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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/19/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 38
Table of Contents
The Adam-and-Eve Syndrome (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have been giving some thought to a problem that bothers me as a film reviewer that few readers seem to be aware of. If you are reading this you probably know that I review films as a hobby. I want to talk a little about a phenomenon that I have encountered writing film reviews that actually disturbs me more than a little. In fact it has stopped me dead from writing about some films. It is one of the reasons I have not gone professional as a film reviewer. You want to know what bothers me? Let me tell you a story.
Several years ago I was introduced to someone who knew a friend of mine. My new acquaintance found out that I liked science fiction and told me he had just read a terrific science fiction story. It really provoked him to think. The implications of this story he found just amazing. He wanted to tell me about the story. It concerned two space explorers--a man and a woman--who were stranded on a planet. They had to find a way to survive in the hostile environment. It is mostly about how they made their new surroundings livable. In the end they decided to take new names for themselves for life on this planet, since it appeared they would be there a long time. The man named himself Adam and the woman chose Eve. My new friend was taken up short by the surprise ending. This was a real shock to him that it was a different origin for human life. We are all descended from space explorers. As he is recounting this story, I kept asking myself, is this the Adam-and-Eve story? No. It can't be. Yes, it turned out the story that so impressed him was the infamous "Adam and Eve" story.
This story is rediscovered time and again by amateur science fiction writers. Rumor has it that every science fiction editor has gotten this story many, many times. It may start differently, but it is always a man and a woman becoming the Biblical Adam and Eve. It earns an automatic rejection slip, and deservedly so. Just about every new science fiction writer thinks of this story at some point. Rod Serling even did the story once for "The Twilight Zone" as "Probe 7--Over and Out" with Richard Basehart as Col. Adam Cook. And the story had whiskers on it when Serling did it. It is hard to believe that any aspiring science fiction writer today would not know of the "Twilight Zone" episode.
What is scary about this story is not the content, but the effect it had on my new friend. The idea that it just bowled him over, silly, predictable, and cliched as it was. I knew it was just a silly story with cliched ideas, but the implications just held him spellbound. I could have laughed the incident off, but it got me to wondering. Could it happen to me? How do I know that a film that I find really powerful and deep really is?
There are a lot of films that people are moved by that are really rather silly. Back in 1971 a film came out that many of the contemporary critics thought was very moving. The name of the film was BILLY JACK and it was about a martial arts expert, who was formerly a Green Beret. He hated violence, but he was so darn good at it. This film may have had one of the first dramatizations of the most common martial arts scene. You know the one. The hero comes into a bar or inn or pool hall and is minding his own business when a bunch of nasty, ugly, bullies much bigger than then hero start picking on him. Our hero stands there and shows self-restraint, taking it until he can take it no more. Then he gets up and (surprise, surprise) he wipes them all out. How often have we seen that scene repeated?
In the early 1970s people found BILLY JACK a great film. Looked at now it seems so infantile. But it is like the Adam-and-Eve story. Somehow it looks really good in the flush of the moment. Some ideas just hypnotize people like deer in headlights. The Adam-and-Eve story seems to do that occasionally. I call the effect the Adam and Eve syndrome.
This should not be confused with a "guilty pleasure." That is a film someone knows is bad but enjoys for some reason other than critical thinking. Both are films that the critic likes and everyone else does not, but in the case of a guilty pleasure the critic knows it is a bad film. A film that fits an Adam-and-Eve Syndrome is one that the critic really thinks is good and most of the world disagrees.
But what scares me is that I may be susceptible to the same syndrome. Sometimes I find myself really electrified by a film. But is it the film or is it me?
What films do I think are good and just about nobody else appreciates? Almost ashamed to admit it, I would list LIFEFORCE, MIMIC, and the 1996 version of ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. They had the same effect on me as the Adam-and-Eve story had on my acquaintance. And sometimes I really like a film, but I want to ask someone else, did you see what I saw? Is this film really as good as I thought? Films I am sorry I did not recommend more highly for fear I was mesmerized include THE GREY ZONE and CYPHER. There is still time to recommend CYPHER which has not yet gotten a wide release.
When Roger Ebert gives three stars to a film that most of the reviewers do not like (a phenomenon that is happening more frequently of late), does he worry about whatever he calls the Adam-and-Eve Syndrome? [-mrl]
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Tracy Chevalier's novel is trimmed down to almost a vignette telling the story of the model for Vermeer's most famous painting. The film actually runs a little slow and introspective at 95 minutes. This is art director Christina Schaffer's film really as much as it is director Peter Webber's. Scene after scene seems to look like a Vermeer painting. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Tracy Chevalier's novel GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is a much fuller story than is covered by Peter Webber's film version. To bring the story down to a somewhat slow-paced 95-minute film much had to be removed or shortened. The storyline is only what was most central to the book's plot. But it is really art director Christina Schaffer's film. The movie is about Vermeer's paintings and visually it really captures the style of Vermeer's paintings. The subject matter of scenes, the lighting, and the muted tones of the color palate are all chosen to match Vermeer's style. Most frames of the film actually look like Vermeer paintings come to life. In a way this is almost a betrayal of Vermeer. The implication seems to be that his characteristic style is really only photographic realism and the great painter was just being a literalist and was recording what he saw.
The story is quite simple. In Delft Holland in the 1660s, young Griet (Scarlett Johansson of EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS and LOST IN TRANSLATION) comes to work at the home of Johannes Vermeer. She is little more than a paid slave in this household ruled with a powerful hand by the artist's mother-in-law, Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt). Everyone in the household but Johannes himself treats Griet roughly and unfairly. He is impressed both with Griet's aptitude for the tasks of being an artist and her attractive appeal as a model. The film is even presumptuous enough to have Griet rearrange furniture to improve a painting. Having her willing and able to correct the great artist is perhaps overstating the script's point, but Griet does have talent. Griet's attractiveness is not lost on Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer's chief patron. And this too causes Griet trouble. There is some wit in the script as we hear Vermeer's wife and mother-in- law cajole Van Ruijven to increase his patronage.
A familiarity with Vermeer's painting style in general and with "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in particular is not necessary, but it does improve the enjoyment of the film. Director Peter Webber and writer Olivia Hetreed slowly assemble the elements familiar from the painting. We see where the interest in the girl's headgear comes from. We see the pearl earrings on Vermeer's wife's table. We know they will be important in a slow build to the actual painting of the portrait. Even then it is a wait before we get to see the now famous painting, though it will be familiar to some from the cover of the bestseller. Scarlett Johansson is not a perfect match for girl in the painting, but watching the film one does not notice.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the film are the fine points of life in 17th century Holland. It is now standard in films showing other cultures to show what a kitchen looks like and what the food created is. Webber does not make the mistake of making the food look too inviting. Holland would not have had a very exciting diet by modern standards. Griet's best friend, other than occasional visits with her family, is the butcher and his son and on her visits we see the market in detail. The father is impressed with Griet's judgement about meat. The son is interested in the obviously intelligent Griet, even as Vermeer is, and begins to spend time with her.
This is a film in which what one sees is more important than what one hears. Visually the film is worth the admission even if the story could have been more satisfying. I rate GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
The Neverending Series (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I would like to take this opportunity to rant against a growing trend in the publishing of science fiction and fantasy. I am speaking of the business of taking a single novel and splitting it into multiple parts.
But this has been going on for years, you say? Yes, but of late there have been developments that make it all the more aggravating.
Let me be clear that I am not complaining (here, at least) about books that take place in the same universe with some of the same characters, but that are each self-contained stories. I *like* the Sherlock Holmes stories! I even think that such series as "Tarzan" and "Narnia", while having some interdependence, are fine. It's the series in which book one ends on a cliff-hanger and book two picks right up at that point that I object to.
Yes, I realize that's how THE LORD OF THE RINGS was published. But the technical realities of publishing in the 1950s regarding the size of books was the original cause, and these days one is seeing single-volume editions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Irony: the combined edition of this is shorter than some individual novels in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. One need only look at Mary Gentle's ASH: A SECRET HISTORY or John C. Wright's THE GOLDEN AGE, each published as one volume in Britain and multiple volumes in the United States, to realize that it is not the physical size of the book that is driving the United States publishers behavior.
(By the way, one reason DUNE was published by Chilton for its first appearance in book form was that Chilton--previously known only for automobile manuals--was at the time one of the few publishers who had the ability to publish a book as thick as DUNE.)
It was bad enough a few years ago when everything was a trilogy (or a tetralogy, or more). In effect, the author was asking you to pay, not $25 (in hardcover) for a story, but $75 or $100. (Most of these stories were well within the limit of what could be published as a single book. LES MISERABLES is 1886 pages and had come out in one volume.) But a recent development is making it even worse. Apparently the big chain bookstores have discovered that books by mid-list authors that are priced above $24.95 just don't sell well enough, and are resisting carrying them. Now, the idea is presumably that readers aren't willing to spend more than $24.95 on a book by a mid-list author, so the expected result would be that the publishers would keep the price down to that. Well, they have--sort of. What is happening is that a book that would have listed for more than that is being split into two books, each below that price. So, for example, instead of paying $27 for an 800-page book, readers are being asked to pay $48 for two 400-page books, neither of which is complete in itself.
But wait--it's even worse than that. We are also seeing "runaway stories." Series announced as trilogies turn into tetralogies, as the last book gets much longer than expected. So even if a reader is resigned to paying $25 times 3, or $75, for a story, after the first couple of installments, they discover they have to spend $25 times 4, or $100, instead. Among other things, this tells me that the author hasn't even finished writing the story when the first book has come out, so the reader is also betting on the continued health of the author. (I'm assuming there is a contract that at least prevents the author from stopping halfway through just because he's lost interest. It's also not clear what happens to the remaining books if the first one sells very badly.)
And readers also seem ambivalent about these books. (Actually, I prefer the term "confused.") I can't guarantee it's the same people who buy these multi-volume stories as those who say they can't read MOBY DICK or BEN-HUR because they're too long, but I can't help but feel that there's some overlap. (MOBY DICK checks in at 704 pages, BEN-HUR at 558. The latest episode in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" is 864 pages long; Tom Clancy's novels are usually 990+ pages.)
So what lies ahead? There is hope. There is some indication that publishers are no longer pushing for longer and longer stories, but are now trying to limit the length of works so that they can publish them for under $25. Kate Nepveu writes in her report of the Boskone panel on editing: "It is not, actually, in new writers' interests to imitate blockbuster novels in their length. Chains are getting very price-sensitive and don't want to buy hardcovers over $X (a number I didn't write down) by unproven authors." Charlie Stross addresses this at length in http://tinyurl.com/2ltrj as well. But again, it seems as though sometimes the answer is just to split a long book in half.
My reaction to all this is that I do not, under normal circumstances, buy any of these multi-volume novels until all the parts are published. Even then, I tend to look to my library, at least to start it, rather than spending a fortune on an untried work. The exception to this is might be when somehow a single volume of a multi-volume novel gets nominated for a Hugo--but once again, my library usually comes to the rescue. Frankly, I would rather give three different authors a try than one.
[This editorial comes just as I have filled out my Hugo ballot, both for the current year and for the retro-Hugos of fifty years ago. I am reminded how much more appealing the best of 1953 is than the best of 2003. The earlier novels are all in the 200-page range and seem to be so much more enjoyable. -mrl]
Sherlock Holmes Pastiches (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
After I mentioned that Alan Stockwell's Holmes pastiches were not in the first rank, someone asked me which ones I thought were. Here is my answer.
First, I tend to prefer short stories, maybe because that's what most of Doyle's stories were, and what seems the "right" length. (There were only four longer pieces, and A STUDY IN SCARLET and THE SIGN OF FOUR are closer to novellas than to novels.) However, recommending individual short stories can be an exercise in frustration for the reader in trying to find them, so I will stick to collections or anthologies. (Many of these are out of print, but that's why bookfinder.com was invented.)
Second, because I'm a science fiction fan, I do like Holmesian stories with a science fictional slant. So I've included some of those as secondary recommendations.
First, the novels. The acknowledged classics are Ellery Queen's A STUDY IN TERROR and Nicholas Meyer's THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION (and to a lesser extent its first sequel THE WEST END HORROR). I would also recommend Lloyd Biggle's THE QUALLSFORD INHERITANCE and L. B. Greenwood's THE CASE OF THE RALEIGH LEGACY as "traditional" pastiches. For those looking for something a little out of the ordinary, try Esther Friesner's DRUID'S BLOOD, William Kotzwinkle's TROUBLE IN BUGLAND, Eve Titus's "Basil" series, and Manly Wade Wellman--SHERLOCK HOLMES'S WAR OF THE WORLDS.
As far as single-author collections, the first place to start is with Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr's THE EXPLOITS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Next would be August Derleth's "Solar Pons" books. (Basil Copper then wrote *more* of these, which aren't quite up to Derleth's.)
In anthologies, the best are those edited by Marvin Kaye or Martin H. Greenberg (as primary editor). Good specialty anthologies would include Isaac Asimov's SHERLOCK HOLMES THROUGH TIME AND SPACE, and Mike Resnick's SHERLOCK HOLMES IN ORBIT. In general, the anthologies are all original stories, though the Asimov is a reprint anthology (hence of higher quality than most).
You'll notice that most of my selections are older books. There are a lot of pastiches coming out these days, but they are mostly "modern"--they abandon the Victorian sensibilities and go in the direction of more (often explicit) romance for Holmes, or more graphic descriptions of violent crimes, or more politically correct attitudes towards women or other races. While I have no complaint about the latter in real life, it doesn't work when one is trying for an evocation of Doyle's original stories.
So, do you have any additional suggestions? [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Most of the books that I receive as a judge for the Sidewise Awards are straight alternate history. (There are also some straight fantasies that publishers send, either out of confusion about the award, or the hope that we may decide they are alternate history after all.) But occasionally we get a non-fiction study of alternate histories. This year it was Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke's CLASSIC AND ICONOCLASTIC ALTERNATE HISTORY SCIENCE FICTION. Published by the Edwin Mellen Press, it consists of fifteen essays by various authors. With titles such as "Metafiction and the Gnostic Quest in 'The Man in the High Castle': Dick's Alternate History Classic After Four Decades", it is clear that these are not casual jottings, but works that could be described as "academic" and (one suspects) would probably count as publications needed in the "publish-or-perish" game. Which is not to say that they are not of interest value. (I found Robert Geary's essay on Ward Moore's BRING THE JUBILEE particularly valuable, though perhaps that is because two friends have just read this book independently of each other.) I will admit that some essays depended too much on literary theories that I was unfamiliar with. If you understand the concept that "the distinctive focus in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is on hermeneutic activity, on the process of interpretation itself and on questions about the interrelationship of reality, history, and text (or artifact)," then this may be the book for you. Except for one small detail--the book's list price is $119.95! Some research indicates that Mellen Press is an academic vanity press, which probably explains the price. (Many of the individual papers, I should point out, were presented at the more traditionally legitimate venue of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts in Florida.) Now I realize that if you bought some of today's alternate history series in hardcover, you'd be paying this much, but I still cannot recommend this. And I'm guessing even your public library won't have it. You might try an academic library, or there are used copies available for "only" about $85.
A standard alternate history is Larry Kirwan's LIVERPOOL FANTASY, in which the Beatles broke up in 1962 and went their separate ways and the National Front is now in control of Britain. If I cared more about the Beatles, I might have enjoyed it more. (I think part of it depended on recognizing the names of the Beatles' various girlfriends, offspring, and so on.) It has been well received by others more knowledgeable about the whole "Fab Four" scene than I am.
Jill Andresky Fraser's WHITE-COLLAR SWEATSHOP was published in 2001, and apparently written before the technology companies' meltdown. In a sense, then, she was writing about the good old days, when people had jobs they could be overworked and mistreated at. (Though she does describe a lot of layoffs--I think the difference is that many of the people in the book who are laid off find jobs at other companies where they will be equally overworked. Nowadays that doesn't seem to be happening.)
But the negative practices she describes aren't exactly new, though she seems to imply they came along in the 1980s. For example, she talks about one bank's "Adopt-an-ATM" program, where employees were asked to volunteer to clean up around one of the bank's ATMs near their home--on their own time and without pay. (The Department of Labor put the kibosh on this one.) But when I worked for Burroughs in 1973-1974, similar shenanigans went on. For example, they would require that I visit a customer four hours away (spending eight hours there) without an option to stay overnight, and would even dispute paying for breakfast. They would send employees to classes where accommodations were dormitory-style and you were assigned to room with a total stranger. During the gasoline crisis, they required that each of us do two trips a week to San Francisco to deliver or pick up card decks for compiling. (And when I tried to choose both trips on the same day, so that I needed to drive to work only once and could take the train the other four days, I think that was disallowed.) And the list goes on. My point is (in case you lost track) that a lot of the "sweatshop" conditions that Fraser decries as new are new merely in companies that had been reasonable before--but that this "reasonableness" was by no means universal. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It isn't the incompetent who destroy an organization. It is those who have achieved something and want to rest upon their achievements who are forever clogging things up. -- Charles Sorenson
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