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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/29/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 22
Table of Contents
Alchemy (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about alchemy and how it fits into fantasy works. One thing that we see in fiction and fantasy is that alchemists are very, very rarely portrayed positively. Alchemy is rarely distinguished from black magic. Let's take a closer look at what alchemy actually is.
There are really two different derivations for the word "alchemy." Most commonly it is thought to mean "the study from Egypt." Egypt was indeed an origin of many of the ideas of alchemy. "Kheme" was the ancient name of the land of Egypt. The words might be Al Kheme. However a similar word from ancient Greek means pouring and infusion. Either could be the real origin of the word "alchemy," and modern scholars are undecided. The study, really the materials science of its day, has its root in both ancient Egypt and ancient China, and though we associate it with Medieval Europe was studied in many civilizations.
So what was alchemy? It was as close as the Middle Ages could come to a science of chemistry. One could almost call it proto- chemistry. There were many philosophical systems competing in the Middle Ages. Those endorsed by Church leaders had the force of law. Most of these church leaders' talents lay not in scientific reasoning and they almost universally had agendas to further the interests of their Church or of themselves within the Church. When you try to fit science to your ideology the result is not good. Look how long the Soviet Union taught Lysenkoism. But Lysenko made out better than Galileo.
Our stereotype of the alchemist as the charlatan claiming to be looking for chemical formula to turn lead into gold is not entirely fair. In fact, it probably is not fair at all. The alchemist is not so much a charlatan as someone whose understanding of nature has been dictated and corrupted by Church politics and by his own strange ideas and, yes, by selfish ends. Within those constraints he is trying to get practical and profitable results from his experimentation. The alchemist had what we might think of as a very modern problem of attracting investors. This was probably more Church officials or rich patrons, the people who were the venture capitalists of the Middle Ages. The alchemist probably had to paint his work in an optimistic light that would grab investors' imaginations. It was probably conceivable to the minds at the time that by chemical means cheap materials could be combined to make gold. We, after all, turn chemicals into valuable substances all the time. The alchemist was more a well-intentioned victim of his contemporary belief systems than a charlatan.
Standard claims and suggestions as to what might have been possible with alchemy included the ability to make homunculi, to turn common materials into gold, and to create elixirs of immortality. Homunculi are small humans made from available materials like human sperm. The "Philosopher's Stone" was not necessarily a stone. It was whatever the hidden ingredient was that was needed to turn lead into gold. Probably if another substance was needed for some other really valuable transformation, that too would have been called a "Philosopher's Stone."
No alchemist ever succeeded in turning a base metal into gold, though some might have used a little stage magic to make it appear they did. Nobody ever did it in the field of chemistry. It was not until the 19th century that we had sufficient knowledge of the nature of matter to know that they never would have been able to do it. We know now that gold is an element and that combining chemicals is just not going to do it. Chemical processes preserve atoms of elements. One needs nuclear processes to change one element to another.
Alchemists were not charlatans and were not deluded. For the most part they were people with a curiosity about nature and a desire to experiment. That alone seems to imply that they were fairly intelligent. Their lack of success was due in large part to an understandable ignorance and to an inability to network and share positive results. They certainly do not deserve the negative image they have in literature and films. [-mrl]
SOLARIS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An alien planet gives George Clooney a perfect facsimile of the wife he lost on earth in SOLARIS. The second adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem is much shorter than the Tarkovsky version and only a bit lighter, which is to say not very light at all. The philosophical film has some engaging ideas, but viewers expecting romantic sci-fi will probably be disappointed and perhaps even bored. This is dense, introspective, and intelligent science fiction as distinguished from entertainment. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem is famous for his whimsical stories. His best known work, however, is his 1961 novel SOLARIS, a serious exploration of ideas going back to Ray Bradbury's 1948 short story "Mars is Heaven." In 1972 Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted the SOLARIS into a classic if somewhat ponderous film of the same title. Now Steven Soderbergh has written and directed his own version. It should be noted that of the book and the two film versions, no two are much alike. However, similar to the first film, the new version is slow and contemplative, but it is considerably shorter to get to many of the same ideas. Soderbergh has produced a film that is abstract and considers some complex philosophical questions. Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY much (and especially the last part) is open to interpretation. Unfortunately on top of a film complex enough already Soderbergh has added some 2001-like stylistic touches. The film was already difficult enough to interpret.
About a century in the future Chris Kelvin (played by George Clooney) lives alone thinking of the past and blaming himself for the events leading to his beloved wife's death. He is pulled out of his funk by a message from Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) an old friend on a space station circling the distant alien world Solaris. The message seems to imply that there is some sort of a strange problem there, but that Kelvin himself would be perfect to come and investigate the problem. Being there would help the mission and it would help Kelvin. Kelvin learns attempts have already been made to bring back the crew, but the crew is not cooperating. Kelvin travels to the station only to find that Gibarian has committed suicide and the only two surviving crew members are acting very peculiarly. Snow (Jeremy Davies) seems to have become an incoherent schizophrenic whose speeches are full of paradoxes. Gordon (Viola Davis) seems to want to hide in her sleeping cabin. Snow will not explain what is going on, telling Kelvin, "Until it starts happening to you there no point in discussing it." Bewildered, Kelvin goes to sleep in his cabin and awakes to find his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) somehow there, alive and well. She is a facsimile created from his memories, but does she have a life of her own? The story proceeds in three worlds: one world is Solaris Station, one is Earth in flashback, and the third is the world of Kelvin's dreams.
SOLARIS looks like it was filmed on a small budget, well-spent. Scenes aboard the Solaris Station, as filmed by Peter Andrews, seem to feature two looks. We have dark scenes in which the shadowed half of actors blends into the background. We also have pans across impressive expanses of shipscape with lots of round ports. These look a lot like they were inspired by certain Michael Whelan book covers like the one for DISTANT STARS. Scenes of the planet, shot from orbit, seem to paint it in hues of pink and blue pastel. These are the only colorful scenes in the film, but there is not much variety. The planetary effects would have been impressive in the 1950s or 1960s, but this film is not trying to impress the viewer with its visual effects and leaves them at the only adequate state. Scenes set on Earth seem to feature mostly dark rooms and constantly rain-soaked sidewalks as if something unmentioned has upset the balance of the weather. The future Earth is a cold world with listless people. This is yet another film that assumes unimaginatively that Nehru jackets, or something like them, will come back into style and will be the fashion of the future.
SOLARIS is a very dense science fiction film, and one that requires a great deal of thought and perhaps multiple watchings. I rate SOLARIS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. Rheya's favorite poem, and she was the kind of person who has a favorite poem, is never fully identified in the film and we get only snatches of quotes. It is:
And Death Shall Have No Dominion Dylan Thomas And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one With the man in the wind and the west moon; When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot; Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion. And death shall have no dominion. Under the windings of the sea They lying long shall not die windily; Twisting on racks when sinews give way, Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break; Faith in their hands shall snap in two, And the unicorn evils run them through; Split all ends up they shan't crack; And death shall have no dominion. And death shall have no dominion. No more may gulls cry at their ears Or waves break loud on the seashores; Where blew a flower may a flower no more Lift its head to the blows of the rain; Though they be mad and dead as nails, Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, And death shall have no dominion.
DIE ANOTHER DAY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: After a really promising first hour this Bond film falls back on its silly comic book style. Eventually the weight of all the silliness in the second hour drags the film down in spite of the good beginning. Still, the first hour is the freshest thing that has happened to the series in a while, even if it is wasted later in the film. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
DIE ANOTHER DAY seems in large part to be an experiment for the Bond series. Much of it seems rushed and uneven. It starts stupid, turns smart for an entire hour, and then loses the magic and turns stupid again. The producers at Eon Productions and director Lee Tomahori seem to have recognized that the most successful series in film history needs some serious innovation to survive.
At least in the first hour the originality is there. The first new idea comes in the famous gun-barrel logo which has opened each of the nineteen Eon James Bond films with a touch of class and style. This time it has been goosed up with what was intended to be a new CGI thrill. It did not need it and it cheapens the effect. The first story sequence also has a sort of foolish idea for a surprise, Bond arriving at a mission via surfboard. Cute but daft. If we wanted to see a surfer we could have seen a beach party film. But then the film gets better when in this first mission inside North Korea Bond gets himself into some serious trouble. Not the James Bond breed of trouble with a quick and easy escape, but the kind of thing that happens to real world spies captured in enemy territory. It adds a sobering touch of reality that the series has not had before. Intercut with the credit sequence are scenes showing that Bond is indeed in trouble he cannot get out of and is not having a very good time of it. North Korea is not the sort of scenic tourist destination which is so often the setting of his missions. The writing in the first hour is at worst on a level with the Fleming books and some is better.
Then the new-found intelligence is squandered. In the second hour we find that Bond has his super-skills and his super-luck back. He is fighting a super-villain who has a sort of frozen ice palace appropriately enough built in Iceland. Somehow this building is constructed of ice and yet it maintains a comfortable temperature inside, nobody's breath freezes, and there is no dripping water. To this fairy-tale castle comes James Bond with a magic invisible car. We are back in James Bond Fantasyland. The dark tone of the first part of the film is replaced with a lighter than air plot.
This script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade is a mismatched set of styles that noisily goes haywire. One almost feels that one person wrote the front end and the other wrote the back end. The whole concept of who and what the villain is is a pile of absurdities. Though it is not really used in the film we are told that the villain never needs to sleep. Also pointlessly added to the absurdity is Q's own version of the Star Trek Holodeck. In this film there is an escalation in the number of sexual double entendres but they seem less and less funny. The old Sean Connery subtle Bond wit has been replaced by a sequence of Playboy party jokes. So much has changed that there seems to be a real effort to tie the current films with the older ones. Much of the David Arnold score as well as the script seems to quote the classic Bond films. We see at least two pieces of equipment from THUNDERBALL. One interesting touch, the real book FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS OF THE WEST INDIES by real life ornithologist James Bond, is worked into the plot. Ian Fleming borrowed the author's name when he wrote the first Bond book.
Visually, this is one of the least interesting Bond films. Director of Photography David Tattersall seems to have filmed the film with fancy stylistic camera moves that call attention to themselves but do not help the storytelling. All the Korean action is in dim light. A lot of effects are too obviously digital which takes a lot of the fun out of them. Too often in a chase a shot is set up to make the car look flashy, a likely sign of a product placement. This film has been rumored to be financed on the product placements alone.
The acting is sufficient, but not exciting. Pierce Brosnan is starting to grow into the role of James Bond and certainly looks better than he did driving a tank in GOLDENEYE. Halle Berry plays a mysterious female agent that Bond first sees rising from the sea in a scene borrowed from Ursula Andress in DR. NO. Madonna, who sings the title song, also has a small role at a fencing school. It is not a flashy role and she (somewhat surprisingly) plays it like a disciplined actress rather than a celebrity.
There is enough for the Bond fan to like and enough for a critic to dislike in this film. There is somewhat of a departure for the Bond series, but not always a prudent or intelligent one. I rate DIE ANOTHER DAY 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
AIKI (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Based on a true story, a Japanese prize-fighter becomes a paraplegic in a traffic accident. With no reason to live, he plumbs the depths of despair and strikes out at the world. Then he discovers Aikido martial arts, finds reasons to live, and once again becomes a champion. This is sort of an Aikido BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
Haruhiko Kato, who starred in the supremely weird horror film PULSE, plays Taichi. As the film opens Taichi is a boxer, and fighting is the one thing that gives his life some meaning. After a successful match he gives his girlfriend a ride on his motor scooter when a careless driver hits him. Taichi awakes to find that he will never walk again. The uninsured driver who hit him commits suicide rather than face the consequences of his own irresponsibility. We see some harrowing operation scenes of just what must be done to Taichi's body to simply to keep him alive. This leaves Taichi with no prospects and very little to live for. His world gets very small, as just getting to the next room is a nearly impossible feat. Just getting through the day unassisted even without leaving his apartment is more than he can hope for. He learns to use a wheelchair, but it does him little good as he bitterly withdraws from the world. He verbally abuses his sister, the only person willing to care for him.
After many months he improves to the point where he can go out on the street with his wheelchair. A small time criminal befriends Taichi. Then he makes a second friend, an enigmatic temple maiden with a somewhat secret past. She introduces him to another friend, a master of the martial art of Aiki. This man is willing to take even a man in a wheelchair on as a student. Even from a wheelchair, Taichi learns the art of Aikido.
Daisuke Tengan, who also directed, based his script on the true story of a paraplegic, once a boxer, who became a champion of Aikido. In a lot of ways this story is quite similar to BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. In case of that film it is the anti-war movement that gives an embittered paraplegic back his life, in the other it is martial arts. Aikido emphasizes a tranquil and affirmative mind-set and the accepting of one's opponent. In this case, of course, the opponent takes many forms, though the same attitude and philosophy applies.
The story follows a rather obvious arch from the beginning. The production is generally good and the acting seems reasonably well done. (It generally is harder to judge acting in a language the viewer does not understand). The subtitles are occasionally hard to read in the print I saw. I would rate AIKI a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
My primary reading was Frances Sherwood's THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR, a book set in 17th century Prague and centering around Rabbi Loew, John Dee, alchemy, and the golem. If this sounds a lot like Lisa Goldstein's THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR (which I read a couple of weeks ago), all I can say is that apparently when it's time to golem, we golem. The Sherwood was published in July and the Goldstein in August, so it's unlikely either was copying the other. (Perhaps both were inspired by Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, or Pete Hamill's SNOW IN AUGUST.) However, what is interesting is that the Sherwood is positioned as a mainstream literary novel, while the Goldstein is marketed as fantasy, even though they are really very similar. And I enjoyed them both and recommend them. And I just finished re-reading Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters." Is it possible that just as there was an amazing explosion of alternate history stories a few years ago, there will be a burst of golem stories now? [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Hypertext is more significant to society than the invention of the printing press and the alphabet. -- James Burke
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