MT VOID 01/15/99 (Vol. 17, Number 29)

MT VOID 01/15/99 (Vol. 17, Number 29)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 01/15/99 -- Vol. 17, 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 201-447-3652 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 2E-537  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: has a description of the real trial upon which A CIVIL ACTION (reviewed in this issue) was based. [-ecl]


In H. G. Wells's ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU the title character is bent on experiments to modify animals to be in the form of humans and thereby raise their intelligent potential. He has created a varied collection of animal people who really are fusions of animal and human. It may be that Wells may have over-rated how necessary it was for an animal to assume the posture of a human to be humanlike. I have been giving some thought to canine intelligence of late and I think that dogs have done to themselves without surgery what Moreau was attempting so crudely to do with his knives. Much more than we would like to realize an intelligent dog is not just a domesticated wolf but a fusion of wolf and of human. And dogs have done this to themselves through sheer will to assimilate into human society. They have the examined human society, an they have realized how little of it they understand. But they are constantly trying to understand the rest and in the meantime they have adopted what customs they can.

The position of a dog in our society is a lot like that of SHOGUN's Blackthorne in Japanese society. Like Blackthorne dogs have their own culture that they could return to if circumstances allowed them, but as long as they are held captive in our society they will try to understand how humans operate and try to fit in. And imagine how bewildering that effort must be.

Blackthorne never confused what he was with being Japanese. Let me lay to rest one myth. People like to say things like "This is my Floppsey. He's a dog, but he thinks he's a human." It is my belief that dogs are acutely aware that they are not human and may perhaps underrate rather than overrate the human component of their personality.

Why do I think that dogs are so aware they are not human. I am basing this on observations I made of Sam, the dachshund I grew up with. His reaction to seeing a human and seeing a dog was entirely different. A human he might look at or even bark at, but he would not really get excited about unless it was a human he knew very well. But a dog, even a stranger, would excite him a great deal and he really would want to go and commune with the other dog. He reserved this excitement for dogs and a few other quadrupeds. (He did once express the same excitement for a horse, but I suspect he assumed it to be yet another strange form that a dog could take. He was a dachshund with legs maybe four or five inches long. I remember his obvious amazement to see a much longer-legged dog in the park one day who could bound across the entire park the size of a large city block in just about 20 seconds or so. Poor Sam had never seen a dog do that and it was well beyond his capability. But he was amazed to see that dogs could do that.)

The other observation I would make that convinces me that Sam knew he was a dog is that he would occasionally be standing in front of our full-length mirror. I would make faces at his reflection. He would watch my reflection for a few seconds then turn his head and look directly at me. Why? Well, obviously he wanted to see me more directly. He knew what he was seeing in the mirror was not really me but a reflection. So he understood the concept of what a reflection was. I assume from this when he saw a dachshund in the mirror he knew that was him. That is one more reason I think he knew he was a dog. He never showed a lot of interest in his own reflection, but if he understood what my reflection was, he probably understood his own and hence knew what he looked like.

Like Blackthorne toward the beginning of his stay in Japan, a dog is constantly trying to pick up what he can of the language he hears. I think as humans we tend to under-estimate how much of our language dogs do pick up. But, of course, it is very important for dogs to understand these strange sounds that humans make and a good intelligent dog will make a good deal of progress on this problem. Sam would occasionally surprise the family by apparently reacting as if he understood a English. I know I had a medium distant relative, embarrassingly also named Sam. He and his wife came to visit us. At one point his wife was sitting on the couch in the den and called to her husband, "Come here and sit with me, Sam." She was amazed to see the dog instantly do just that. He jumped up on the couch, sat beside her, and looked expectantly at her to see if she would say something else to him. If this stranger was going to be friendly to him, the least he could do was be friendly back. The dog did not understand that there was another Sam in the house, but he did apparently know exactly what the sentence he heard meant. It is not a complex sentence, but for a dog to understand it is to me quite impressive.

I remember noticing dogs in China. There are some pet dogs and they do respond to Chinese. Now my ear is just not good enough to respond to a tonal language. But I realized that the dogs I was seeing could understand a tonal language much better than I could. That is a somewhat humbling realization. Tonal language is a human invention but there are dogs who understand it better than I do.

One more new speculation I have on dogs. One of the mysteries of dogs is why to domesticated dogs bark. Wolves and wild dogs never bark. It could be just a useful behavior that dogs learn from other dogs when domesticated, and it might be interesting to isolate a dog from other dogs and find out if he learns barking. It is my belief that dogs pick up barking not from other dogs but from humans. They clearly hear human language and recognize that it would be useful if they could do the same thing. Their anatomy does not allow them the articulation to form words, but do what they can and the result is barking. I think dogs have picked up on the value of oral language to humans and have reinvented it for themselves. Barking is their attempt to reverse-engineer language. And they use it much like we use language. Dogs use barking to communicate with each other and to communicate with humans.

This discussion will continue next week. [-mrl]

A CIVIL ACTION: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A successful but unscrupulous personal injury lawyer takes on an environmental case and soon finds that he and his law firm may be in over their heads. Stephen Zaillian writes the screenplay as well as directs an excellent supporting cast in a true and realistic story of a civil action case. The film may even sacrifice dramatic impact for accuracy. This may well not be the story the viewer is expecting, but it will be an education in how the law works. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 10 positive, 0 negative, 7 mixed

Stephen Zaillian has written some of the most intelligent screenplays to be made into films in the last several years. He wrote SCHINDLER'S LIST and SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER. The latter he also directed. His second directing project A CIVIL ACTION. He is again directing his own script, a very nuts-and-bolts look at a civil action against two major corporations as seen through the eyes of the lawyer who brought the action and risked his law firm and his career on the case. The film is based on the book A CIVIL ACTION by Jonathan Harr.

The film's first moments are among its most chilling as the voice of Jan Schlichtmann (played by John Travolta) gives us "the calculus of personal injury," a litany of cold rules for figuring the settlement a personal action suit. A victim who is alive and suffering pays off better than one who is dead. A male victim will pay better than a woman will and a child will pay least of all. As he explains the rules we see how he plays for a jury's sympathy in order to squeeze more money from a defendant.

Schlichtmann's law firm is considering a case from Woburn, Massachusetts, where eight children have died of leukemia. It sounds like just the sort of idealistic case everyone would assume lawyers should take, but several law firms have already turned down the case. Schlichtmann is also inclined to refuse the case until he discovers that there are two major corporations involved. (Apparently no names have been changed, by the way. Certainly all the major characters have the same names as the principal in the original court case. The viewer will probably recognize the names of the corporations.) Schlichtmann attacks the case in the only way that he knows how, launching a multi-million dollar investigation in the hopes that a sufficiently large settlement will pay off the investigation costs. This is not the story the viewer expects. A lot of it is about the financial gamble of environmental litigation. The huge commissions charged by the legal trade are seen not so much as greed but as the pay off of a very big investment. In its own way this is one of the most positive films ever made about the legal profession.

As with SCHINDLER'S LIST we never actually see when Schlichtmann's motivation changes from being purely financial to idealism, but eventually his outrage is obvious. However, his crusade will bring him in direct conflict with eccentric legal genius Jerome Facher (not unexpectedly well-acted by Robert Duvall). In the film Facher plays law the way Bobby Fischer plays chess, repeatedly trying to get under his opponent's skin.

John Travolta is sufficient for this role, but never manages to do anything beyond the obvious. He just wears a suit well and looks reasonably sophisticated. But Robert Duvall really is a brilliant actor, and here he has to take an eccentric and make him seem formidable. That he does quite nicely. William H. Macy's role as accountant for Schlichtmann's law firm seems a little overplayed, but there is nice support by Tony Shalhoub and especially James Gandolfini who plays with real sincerity. It would be nice to see Dan Hedaya in a sympathetic role for once, but this is not it. He seems condemned to always play characters seething with inner rage. But Duvall steals the show.

Conrad Hall's camerawork is a little showy. He intentionally under-lights any courtroom scene. Half of an actor's face will be lit as if carved out of the darkness. The score by Danny Elfman shows more control than he usually has, but the end-credit song by Talking Heads seems jarringly out of place. In all this may well be the most sympathetic and at the same time frightening film about the legal profession since THE PAPER CHASE. I give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

For one good description of the actual case see This site is authored by Dan Kennedy, who was a reporter at the Woburn trial. Included at the site is the questionnaire that plays a part in the movie. For more information you can also see And for greater detail see the book on which the film was based. [-mrl]

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

Quote of the Week:

     Christmas is a holiday that persecutes the lonely,
     the frayed, and the rejected.
                                   -- Jimmy Cannon