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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 09/17/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 12
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, email@example.com Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, firstname.lastname@example.org Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, email@example.com HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, email@example.com Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
It has been a while since we have had a film at a video meeting at work. People seem to prefer those over reading and discussing books. The problem is that we only have an hour at a time. So we have to split the movie into two parts. But we have the facilities here. So...
We will be showing in HO 1J-672:
Wednesday 10/6 GATTACA, Part 1 Thursday 10/7 GATTACA, Part 2
GATTACA is probably the best science fiction film of the 1990s. In a world where one's DNA is ones destiny, where everybody's cast is determined by what their DNA says about them, a genetic inferior wants to be part of the space program. He hires a genetic non- inferior to supply him with biological samples for tests.
It could have been done very poorly as a didactic anti-technology film. Instead it is extremely intelligent. Apparently Andrew Niccol had written THE TRUMAN SHOW and everyone in Hollywood wanted to buy the script. His deal was that whoever made it had to let him make and direct GATTACA, the film he really wanted to make. Find out why. [-mrl]
I was talking recently with an astronomer and was reminded the sun was made of gas from a star that had died long before. I asked what were the age of the sun and the age of the universe. I believe the answer was five billion years and something like ten to twenty billion years. The age of the universe has come into severe question over the last year. But the numbers say the sun is between half and a quarter the age of the universe. And the sun was made from the remnants of another star. Doesn't it seem unlikely that all this is happening so close to the beginning? New stars are forming all the time and will continue to form far into the future. It seems to me a little odd that our sun formed so early in the life of the universe. One might ask were we already in the Milky Way galaxy when our sun formed how old was it already formed when our sun was formed? I guess intuitively I would expect the universe to be a hundred or maybe a thousand solar lifetimes old. I didn't expect a number like two or even four. We just seem to be an earlier player than I would have thought.
But some of these numbers are based on surprisingly tenuous logic. Particularly a lot of our knowledge of far distant objects depends very heavily on measurement by Doppler or red shifts. I could be wrong about this but I think that we measure the distance and speed of very far distant objects by the degree of red shift in their spectra of light.
I assume most of you understand the concept, but suppose you have an ice cream truck driving down the highway and the refrigeration unit conks out and the sorbet starts to melt. Every second the blueberry sorbet drops a drip onto the highway. Every ten seconds a red raspberry sorbet droplet falls onto the highway. You are following at a constant speed. You pass a blue droplet every second and a red droplet every ten seconds.
Now the ice cream driver realizes that he has a problem and starts to speed up. Blueberry still drops onto the highway at once a second, raspberry once every ten, but now because of the faster speed the droplets are further apart on the highway. You now pass a blue droplet every 1.1 second and a red one every 11 seconds. You can actually compute the rate at which the ice cream truck is speeding up.
That is how light works and how we measure the speed at which very distant objects move. Various common elements give off fixed wavelengths of light when they burn. Light from distant objects also has familiar wavelengths and we might expect to see the light at those wavelengths but we see it at longer wavelengths. Then we assume the object is moving away from us.
BUT: suppose light that travels very going distances has a wavelength shift naturally. Suppose the ice cream truck is really travelling at our speed and the heat of the day is making the blacktop of the highway expand. You don't see this over short distances because the effect is really, really tiny. But the drops of sorbet are further apart when we see them than when they are created. Blueberry is still appearing at a 10 to 1 ratio. We would think the truck is speeding up and it would be just an effect of the heat.
What if the same thing was happening to light from very distant sources? From some principle that we do not yet understand light waves that travel very long distances get an increased wavelength. It is really tough to set up an experiment to demonstrate it since all are measurements are affected by it more or less uniformly and the affect is so tiny at any but huge distances. I don't know if there was any way we could detect it. Where it could show up is it would tell us the very far objects are accelerating away from us faster and faster in spite of Newtonian physics telling us the universe should be decelerating outward.
And there is the point. Because for the last several months cosmologists have been trying to explain why their measurements say that the universe is expanding faster and faster. They are postulating a new repulsive force. It would be easy to explain if this light starts out blue-shifted and as the result of its long trip ends up red-shifted. Certainly at our end it is too red- shifted and that is hard to explain. Could this effect be just a trick of the light? [-mrl]
STIR OF ECHOES (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This story is based on a lesser novel by horror master Richard Matheson. It involves ghosts and telepathy, is atmospheric, and told with a great deal of tension. Unfortunately the plot could have used a few twists and surprises. The story is much too straightforward for its own good. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
As I was sitting at the Toronto Film Festival last year waiting for the screening of APT PUPIL I spoke to the woman next to me who claimed to really love horror, especially Stephen King. I asked if she was also a fan of Richard Matheson. "Who?" Richard Matheson is one of the most important names in American horror fiction, TV, and cinema. She pulled a copy of Steven King's DANSE MACABRE, a study of American horror, from a bag she carried and found that yes, there were references to Richard Matheson. I should hope so. Matheson may not have the name recognition of a King or a Koontz, but he has been behind everything important in horror and some spilling over into fantasy and science fiction since the 50s. Both King and Koontz freely admit large debts to Matheson. Matheson was really the major force to move the setting of horror stories out of castles in Eastern Europe and into American suburbia.
Matheson first got involved with film when his novel THE SHRINKING MAN was adapted into the film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Only Rod Serling provided more stories that were dramatized on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Matheson wrote most of Roger Corman's film adaptations of Poe in the 60s. He scripted THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (a.k.a. THE DEVIL'S BRIDE) one of the best films from Hammer Films. Matheson adapted the novel THE NIGHT STALKER for TV. He wrote THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and SOMEWHERE IN TIME, based on his own novels. He wrote DUEL based on his own story. DUEL was one of the first films to bring serious attention to Stephen Spielberg. The lady in Toronto entered the theater passing a large standup ad for WHAT DREAMS MAY COME adapted from the novel by Richard Matheson. That is about 45 years that Matheson has been a force to reckon with in horror in the visual media. STIR OF ECHOES is based on the novel A STIR OF ECHOES by Richard Matheson.
Tom Witzky (played by Kevin Bacon) is a sort of lower middle class telephone lineman in an older suburb of Chicago. His main entertainments involve beer and sports. Both he and his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) are vaguely dissatisfied with their downbeat existence. Their son Jake (Zachary David Cope) seems to live in his own world talking to an imaginary friend, Samantha. Maggie has a male-hating sister Lisa (Illeana Douglas) who is in training to be a hypno-therapist. One night at a party Tom makes fun of Lisa's profession and Lisa suggests he allow her to hypnotize him. She leaves him with a post-hypnotic suggestion to "leave his mind open." The suggestion works too well. Tom's mind is open to more than just a few new ideas; it is open to some forces in the universe better left alone. He starts having disturbing and graphic nightmares, continuations of visions he had under hypnosis, and worse, now he sees Samantha himself. And she looks to him like a walking corpse. Tom starts to associate this ghostly apparition with a neighbor girl named Samantha who disappeared from the neighborhood some months before. Slowly he becomes obsessed with proving his visions of Samantha are real and that she must have been murdered in his house.
David Koepp has been a writer on several big-ticket films of the recent years including CARLITO'S WAY, JURASSIC PARK, THE SHADOW, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE TRIGGER EFFECT (which he also directed), THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, and MEN IN BLACK. Here he both writes and directs; though the film is based on a novel by Richard Matheson. He does have a nice hand with mood as he keeps the lighting subdued and sets the film in an older neighborhood to create more atmosphere. The latter is a curious move on his part having written the screenplay. The novel, written in 1958, is set in a then modern suburb. The story could well have been set in the neighborhood where POLTERGEIST was set instead of this old Chicago neighborhood. But the script explicitly calls attention to the fact that the house is new or at least that the Witzkys are the first people who have ever lived in the house. The line makes no sense in a house this old. I also note with pleasure a nod to Richard Matheson in that a babysitter is reading his THE SHRINKING MAN. (And given that it is an old edition and was probably purchased in Chicago, the odds say she got it at the bookstore The Stars Our Destination.) The setting does not always work and a little doctoring of the script might have made the film make more sense.
This is a tense and atmospheric film. Kevin Bacon does a convincing job of playing the working class main character. But in the final analysis there is not much new in the film. To be memorable it would have to build up to something a little less prosaic. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE MUSE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: A screenwriter who has lost his edge meets a real muse, a spirit said to inspire artists. The price of the muse's services is to be constantly pampered in some of the most exquisite ways possible. Albert Brooks once had a great ear for how people talk and a great eye for how they behave, but he himself may be losing his edge. In spite of a few very clever moments this is far from Brooks's best or his most perceptive comedy. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
In his new film Albert Brooks plays a screenwriter who can still write funny material but is losing his "edge." He does not know what it means to be losing his edge, but he is losing it nonetheless. Sadly, the script of THE MUSE itself is often very funny, but Brooks seems to be losing his own edge. The Albert Brooks edge was to be able to write dialog that is both funny and true. In LOST IN AMERICA when his wife gambles away "the nest egg," part of the punishment that Brooks thinks of on the spur of the moment is she is no longer allowed to use the words "nest" or "egg." She must order fried THINGS for breakfast. If she sees a bird's home she must call it a round STICK. This is very funny material because it is so ridiculous and at the same time so possible. But that very real sort of humor is missing from THE MUSE. In this film that kind of dialog is lost in all the sarcasm.
Stephen Phillips (Albert Brooks) is a Hollywood screenwriter who may be just getting to be past his prime. When his latest script is rejected he starts worrying about how to feed his family. He goes to his friend, the fabulously successful screenwriter Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges). But who is this beautiful woman kissing Jack good-bye? It isn't his wife. This is a side of Jack that Stephen has not seen before. Eventually Jack admits reluctantly that this woman is not his mistress but really his muse. Literally she is a muse. She is one of the nine daughters of Zeus. If you treat her like a queen she will inspire you to your most creative ideas and your best work. Stephen decides that he has nothing to lose and decides to make her his muse. Her name is Sarah.
Stephen starts seeing the Sarah (Sharon Stone) and taking up the responsibility of keeping her happy. Things that appeal to her tastes do not come cheaply. It costs tens of thousands of dollars a week to keep her in the style to which she expects to live. But she apparently is the real thing and Stephen starts getting story ideas that may all be worth the effort of keeping the pampered, spoiled, conscienceless brat happy at all hours of the night with expensive snacks. He will indulge her even if it wrecks his marriage. And it nearly does as his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) foolishly jumps to the conclusion her husband is having an affair and then (surprise!) she very cleverly realizes that explanation does not explain the strange behavior. Again the film parallel its own story when Stephen complains that his new screenplay is lacking a third act and then he chooses one that seems tacked on. The ending is clearly the weakest part of the film. Brooks ties things up, but not in at all a satisfying way.
Sharon Stone clearly is enjoying herself behaving pampered and spoiled the way most people secretly would like to be. Brooks is his usual irritable character, but he has played this character too often before. He has also arranged an impressive lineup of familiar film personalities to flesh out his story.
What is unfortunate about THE MUSE is that Brooks walked right by the best use of his concept and he never even noticed it. The real story is not the Muse's relationship with Stephen Phillips. The story to tell is how does a Muse establish herself in a cynical town like Hollywood. How does she make her first conquests? How is her reputation established? This may be a story more in the realm of Thorne Smith, but it is certainly where the interesting ideas are. THE MUSE is rated PG-13 for language and a moment of totally pointless gratuitous nudity that apparently is present only to avoid a PG rating. Speaking of rating, I give THE MUSE a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
INVERSIONS Iain Banks (Pcoket Books, ISBN 0-671-03668-8, US$23) (a book review by Dale Skran):
This is the latest volume of "space opera" set in the Culture universe. However, Banks is so sneaky that you may get halfway through the book before you start to suspect that the Culture is involved. This book mainly involves medieval plotting and counter-plotting, with a background of ethical debate over how far an advanced culture should go in helping a more "primitive" culture. This is not going to win any Hugos, but Banks is back on target after the less than compelling EXCESSION.
For those who are not Banks readers, the following books are all in the "Culture" universe and are worth reading:
The grand conceit of the Banksian vision is that he has projected the salient features of Western Culture and most especially American culture forward a few millenniums, creating something both annoying and plausible. He is especially strong on how corrosive ideas like wealth and freedom and equality can really be when coupled to AI and starships as big as moons.
Related books by Banks that are also worth reading include AGAINST A DARK BACKGROUND, which I would describe as a fun space opera.
Casual readers are warned that Banks is most comfortable as a horror writer, and manages to always insert some really unpleasant material. In INVERSIONS this material involves describing the living conditions of the poor, and medical care in a torture chamber. I cannot really say that these descriptions are gratuitous, but they are certainly unpleasant.
Please note that Banks also writes horror under the name "Iain Banks" so look for the initial "M" when buying to avoid a ghastly surprise (unless you liked THE WASP FACTORY!!!). [-dls]
[This is currently in print in the UK. The publication information given above is for the US edition, due out in November. -ecl]
THE SPIKE: ACCELERATING INTO THE UNIMAGINABLE FUTURE by Damien Broderick (Reed Books Australia, ISBN 0-730-10497-4, 280pp, A$19.95) (a book review by Dale Skran):
I am warning you right up front that this is not intended so much as a review as a pointer. For those of you who are new to the concept, out on the fringes of SF lies an idea, first described in detail by Vernor Vinge in MAROONED IN REAL TIME, called the "Singularity." It has various definitions, but for Vinge is related to the lack of projectibility/understandability that occurs once super-human artificial intelligences exist.
Without discussing these ideas at all, I note that Broderick, an Australian SF writer, has written THE SPIKE to carry on a conversation about the Singularity and related ideas. In many ways this book is merely commentary on MAROONED IN REAL TIME and various books by Hans Moravec, tied in with material culled from the Net. Having said that, THE SPIKE is must reading for anyone who is seriously interested in predictive SF, or in what might happen in the real future we actually live in.
The book has two major weaknesses. One, as a non-scientist Broderick offers little guidance as he takes us on a tour of fantastic possibilities, and has apparently devoted not enough thought to the economics involved in his future worlds (he isn't in business either!). Two, although he correctly recognizes that widespread AI will have huge effects on the economy and the labor market, possibly creating a vast mass of unemployable human drones, he suggests as a solution the negative income tax with rather little discussion of this complex topic. I've recently read several books in this area that you might consider before rushing off with Broderick toward a simple minded solution to this real but complex issue:
1. The Conservative Critique of the Welfare State - LOSING GROUND by Charles Murray - IN PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS AND GOOD GOVERNMENT by Charles Murray - THE BELL CURVE by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray - WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A LIBERTARIAN by Charles Murray - MIGRATIONS AND CULTURES by Thomas Sowell - WHO PROSPERS? by Lawrence E. Harrison 2. The Liberal Response - DUBIOUS CONCEPTIONS: THE POLITICS OF TEENAGE PREGNANCY by Kristin Luker - THE BELL CURVE WARS edited by Steven Fraser - THE WAY WE REALLY ARE by Stephanie Coontz - AMERICA UNEQUAL by Sheldon Danziger and Peter Gottschalk - THE UNDESERVING POOR: FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON WELFARE by Michael Katz 3. Alternative Critiques of the Welfare State - RETHINKING SOCIAL POLICY: RACE, POVERTY, AND THE UNDERCLASS by Christopher Jencks - THE END OF EQUALITY by Mickey Kaus
Broderick also has a touching faith that that humans will deal well with unlimited leisure time since he deals well with working as a free-lance writer. In spite of these weaknesses, THE SPIKE is a very interesting and well worth reading. It is an excellent one stop shopping trip that covers AI, downloading, nanotech, cryonics, and more, and supplies a useful reading list at the end. [-dls]
[Note: this is available in Australia and the UK, as well as on- line bookstores based there. It is not in print in the US. -ecl]
STUCK IN FAST FORWARD by Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes (a book review by Dale Skran):
In this Heinlein juvenile style story, Broderick and Barnes reprise Vernor Vinge's MAROONED IN REAL TIME and H. G. Wells's TIME MACHINE without repeating them in any significant way. Instead of the "Bobble," we have a "vacuole" in space time that can jump forward only in increasing steps. The result might be titled "Swiss Family Robinson of the Singularity" as Mom, Dad, and two daughters plunge ever onward through time, having various adventures at each stop as things get weirder and weirder. Overall, the future is well thought out, the action fast and interesting, and I look forward to reading more from Broderick and Barnes. Fans of Stapledonian SF may also enjoy this tale, as it covers the entire history of the universe.
This is "okay for all ages" material. [-dls]
[I have no idea where this is available. -ecl]
TWO HANDS (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Pandemonium erupts when an amateur criminal on an errand for a local hood loses $10,000. The film certainly has its funny moments and if this was the first film of its type, this clever and inventive film could have been a real standout. Unfortunately LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS came out first and there is insufficient reason to see both. There are just too many similar films being made. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
Things are starting to go right in Jimmy's world. Until now Jimmy (played by Heath Ledger) has been a street hawker for a second rate Sydney strip club. But Jimmy has fallen in love with Alex (Rose Byrne), a woman he has seen outside the club. And a local gangster Pando (Bryan Brown) offers a small job as courier to Jimmy. What Jimmy does not know is that Pando killed Jimmy's brother. Now Pando wants to make things up to Jimmy and offers him a job that could lead to bigger things if Jimmy does not screw up this first job. Of course we would not have much of a story if something did not go wrong. In a careless moment Jimmy loses $10,000. Now Jimmy needs $10,000 to square things with Pando and a few of his friends want to see Jimmy dead. Before the film PULP FICTION was made this all could have been a fairly serious matter. But now we expect crime films to have really strange dialog and really weird interconnected plots with very strange twists and odd characters.
Heath Ledger is a good actor and carries his part well. Bryan Brown is particularly enjoyable as a vicious hood by profession but also a caring and loving family man at home. There are occasional astonishing touches like the Narrator from Hell.
This is not a bad little film. One of the people in a Cairns audience said it was the best Australian film he had seen in a long time. I can believe it. The real problem is the timing. TWO HANDS is just one more creative, violent, semi-comedic crime film made in the wake of PULP FICTION. Its pacing and its plotting remind one a lot of LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. And in the comparison it is nearly but not quite as good. My recommendation for Showtime Australia is put this film in a vault for five years and release it again when it will again be fresh and a discovery. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper HO 1K-644 732-817-5619 firstname.lastname@example.orgIf you could make everyone think alike, it would be very much as if no one thought at all. -- Phillips Brooks