MT VOID 03/26/04 (Vol. 22, Number 39)

MT VOID 03/26/04 (Vol. 22, Number 39)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/26/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 39

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Gigolo Joe Dances Because Gigolo Joes Dance (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

For many years I have been talking about science fiction films at science fiction conventions. Over and over I hear the same complaints. People ask why science fiction films cannot have sophisticated ideas the way science fiction books do. I think there are several answers to that question, but one I want to concentrate on this week. People are victims of their own expectations. They do not expect to find an intelligent idea in a science fiction film, so they do not see it when it is there. The idea goes right over the head of the much of the audience. It is like complaining that animated films could be telling sophisticated adult stories, but at the same time assuming every animated film is a children's film.

I would like to give two examples of science fiction films that were widely reviled as bad and self-indulgent Hollywood product that actually had interesting ideas behind them. The public as a whole just missed the ideas by not expecting to find them. The films are THE POSTMAN and A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

Most people who saw THE POSTMAN apparently thought the film was intended to create heroes out of mailmen or some stupid thing like that. It was thought by many to be a story of mailmen saving the world and most people saw little more than that in the film. THE POSTMAN is really all about the irony that the right lie at the right time can do more good than strict adherence to the truth. In this film you have a post-holocaust society in which among the survivors almost everybody wants the world to heal itself. People are ready for civilization to return. A con-man who needs a good meal puts on a mailman's uniform and claims to have been sent from a newly re-established United States Government. His motive is to con a town into giving him a little free food. He finds, however, that the lie that civilization has returned is so powerful and seductive that people in the society just start believing it and behaving as if it were true. That it turns out is really all it takes to bring back civilization. But it would not have come without the lie and people willing to believe the lie. It is the lies and the myths that keep society together and allow it to heal. It is a complex moral situation and a very paradoxical story. THE POSTMAN may not be great, but it is at the very least a good piece of science fiction. David Brin, who knew what his novel was saying, saw the film as saying the same thing and doing it well. There are few people who respect the film, but Brin is one. (Actually I have found a small group of friends who all think the film deserved more respect.)

The other film I want to defend, though it too may be a lost cause, is A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. Nearly everybody disliked this film too. At a science fiction convention one of the panelists was talking about how it was about a robot who wanted to be a real boy. No doubt he combined the Pinocchio symbolism in the film and Data from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and came to that conclusion. It is, however, a complete misreading of the film. In A.I. you are explicitly told what David, the robot, wants. He wants to love the person he was imprinted on. Being a robot his only goal is the one he was programmed to have.

I felt watching the film the first time that the director was trying to say something profound that I was not quite sure I was understanding. Ironically, it was a complaint about the film by Roger Ebert that crystallized the whole film and showed me what it was all about. (I think. The comment is not in Ebert's final Internet review, but I am reasonably sure it came from an earlier review.) Ebert complained about a scene from the film. The dancing pleasure-bot Gigolo Joe was running from the police who thought he had killed a customer. Even while he was running Gigolo Joe takes time to stop and dance. Why would he? The review said that did not make sense.

I think Ebert was very near to putting his finger on the whole point of the film there and still missed it. Gigolo Joe dances BECAUSE Gigolo Joes dance. That's what they do. There may no longer a reason for Gigolo Joe to dance, but that only adds to the pathos. Gigolo Joe will continue to dance even if there is no purpose. David will continue to love his "mother" even after that makes no sense for him. It will continue even after he has lost her forever. Or, as the script contrives, forever less a single day, which may be even more poignant. For the rest of David's very long life he is doomed to live in frustration. He cannot abandon this goal and go on with his life. In no way is that a silly, sappy, children's story.

These two films went under-appreciated, I think, because few people were expecting them to be good. Each film has a powerful idea behind it. I think if we want some sophistication in our science fiction films we have to get better at recognizing it when it is there. [-mrl]

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is quite probably the best new science fiction film I have seen since MINORITY REPORT and well before. A device allows for the removal of painful memories by erasing them. The hitch is that the memories must be opened and partially relived as they are being erased. Charlie Kaufman's third script is demanding, but it is delightfully engaging, intelligent, and even profound. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10. SPOILER WARNING: Some people seem to be missing the point of the film. I will explain the concept of what I saw. This reveals no more than other reviews or what the trailer reveals, but even that might harm the viewer's enjoyment.

It seems these days that Philip K. Dick has eaten the top end of science fiction films. Just about all the best science fiction films seem to be based entirely, in part, or implicitly on ideas from Dick's writing. ETERNAL SUNSHINE is a film that does more than borrow Dick's reality-bending ideas, it tells a story that has center and heart. It is also a film that has pathos and chuckles. And it has what Martin Gardner would call the "Aha!" experience. This is a film that does what the best science fiction does. It allows us better understand the human experience by putting it on a lab table and dissecting it in ways we could never do without science fiction. If the viewer can follow what is going on, and not all viewers will be able to, this is a real gem of a movie.

Picture Frank Sinatra. You have just pulled a memory from your head and visualized it, seeing it not exactly as you first saw it, but as a close facsimile. Suppose your memories of Frank Sinatra cause you pain. Dr. Mierzwiak (played by Tom Wilkinson) has a machine that can locate those memories, open them up, and erase them. But in opening them up the patient relives the memory at least partially until it is completely erased. Years of memories can relived in a single night, each for the last time.

The memories that Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) finds and the being reminded of his reasons for having his memories erased give insight into his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) and also more generally into human behavior. And there are fascinating visuals of him reliving his memories at the instant those memories are deconstructed.

Plot. Yes, I should tell what the plot is. Joel wakes up one morning dissatisfied with his life. On a whim he skips work and takes a train to the beach at Montauk. There he meets Clementine, who attracts him and who seems playfully interested in him. She is an off-beat kook, but "kook" is just to his taste at the moment.

Some time later their relationship has run its course and the good time he had with her is just a painful memory. But Dr. Mierzwiak is an expert on removing painful memories. For a fee he has his two (indifferent) assistants (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) go to Joel's apartment one night and put a big weird helmet on Joel's head to replay and erase Joel's memories of Clementine. This starts Joel's strange odyssey through his memories, reliving each for the last time. Meanwhile the less than positive attitudes of the two assistants causes problems for the sleeping Joel and for the awakened Dr. Mierzwiak.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's first film was the creative BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. His second film was the nearly as good ADAPTATION. Now he is showing that he has not yet reached his peak. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is the best script by a surprising margin. The director is Michel Gondry, but for once it is the screenwriter who is getting the attention. And that is only fair. Hopefully this is a movie that will show the film industry that good writing can do more for a film than good special effects. I rate ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. [-mrl]

SPARTAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Mamet could not put both intelligence and action in this political thriller and gave the latter priority. Val Kilmer is an anti-terrorist operative called in on the kidnapping of an important woman. The story has some interesting twists. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

This is a political action thriller with the accent on action and not intelligence. Not that David Mamet would ever give us a stupid film, but the action leaves insufficient time to fill out the plot. SPARTAN is no MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. It is a film of shoot-outs and sudden violence. Mamet, who wrote and directed SPARTAN, has done more intelligent films, but the action somewhat gets in the way. The pacing is quick and the dialog is crisply in Mamet's style.

Val Kilmer plays Robert Scott who trains military soldiers for what is probably counter-terrorist actions. He teaches people to be lethal and to sweat even the smallest details. Suddenly Scott is called in on the kidnapping of a nationally-known Harvard student.

A lot of people seem very concerned about this particular crime, but it takes a while for the audience to know why. Mamet carefully avoids the traditional expository dialog that would explain what is going on but which is probably not realistic. It is the audience's responsibility to get up to speed. Mamet's strategy in to throw the viewer in the middle of an unfamiliar situation and to make the us work to understand what has happened. His point may be that while some films work hard to create puzzles for the viewer, just placing the viewer in the middle of an unfamiliar situation and letting him figure out what is going on is puzzle enough. In his previous films, like THE SPANISH PRISONER, he has intentionally set up tricks on his audience. He does that much less in SPARTAN, which like THE UNTOUCHABLES is more a straight action film. The puzzle here is figuring out what is happening, who everybody is, and what each person's open and hidden agendae are.

It has been noted that Mamet likes to do stories of professional men on the job. He dramatizes how they talk and how they relate to each other under stress. Usually he has a standard set of actors several of which will be in each film. There is no role for Rebecca Pidgeon this time around and William H. Macy only lurks around in the background of scenes without even a line to speak until late in the film. Incidentally, Said Taghmaoui has a role as a low-life. I don't know who this actor is, and I have seen him only once before as an eloquent and very angry Iraqi in THREE KINGS. But he does make a strong impression and when he is on the screen he IS the movie.

Listening to Mamet's dialog is like watching ping-pong. In ping- pong the ball goes back and forth, spending little time on either side of the net, but is always on one side or the other. In Mamet dialog, A says something terse and clipped, then B does, then A does. Nobody talks over anyone else. It was less obvious in SPARTAN, but the dialog is stylized.

Much of what the film is about is the amoral nature of modern power politics. The film overstates its message against politicians much as it overstates the violence. Mamet wants to sensationalize and shock a little. It makes for a decent lower- budget action film, but it is does not show the full intelligence we have come to expect from Mamet. I rate SPARTAN a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]

CONQUEROR FANTASTIC edited by Pamela Sargent (DAW, 2003, 320pp, ISBN 0-756-40191-7) (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):

When one gets an anthology titled CONQUEROR FANTASTIC these days, and it is described as "thirteen original 'what if' tales about famous, infamous, or legendary figures, and the paths their lives--and the world--might have taken," one expects alternate histories. In the case of Pamela Sargent's anthology, one would be wrong.

Oh, there are a couple of alternate history stories here. Barry N. Malzberg & Bill Pronzini's "Intensified Transmogrification" has a more extreme Lyndon Johnson. Janeen Webb gives Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander a different end in "The Lion Hunt," although the fact that the story ends with the change, rather than starting with it, makes the alternate history aspect almost moot. Only Ian Watson's "An Appeal to Adolf" gives us a relatively fully realized alternate history, in which heavier-than-air flight is impossible and Hitler has a different plan for invading England.

The remaining stories seem to fall into two categories: straight fantasy or unreadable. Michelle West's tale of Alexander ("To the Gods Their Due"), George Alec Effinger's story of Saladin ("Walking Gods"), and Pamela Sargent's Genghis Khan story ("Spirit Brother") are fantasies involving gods or spirits. James Morrow's "Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole" has neither gods nor spirits, but "heuristic healing" and "kinetotherapy" to help his characters try to defeat cancer (though Genghis Khan has a bit part as well). Stephen Dedman's "Twilight of Idols" is closer to alternate history, but is secret history rather than alternate history. The same seems to be true of Jack Dann's "Good Deeds" (with Robert Kennedy). George Zebrowski's "Nappy" has alternate virtual realities, and Kij Johnson's The Empress Jingu Fishes" and Michaela Roessner's "Del Norte" seem barely fantasy at all.

In the unreadable category (for me) was Paul Di Filippo's "Observable Things," written in the style of H. P. Lovecraft crossed with Robert E. Howard, and featuring the latter's Solomon Kane. People who have a greater appreciation of those authors would probably enjoy this more.

While I thought a few of the stories worthwhile (the Dedman, Morrow, Watson, and Malzberg & Prozini), on the whole I found this anthology a disappointment, both from an alternate history standpoint and from a broader context of it as just fantasy. (I am somewhat curious how Effinger managed to have a new story in it, as he died in early 2002.) [-ecl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

I haven't read many of Kim Newman's novels, but I find his short fiction excellent, and UNFORGIVEABLE STORIES has several that are first-rate. But while most of my favorites are not stand-alone", it's not in the usual way of being part of an author's series. Rather, they build and develop on classics or common tropes. So, for example, in order to appreciate "Further Developments in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," some familiarity with the original story is a prerequisite. (The movie versions are not enough, because they change the events around considerably, and none is at all accurate to the book. For example, in the book Hyde is introduced before Jekyll, and you don't actually find out what is going on until after Jekyll is dead.)

Another story I liked was "Completist Heaven." You have a much better chance of liking this story if you recognize that "Frankenstein Meets the She-Wolf of the SS" is 1) not a real movie, and 2) a conflation of two titles for movies that are real. A knowledge of all the character actors in the 1940s Universal horror films also helps. "Quetzelcon" requires a familiarity with both Aztec mythology and science fiction conventions. There are other stories which require little if any arcane knowledge; they're good too.

Leonard Fetzer's PRE-REVOLUTIONARY SCIENCE FICTION: AN ANTHOLOGY is an anthology of early Russian science fiction stories. However, I don't know if they're all utopian stories because that's all Russians wrote, or because that's what interested Fetzer. In any case, this is probably only of interest to people interested in that sub-genre, and at a similar level (and style) to Edward Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD.

As I noted a few weeks ago, trying to come up with ways to distinguish new Sherlock Holmes anthologies from all those that have come before is getting harder, and new twists are getting more convoluted. Michael Kurland's MY SHERLOCK HOLMES takes the approach of having the stories told by different viewpoint characters: Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, Moriarty, Billy the Page Boy, .... My problem with this is that it is not just the plot of the Holmes stories that I like, it is the characters, the atmosphere, and the style. When you have a different narrator, all of these change. (There are whole web sites devoted to retelling "The Lord of the Rings", for example, in different author's styles. The Raymond Chandler version is very different from the Dr. Seuss version. See for lots more.) So Billy the Page Boy writes in a different style from Watson, sees the characters differently, and certainly see Victorian London differently than a retired Army surgeon, and very little Holmsian is left.

I finished Robert J. Sawyer's "Neanderthal Parallax" series with his book HYBRIDS, and found that I thought it the weakest of the three, with Sawyer getting up on a soapbox about a lot of things: Americans' supposed love of guns, selective breeding, rape, male versus female psychology, and so on. There was also what might truly be called a deus ex machina about religion, the human brain, and the earth's magnetic field which all just happens to come to a climax at a few minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve in Times Square. This has always been my problem with Sawyer's books--he seems to put everything in, and doesn't spend enough time to develop a lot of it sufficiently. Somehow after working through three books, I was very dissatisfied with the resolution. (This, of course, is another problem with a multi-volume work. If at the end a reader doesn't like it, the reader is going to be even more annoyed at having spent so much time over such a long period to read it.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           To educate a man in mind, and not in morals, 
           is to educate a menace to society.
                                          -- Theodore Roosevelt

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