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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 05/18/01 -- Vol. 19, No. 46
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.
Links to Hugo Nominees:
For those of you interested in reading this year's Hugo nominees on-line:
Douglas Adams Obitutary:
So long and thanks for all the books: Douglas Adams died Friday, May 11, at the age of 49 of a heart attack. A tribute from actor Stephen Fry is available at http://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,489979,00.html. [-ecl]
Some people are complaining that the new National Budget is cutting taxes for the rich but including no new funds for education. The Republicans, of course, deny that that is what the budget does. At the same time US NEWS & WORLD REPORT ran a special issue on how to choose a boarding school. I guess we know how they see the budget. [-mrl]
Most people never visit the tourist attractions that bring people to the areas they live. So frequently you hear a New Yorker say he has never been to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. I try not to do that. I have been to most of the major tourist attractions within a day's striking distance of my home. Springtime rolls around, the weather turns pleasant, and Evelyn and I feel it would be nice to get on the road and to go see something historic. A few weeks ago we went to Valley Forge. This was the campground where General George Washington parked his troops from late December 19, 1777, until June 19, 1778. It is now a National Park.
There is contradictory information about how bad things were for the American troops. Most sources--and the legend--say that it was a horribly cold winter and the men were near starvation. Nevertheless they remained fiercely loyal to George Washington. That was what the legend says and within days of their leaving Valley Forge they took on the British at Monmouth where they had a stunning victory. From that point on the war went against the British.
Historian Richard Shenkman, whose best known works try to puncture legends and myths, disagrees. In his I LOVE PAUL REVERE WHETHER HE RODE OR NOT he says that conditions were really no worse that winter than during the rest of the war. Washington intentionally created the myth of the terrible winter himself trying to lobby Congress to give more aid to his army and as a defense against the criticism that he was not doing a very good job as commander. Indeed when I look at an almanac of the American Revolution with major events about what was happening at this time, it says little about Washington actually commanding the troops or much heroic at all being done. Instead it talks about a matter that makes Washington sound a lot less like a hero and more like a petty child involved in a disagreement. It was this disagreement that seemed to be occupying Washington's mind at Valley Forge. Needless to say this is not the Washington that the National Parks Service tends to present to the public at the park.
Of 11000 soldiers in camp, 300 died, mostly of disease. There were 268 courts martial, and as is often forgotten, hundreds of floggings. A standard punishment was flogging. Washington said of the winter, "By death and desertion we have lost a good many men since we came to this ground and have encountered every species of hardship that cold, wet, and hunger and want of clothes were capable of producing."
In fact the National Parks people labor under a handicap at Valley Forge that their peers at places like Antietam and at Gettysburg do not have. Their problem is that nothing much happened at Valley Forge. Think about what you know about Valley Forge. You hear about the cold winter and the hardship. There is no special site of hardship. What do the Parks staff have to show people? Where the troops drilled? Where they had cabins? That is all OK, but it lacks the blood and thunder of a battlefield. People like to see ground sanctified by blood and struggle.
The park consists of a Visitor Center that is mostly museum and souvenir shop. Next door is a theater where they have an 18-minute film about Valley Forge. Elsewhere for a two-dollar ticket you can see Washington's headquarters which is indistinguishable from anybody else's tiny house from the period. If you are not really excited about a bed that can justifiably claim, "George Washington slept here" you can save yourself the expense and effort. So there is little really exciting to see.
They have special events to liven things up. We got to two special events. One was a demonstration by two history reenactors of musket and rifle. Mentioned was that prime targets on the battlefield were always the commanders of the other side. I asked them afterward about that. I said that there were probably all sorts of errors in THE PATRIOT. What about the implication in the film that the British thought that it was bad sport to aim for the commanding officers. They thought it was a ridiculous thing for the script to have Cornwallis say. Of course Cornwallis had his men aim for the Continental commanders and we aimed for theirs. We asked them a little about historic reenactment. Sometimes they follow a strict scenario, other times they are more like war gaming.
The other special event was a real joy. One of the rangers was giving a talk, with short dramatizations, about a nearly forgotten gang of outlaws who allied themselves with the Tories and against the Continentals. The story of Doane Gang seems to be every bit as dramatic as those of the cowboy gangs a century or more later. Moses Doane headed the gang and terrorized New York and New Jersey. The ranger puts on a good show. He also enjoyed discussing cinema we later discovered. He mentioned that the park authorities were not happy with his choice of subject matter for his presentations. Why talk about criminals when so many American heroes were around then, but the talk added some much needed excitement.
My chuckle of the day came from a little boy in the museum in the visitor center. There were reprints of three paintings of George Washington. The boy asked his mother in frustration "How come there aren't any REAL pictures of him?"
Next week I will continue with Valley Forge, but mostly I will say something about an affair of political intrigue that occurred at that time and puts Washington in a new light you probably did not learn about in school. [-mrl]
A KNIGHT'S TALE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: The story is intentionally anachronistic. That would be excusable since it is clearly deliberate. The tale is a highly cliched sports story devoid of surprises or interest. Brian Helgeland writes and directs, inspired by a story of THE CANTERBURY TALES. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), low 0 (-4 to +4)
Just a week ago I was complaining that the film THE MUMMY RETURNS was severely damaged by its lack of period feel in the scenes set in 1933. That was a story whose premise was fantasy, so the rest of the film really needed to be realistic to avoid having the proceedings become a total cartoon. Before I saw the film I was getting ready to explain why I would give A KNIGHT'S TALE more latitude to play with the period feel. Here the anachronism is the point of the film and is done intentionally. In fact, there might even be a good constructive reason to introduce anachronism. In medieval times there must have been a lot of slang expressions used in every day conversation. Few of these would be likely to be known today, particularly to non-scholars. Where we might say, "get a life," they might have had some other expression, something we no longer know. So as long as the actors were speaking Modern English anyway, they could say, "get a life" and still be authentic to the period. As long as the writing made clear that was how the anachronism was being used, the anachronism would be more or less acceptable. So I had this great defense of A KNIGHT'S TALE all prepared. I saw A KNIGHT'S TALE, however, and now I don't want to defend the film.
A film needs at least to have either an interesting and original story or an interesting background. For example, the film DEAD CALM has what was a fairly cliched slasher story at least had an interesting nautical background. If the viewer get bored with the main plot there is enough else that is of interest. This is not the case with A KNIGHT'S TALE. The background atmosphere is intentionally murdered, and the foreground story is boringly obvious. Even the jokes are not very funny.
The year is 1356--well sort of. More like a 21st century 1356. When a knight dies of natural causes, his squire William (played by Heath Ledger of THE PATRIOT) substitutes for his master. Will wins and discovers he has some unexpected skill as a jouster. With two associates as his crew, and a third poet he finds on the road, they become a team. The poet is one Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Battany) who helps William forge the noble origins necessary to be a jouster. The fraudulent nobleman soon falls in love with a beautiful woman he has seen in passing, Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon). And the knight has a rival for Jocelyn's hand as well as a rival in the field in person of Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). From there the plot is a standard, not to say tiresome, sports success story. The only halfway interesting character is Kate (Laura Fraser of TITUS), a woman blacksmith whom the group pick up along the way.
Of course, none of this is allowed to in any way feels much like 1356. Audiences at the joust sing, "We Will... We Will... Rock You" while doing the Wave. The modern music and the 21st century gestures all give the film a sort of semi-whimsical surreal feel, much like some of the scenes in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.
Brian Hanson who produced, directed, and wrote the screenplay is probably best known for his writing the screenplay and co-producing the much better L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the under-appreciated THE POSTMAN. Each had a much better plots than A KNIGHT'S TALE. The film's production design is by Tony Burrough. Burrough also did production design on nice looking films like 1995's RICHARD III and 1998's GREAT EXPECTATIONS. This film generally has a good look if not much substance. A few places model-work is not well integrated with live action. Also some scenes seem to be shot at twelve or perhaps eight frames per second. A similar effect was used in GLADIATOR. I personally find this style jarring and having very little positive effect.
With a plot older than, well, CANTERBURY TALES and an unconvincing background, this film just totally misses its mark. Still, nearly all its sins would be excusable if the plot had been a little better. I rate this film a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE LUZHIN DEFENCE (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: John Turturro stars as Alexandre Luzhin, a chess Grand Master and genius who seems nearly an idiot savant. At an important championship, he briefly meets a woman and decides he wants to marry her. Through interwoven flashbacks we see how he became the chess genius that he is and get a little feel for how he thinks. It is so enjoyable to see one film in which the competition is on an intellectual plane rather than a physical one. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
Somehow I think of the works of Vladimir Nabokov as being deep with psychological and Freudian meanings. I have never read his books but have not been greatly impressed by the film versions of LOLITA. So I am not sure what I expected from THE LUZHIN DEFENCE. Certainly what I expected was not a delectable comedy-drama about a near-autistic chess genius, his courtship, and the intrigue against him at a chess championship. But what makes the film most fun is the view into how a chess master thinks, how the driving need for chess has disordered the rest of his mind, and how he copes in the world because of it. It may be an odd coincidence, but the two best films I have seen this year, MEMENTO and THE LUZHIN DEFENCE both deal with people with damaged minds and how they cope in the "real" world.
In the late 1930s Natalia Katkov (played by Emily Watson) is meeting her parents for a stay at a ritzy and beautiful Italian resort. Natalia's parents hope she will meet a wealthy husband at the resort and they have a particular count in mind. Just at this time the resort is the site of an international chess championship. A grand master at the contest is the strange Alexandre Luzhin (John Turturro). Luzhin seems to have devoted every useful neuron of his mind to chess at the expense of his ability to function in the normal world. He is known for his weird behavior, like dancing to music that nobody else hears, but still held in awe. The man perpetually looks as if he was just awakened from a deep sleep and finds himself in the middle of a brass band.
After a short chance encounter with Natalia, Luzhin surprises her by proposing marriage. Natalia's mother was hoping her daughter would find a husband, but this social misfit was not what she had in mind. The young woman, however, is unhappy with suitors of great style and lessor substance. This chess master has no style so all there is to see is his substance. Before Luzhin has time for Natalia he must win the current championship and at the same time must deal with the demons of his youth.
Through interwoven flashbacks we learn about Luzhin's boyhood, one which in some ways parallels his present. He is the son of parents who do not get along, and he does not get along with his teachers. When his father shows him chess to focus his mind it works only too well, but then his mind is focused only on chess. The results are reminiscent of the film SHINE. One montage seems to imply he is so consumed by his love of chess that he cannot even make love without his mind returning to the game he loves. Yet there is little about the great game he can explain to Natalia other than that there are what he calls "strong" moves and "quiet" moves. The strong moves are obvious and show power. But the quiet moves are subtle and actually make it possible to exercise power. But working to bring him down is a mysterious man who is master of both kinds of move in a larger game than chess.
The resort created for this film is sumptuous, especially the room designed for chess competition. It invites comparison to the similar room at the beginning of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. The costume work is complex and appears accurate. The camera repeatedly returns to images of crystal, through which we see the same world we see with our eyes, but distorted. This is much as the distorted view Luzhin has of our world.
Marleen Gorris, who directed this film, is fifty years old and was born in Holland. Her previous films include a didactic ANTONIA'S LINE from 1995 and MRS. DALLOWAY in 1998. The production design is by Tony Burrough who also did the design for RICHARD III (1995), GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1998), and A KNIGHT'S TALE (2001).
THE LUZHIN DEFENCE is an unexpectedly likable film about a man who has given his whole mind and life over to the passion of chess. It is part thriller, part character study. I rate it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
SHADOW OF THE HEGEMON by Orson Scott Card (Tor, Copyright 2000, ISBN 0-312-87651-3, hardcover, $25.95) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):
In my review of the previous book in this series, ENDER'S SHADOW, I wrote the following:
I have mixed feelings, however. Is this novel as good as I think it is because it's well crafted, telling the same story from a different perspective, making it fresh all over again? Or is this novel good only because the original was good, and it's essentially the same story?
I now have an answer to that question. ENDER'S SHADOW was good only because the original story was good (ENDER'S GAME), and it's essentially the same story.
To be fair, that may still not be true. However, judging by the latest entry in the series, SHADOW OF THE HEGEMON, it certainly is true. This book is nowhere near as good as ENDER'S SHADOW, and the reason can be found in the afterword. Some readers may know that Card was going to write a prequel trilogy to the Ender series. Well, we find out that the story has expanded from three to four books because of a comment made by one of his pre-readers (if you will), who suggested a change be made (which I will describe a bit later). This stretching out of this book, which in turn caused an extra book to be written (sort of like Douglas Adams writing the fifth book in the Hitchhiker's Trilogy), causes this novel to slow to an absolute crawl.
In short, I was bored.
This is a military novel, a political novel, a novel about diplomacy. Which, I suppose, is all well and good if that's what you're interested in and looking for. The novel takes place not long after the end of the Formic War--the war against the buggers. Humanity has won, led by the children in the Battle School, as we have seen in ENDER'S GAME and ENDER'S SHADOW. The Battle School has been disbanded, Ender has gone off to participate in events chronicled in SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, and all the rest of the Battle School kids have gone home to be with their families. The nations of the world now want to re-exert their sovereignty after temporarily uniting with each other to fight off the invaders. What better way to gain an advantage by kidnapping and using Battle School children for their own purposes? So, one by one, all the kids are kidnapped.
Except Bean. They (there's always a "they", isn't there?) want him dead instead. It turns out that Achilles, Bean's old nemesis from Battle School, is behind the kidnappings. It turns out he wants to rule the world himself. Then there's Peter Wiggin, Ender's brother--he sees what Achilles is doing and wants to stop it. And he asks Bean for help. The other major player in our little drama is Petra, the Battle School cadet who fell asleep while fighting a battle during the formic war. She is kept closely guarded by Achilles himself, who is using her in a gigantic real life game of Risk, in which he sees himself as the winner.
Ah, Petra, it's not your fault that this book went wrong. You see, Petra's escape was meant to be quick and early on in the novel. However, as it turns out, via recommendation from that pre-reader, her escape is made the focal point of the novel. Card says he would be cheating his reader if her escape occurred early in the book. I say he's boring his readers by drawing the story out like that. I say he's stealing my valuable reading time by extending this story like that.
Now maybe you like military, political novels, novels about diplomacy. I might too, if I read a good one. I didn't like this one at all. Which of course begs the question of whether I'm going to read the next one. Well, of course I am, because among other things I'm a completist. And I also have this insane desire to see if it will get any better. Don't continue on your own--it should only be done by a trained professional.
Which means that I shouldn't be doing it either.
Moving on to other things, as readers of this erstwhile publication already know, the Hugo nominations are out. Evelyn has asked me if I was going to review the nominees for best novel again, as it has become somewhat of a tradition. The answer is yes. In looking at the nominations, it's going to be a tough road, because I'm predisposed against fantasy novels, and I see two on the list. But I'll give it my best shot. I promise.
In any case, my next review will be of HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. It was easy to get a hold of a copy--I just walked into my daughter's room and asked if I could borrow it. I was almost hoping she's say no. :-) [-jak]
Quote of the Week:
Racism is not widespread among most of British society, but it permeates every nook and cranny of the race relations industry. -- Lord Norman Tebbit