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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/05/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 1
Table of Contents
Our apologies for the delay in the June issues of the MT VOID. We were on vacation, and there were some technical glitches in the backup plan.
On "100 Best" Lists (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I attended the meeting of a book discussion group recently. Those present wanted to choose their next book to be read and discussed. One of them pulled out the Random House Modern Library list of the "100 Best Novels." Some of you may remember that in 1998 Modern Library made this list of the 100 best and then opened it up as a readers' poll. The results can be found at http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100best/novels.html. Of course when you have any public poll you run the risk of people who have an interest in the outcome organizing other people to vote the way they want. Actually even private polls for which you have a fixed set of respondents have the same problem. But in this case it was obvious that many of the votes came from special interest groups. Of their top ten best novels, four were by Ayn Rand and three were by L. Ron Hubbard.
In the readers' list one may note that to all appearances the people who believe in the virtue of selfishness have managed to arrange to have two Ayn Rand novels at the top of the list. And the people whose claim is to the science of perfecting the mind have decided with those perfected minds that one of the three finest pieces of fiction in English is BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard. (And say, wouldn't it make an equally fine film?)
The reaction at the meeting seemed to be mild irritation and frustration that what were probably the so-called Objectivists and the Scientologists would corrupt the list out of what they saw as their self-interest. But is that really true? Is there any evidence that they did not vote sincerely? My problem is not with the books they chose, it is with the judgment of the people themselves. The problem I have is not with their tactics but with their taste. It is not necessarily even that their taste is bad, but just that it varies from my own. Organizing like-minded people to vote and voting ones own specialized taste is not a subversion of the intent of a poll, it is probably the intent itself. The results are a perfectly good reflection of that population. And it is that population that the readers' poll is really about. The Modern Library has not given us a list of the best 100 novels, they have given us a view of two different populations.
If you think of their own list as "The 100 Best Books" (as chosen by the board of the Modern Library) you are bound to end up frustrated because you will assume either they are wrong in a lot of their choices or you are. If you think of the list as "The Tastes of Board of the Modern Library Editors" (as demonstrated by their 100 favorite books) it is much easier to appreciate the list for what it is.
This goes well beyond that top 100 list. I admit to having some small annoyance that for so long the film that won the Hugo for best dramatic presentation was the latest Harrison Ford extravaganza. (Not that some did not deserve it.) The choice of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Picture frequently irks me, but I am starting to understand the criteria they use. While I do not always agree with their criteria I can accept it. That is not a slam, it is only to be expected. I would have picked KING KONG over CAVELCADE for 1933, but I can understand why they did not.
Film reviews go much the same way. This is something I have to tell correspondents frequently about my reviews. When I talk about whether a film is good or not I am talking about my tastes. The same is true for everybody who expresses an opinion of a film from Roger Ebert to the kid in the elevator who talks about his favorite Let's-See-'Em-Naked or Blow-'Em-Up-Real-Good film.
On most issues I am not such a relativist. It may be hard to find, but there is only one accurate description of reality. Attitudes do not change reality, they only make it harder to find. But in matters of taste and preference, it is all relativism. Bear in mind that every poll comes down to a popularity poll. That is the only kind they make.
What the two special interests did to the Modern Library poll, organizing like-minded people to vote in a way that suits their special interest, that has been a part of democracy so long nobody would even question it. That is the way Democracy works. [-mrl]
MINORITY REPORT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Steven Spielberg adapts a story by Philip K. Dick to create a marvelously faceted and incredibly dark vision of the future. Murder has been eliminated by use of mutants' psychic powers. MINORITY REPORT is fast-paced, yet still full of ideas. This is probably a better science fiction film in a more complex society than was BLADERUNNER (also based on a story by Philip K. Dick). Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
When most science fiction films are set in the future the approach is simple. You have funny suits for the men, revealing fashions for the women, throw in a funny-looking car here and there, and show as little of the world as possible. That last part is desperately important. Think how much explanation phrases like "dot-com failure" would require to make it understandable to a 1950 audience. Seeing an accurate view of the world fifty-two years from now would be confusing and demanding. Steven Spielberg shows us a world just that far in the future and is not afraid to make the view confusing and demanding.
Spielberg has been accused of making manipulative and heavy-handed films that are just a bit simplistic and spell things out for the viewer. Certainly nobody can accuse MINORITY REPORT of being simple. In it Spielberg has told a story more than half a century in the future that is every bit as complicated and demanding as being dropped into the future would be. This film is a genuine piece of future extrapolation. Even written science fiction set in the future does not require this degree of thought about the future. Written science fiction does not allow the reader to put his head into a scene and look around at the world the way a wide- screen movie does. While some of Spielberg's future seems altogether impossible (e.g. psychic elimination of crime), and some seem more than fifty-two years away (cars adapted to highways that that are vertical for long stretches), Spielberg had taken head-on questions of where computing is going. What will advertising be like in fifty-two years? What will language be like?
The year is 2054. It has been six years since a murder has been successfully committed in the Washington DC area. Why? Because three mutant psychics, "pre-cogs" they are called, are kept in a state of constant sleep as their minds are probed see all potential murders before they happen. The police get this information in time to avert the killings. But apart from the constitutional issue of prior restraint, there is always the question of how one knows for sure the averted crime really would have happened. Tom Cruise plays John Alderton in the police Department of Precrime and a firm believer in the system he enforces. He will soon have reason to doubt the system.
Philip K. Dick raised these issues in his novelette "Minority Report." The point of Dick's story was that knowledge of the future changes the future so that multiple pre-cogs might see multiple alternate futures. Apparently even Spielberg thought that would be a tough notion to transfer to the screen so he simplified the concept and the importance of the "minority report" from which the film takes its name.
MINORITY REPORT is not just a summer fluff film. It is hard work to follow everything that is going on and to pick up all the interesting details in a world where the cartoon characters on a cereal box actually dance and sing and store ads recognize customers and know their purchase record on sight. MINORITY REPORT is the most detailed creation of a future society since BLADERUNNER, which incidentally was also based on the writings of Dick. Here Spielberg uses the ideas of Dick, the pacing of an Alfred Bester story, and the cynicism of Frederic Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. The intelligence flags only near the end with Dick's ideas being replaced by a more cliched plotline. The payoff is not the end of the film but a shank that is so dense with ideas.
Spielberg greatly controls the images on the screen. Scenes are intentionally too complex to be understood on one viewing. To create a distancing effect he turns way down the color values so the visuals are halfway between color and monochrome. It is a mood device and works to reasonable effect.
This is a long film that that is hard work for the viewer. It makes few concessions to explanations. At one point a character says "I'm tired of the future." The casual viewer may feel the same way. Or he may just ignore the details and see this as an action film. But action films are many and extrapolations like this one few. I rate MINORITY REPORT a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Minor spoiler....Minor spoiler.... Dick assumes that psychic powers are not perfectly precise and as a result three psychics are used and what at least two see is assumed to be true. By saying that there is a lead psychic and by assuming she is right even when the other two disagree Spielberg is saying it is really unimportant to have the other two. It is a betrayal of the original concept.
Another problem, with all the effort put into detail in this film, one very simple check was not done. There is a reference to a poll on Tuesday, April 22, 2054. That will be a Wednesday. [-mrl]
AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, 2001, Science Fiction Book Club edition, 461 pp., ISBN 0-380-97365-0) (a book review by Joe Karpierz)
There is a particular chant that is heard at numerous college sports arenas and stadia when a supposedly superior team comes to town only to get easily handled by the inferior home team: Overrated. It's a one word chant, that usually sounds something like O-ver-ra-ted.
So, what do I think of AMERICAN GODS?
As most of the folks who read my reviews know, every year when I read and review the current crop of Hugo nominees I bemoan the fact that my tastes and the current tastes of the section of sf fandom that actually reads novels these days are never the same. Sometimes I've actually read one or two of the nominees by the time the ballot comes out, but this year I'd read a grand total of zero of them. I actually had American Gods on my to-read stack, so I figured that counted, sort of. I had American Gods on that stack because of numerous highly positive reviews that I'd read plus the recommendation of at least one fellow fan whose opinions in these things I highly respect.
I'm going to have to have a talk with him.
I spent the entire novel wondering when something interesting was going to happen - it never did. So now I'm asking anyone out there who will write to me (email@example.com), "What's all the fuss about?"
Shadow has just spent the last few years in prison, and while on his way home to his wife's funeral (she died just as he was getting released), he meets a name who calls himself Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job, and Shadow accepts because there's nothing left in his life to go back to - he might as well do something with his newly found freedom. But of course, Shadow has stepped into something that is much more than he thought it would be.
There's a war brewing - a war between the gods of old and the old country, and the new American gods, the gods of technology, advertising, credit, entertainment, etc. For you see, the old gods are dying out all over the world. We've all heard the story that gods only exist because they are worshipped, have sacrifices made to them, etc. The old gods don't want to slip away, and the new gods want them out of the way. Wednesday and Shadow travel all over the country recruiting reluctant old gods to the cause. While they're busy recruiting, the new gods are out there standing in their way, trying to sabotage their effort, and mocking them all the way. The story builds to a climax, as both sets of gods race to the place of battle, anticipating bloodshed and slaughter.
But the climactic battle, such as it is, cheats the reader. There is no tension or suspense along the way, nothing to hold the reader's attention. Well, *my* attention, anyway. I'm not going to say I was bored by this book, because it certainly was intricate and complex enough. I'll have to admit that Gaiman tied everything up very nicely, leaving no loose ends by the time the novel ended. However, this book just wasn't interesting to me at all. Shadow was not a compelling and interesting character, and since we find out who Wednesday really is early on the book, that mystery is not there for much of the book at all.
So I really don't recommend this book at all. I felt like it wasted my time. Hopefully the rest of this year's crop of nominees will be better. [-jak]
WINDTALKERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: John Woo's WINDTALKERS is inspired by the true story of Navaho code talkers in World War II. It is an attempt to make a standard "minority in the military" war film with Woo's brand of violence. The real code talkers deserved a better tribute. This disappointing film is a perfect example of a good history story avoided. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), high 0 (-4 to +4)
Adam Beach plays Ben Yahzee, a Navaho Marine who was trained to be a code talker. Nicholas Cage plays John Enders a Marine with a badly and painfully injured ear and survivors' guilt. Enders is assigned to guard Yahzee's code. His highest priority is to keep the code out of Japanese hands even if it means killing Yahzee. His fear of the possibility of having to kill Yahzee he hides with a blanket of affected distaste for Yahzee. Together they go through the battle of Saipan and each discovers the other's mettle.
OK. First things first.
1) The Navaho code talkers are heroes. In addition they really were cheated of much of the honor they deserved. I am not arguing that.
2) I would like for them and for all Navaho to like this picture.
3) I would like there to be a good film about the Navaho code talkers contribution to the Pacific war.
4) This is not that film.
There is a very standard "minority in the military" plot. The members of the minority join the unit. They are mistrusted a little by all, but especially by one particular bigot. In the heat of battle they go beyond the call of duty to protect even the bigot. In the end they have won the respect of their doubters and have proven themselves. In the 1950s it was a very moving plot. More recently we have seen it in THE TUSKEEGEE AIRMEN and MEN OF HONOR. When WINDTALKERS claims to be based on a true story they mean that there were really Navaho code talkers. And they really made an important contribution. The filmmakers have told the standard plot with code talkers as the minority. WINDTALKERS is an attempt to use John Woo's stylized violence in a standard "object lesson" war film plot. The code talkers were the chosen by the filmmaker as the fungible minority.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN opened the way to show battle more realistically in film including that it be more violent. It seems to make sense to have John Woo direct since his films are known for their melodramatic plots and their staccato violence episodes. The problem is that his films are the wrong sort of violence for a realistic war film. For example it is dramatic to have an explosion with an actor spring-boarding in the foreground to look like he was caught in the explosion. A soldier may have even seen it happening once in his career. In this film it is used many times to dress up explosions. Merely making a battle scene more violent does not make it more realistic.
The story is based on historical fact. During World War II the most useful encryption technique for tactical use in the field was Navaho Code Talk. It was a double code, one level of which used the Navaho language, one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. There were in the world only about 24 non-Navahos who knew the language and none of them were fighting for the Japanese. Navahos developed the code and could be taught it quickly. For anyone else it was useless gibberish. The Japanese could (and did) capture Navahos, but if they didn't know the other half of the code, even under torture they could not decode it. Messages in the code could be sent over open radio channels without the possibility of eavesdropping or forging. The story of Navaho code talking is fascinating, but unfortunately it still remains to be told in a film.
There are some notable inaccuracies in the film. The pairing of a Navaho with a particular Marine partner, central to the plot of WINDTALKERS, is a fiction according to the actual Navaho veterans. Certainly there was nobody who acted as a bodyguard. While "windtalkers" may sound better than "code talkers" there was a lot more wind talkers than code talkers. "Wind talk" is a literal translation of the Navaho word for radio. If the word "wind talkers" was used it would merely be any radio operator.
John Woo superficially glosses over what should have been the most interesting parts of his story to get to cliched drama and stylized violence. He was the wrong director to tell the story of these heroes. I give his film a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +0 on the -4 to +4 scale. (Much of the historical information in this review is based on the History Channel program "History vs. Hollywood: Windtalkers".) [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It's useful that there should be Gods, so let's believe there are." -- Ovid
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