MT VOID 04/24/98 (Vol. 16, Number 43)

MT VOID 04/24/98 (Vol. 16, Number 43)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 04/24/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 43

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
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All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: One of many Shakespeare home pages. The mystery anthology SHAKESPEAREAN WHODUNNITS is reviewed later in this issue, and yesterday was Shakespeare's birthday. [-ecl]

James Bond: ZERO MINUS TEN by Raymond Benson (G. P. Putnam's, ISBN 0-399- 14257-6, 1997, 272pp, US$22.95) (a book review with commentary by Mark R. Leeper):

After the death of Ian Fleming the character of James Bond must have been considered to be too commercial to simply let die. Other authors have received permission to write their own James Bond novels. None, of course, has gotten the following that Fleming did. However, Eon Films is starting to use material from John Gardner, I believe, giving him their stamp of approval. As for the quality of the novels, well, they are mostly pretty pat. But then a James Bond novel is not supposed to be good--it is supposed to be a James Bond novel. Bond is always highly self-confident and supernaturally lucky. The James Bond villain is supposed to look intelligent enough to be a threat, but then he is brought down more by his own hubris than by anything that Bond does. James Bond novels are not really good spy stories, or at least not the highest quality spy stories. Len Deighton, Donald Hamilton, or John Le Carre could sustain much better spy series than the best Bond novel.

I had previously read James Bond novels by Kingsley Amis and by John Gardner. But recently I saw that the mantle had been passed to a new writer, Raymond Benson, author of THE JAMES BOND BEDSIDE COMPANION. His first James Bond novel is ZERO MINUS TEN. I was hopeful that with a new author would come some new twists. And there did, but not as many as I would have liked. It appeared from the book and some discussion I had read that at least part of the novel would take place within mainland China. An adventure that would take James Bond into the mainland of China is actually an intriguing idea. Things are very different there than they are in his usual glamorous Western settings. Even a chase through China would be little like anything that has ever been in a Bond novel. Bond would obviously be a stranger wherever he went and at the same time the author would have to give us a great deal of detail about life in current China. It sounded like Benson might have been doing some serious and creative departing from the usual mold. Well it turns out that the major settings are Hong Kong and Australia, and there is a relatively short plot stretch in Guangzhou. That is the city that the West used to incorrectly call "Canton." The province is Canton, but the city is Guangzhou. Hong Kong and Australia are unusual Bond locations, though not as unusual as a novel set predominantly in China would have been. Actually Guangzhou is the least adventuresome city in China for Benson to choose. It has been the most Westernized city due to the Guangzhou Trade Fair which would bring visitors from all over the world. It was one of the first places where Western dress was seen back in the early eighties.

One of the problems that a current Bond storyteller has is that James Bond has been around so long. Benson should have decided how old to make Bond, but he sidestepped the issue. In ZERO MINUS TEN there are references to Bond remembering previous cases that we know took place in the 1960s, but this novel takes place in 1997 at the transfer of Hong Kong back to China. It does not sound right to have someone as nimble as James Bond is in this novel remembering cases he was on better than thirty years earlier. If he had been thirty years old then, and that is about the minimum he could have been, that would make him sixty-something now. And he recovers from injuries much too fast for someone who is of his apparent age. The same problem occurs with other heroes, of course. Batman has been around for something like sixty years, but one perpetually thinks of Batman as being about ten or fifteen years into his crime-fighting career. I guess the reader thinks of his origin as being true and the last ten or so years of the comic. But then in the comic, at least when I read it, there were no references to incidents that happened impossibly long ago. It might have been better for Benson not to mention Bond's early missions.

By setting this story in Hong Kong in part, Benson is able to give us a painless introduction to Chinese history of the last 150 years or so, including the story of the Opium Wars and how Hong Kong came to have this unusual status of a forced "loan" to Britain. However, not everything that Benson tells us about the Chinese may be entirely accurate. At two different places in the plot it is claimed that Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were members of the Triads, a criminal organization that figures into the plot. Of one of the men I might have believed it. Both I would have to see some documentation to believe. Elsewhere it is said that the peach is a symbol of loyalty in Chinese art. It is actually a symbol of longevity and marriage. In Chinese lore the gods had a peach tree whose fruit gave immortality.

But those are is just side issues. Does Benson give us a cracking good James Bond yarn? Well, no. In the final analysis Benson delivers on little of the promised originality. Most of the plot really is just a retread of a lot that has been done before in James Bond novels and films. Standard and overly worn conventions are used. We have the villain who cheats at some game and Bond comes along and out-cheats him. This is a tradition going back to the golf game in GOLDFINGER and has been used in many other Bond stories. In ZERO MINUS TEN it is Mah Jong. I find that somewhat amusing, but then when I was growing up the only Westerners I knew who played this game were middle-aged Jewish women. The concept of James Bond playing a cutthroat game of Mah Jong is probably not as whimsical as it seems to me. But overall too much of this book is borrowed from tired James Bond conventions. There is a plot twist, but one that is telegraphed as soon as it is set up. Most painful, we have the villain who could easily just shoot Bond and be rid of him. Instead, he tells Bond his plans and even hints at what should be his best kept secret. Bond only has to use what he has been given to foil the plot. Once Bond has talked to the villain the last quarter of the book becomes very stereotypic and predictable. Sadly, when the subtitle of the book calls this THE NEW JAMES BOND ADVENTURE it is only partially correct. [-mrl]

SLIDING DOORS (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Two possible futures for the same woman are explored in SLIDING DOORS. Issues of fate and happenstance are the subjects of a lightly science-fictional romantic comedy. Our present seems to split into two alternate futures just when Helen is having a bad day. We follow her life in both of two parallel story lines. We see what things are different and which are the same as in both worlds she works out the kinks in her love life. Gwyneth Paltrow is charming in a generally cleverly written script. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)

Some of the most interesting science fiction films have no special effects at all. SLIDING DOORS is a new film much in the mold of the 1971 film QUEST FOR LOVE. Each tells a pair of love stories in parallel timelines that have split off from each other. In SLIDING DOORS we cut from one story to the other seeing how things progress for our character in each of the two possible futures. Some things happen quite differently, some are mysteriously similar.

Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is already not having a good day. She has just lost a nice job at a London public relations firm. She is headed back to her apartment where, unbeknownst to her, boy friend Gerry (John Lynch) is two-timing her (no pun intended). He is shagging with his old girl friend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). As Helen is heading down the stairs to the Underground, time mysteriously splits. From this point on, we cut back and forth between the two worlds following the lives of Helen1 in one world and Helen2 in the other. Helen1 is delayed ever-so-slightly on the stairs and gets to her platform just in time to have the train sliding doors slam in her face with her on the wrong side. Helen2, who was not delayed on the stairs, gets to the train a moment sooner, makes the train, and finds a seat next to the charming James (John Hannah). Helen1 is forced to look for a cab and on the way is mugged. She must spend a few hours in hospital. Helen2, not delayed, returns to the flat to find Gerry2 in bed with Lydia2. Deciding that she needs an entirely new life, Helen2 leaves Gerry2 and goes to live with her best friend. Helen1 is released from the hospital and returns home to find some evidence that Gerry1 is cheating on her, but is in no mood to chase it down. Each Helen has to find a new living now. Helen1 puts her hair in braids and takes a job as a waitress. Helen2 starts wearing her hair blond and short and sets up her own public relations firm. After two or three chance encounters with James2, Helen2 decides to start dating him, in spite of not trusting him after her former relationship. Gerry2 takes up with Lydia2 again but wants to win Helen2 back and Lydia2 is just as determined to stand in the way. Meanwhile Helen1 becomes more and more suspicious that Gerry1 is cheating on her.

This is not an easy concept to get across to the audience. It would just not be very subtle to put a placard in front of the audience saying "time is splitting and we are following two futures for Helen." At one time it might have been handled, as it was in QUEST FOR LOVE, with a wise old scientist popping up to explain that time has taken two paths and Helen is in each world living different lives. But either would have been crude and the accent here is not on the science but on just exploring two possible futures for the same modern woman. And unfortunately just when the concept would have been most confusing for the audience, just after the split has taken place, the two lives are the most similar. The viewer probably does not realize there is a Gerry1 and a Gerry2 and wonders why Gerry1 does not remember the falling-out that Gerry2 had with Helen2. However as Helen1's appearance and life diverges from that of Helen2 it becomes somewhat clearer.

As everyone is aware, Paltrow is an actress who is pleasant to look at but who rarely get challenging roles. This is by far her best acting, as she plays two women growing and changing in different ways from the same beginning. Unfortunately, there is not much original required in either of her roles. Betrayed lovers have been done all too frequently on the screen. John Hannah is likable on the screen, John Lynch seems a little too befuddled to be leading a double life. Neither does much extraordinary. This film offers an interesting idea but little beyond the novelty of the two parallel paths. Neither story by itself is of sufficient interest that anyone would pay to see it in a theater. Even if both stories were told consecutively one after the other they would be two very bland stories. Only a little obvious contrivance gives the film a tiny amount of dramatic tension toward the end of each story. It is the editing together and simultaneous telling that give the film its ginger. That allows the viewer to compare two futures and is what makes the exercise worth seeing.

I rate SLIDING DOORS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

SHAKESPEAREAN WHODUNNITS edited by Mike Ashley (Carroll & Graf, ISBN 0-7867-0482-9, 1997, 422pp, US$10.95) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):

This anthology of twenty-five stories should appeal to most Shakespeare lovers. That means it will probably still have fewer sales than, say, PSYCHIC CAT DETECTIVES, but one can't have everything.

Let's start with what isn't covered. No one deduces who the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets was. And no one deduces who wrote Shakespeare's plays (other than that Shakespeare wrote them). The stories fall into two major and one minor categories. The minor category (two stories) includes mysteries set in the real world of Shakespeare and centering around the writing of the plays. The two major categories are stories which attempt to unravel a mystery within a play (e.g., how did Mamillius really die in "The Winter's Tale"?) and stories which follow the action of a play (e.g., what happened to the people left alive at the end of "King Lear"?).

To the purist, of course, the former is more satisfying. It takes only what Shakespeare has given us and derives its story from that. It is like the "deductive puzzle" mystery in that we have all the information necessary; while additional details are revealed in the story, the basic facts are already established.

The latter is a bit dicier. The author can add all sorts of characters and events to the existing story. But he or she must tread carefully to avoid having a completely unrelated mystery that just happens to have Marc Anthony as the detective who solves it. (I made this one up. No one does anything this blatant.)

Ashley organizes the stories as follows: those based on the histories, in event-chronological order, then the rest of the stories based on plays, in historical order based on the plays' settings (though I don't agree with his placement of "King Lear" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), and finally the stories based in Shakespeare's real world. The problem with this from a reading perspective is that there's a fair amount of heavy history all in a lump at the beginning. It also violates standard anthology placement: strongest first, second strongest last. At the beginning of each story, he briefly recounts the events of the play so that those of us who are a bit rusty on what exactly happened in "Coriolanus" (for example) are brought up to speed. (I suppose I should note that I have actually read all the plays as part of my reading plan a couple of years ago. That doesn't mean I remember them all perfectly.)

And the stories themselves? Well, I'll list them all, with the plays upon which they are based, but comment only to the extent that seems necessary.

King John: "When the Dead Rise Up" by John T. Aquino: Not an auspicious start for the anthology, in that the play is not one of the most familiar. To some extent it creates its own mystery.

Richard II: "The Death of Kings" by Margaret Frazer: This actually looks at what might be considered a real mystery in the play, which makes it one of the more interesting stories to me. (The fact that "Richard II" is one of my favorite plays might have something to do with this.) It also seems inspired by Agatha Christie, but I won't say more than that.

Henry IV: "A Villainous Company" by Susanna Gregory.

Henry V: "The Death of Falstaff" by Darrell Schweitzer: A well- written story, with a disappointing resolution.

Henry VI: "A Serious Matter" by Derek Wilson: A bit of an attempt to create a mystery where none existed before, with a somewhat predictable ending.

Richard III: "A Shadow That Dies" by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer: Well, it's not very hard to pick a mystery regarding Richard III. Reed and Mayer decided to take a psychological approach rather than a forensic one; I think I prefer Josephine Tey.

Coriolanus: "Mother of Rome" by Molly Brown: An interesting interpretation of Coriolanus's death. One of the better stories in the book.

Timon of Athens: "Buried Fortune" by Peter T. Garratt: Garratt borrows an idea from "Hamlet" as well in this mystery.

Julius Caesar: "Cinna the Poet" by Tom Holt: A straight mystery based on the rioting following Caesar's assassination. While there is nothing in it that requires it be connected with those events, it works well and feels right.

Cymbeline: "Imogen" by Paul Barnett: As with many stories, this one looks at the events in the play and asks whether Shakespeare was accurate. While that's a valid approach--and Barnett writes a very atmospheric story--the problem is that this approach occurs too often in this volume.

King Lear: "Serpent's Tooth" by Martin Edwards: Another look at "what really happened" in the play in question, this one taking place a generation later, which adds a completely new set of people to keep track of.

Macbeth: "Toil and Trouble" by Edward D. Hoch: It's not surprising that the best stories in the anthology are by the best-known authors. Hoch tells the story from the perspective of the three witches in a way that one might expect from a woman author. Or it is just that men rarely write female main characters? In any case, he does an excellent job.

Hamlet: "A Sea of Troubles" by Steve Lockley.

A Midsummer-Night's Dream: "A Midsummer Eclipse" by Stephen Baxter: Another story which really has nothing to do with the play it is linked to. Somehow it doesn't work as well as "Cinna the Poet"-- maybe it's the inclusion of fantasy characters in what is basically a mundane mystery.

Much Ado About Nothing: "Much Ado About Something" by Susan B. Kelly: Adds more levels to the impersonations in the play, with another predictable ending.

The Winter's Tale: "Who Killed Mamillius?" by Amy Myers: This story is one of those that finds (or creates) a mystery in the original play. Whether it succeeds depends in large part on whether you find the claim of mystery convincing.

Twelfth Night: "This Is Illyria, Lady" by Kim Newman: Another one of the gems. It's short, and deals more with the general tone and setting of the play than any specific murder or robbery.

Romeo and Juliet: "Star-Crossed" by Patricia A. McKillip: As the introduction says, if Friar Lawrence arrived at the tomb after everyone was dead, how *did* he know what happened?

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: "The Banished Men" by Keith Taylor: Sets up a mystery during Valentine's time among the bandits.

The Taming of the Shrew: "The Shrewd Taming of Lord Thomas" by Mary Monica Pulver: Focuses on the framing story of Shakespeare's play. Or rather, the framing half-story, since after starting off with the conceit of having a sleeping beggar dressed as the lord of the manor and treated as such when he wakes up, no existing versions of the play have anything at the end to wrap up what happens.

Othello: "Not Wisely, But Too Well" by Louise Cooper: More about the motivation behind what happened in the play, but no additional mystery per se.

As You Like It: "Murder As You Like It" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre: Well, it certainly a different take on the impersonations going on, with a distinctly down-to-earth approach, and a lot of understated word play. Not for all tastes, I suspect.

The Merchant of Venice: "The House of Rimmon" by Cherith Baldry: Well, I never thought the ending of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE a particularly happy one, and Baldry seems to agree, with a story that helps put the original in perspective.

"An Ensuing Evil" by Peter Tremayne: A mystery set in the world of Shakespeare's theater.

"The Collaborator" by Rosemary Aitkin": I can't tell if Aitkin is seriously proposing what the main character discovers in Shakespeare's plays, or parodying literary criticism, or what. As a result, this formed an unsatisfying end to the volume, though its content made it a logical conclusion.

So the best ones (in my opinion) are "The Death of Kings" by Margaret Frazer, "Mother of Rome" by Molly Brown, "Cinna the Poet" by Tom Holt, "Toil and Trouble" by Edward D. Hoch, and "This Is Illyria, Lady" by Kim Newman, and "The House of Rimmon" by Cherith Baldry. But even the others are interesting, even if only for their settings. If you've read this far, you're a Shakespeare fan, so I feel safe in strongly recommending this. As Ashley notes in his introduction, not all the plays are covered, so there's still material for a companion volume if this one is successful. [-ecl]

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

Quote of the Week:

     It could probably be shown by facts and figures
     that there is no distinctively native American
     criminal class except Congress.
                                   -- Mark Twain