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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 05/22/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 47
Table of Contents
MT Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 732-957-5087 email@example.com HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 732-949-7076 firstname.lastname@example.org Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 732-957-6330 email@example.com Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-2070 firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/~ecl. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
URL of the week: http://www.spiritone.com/~jlorentz/hugos/final.htm. Hugo ballot, with links to most of the nominated stories and writers. [-ecl]
Spy Films: Recently I was discussing the new James Bond novel ZERO MINUS TEN. While I am on the subject of spy fiction a friend asked me recently to name what I thought were the really good spy films. What immediately came to mind was the Bond series, but then I was stumped for even a second best. Actually there have been few film series that really could be said to be about a spy. For a while there were several spy films made, but rarely in series and what were made generally were not very good. Part of the problem is that too many spy films were made that were intended to send up the genre. These days almost all spy films are send-ups. The genre has too many hyenas picking on too few lions.
Most Westerns take themselves fairly seriously. There have been some comic Westerns, even classics like DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, but they have been a relatively small minority. Not all Westerns have been of the highest quality, perhaps. But by in large the makers of Western films have generally been content to let the viewer escape into the world of their films and not keep being reminded that these outdoor dramas with horses could be pretty unreal stuff themselves.
The action spy film has not done nearly so well. The major spy series has been the James Bond films, of course, but there have been relatively few good spy stories in even that series. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, THUNDERBALL, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, and LICENSE TO KILL are probably the only Bond films that really qualify. Even then there are lots of whimsical bits. And of course there are the Bondisms, the wisecracks after violent actions that have become almost cliche in action films. People who really do have licenses to kill other people in their professions are more likely to have heavy fits of depression when they really do have to kill. But of course they are trying to show James Bond is above all that. (The whole "license to kill" concept in the James Bond series seems more for image anyway. With the exception of one scene in the very first Bond film, DR. NO, James Bond kills only in self-defense. Self-defense does not require a license.)
But James Bond sort of defined the genre and there really has been no other series that has remained serious for more than a couple of films. Other good relatively serious spy films include THE IPCRESS FILE, FUNERAL IN BERLIN, and most of the films based on John Le Carre novels. For those lucky enough to have seen the British TV series THE SANDBAGGERS, it was quite good, as were the early seasons of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. But most of the Bond films, the Matt Helm series, the Flint films, and hosts of others down to AUSTIN POWERS, probably the majority of spy films, treat their material in a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek manner. They do not want to be taken seriously; they aspire only to being a little bit of throwaway fun. There is, of course, a market for the whimsical spy films, but they generally just feed off of the relatively small set of more serious films.
This is not to say that there have not been some decent spy films, not many but some. Many were made during or at least about World War II. Arguably CASABLANCA is really a spy film. But somehow the World War wartime spy film seems a different breed from what we would want to consider the secret agent film. When your country is at war it is sort of expected that people will do all in their power to help their country. At those times spying is sort of everybody's responsibility. In CASABLANCA Rick is not anybody's agent. He is just doing what seems the right thing to do. Nazis are convenient villains to put into films because they are unslanderable. If you say bad things in films about ethnic groups or particular religions you probably deserve what you get. But there are very few who would call a hatred of Nazis "bigotry" or even a bad thing. The same was pretty much true of Communists, particularly in the 1950s. So there were a lot of very lightweight films with Nazi or Communist villains. And the villains often are only thinly disguised gangsters. THEY SAVED HITLER'S BRAIN is, I suppose, a sort of spy film. So are THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and FANTASTIC VOYAGE. But it seems a real spy film should be something more.
So what are good spy films? Well darn few of the James Bond films qualify in my opinion. I think the best of the Bond films have the least in the way of glitzy super-villains, a bear minimum of fantastic weaponry, but a good plot, hopefully with a twist or two. That would probably make FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE the best Bond film. Some of what was qualifies from John Le Carre, particularly adaptations done for the BBC. Other than the films mentioned above I would add some films that probably nobody has ever heard of. There was a 1972 film with Stanley Baker called INNOCENT BYSTANDERS. One of the classics is 1962's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. The 1961 THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR is one of the better ones. NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) is just a bit tongue-in-cheek, but still works as a thriller. FIVE FINGERS (1952) qualifies. Alfred Hitchcock did several decent spy films including FOREIGN CORRESPONENT (1940), NORTORIOUS (1946), the less serious NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), TORN CURTAIN (1966), and TOPAZ (1969). In 1944 Fritz Lang directed THE MINISTRY OF FEAR which probably ranks as one of the good ones. REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT (1965) and THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966) were certainly worth seeing. [-mrl]
DEEP IMPACT (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Nature does not pull its punches, and DEEP IMPACT pulls far fewer than most similar films, stretching most of its believability in the last reel. This is for the most part a very plausible and frightening film with real characters working out real problems in the face of a threat of cosmic proportions. DEEP IMPACT is a very promising film from the new production company Dreamworks (and from Paramount). Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
We have had a long period in which special effects have driven science fiction films rather than characters or ideas. Last year's CONTACT was a very good science fiction film with three-dimensional characters. DEEP IMPACT is the first of two major theatrical films (along with at least one TV movie) inspired by the Shoemaker-Levy comet's impact on Jupiter and speculation of what if it had been Earth that had been hit. At least in plot and ideas the film is highly reminiscent of George Pal's classic WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. However the emotional texture of the film also has some of ON THE BEACH. For the admittedly small sub-genre of films about celestial impacts on Earth films--not forgetting METEOR--this is likely to remain the best.
Teenager Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) sights a celestial body that just should not be where he sees it. He reports his finding to professional astronomer Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith). Wolf confirms that indeed it is a new comet. But Wolf also discovers it is on a collision course with Earth. A year passes and TV news reporter Jenny Lerner trips on something very secret going on in Washington. There seems to be a serious sex scandal, one sufficient to cause the Secretary of the Treasury to resign. In Washington any sufficiently well kept secret is indistinguishable from a sex scandal. Jenny wants to get the goods on the Secretary of the Treasury and instead stumbles onto what is accurately called the biggest story in world history. The United States and Russia are secretly cooperating on efforts to avert the disaster that is coming our way in the form of Comet Wolf-Biederman. The story moves back and forth among multiple story lines. Morgan Freeman plays a President of the United States whom the script uses mostly just to make major announcements. Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is a crusty ex-Apollo astronaut on a mission to destroy the comet. But he has a strained relationship with younger astronauts on the same mission. Leo Biederman must come to terms with the new fame he has received having his name associated with a deadly menace to his planet. And Jenny Lerner is resolving her relationship with her separated parents.
The chief problem with DEEP IMPACT is that two hours is really about a third of what would be needed to do the story realistically and cover most of the parts that should be told. That seems to imply TV mini- series. But it requires the wide-screen to do justice to the visual aspects of the story. Certainly in the early parts of the film it seems to be rushing through what is just an outline of what the story should be. Much of the story goes by in a very superficial manner. Interesting and some sometimes spectacular scenes are left out that would inevitably take place if a comet were headed for earth. Cooperation is reached between two country's space agencies. Huge projects that dwarf the Manhattan Project occur off-stage. While in the plot there is hope for some people and not others, one would expect great rioting by those less fortunate. This is only hinted at. While human reactions are much more believable than they were in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, they are still far from convincing. We see only frustratingly sketchy details in a headlong rush to get to still meatier parts of the story.
Still the film has a real credibility that is broken only in the semi-optimistic final reel. The emphasis of the script is on people and not special effects, though when the film calls for effects, they are there in force with some very nice sequences. DEEP IMPACT and CONTACT are evidence that the science fiction film is not just for thrill-hungry teenagers. It can tell a story on an adult level and convincingly take us places we have never been and in some cases may never again want to go. I give DEEP IMPACT an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
CITY ON FIRE by Walter Jon Williams (Harper Prism, 1997, 498 pp., HC, ISBN: 0-06-105213-2, SFBC edition) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I normally don't read Walter Jon Williams. Maybe it's because I associate his name (maybe incorrectly) with the cyberpunk subgenre of sf, one that I haven't really liked since it hit big time with William Gibson's NEUROMANCER back in 1984 or so. So I was already at a disadvantage when I picked up CITY ON FIRE, because I discovered that it is a sequel to Williams' 1995 novel METROPOLITAN. But I picked up CITY ON FIRE anyway, determined to read it with an open mind. And what I found left me thinking "yeah, so what?".
The novel centers around a young woman named Aiah, who apparently was also the centerpiece of the first novel. She comes to the city of Caraqui, finding a job under Constantine, the character referred to in the title of the first novel. She is given the position as head of the new Plasm Enforcement Division. Plasm, according to the jacket of the first novel, is "a mysterious substance created by geomancy from the intrinsic power of the city's structures", and according to the jacket of the second novel, "plasm can propel ships or knock down buildings; it can reverse aging, amplify sex, or alter genes. It's awesome geomantic power can penetrate anything - ". We get to read about it doing all that stuff; indeed, plasm is pretty much in the center of everything, as you might guess.
But for me, CITY ON FIRE has nothing new, except for this plasm stuff, and it isn't even new because it was introduced in the first book. The story does follow Aiah as she grows from a naive young woman into a very savvy political creature capable of holding her own with Constantine during a war in which she is being used by him. There is a little mumbo-jumbo about the Dreaming Sisters, women who experience and understand plasm, but don't *do* anything with it. They figure in the novel's conclusion. There's also an evil critter named Taikoen who lives in the plasm and who to me had great potential but was never really used for much. The one idea in the book that intrigued me (and therefore probably hooked me for the inevitable third book in the series) is that there is this thing called the Shield placed up in the sky by the Ascended Ones (we don't know who they are from this novel) to prevent humanity from seeing or reaching the stars. We are tantalized by a brief excursion outside it (which of course is just enough to set up yet another book in the series), but we don't know any more about it than that.
Personally, I thought that CITY ON FIRE was a decent, reasonable read, but that it didn't have anything to recommend itself as a Hugo nominee. It certainly wouldn't jump to the top of my "to read" stack, and I wouldn't push it on anyone else, either. It was okay, nothing more. [-jak]
Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 email@example.com
Quote of the Week:
A liberal is a person whose interests are not at stake at the moment. -- Willis Player