to take to work to read during lunch hour. Instead, he tells a nice, tight story with no padding specifically designed to keep the publishers happy, and his latest is no exception.

ILLEGAL ALIEN tackles the issue of a murder trial in which the defendant is an alien from another planet. An alien species from the Alpha Centauri system, the Tosoks, arrive on Earth seeking help in repairing their spacecraft, which was damaged in a collision out near the edge of our Solar System. We opportunity grabbing humans cut a deal with the Tosoks for the repairs to their ship. It seems we have the materials and they have the know how. The deal is simple: they get their ship repaired, and we get the technology that allows those repairs to get made. So, a contingent of humans and seven Tosoks treks out to California and takes up residence in a new residence hall on the campus of USC. It is here that the murder of one of the humans take place. A fellow by the name of Cletus Calhoun, a country-hick astronomer from Tennessee who is the host of a show on PBS called "Great Balls of Fire!" is found dead in his room. One of his legs is severed, he is otherwise expertly dissected, and several of his body parts are missing. All evidence points to the Tosok named Hask.

Hask, of course, is arrested and accused of murder. Attorney Dale Rice is hired to defend him. The problem is, after seeing all the evidence, Rice is pretty much convinced that Hask is guilty. What follows, then, is an excellent murder mystery/courtroom drama that examines the U.S. system of justice as it attempts to try an alien being in its own court system. Sawyer weaves the intricacies of the justice system with an exploration of an alien culture and its reasons for coming to earth in an expert fashion, once again demonstrating that he has done his research in preparation for writing a novel. I know that I certainly learned a thing or two about our justice system that I never thought about before. The most glaring example of this is the outcome of the trial. I don't want to say anything about it, lest I give away the mystery, but I have to say that I was surprised when I read it. The trial resolution also tells us a little bit about human nature, and how we may not be such bad folk after all.

There are many, many details about the Tosok culture that I found fascinating, but once again, anything I write here (if there was enough of it, anyway), if pieced together (even with blind luck) could give away some of the story (for some reason, I'm immediately reminded of monkeys, typewriters, and Shakespeare, but I'm not sure the analogy applies). Suffice to say that the aliens are interesting. But Sawyer's human characters are interesting as well. We don't need pages upon pages of exposition to learn enough about Dale Rice, Cletus Calhoun, and the other major human characters to make them alive and relevant to the story, and Sawyer doesn't do that. He weaves enough of their background into the plot itself to make them come alive for the story. In reality, that's all we really need, and it works well.

So, I heartily recommend ILLEGAL ALIEN, as an sf story, a murder mystery, and a courtroom drama. I feel you'll be completely satisfied without straining your back or arms, or taking a massive amount of time out of your life. And that's a good thing. [-jak]

ALL-AMERICAN ALIEN BOY: by Allen Steele [Ace, ISBN 0-441-00460-1, 1997 (1996), 267pp, US$5.99 ] (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper ):

[Though this also has "ALIEN" in the title it is totally unrelated to ILLEGAL ALIEN, reviewed above, which came out from the same publisher at just about the same time.]

There is no story in this collection titled "All-American Alien Boy," but the subtitle of the book gives us the answer to the title: "The United States as Science Fiction, Science Fiction as a Journey: A Collection." Who is the "All-American Alien Boy"? It's Steele. But it's also each of us. (Well, some of us are All- American Alien Girls, but you get the idea.)

After all, isn't there something a bit alien in the idea of renting out your body for science ("The Good Rat")? Alien, yes, but also very capitalist and, well, American. Whether it's the shopping mall, the demolition derby, or Rock City, Steele takes something very American, and shows us how alien it is at the same time.

As if that isn't enough, Steele's introductions actually add something to the understanding of the stories. Too many authors, when confronted with the task of introducing their own stories, resort to either a bald description of how they came to write the story, or some brief--preferably humorous--anecdote about it. Steele uses this opportunity to talk about the ideas behind the story--what he thinks about UFO abduction stories, for example.

What this means is that even if you have all the stories from their original publications, this book is still worth getting. [-ecl]

WAG THE DOG: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: What might have worked nicely in a 20-minute film does not keep satire going for 97 minutes. To protect a President from an accusation of child molestation, a spin doctor decides to create a fictional war with Albania to act as distraction for the American people. It is fun for a little while seeing the political image specialist and the Hollywood producer brainstorm epic images inspired by those of previous wars and then see them actually implemented with 90s technology. But the film becomes repetitious with insufficient plot and occasional gaps in credibility. Both Robert DeNiro's and Dustin Hoffman's parts are under-written with more of an eye toward satire than to character. Hoffman does a better job of rising above the limitation. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4) There are spoilers in this review, but none that were not in the trailer that ran in movie theaters.
New York critics: 13 positive, 1 negative, 2 mixed

Somewhere lost in WAG THE DOG's 97 minutes is a bright, funny, pointed, and even frightening 20-minute film. The film makes some good points about the state of political images, about technology, and about the American public. But the film says it all concisely fairly quickly, then says it again, then for good measure says it again. Eventually the movie which from the outside would seem short out-stays its welcome. It is surprising that Barry Levinson thought that he could get by with one-dimensional characters in so repetitious a story however engaging and important the central idea was. Levinson knows the value of good characters. He built his reputation with DINER and he directed AVALON. Both are films with very real, very believable characters. This instead is an idea film, but it gives us the same idea over and over. The script is by Harry Henkin and David Mamet based on the novel AMERICAN HERO by Larry Beinhart. It tells us that what we remember from the wars of our past are images and ceremonies. For example, from World War II we remember the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima and a sailor kissing a girl in New York City when the war is over--the visual images of that war that had power. From Vietnam we remember a young girl running screaming in a street after a napalm attack; then there is the illegal pistol execution in another street. These images could always have been orchestrated and many probably were. And as time has passed the creation of these images has only become easier and less expensive with techniques like digital image processing. The government feeds us images rather than facts, or at least such is the implication of WAG THE DOG.

It is less than two weeks to the national election and the President is in big trouble. It seems he is accused of sexually abusing a Firefly Girl, part of a troop visiting the Capital Building. (I know that our current President is unpopular in some quarters, but even so this seems like a somewhat exaggerated premise.) An image expert, Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), is called in protect the President from the accusation and after some deliberation he determines that the best strategy is to give the President a military victory in the few days before the election. A war has to appear to start up and the President has to appear to win the war in just the short period of time before the election. Brean determines that the winning approach is to fabricate a war with Albania. To bring off such a war he needs the help of a top Hollywood producer. His choice is the handsome, graying Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman).

From there the film goes into a series of repetitious cycles. First there is the brainstorming session where Brean and Motss talk in understated tone about what sort of an image they need to impress the public. Not surprisingly, this sounds almost like they are planning for the production of a film. They hit on some idea upon which they can agree. The suggestion is actually produced and we see a few of the steps that go into the production to make it seem possible. Finally we see the final implementation as the public would see it and it is some variation on some image that inspired the public in some previous war. A song will sound very much like a song we remember, or some monument to the war heroes will look like some famous monument, aut cetera. Binding these cycles together is a bit of a plot, but not much of one.

The film offers two good actors in the lead roles, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. But there is little in this film to give much of a clue to who these people really are beyond what their jobs are. However, DeNiro plays his role a bit suppressed and Hoffman takes advantage of this to appear a much more outgoing person amused by the political machinations and his new-found power. The two are accompanied by Anne Heche, who seems to have been added to this film as an after-thought. She has little to do but tag along.

People who are nearer to either the film industry or the political process may find that there is much in this film that is on-target, but for many viewers this film will be an argument that there is still a place for the short film and perhaps it should be used more often. I rate this film a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

THE SWEET HEREAFTER: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: An opportunistic lawyer comes to a rural Canadian town in which a school bus accident has killed many of the town's children. With a smooth sincere-sounding line he turns grief into anger in the hopes of building a class action lawsuit. Atom Egoyan's non-linear telling gets in the way a little, but this is a powerful statement about the law and about grief. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 17 positive, 1 negative, 1 mixed

Atom Egoyan makes complex that often fit together like puzzles. His EXOTICA was a complex story that was never complete until the final scene made sense of things. THE SWEET HEREAFTER is not so tightly wound, but it is very tightly bound emotionally and still a puzzle. With this film Egoyan takes a close hard look at a cold British Columbia town in mourning after almost an entire generation of its children was wiped out in a tragic school bus accident. As the community tries to heal itself and carry on after the loss it is visited by a smooth and vaguely sinister lawyer. Mitchell Stephens (played by Ian Holm) implants in the minds of the townspeople that what is called for is not peace but a vengeful class action lawsuit. He convinces the locals that their should be no forgiveness for the guilty and that whenever there is an accident of this sort, there is always somebody who is guilty. There is always somebody who should be made to pay. He is the lawyer that they want to get them that payment and he will keep only a third for himself.

In the hands of a lesser director Mitchell could easily be reduced to being a one-dimensional devil. The script, written as well as directed by Egoyan, based on the novel by Russell Banks, dissects that character of Stephens. Stephens has a daughter on drugs and willing to do any self-destructive action to spite her father. For this daughter Stephens feels an icy helplessness and a sort of frozen rage. Icy and calculated are all of his reactions in an Oscar-worthy performance. In the course of the film we learn a great deal about him and where and how he lost his emotions. A major theme explored in this film, and there are several, is things that are out of people's control and feelings of utter helplessness. There is some fascination with the understated way that Stephens does his job. He searches for the parents who can best make a winning case for him and are the most susceptible to being won over. He also carefully checks them out for weaknesses that could harm his case.

Egoyan has some nice stylistic moves. The bleak Canadian winter seems to pervade the entire film and reflect the coldness of the people in the town who have isolated themselves from their emotions. The icy weather acts upon people and performs its own mischief including the central tragedy of the film. Conversations in the film are anything but volatile. People seem to think out their next response with notable pauses in the conversion. Then the film returns again and again to the theme of the Pied Piper. On one level the town has lost its children, disappearing not into a hole in a mountain that closes up but into a hole in the ground that also closes. On another level the grief of the parents has made them vulnerable to the outsider who wishes to lead them to where they might not otherwise not want to go. Egoyan holds off on showing the viewer the actual accident until late in the film. He shows it with a frightening simplicity. No dramatic music. The school bus just skids over the curb on a hill and out of sight slips down a hill onto a frozen pond where it slowly sinks. But it has a greater emotional impact than some of the fiery crashes we have seen elsewhere this year.

This is a film I expect to see on several best of the year lists, including my own. I suspect that it will not be remembered at Oscar time, being a modest Canadian film, but it certainly is one of the best of the year and will be on my top then list. I rate it a +8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [- mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   MT 3E-433 732-957-5619

Quote of the Week:

     Television is democracy at its ugliest.
                                   -- Paddy Chayefsky