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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 05/28/99 -- Vol. 17, No. 48
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, email@example.com HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
We are pleased to announce that the Science Fiction Club library is now consolidated and catalogued. The catalog is available on- line (to Lucent members only, so my apologies to the rest of you) at http://woof.amc.bell-labs.com/~eleeper/sfclub.htm. Most books circulate for four weeks at a time. If you want to borrow a book, please contact Evelyn Leeper (email@example.com, 732-332-6218) or Mark Leeper (firstname.lastname@example.org, 732-817-5619). [-ecl]
Special thanks go this week to our esteemed factotum who has been factoting boxes of books to organize the library. Hey, I could have done it, but it would have taken me a lot longer. Evelyn has done a lot of work and I want to thank her. [-mrl]
After seeing the commotion surrounding the opening of STAR WARS I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, I feel a little more secure about the coming of the year 2000. I live in central New Jersey and I got tickets for the film relatively easily and at the local going price, high as it is. I believe that is $8.25 per ticket. In New York City the scalpers are charging $100 for tickets. There is a fear that if the social order breaks down in New York City that hordes of marauders are going to attack central New Jersey scavenging for food. But there were no such hordes coming looking for Star Wars tickets. Maybe we are far enough away to be safe. [-mrl]
Last week I was saying that in general humans have a sort of prejudice against computers and tend not to trust them when we should. The big event of disagreement with a computer was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Three Mile Island was an example of a minor disaster that could easily have become a very major one. And it really was started by a minor incident that the computer systems would have taken care of, but they were over-ridden by a human who decided erroneously what the computer was doing was wrong and overrode the computer. The result could well have killed everybody over much of the Eastern seaboard. What a fascinating alternate history story is sitting here waiting for someone to write it.
But I think that we hear more of the instances where the computer is wrong and the human would be right. Banks just love to blame their errors on a computer failure. "Our computer made a mistake and posted the wrong interest..." That is the sort of thing gets said a lot. I think what we are seeing is a new sort of racism. There was a time when people felt good blaming the nearest black or Chinese or Jew for any problem that arose. That is because humans are suspicious of anything that is different. On some level it may be that we know that people who look the way we do have a lot of genes in common with us and we are sticking up for those genes. In any case we trust what we feel is like us and distrust those things that are different. Consider the history of the Dreyfus Case in France. A whole nation made a Jew a scapegoat for little more reason than that he was a Jew and different. And computers are very different.
So if you are making a movie there is a natural tendency to make the computer the villain. And on one level that may be a good thing. If one must make one group the villain, make it a group that has no feelings at all. Let's face it, the bank's computer could not care less if someone really wanted to send it to Devils Island. So in some senses a computer is a safe scapegoat. The danger is that we will come to believe that trusting computers is dangerous and that as humans we know better. That was the mistake we made at Three Mile Island and the next Three Mile Island might not be so fortuitously defused.
I have the feeling that we are headed to a time when there will be a lot of mistrust of computers. A human worker may come to work drunk or may have problems at home and may be unreliable for a period of time. That is only human. And being human such moments are scattered. Computers too have their moments of particular unreliability but they are all synchronized. Most of you probably know what I am talking about, but I will go into more detail next week. [-mrl]
STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: What George Lucas does well, he does better than anyone else. Simply put this film probably shows the greatest visual imagination of any film ever made. (Probably only one non-STAR WARS film even competes). It even has a few interesting science fiction ideas. George Lucas returns to many of the values of EPISODE 4, missing in 5 and 6. EPISODE 1 has a host of new alien species, another strongly mythic story, and a few embarrassments, but overall it is a lot of fun. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
When KING KONG was released the trailers said, "this was what the films were made for." It may be a bit of an overstatement, but they were implying that the films are made to show visual imagination, to translate from somebody's mind's eye to a movie screen. And KING KONG did just that. Willis O'Brien's stop- motion animation was a giant leap forward in translating images from the mind's eye to the movie screen. Things then stagnated for 44 years. Ray Harryhausen refined stop-motion and made some marvelous films, but there was no major leaps until 1977 and STAR WARS. The leap made with STAR WARS was really a big jump. It was also the starting gun on a race to create new kinds of images on film to stretch the audience's imagination. Since then the field of special effects has been rapidly developing. In 1999 George Lucas can no longer hope to create a film so far ahead of the competition. He can create a film that blends new effects with the best existing effects sufficiently to trump any other film that has ever been made. For the most part he is competing only with his own previous films. The only non-Lucasfilm really to compete is the otherwise insipid WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.
The reviews have been very mixed on EPISODE 1, but the ones who in the past have been most receptive to fantasy on the screen, especially Roger Ebert, have been quite positive. I think that Lucas is determined that EPISODE 3 will absolutely blow away even the new jazzed-up version of EPISODE 4.
Certainly for me the new film was a satisfying experience. There is undeniable excitement from the very beginning in seeing the Fox banner and hearing the opening chords of a new Star Wars film. George Lucas is starting a new trilogy but hardly needs to rekindle excitement in the series. Teens born after the release of the last three film line up for the new film, a significant number are wearing costumes from the series or jackets with decals for "pod- racing," a sport depicted in EPISODE 1. It would be hard to live up to all that expectation, but the new film probably manages. Lucas is trying not so much to recapture the feel of the whole series but of the first film in specific. EPISODE 4 took place in a polyglot universe where many different species of aliens interacted with each other in a very matter-of-fact manner. Often the interactions were light and comical. That universe was missing in EPISODE 5 and though it partially returned in EPISODE 6, the interactions were not nearly as fun. In EPISODE I Lucas again takes different alien races and tosses them together as casually as Robert Altman tosses together different personality types. On once more he has a story with the resonance of a strong mythic core as he did in EPISODE 1.
Just what the plot is I will not say in detail since any number of other reviews will have it and I have heard that something like six different authors have books that tell the plot from a Terry Brooks version down to one or two children's books. In the plot a war is starting over, of all things, taxation. At first that seems a lackluster motivation for all the fireworks of something called "the Star Wars." But it is also a very realistic touch. Taxation started the American Revolution and other wars through history. The "millions for defense but not one cent for tribute" attitude may very believably be part of the Star Wars universe. So we have the Federation as the bad guys and one rebellious republic as the good guys. Lucas has finally officially made his nasties "the Federation,"--perhaps a direct allusion to the para-militarist Federation of STAR TREK. Now we will see what the STAR TREK people will do to retaliate. The real Star Wars may be a battle between STAR TREK and STAR WARS science fiction series with Lucas selling special effects to both sides. But I should get back to the plot. When a conflict between the Federation and the Republic turns to open acts of war Jedi knights Qui-Gon (played by Liam Neeson) and Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) on a mission to Queen Amidala (Natlie Portman). Accompanying them is Jar Jar Binks. Binks is done entirely in three-dimensional animation. He seems to be from a race descended from Hadrosaur-like duck-billed dinosaurs. Having a duckbill, the animation of his mouth can use visual gags that usually were the sole province of the animators of Donald Duck. The group is also joined by a handmaiden from Queen Amidala's retinue.
Along the way this group stops off on desert world Tatooine. There they encounter a boy of mystical birth who is suffused with the force and whose coming may have been foretold in prophecy. Lucas does not simply remake his previous successes--though there are of few repeated scenes--but he does give us a larger context for his story. He gives us some new concepts including a different understanding of what the Force really is.
The script borrows from more than just mythical sources. Anything that Lucas sees that seems nifty at the moment is grist for showing up in some way in the films. The sweeping lines of an SR-71 Blackbird are borrowed for a silver interstellar ship in this version. There are robots that are probably inspired by the wheelies in the Frank L. Baum Oz books. Little touches from THE ABYSS and BEN HUR are also present. One can imagine that touches of this film will be imitated by other films for years to come. George Lucas has again raised the bar on what audiences will consider a good fantasy image on film. His story values may not keep pace, but his greatest contribution has always been in visual imagination.
Lucas is too good a director not to have at least competent acting throughout the film. As with EPISODE 4 he has his most distinguished actor, in this case Liam Neeson, playing the wise Jedi knight. But it is a role that requires only a limited amount of acting. A Jedi keeps his emotions in check, Jedi knighthood a less demanding role. Neeson carries his SCHINDLER'S LIST reputation with him and beyond that he needs only behave dignified. In fact the only really unusual acting in the film comes from Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala. Dressed in Chinese Imperial Mandarin robes she seems very stiff and uses an irritating autocratic diction making her a difficult character to like. It does become clear from the plot why Lucas wanted this, but it does not entirely work to the film's favor. The film has almost a Japanese styling. In a samurai film the filmmaker uses a distancing effect between the viewer and the samurai. One rarely gets inside the samurai's head. And royalty are generally even more stiff and impenetrable. This attitude of Japanese films may have its roots in Japanese society and making royalty or a samurai too comprehensible would almost be impertinence. Lucas seems to have borrowed those values for this film. In EPISODE 4 one knew what made Luke do what he did and in this film we know what makes young Anakin tick, but Jedi Knights are a bit more inscrutable. And Amidala in her this white makeup and stiff Imperial robes is even more so.
Ewan McGregor has little acting to do but sound like Alec Guinness and fight like Mark Hamill. This is not his film. Jake Lloyd as Anakin has a lot of personality and screen presence for one so young. Having him behaving as adult as he does gives the film at times the feeling of a children's film. But because we know what will happen to him, it should be remembered that even at this point he is possessed by both superhuman talents and a potential for evil. It is his life and the battle within him that is the central thread binding together STAR WARS. (That may not have been the initial plan, but with Lucas trimming the series back to six episodes that is how it has turned out.)
Rounding out the cast are two familiar actors in dispensable roles. You have to wonder why an actor of Samuel Jackson's stature takes a role that might just as well be played by an unknown in a squid mask. Terence Stamp and Samuel Jackson get their cards stamped as being Official Star Wars Characters but have little to do and once they do it they leave the story without a trace. Their action figures will need no moving parts.
It might have been a temptation to re-cycle much of the older John Williams STAR WARS musical score, but that was not what he did. The CD has 74 minutes of music and besides the requisite opening music and a small trace of the old Obi- Wan theme, none of the music is familiar. This film has more new music than most totally new films. Some is of a familiar style, but much is experimental. Frequently the new score uses unexpected choral arrangements. Only one piece seems a bit out of place. The triumphal march at the end of the film sounds a little too much like a marching band's football half-time music. Perhaps STAR WARS music has been mauled by so many marching bands that Williams wanted to appease the bands by giving them something to play without them fouling up his better music.
Perhaps the most interesting touch to EPISODE I may be an unintentional result of making the film out of chronological order. STAR WARS is a bit like a spectacular film that you came into in the middle and stayed for a second showing to see the parts the viewer missed. Lucas does some interesting things with the origin of his series. He gives Anakin an origin that has strong parallels to the Christ story. Making any other character a Christ figure is usually pretentious, but here it is pure audacity. We already know that Darth Vader will be the second most evil force in the Star Wars universe. To say then he is really like Christ takes more courage and imagination than most films show these days. One starts looking for a holy Trinity and quickly finds a father and son manifesting the same Force. Is the Emperor the Holy Ghost? We have to wait and see where Lucas is going with this. Few people have realized how subversive the series has been already. Lucas repeatedly has images of a not very powerful or technologically advanced people fighting a large and much more advanced military. Lucas reportedly has admitted privately that his prototype for the good guys of the Rebellion was the North Vietnamese. We know whom that makes The Empire, don't we?
What is not good about the film? I do thing there are a few problems. There is a bit too much silliness going on. The concept for the announcer at the pod race was a foolish idea that should have been left on the cutting room floor. I would have toned down but not eliminated the hijinx of Jar Jar Binks. It may be my hearing but many of the new creature accents are hard to understand. In addition Bink's people add an extra syllable, "sa," to many English words that is at first very difficult to understand. These accents could be toned down or subtitled. Queen Amidala tells us multiple times that her people are under attack and are being killed, but surprisingly for this oh-so-visual film series the plight of her people is never shown. Lucas is supposedly mimicking the style of serials when he opens with a sheet of explanation of what has gone before. But in a movie serial that exposition was intended to tell the audience what has gone before in the previous chapter of the serial. It would never be used in the first episode. Lucas misuses it when in the first episode he uses it to set up what has gone before.
The flying junkman could be interpreted as an offensive Jewish stereotype. Or he could be just a stereotype of a junkman. I am not sure if that is not as bad.
The light-saber fights seem to go on too long, but at least they demonstrate Kendo as a fighting style, which makes them a little more interesting. Certainly the fights are more engaging than the endless fights in which anything could happen in THE MATRIX. And finally I would say that "Feel, don't think" is a lousy philosophy.
Starting a new trilogy George Lucas has to arouse interest in the series. Certainly the pre-release reception this film has gotten has got to have been as successful as anything Lucas could have hoped for. The reviews to this point have been mixed, but a series that is always at its high-point will become tiresome. STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE is imperfect, but it surpassed my expectation. I would give it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. It is a nice neat packet of well-crafted fun.
There are several questions left open by the film, but I want to note a few. I also want to make an observation.
Why does beheading kill an imperial droid? Why anthropomorphize a fighting robot so much as to have a human vulnerability?
In EPISODE 4 R2-D2 does not know Obi-Wan. That is fine since he might have had that memory wiped. But Obi-Wan did not have his memory wiped. Why does he not remember R2-D2?
The junk dealer flies on what are obviously non-aerodynamic wings. Is this just an error or are we intended to believe that he is in part levitating?
Curiously in visual film fantasy the important years occur at 22- year intervals. 1933 saw a big leap with KING KONG. 1955 was a lesser jump with THIS ISLAND EARTH, followed shortly by FORBIDDEN PLANET. Two major studios had competed with each other to create the more impressive space opera. The first STAR WARS film, a major jump, was 1977. This film which is again a large but lesser jump in fantasy visualization was released in 1999. I wonder what we can expect for 2021? [-mrl]
TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis (Bantam Spectra HC, 1998, Science Fiction Book Club Edition, ISBN 0-553-09995-7, 434pp) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):
I like time travel stories. I like stories by Connie Willis. Therefore, it follows that I like time travel stories by Connie Willis. Well, sometimes.
Time travel stories are amongst the oldest in the sf genre. The earliest that I can remember, and probably the most famous, is THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells. My favorite kind of time travel story is one in which the characters don't just visit another time, but specifically go back to the past and muck with things, thus changing the future, which may be the present from the perspective of the characters. Usually this involves some sort of paradox. A standard time travel paradox question raised at sf conventions is "if you go back in time to kill your grandparents, would you blink out of existence?" So, we can either change the future, or cause massive paradoxes (anybody who's ever watched Doctor Who is extremely familiar with both). Sometimes the paradox is intentional, sometimes it's something the author just failed to take into account for some strange reason.
A few years ago, Connie Willis wrote a very good time travel novel called DOOMSDAY BOOK, which co-won the Hugo the year it was published. TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG is set in that same universe, but while entertaining, doesn't live up to its predecessor's standards.
The story takes place in 2057, and Lady Schrapnell is rebuilding Coventry Cathedral, destroyed back in WWII by a Nazi air raid. Since "God is in the detail"s, she wants to duplicate the cathedral exactly. Her last obsession is something called the bishop's bird stump, and she wants it very badly. So badly that every one involved in the time travel institute, who stands to receive a lot of money from Schrapnell if they find the stump, and therefore recreate the cathedral, is hunting for it and everything else she is asking for. Our hero is Ned Henry, who has made so many "drops" that he is time lagged, is badly in need of a rest. So he's sent to Victorian England to run a mission, then take a long deserved rest away from the chaos.
Let me interject here to say that Willis has a nice little design for her time travel environment. When an incongruity is caused, the time travel net automatically, and on its own, corrects it. One of the things it does is cause "slippage," a phenomenon wherein you don't quite get where you want to, because the timeline doesn't want you to. Some time/place combinations are impossible to get to because they are crisis points. The net just won't let you go there.
Anyway, Ned goes back to Victorian England, as it turns out, to deliver a cat, which another time traveller, Verity, saved because the butler for the family she was staying with at that time threw it into the Thames (cats are extinct, sad to say, in 2057, so she wanted to save it). Verity is in Victorian England to try and read the diary of one Tossie, great grandmother or so of Lady Schrapnell. It's already starting to get too complicated to explain. Needless to say, the institute thinks that the cat being rescued has caused an incongruity, and they want it fixed.
Trust me people, it's more complicated than that.
Yes, it's a mystery novel as well as a time travel story. And it's not a bad mystery novel. The mystery can be unravelled with all the clues given to the reader, but it is extremely convoluted. Henry proposes a solution based on an extremely involved fix of the incongruity caused by the missing bishop's bird stump that I found a little over the top. And while it all fits, well, I found that I didn't care.
Willis always writes entertaining novels, and many are laced with her trademarked and snappy banter, as is this one. But I never really cared for any of the characters, although I wanted to strangle Tossie on at least a half dozen occasions. And while I was mildly interested in finding out the solution to the mystery, I was disappointed in it, and I was never really engrossed by the novel.
So, if you like Connie Willis and time travel stories, this one is probably okay for you. It just isn't Hugo material. [-jak]
Mark Leeper HO 1K-644 732-817-5619 email@example.com
Quote of the Week:
To believe is very dull. To doubt is intensely engrosing. To be on the alert is to live, to be lulled into security is to die. -- Oscar Wilde