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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/27/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 35
Table of Contents
More than You Really Want To Think About On the Subjects of Vampire Fangs and Mummy Leaves (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
CSI, broadcast February 5, had someone killed by a vampire killer. CSI prides themselves on their scientific accuracy, but I was curious to see if they got their vampire lore correct. (Not that I would blame them. Films don't seem to get the lore correct either.) There were two holes in the victim's neck (correct) but they were vertical and the distance apart, 32mm, of two human eye teeth (nope). Now that is a common misconception from bad vampire films. Yes, vampires have two fangs in film folklore and there are two holes made in the victim's neck. But only one hole is made by an upper fang. Snakes bite with two upper fangs, but they have very sharp upper fangs. But bat (and vampire) fangs are not needle-sharp. Two upper fangs would end up pushing the flesh away. They would give the biter nothing to hold the neck in place. They would just need too much force to pierce. Vampires in folklore bite the way vampire bats bite. They get a fold of flesh between the upper and lower incisors on one side. Presumably Bram Stoker knew that when he wrote DRACULA, but he was not explicit and the more garish films, like VAMPIRE CIRCUS, got it wrong. The films get one thing right, however, though I am not sure how. I think they made a double mistake and the two mistakes canceled each other out. The alignment of the bite holes in films is usually horizontal. Think about it. The vampire's head would be perpendicular to the neck. Two upper fangs would position the holes vertically. A correct upper and lower fang would position the holes horizontally. It is hard to imagine the position a vampire would have to use to put two horizontal holes in a neck with two upper fangs.
(Does anybody else think about this stuff or am I just strange????)
I was watching a mummy movie the other night. You know, one of those old Universal films where a mummy comes to life and kills people. These movies were always a lot of fun in spite of some of the obvious absurdities. First of all, Egyptians were very short by today's standards. How scary is a monster about 55 inches high? If you have seen real mummies, that is about the average height. What is he going to do grab you around your waist? Then there is the fact that ancient Egyptians almost never wrapped the legs separately. There is one mummy I have seen with the legs wrapped separately and some Hammer Films makeup artist really did model one of their mummies on the real thing, but the mummies in Universal's movies in the 1930s and 1940s were wrapped like no real mummies ever were. Uh, one exception there. Boris Karloff loses his bandages almost immediately in the original 1933 film THE MUMMY, but he was the mummy Im-ho-tep. All the other films were about a fictional mummy named Kharis. Incidentally, just for your edification, like Dracula there really was a historical Im-ho-tep. He has been nearly forgotten but he actually was one of history's geniuses. He was a celebrated physician for the time. He also was the great architect who invented the idea of placing tapering mastabas (burial vaults) one on top of another. In doing so, he invented the pyramid and he built the step pyramid at Saqarra--the first of all pyramids. He later became deified like the Pharaoh he built for and was worshipped far longer. I have heard there were still cults who worshipped him in the Middle Ages. And his film heartthrob, Anckesen-Amon, was a real person too. She lived considerably later, however. And she was spoken for. She was the wife of none other than Tutankhamon. The 1932 scriptwriters may not have meant her specifically, but they really did mean the historical Im-ho-tep. His history would have been significant in earlier version of the script. The version they shot made his historical past less important.
However, most of the old Universal mummy movies are about Kharis, who is a never-was character. Im-ho-tep was brought back to life with a magical scroll. Kharis never died due to the use of a sort of soup made from secret tana leaves. Tana is also a literary invention and, I can tell you, there were not a whole lot of leaves that were secret in Egypt. Everything green lives in a narrow strip on either side of the Nile.
The idea is that Kharis gets three of these leaves during the cycle of the full moon to keep him alive. Nine leaves and he can actually walk. More than nine leaves and he will do the Funky Chicken all over the head and body of anybody who gets in his way. (Incidentally, while he walks at about one mile an hour and drags a foot, somehow he manages to catch the fleeing heroine. It must be due to the intervention of the gods.)
Anyway, getting back to my subject, it occurred to me to wonder how many of these leaves were needed to keep Kharis alive. There are about 13 cycles of the full moon per year and they seem to give the leaves to the mummy about 4 nights each cycle. That is, each cycle of the moon is about 4 weeks, but each cycle of the full moon, whatever that is, seems to last about 4 nights. So the mummy will usually get 12 leaves per cycle of the moon. There are 13 cycles per year, so just maintenance to keep a mummy alive will cost you 156 leaves per annum per mummum. Now say once a decade you have to raise Kharis to polish off the odd tomb desecrator or misguided Egyptologist. Maybe you have to raise your mummy 2 nights in that decade. That is 18 tana leaves per annum, if we spread the cost out. Just as a round figure, let's say you will disperse 160 tana leaves per year. Now Egypt fell as a major power about 2000 years ago after having been among the top three world powers for 3500 years. It would be safe to estimate Kharis was first placed in his case about 1500 BC, or 3500 years ago. That would imply he has consumed something like 550,000 tana leaves so far. Figuring 10 leaves to the ounce, 16 ounces to the pound, Kharis has already consumed 3400 pounds of leaves (or 1545 kilograms, if you prefer). They show these leaves being kept in a little box. It is possible that 1-3/4 tons of leaves are hidden in other boxes in the tomb, but it seems like a task that would be difficult to keep a secret back when he was buried. In Ancient Egypt--remember little strip of green or either side of the river in the middle of the desert--to collect tons of leaves certainly must has peaked someone's curiosity. I wonder how long the secret would have been kept.
(Note: Parts of this essay have appeared in this notice before, but, well, I've had a bad week.) [-mrl]
ROBOT STORIES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Five stories involving robots in some ways conjure memories of the original Twilight Zone series. These are simple stories, most with a strong insightful element. All but one really says more about humanity than about robots. Greg Pak's first feature film has at least three films here that have more human drama than most films in theaters today. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10. Minor spoiler warning: These stories cannot be adequately discussed with giving away some of the plot details. This review should not damage the enjoyment of the film.
Greg Pak is a Yale graduate Rhodes Scholar who until this point has limited his filmmaking to short films. With ROBOT STORIES he takes four short tangentially related films and turns them into one feature film. The opening credit sequence modestly adds a fifth story, or rather a new first story.
This first sequence is animated and if you do not look quick it is passed, yet it sets the tone for the stories that are to follow. The story that runs under the credits shows us a robot, one of a line of robots, that malfunctions in the direction of creativity and personal freedom. The other robots see the malfunction and choose to follow suit. They opt for human values over mechanical ones. In fact, robots are only a motif for the stories in this collection. Robots become a pretext for Pak to look into his human characters. Only the story "Machine Love" is actually mostly about robots and it is the least interesting of the five stories.
"My Robot Baby" features Tamlyn Tomita and Vin Knight as Marcia and Roy, a yuppie couple who are anxious to adopt a baby. First they must prove that they have the responsibility to take care of a young life. They are given an ovoid robotic surrogate baby to care for. It simulates a baby and records the care it receives. One could say it is a logical descendent of a Tamaguchi, the electronic pet that requires care or it dies. Caring for the mecha-baby brings back memories of Marcia's own troubled childhood.
"The Robot Fixer" is really not science fiction at all. As her son lies in a coma after an automobile accident, a woman (Wai Ching Ho) feels helpless. She determines that she must perform a symbolic act to show her devotion to her son. His one fascination in life was his toy robot collection. She determines that as an act of faith she will restore the collection, finding replacements for missing parts and rebuilding the toy robot. This is not a science fiction story. If the boy had been interested in models of jet planes rather than robots there would have been no science fiction connection at all.
"Machine Love" is the slightest of the five stories. Writer and director Greg Pak stars as Archie, a robotic clerical temp in a business office. Initially seriously dedicated, he nonetheless finds love. This may well have been the first of the stories filmed and it has the most rough edges. The input ports on Archie's neck and back seem to be corn plasters. The data that Archie types in is always the same page. Archie's job seems to be typing data into a PC terminal. Why an advanced data device like Archie would use any interface as cumbersome as a human keyboard is unclear.
"Clay" is an emotionally charged but simple story of a great sculptor (Sab Shimono) who is dying but resisting immortality. Technology has advanced to the point where his consciousness can be downloaded to a computer before his birth-body dies. He would essentially go on living and his mind would continue without his body. (Whether this would be really his consciousness continuing or a computer merely simulating his mind is an important issue but not really discussed.) The sculptor prefers death to an electronic life without tactile sensation.
Like the sculptor taking unpromising lumps of clay and sculpting human images from them, the ROBOT STORIES takes the so frequently simplistic motif of science fiction stories and uses it to experiment with emotion and make some profound discoveries about what it is to be human. Rod Serling, in his best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, could perform a certain alchemy. He would take a simple science fiction story and find deep emotional values inside. (Consider the episode "The Lonely," in which a convict played by Jack Warden exiled to an asteroid gets a robot played by Jean Marsh for a companion. It could well have been the inspiration for ROBOT STORIES.) While Pak is not yet in his class, Rod Serling would have probably liked ROBOT STORIES very much. Pak writes with wit and insight. It is hard to find a single rating for an anthology film, but I rate ROBOT STORIES a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The film is getting a spotty release around the country, first to film festivals, then to major city art theaters. Perhaps it will get a wider release in later months. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last week, I referred to Robert Sawyer's new trilogy as his "H" trilogy, but Joe Karpierz points out that it is actually called "The Neanderthal Parallax".
For people looking for where to start on a particular topic or in a particular genre, Nancy Pearl's BOOK LUST is probably a useful resource. (Of course, these days, people are more likely to google for something like this.) Pearl's book is a list of categories and topics, each with a brief starter bibliography. For example, for science fiction, she recommends (in this order) Mary Doria Russell's THE SPARROW, Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series (particularly the first book), Frederik Pohl's GATEWAY, Clifford Simak's works (particularly SHAKESPEARE'S PLANET, WAY STATION, CITY, and DESTINY DOLL), Sir Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END, Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, Roger Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, Frank Herbert's "Dune" series (though she didn't say how many of them), and Ursula K. LeGuin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and THE DISPOSSESSED.
Pearl gives separate lists for fantasy and horror, but she also has a separate cyberpunk list as well: William Gibson's NEUROMANCER; Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH and CRYPTONOMICON; Eric S. Nylund's SIGNAL TO NOISE; Pat Cadigan's TEA FROM AN EMPTY CUP and DERVISH IS DIGITAL; Rudy Rucker's SOFTWARE and WETWARE; John Brunner's THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER; Bruce Sterling's ZEITGEIST, HEAVY WEATHER, and HOLY FIRE; William Gibson's PATTERN RECOGNITION; and the anthology HACKERS (edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois).
Our mystery discussion group read Sue Grafton's A IS FOR ALIBI, and the only thing worth noting is that one woman found the idea of a woman detective who went around with a gun in sort of Philip Marlowe style totally unrealistic--she didn't know any women who could do that. However, after several people said that they did, and pointed out that there were certainly woman soldiers these days, she conceded that younger readers (meaning younger than forty, I suspect) might not find it so unbelievable.
On the other hand, Michael Shaara's THE KILLER ANGELS was a big hit with the "original" book discussion group--everyone thought it was wonderful. We ended up with a discussion split between the book and the Civil War itself, especially its causes.
Alan Stockwell's THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is yet another collection of Holmes pastisches, acceptable but nothing special, and missing that spark that the best ones have.
I re-read Hal Clement's NEEDLE as a stroll down Memory Lane, and concluded that it is really a "young adult" novel. And though Hunter talks about the clues that give the fugitive's host away, when I flipped back through the book, I couldn't really find where they were revealed to the reader, somewhat marring the mystery aspect. (Hal Clement died October 29, 2003, for those who have not heard. -mrl)
Ian Pears's THE RAPHAEL AFFAIR is a better mystery, but it definitely requires at least some knowledge of art to appreciate it. It (and his other art mysteries) are a lot shorter than his book AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, so they are good books to start with to get an idea of his style. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers. -- Anthony Robbins
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