MT VOID 03/13/98 (Vol. 16, Number 37)

MT VOID 03/13/98 (Vol. 16, Number 37)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 03/13/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 37

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: Evelyn Leeper's Boskone 35 convention report. [-ecl]

Empty Lives: I was talking to a friend about romance novels recently. You know that romance novels are by far the best-selling genre novels in the world. There are a lot of people, mostly women, who want to read about romance. For those who don't want to take the time to read, there is even a romance movie network on the cable. My friend said she felt sorry for the readers of romance novels and said she thought that the the reason there are so many romance novels sold is that the women who read them lead empty lives and had to escape from that into a book. I had never given a whole lot of thought to just what an empty life is and who has empty lives.

It seems to me that the empty life, like the bad hair day, is an affliction of the affluent. People who are really poor, people who really struggle tilling the soil to get enough to eat, never have bad hair days. This does not mean that their hair is always perfectly combed. But when you really have to put everything you have into the ground in the hopes that it will return you enough for you to feed your family and for you to survive, I don't think that a lock of hair sticking out in the wrong direction is considered much of a problem. And what gives your life meaning is your own survival and the survival of those you love. That is a pretty full life, whatever else you can say about it. People who have empty lives must already have a great deal, but perhaps they want something more out of life. And perhaps not.

Now what is stopping romance novel readers from getting more out of life? Well, first of all they may not realize they have empty lives. Generally, the empty life is not a self-diagnosed ailment. I guess a primary example of someone who could be said to have an empty life in a book might be Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. This is someone who is doing nothing great for anyone. He is leaving behind no great accomplishments. He is simply feeding his own hungers. But I can't believe if you asked him he would say he is leading an empty life. You could say much the same of Mrs. Robinson in THE GRADUATE. She lives in comfort and luxury yet from the outside we would say she is leading an empty life. She might not think so herself. There are people who diagnose themselves as having boredom, but not really having empty lives.

Now, there is great literature that these people could be reading to edify themselves, and they have every opportunity to read it. But they don't. Maybe the best analogy comes from George Bernard Shaw's play DON JUAN IN HELL, a smaller piece within his MAN AND SUPERMAN. (I know you are not going to trust me on this one, but this really is a play that is well worth getting ahold of.) Dona Anna is surprised to find people in Hell don't want to go to Heaven even though they would be allowed to go. The Devil explains why by analogy. In England he points out there are racetracks and there are concert halls. Now it is generally accepted that the concert hall is a more elevated form of entertainment than the racetrack. But the people at the racetracks don't run out to go to the concert hall instead. Dona Anna's father adds that at the concert hall there are rows and rows of people who are bored to tears. They are there not because they enjoy the music, but because they think they owe it to their position to be there. There are probably a lot of people who lead unfulfilled lives because for some reason that is the sort of life they prefer to lead. If it comes to a choice between watching "The Simpsons" or reading Hegel, they will choose watching "The Simpsons" every time. And they will no say that they are leading empty lives because of it.

It may seem to ungallant of me, but if I have to make a list of for whom I feel sorry, people who read romance novels, who have the time to read novels and choose pink-covered bodice-rippers an inch and a half thick, are going to be low on the list of people who receive my sympathy. [-mrl]

Physics: (comments by Avi Hauser):

A comment from reader Avi Hauser (somewhat delayed in the printing, sorry). I should point out that the article this is commenting upon is not so much as disparaging physics as disparaging people who think they are quoting the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle when they say you cannot observe something without affecting it. My example was observing a star going nova probably does not affect the long-dead star.

I should have known not to keep quiet when the first disparaging note on Physics was sent around. Now the second treatise about Physics is out and reply, I feel, I must. Quantum Mechanics describes a non-physical quantity called the wave function of objects. It gives us equations (usually Schroedinger's equation but there are other equivalent ones) whose solutions are these wave functions. It also tells us about physical quantities that can be derived from the wave functions. It so happens that there is a mathematical inequality that shows that location uncertainty(*) times momentum uncertainty are larger than a constant (happens to be Planck constant h divided by 4 pi, but I am showing off).

The interesting part about Quantum Mechanics is that it postulates measurements as operations on these wave functions and therefore, indeed, measurements do affect the measured entity. Mark has followed in the footsteps of other giants like Einstein, Podolski and Rosen who argued the same point: Quantum Mechanics means instantaneous interaction which in turn means going against the arrow of time. The EPR paradox, as it is known, has been shown to be a true prediction of QM and the last edition of Physics Today has an article about two such experiments. Those of us who work in telecommunication, may find it amusing to see the implications of EPR for communications. Indeed, measurement here can affect something else far away, even if it happened before! Luckily, we would not have to worry about super novas (novi?).

A more general note; Human Nature calls for understanding the philosophy behind the equations. I believe no theory would have been invented without the prejudice of philosophy, which makes us question current lore and helps us become stubborn enough to fight the current authority. Science fiction, which is how this e-mail list started, is another example where we mix ideas, beliefs, philosophy and science to the betterment of all.

Avi Hauser, a physicist in heart

(*) uncertainty squared is defined as the average (of the quantity squared) minus the square of the (average quantity) e.g. - 2. For mathematicians like Mark - it is the standard deviation of the population.

I am still unconvinced you can affect the star before the nova. [Mark Leeper, a mathematician at lunch.]

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: The Coen Brothers tell their funniest story since RAISING ARIZONA. Jeff Bridges plays an aging, burned-out hippie pulled into the weird goings-on after the wife of a famous multi-millionaire is kidnapped. The film is big-time funny, has a host of really weird characters and tremendous visual imagination, but could have used a stronger third act. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)

Now I claim what is going on here is that a cowboy without much respect for the sort of people he finds in Los Angeles, spins the gull-darnedest yarn about a guy he met in a bar a couple of times. But there will probably be other interpretations.

Jeff Bridges plays a laid-back aging hippie who happens to have the same name, Jeff Lebowski, as a famous philanthropist, though the hippie prefers being called The Dude. That sounds like it could be a good thing, but the philanthropist has enemies and some of the no-so-bright ones confuse the two and take their ire out on The Dude. After discussing the situation with his close bowling buddies, para-military Walter Sobchak (a hilarious role for John Goodman) and low-voltage surfer Donny (Steve Buscemi), The Dude figures there is nothing he can do but face the Big Lebowski (David Huddlestone). The Big Lebowski at first has little use for someone with The Dude's marginal life-style, but he finds a use when his wife is kidnapped and he needs someone to drop off the million- dollar ransom. The Dude wants to play it straight, but Sobchak figures if they play their cards right he and The Dude could split the million.

Only the Coen Brothers could tell a story this complicated, this weird, and with so many characters on so many different frequencies. The film is full of weirdoes, many of whom are present only to add texture. John Tuturro, missing from films for a while, plays the totally superfluous role of Jesus, the bowling rival of our heroes. The over-ripe Jesus practically dances a flamenco every time he throws the ball. Then their are the nihilist bikers. And if the script does not add enough weird characters, the character you think you know get weirder and weirder.

Raymond Chandler used to add a touch of the surreal to his mystery stories whenever his detective was knocked out by telling us Marlowe's dreams while he was unconscious. But then Philip Marlowe was only an amateur at hallucinating. He was not a stoned-out hippie like The Dude. Conk The Dude on the bean and you get weird bowling dreams that are worth the price of admission by themselves. The Coen Brothers have incredible visual imagination and tremendous good humor. Comedies of late have been mild smile- along-with- Sandra-Bullock sorts of things. The only recent film that made me laugh out loud recently was MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. But it has been a good while since I have laughed as hard as I did at THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The only real problem with the script is the plot lacks a strong finish. After a strong first and second act, the film has a much lower-key third act that resolves the mystery but lacks the strength and the humor of the first two. The film needed a wild finish and goes soft and sentimental at the wrong time.

This is a film that has great visuals and has genuine laugh-out- loud humor. If it has a weak spot it is only that the story is just okay, but that is not really the point. I rate it 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

TWILIGHT: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Mystery in a minor key. A once- policeman, once-detective, Harry Ross is now unpaid an errand boy and friend for a wealthy man. One errand gets him involved in a murder. Soon the complications involves blackmail and the buried past. There is a lot of talk and not a lot of thrills in this mystery set in modern Los Angeles. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)

Considering that TWILIGHT is only 94 minutes long and moves at such a slow pace, the plot is surprisingly complex, not to say downright confusing. The three main male characters are in their sixties and are taking that fact rather hard. Harry Ross (Paul Newman) has been a cop and a detective, but these days he is a houseguest for the well-off Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). Harry pays back his hosts by being a companion for Jack and occasionally running errands. Two years earlier the errand was to pick up Jack's daughter who had run off with her boy friend to Puerto Vallarto.

Given a private package to deliver to a woman runs Harry into a man dying of a fatal dose of bullets. The man's last act is to try to kill Harry. Both the police and Harry are anxious to know why. Harry is able to discover that the dead man was anxious to uncover the story, never fully explained, of what happened to Catherine's first husband before she married Jack.

Director Robert Benton, director of NOBODY'S FOOL, co-wrote this film trying for the depth of character that film had and at the same time the sort of mystery that Newman had with HARPER. It must have looked good on paper. Clearly a lot of good actors had some respect for the production and were willing to take non-starring roles. We see people like Stockard Channing and James Garner in supporting roles. M. Emmet Walsh appears just long enough to die on camera. It is hard to judge from a script if a mystery will be a good one or not. While the plot complications were convoluted, I picked out the killer early in the film, never wavered from my belief, and I was right. I suspect many viewers did the same. The film was probably made with the assumption that audiences would want to go along with Newman's easy-going rapport with his fellow actors, particularly James Garner with whom easy rapport does not seem like much of an accomplishment. However, with too much being so mellow the film robs itself of a sense of any real tension. Hackman tries to give some power to his role, but there is only so much he can do playing a man dying of cancer.

Of some additional interest is that the Ames mansion was really the home of Cedric Gibbons and Delores Del Rio. Gibbons was the art director on films like A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, and LUST FOR LIFE. Del Rio was a fiery Latin beauty in films of the 1930s and 1940s. The Ames's other home was one actually built by Frank Lloyd Wright, though never completed.

The aptly named TWILIGHT seems full of characters in the twilight of their lives and reaching a point where they think and talk rather than act. The point is carefully driven home that Newman's character is still a lover, but the viewer has reason to be skeptical. The actors give the feel of people going gently into that good night. I rate TWILIGHT a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

MRS. DALLOWAY: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: The title character has spent a lifetime of taking the easy route, choosing comfort over making her life meaningful. Now her big concern is that her party is a success. Contrasting, we see the story of a shell- shocked WWI veteran haunted by memories and self-accusation. Virginia Woolf's cat-like claw takes a swipe at the British upper-class. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)

Virginia Woolf wrote MRS. DALLOWAY as a stream-of-consciousness novel taking place in the title character's mind. Now Eileen Atkins has adapted the story as a somewhat non-linear narrative jumping forward and backward in time. There are two story lines, tangent at many points but never really converging into a single story. We have a view of Clarissa Dalloway as a young woman (played by Natascha McElhone) and as an older woman (Vanessa Redgrave), and we have the story of Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves). More on his story later. Even as a young woman Clarissa could not commit to anything but comfort and ease. Now as an older woman she has attained comfort and ease and her big concerns at the moment we see her all over the success of one of her own parties. She is an empty shell woman inside whom thoughts bounce around un- weighted by any real profundity. She is nostalgic for a past in which she consistently chose the path of least resistance in spite of frequent temptations to show a little character. As an adult she is an antique and a relic of a dying way of life with little inkling how irrelevant she is outside of a small circle of friends. She has little understanding of the hard world outside that circle.

Nearby and yet so far away is Septimus Smith who fought in the Great War and saw a close friend blown to pieces by a land mine. Already in shock from the war, he felt nothing at seeing his friend die so horribly. Now he is coming out of the initial shock and the meaning of what he has seen is haunting him. He blames himself for feeling nothing at the death of a friend. And he hates his doctors who seem as out of touch with the harsh realities of life as Mrs. Dalloway. They cannot even understand Smith's painful howl and instead pallidly prescribe a rest cure at an asylum. They see Smith as insane when the pain he feels is more real than anything in Mrs. Dalloway's entire useless life.

The theme of the two worlds is curiously reminiscent of Sidney Lumet's THE PAWNBROKER with Holocaust survivor Rod Steiger telling well-meaning do-gooder Geraldine Fitzgerald that he comes from a whole world that she knows nothing about and whose people are of an entirely different species. MRS. DALLOWAY is in some ways very much like THE PAWNBROKER told from the viewpoint of the genteel Fitzgerald character.

Mrs. Dalloway's friends and, in fact, her whole class seem to be out of touch with harsh reality. In a particularly telling sequence, a friend of Dalloway's decides that the best thing for England would be to take all the returning WWI veterans who have been unable to find work on their own and effectively exile them to Canada. Her friends who know a little more decide to humor her in spite of the foolishness and probable illegality of the plan.

Virginia Woolf's MRS. DALLOWAY must have been a difficult novel to adapt (by all accounts, I have not read it) and the script has some technical problems made worst by some casting problems. The telling drifts from present into the past with little signal and it is not always obvious that it has happened. It is very difficult in the flashback sequences to match the younger versions of characters to the older ones since the characters are played by different actors who often are physically quite different. The young Clarissa and her friend Sally are nearly the same height in their 20s and considerably different in height what is probably their 50s. We are led to assume that having children has shortened Sally by what must be six inches. It might well have been better to use only young actors and age them much as Orson Welles aged himself in CITIZEN KANE. But for these problems in the casting, most of the roles seem well-played with veteran British actors in several of the roles.

This film is for the most part gentle, but deep-down there seems to be a lot of anger in the telling, perhaps more than one would find in even an E. M. Forster or John Galsworthy story. It would be interesting to read the novel to see if Woolf has the same disdain for the characters that the film seems to have. I rate MRS. DALLOWAY a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

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

Quote of the Week:

     Most people would die sooner than think; in fact they do so.
                                   -- Bertrand Russell