MT VOID 08/06/99 (Vol. 18, Number 6)

MT VOID 08/06/99 (Vol. 18, Number 6)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 08/06/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 6

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.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


I am continuing with how this country at one time encouraged tobacco use.

NPR documented recently how the American military pushed tobacco. In training men would be exercising but would be given a smoking break. The deal was smoke if you have them, otherwise continue exercising. Basically they punished people who did not smoke.

The following is an anecdote found at, though I have heard it elsewhere. "Gene Roddenberry told me that while he was creating "Star Trek," the network (NBC) and the production company (Paramount) put enormous pressure on him to include cigarettes on the starship Enterprise. Roddenberry pointed out that, considering the health risks known about cigarettes even in 1966, no one would be smoking by stardate 1513.1 (circa 2264 A.D.). The network and studio executives used both pressure and persuasion. They tried to get Roddenberry enthused about how cigarettes might look in the twenty-third century. Maybe they would be square instead of round; perhaps they would come in colors; perhaps cigarettes would light themselves! Roddenberry's creative juices were not stimulated. Finally, the executives gave him an ultimatum: either the starship Enterprise would officially be declared a Smoking Zone, or Roddenberry's other radical idea--to have a woman as an officer of the Enterprise crew--would be abandoned. The executives were clever in offering this choice: Roddenberry's wife was already cast to play the female officer. After quite a bit of soul-searching, Roddenberry came to the only conclusion he could: both cigarettes and his wife did not get an intergalactic boarding pass. The irony was that, in later years, when smoking was less fashionable, Paramount pointed with pride to "Star Trek" as one of the few shows in syndication that had none of those "distasteful' cigarettes."

As I write this, big tobacco has just lost a major class action suit. I think the figure I heard was $200,000,000,000. The government seems to have removed some major protections from the tobacco industry and they seem to be really vulnerable. I just read that several stamps created for the United States Postal service show famous people not smoking. Well, this is not surprising, but they are taken from photos of the people and they are smoking in the photos. A stamp of classic newsman Edward R. Morrow removed a cigarette that was almost his trademark. A new stamp of Jackson Pollock is taken from a photograph from Life Magazine, but with one major difference: there is no cigarette perched on his lip.

The Soviet Union used revisionist photography in much the same way. They would have a group photo of party officials and some of them, ones out of favor, would be cropped or cut out. Winston Smith in 1984 had a job, which was going into historical records and deleting references unfavorable to the state. These days he works for the Postal Service. I understand their reasons, but I think the Postal Service may be going a little overboard here. It just shows the strength with which the tide has turned. [-mrl]

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: In 1994 three amateur filmmakers went into the Maryland woods making a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. They never returned. This is claimed to be a compilation of the footage they took showing how they were lost and ran afoul of something unseen. This is a film that demonstrates that horror in a film need not be created by visual effects. Instead the immediacy created by hand-held cameras and a realistic rather than artificial style makes this the most intense horror film since HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4). Following the review is a non-spoiler sidebar listing the rules of the European film movement Dogma 95.

There is a paradox in filmmaking. The viewer goes to a film to see an experience, but ironically not really to share the experience. We as viewers want to see the story, but we do not really want to participate in the experience. The filmmakers we consider to be the best do not make realistic films. These great stylists of cinema are mostly people that rather than making a film real for us make it unreal. The most real film is crude footage right out of a hand-held camera. Even using Steadicam is stepping away from reality. As we look at he world our head bobs and jerks. Steadicam smoothes out the bobs and jerks making the resulting film less real. A rare few films use crudity and a lack of style to make the film more real for the viewer. THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is an effective horror film, not because a great stylist polished it but because it looks like it is not polished at all. It is shot in black and white and photographed crudely. It does have music, but it is the music that the filmmakers could get free and the music is rough. Color and a lush orchestral score are a distraction.

As I write this review there are two horror film in wide release. The remake of THE HAUNTING is a highly glossy film with great special effects and images from the imagination of an artist. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT on the other hand is shot primitively with hand-held cameras and has almost no music. And that lack of style makes the film seem all the more real. By showing almost nothing of the menace in the story it allows the viewer's mind complete freedom to imagine the threat. In fact THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT-- perhaps coincidentally--very nearly follows the rules of Dogma 95. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was made on a very tiny film budget, and it is made with almost no stylistic tricks. In fact it has no style whatsoever to distance the viewer from the action. That makes it the most effective horror film we have seen in years.

The plot of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is obvious from the first minutes of the film. We are told at the very beginning of the film that in October 1994 three student filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard (played by Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard) were making a film. They went into the Maryland woods near Burkittesville to shoot a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch. They never came out of that woods and we are told a year later their film footage was found. We don't even know how it is supposed to have been unearthed. But we are seeing the raw film footage they shot. It is clear from the beginning that they were incompetents and should not be out in the wild by themselves. It is not hard to guess what trouble they found in the woods and what caused them not to come back. The film spends the rest of its short 85-minute length showing the viewer what was expected to happen did happen. This is not a great plot. It is almost no plot at all, in fact. The viewer knows what is going to ensue and just sits there to see it happen and to pick up the details. Yet just seeing it all happen without having the filmmaker interpose style between the viewer and the story makes this film an experience so immediate and intense that people are walking out of the film rather than subjecting their nerves to the film. The special effects in this film are all mostly sound effects. They are all easy to create, but they tap into a basic fear of being vulnerable in the woods, in the night, in the dark (to paraphrase both versions of THE HAUNTING). This is a film that will tap into some very basic fears.

The film is written, directed, and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. It is a Haxen Films production (probably named for the classic 1922 Norwegian film documentary HAXEN, meaning "Witches"). The three main characters apparently play themselves. According to the publicity most of the dialog is improvised, giving it a real immediacy. Apparently they were given a rough plot outline and identifying with the characters they argued among themselves in a sort of role-playing game. I would bet that the scenes were filmed in very much the order that we see them in the film to make easier the slow build in the actors' hysteria. The reported cost of shooting the film was $20,000, but the film is playing to full houses. It is the kind of trick that probably can be done effectively only once, though THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is bound to have imitators. This is a film of incredible intensity. It has no sex, no violence, a fair amount of medium-strong language, but less than a lot of other films in theaters. Yet it is too strong for even some of the adults seeing the film. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. In case there is any confusion the film THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the television documentary "The Curse of the Blair Witch," and any legends or historical factoids found in either are complete fictions created for the film. A possible exception is the television description of the backgrounds of the three film students who were real people and played themselves in the film. There never was a Blair Witch or an attempt to do a serious documentary about her.

Dogma 95 is a European film movement founded by Danish filmmaker Lars von Triers. It is intended to bring film back to a more natural sort of filmmaking. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT follows, as far as I can tell, the first seven of the rules and breaks the last three. However, its compliance with so many of the rules of Dogma 95 may be purely coincidental. The following are the rule of Dogma 95.

I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGMA 95:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.


CHILDREN OF GOD by Mary Doria Russell (Villard, 1998, 438pp, $23.95, ISBN 0-679-45635-X) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):

In my mind, it's got to be extremely difficult to put together a novel after one like THE SPARROW. As a writer (not that I know, mind you), you know that your first novel was a terrific one, and now you have to follow it up with another novel that you hope will be half as good as the first one. And you have to make the decision whether to write your next novel in the same universe as the first one, or do something completely different. In either case, expectations must be high, although I would think that doing something in a different universe or setting might be a little easier to deal with. After all, if you write a lousy novel in the same universe as your highly successful first novel, well, you've been there before, you should know those characters, how they interact, etc., so that you write a good novel. A lousy novel in another universe can be a little easier to take.

Mary Doria Russell chose to follow up THE SPARROW with a direct sequel, CHILDREN OF GOD. She didn't write a lousy novel, but after THE SPARROW, it was a major letdown.

CHILDREN OF GOD picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of THE SPARROW. The central character of the last book, Emilio Sandoz, is still recovering from his ordeal on Rakhat and the inquisition at the hands of the Jesuit leaders. His falling out with God causes him to leave the Jesuits and the priesthood. He is able to get past his emotional problems enough to fall in love with Gina Guiliani, a single mother recently divorced from organized crime man Carlo Guiliani. Meanwhile, the Jesuits are putting together another trip to Rakhat, and the Pope wants Sandoz along for the ride.

(Spoiler alert)

Meanwhile, on Rakhat, we discover that not all those who we thought died did indeed die. If you remember from THE SPARROW, major cultural disruption occurred when the humans from the first expedition planted their own food, then showed the Runa how to do the same. This upset the delicate balance between the J'anata and the Runa. In a conflict that ensued when J'anata came to cull the extra children of the Runa that resulted from the Runa eating better than they ever had, Sofia Mendez was thought to have been killed. We discover that the Runa saved her, and she eventually gave birth to Isaac, fathered by her late husband from the original expedition, Jimmy Quinn. Isaac seems to be mentally handicapped in some way, however. We later find out that this isn't true.

You may wonder why I'm spilling all the beans on this. Well, honestly, I can't really think of any other way right now of setting up what happens next.

It's all rather complicated, mind you, with relativity and all getting in the way of a straight line story, but basically Sandoz is kidnapped by Carlo and his gang for the flight to Rakhat (not without some "help", but I'll leave that one alone), and gets there to find out that there's a war between the Runa and the J'anata occurring, and the Runa are winning. As a matter of fact, the J'anata are nearly extinct. Isaac has disappeared, and Sofia fears that he has been taken by the J'anata, when in fact he's off on his own, learning, studying, absorbing. He is the key to why Sandoz has come back, although to me it is a bit of a reach.

I'm having a hard time with this review because I had a hard time with the book. None of the characters spoke to me at all, and the only one that I really liked was Nico, a sort of slow (but not as slow as you might think) bodyguard who eventually comes to befriend Sandoz. As in THE SPARROW, I just could not get into the beings living on Rakhat, either Runa or J'anata. I found the scenes involving the natives on Rakhat tedious, other than those involving Isaac (native, though human) and Ha'nala. The story didn't grab me as much as THE SPARROW did (although I suppose one could argue that that would be difficult to do), and I felt like I had to trudge through it.

Was it a rotten, lousy, book? No. Was it a good book? Not in my mind, but I've spoken with several people who thought that while it was not as good as THE SPARROW, it was still a terrific novel. If I had to do it all again, I'd take a pass on it.

This concludes my reviews of this year's Hugo Nominees. It gives me just enough time to fax my Hugo ballot in. Now it's time for me take a break, and read a few other things that have been stacking up. Down the road I plan on reading and reviewing the new Robert J. Sawyer novel, David Brin's finale to the Second Foundation Trilogy, and Vernor Vinge's latest.

Until then... [-jak]

FACTORING HUMANITY by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86458-2, 1998, 350pp, US$23.95) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):

[This review ran late last year, but is being re-run as part of Joe Karpierz's series of reviews of Hugo-nominees. -ecl]

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]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   HO 1K-644 732-817-5619

Quote of the Week:

            There is one way to find out if a man is honest:
	    ask him; if he says yes, you know he is crooked.
                                   -- Mark Twain