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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/02/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 40
Table of Contents
Our Sponsor (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This issue is brought to you by Patrick O'Malley's Original Irish Gefilte Fish. Only North Sea whitefish goes into Patrick's mother's original gefilte fish recipe. Try O'Malley's, the most Irish name in gefilte fish. [-mrl]
Written on the Verde Canyon Wilderness Train (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I remember seeing a brochure for Busch Gardens, a theme park in Florida. I think what it showed was their recreation of an exotic street from Morocco. It looked reasonably believable in the brochure. But I realized that is not the effect that being on the street would really have. The problem is not with the street but with me. I don't look like I belong on a Moroccan street. That would not be so bad for me, but other tourists would see me on the street. Further if they let me on the street they would leave other tourists on the same street. Some of them would be just as boorish and inappropriate to the setting as I myself am. That would ruin the effect. But the truth is that most tourist destinations are not quite up to their reputations or my expectations.
I have been to what is reputed by most people to be the most beautiful American State. That would be Alaska. Now I will admit that I did not go far inland. I was on a cruise, which means I saw only the outer rim. And Alaska is very nice I admit. But it is not really the most beautiful area I have ever visited. Let me tell you my most vivid memory of Alaska. I think this incident I had on Glacier Bay in Alaska says it all.
Our guide pointed out what he called a "colorful" bird that was flying over our heads. I saw the colors were black, white, and two different shades of gray. That is what passes for colorful in Alaska. There are not a whole lot of bright colors on Glacier Bay. It is a view almost entirely in black, white, dull blue and brown. Maybe in some places there was some dark green. It is kind of downbeat, to tell the truth.
I actually have visited a region of the world that I think has Alaska beat. This is just my opinion, understand. These things are, of course, a matter of taste. But you can get better scenery than in Alaska. And it is in the United States.
I refer to "UCAN." That is my own acronym for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. I am convinced that UCAN is just about the most visually splendid area in the world. And I usually am not chauvinistic about the United States.
Incidentally, I am writing this on the Verde Canyon Railroad. This is a tourist railroad that rides the rim of Verde Canyon in Clarkdale, Arizona. Have you heard of Verde Canyon? I hadn't. But let me tell you something. It isn't really one of the major tourist attractions in the United States. But compare it to Australia's Ayres Rock. Everybody in Australia knows Ayres Rock. It is probably the greatest or second greatest natural wonder in Australia. But if by some strange occurrence Ayres Rock was not in the outback of Australia but in Verde Canyon nobody would consider it spectacular. In fact, it might even be too insignificant to have a name. (Sorry Australia.) Verde Canyon has some spectacular views. It has some incredible rock cliffs it has huge vistas that dwarf Ayres rock. And there is so much that is impressive in the UCAN that Verde Canyon still qualifies as a tourist secret. It has a lot of competition in the UCAN. Utah is probably the most spectacular of the four states but they each are different and impressive.
The railroad rides the south wall of the canyon. It rides out twenty miles, stops for fifteen minutes, and then returns on the same route. The trip is about 200 minutes of actual movement time. The cost of a regular adult ticket is a little less than $40. A first class ticket is about $20 more. The cost of a Broadway play ticket these days is for most plays $100 or more. If given the choice, Verde Canyon is a much better deal than a Broadway play.
If you are the kind of person who flies coach I guess my recommendation would be to go standard $40 adult fare. The extra $20 buys you a one soda or champagne and a mini buffet of five or six items including chicken wings, egg roll pieces, salad, and muffins. Also there are pretzels and cheese crackers. Additional soda is available at a reasonable $1 a can. Ice cream sandwiches just after the midpoint of the trip are available at the same price. I think the $40 ticket gives better price-performance.
If there are four in your group you sit in a plush couch but it has the drawback that it does not always put you in the best position to see the scenery from the car. (That may be because I am slightly under-height.) You can go to the open-air observation car and see the scenery much better. But then there is no advantage to going first class. The seats in the regular section are like on many trains: two seats, aisle, two seats. Wherever you are you get narration of what you are seeing over a public address system and like most public address systems on trains, it is not always possible to make out what is being said.
You either are or are not the kind of person who gets excited by beautiful and incredibly big geological scenery. But if you are you may not realize it until you actually see some. I always said "big deal" when I saw an issue of the magazine "Arizona Highways". Not expecting to be all that impressed Evelyn and I first visited Arizona and New Mexico just as a matter of completeness in visiting states. Within half and hour of getting out of the airport we were using phrases like "when we retire here." Most of our vacations since then have been seeing more of the West. Looking at photographs is not a good way to judge what is out here. Realize that photography is always a very poor representation of what you see in the Southwest. It is almost impossible to get the scale of the huge objects that you are seeing in a photograph and scale is an important part of the awe. This part of the world is genuinely awesome. I sincerely recommend this part of the world and the Verde Canyon Railroad is quite good also.
(A moment for journalistic honesty: What am I doing on this train? I gave permission to the Verde Canyon Railroad to publish some of my writing in one of their publications. To return the favor they gave me four first-class passes to ride their railroad. It wasn't necessary, but it was a nice gesture. They gave me the passes with no further obligation. I am writing this article not because I got a free ride but because I had a terrific afternoon. I think that I will probably come back when I am paying my own way. And I have been honest in this article. I have been candid about positives and negatives. I think people should spend just one vacation among the towering rock formations to see if they like it.) [-mrl]
Comments on Gigolo Joe Dances Because Gigolo Joes Dance (letters of comments by various people):
We got a lot of letters of comment on Mark's comments on evaluating films.
Carl Aveyard said, "Very well put. This happens when you read a particularly good novel (i.e., THE POSTMAN) and then see the film. What hits you most in the book often fails to appear as the main message in the film. There's probably an inverse correlation between the complexity of ideas in a novel and the ability to portray these in a commercially successful film."
When Mark said, "Actually I have found a small group of friends who all think the film [THE POSTMAN] deserved more respect," Bill Higgins responded simply, "Yo."
Mike Glyer says, however, "Not that I am insisting THE POSTMAN is a horrible film, but I was really disappointed in it. Symptomatic of its many weaknesses is that -- similar to the ending of the Robin Williams version of Hook -- the hero is not allowed to kill the villain even though there is a war on. How sophomoric."
And Dan Kimmel wrote, "I'll give you half credit. I agree with you on THE POSTMAN. The critics went in thinking it was WATERWORLD II and treated it accordingly. But on A.I. you're a voice in the wilderness. The film was an abomination. As I noted at the time, it was a project Kubrick put aside because he couldn't figure out how to make it work. Spielberg the proceeded to show that Kubrick was right."
However, Dave Anolick had a very different opinion, saying:
"Thanks for defending AI! It has been so long since I saw it, some of the details are fuzzy. For instance, I don't remember when Joe danced, but I agree with you it fits. I enjoyed the film for many reasons. It wasn't perfect, had some real slow moments, and as you said, the ending was both contrived and poignant."
"But the main theme, as you said, was the way robots were stuck between being an independent intelligence and yet being programmed to their specific purpose. This is more shown by Joe than David. David's intelligence had to be limited to the age he was programmed for. But Joe needed a higher level of AI to perform, ummm, adult activities. (A Gigolo has to be able to make high-order decisions in places beyond just the bed room.)"
"It seemed to me that robots were able to strive to be independent, yet were also limited and struggled with what is hardwired in their brain. Joe running to protect himself and helping David was actually able to succeed over-riding his programming to some extent. David with less intelligence was not able to do so."
"And this fits the human condition as well. Many people struggle their entire life with psychological issues that may be biologically or environmentally imprinted in who they are. Some overcome it, some can't and most are somewhere in-between the extremes."
"Boy, you made me want to rent the movie to see it again."
THE LADYKILLERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Coen Brothers try their hand at remaking one of the best of the 1950s Alec Guinness comedies from Ealing Studios. Their effort just wastes talent on too few new laughs in a version that has little to offer anyone who has seen the original. This makes two mediocre films in a row from the usually infallible brothers who need to return to their earlier anarchic wit. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Joel and Ethan Coen have been known for very innovative and creative films. With THE LADYKILLERS for the first time they are taking a pre-existing film and remaking it in their own style. Thus for the first time they are inviting comparison to another director's work on the same material. In this case it is to Alexander Mackendrick, who in 1955 made the original THE LADYKILLERS for Ealing studios. That version starred Alec Guinness and Herbert Lom, and featured an admittedly under-used Peter Sellers. Remaking a classic was a bad miscalculation from the usually intelligent Coen Brothers. Their remake suffers both by comparison to the original and by comparison to most of their other films. It simply is not as creative as most Coen Brother films and it lacks both the subtlety and the large laughs of the 1955 version.
Marva Munson (played by Irma P. Hall) is a black woman in the South who gets some odd ideas in her head as the local constabulary can attest. But now something strange really is happening in her house. Her new tenant, Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks doing a Colonel Sanders impression with an overbite), is not what he seems. Dorr, one of Hanks's first character roles, claims to be leading a quintet of musicians playing fine Renaissance devotional music. Actually it is just a front for the five to tunnel into the vault of a local riverboat casino and to rob it. Marva does not know what they are doing, but she has very strong ideas of right and wrong and she is not going to stand for any wicked shenanigans going on under her roof. But Professor Dorr has assembled some desperate men including the General (Tzi Ma), who looks like a North Vietnamese commandant, Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a foul-mouthed hip-hopper, and would-be explosives expert Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) who just can't get anything done right. Their efforts are hamstrung their own foolishness but even more by Marva's antics. In the earlier film little Katie Johnson seems too demure and harmless to get in anybody's way, and that was where the humor came from. Irma P. Hall is a big forceful woman who does gets angry and violent and that robs the irony from much of the humor.
The film is at its funniest showing why the thugs turned to crime. The General shows he is tough foiling a robbery at his doughnut shop. Pancake is shooting a dog food ad when things go hilariously wrong. There is a funny bit as Lump (Ryan Hurst) plays football and we get a Lump's eye view of the action. At this point the film seems to be working well, but it quickly bogs down. The Coens got kudos for the use of the music in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and they try to repeat the trick by flooding THE LADYKILLERS with church gospel music. They devote too much of the film to devotional music. What the film needs is less gospel and more funny gags. What the story did not need is a slapstick sequence involving one character flying through the air and it did not need a portrait that changes expression from scene to scene. There are simply gags that have been done before and were not really funny then. It seems the Coen Brothers' famous creativity is running out of steam.
Hopefully the Coens have learned that they can do better writing their own material than remaking someone else's. Their remake seems so much less detailed and textured than the Ealing film, and far less enjoyable. If they do remake they should choose material they really can improve upon, instead of just updating. I rate the remake of THE LADYKILLERS a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. [-mrl]
CALLAHAN'S SECRET by Spider Robinson (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I'm still on the short story kick, although from a different angle this time. For instance, you may wonder why I'm reviewing a book published in 1986, when I usually review more recent works. It goes like this.
Some of you may know that I am out of work, and have been since November. While I can always use a good laugh, there are times when I really need a pick-me-up. So, in looking through my to-read stack, I see Spider Robinson's latest Callahan novel, CALLAHAN'S CON. I attended a reading by Spider at Torcon3 last year, and he read from the first chapter. I was laughing so hard I was nearly in tears. I know that part of this is the delivery of the material, but still, it *was* funny. So anyway, I thought to my self that this would be a good time to read CALLAHAN'S CON.
I started looking around, and realized that I hadn't read a whole bunch of Callahan books. As a matter of fact, the last one that I did read was TIME TRAVELLERS STRICTLY CASH. Sheesh. It turns out that I had most of the books in the series in the house, so I went back to pick up the next one, CALLAHAN'S SECRET.
As an aside - you may be asking yourself if I'm going to read every last Callahan book before I get to CALLAHAN'S CON. Well, yes I am. At least those that I have in the house. There are one or two missing, so I may go to the library and get those. So you're going to have to put up with a bunch of Callahan reviews before I get to the Con, although I won't be reading them straight through. So relax. :-)
The original Callahan stories were sold to the magazines back in the 70s and 80s. For the uninitiated, Callahan's Place is, according to the back cover, "the saloon on the edge of time and space". The place is frequented by humans and aliens, talking dogs, vampires, telepaths, you name it. And every one of them has a story to tell, a problem to be solved, and love to share.
And puns. And riddles. And Tall Tales.
The whole thing is very irreverent, funny, touching, and moving. I'm not sure that you can really call this stuff science fiction, although it does what some of the best SF does, which is use science fictional elements to talk about the human condition. Added on top of that, Spider manages to make it funny, and comedic SF is something hard to do.
The stories - oh yeah, forgot about them. Probably the best story in the collection is "The Mick of Time". Mickey Finn is an alien that landed here on earth several years ago to scout the planet for a forthcoming invasion by it's Masters, nicknamed the Cockroaches in the first story in the book, "The Blacksmith's Tale". Contrary to all belief, the Masters are on their way to find out what happened to Finn and to take over the planet. While it's a typical old time SF plot, the real story here is how the regulars, new and old, of Callahan's Place band together to deal with the invasion of the Cockroaches. We also find out at least three of Callahan's Secrets in this tale as well. "Pyotr's Story" tells a tale of a vampire with an unusual problem - one that the vampire feeds by helping out patrons of Callahan's. "Involuntary Man's Laughter" (I told you there were puns in here) shows how the patrons of Callahans can use modern (for 1986, anyway) technology to deal with a very bizarre problem.
This is great, light, easy, yet thought provoking reading. I found myself being stared at by people on the train that I take to downtown Chicago for some IT training when I unashamedly laughed out loud (a lot) reading this book. I didn't care. It's good, it's funny, and it put me in a better mood. Next up will be CALLAHAN'S LADY, followed by a review of a children's SF/fantasy/baseball novel that my son gave me for my birthday last week. Why that one? Heck - some of you may have kids out there that you want to buy a book for. Stay tuned. [-jak]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our science fiction discussion group got tired of reading classics chosen primarily because the library system had many copies, and wanted to read a relatively recent book, preferably a Hugo winner. Because all the libraries in the system seem to "weed" their collections with a rather heavy hand, there weren't any "in stock," but the person organizing the reading groups is also the person in charge of science fiction acquisitions and he said that he could certainly justify buying half a dozen copies of a mass-market edition of a Hugo-winning book. (It's about the price of one hardcover, and certainly cheaper than the audiotape version of a recent Robert Jordan that the library seems to have acquired.) And a half a dozen copies would be sufficient--the group is small and some of us would have the book already anyway. So we picked Vernor Vinge's A FIRE UPON THE DEEP as being the hard science fiction that people wanted (as opposed to soft science fiction like FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON) or fantasy.
The book met with mixed reactions. One person gave up after a hundred pages because she found Vinge's technique of throwing out ideas (and words) without explaining them very confusing. Another person agreed that Vinge did this, and felt it indicated a disregard for his readers, but he enjoyed as much of the book as he could read before the meeting and hoped to finish it at some point in the future. I thought the technique, rather than showing a *disregard* for the readers, showed that Vinge expected his readers would be able (and willing) to work to figure out the details.
One interesting observation made was that Vinge threw a lot of different ideas into A FIRE UPON THE DEEP: the nature of the Flensers, the concept of the Slow Zone, the structure of interstellar trade, and so on. This was like Robert J. Sawyer did in a previous discussion book, CALCULATING GOD. But one person said that while in CALCULATING GOD it just seems like a jumble of ideas thrown together, in A FIRE UPON THE DEEP it appears as a well-structured tapestry.
The "original" reading group has a policy of choosing books that are three hundred pages or less. The other groups (mystery and science fiction) have not adopted this policy, but given that I was the only one to finish this six-hundred-page book, we will probably try to stick to something a bit shorter in the future. Unfortunately, this probably rules out most of the recent Hugo nominees.
I also read Rex Stout's lost race novel, UNDER THE ANDES, which is available on-line. It was not really a classic of its genre, but rather pretty much a potboiler of cliches.
Ken Follett's historical novel THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH is set in twelfth century England during the time of the wars between Stephen and Maud and revolves around the building of the cathedral at Kingsbridge. If you're into architecture and architectural history (particularly of Gothic cathedrals), you'll almost definitely enjoy this book. (I'm sure someone somewhere has described it as "historical fiction with rivets.") There's also the requisite amount of love, sex, violence, and so on. My one objection might be that the characters seem to be like Harry Turtledove's Basilos (in his "Agent of Byzantium" stories)--they appear to invent a major new commercial concept (e.g., dealing in wool futures, becoming an intermediate trader, etc.) every few weeks. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Academia forcibly tells you about all the great men and revolutionaries, and rebels, especially the rebels, who have changed the world for the better. But they wouldn't notice one were he standing right in front of them. -- Eli Khamorov
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