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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/23/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 30
Table of Contents
The Passion (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the news I see that the Pope has seen Mel Gibson's movie THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and says that he was very moved by the film. The film is the story of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus. The film, scheduled to be released this February, has become very controversial because it portrays Jewish authorities as being responsible to some extent for the death of Jesus at the end. (Well, I said it was the last hours of his life so that is not really a spoiler). Jews are somewhat nervous about the film in these days of rising anti-Jewish hatreds in Europe, the Middle East, and even in the United States. On the other hand, many Christians see nothing wrong with the film as long as it is accurate to the New Testament. If this is what is in the story as told in every Christian Bible, what could be wrong with bringing that story accurately to the screen?
There is then a question of accuracy of the film that Gibson is making. Is THE PASSION faithful to the Gospels of the New Testament or is it an anti-Jewish slander? What nobody wants to say about it seems to be that it really could be both. Religions of The Book (that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are just that. They are based on texts. The texts were written at a time when the religions were being founded. And if they took the point of view that all religions were equally valid and good, then they would not be very effective as texts to attract people to a new religion. To be effective they really have to say our beliefs are good and other people's beliefs are bad. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran each is negative on the competing religions that were around at the time the texts were written. The Old Testament is negative on tribal religions of its time. The New Testament gives reasons that followers of its teachings are better than other religions of the time including Jews. The Koran is negative on both Jews and Christians.
If one is to accurately tell a single story that is based on the four Gospels, then it will to some extent be negative on the Jews since John is negative on Jews. In addition it still is an impossible task because the four Gospels are inconsistent. If one takes a naturalistic view of the New Testament, that is not surprising. Mark's was the earliest of the four Gospels and it is thought to have been written about A.D. 70. The other three were written decades later. There is, of course, a great deal of controversy on this point, but most scholars date Mark to about A.D. 70, Matthew and Luke each about A.D. 85 or 90, and John was written about A.D. 100. Dating the texts is a difficult matter and is based mostly on the writing in the Gospels and knowledge of what other texts seem to have been contemporary. It is then no great surprise, at least from the naturalistic point of view, that the four Gospels are inconsistent. In fact, no two of the Gospels are consistent. For example, no two are in agreement as to what was written on the Cross. Still, it should be possible for Gibson to make a single version that is at least largely consistent with each of the Gospels. But in order to do that, they have to be consistent with the negative attitudes of John. John, like the later Martin Luther and the later Mohammed was probably not happy that Jews did not accept his view of religion and happily convert. There actually was a great deal of bad feeling among the religious sects of the time. John's enmity for the Jews shows in his writing. Gibson's dramatization could have moderated this attitude with the acting, much as a good actor playing Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" can make the character more positive than Shakespeare probably intended. But a really accurate version of "The Merchant of Venice" or a really accurate version of an amalgamation of the four Gospels would have some unavoidably anti- Jewish sentiments. And modifying the original text's intentions, for obvious reasons, is not really what Gibson wanted to do in any case.
I think Jews are not talking about the fact that the Gospel of John has these anti-Jewish sentiments because it is essentially asking Christians to choose between a literal acceptance of the Gospel and political correctness. You do not want to tell someone that his holy book teaches hatred. The probable reaction is that if that is the case, then God endorses those hatreds and they are hence acceptable. Ask Mel Gibson to choose between pleasing the Jews and accuracy to the Gospels, he will probably choose the Gospels. Ironically, this means that critics who have seen the film (and probably some who have not) tell Gibson that it is his adaptation that is at fault and not the source material. The source material everybody in polite society agrees is beyond reproach.
It should be noted that Gibson actually does have inaccuracies in the film. They are not questions of an inaccurate interpretation of the New Testament. They are historical inaccuracies. Gibson has the Romans speaking Latin, which he then subtitles into English. It turns out that they would probably have been speaking Greek in Judea at that time. That would have been the language everyone would use for official business, the one language nearly everybody knew and had in common. This is not a deviation from the text of the Bible, it is a historical error. It is also one that is very hard to go back and fix without great expense.
So what should Gibson do about his film, in my opinion? It does not really matter what I think. Gibson will probably assume that God is on the side of getting out the message of the New Testament. To a true believer what God wants is by definition good. He is only reproducing the same message that the Gideons put in every hotel room in the United States. It is not like the content of the New Testament has been a secret to this point and he is going to reveal it to the world. The fear is that he is presenting it in a new medium that makes it more accessible to greater numbers of people. If making the message of Christians available to people causes suffering, I do not think it is Gibson who is at fault. A belief system should be measured by the effect it has on the people who accept it. [-mrl]
Dictionaries (letter of comment by John Sloan):
[In response to Evelyn's observation about bi-lingual dictionaries last week]
I wonder why they don't make language dictionaries with the second half printed so that it reads from its own "front" cover upside down and reversed relative to the first half, like the old pulp doubles.
Back in 1995 I learned the limitations of language dictionaries while spending a month in the P.R. of China. It was very difficult to look up Chinese iconography in a Chinese-English dictionary, the Chinese portion of which was indexed by the number and direction of strokes. There was enough subtle variation in the different font styles that I was never sure that I had gotten it right except from clues in the context. Pronounciation was even more problematic. Apparently this is true for native speakers as well. I witnessed the common act two people having a conversation in Chinese while tracing icons on their left palm with their right forefinger to eliminate ambiguity in what they were saying, something I had read about but was surprised to see in practice. I hadn't realized how frustrating this all was until homeward bound I connected through San Francisco and felt tears welling up in my eyes because I could read the signs in gift shops in the airport. [-js]
Donald Westlake (letter of comment by Richard Horton):
[Posted to Usenet in response to Evelyn's comments about Donald Westlake's science fiction last week]
One point about "Donald Westlake's science fiction". He was a regular contributor to the SF magazines, from fairly low-profile magazines like the "Original Science Fiction Stories" all the way to "Astounding", in the late 50s and early 60s. The stories he has on his web page are, as you note, from "Playboy" in the 80s -- worthwhile stuff, I'm sure, and certainly SF, but from a different Donald Westlake, in a manner of speaking, than, the "original" SF writer version of Westlake.
(Westlake published a collection, TOMORROW'S CRIMES, that included at least some of his early SF stories.)
Speaking as a huge fan of Westlake, I will say that he is a much better mystery writer than SF writer. [-rh]
IVAN VASILIEVICH MENYAET PROFESSIYU (IVAN VASSILOVICH CHANGED OCCUPATIONS) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is an enjoyable light musical comedy from the Soviet Union in which Tsar Ivan the Terrible is transported to the present in exchange for a lookalike namesake who finds he must substitute for the real Tsar Ivan. The style is reminiscent of 1960s "mod" comedies.
If you are puzzling over that title, any Russian would know that Ivan Vasilievich was the 16th century Tsar better known as Ivan the Terrible. This 1971 film seems to have several different titles in this country including IVAN VASILIEVICH: BACK TO THE FUTURE. This is a comedy that in Russia has the stature that MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL enjoys in the United States. Reportedly, fans memorize lines and use them in daily conversation. This film is essentially a science fiction comedy (and perhaps it could even be called a musical comedy). This in spite of the serious disclaimer at the beginning "Non-science fictional... not entirely realistic... and not exactly historical film." The film is directed by Leonid Gaiday, who co-authored the script with Vladlen Bakhnov. It is based on the play "Ivan Vasilievich" by Mikhail Bulgakov. If the name Bulgakov is not familiar, it might have been more so in the early 1970s. Back about that time Grove Press published two of his satirical novels, THE MASTER AND MARGARITA and THE HEART OF A DOG. The former is one of those books I have for years meant to read. I did read HEART OF A DOG, a delightful short novel about a dog who is turned into a human and become a bureaucrat. IVAN VASILIEVICH is loosely based on one of his plays.
Engineer Alexander Shurik (played by Aleksandr Demyanenko) builds a cosmically and comically complex time machine in the living room of his apartment. It is ready to use on the same day that his girl friend announces she is leaving him for another man. Shurik discovers he can use the time machine to see through walls into his neighbor's apartment just at the moment the apartment is being burgled. He ends up demonstrating his time machine to the thief and to the manager of his apartment building. By an odd coincidence of fate, the manager is named for Ivan the Terrible is nearly a double for the historical Tsar. Shurik opens a portal to Tsar Ivan's palace. Through a mishap the thief and the apartment manager are left stranded in Ivan's palace while the real Ivan is trapped in 1971 Moscow.
We have two modern people in the Tsar's palace trying to bluff that they are the Tsar and one of his assistants at the same time (four centuries apart) that Tsar Ivan is trying to figure out the 20th Century. The comedy style is very much one of the 1970s with chases and other humorous sequences done with under-cranked camera, much in a 1960s mod style. Other places there are comic jokes and humorous allusions to the Serge Eisenstein film IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Parts 1 & 2. For example, there will be use of costumes and choral music reminiscent of the earlier films. The DVD even includes a trailer from IVAN THE TERRIBLE for comparison's sake.
Normally I rate the films that I review, however, there is no fair way to rate a dialogue-driven comedy film made in another language. The value of the humor is heavily based on the quality of the translation and in some cases just pure chance. A funny line in one language may not have an equally funny translation into another language. It is difficult to judge how funny this comedy was in its original language, though it is reputed to be quite funny. In addition, there are some jokes that assume that the viewer knows something about Russian culture. At one point Ivan is fascinated by a painting that a Russian would recognize as "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan: November 16, 1581" by Ilya Efimovich Repin. This is an enjoyable film, but it would probably be better within Russian culture.
In spite of this film's apparent popularity in Russia, it has apparently not been seen with English subtitles in the United States until recently. It is available from the Russian Cinema Council (http://www.ruscico.com/detail_eng.php?link=157). I saw this film through the generosity of a friend. [-mrl]
REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds (copyright 2000, Gollancz Science Fiction, ISBN 1-85798-748-9, 545pp., C$11.99 paperback) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
If there's one thing you folks ought to know about me by now, it's that I like stories with Cosmic Things happening, with Big Ideas, and with a (huge) sense of wonder (although these days at my age and unemployed, any kind of wonder at all is pretty good). So yes, I admit it, I like old-fashioned space opera. So, I was intrigued when, a few months back (well, before Torcon 3 now that I think about it), Locus magazine focused on "the new space opera". Well, as with any Locus article about a literary trend, it went on and on ad nauseum about what defined the new space opera. One interesting fact was that it is being led by the Brits, and that one of the new shining stars from Britain was Alastair Reynolds, and that he wrote this book called REVELATION SPACE.
So, while up at Torcon 3, I bought REVELATION SPACE, and its companion volumes CHASM CITY and REVELATION ARK. After reading REVELATION SPACE, I look forward to reading those two volumes.
This book is pretty darned big in scope, with some pretty huge ideas. And while the story itself spans roughly sixteen years, the scope of the story is more like a billion. Back in the day, there was something called the Dawn War, and after it was over, the nominal victors decided that in order to prevent something that nasty from ever happening again, they would crush any rising intelligent species so that they would die out--genocide. They were called, logically enough, the Inhibitors. Our story deals with whatever happened to the Amarantin - they've disappeared, and Dan Sylveste is researching and investigating why. Of course, he doesn't know about the Inhibitors yet, but he does eventually find out about the Banished, the Shrouders, the Pattern Jugglers, and . . . well, you get the idea--all mysterious, unknown groups of entities that play a major part in the story.
Well, it turns out that the Banished were once Amarantin. The Shrouders are a group that hides itself in an area of warped and twisted space-time that causes the normal human mind to go bonkers *unless* that mind is altered by the Pattern Jugglers, who once encountered the Shrouders.
And where would a story like this be without the obligatory "alien artifact"--but I'm not sure whether it's Hades the neutron star or the thing the derelict spacecraft Cerberus holds. The Cerberus was the spacecraft that once counted one of Sylveste's wives as one of its crew. Sylveste also managed to leave behind one of his fellow crewmates outside one of the Shrouds, sending her to her death.
But oh, the plot thickens, as Sylveste is driven to find out what's around Hades, and he is opposed by a woman named Khouri who is recruited by "the Mademoiselle", who wants Sylveste dead for some reason (which we do find out about as the novel unfolds).
There are many more plot devices and twists and characters that the reader encounters, not all of which eventually are explained away. Just who is the mysterious "Captain", and what part does he play in all of this, aside from the obvious--well, we think it's obvious at the end, anyway.
I really liked this book. The only problem I had with it is the usual--why does it need to take over 500 pages to tell this story? The setup is long, and sometimes is tedious, but there is the payoff at the end. When Reynolds finally gets to resolving the whole thing, it moves much faster than the rest of the book. Some judicious editing, in my opinion, could have told the same story in a tighter fashion.
Nonetheless, it's a good one. I highly recommend it. [-jak]
ROSENSTRASSE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)
ROSENSTRASSE dramatizes for the first time a little known incident from the Holocaust. In the cold of the winter of 1943 German Jews who had married Aryan women were arrested and put in a detention center, formerly a Jewish community center, preparatory to being transported east to concentration camps and death. Just outside on the street many brave wives gathered to wait for some sign of their husbands. Pleading for release and expecting no more than one last look at their husbands, they gathered in the street. There could be no similar protest by Aryan husbands of Jewish wives since they would have been drafted for the military. But women were not drafted so these women could gather in their street for their vigil.
The story, told in German and English, begins in modern New York where Ruth, a Jewish survivor is mourning the death her husband. When her thirty-three-year-old daughter Hannah sees a woman she does not recognize at the funeral, she investigates and finds that she is a cousin who gives Hannah new information about how her mother survived the Holocaust. Her mother had hidden her identity and religion and had been "adopted" by an Aryan woman whose Jewish husband had been arrested as part of the Rosenstrasse round-up. Under the guise of collecting information for a book, Hannah goes to Germany to interview her mother's protector. There she learns the story of the Rosenstrasse incident.
Director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta has acted in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff. She has been directing films since 1975. Her ROSENSTRASSE is a powerful drama. However, its greatest power is in the flashback sequences. More time is spent on the present than is really warranted by the value given by that part of the film. The framing sequence is necessary, perhaps but could have been made briefer and the time more profitably spent on the historical material which is the real hear and soul of the film. This incident has been treated in two documentaries previously, but it is still a little known incident and one that has a fascination for the viewer. Another problem, pointed out by the director herself, was that much of the reason the events took the course that they did was the fact that a very large number of women were involved in the street vigils. Von Trotta's budget did not allow for so many extras to be added to the cast. Not enough attention is paid to the Germans, and indeed the Europeans in general, who in quiet ways resisted or even sabotaged the Holocaust. Although appreciation is frequently shown for some of these people, many heroes remain obscure. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In an attempt to get some ideas of how to rejuvenate our book discussion group(s), I read Ellen Slezak's THE BOOK GROUP BOOK. While the descriptions of the various groups were interesting, they were not very helpful. First of all, most of the groups described were all-woman groups (or even more specifically, all- woman feminist groups). Our group is not an exact even split, but of the eight regulars, three are men. (Supposedly, one test of a group is to ask if they want to read Ernest Hemingway. The assumption is that even in a mixed group, the women will veto him. I'll have to try this, although I seem to recall our group reading THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA a few years ago.) Our biggest problem currently is picking books that the library has enough copies of, since the group formed on the supposition that people would not have to buy their own books. Currently, our tentative plan for the general book discussion group is to read books off the summer high school reading lists during the school year, and wing it somehow over the summer when these are tied up. The mystery reading group seems more successful in getting copies of books (though I couldn't get this month's selection). The science fiction group has a major problem in that library culling has resulted in very few books being available in more than one or two copies in the entire library system.
(If anyone is in a reading group, I would be curious as to the size and make-up of the group, as well as what it reads and how it chooses it.)
Of particular interest to Jewish readers might be a book *not* read for any group, David Liss's A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER. This is a mystery set in the early eighteenth century in England, during a time after Cromwell had allowed Jews to return to England legally for the first time after their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. The main character is basically a private detective before such a thing existed, who left his family of stock jobbers to become a thief before settling into a somewhat more respectable profession. After complaining about all the economics lectures in Robert A. Heinlein's FOR US, THE LIVING, it may seem odd that I am recommending this, because there is a lot of "expository lump" about the financial situation in England at the time. But proportionally it is considerably less than in Heinlein, and there is actually a plot that goes with it. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerve give to wisdom. -- Mark Twain
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