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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/15/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 37
Table of Contents
Language and Science Fiction (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is an old science fiction idea that there are universes within universes. If you could make yourself small enough you would be big in a sub-universe. If you could make yourself big enough, you would be tiny in a super-universe. I guess it is because the model of the atom superficially resembles a solar system. But language does the same thing. If you want one person to hear you, you can speak into a phone. I you want dozens of people to hear you, you speak into a MEGAphone. If you want thousands or millions to hear you, you speak into a MICROphone. [-mrl]
The Orwellian Paper Tiger (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When we were terrified of Soviet military power we really wanted to get our hands on a Soviet MiG to find out how good it was. Then a defector flew to the West in a MiG and we got one. We took one look at the technology and asked, "This antiquated war plane is what we thought was so scary? This is nothing." You have to see the capabilities of your enemy in action before you know if your worst fears are really justified. Frequently they are not. We got some very good news along these lines this week. The fact that nobody recognized it as good news just shows how we treat news these days. Frequently people look at even the good news as bad. I suppose the news can be interpreted as bad, but it really has its good side. It is the kind of bad news that makes me heave a sigh of relief.
For years we have been terrified of the shadow of Big Brother. The government was getting and collecting more and more information about us. The government, it was feared, had some sort of hi-tech dossier on each of us. Privacy was a 20th Century right, but not one in the 21st Century. In the new information age the individual no longer had secrets from our government. Big Brother sees all and knows all. Pretty scary, huh? One little piece of suspicion about us and it's slam-bamm, hello, Uncle Sam. Instantly the government knows more about us than we ourselves know. (As Rick asks when seeing the German dossier on him in CASABLANCA, "Are my eyes really brown?") But is that fear really based on fact?
This week we found out just how powerful the interconnected government databases really are. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, issued visa renewals for Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi. They have gotten the go-ahead to go to a Florida flight school. Apparently the INS was missing just a few facts about these two men. Their information does not include the perhaps relevant fact that these two men took part in the hijackings last September 11. They have posthumously been labeled as (once) dangerous terrorists. The public so terrified that the government has way too much information is now irate that that government has so little information.
Didn't the government know these men were terrorists? Well, sure they did. Some of the government did. The FBI knew. But the FBI was not issuing the visas. It was probably some poor clerk at the INS who had to decide on these visas. "They want to learn to fly a plane? Flight lessons are not classified. Okay, let them learn." That clerk probably sees hundreds of these applications in a day of work. Probably there are simple criteria for deciding if visas should be granted. Their visas were probably granted more or less mechanically after a long wait in queue. If this clerk at the INS had the information that these people were terrorists of course those visas would not be granted. That information was clearly not there. Why not? The infra-structure was probably not in place to make getting information on individual applicants a matter of course. Boy, was it not in place!
Now people are up in arms. The White House has said that even President George W Bush is "very displeased" that these people were granted visas. How could the government not know these people are terrorists? All these repressive interconnected databases that people have found terrifying for years must not be so interconnected after all and are probably not so very repressive as was feared. They are not even interconnected to the degree the public would consider to be the basic minimum for national security.
What does this tell us? Nobody knew until this week how powerful was the government's information systems capability. Now the threatening governmental systems have been shown, like the Soviet MiG, to be an over-rated threat. They are clunkers. The people who were terrified of impending government data power are probably misjudging just how powerful the government's data systems really are. And the people annoyed the government does not have more ready information about terrorists at their fingertips and about possible security risks should realize that this level of security would come at the cost of some of our own personal privacy. The government clearly has taken a middle route on information sharing that seems to please nobody. The information may be there, but they are not the draconian and Orwellian super-systems that were feared. The fantastic information systems are just that, fantasy.
I suppose I would like more security and more privacy. But I recognize that I probably cannot have both. [-mrl]
THE TIME MACHINE (2002) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Not a remake. Not a sequel. The new film THE TIME MACHINE is a comment and a play on the ideas of the 1960 film and on the novel. The movie seems a little slight and rushed, but it is not at all bad as a short science fiction story. Guy Pearce was the wrong actor to cast as the Time Traveler, however. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
THE TIME MACHINE has already had one reasonably accurate film adaptation. George Pal's 1960 version made some modifications of the plot of the Wells story, but they were relatively small. The film caught much of the spirit of the book. Any plans at this point to remake THE TIME MACHINE would probably have been a mistake. It would be tough to compete with happy memories of the earlier version. Happily, though few critics seem to have noted it, a remake is something that the new film THE TIME MACHINE is not. It does not make any attempt to tell the same story. In fact, there are references in the dialog to both the novel and the George Pal film, indicating that it takes place in our world. It is our world that the film assumes is destined to have a future much along the lines that Wells predicted. This sort of thing is not uncommon in written science fiction, but rare in a film. [In fact I just recently read THE SPACE MACHINE by Christopher Priest, which is not a sequel but plays with ideas from both THE TIME MACHINE and WAR OF THE WORLDS.]
In this new film a late 19th century American scientist, Alexander Hartdegen (played by Guy Pearce), suffers a great personal loss by chance and devotes four years to inventing a machine that will take him back in time to change the past. He only partially succeeds. To his frustration he finds that he can change the past only in minor ways. In frustration he decides to visit the future. There he finds that future man has made a huge blunder destroying civilization as we know it. Knocked unconscious as he is escaping further into the future he overshoots his destination and finds himself in 802,701 A.D. and as Wells predicted, humanity has split into Eloi and Morlocks. This film inherits the ideas of Wells legitimately. It is directed by Simon Wells, a great-grandson of H. G. Wells and who prior to this film has directed only animated films like BALTO and PRINCE OF EGYPT.
Guy Pearce, our Time Traveler, has been in some interesting films including LA CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO, and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, but he is not the most expressive actor. After a promising start in which he plays the curious scientist to the hit, his face goes impassive and he just does not convey much emotion to the viewer. In the 1960 film the Time Traveler was played by Rod Taylor who was much better at showing his emotions. Taylor's Time Traveler was on an emotional quest: he had the passion to escape to a better future free from war. After the promising start Pearce plays his role as coldly intellectual and his quest is to answer a technical question: why cannot he change the past? That is bound to be less engaging to an audience. The viewer never really cares a lot about what happens to him.
The film has several small tributes to its origins. In the Time Traveler's house is a photo of H. G. Wells as a young man. If one looks quick one can catch Alan Young, Philby in the 1960 film, as a florist. The Time Traveler watches the mannequins change in a store window as he moves through time much as he did in the 1960 film.
The real star of any visual version of THE TIME MACHINE has got to be the title device itself. The machine has to be complex enough that it looks like it might work but not too complex to be assimilated by the eye or too threatening. An instant Hollywood icon was the mechanism created for George Pal and the 1960 version with its spinning dish and its antique chair. [Recommended is the documentary on DVD of THE TIME MACHINE that tells how the 1960 film's machine was created.] This film obviously borrows from that design. It replaces the one dish with three. Two dishes are behind and above the cockpit, spinning in opposite directions. One is in front and below. The dishes look like Fresnel lighthouse lenses. The antique chair is there much as in the 1960 film as is the control panel with the crystal lever. The new control panel has a nice dial display on brass rods looking like something out of a century old calculating machine. The one thing that looks a little strange is some steam guages. Somehow I am not sure the world is ready for a steam-powered time machine. ("I stopped the machine at 205,356 AD and got out to stoke the boiler.") But the machine has a sort of 1800s "steampunk" feel.
Then there are the inhabitants of the future. Wells described the Eloi as fair-skinned. These Eloi are light brown as if all races had blended to one color as well they might over 800 millennia. The Morlocks when they attack come up right out of gravel pits, grab victims and drag them down into gravel pits. It is a fairly scary image borrowed from the 1956 horror film, THE MOLE PEOPLE. I am not sure it made sense in that film and it makes even less sense here. The implication is they are going to an underground cavern, but how the Morlocks can get there without the gravel spilling into the cavern I cannot imagine. The chief Morlock (called an Uber-Morlock) is played by Jeremy Irons looking like Elric of Melnibone.
I was prepared not to like THE TIME MACHINE and found that if one is really interested in time travel stories, this new film is a pleasant surprise. It does not try to replace the original THE TIME MACHINE, it instead makes itself a companion piece. Add TIME AFTER TIME and you have a really good science fiction triple feature. I rate the new film 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Open note to Roger Ebert (non-spoiler): You ask in your review why the Time Machine stays in one place rather than at a particular set of coordinates in space with the Earth flying away from under it. I had puzzled that one myself, but years ago decided it makes sense. The Time Machine is a physical device that creates a field in which funny things happen with time. Like most matter we see, it has been captured by Planet Earth and is carried with it. It is not immovable, it just is not moved relative to the earth. People do not move it because it moves through their time too fast for them to see. But the pull of gravity is instantaneous and binds it to the earth just the same way it binds us. In the 1960 film the machine even moves a little relative to the Earth when the traveler hits the brakes too suddenly. Then the forward movement in time gets dissipated into gyroscopic motion in three dimensions. The machine spins around and topples to its side. A plane moves forward in the sky, but it still maintains it momentum and travels pretty much with the Earth. (And thanks, by the way, for mentioning me on page 433 of your new book THE GREAT MOVIES.) [-mrl]
HOMINIDS by Robert J. Sawyer (serialized in ANALOG, January 2002 through April 2002) (book review by Joe Karpierz)
I've been trying to think of a catchy, interesting way to start this review, but I can't. The best I can do is paraphrase something my wife said: Robert J. Sawyer is committing trilogy.
Okay, okay. Not fair. Everybody is doing trilogies these days. Brin did it, Card is overdoing it, Anderson and Herbert might end up doing three trilogies. Why not Rob Sawyer? Why not indeed, especially since he wrote a trilogy many years ago, but seems to have given up the habit since then. I've said all along that one of the things that I've liked about Sawyer's books were that they were relatively short and self-contained. The last thing I ever expected from him these days was a trilogy.
So, it was with much interest that I started HOMINIDS (originally called INFINITE FACULTIES before his publisher requested a change) - I really wanted to see if he could do it well. If HOMINIDS is any indication, he will do it very well.
The story starts out in two locations, er, well, no, that's not true. It's one location in two different universes, one of which is ours. In our universe, the setting is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, where the usual neutrino detection experiments were going on deep underground. In the other universe, a quantum computing experiment was going on in the exact same location. The experimenters in that universe were attempt to factor a very large number. (I won't go into the quantum physics explanation here - that is an exercise best left to the reader.) But the number is too large, and a hole opens up between the two universes, transporting Ponter Boddit from the other universe to ours.
The real issue is that Ponter Boddit is a Neanderthal. In his universe, Homo Sapiens did not survive, much like Neanderthals didn't survive in our world.
The novel, then, explores events on two fronts. In our universe, we follow the things happening in Ponter's life, the people around him, and the effect that a Neanderthal has in our little corner of the universe in which there aren't supposed to be any Neanderthals. In Ponter's universe, we follow the happenings that are going on with his loved ones, including an attempt to accuse his colleague and man-mate (Neanderthals in Ponter's world have both man and woman mates) of murdering him.
As usual with most Sawyer novels, there are quite a few ideas being thrown around, although I daresay not as many as in FACTORING HUMANITY, for example. Quantum physics and religion, just to name two, play an important role in this story, and there is an abundance of ideas that is tossed around. One intriguing idea is that of the "companion," a device that is implanted into the wrist of Neanderthals very early in their lives. Among other things, it records everything its wearer does and sends it to the alibi archive, thus effectively eliminating crime. Another is that of sterilizing a criminal and anyone related to him/her that has at least 50% of his/her genetic material, thus cleansing the gene pool.
But one thing that is outstanding in this novel is Sawyer's exploration of interpersonal relationships, both here in our universe and over in Ponter's universe as well. There are some very complex issues being dealt with in this novel, and Sawyer does it extremely well.
And you know, for the first book of a trilogy, it stands on its own pretty darn well, but you know there's more to follow. But that's okay too. If the next two books are written as well as this one was, the whole trilogy will be a keeper. I'm certainly looking forward to the next two. [-jak]
MONSOON WEDDING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This originally appeared in the 28 Sep 2001 issue of THE MT VOID, but is being reprinted now that MONSOON WEDDING is getting a major release in the United States.]
CAPSULE: The Verma family is having a wedding and all the relatives will come for the multi-day festivities. Mira Nair's film is pleasant enough with a little human drama, a few family secrets, some sadness and some happiness. You have seen it all before, but perhaps not from India. The photography is colorful and the music is very agreeable. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
Mira Nair previously directed SALAAM BOMBAY and MISSISSIPPI MASALA. Her newest film, written by Sabrina Dhawan, is very similar to previous films like BETSY'S WEDDING but it is set in New Delhi. A wealthy family is having a wedding. An Indian wedding is a multi-day affair as much a family reunion as a nuptial. Even more than in the US, it is an excuse for a lavish and extravagant family get-together. The film shows us what the family does together and at the same time follows several family members' individual story lines. Aditi Verma is marrying Hemant, an Indian engineer working in the US. She had previously had a relationship with Vikram, her supervisor. Latit, her father (played by Naseeruddin Shah), is juggling many problems, not the least of which is worrying about the caterer has hired PK Dubey. Dubey is a rather eccentric man with a taste for eating the marigolds he uses for decoration. Even Dubey will soon be romantically entangled when he becomes interested in Alice, one of the family servants. Several family members arrive giving rise to several plotlines involving sex, family secrets, or both. There are heartbreaks and there are people falling in love. Some of the subjects covered are probably near taboo for Indian films.
Western audiences will appreciate a look at unfamiliar Indian customs like women painting their hands with henna. On the other hand it was not clear (to me at least) if scenes like the family singing together are typical of Indian culture or if they are a convention of Indian musical films. This seems a particularly Westernized family with the father wearing American designer sweaters and the family speaking mostly English. The latter will, however, help with an international release.
Sabrina Dhawan's screenplay is vibrant with witty dialog. We have seen films with plotting very much like this, but the Indian setting makes a great deal of difference. Director Mira Nair calls the film an affirmation of life. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity. - Charles Ives
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