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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/03/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 27
Table of Contents
Science Fiction Reading Group (announcement):
The Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library is starting a science fiction reading group which will be meeting monthly. The first meeting is Tuesday, January 14, at 7 PM. The library is in the municipal complex at the corner of Route 516 and Cottrell Road, just east of where Route 9 crosses Route 516. All are welcome; one doesn't need to be an Old Bridge resident. Further directions on request.
Stupid Questions (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There seems to be this whole controversy about the question "What would Jesus drive?" One Rev. Dan Smith carried a placard with that question last spring. Somehow it does not seem to be going away. It has caused a big backlash of people claiming it is a really stupid question. That brings me to the subject of stupid questions.
I worked for a telecommunications giant that broke up and I was working for a telecommunications medium. It broke up and I was working for a telecommunications midget. It didn't make a lot of difference to me, but for the purposes of this story it may mean something to the reader. A major part of what I did was being basically a repository of technical information on many levels. I saw my job as being a general problem solver. Whatever sorts of technical problems people were having they could bring them to me and I could pull the problem out of my memory if I had seen it or one like it before. I termed this "leveraging off of commonality." It certainly was true that there came to be a lot of things that people needed to know that I was the only person who knew the answer and who had experience with the problem. It was a fun job, like solving puzzles for a living.
I had to answer a mixed set of questions. And a mixed set of questions is like the contents in a can of mixed nuts. In the larger sizes you don't really get that many. Those tend to percolate to the top and get seen. They are like the Brazil nuts. You get more almond-sized questions. But the biggest majority of what you get are the smaller peanuts. I spent a lot of my time on small and non-technical problems. Solving these problems did not impress anybody but the person who brought the problem to me. Generally these were for secretaries and managing department heads who frequently shared the same sense of bewilderment at the workings of computers and often would explain to me that they were just not lucky with computers. The people who were more technical were a different matter. Brazil nut questions generally came from technical people who were facing very interesting logic questions on how to get a piece of software to do something nobody else would have thought to use it for. When these questions came up frequently I could design interesting solutions. But the vast majority of questions came not from this priesthood but from the bewildered.
Now it is almost inevitable that when you get to talking to people who deal with the general population in a company they start swapping "stupid questions" from customers. Since I was known to deal with a lot of people at lower levels of knowledge about the technology it was expected that I would have a lot of so-called "stupid customer" stories. I am afraid that I was always a disappointment in these discussions because I genuinely did not have any favorite stories and probably not even any that were not my favorite. What I told people was that I didn't consider that I had stupid customers and I did not get what I would consider to be stupid questions. They assumed that this was out of idealism of some sort. People assumed that I didn't want to talk ill of my customers.
There is some truth to that. But also I tend to want to be sure that if I call a question stupid that it really is. Every example I have ever heard of seems not really to come from stupidity but from some insight that I had not seen. If I think about these questions for a moment I end up with a crisis of faith, disbelieving that the question really is stupid. I have gotten to the point where I am skeptical that stupid questions exist anywhere.
Let me give you an example. I was reading an account of what it was like to work at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore. The author was talking about customers that she found offensively stupid. This immediately made me skeptical that I would agree with her or think very much of her. She said they asked the question, "What kind of book would my friends like?" She wanted to respond, "I don't know. How should I know your friends' taste?" She considered this to be a really stupid question. I don't think that is a stupid question at all. I know films better than books, but if someone asked me what films would their friends like, I would say THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING or OCTOBER SKY. The simple fact is that just about anybody who does not have an aversion to cinema likes these movies. There are books that are for very individual tastes and others that are more widely liked. I think the author of the article just did not give the question much thought. She didn't know what were the popular books in her store, which, let us say, does not reflect well on her, working as she did in a bookstore.
Someone who had read my India travel journal wrote to me complaining about stupid tourists and the stupid questions they asked. He was at a zoo in India looking at the monkey cage and an American asked him "Is monkey sacred in India?" My correspondent asked me what kind of stupid question was that. I still am not sure of the reason for his vehemence. I wrote my correspondent back saying, that perhaps it was not such a stupid question. The tourist knew that cows were sacred in India. That seems strange enough to an American. A monkey seems even closer to a human. Implicit in the question is what is it that makes one species of animal sacred in the Hindu religion. I am sure my correspondent decided I was as stupid as the other American was. At least he never wrote back.
It sounds cornball, I know, but I think the reason I never perceived I was getting stupid questions, is that for every stupid question I can generally find a fairly intelligent question behind it. I am a little hard pressed to find an engaging question behind "What would Jesus drive?" But I do have 1/7 of the answer. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday he wouldn't. [-mrl]
HAPPY HERE AND NOW (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A decidedly unhappy attempt to mix jazz music, science fiction, the Internet, all into an incoherent attempt at a thriller. The plot, never really explained so it makes sense, seems to involve software that disguises people on the Internet and somehow has something to do with a missing girl. This is a good one to skip. Rating: 1 (0 to 10), -2 (-4 to +4)
One of the things I require of a movie is that it make sense. This one didn't. Incoherence is no substitute for an explanation of what we have seen, to matter how artistic the intent. Director Michael Almereyda (NADJA) did not seem to want to tell a story so much as to have a frame for some filmed jazz sequences and to put some enigmatic images on the screen.
Amelia, played by Liane Balaban, is looking for a sister who disappeared. Living in New Orleans with her aunt Lois (Ally Sheedy), Muriel (Shalom Harlow) disappeared leaving no clue except that her beloved PC's memory was wiped clean. Amelia goes looking for Muriel with the help of a cabdriver and part time detective Bill (Clarence Williams III of "The Mod Squad"). Amelia believes her sister's disappearance is connected with a web site with a live host Eddie Mars. Unfortunately what can be seen on the computer of Eddie Mars may have nothing to do with the real person. There is software that allows people to appear on the web in real time with a digitally created face and voice entirely different from the real person. (A similar idea is a throwaway in S1M0NE.) The circle of people involved gets larger to include a fireman, a termite control expert, and a local legend of Rhythm and Blues, Ernie K-Doe.
The movie gets stranger and more dreamlike until it is unclear what is really happening. Writer and director Michael Almereyda seemed more concerned with forcing in his jazz musical interludes than in telling his story.
There are several technical problems with the script. It claims that Blaise Pascal invented calculus. That was Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. Pascal invented the study of probability. The claim is made that in a little-known past, Nikola Tesla did not die but went on to invent cloning. While that is not impossible, cloning was a long way out of Tesla's area of interest and genius.
But the real problem with the film is that it does not really come together into any real conclusion to the mystery. I fount HAPPY HERE AND NOW not at all happy and rather than now here it was nowhere. I give it a 1 on the 0 to 10 scale and a -2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE INTENDED (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Two innocents, an optimistic surveyor and his fiancee, come to a steamy, sinister trading settlement in the Malaysian Jungle. They run afoul of a supremely dysfunctional family. Black moods and blacker deeds in the grim deep undergrowth. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
This is a sort of tawdry melodrama set in a sticky, sleazy, sweaty trading outpost in the jungle on the Menkuang River near Ivory Bay. Presumably this was somewhat inspired by Joseph Conrad and might have stood with his works if there was some deep profundity obvious. Sadly, there was no such resonance evident. That leaves just the dark and dank emotional drama. A British couple, betrothed but not yet married, come to the jungle trading post as the husband Haimish (JJ Feild) has been hired to explore roots in the forest. He goes off on an expedition to do so, leaving his wife-to-be in the hands of the rather unsavory family that runs the trading post. The family consists of the woman who runs the post for "the Company" ("Out here I am the company," Mrs. Jones proudly proclaims), her nephew, and her son William who seems wasting into barbarity. William has been educated in England, but now sits like an animal in a cage and broods resenting his mother's power over him. There is also the degraded and conscience-ridden priest and maybe one or two others. All are struggling over the little bit of money there is because it is the only ticket back to civilization. Kristian Levring directs and Janet McTeer, Olympia Dukakis, and Brenda Fricker star. The cast is good and one might find oneself pulled in by the mood. But taking a step backward it just seems like overwrought claptrap.
The basic concept of people trapped in a sweaty hell, looking for the money to get anywhere but there could have been borrowed from WAGES OF FEAR, but sadly THE INTENDED shares none of that film's excitement. Instead, it is a story of power and evil in the jungle that has everything that Conrad would give it but deep meaning. I give it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE BARONESS AND THE PIG (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a rather heavy-handed parable of the sort that was made in the 1970s about sexism and class-prejudice. Set in 1887, it has a heroic, free-thinking American woman married to a French baron come to Paris fresh with new ideas on how to make a more just future. She finds barriers to her late-20th century values in a society in the staid class-conscious male-chauvinist society. The nice look of the film cannot compensate for the didactic writing. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
THE BARONESS AND THE PIG has a great grasp of late 20th century values and attitudes. The problem is that is it set in 1887. The setting is Paris of 1887 and the Baron (Colm Feore) has brought his new American wife, a former Quaker (Patricia Clarkson) to the city and hide-bound society. The Baroness has plans of creating a social salon using new electronics like electric light and the phonograph. She does not yet know that she will be expected to follow the strict rules of society and in particular the dictates of her husband. Never mind that he is a foolish, selfish, worthless man.
The Baroness has enlightened ideas that she got from her raising in America. The first of her project will be to adopt a feral child. The child was raised with pigs and the Baroness wants to mold her into a perfect housemaid. She will bring technology like electric lighting so that the poor will not have to live in the dark. She will form her own salon where people will gather and talk about the new enlightened world that is coming.
Yet nothing the Baroness seems to come to much due to conspiracies against her. High members of society are aghast at her new ideas. They feel inexpensive light is a mistake. Then even the poor will have light. "Light must be spread judiciously." The Baron, who cheats in business and then brags about it, and who indulges himself with pornography, and who rapes the maids, is convinced he must keep his wife in line to protect society and to maintain his own power. When the Baroness tries to act as a good influence on her husband he coldly informs her that he married her out of charity.
Michael Mackenzie who directed and wrote the film based on his own play has a real feel for melodrama but not subtlety. Subtlety in this script consists of touches like leaving the ambiguity of whom the title refers to as "the pig." The film wends its way to its cathartic but rather predictable conclusion.
Patricia Clarkson of THE GREEN MILE stars as the Baroness who believes in a bright future through science but whose personal dreams are destroyed. Colm Feore of TITUS plays the despicable Baron. Feore seems to have the kind of face one casts as an insensitive person. It is rather comforting to see veteran actor Bernard Hepton around and working. I have liked Hepton since his role in the "Colditz" television series which must have been made nearly three decades ago. Here he plays an intelligent and well-intentioned butler.
Mackenzie gives the film a nice antique look by filming in Hungary. The film is short in HDCAM, a video process. The images are generally sharp but there are still a few drawbacks. The process does however create interference patterns when showing intricate patterns as with lace. The small print of the closing credits also showed pixels. Bright lights would create a dark video halo. But the technology seems promising. I rate THE BARONESS AND THE PIG a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
LABYRINTH by Mark T. Sullivan (book review by Tom Russell):
Year-end book review and comments: :
Multiple choice quiz:
The moon is made of ________ ?
a. Green cheese b. Rocks and dust c. Alien nanotechnology among rocks and dust d. Philosophers' stones among rocks and dust
Several books I read in 2002 suggested answers to this little quiz.
If you've recently read Steven Baxter's MOONSEED you might have selected answer "c" here. In it, a rock from an Apollo mission is discovered to be an alien nanotechnology "seed."
In the MINORITY REPORT collection of Philip K. Dick stories, I read his excellent "Autofac," of which I'll say no more other than that it should be mentioned here, and it is a very clever story.
What exactly is "nano" technology anyhow? Perhaps if I read PREY, Michael Crichton's newest, he'll have an opinion on this subject. But I didn't care for CONGO nor TIMELINE so I'm not in a hurry to read PREY.
Anyhow, I find a book on the returned-books cart at the library: LABYRINTH by Mark T. Sullivan (copyright 2002). Judging from the picture on the cover, perhaps this will make a good gift for our son-in-law. He enjoys extreme cave exploring. The cover picture shows a cave explorer rappelling into the deep. So I check it out to check it out.
From the first page I have a problem: "(The moon is made of) ... rocks sent hurtling through space by the Big Bang."
If it weren't for the son-in-law gift possibility I would've given up on the book at the first page. But I persevere a bit. Soon we meet the main good guys, not-so-good guys and one very bad guy. Seems this bad guy is in cahoots with a mad scientist. Really.
Now the caving excitement begins. Sullivan may not have a clue on most basic science, but he has done his homework on caving. Maybe our son-in-law would enjoy this book after all?
Anyhow, I go to buy the book at B&N, but they don't have it in the store nor do they have it on order. Perhaps their book reviewer doesn't have an extreme cave explorer in the family? They do have an earlier Sullivan novel on the shelf.
I'm going to stop wasting time on the book, but it's easier to go online to renew it than to take it back, so I read a little more. This is when LABYRINTH inspired the quiz above. It's not a spoiler to reveal that one of the unexamined rocks from the Apollo missions is discovered to be a "philosopher's stone" by the mad scientist - who has been disfigured by being exposed to its quark decay. Yes, its quark decay...
LABYRINTH takes "science fiction" around a new bend. Well, perhaps not a new bend but certainly a wrong bend.
To be fair, Sullivan does acknowledge the liberties he has taken with the history of the Apollo project and with science in general. The real fun in LABYRINTH is finding all his "science fiction."
Here's how Ebert and Roeper might rate the books I mentioned, if they ever read books, and if they agreed with my opinion:
MOONSEED - one thumb up LABYRINTH - one thumb half up TIMELINE - two thumbs cut off CONGO - two heads chewed off
So LABYRINTH ain't so bad after all. On a 1 to 10 scale I would rate it at seven and a half groaners.
P.S. After the first draft of this I now read that USA Today rates PREY a "disappointment," calling it too technical to be a commercial success. "Technical" I go for, so I'll request PREY at our library. [-tlr]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Sometimes when you read a book, or the context in which you read it, can affect how you view it.
For example, I just re-read Lisa Goldstein's TOURISTS as a bit of research on magical realism. I then read Sarah Orne Jewett's THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS, a turn-of-the-century series of vignettes about coastal Maine. Though it certainly wasn't intended as magical realism (and indeed, the notion of magical realism hadn't been invented yet), it certainly read that way.
I started Pat Murphy's THERE AND BACK AGAIN, a book highly recommended by several people recently. But I found the parallels to Tolkien's THE HOBBIT annoying rather than intriguing, and gave up. Maybe it's a question of mood, because I know a lot of people do like it.
I finished Gahan Wilson's STILL WEIRD, a collection of his macabre cartoons. There's no one like him. Perhaps the fact that he was born dead and is a descendent of P. T. Barnum (*and* Willing Jennings Bryan) has something to do with it. The only artist even close to his style is Edward Gorey, and Gorey is far more formal and restrained. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Some people have a large circle of friends while others have only friends that they like. -- Anonymous
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