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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/30/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 31
Table of Contents
First There is a Mountain (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It is amazing how many of the mysteries of the past no longer seem so mysterious. I remember there used to be a sort of mystical song that went "First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is." People wondered at the mystical significance of the lyric. These days it is not so mystical. It sounds just like a minor data error in their virtual reality. [-mrl]
Las Vegas (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, I am writing this from Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact I am actually on The Strip. What am I doing there far from my usual haunts? Well, my parents are residing now in Arizona. It is a little hard to see the parents I grew up with as cowboy and cowgirl sorts, but the Fates frequently must have their little jokes. So my staid parents are now living in a cowboy state, even if not a cowboy state of mind. Another joke of fate is that to visit them in Arizona, it makes sense to fly into Las Vegas rather than into Phoenix's perfectly good airport. However, it is cheaper and probably more interesting to fly into Las Vegas and drive to Arizona. So in the years to come I expect to be in Las Vegas frequently.
Why are the rates lower to fly to Las Vegas? It could be the random vagaries of scheduling, but I suspect it has a more logical reason. I think the casinos subsidize the airlines to keep the rates into Las Vegas low. Decisions in this part of the world are made on the sound principle that what is good for the Las Vegas gambling industry is also good for Nevada. There is no big industry in Nevada of any productive sort. You don't find farm implements being made in Nevada. There is very little software written here. There are no cars built in Nevada. For most of us the only nationally respected professionals who reside in the state seem to be some fictional crime scene investigators. The prosperity of the State of Nevada is just about entirely bound up in the setting of casino house odds. That seems to be what Nevada does best. They are very good at setting house odds. They must have the best odds setters in the world.
The other thing they do very well is in providing innocents like myself the opportunity to gamble. That makes my trip to visit my parent cheaper. It is because my parents live a few hundred miles from a place where it is legal to gamble. The entire area for hundreds of miles around is financed by the largess of the big casinos and in turn funded by little people who come here to turn over their savings in the hopes that a few will occasionally come away with more. And when they do win that is a big day for them. They will remember it more than all the times they lost. The few times they won will stick out in their memories. They will probably remember everything about that trip to Vegas. They will forget the other times, but that time they won and it will stick with them. It is like people remember when psychics guess right and forget when there was nobody in the audience who knows any recently deceased Aunt Miranda.
The moment you land in Las Vegas airport and are walking down the gangway you can almost hear the slot machines jingling already. It isn't your imagination. When you get to the are at the end of the gangway the waiting room is filled with slot machines. "Hey," it calls to you, "it may take some time for your luggage to be unloaded, why not feed your pocket change into a machine in the meantime?" Actually they put the machines in the wrong place. If they put them on the OTHER side of the security check you could put your coins in a slot machine rather then letting them set off the metal detector.
Now, Las Vegas is just the sort of vacation spot when I grew up I always expected not to like. I was never that fond of the Disneyland/world/whatever experience. It seemed like a very artificial sort of place. Why travel to an invented world where everything is predictable when you have a whole real world out there. Why see a half-scale Temple of Heaven in the Epcot center when you can see the real one? But Las Vegas is an equally artificial world. Its scale models are of New York buildings and the Eiffel Tower. I have known people who come all the way from the New York City area to visit the scale model Empire State Building. I wouldn't expect to like Vegas all that much. I don't gamble since I tend to expect to lose just a little more frequently than the laws of probability say I should. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be true of me like the character in the film THE COOLER.
Still I find I like Las Vegas. Next week I will explain just why I am fond of such a place. [-mrl]
The MT VOID (letter of comment by Jerry Ryan):
I thought you would find this amusing: Avaya has a product called "Avaya Speech Access", which is a voice recognition and text-to- speech engine that lets you ask the system to read you your email. Very nice, very handy.
When the newsletter goes through the text-to-speech engine, it tells me that it is reading me "The Montana Void". :-) [-jr]
[I find that many people who don't know it's the "empty Void" call it the "Mount Void". -ecl]
A PROBLEM WITH FEAR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
This is a quirky science fiction film with some odd approaches. The viewer never knows what is going on. Something is being done to the people in a major Canadian city. We know who is responsible for the strange things we are seeing but not how they are doing it or even what it is they are doing. What is happening is a man-made "fear storm." People are letting their fears--any kind of fears--get the better of them. There are strange incidents of bad luck and they become front-page news. The phobic Laurie Harding (played by Paulo Constanzo) is the center of this fear storm. Listing Laurie's fears could go on for a long time. He fears escalators, pasta with red sauces, elevators, just about everything. He is the perfect customer for Global Security Corporation, a corporation that monitors their customers, predicts accidents, and dispatches police where needed. The system is called Early Warning System 2. It has made Global Security a powerful international corporation.
The fear storm is not a chance event. It is all a plot. Global Security is secretly producing the fear storm to boost sales. And Laurie is somehow the eye of the storm and we follow him and his insecure girlfriend Dot (Emily Hampshire), a sociology student, to whom he is afraid to commit. Laurie is protected by his security system, but it seems to distribute bad luck to all those around him. And there is a strange man who seems to know Laurie is doing this and is chasing Laurie, trying to convince him to kill himself. The city is paralyzed with strange fear and the stock market is crashing. Newspapers are taking freak accidents and turning them into banner headlines. When one high school girl get the hiccups, it becomes an epidemic of mass hysteria.
So much is unexplained the film has aspects of both weird comedy and horror. Certainly the acting and characterizations are in a tongue-in-cheek style to keep the nightmarish potential in check.
So what is this all about? The director says it is about people dominated by fears. Perhaps it is making a statement about the post-9/11 United States, but the film's incoherence gets in its way. It is more a set of strange off-the-wall sketches. Director Gary Burns shot a large part of the film in a shopping mall, much like his WAYDOWNTOWN. This is a film with some interesting ideas but the film's elliptical approach limits its appeal.
(Although this film supposedly is set in Canada, the local TV station is KPYT, call letters that would be assigned only to a station in the United States.) [-mrl]
CODE 46 (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: 0 (-4 to +4)
CODE 46 is a very odd piece of science fiction. It is a film with some very nice material that tries some interesting ideas, but it fails to capture the viewer. Its flaws outweigh its virtues. It is an extrapolation of the global community twenty years into the future. The world is very different and the differences are often not explained. Giant cities now seem to have the status that countries do today. Global warming has turned most of the rest of the world into a desert. (Much was filmed in Dubai, which stands in for Shanghai.) Rather than simply carrying identification people need to identify themselves with their insurance identification document, called a "papelle." Without a papelle you are exiled to the desert. William (Tim Robbins) comes to Shanghai looking for someone smuggling papelles out of a security building. To aid in his investigation he has infected himself with an empathy virus that allows him to know everything about a person if they will just tell him one thing about themselves. (Oddly, some people are very surprised he has this power, though it seems to be common knowledge other places in the society. It is one more detail not well explained.) With his power it does not take him long to track down Maria (Samantha Morton) who is his smuggler, but he is not sure he wants to turn her in. They are attracted to each other. But soon they find that their lives are connected by more than just their attraction.
The story telling is just not very involving, unfortunately. The plot just does not go anywhere. The viewer is kept interested in the background of this world but there is little development of the foreground. The plot resolution seems to come out of left field just when the writer gets tired of writing. Director Michael Winterbottom captures a style reminiscent of both BLADERUNNER and GATTACA, but those films had more interesting characters and action. This film is static and uninvolving. [-mrl]
TOMORROW HAPPENS by David Brin (copyright 2003, NESFA Press, $25.00, 219pp, ISBN 1-886778-43-4) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I embark today upon something a bit different--reviewing a book of short pieces, both fiction and non-fiction. Well, what's even more different is actually reading a book that's something other than a novel. I'm a big fan of novels, but I like short stories as well. I usually get my fix of short stories from the magazines--in the last few years I've read "SF Age," "Analog," and to a lesser extent, "Asimov's." But what I found was that I'd fall behind on my magazine reading, and so would read significantly fewer short stories than I'd like. So, much to the chagrin of the publishers, I'm sure, I'm slowly phasing out my magazine subscriptions. Well, to be honest, "SF Age" started the deal by ceasing publication all on its own. I then dropped "Asimov's" (I was never a fan of the type of story that Dozois was fond of anyway), and "Analog" will go when the subscription runs out. So, where will I get my short stories?
Why, collections, of course.
TOMORROW HAPPENS is another one of my Torcon 3 purchases. There actually weren't that many to begin with, since the dealer's room was woefully short of booksellers. However, being a David Brin fan, I picked this little book up, steep though its price be for 219 pages. It was a nice, fast, easy read. I'm glad I picked it up.
The fiction was pretty good. Some of it I had read earlier, when published in places like "Analog" or "SF Age." "Stones of Significance" came screaming back to me as I fondly remembered this story that started out being about "human" rights for artificial software entities but turned into something quite different. "Paris Conquers All", written with Greg Benford, turns the "War of the Worlds" story on its ear as we follow Jules Verne through Paris as it is under attack by Orson Welles's Martians. "An Ever-Reddening Glow" is a cautionary tale about how our choices for space travel propulsion can have an effect on the rest of the universe. "Aficionado" gives us a very brief but intriguing look at what was the beginning of the Uplift program here on Earth. "Fortitude" is a cute little story about the origins of life on Earth. Then there's my personal favorite, "A Professor at Harvard", which give us some insight as to what secrets you can unravel if you just look hard enough.
As for the non-fiction, all of it is vintage Brin. I've listened to him speak much over the last twenty years or so, and he seems to have gotten a LOT more outspoken as the years pass. The pieces here are no exception, and he makes no apologies for any of it. "Seeking a New Fulcrum" presents a different way of looking at parapsychology and psi abilities. "We Hobbits are a Merry Folk" is a look at Tolkien through the eyes of a fellow who, while he likes his "Lord of the Rings," doesn't mind ruffling a few feathers in Tolkien fandom. "The Robots and The Foundation Universe" is a trip back to the beginning of it all, and how Brin and the rest of the Killer Bs (Benford and Bear being the other two). "Goodbye Mir! (Sniff!)" gives Brin's personal take on the coming down to Earth of the Russian space station. "The Self- Preventing Prophecy" gives us his view as to why the world of George Orwell's "1984" didn't happen, and how lots of things may or may not be happening because of what people write and think about.
Those are the highlights. There are more pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, and they're all good reading. I'm not sure this is ever coming out in paperback, but the book made clear that there would be no more hardcover copies printed once the initial 1500 copy print run was gone. If you're a Brin fan (or completist), you'll want to have a copy, so contact NESFA press. Otherwise, go borrow someone else's copy. You'll be glad you did. [-jak]
AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow/HarperTorch, (c) 2001, 608pp, ISBN 0-380-78903-5) (not really a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our library's science fiction discussion group read Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS this week. As part of my preparation for the discussion, I jotted down the following thoughts and questions. (Spoiler warning: some of these questions assume you have read the book and give away plot points and much of the ending.)
Basic idea: I think the appeal of this book is that it creates in the reader a feeling of the numinous.
It also postulates that gods need worship to survive, or at least knowledge of their existence. (For example, Anubis doesn't seem to be worshipped, but people do know about him. On the other hand, the Greek and Roman gods are notably missing.) THE CASE OF THE TOXIC SPELL DUMP by Harry Turtledove is the only other book I can recall that assumes a two-way, exclusive relationship between gods and those who worship them, but AMERICAN GODS seems different in that the gods are far more dependent on the humans, but that their influence also extends to believers of other gods.
There is no Yahweh here--what does this mean? Is Yahweh too distant to become involved in these squabbles? Are the other gods simply more personal and approachable than Yahweh? Is Yahweh not worshipped in the same way or sense as these gods?
The universe of this novel is henotheistic--that is, it assumes that many religions are "right," in that they reflect at least part of reality. Is that why there is no Yahweh--because that's the one belief system that denies the validity of all others, and hence can't be resolved into this universe?
Is this book related to (and perhaps inspired by) the idea expressed in the film JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS: "The gods of Greece are cruel. In time all men will learn to do without them." In that film, too, the gods use humans as players in their game. (In fact, the imagery is explicit, as humans are seen as stone figures on a game board.)
Is there a parallel between the "head gods" trying to manipulate the gods under them to fight and political leaders in our world? Or is that just a conspiracy theory?
The notion of places of power seems to be in all religions. Why? Is Gaiman's argument that places such as The House on the Rock are subconsciously built on such places, or that they create them?
The idea that the gods walk among us and we don't recognize them is another recurring theme in religions. Why?
For people who want to read (or re-read) the book, there is a useful page of annotations at http://www.frowl.org/gods/gods.html [-ecl]
OSAMA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)
In spite of the title, this film is not about Osama bin Laden, though parts of the film definitely reflect on him. Instead, it is a moving drama about the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The Taliban was a regime so paranoid that some immorality would take place between men and women that they made women virtual prisoners. The film opens with a women's demonstration. These are women who are not allowed to work under the rule of the Taliban and who do not have husbands. They are not allowed out of their houses without chaperones and have no way to get even the minimal food to live. The Taliban is unconcerned about the plight of the women and suppresses the demonstration.
We look at one family in which the husband was killed in war. His wife had worked at a hospital, but has not been paid for many weeks and now the Taliban closes the hospital. The woman will not be able to feed her mother and daughter. The solution would be for the daughter to go to work, but that is not permitted to girls, so she must dress as a boy and pose as a boy.
The girl takes a job in a small shop, but soon the Taliban interfere again. The "boy" is dragged to a sort of indoctrination school. The girl who appears to be a boy is taken to the school where she gets the name Osama. (To this point we have not been given anybody's name.) The school is supported by Osama Bin Laden and is more for ingraining of Islamist culture than for any sort of useful information. The other students torment her because the "he" looks so feminine. And she cannot keep the secret that she is a girl for long.
There is no happy ending coming and Osama has a sad and horrifying fate. Yet even it is small compared to the fate of death by stoning another woman gets. We see the Taliban in their big black turbans roaming the streets and spreading their power with terror. Some drive around with machine guns to enforce the rules of Islam. That is what life is under the Taliban. Siddiq Barmak wrote and directed the film based on true stories. He shows us a society in which there is little but pain because the resources are put into fear and paranoia rather than helping the people. It is a difficult vision to forget.
This is the first fully Afghan production to be made since the fall of the Taliban. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I finally got around to requesting through inter-library loan a couple of books I had been interested in reading for years.
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited six anthologies of "modern fairy tales" (in the sense of traditional fairy tales either retold in a modern setting or in a traditional setting, but with a modern sensibility). And I enjoyed BLACK HEART, IVORY BONES, just as much as all the others and recommend all of them. The other five are SNOW WHITE, BLOOD RED; BLACK THORN, WHITE ROSE; BLACK SWAN, WHITE RAVEN; RUBY SLIPPERS, GOLDEN TEARS; and SILVER BIRCH, BLOOD MOON--and, boy, is it impossible to remember which ones you have read and which you haven't!
I also finally read Barry Yourgrau's THE HAUNTED TRAVELLER, which are a series of vignettes told by a traveler. I would describe this as magical realism in the style of Lisa Goldstein's TOURISTS or some of Jorge Luis Borges's works. It was also more what I expected Ursula K. LeGuin's CHANGING PLANES to be (and wasn't).
Some of this week's reading, alas, consisted of books that aren't actively bad, but that I can't quite recommend either.
Elizabeth Schmidt's POEMS OF NEW YORK sounded appealing, but suffered from a couple of problems. One, the poems' connections with New York were at times tenuous, as some seemed more about people who just happened to be in New York than about New York itself. The other problem was a bit stranger--the poems were arranged chronologically, but by the author's birth date, rather than by the date of the poem. The result is that when one reads them, one is jerked back and forward in time. (This is particularly notable when one reads a poem written in response to 9/11, and then the next one takes place years earlier.) Still, I have no complaint with the poems per se.
Peter Biskind's EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS was recommended as a good summary of the 1970s in Hollywood. However, it seemed to spend more time on all the scandal and gossip than I was interested. Also Biskind has an annoying habit of referring to people sometimes by their first names and sometimes by their last, often in the same paragraph. This made it hard to keep track of what was going on. ("Who the heck is this 'Bob' he's talking about here?") (I found out later it was put together from a lot of articles which Biskind wrote for "Premiere" magazine, which would explain some of the inconsistencies in name references, as well as the very jerky writing style, where one feels one is being whipsawed around.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. -- Benjamin Franklin
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