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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/05/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 23
Table of Contents
Puzzle (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Here's a contest. If you mail me the answer before December 10, I will publish your name as a solver in the MT VOID. Sorry, there is no prize but fame. Answers next week. (This is inspired by the Will Shortz puzzle each week on Sunday mornings on NPR Weekend Editions.)
This is the puzzle: Find the name of a world-famous American writer. This writer has a first and last name. Reverse the order of the two names. Remove one or more letters from the end of the first name and one or more letters from the end of the last name. The result is the name of a famous writer of science fiction, horror, or fantasy. Who are these two writers? [-mrl]
Hot Tip (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It seemed like a joke. People were talking about the August heat waves and how badly they had hit Europe. Britain had something like twelve actual deaths from the heat wave. (I don't remember the number). France had more than 11,000.
First reaction: Huh? What is this? You don't get numbers like that for deaths from a heat wave. They are reporting something wrong. Perhaps they are taking every death in France and blaming it on the heat wave. Isn't that number pretty high for all deaths in France?
Well, a little reading and that thought was quickly dispelled. The people who died, died of heat. The heat wave actually did kill over 11,000 people in France. (Some sources are putting the figure at 15,000.) Jean-François Mattei, French Minister of Health, has confirmed 11,435 people in France died during the first two weeks of August. That is more than twice the number of people killed by terrorism on September 11. How can that be possible? How did it kill so many people? The reason sounds like something out of a 1950s science fiction story.
For those of you that don't know, the heat wave was in August when most of France is on vacation. The French consider it a tradition that everybody goes on vacation in the month of August. The elderly who lived by themselves were the most likely victims when the heatwave came in August. Many just were not alert enough to know they were getting too hot. Many just could not do anything about it. They were as helpless as babies left in cars. Even those that were alert could not find air-conditioned places to go. And most of the people who could have helped with the problem were on vacation and could not be reached.
Well, the French had not been following Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative. What is that? Well it has a complex formulation, but one way to say what it says is don't do things that if large numbers of people did the same thing society would be in trouble. Now I would qualify the imperative that there also has to be some reasonable probability that large numbers of people in society would do it. I feel I can tell people to call me "Mark" without worrying too much about the chaos it would cause if a very large percentage of society asked to be called Mark. Nobody would know which person was being called when someone calls my name. Shoplifting, on the other hand, even if I could get away with it would be against Kant's Categorical Imperative since if large numbers of people did it, it would cause a lot of trouble for a society.
Now let's look at what happens in France. France is a country that takes its leisure time very seriously. Everybody takes vacation at the same time. They take off the month of August. There are just skeleton crews around to provide emergency services and do the really indispensable jobs. The national attitude is "I am vacation in August and someone else will handle the problems back at home." That is usually a fairly efficient way of doing things since the other eleven months of the year you can be pretty sure that your coworkers will not be on long vacations. They took their long vacation in August. But I think nobody saw the downside of having everybody take his vacation at the same time. This year the butcher's bill came due.
This was the year of the heat wave. Temperatures rose to 40 C (104 F). The French just did not have the people to handle the crisis and a lot of workers died as a result. Large numbers of people were simply unreachable. And many people died because they could not afford the fairly expensive technology that air conditioning is. I would like to take this opportunity to get the word out a little more about a claim that I have made for years. I think this could save lives.
When I was in grad school I had to study in an apartment that was something like 105 F, temperatures like they had in France. I soaked a T-shirt in warm water, put it on, and if possible sat in front of a fan. That is a really cheap heat pump and it worked. In a hot apartment I was relatively comfortable. When I travel and have to sleep in a room that is too hot, I use the same principle. Just sleeping in a wet T-shirt keeps me cool. I ignore the salacious implications, we are talking health issues here. This would not have helped the people too feeble to set it up for themselves, but it would have saved some from the heat. Oh, and the French might consider staggering their vacations. [-mrl]
Letters of Comment:
We got a lot of comments on last week's "This Week's Reading" column last week. [My comments on their comments are in brackets.]
In it, I said that the Fadimans "could all be science fiction fans from some of their traits." Fred Lerner responded:
"Clifton Fadiman devoted a couple of his 'Party of One' book columns in 'Holiday' to science fiction. In June 1952 he recommended nine books and three magazines (ASTOUNDING, GALAXY, and F&SF). In May 1957 he described Arthur C. Clarke as an example of a new profession: "futurians", people whose occupation it was to think about the future, and to create fictional and nonfictional projections of what the future might bring. Other 'Holiday' columns about SF were written by Kingsley Amis, Robert C. O'Brien, and Alfred Bester. I believe that [Alfred] Bester was an editor at 'Holiday' during the 1950s, which may have something to do with this." [-fl]
I talked about how Plutarch actually paired his subjects. Joseph T. Major responded:
"The parallels in Plutarch are: Crassus with Nicias, [and] Pompey with Agesilaus. The comparison for Julius Caesar is lost, but the essay on him is preceded by the essay on Alexander. Another paired comparison that might usefully be read is the two essays from the 'Moralia': 'On the Virtue or Fortune of Alexander' and 'On the Fortune of the Romans', which latter ends with the comment that the greatest bit of fortune the Romans had was not having to fight Alexander. This is probably a reference to Livy's essay in 'The History of Rome' (Book Nine) about how the Romans could have beaten Alexander because they had a bigger army and better commanders. This last is considered the first work of alternate history. " [-jtm]
Major also asked, "Could the copy of LOST IN A GOOD BOOK be a set of proofs? I've bought bound proofs before. Once bought a copy of a Robert Jordan book, which spared me wasting money on the 'Wheel of Time' series (it just keeps on rolling along)." [-jtm]
[No, the Fforde is not a set of proofs, and in fact the reverse of the title page indicates it is a third printing. On the back cover, in addition to the ISBN, there are two numbers in white blocks: 1145296 and 75261. The latter is part of the ISBN, but the former may be some book club code. -ecl]
And Charles Harris said, "You wrote, regarding Tracy Chevalier's GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING: 'I wish I could say I liked it....' You *did* say you liked it (albeit not overly much, and not as much as the reviews lead one to expect)! I even remarked at the end of the meeting that, as far as I could recall, this was the first time *all* of the attendees agreed on a book; i.e. lukewarm liking. And there was no gender difference." [-ch]
[Well, yes, I guess I liked it lukewarmly, but not enough to recommend it in a review. Or perhaps just didn't dislike it. I know I read more than most people, so something has to be a little more than lukewarm for a recommendation, but I probably could have phrased it better. -ecl]
Charles continues, "You also wrote: 'Since most reading groups are either all-female or mostly female, the books popular with them seem to have a preponderance of female protagonists.' Out of curiosity, I did a tally of the Old Bridge group's picks. Out of 159 that I have a record of, the protagonist is:
male 68 female 32 both 38 neither 10 I have no recollection whatever of the book 11
My categorizing was weighted toward female: if there was a woman playing a major role, that was counted as 'both' or even 'female'. 'Neither' covers straight nonfiction with no single prominent person. Biographical and historical books were treated as if they were fiction." [-ch]
[When I look at what books are described as popular with reading groups, or have reading group guides, they do seem somewhat slanted, but I may also have been biased by Oprah's picks, which seemed to be universally female protagonists (and almost universally female authors). We may be an atypical group. -ecl]
21 GRAMS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is an intense (if somewhat melodramatic) story told in a chronologically shuffled order. Sean Penn plays a college professor who receives a heart transplant and feels compelled to become involved with the widow of the donor and the man who accidentally killed the donor. The strange story is made even stranger by the convoluted telling. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4) Warning: My review contains minor plot spoilers. This film makes the viewer work for every plot detail, so any detail of the story is a spoiler.
21 GRAMS is not a film to sit and relax in front of after a hard day. Well, maybe it is if one wants a distraction. In any case, this is not your movie if you want things laid out simply in front of you. 21 GRAMS is a film that would be a fairly extreme drama--though somewhat macabre--even if it was shown with scenes in chronological order, but director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu shuffled the scenes so he could present the story both as a drama and as a puzzle. By making the film a puzzle the viewer can feel a sense of accomplishment when she or he has put the whole story together and can step back from it and look at it. It is not unlike seeing a Vermeer for the first time in the form of a jigsaw puzzle. Is the strange order a gimmick? Yes, it really is. But it sets this drama apart from many others and makes the viewer strain at paying attention to details. In MEMENTO, the reverse order of the sequences helped us to see what was going on in Leonard Shelby's amnesiac head. It helped us to understand his situation. Here the story is scrambled not to help tell it, but simply to make it an enigma that viewers will have to study and perhaps want to see multiple times.
Following a strong performance in MYSTIC RIVER Sean Penn gives one of his most powerful performances as Paul. As the film begins Paul sits in an intensive care unit looking at the near dead people around him and thinking about how he came to be here. Paul is a professor with heart problems--well people call him "professor" and he has an interest in mathematics. He has received a heart transplant and then becomes obsessed to know about the donor of the heart. His wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) finds that this disrupts her plans to have a child by Paul. The donor's widow is Christina (Naomi Watts from other popular puzzle films MULHOLLAND DR. and THE RING). This somehow ties into the life of an evangelical Christian, Jack (Benicio Del Toro). Saying more would be going too far.
This ordering of the events of the story may seem haphazard at first, but it is carefully calculated to confuse and surprise the viewer. Theories about what might actually be happening fall by the wayside as the film progresses. I remember thinking that one sequence must have taken place much before another sequence and realized after about half an hour that I had the order reversed. Events seem like ridiculous coincidences until one realizes there is more going on and they are not mere coincidence.
The story of 21 GRAMS allows for some powerful performances, particularly from Naomi Watts as the widow whose life is shattered and who turns to drugs. The shuffled order of the telling is a gimmick, but it is one that works reasonably well and perhaps even works to rivet the viewer's attention. This dark story will have an impact, but perhaps more for the unconventional telling. I rate it 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE SNOW WALKER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)
Back in 1983 I had pretty much given up on any film from what is today one of the major studios. Disney Films had not made a good film I could remember in more than a decade. They preferred to make juvenile films like SUPERDAD and THE LOVE BUG. Then they adapted NEVER CRY WOLF, based on the book of the same name by Farley Mowat. The film skillfully balanced humor and breathtaking nature photography with a serious and poignant plot. The film announced the studio's return to quality entertainment. Many of the same elements that made that a good film recombine THE SNOW WALKER. The film is directed by Charles Martin Smith who played the character based on Farley Mowat in NEVER CRY WOLF. At that time he apparently decided to continue his relationship with Mowat stories and the frozen North. Farley Mowat reportedly contributed his story "Walk Well My Brother" to Smith to adapt into a screenplay and then to direct.
The story deals with a bush pilot Barry Pepper as Charlie Halliday in the Arctic who reluctantly agrees to take a young, but very sick, Inuit woman to medical care. Engine trouble forces an emergency landing off course and lost in the tundra. The radio is destroyed as part of one piece of bad luck after another. The story follows a predictable arc with Kanaalaq (Annabella Piugattuk) at first seeming to be no more than useless cargo to be dragged back to civilization. As time goes by Charlie learns that Kanaalaq's Iniut skills may be all that stand between him and death. Charlie's approach to food is to hope the cans will hold out while Kanaalaq knows how to hunt, even with the minimal materials that they have. As time goes by Charlie soon learns to simply accept Kanaalaq's decisions, even to adopting some of her superstitions. Meanwhile James Cromwell as Charlie's boss does all he can to find the two before time runs out.
Like NEVER CRY WOLF this film offers majestic arctic vistas. This film they are underscored with Mychael Danna's music. This film does little that is unexpected, but what it does, it does beautifully. [-mrl]
BON VOYAGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
This film is sort of an adventure and comedy of several people with intertwined lives trying to escape from the jaws of the German occupation. The approach of the screenplay, as with other French farces, is to define many characters and plot lines and to let the various plot lines collide and intersect as the story progresses. We have a selfish movie star (played by Isabel Adjani) who has convinced a writer to go to jail for a murder she committed. We have the writer who escapes in the chaos of the advancing Germans. We have the French diplomat (Gerard Depardieu) who is entranced and manipulated by the star away from the government ministers' discussion of the French surrender. We have the prisonmate of the actor who escapes at the same time. One character (played by American actor Peter Coyote) heads a German spy ring. We have a young physicist who is attracted to the writer. She is traveling with an older physicist who has a load of heavy water to be gotten to the British for the war effort.
It may seem to be inappropriate to set a light comedy against the backdrop of France falling to the Germans in World War II. Somehow it is hard to be greatly amused by antics set against the background of the panicking French clogging the roads. The knowledge of what will happen to many of these French under the hell of the Germans in the next few years also cast a pall over the antics.
Gabrial Yared's score is lush and a pleasant change from the discordant film scores so common in American films. Director and writer Jean-Paul Rappeneau gave us the 1989 version of CYRANO DE BERGERAC, which I considered the best film I had seen that year. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Per Schelde's ANDROIDS, HUMANOIDS, AND OTHER SCIENCE FICTION MONSTERS is the sort of book one wants to fling against the wall-- often. Schelde sees himself as a pioneer in studying science fiction film, but he gets so much wrong that one cannot really trust the rest.
(Page numbers are in brackets.)
As for his being a pioneer, Schelde claims, "There still is not a book-length study of sf movies that is not a picture book or a picture-book history."  (As of 1993, the date of this book, one presumes.) This just isn't so: a quick scan of our shelves shows Michael Benson's VINTAGE SF FILMS, 1896-1949; Carlos Clarens's AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM, Donald Glut's CLASSIC MOVIE MONSTERS and THE FRANKENSTEIN LEGEND, Douglas Menville's THE HISTORY OF THE SCIENCE FICTION FILM, and Bill Warren's KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES. (In spite of the title, Clarens is not a picture-book history, and covers many of the same films that Schelde covers as science fiction.) While it's true that most such books have focuses on subsets of science fiction, one can fairly claim the Schelde does the same.
When Schelde attempts to define "sf" ("Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"), he says, "Movies about the future are by definition sf because they more often than not focus on science and technology."  "More often than not" does not justify including the entire range as science fiction.
He also gets movie plot details wrong--or in the case when he claims ON THE BEACH has a tidal wave , more than just a detail wrong. He seems to think that the Creature in Frankenstein rapes the little girl  when it's clear from the uncut version--and much discussed in the literature--that he does not. He calls the town where INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS takes place "Santa Mara" instead of "Santa Mira" ; he calls the character "Harry Jekyll" instead of "Henry Jekyll" . He refers to THE THING as being directed by "Christian Nyby, alias Howard Hawks"  but Howard Hawks was not an alias for Christian Nyby. (Maybe this was intended flippantly, but it didn't come across that way. and he repeats the claim in the index.) He quotes Zellerby in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED as saying, "They are one mind to the 12th pi."  It should be "They are one mind to the 12th power."
Schelde notes that "sf science is almost invariably disastrous" . Well, if it weren't, there wouldn't be much of a plot, would there? That's the inherent problem with all fictional portrayals--there must be conflict. So there are no films about happy families in suburbia without problems, inventors whose inventions work perfectly and cause no distress, or explorers who climb a lost plateau and find nothing special.
A couple of books inspired by Sherlock Holmes are Susan Conant's BARKER STREET REGULARS and Sydney Hosier's MURDER, MRS. HUDSON. The former involves a murder, dogs, and Sherlock Holmes aficionados. The latter is the second book in a series that has Mrs. Hudson as the detective and would be okay except for the fact that Hosier has decided to give her a friend who can travel out of her body. This is presumably explained more in the first book of the series, but I'm not going out of my way to find it.
Jack McDevitt's OMEGA is apparently the *third* book in a series preceded by CHINDI and DEEPSIX, though there is no indication anywhere on the dust jacket or facing the title page. It stands moderately well on its own, but I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to be getting more out of some of the references than I was. The premise of clouds that travel through the galaxy destroying all signs of civilization was intriguing, but the geometry was all wrong. That is, it was claimed that they looked for right angles, which don't appear in nature, but there are in fact crystal forms that have right angles. In addition, an artifact called a "hedgehog" was described as having a lot of right angles, but the description made it sound more like something with spikes that were more like tall pyramids stuck on the central piece, and as such would have a lot of obtuse and acute angles, but few right angles. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: I don't believe in heaven. To believe in Divine reward for one's good deeds is to deny the possibility of altruism. I prefer to believe in altruism rather than in rewards. --Mark Leeper
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