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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/26/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 4
Table of Contents
Food for Thought (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Most of the living matter on earth is probably inside the earth, not on the surface. Recent studies seem to indicate the there are bacteria in the earth living off of geological hydrogen and that there is a more total mass to this bacteria than to all sea and land life living above-ground life.
Signs But No Wonders (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It was in 1979 that Doug Bower and Dave Chorley began their strange hobby. The two used to meet in a pub near Winchester, England. One Friday night they got the idea to play a prank. They took a heavy iron bar Doug had carried it out to a local cornfield. Using it they rolled over the cornstalks, laying them down in a perfect circle. Then they left it for others to discover. It could hardly have been said to cause much of a commotion, but the nice circles appealed to Doug and Dave. For years they continued making geometrical patterns in cornfields and nobody paid a lot of attention. Dave grew discouraged, but Doug was convinced that eventually somebody would take notice of the odd patterns and the odd designs would become famous.
Eventually Doug was proved right. The mysterious crop circles eventually became a public sensation. Nobody knew where they were coming from, but there were enough copycat pranksters that there was a chronic reappearance of the strange patterns. The patterns ground into local fields became more and more complex. All sorts of theories that they were extra-terrestrial messages or the product of time travelers were suggested. Doug and Dave claimed that more than 250 of the strange patterns over the next years were their own doing. The evolution of crop circles should have been an obvious indication that the patterns were pranks. They at first were so simple and only later became complex. They started in just one small neighborhood and only slowly appeared other places England, then elsewhere in the world. If aliens had left the signs there would be no reason they would start simple and evolve. Still there was a ready audience of people who wanted to believe that the strange signs were messages of some transcendental importance. All the time Doug and Dave sat in pubs over beers and chuckled to themselves at the ruckus that was being made over their little joke. It had taken off and become a phenomenon and then a craze. Doug's other hobby was nighttime nature recording so he promised to keep his eyes open for more crop circles and somehow he had this uncanny sense of where they would show up. He and his friend would make the designs at night and he would report them as discoveries the next morning.
Eventually Doug confessed that it was him who was creating the crop circles, first to his wife and then to the media. He could easily demonstrate how the crop circles had been made. People could see that the crop circles were hoaxes. And that ended that little bit of madness.
In a pig's eye.
I find forty-four books in Amazon on the subject of crop circles all or in part. Crop circles are still a public mania. In another week M. Night Shyamalan's new film SIGNS will open and it appears to be about a Philadelphia farmer, played by Mel Gibson no less, who finds crop circles in his field. The film may be called SIGNS, but the trailer seems to imply that there are visitors who are only started with semiotics and are ready to move on to deconstructionism. The tagline for the movie is "It's Not Like They Didn't Warn Us." The simple fact is that they didn't warn us. It was Doug and Dave who warned us. And they were never at all serious.
Does this all have a familiar ring to it? Perhaps not. It does to me. In 1848 Katie and Maggie Fox, two girls living in Upper New York State, claimed to hear knocking noises in their house. They said that it was ghosts making the noises. Their parents did not believe them, but the parents did hear the noises and could not explain them. They would search for some mechanism that was making the noise, but they never found one. Eventually the Fox parents were forced to accept that they were hearing noises that they could not explain.
The two girls claimed they actually could talk to the ghosts. And the ghosts were spirits of familiar people that local people actually had known. The local populace started paying Katie and Maggie to see if they could find ghosts of their relatives and could talk to them. The fame of the Fox girls spread. There was good money to be made performing this so-called service for people. And so Spiritualism was born. The two girls became the "medium" by which people could talk to the dead. Other people also seemed to be able to develop the talent to summon and to talk to the dead. It was a growth industry.
After about forty years, in 1888, the girls decided they wanted to get out of the business. It turns out that like many people they could make noises by flexing their feet and other parts of their legs and arms. They could crack their feet and leave no telltale sign of what had made the noise. It was a fraud. (Note: in their case it was fraud rather than a hoax like crop circles. The difference between a hoax and a fraud is that in fraud other people lose money or something else of value. Fraud is hoax for profit.) The Fox women (no longer girls) confessed all.
Suddenly now people became skeptics. Spiritualism could not be a fraud. Look how many people believe in it. Maybe the Fox sisters were not true mediums, but surely there must be true mediums out there someplace helping people contact the dead. After all, wasn't that wonderful woman in Cincinnati able to summon up Aunt Matilda? People will believe what they want to believe.
Knowledge is transitory, I guess. Ignorance is forever. [-mrl]
EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Giant spiders attack a small Arizona town. This is a film that goes for every pun and silly joke it can muster to fill in the spaces between its giant arachnid attacks. The plotting is obvious and full of holes, but the film is fun in a drive-in sort of way. This is a movie for just about anyone with any capacity for enjoying giant spider movies. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Now let's get this straight at the start. We are talking about giant spider movies here. We are not talking about spiders as big as dogs like in WORLD WITHOUT END, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE, or the 1960 THE LOST WORLD. We are talking here about the about spiders that are bigger than a Subaru. We are talking TARANTULA-class. Not counting spider-machine in THE WILD, WILD WEST, I cannot remember any giant spiders on the wide screen since 1975's THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION. In the meantime the drive-ins have pretty much died out, sadly, and a drive-in is a place to see a giant spider film. You want to see your really big spiders on a really big screen and, if possible, you want it to be out in some semblance of nature where giant bugs seem a little more possible. The few drive-ins that remain just have to show this film. This film and drive-ins were made for each other.
The film was directed and co-written by Ellory Elkayem who admittedly may be is something of a rut. The thirty-year-old New Zealander has three notable films to his credit at this point. In 1997 he made "Larger Than Life," a short horror film about spiders who grew to giants on toxic wastes. I saw it on the Sci-Fi Channel's "Exposure" and found it fun. He did a similar story about giant insects in Maine, THEY NEST, for the USA Network. Now his EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS is an expansion of "Larger Than Life" into a feature length film. The digital effects leave the 1950s giant arthropod films in the dust. They looked impressive in "Larger Than Life" with a short amateur film as a frame, but they are not enough to carry a feature film very far by themselves. The script helps with a few good jokes, but still this is never more than a good drive-in film, somewhat past the era of drive-ins. I expect that Oscars are out of the question.
Prosperity, Arizona is a town that just cannot live up to its optimistic name. In past years it was the site of a gold mine, but that mine gave out long ago and the mayor is thinking of selling the whole town to someone who wants to use the mine as a toxic waste dump. Trucks are already moving the waste in, and one a barrel rolls off a truck and into a pond. A local spider fancier and fanatic collects at the same pond crickets to feed to his little arachnid beauties--mostly hunting spiders of various types. The spiders eat the crickets and the toxic waste turns on their little spider growth mechanism. Soon crickets are not enough and it is the spider fancier they are eating. Then it is local pets. Of course, we all know that they are working up to eating people. And that, incidentally, is part of the problem of the script. We all know what they are working up to. Early on there is a mention of another local hazard unrelated to the spiders. We all know that is how the spiders will meet their end. Every viewer with an ounce of spider sense knows immediately that the two hazards will cancel each other out in the end and that will be the end of the spiders. But we want to watch it happen anyway.
The last similar film, THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION, had terrible special effects. It all too obviously had its giant spider built on a VW bug. As it walked the stomach pulled it rather than the legs. Effects have come a long way. These beauties look just real enough. They look alive. Not that they are perfect. There is something wrong with how the jumping spiders chase the dirt bikes in this film. The bikes are covering more ground than the spiders are, but the spiders still seem to catch up. Also the spiders can walk ceilings. Real spiders do that mostly because they have low mass. These brutes could never hold on to a ceiling. And actually there are a whole bunch of reasons you cannot have a big animal breathe the way spiders breathe or walk the way spiders walk. Or . . . . Well, never mind.
The characters in the story are mostly cliches. We have familiar characters like the brainy kid, the stupid deputy, and the dishonest mayor. There are plot holes and lots of things that make no sense. But you overlook that sort of thing because, well, there are these nifty giant spiders. I rate it 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
COSMONAUT KEEP by Ken MacLeod (Tor, 2002, pb, $7.99, 336pp, ISBN 0-765-34073-9) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):
According to the cover of the paperback edition of this book that first came out in 2000 in the U.K, in May of 2001 in the U.S., and in January of 2002 in paperback (publishing dates can be sooooo complicated), Cosmonaut Keep is "The Opening Novel in an Astonishing New Future History". So. Yet another series. At least this year it's the only novel nominated for the Hugo that's a book in a series, near as I can tell.
And so far, it's the best of the bunch that I've read.
Which is a shame, of course, since as you know that I'm not fond of series novels being nominated or winning awards, since they typically don't stand alone. This one certainly doesn't, because the ending leaves us with way too many loose ends. However, I'm more favorably disposed to this MacLeod nominee, since the last one was smack dab in the middle of a story, and that's unforgivable, in my mind, for a nominee. But I liked this one, for a starting novel, which means that I'll probably try to follow the series to the end.
The story takes place on two different fronts, in two different times. One is near future 21st century, the other is several hundred years in the future on the planet Terra Nova. We follow a couple of characters with the surname of Cairns. The one in the 21st century, Matt, is a programmer who is intrigued by the goings on in the European Space Agency orbital station Marshall Titov. It seems that the crew of the Titov have made contact with intelligent, microscopic beings who Apparently are, well, everywhere and oversee goings-on in the universe. The one is the future, Gregor, is an exobiology student who gets involved in trying to rediscover the secret to interstellar travel.
So I've basically told you what's on the cover of the paperback. Why should you read it?
Because it's actually an interesting and good read. MacLeod's gig of messing with the world politics makes an interesting setting for the near future portion of the story, which helped make the situation up on the station very believable. There was enough intrigue about the aliens and the plans for the "flying saucer" that I wanted to find out what the real story was. Matt's relationship with Jadey on earth and how it affected his behavior on the station was real and believable. In the future, Gregor's inability to realize that one of his research partner's was in love with him, coupled with his infatuation with a space trader's daughter, was well done. And the unfolding story of the search for the First Navigator, and who they thought that was, was intriguing.
The drawback? As I said, it's the first novel in a series, and thus leaves a ton of stuff hanging - almost nothing is resolved in the future setting, and the stuff in the 21 century is just getting started.
All in all, a decent novel, the best of the nominees that I've read so far, but not quite there yet.
It will be a while due to real life constraints, but when I finally get around to writing the review of Connie Willis' PASSAGE, you'll find out why I will vote THAT novel number one on my Hugo ballot. [-jak]
K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER> (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson star in the downbeat and harrowing story of the first Soviet Navy nuclear submarine and its early and painful death. The story, based on an actual incident, is considerably broadened--somewhat controversially--from what are even now little-known details shrouded in secrecy. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4) Note: Much of what this film is about is not revealed until a plot twist well into the film. I refrain from saying what the incident is all about, though it is a matter of historic record.
K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER is being positioned as a summer action film. In a sense I suppose that it really is an action film, but instead of a stimulant it is much more a depressant. It tells us that the Soviet Union was trying to be a vodka-and-caviar world power on a Kool-Aid budget. For several decades they managed to be the world's second place world power, but they could do that only by paying a huge personal price. K-19 is the story of a piece of the price they paid. It should be noted that the current Russians, ambivalent as they are about the Soviet regime, are extremely indignant over how negatively at least one preliminary version of the script portrayed the conditions in the Soviet Navy.
The year of the story is 1961. This is after Stalin had committed the Soviet Union to being a major world empire. Nikita Khrushchev is doing all the posturing he can to live up to the demands of that position within a second or third-class economy. That disparity put huge demands on the Soviet Navy. They had nominally moved into the status of a nuclear navy with some under-funded nuclear submarines. The first of the series was K-19, a submarine that had been rushed into service without the prudent safety mechanisms and precautions that the Americans would have employed. It is surprising that the Soviet could be so successful fielding nuclear submarines under those conditions. But it also was extremely foolhardy.
In the film K-19 is on its first mission (though the real K-19 had been in service since 1959). Capt. Polenin (played by Liam Neeson) commands the K-19 somewhat reluctantly because he knows the construction was rushed. The submarine still has many bugs that have not been worked out. Rather than take Polenin's advice and slow the first mission, the Navy assigns Capt. Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) to take over command of the K-19 from Polenin. Vostrikov is from a prestigious Navy family but he is rumored to have gotten his command through nepotism. He wants to put to rest that rumor. He is ambitious and is anxious to whip the crew into military excellence, pushing them to "the edge" regardless of the toll on the crew and the submarine. Polenin's loyalties are to his men and he does not want to see Vostrikov's abusive regimen ruin a good crew. Neither man fully recognizes the stakes of being too demanding of an untried nuclear submarine.
Two captains with incompatible loyalties in the confinement of one submarine is a formula for conflict and possible disaster. Several traditional omens already seem to point to K-19 being a "cursed" boat, but their biggest danger is from a very non- traditional source, the nuclear reactor. The crew has an inexperienced reactor officer and a doctor inexperienced in nuclear accident cases. The so-called "curse" works itself out in an exceptionally horrifying dilemma for the crew. Personally, I am quite used to films intended to scare and I think there is little I could see on the screen that would really bother me. This film did scare me. The most horrific scenes in this film are based on truth and are even understated. That knowledge made me more shocked at scenes in this film than any film I have seen in years. It is hard to imagine a more horrifying dilemma than the one the two captains on K-19 faced. This film is more harrowing than it is exciting. I think one misstep of the script, however, is to have an extended epilog several years after the incidents of the story. Though the makeup for Neeson and Ford for this sequence is astonishing, the sequence only belabors points already made.
Neither Harrison Ford nor Liam Neeson is an actor one would expect to play a Russian. But perhaps they are no more cast against the ethnic type of the characters they portray than Kirk Douglas was in SPARTACUS. The only other familiar actor is Joss Ackland. His role is an overbearing and demanding Soviet official, much like the part he played in CITIZEN X, though his most familiar role these days may be as a bad guy who attempts to blast the Energizer Bunny in a television commercial. Speaking of CITIZEN X, it is interesting to compare this film to that one. The films are very different in plot but quite similar in theme.
Katherine Bigelow gives us in K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER a lot that is familiar or even cliched from submarine films, but what will be remembered is the courage of men obeying orders as deadly and more painful and devastating than any given on D-Day. I rate K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: If pigs could vote, the man with the slop bucket would be elected every time, no matter how much slaughtering he did on the side. -- Orson Scott Card
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