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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/27/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 52
Table of Contents
Thanks to Rob Mitchell and Steve Goldsmith for sending out the MT VOIDs during our vacation. This issue is a bit late because we hadn't prepared it ahead of time, not being sure how long we'd we gone. We got a number of pieces of mail about the notice while we were gone. Please be patient, I am trying to answer them all. [-mrl]
Zoos (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
On our recent travels we went to the zoo in Louisville, Kentucky. For me a zoo is always a sort of guilty pleasure. I do enjoy seeing the diversity of animal life and to some extent the behavior of the animals. But I am still bothered by what I see.
I am someone who bores very easily and hates boredom. I have always been this way and have even developed a vast number of portable means to avoid boredom--books on my palmtop, etc.
I think a zoo is a mechanism to transfer boredom from humans to animals and I feel a little guilty about that when I visit one. I cannot help myself. Whenever I visit a zoo I start looking at the size of enclosures and I compare them in my mind with what living in the wild offered these animals. No wonder most animals lie around and sleep during the day.
Animals are probably a little less bothered by boredom than are humans, I think. They probably have a lower intellectual capacity. It is one we tend to underrate, but it is still lower. If I remember, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS concludes that what dogs really want from life is just to be in each others' presence. They want to be surrounded by their loved ones. One's mother in another part of the country notwithstanding, humans generally want more than to just be in each others' company. Language has given us higher aspirations and better things to do with our minds and our lives. I would like to think that boredom is more of a problem with humans than with animals. But zoos are really more or less factories of boredom for animals. Animals are incarcerated in pens and condemned to routine and an easy diet. This must be agonizing for them.
There are probably other reasons why our prisons are hellholes but one of the reasons is that when a prison is running ideally they are also boredom factories and humans cannot stand boredom. Animals may have a little higher capacity for boredom I believe, but zoos are just not designed to intellectually challenge animals and that must take its toll.
We saw in the gorilla enclosure that the inmates (exhibits?) were just sitting around trying to sleep to pass the time. The awake ones would look listlessly at the spectators, but there is not much in the cells to interest the gorillas and the wall of glass reduces the spectators to just images of tangential relevance to gorilla life. These gorillas seem to have lost their fight with lassitude and just wait for endless time to pass.
Is this unpleasant for the gorillas? I think apes have minds similar to our own, including perhaps a sort of common decency not all that different from our own. People were astounded when at the Chicago Zoo a visitor accidentally and somewhat carelessly dropped her baby into the gorilla pen. In what is now a famous incident a female gorilla reacted by gently picking up the baby, cradling it in her arms, and taking it to the access door to wait for a human to come in and pick up the baby. I think most people would consider this an action of common decency. But we generally apply that word "common" only to humans and not to the wider range of apes. Apparently it is decency common to both humans and gorillas. I firmly believe that when you deal with a gorilla you are dealing with a reasoning being. Its differences from humans are perhaps in part the result of what we judge is a lower intellectual capacity, but it is not very much lower. The diferences are also--and perhaps more--the effect of a cultural difference. A gorilla seems to be a thinking being with intelligence not far from our own.
It may sound like I am over-anthropomorphizing gorillas. But I think that science is coming out of the period when it reduced animals to machines. It refused to use the similarity of some animal minds and human minds to understand animal behavior. Where we can apply the similarity, it is probably the best tool we have for understanding animal behavior. Certainly what we know about human behavior must be very applicable to ape behavior.
Put an animal into an enclosure and give him the same easy routine from one day to the next and the reaction is lassitude or challenging the system with bad behavior. The same reaction is probably true in prisons. For humans the answer to this problem is to give people opportunities to use their minds. That is probably not as easy to do for zoo animals. So zoos become prisons for animals. Zoos really should be made more challenging for animals. [-mrl]
HULK (a.k.a. THE HULK) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Ambitious but ultimately dissatisfying film version of the Marvel comic. A man periodically turns into a not-so-jolly green giant. Ang Lee does the adaptation with ill-calculated sensibility and not much sense. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
There are some moments of excitement in HULK, an introspective adaptation of Marvel Comics hero The Hulk. One has the big green smashing machine fighting three monster hulk-dogs, including what may be the screen's first monster French Poodle. But the film's most intriguing scene has the ultimate in human rage fighting instruments of mechanized warfare, represented by several attack helicopters. It is the 21st century battle of the angry man versus machine. But the moments of real excitement are kept to a minimum for too long in this film. Until the final third, the film is overly self-conscious and introspective as if Lee, in trying to bring more to the comic book story, lost the original vital essence. This is a film about rage turning a man into a monster and the audience needs to feel rage or they cannot participate in the experience.
Berkeley scientist Bruce Banner (played by Eric Bana) does bio-medical research. He struggles with the fact he cannot remember his early childhood. He gets his clues in dreams which keep prodding him with images from a past trauma which has cauterized his memories of the past. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) works with him and strangely also contends with her own images from the past.
Bruce believes himself to be an orphan, but somewhere close by lurks his father David Banner (played by Nick Nolte and in flashbacks by Paul Kersey). His father did something just awful with biomedical discoveries. We never find out exactly what it was, but it left a legacy in Bruce's genes which when combined with strong radioactivity turns him a pastel green, inflates him like a Macy's float, and allows him to disregard walls and ceilings when he moves his huge bulk around. Betty's father (Sam Elliot) is an Army general. He knows that some powerful, weapon-related hocus-pocus is going on. and the Army has left him in charge of making sure America gets it first.
This all sounds like it a little more fun than it actually turns out to be. The problem is the film is so dark and so slow to unfold. It takes too long a time to unravel what the mystery incident was even in a film a langurous 136 minutes in length. In fact, we never actually learn the full story. We never even understand exactly what all the scientific research is all about. Equally strange is why General Ross is given such a free hand to handle the situations he faces in the film. His occasional ineptitude is so obvious that it telegraphs action well before it happens. He also is inept in his relations with his daughter as part of the two dysfunctional parent-child relationships that support the plot structure. Lee maintains a subdued tone, trying at times to be deep and psychological and even verge on the pseudo-mystical. The Danny Elfman score is not his usual fare but neither is it greatly notable.
Ang Lee bring gravity to superhero stories, but his hand is still unsure. I rate HULK a disappointing 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.
There are at least two questions that the film version brings to mind. Bruce Banner seems to have something like 75 kilograms of mass. He at least triples his volume when he becomes the Hulk. Doesn't this make him rather fluffy rather than strong? Certainly it leaves the question of where he gets his strength.
Even more intriguing is the question of how his pants manage to continue to fit his midsection after it expands to several times its size without ripping out the seams. The place where his pre-expansion clothing would naturally be the tightest would be his waistline. His pants would rip first instead of being the only thing that survives. Lee seems to remember this detail in one or two scenes, at one point showing an elastic waistline, but usually he ignores it, hoping it will not be noticed.
[Everyone seems to be calling the film THE HULK, but the actual title on the screen is just HULK.] [-mrl]
FINDING NEMO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A timid tropical fish earns his stripes when he goes on a quest to rescue his son. Pixar animation's new feature is certainly an audience pleaser, but for once their new feature is not clearly better than their previous work. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Pixar Incorporated, the computer animation company that partners with Disney, generally manages to make each new film they make better than their previous effort. It is a faint criticism, but FINDING NEMO is probably no better than being just on a par with MONSTERS, INC. The animation is fine, at times spectacular. Much of the humor is just puns with sea-related words and small allusions to films and film-making. For example, a shark is given the name of a famous prop shark used in another film.
As the story opens, Marlin (a clownfish voiced by Albert Brooks) and his mate are expecting hundreds of their eggs to hatch soon. In a moment's tragedy Marlin loses mate and eggs. Only one egg is left. Sometime later Marlin is a single parent of a single teenager-like offspring. Marlin has become extremely risk-adverse, terrified that something will happen to little Nemo. Then Nemo is captured for an aquarium in a dentist's office. Marlin begins the long odyssey to find his son and return him home. Along the way he picks up a traveling companion, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres). Together they face the dangers of the sea to travel from the Great Barrier Reef to a dentist's office in Sydney and to perform an apparently impossible rescue. The writers seem to have thought of all the ways a fish might possibly die and have put them into the story. Still, this is a moving father-and-son relationship, and one in which for once Disney does not automatically assume that father knows best. The script develops many characters of different types, with voices by actors including Willem Dafoe and Austin Pendleton. Thomas Newman provides the score.
Younger children may be desturbed by scenes of violence against fish and a number of rather fierce and ugly-looking fish, including three sharks ambivalent about eating other fish.
While not Pixar's best effort, FINDING NEMO still beats any Disney animated film through 1960 and probably a good deal later. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. The film is shown with an older but still enjoyable Pixar short, KNICK KNACK. Also, the end credits have some humorous animation. [-mrl]
BONES OF THE EARTH by Michael Swanwick (Harper Torch, 2002, 383pp, ISBN 0-380-81289-4, $7.50 pb) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
So, the first book I picked up after the Hugo nominations came out was Michael Swanwick's BONES OF THE EARTH. The novel is one of four nominations that Michael has received this year (along with two short stories and one novelette). He seems to be very popular, based on this fact. I was prepared to really like this novel, based on his earlier Hugo-nominated novel, JACK FAUST.
I was disappointed.
BONES OF THE EARTH is a dinosaur/time travel/alien encounter novel, and about the only thing that it delivers on is the dinosaur element. The rest is disjointed, somewhat confusing, and, in my mind, incomplete.
The story starts out following the recruitment of paleontologist Richard Leyster into a time travel program by a man named Griffin. The offer? Go to the Mesozoic to study dinosaurs - a paleontologist's dream. He eventually accepts the offer (the act of which we do not ever see - just the immediate effect of ending up at a conference for paleontologists who have all been recruited for the job) and climbs aboard. At the aforementioned conference, we learn all sorts of things about the rules of time travel, paradoxes (paradice? paradise?), and all that rot. What we, or the conference attendees don't learn, is where the time travel technology comes from, how it works, and why we have it. We eventually get the answer to where it comes from and why we have it, and of course we'll never find out how it works. :-)
Up until now things are interesting. Even the fact that rogue scientist Dr. Gertrude Salley decides to mess with the paradox effect keeps things going for awhile, but in general nothing interesting happens for the rest of the novel. We meet the Unchanging, emissaries of the entities that gave us time travel. We meet the Old Man, but after we find out who he is, we never find out how he got where he is in the power structure, something that I deem crucial to keeping my interest once I found out who he is. And we do meet the folks who gave us time travel, and they tell us why they did it. But the reason, to me, is unsatisfying (as an aside, I liken it to the philosophical reasonings behind the war started by the Shadows vs. the Vorlons in BABYLON 5. I suspect that I may not be alone in feeling that that little part of the story was lame. But I digress.), and leaves me wanting more. And just how did things turn out when our benefactors change their minds?
In my mind, this novel was not Hugo quality. Heck, it wasn't even that good. Give it a pass. [-jak]
Reviewing the 2002 Short Story Hugo Nominees (comments by Dale L. Skran):
General Comments: Given the dominance of ASIMOV'S recent years, I was surprised to see two nominees from ANALOG, and also surprised to find them among the better stories.
"Creation" by Jeffrey Ford (F&SF May 2002): This fantasy about a child creating a little man of sorts is well written, but not my cup of tea. Dale's #3 pick.
"Falling Onto Mars" by Geoffrey A. Landis (ANALOG Jul/Aug 2002): This brutal yet realistic tale of the colonization of Mars depends on a sort of trick, but for all that is a decent nominee. Dale's #2 pick.
"A Gift of Verse" by John L. Flynn (Nexxus Fall 2002): Not read/reviewed. [Note: This was on the initial ballot, but later removed because of prior publication. Instead, Molly Gloss's "Lambing Season" (ASIMOV'S Jul 2002) was added. -ecl]
"'Hello,' said the Stick," by Michael Swanwick, (ANALOG March 2002): A great 'Analog' story - short, to the point, and lacking expository lumps. It is hard to believe that Swanwick wrote both this and "The Little Cat." Dale's #1 pick.
"The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport," by Michael Swanwick, (ASIMOV'S Oct/Nov 2002): You've got to be kidding - this third-rate detective story about genetically engineered cats and dogs isn't worth your time, and is an embarrassment to Swanwick, an otherwise excellent writer. Dale's #5 pick.
No Award: Routinely nominated, but has never won. Maybe this year. Dale's #4 pick.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
A few weeks ago (05/30/03), I talked about TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney, and said it was not to be confused with BID TIME RETURN by Richard Matheson, which was made into the film SOMEWHERE IN TIME), or with TIME AFTER TIME by Karl Alexander, or Finney's sequel, FROM TIME TO TIME. Shelving books recently, I discovered that it should also not be confused with TIME AND AGAIN by Clifford D. Simak, which predated it and also appeared under the title FIRST HE DIED.
Let's see. We have a couple of alternate histories this week. First is S. M. Stirling's CONQUISTADOR. The title might make one think that it involves some change in the Spanish conquest of large parts of the Americas, but it doesn't. Stirling postulates a change much further back which eliminates all the European nations that led to Spain "discovering" the New World. What we have is the story of a bunch of World War II veterans who discover a gateway near San Francisco to this alternate world. However, since in this alternate world the "cross-worlders" have minimal contact with the existing peoples other than the Native Americans, the gateway could just as easily be one to a distant planet. (Except, of course, that the cross-worlders know where the gold is.) So basically the part of alternate history that I like--the idea of how things would be different--is completely missing. Any differences in Europe or China or Africa are only slightly alluded to. So to me, this book had little point.
LAST STOP VIENNA by Andrew Nagorski is at least a real alternate history, except that it pretty much ends just when the major change occurs, (another) one of the things that annoys me in alternate histories, and for the same reason as the previous book did--one doesn't get to see how things would have been different. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: "Iguana--the other green meat." -- Anonymous Slogan
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