MT VOID 02/28/03 (Vol. 21, Number 35)

MT VOID 02/28/03 (Vol. 21, Number 35)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/28/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 35

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Twilight Years (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I have always enjoyed "The Twilight Zone", being hooked as a child on the scary stories. It occurs to me now that perhaps it is because it is safe for me. It shows terrifying and weird things happening to people, but I know I am safe. When I was a kid, "Twilight Zone" showed things happening to older people. Now that I am a little older all the new episodes seem to be about weird things happening to kids and 20-somethings. [-mrl]

-4 to +4 Ratings Frequently Asked Questions List (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Question: The -4 to +4 scale you use for rating films is rather unique. Did you invent this scale?

Answer: Actually the -4 to +4 rating system was used for a long while in CINEFANTASTIQUE, a magazine about fantasy cinema. They no longer use it, but I and a number of people I discuss film with have adopted it and still use it.

Question: Does CINEFANTASTIQUE still use this scale when they rate films?

Answer: No, as I said they no longer use this scale. But I do. I like it because zero indicates pure neutrality in my impression of a film. If I am negative on a film, so is the sign of the number. Positive, the same is true.

Question: What seems to be unusual about this scale is that it has the number zero in the middle. Is there some sort of reason for choosing a scale centered on zero?

Answer: Yes, a zero says that I am purely neutral about. A negative number says that I am negative on the film and a positive one says that I am positive. The average film would get a zero. An average theatrically released film would probably get a +1.

Question: I would expect that theatrical films get a higher rating than the general run of films made include made-for-cable and direct-to-video films. Do you find that is so?

Answer: Yes, on the average I would give a zero to the average film, including those you mention, and +1 to the average theatrical film. But I expect that films follow a bell-shaped curve. The greatest number of films get a sort of average rating. I very rarely give out a +4 or a -4.

Question: So do you find you give out as many +4s as you give out +1s?

Answer: Well, no. I think the quality of films released follows a bell-shaped curve. There are a lot fewer +4 films than there are +1 film. You can look at the curve at to see about how the distribution of films goes. You can see that there are a lot fewer films in the +4 range than in +2 range where the "x" is. I further sub-divide the +2 range into "high +2" for films a little better than a +2. There are low +2s for films not quite as good as a +2 film. And of course there are the pure +2 films. It is a concept similar to sub-dividing the B grade in school into B-minus, B, and B-plus.

Question: Can you explain why some films rate a +1, some get a high +1, and some get a low +1? What is the difference?

Answer: Well, a high +1 is a little better than a +1 and not quite as good as a low +2. A low +1 is not quite as good as a +1. I subdivide each of ratings this way except for a +4. Films that I consider +4s like MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, SPARTACUS, THE PATHS OF GLORY I just give the full +4 to without qualifying it.

Question: You said earlier that fewer and fewer films get the higher ratings. Have you ever actually given a film a full +4?

Answer: There aren't a lot, but yes I did. A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, SPARTACUS, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and THE PATHS OF GLORY are examples. There are other examples at my web site where I discuss my ratings scheme in more detail. That is at .

Question: Have you ever written out an explanation of this rating system, maybe something that reader can refer to if they want to read it in a little more depth?

Answer: Yes, I have a page explaining my rating system at . [-mrl]

One Book New Jersey (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)

As part of the recent rather peculiar notion of everyone in a city or a state reading the same book at the same time, New Jersey has chosen FAHRENHEIT 451 as its inaugural book, and the months of March and April as when you should be reading it. Given that the book is about less controlled reading, not more controlled, this seems a bit odd to me. On the other hand, it is a classic, it is science fiction, and it is the book's fiftieth anniversary, so I can't complain too much. (The idea that the first book chosen for One Book New Jersey is science fiction is heartening in itself.) An article about the whole "One Book" idea (and critical of it) can be found at More details about the One Book New Jersey program can be found at [-ecl]

HUMANS by Robert J. Sawyer (TOR copyright 2003, 381pp, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 0-312-87691-2) (book review by Joe Karpierz)

HUMANS is the second novel in Robert J. Sawyer's "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy, the first of which was 2002's HOMINIDS. I had a very positive reaction to HOMINIDS in a review I wrote last year. Well, Sawyer has topped that novel by a huge margin with HUMANS, and if he improves by the same amount in the final volume (Hybrids, due out later this year), he will have written a true masterpiece.

HUMANS picks up right where HOMINIDS left off. Ponter Boddit, the major Neanderthal character, has just returned to his version of Earth. Mary Vaughn is getting set to go to back to York University where she is a professor and genetics expert. If you'll remember, she was called in to verify that Ponter was indeed a Neanderthal back in HOMINIDS. This story involves the reconnection of the portal between our version of Earth and Ponter's, and the ramifications that has for people on both Earths.

And boy, do *we* come out looking bad in the deal. Sawyer goes deeper into the comparison between Ponter's world and ours (since it makes more sense to do so in this novel), and uses it very effectively to take on gun control, pollution, crime, religion, the Big Bang, get the idea. And we look bad in every single category.

This comparison comes via many different angles. The story is actually told as a flashback from Ponter's point of view as he's talking to a "personality sculptor"--yep--he's seeing a shrink because something is bothering him about what happened back on our Earth.

Ponter and Adikor convinced the High Gray Council to reopen the portal between the Earths using the quantum computing facility that they work at. They use a device to keep the tunnel open, thus effectively opening a permanent gateway between the two earth, with the idea being that the two worlds would begin diplomatic negotiations angling toward trade, etc. The Neanderthals send Ponter and a diplomat over, and that diplomat promptly gets shot. Despite that, diplomatic relations continue, with a bunch of Ponter's greatest scientists, artists and the like coming over to teach us what they know.

That's just one part of the story. The other part chronicles the growing relationship between Ponter and Mary, and all the, uh, baggage that brings along with it. Remember, she's been raped, his woman-mate has died, and, of course, the fact that they live on two separate worlds with two different social and family structures. Central to the story is Mary's Catholic faith and all of the Neanderthal world's lack of a belief in any Supreme Being (for those of you who don't know where Sawyer stands on that, if you can't tell from this book, read his interview in the latest issue of Locus).

One of the great chapters in this novel ties in both the ideas of war and religion with a visit to the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C. Ponter, of course, just does not understand the point of the whole thing, since there obviously isn't an afterlife. Why do we remember people who are gone? It's a powerful and moving chapter that's worth the price of admission.

(One thing I have to mention that is Rob's plug for one of his previous novels, ILLEGAL ALIEN. See if you can spot it. Unless, of course, I was imagining it. You never know).

Anyway, HUMANS is full of Sawyer's usual outstanding storytelling and compelling ideas. We'd be disappointed if it wasn't, wouldn't we? But you know, the real killer, the thing that is going to drag you headlong into the third book, is an idea that I don't ever remember seeing in an SF book before (although I'm sure it has been done--I just don't know where)-- what happens when the earth's magnetic field reverses itself, and the north pole becomes the south pole and vice versa? Yowza.

Run out and get this book. Run--do not walk. It's a keeper. [-jak]

GODS AND GENERALS (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: This film has been generally rejected by the critics; nonetheless history buffs may find GODS AND GENERALS is a compelling look at the first two years of the Civil War seen, as it rarely is, from the Confederate viewpoint. Dramatically awkward off the battlefield at times, the film has spectacular but believable reenactments of battle. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)

I should start by saying that my tastes are going to be skewed on this film. I consider myself a minor Civil War buff and the companion production GETTYSBURG is one of my favorite history films. It was a fairly accurate yet engaging representation of history. I think much the same of GODS AND GENERALS. I have visited the battle fields for the three battles depicted in this film--Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville--and seeing the reenactments brings the history very much to life. This film is three and a half hours of fairly engaging recreation of some of the most dramatic years of American history.

Experience tells me I should make clear at the outset, even at the risk of repeating the obvious, that my position on slavery is that it was an evil institution. This film is about people who fought on the same side as people who defended slavery. In liking the film I am in no way being sympathetic to slavery or its defenders any more than I was when I liked the film GETTYSBURG.

Several years ago Michael Shaara wrote the excellent and well-researched novel THE KILLER ANGELS, which was an account of the battle of Gettysburg. At that time Ted Turner's organization would make mediocre and usually inaccurate made-for-TV films about the Civil War. Typical was IRONCLADS, which had a mostly fictional story, though it had an impressive dramatization of the battle of the Monitor and the Virginia (a.k.a. the Merrimac). For the capper of this series of films the decision was made to adapt Shaara's THE KILLER ANGELS as the basis for a film about the battle of Gettysburg. This would be a large-scale film and to keep costs down they would get thousands of free extras by using Civil War reenactment hobbyists. This had the perhaps-unforeseen virtue of having thousands of avid experts on the Civil War right there on set. This must have led to a lot of arguing but also to one of the most accurate history films ever made. It was intended to be shown for two nights on television, but when the producers realized they had something special, GETTYSBURG was released first for a theatrical run in 1993. It was greatly popular with the critics and with history buffs.

Michael Shaara did not live to write more novels of the same cast about the Civil War, but his son Jeff wrote two additional novels, GODS AND GENERALS and THE LAST FULL MEASURE. The former tells the story of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and at the same time much of the history of the war leading up to the battle of Gettysburg. The latter tells the story of the Civil War after. These two novels frame the original. A decade after GETTYSBURG was filmed, the Turner organization is trying to repeat the success of that film by much of the same production team and many of the same actors in many of the same roles for GODS AND GENERALS. It is almost as if the production of GETTYSBURG is continuing. The ten years has, however, taken a noticeable toll in the aging of those actors who though they are a decade older are playing the same people a year or so younger. It is especially noticeable in Jeff Daniels's Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. But there is not much that can be done about aging and every effort possible was made to make this film fit seamlessly with GETTYSBURG.

Like some soldiers the new film is terrific in battle but is frequently a little awkward off the battlefield. Some of the acting seems stagy, some is contrived, and some is badly-paced. But GODS AND GENERALS does something that perhaps no other film has dared. It presents the Confederate viewpoint on the war without letting the issue of slavery overshadow all else. The film seems to freely admit that slavery was wrong, but slavery was not something the Southern soldier (or most Northern soldiers) saw as being central to the reasons for the war. Slavery was a dying institution. Pivotal in the Confederacy's issues was that they believed the Federal government was ignoring States' rights and forcing its will on the South. The United States (in the North) was mounting an army to invade the South to enforce federal control. Of course, this was ignoring the fact the Confederacy had already fired on the United States at Fort Sumter.

The film also repeatedly but probably accurately depicts many of the characters as having religion central to their thinking. God and Providence are mentioned often and piety is an important part of some of these people. I interpret this emphasis not as proselytizing but as being again historically accurate. Religion was a great comfort to these people at a time when life was hard even without war. These were also verbose times and some emotional scenes about love and Christmas are longer and more sentimental than would be the current cinematic style. These were people who did not lead such rushed lives. There is a trade-off between realism of the dialogue and giving the viewer the information needed is not as skillfully handled as in the film GETTYSBURG.

One of the more disappointing aspects of this film is the music. For GETTYSBURG Randy Edelman composed a powerful score that captured the novel's feel of the power of the events we were seeing. Edelman is also the primary composer for the current film, but is joined by John Frizzell. In this film the music is much more of a mournful lament. That and the addition of vocals that are even more doleful create a very different feel. Unlike the themes for GETTYSBURG, this is not a score that many will want to add to their collection. In addition, this film seems to have some unconvincing visual effects. If there are visual effects in the previous film, they are not obvious. On the other hand, with the passing of time it is now a little more acceptable to show the horrors of mid-19th-Century battlefield medicine. Some may find the hospital scenes harrowing but they are more correct. Again the film makes extensive use of historical reenactors, nearly three thousand of them.

GODS AND GENERALS is predominantly the story of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. It takes him from being a professor at Virginia Military Institute almost to the battle of Gettysburg. We again have Jeff Daniels playing Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. But mostly the film is the story of Stonewall Jackson over a period of two years. That is a different kind of focus than GETTYSBURG had, depicting many people over four days. The film also omits some of Jackson's stranger idiosyncrasies like holding one hand in the air supposedly to balance the fluids in his body. Some of the major roles have been shuffled. Rather than Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee, we have Robert Duvall. Sheen was very good but Duvall is perhaps America's best actor and he adds a great deal of gravity to the role. Each looks impressive on a horse. Stephen Lang, who played Pickett in GETTYSBURG, gets a larger but less flashy role as Stonewall Jackson.

I think GETTYSBURG as a history film actually is great. GODS AND GENERALS is not great, but it is at least fine. In spite of the negative reviews and some obvious drawbacks I enjoyed it very much and look forward to seeing it again. For the reasons I have given I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

OLIGARKH (U.S. title: TYCOON) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: In the newly capitalist Russia a shady tycoon is murdered. We see his rise to power and the drama set in motion by his murder. OLIGARKH is based on a real person, Boris Berezovsky, and the story of his rise to power is told intriguingly. This film has been called Russia's GODFATHER, and I can well believe it. This is definitely a compelling film. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)

OLIGARKH is an adaptation of the novel BOLSHAYA PAIKA (The Big Slice) by Yuly Dubov. The main character was based on the real life shady industrial giant Boris Berezovsky, who has been called "The Godfather of the Kremlin." "This individual had risen out of nowhere to become the richest businessman in Russia and one of the most powerful individuals in the country," Paul Klebnikov writes of Berezovsky in Forbes magazine.

This Russian film, OLIGARKH, shows us a large piece of recent history in the former Soviet Union. At the same time, even in America it plays as a dark political and economic thriller that is comparable in style and strength to THE GODFATHER (or at least of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA). As the film opens, Platon Makovski is murdered. He was the wealthiest Russian industrialist and one hated by the Russian public. The film moves back and forth in time. The flash-forwards show the next few days as the murder is investigated by police. In the flash-backs we see how Platon Makovski and a small group of his friends moved up the financial ladder to being fabulously wealthy. Platon, with the looks of a movie star, is an amazingly bright wheeler-dealer. His business success, with his enemy more the government than it is competition, is based on his doing the unexpected. He finds clever ways around the laws while keeping his business looking legal. He is a sort of financial anti-hero. The laws he breaks are holdovers from a discredited system and seem absurd, and his successes really seem some good for the country, putting technology in the hands of the people.

One deal has him giving the public an opportunity to trade brooms for cars. Another has them exporting cars only to be re-imported so that he can sell them to the public at a lower price. We get a view of recent Russian history and how it and success affected this small gang of friends. In the flash-forwards we see the investigation of the murder and the dark drama that follows building toward its explosive denouement. Each sequence, flash-back or flash-forward, is titled where it placed in time relative to Platon's death, creating tension to see just what happened and where the chips will fall. Almost like in INTOLERANCE, we see two story lines, each moving toward its most dramatic moment.

I saw this film at a film festival and did not know what to expect. What I found was an audience surprisingly packed with people speaking Russian and apparently excitedly looking forward to the film with great anticipation. The film meant nothing to me at the time, but apparently the Russians knew either of the film or at least that it was a film based on the notorious Berezovsky. Watching the film they found a great deal of the dialog very witty, though much of the humor was not conveyed in the subtitles. Still, it is a good story and one that I think will be of interest in this country.

The Russian title of this film is OLIGARKH, but the American title TYCOON seems equally appropriate. This is the most intriguing Russian film I can remember seeing and one I hope will be released in this country. I rate OLIGARKH a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Rather than spend yet more time complaining about Robert A. Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND (except to say that the second half gets even more chauvinistic and obnoxious), I will mention another book I found at the library, Tony Perrottet's ROUTE 66 A.D. Perrottet retraced the steps of the Roman tourists of two thousand years ago around the Mediterranean, interspersing descriptions of their travel conditions and experiences with his own. As a way to see the area it is certainly interesting, though I wouldn't recommend it to someone making it their only venture to that region, since he skips anything less than two thousand years old--which includes all of Istanbul. (Well, that's not quite true. He does visit King Tut's tomb, which while over two thousand years old, was unknown to the Roman tourists.) It's certainly an interesting (and accidental) companion piece to Edward Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, the first third of which I hope to finish this week. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The urge to save humanity is almost always 
           a false front for the urge to rule.
                                          -- H. L. Mencken