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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 07/24/98 -- Vol. 17, No. 4
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 2E-537 732-957-6330 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.
URLs of the week: http://www.sfwriter.com/. Lots of authors have web sites; Rob Sawyer's is one of the best. [-ecl]
Tolkien Music: Tolkien Fans: Monday July 27 at 11PM, WNYC-FM (93.9 in New York) will be featuring "new music inspired by Tolkien's classic trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" on their "New Sounds" program. [-ecl]
Evil: This article is going to be more abstract than some and perhaps even unpleasant, what evil is and is not. Admittedly more than usual I am thinking out loud, or more accurately thinking in writing.
Curiously enough, the Turkey trip was the occasion for some of my thinking about the nature of evil. This is not a reflection on the Turks, I hasten to add. But Turkey has often been the battleground for warring ideologies and where you have warring ideologies, you have suffering and other people inflicting that suffering.
It is interesting that in the century of the Holocaust--an event of history which has always figured in my thinking as the greatest possible evil--evil has become some sort of laughable pseudo- supernatural concept. One would think that in this century people would have seen the true nature of evil and would understand it like they never had in the past. Yet people's understanding of evil seems to get further from the mark and not closer. Part of the cause what seems to me to be confusion is that some have decided, for whatever reason, to personalize evil. Evil is personified by the Devil, by Lucifer, by Satan. It has gone from being an abstract concept to a being, if not a person, who can be easily hated. And to make this personification of evil even more laughable he is often portrayed with a mustache, a goatee, wearing a red suit with horns on his head and a tail ending in an arrowhead. By this point evil looks more like Santa Claus than like anything having to do with the Holocaust. To me there really is evil, but it has nothing to do with devils.
To me evil does not come from a supernatural being, it comes from humans and it is constituted of an abandonment of the belief in justice for others, humans or otherwise. One might think that it is an abandonment of empathy, but one can be unjust and even cruel and still have full empathy and understanding. We think of empathy and understanding as a preventative of cruelty, but that is really vanity for the human race. We think that humans with empathy and understanding cannot be cruel. I happen to think that the perpetrators of the Holocaust, of any holocaust, actually have a great deal of empathy for their victims and often have a curiosity to have more. They just don't let that get in the way of their selfishness and callousness. I think they have a pretty good idea of the torment of their victims but don't really care. Did the operators of death camps not understand what their victims were going through? Would empathy and understanding have stopped them? I think they imagined all the horrors that they were visiting onto people and they did not care. In a sense the acts of people who really are evil are performed on themselves as much as others except they can escape the results because it is happening to them only in their imagination. It is in the callousness and the selfishness of their acts that the evil really lies.
Incidentally, I personally do not believe in evil without hurting someone or something, human or animal. One corollary of all this is that there is no such thing a victimless evil. Some religions would label things like lustful thought to be evil. To me if there is no victim there is no evil.
But the question is, why is there evil? I see evil as being done for three reasons. The first reason is instinct arising out of the "selfish gene." I think we all have instincts to do that which will make the most number of genes like the genes that we ourselves possess. A great deal of human behavior comes out of these instincts. We may not realize that that is the purpose of our instincts, but we have them nonetheless. Just as when we eat we are not really thinking of our body's need for protein, for carbohydrates, etc. When we eat we usually think no deeper than we are hungry and it is time to eat. Sometimes we think only that the food will taste good. But there are deeper biological reasons we eat that lie below the surface. Similarly, while we do not think of it, a great deal of human behavior is aimed at protecting our genes and giving them a chance to reproduce so that they continue. A white racist who hires a less qualified white man and not a black man on some level is doing so because he knows the white man probably has more genes in common with him than the black man. Strangers or perhaps people isolated by religion, like Jews, are less likely to carry genes in common than the local population. Rape can be seen as forcing someone else to help reproduce the rapists genes, etc. Richard Dawkins put forward the initial concepts in a book called THE SELFISH GENE and as far as I am concerned the idea is right on the money.
Then there is the second form. If the Selfish Gene can be seen as a sort of sub-conscious selfishness, there is also the conscious level of selfishness. If I dump toxic wastes to save money, I am doing it for personal gain. I would like to be wealthier and I am doing it at the expense of others. This is a very simple and straightforward form of evil.
The third reason for evil to be done is in the name of a religion. This could be genetically motivated, as we have seen, but it can also be motivated by ideology. People will kill others if they think that God or the gods want them to. Generally this is accompanied by a belief in an afterlife in which they hope to be rewarded for their action. Their belief is that God controls their fate and that He will look with favor on them if they just punish that non-believer. It is sort of kissing up to the metaphysical Powers that Be.
Now these three forms of evil are actually inter-related. The first two are similar since one is stealing in large part to protect one's own genes. By getting more money one has more opportunity to nurture and protect ones genetic strain and frequently it is also to give a greater opportunity to reproduce. Money does that. The second and third forms of evil are also inter-related. The second is a striving for affluence in this world; the third is a striving to continue it in the next.
Well, there it is for your consideration, a unified theory of evil and its causes. Why do I want to analyze and understand the nature of evil? What is more basic to understanding the world? [-mrl]
FACTORING HUMANITY by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86458-2, 1998, 350pp, US$23.95) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):
We all know the mantra of real estate: location, location, location. Robert J. Sawyer has his own mantra: ideas, ideas, ideas. And this is good, since above all else, science fiction is the literature of ideas. Well, Sawyer certainly doesn't shortchange his readers in his latest effort, FACTORING HUMANITY.
FACTORING HUMANITY is a story of first contact. As the story opens, Earth has been receiving messages from Alpha Centauri A for ten years. Heather Davis, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has been attempting to decipher them with little success. Her estranged husband, Kyle Graves, is working on a quantum computer project, also with little success, and also at the University of Toronto. Their marriage turned rocky after their daughter Mary,committed suicide, and they are currently separated. The narrative begins with their other daughter, Becky, accusing Kyle of molesting both her and Mary.
Now that the stage is set, the story takes off. The messages from Alpha Centauri stop, and Heather eventually discovers the secret to the alien message. Kyle, working on both the quantum computing experiment AND another project dealing with the idea of developing consciousness in a computer (the APE project, for Approximate Psychological Experiences), is basically just having a tough time getting by due to Becky's accusations. Matters are made worse when two different parties come to him concerning his quantum computing project; one wants him to continue his work but keep it hushed up, and the other wants to buy his services in order to crack an encryption code that otherwise would take many lifetimes to crack due to its complexity (more about this later).
Earlier I talked about an abundance of ideas. How does quantum computing, psychology, group minds, computer consciousness, Necker cubes, the nature of consciousness, hypercubes, and the end of humanity sound? The fun in all of this for me is that I spend a good portion of the book trying to see how it will all fit together--just as I did with STARPLEX and FRAMESHIFT. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that there are TOO many ideas in this book: couldn't the story have been told with a few fewer loose ends to tie up? For instance, I mentioned the encryption code that a consortium wants Kyle to crack. It turns out that whatever is encoded holds the contents of yet another message from the stars, received several years earlier. What does that have to do with the rest of what's going on?
But no, I think these ideas all fit together. I said that this was a novel of first contact. I guess I lied. It's a novel of contact, period. Not just with the Centaurs (as our characters call them), but of contact with ourselves, our families, and indeed, the whole human race. It's about what we can learn about ourselves and our fellow man if we just pay attention. So what if we need a little help getting there? The important part, Sawyer tells us, is that we do make contact with ourselves and the rest of humanity in order to make the world a better place.
Do I have any problems with the book? No, not really. There is a little ground that Sawyer has covered before. He seems to like to use a couple having relationship troubles as a way to help move things along (if memory serves, THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT and STARPLEX were the same way, though I could be wrong), and many of his main characters have some ties to Canada, one way or another. I suppose that's okay, because it is said that you should write what you know about, and since Sawyer lives in Canada, that certainly applies. He's also used the first contact thing before, back in GOLDEN FLEECE, where once again someone is trying to decipher a message from the stars in much the same manner as Heather does in FACTORING HUMANITY. But I don't think any of those things take away from just how good this novel is. They just strike me as happening a little more often than I'm comfortable with. Maybe I'm just picking nits because it's fashionable to have to find something wrong with a book even though it's good. I don't know.
The upshot is that I feel that this is Sawyer's best novel to date, certainly better than his last effort, ILLEGAL ALIEN. And it's gotta be good: it contains the title to the third installment of the upcoming second trilogy of "Star Wars" movies as well as the real secret to writing good "Star Trek" episodes.
I think you'll enjoy it. [-jak]
FACTORING HUMANITY by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86458-2, 1998, 350pp, US$23.95) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
ANTARCTICA by Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-10063-7, 1998, 508pp, US$24.95) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
After the relative simplicity of his last book (ILLEGAL ALIEN), Sawyer is back to his typical high-density story. A. E. Van Vogt claimed one show write by having a plot twist every 600 words; sometimes I think Sawyer has decided to throw in a new idea every few thousand words. I mean, I would think that deciphering the messages from our first alien contact and building a machine from their instructions with the functionality of the machine in FACTORING HUMANITY would be enough without adding an entire sub- plot of artificial intelligence, suicides, accusations of abuse, and repressed/manufactured memories. Yes, they all tie together, but they make for a very busy novel. (And it's all the busier because Sawyer keeps his novels to a reasonable length. He doesn't take a thousand pages to cover all this--he does it in 350. Hang on to your hats.)
I'm sure I could work up an explanation of how this novel ties in with Sawyer's Canadian-ness and hence feelings of isolation, etc. (as Clute did with fellow Canadian Robert Charles Wilson and DARWINIA), but I don't think that has anything to do with it. I do think that this does deal with isolation, but on the level that everyone feels when they are trying to communicate with or understand someone else. [-ecl]
THE MASK OF ZORRO (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Perhaps the greatest of all swashbuckling heroes is back on the screen. The new story offers us not one but two different Zorros played by Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas as the mask and cape are passed to a new generation. THE MASK OF ZORRO may not all make sense, but it is great to have a big, brash historical adventure back on the wide screen. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4). Spoiler Warning: some comments about the plot follow the main review. They could be spoilers.
I think I qualify as a Zorro fan. When I finally finished the serial SON OF ZORRO last month I had seen every live-action Zorro film or serial ever released in the English language. And I am one-up on even some of the most confirmed Zorro fans, having found and read THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO by Johnston McCulley years ago. [It was nearly impossible to find until its paperback reprint this year as THE MARK OF ZORRO.] The legend of El Zorro, the Fox, began when Johnston McCulley's story was serialized in five parts starting August 9, 1919, in ALL-STORY WEEKLY. In the story the character of Zorro, dashing outlaw on the side of good hiding behind the guise of the effete fop, was almost a direct steal from the Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, created in 1904. The following year the story was made into the film THE MARK OF ZORRO with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The 1920 film was very faithful to the novel, but it revealed much sooner who was behind the mask so it would better show off Fairbanks's talents. Through the years Zorro has graced several English-language films, serials, and a TV series. Zorro was the original "Caped Crusader" of American pop culture and undoubtedly was part of the inspiration for Batman. As popular as he is in America, he is even more popular abroad and has been portrayed in an astounding number of Italian, French, Spanish, and Mexican films. The most recent film version was the 1980 ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE, a strained comedy starring George Hamilton. Now Tristar Pictures has brought back Zorro in a (mostly) serious film adventure.
The film THE MASK OF ZORRO might more aptly be called THE RETURN OF ZORRO. Departing from the canon of the earlier stories Diego de la Vega (also known as Zorro and played here by Anthony Hopkins) is captured by an arch-enemy Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), the Spanish Governor. In the process Esperanza, Diego's wife whom both men loved, is killed. Rafael takes Diego's daughter Elena, adopting her as his own, and returning to Spain. Twenty years later the real story begins with Rafael returning to California where Diego is still imprisoned. Diego escapes and runs into Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), a young man that Diego had known before his imprisonment. Murrieta has turned into a somewhat incompetent bandit with a vendetta against Captain Harrison Love (Matthew Letscher) who happens to be an ally of Montero. Diego decides not just to befriend this enemy of his enemy, he decides to make the young man into a new Zorro. Completing the set of principles is Elena (Catherine Zeta Jones), a grown woman and returned from Spain to be with Montero, whom she believes to be her father.
The script for THE MASK OF ZORRO was written by Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott, and John Eskow, who seem most familiar with the Disney version of Zorro. At least, when they need to coin new names, they use Garcia and Bernardo, taken from the Disney version. The score by James Horner makes heavy use of crisp flamenco rhythms. But Horner had his work cut out for him to try to match the great Alfred Newman score of the 1940 film THE MARK OF ZORRO.
Anthony Hopkins proves once again how versatile an actor he is as Diego de la Vega. He does a decent job playing a dashing swordsman considerably his junior. It is obvious that he has a double for some of the most vigorous scenes, but he is apparently doing much of his own swordplay. Antonio Banderas is to the best of my knowledge the first Hispanic to play El Zorro on the American screen. The character Zorro has always been played with some wit, though a little less might have been more. Catherine Zeta Jones's Elena has more than sufficient fire for the role. Perhaps the best scene in the film is a quiet conversation between her and Hopkins. The film was directed by Martin Campbell, best known for directing GOLDENEYE.
Perhaps not everything works, as I relate in the spoiler section to follow. But as a Zorro fan I just know that had they called me in as a consultant I could have fine-tuned this film to perfection. There was a lot that bothered me, but I still hope it makes a mint and we get some more. After all, you just can't have too many Zorro films, can you? I rate THE MASK OF ZORRO a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler...
Some random comments:
There is one very big hole in the plot. Rafael Montero intends to buy California from Santa Ana in the name of the Spanish government, but actually for himself. I strongly doubt that Santa Ana would sell in the first place even to the Spanish. The US- Mexican War, 1846-8, was fought to force Santa Ana to sell Texas and other territories to the United States. Santa Ana did not want to sell off his country. But if Santa Ana agreed to sell California to Spain, then what? When he discovered the Spanish government knew nothing about the transaction he would declare the sale null and void. He would field an army (probably with Don Rafael's own gold) and retake California. If Don Rafael had had the strength to defend California he would not have needed the gold in the first place. If he did not have the strength the fact that had given Santa Ana some gold and lied about whom he represented would have amounted to no more than a political contribution.
The climactic explosion would have killed all the laborers, at least the way the sequence is edited. In most films that would be a problem. Here I will consider it a nod to the impossible escapes in the Zorro serials. Another problem with the plot is that at the end of the film a lot of people know that there is sufficient gold in California to make mining highly profitable. California would have had a very different history if that information were public so early.
But not all my comments will be negative. Usually the scripting of this sort of film is straightforward and not very subtle. I would like to point out what I found a clever piece of plotting. It was going to come down to one man's word against another who Elena's father was. A lessor script might have left it strictly an emotional decision. The double coincidence that Diego is here with such a hatred for her father and that Elena so resembles Esperanza is just too much coincidence. She might not know who her father is, but logically Esperanza has to be her mother.
The ending of the McCulley's Zorro was never quite satisfying. He was to become a wealthy landowner and "raise fat children." There is something satisfying in having Zorro not go gently into that good night. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 email@example.com
Quote of the Week:
Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to change it every six months. -- Oscar Wilde