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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/30/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 5
Table of Contents
The first three MT VOIDs sent out in July had an incorrect volume number (22 instead of 23). This would have been corrected sooner, but we were on an extended trip. The latter also explains why the next couple of issues will be longer than usual--we're playing catch-up. And while I'm at it, thanks to Steve Goldsmith and Rob Mitchell, who saw to it that the MT VOIDs did go out while we were away. [-ecl]
Unsolicited Testimonials (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Kidding aside. I occasionally complain about various products in these columns. But I am going to be a little less impudent, which is, I guess, a little more pudent. In the past I have been positive on the publisher Carroll and Graf, and on the Verde Canyon Tourist Railroad, but have knocked things like various cheese products and whatever else came to mind that seemed like a bad idea. A while back I complained about a Gillette three-blade razor called a "Mach 3." I wish to modify that comment for the sake of honesty. I think the cartridges may be over-priced, but they genuinely are surprisingly comfortable to use. The multi-blade concept does seem to work in spite of my jests. I think I will use the one sample they sent in the mail and then go back to my much less comfortable but cheap blade. Still, when you are holding a sharp blade to your own throat, that little bit of extra comfort can be very ... well ... comforting.
I thought that was worth noting to be honest. [-mrl]
The Second Highest Priority (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There are those who will consider this article to be in bad taste. Then again I am not asking anyone to lick it. Those of a nervous disposition can quit reading here. In fact, it is no coincidence that I am running this article in late summer when many of our readers may not be around to read it. Also, people's distaste for the article may well be just what the article is about.
I explained to a co-worker at Bell Laboratories the difference between something that is merely highly visible and something that is a truly high priority. A lot of tasks we had at Bell were very visible to management but were less important to the company than other tasks which got no attention at all. No, I was not complaining that my job was not visible enough. In some ways it was too visible. Visibility is only useful if you want to be seen. A duck in a shooting gallery does not want visibility.
Some of the things that are of the highest priority are completely invisible. We rarely even think about it, but what is everybody's second highest priority? Their highest priority is self- preservation, assuming they are not suicidal. But after self- preservation what is the next highest priority? Shall I tell you? There is one activity that people will do rather than eating? It has a higher priority than sleeping, and it frequently takes precedence over working. It has a higher priority even than sex. I actually saw a friend walk out of a LORD OF THE RINGS movie he had been looking forward to because of this priority. All of these activities will get put aside in favor of this one activity.
If you don't have it yet let me ask you a related question. What one room do just about all buildings have in common? A restaurant will have this type of room, a school, a church, a library, a funeral parlor, just about every building larger than a shed will have a room devoted to this activity. I saw a stunt on the old Candid Camera show where they took an apartment and walled off this one room where this activity takes place. They then tried to rent out the apartment that did not have this room and then they filmed people's startled reactions. Of course nobody would rent an apartment that does not have this one small room.
Why does this one activity get so little attention from us in spite of the high priority? Well, it is not a very social action. There is not a lot of human drama that happens during this activity. In fact, most people's life is really on hold when they partake of this action. It is sort of like the mysterious scene in STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE. In that two characters are having a light saber battle that is going great light-sabers and suddenly both fighters stop and just wait. The fight is on hold. It is never explained why. Except for the fact that we understand the halt, the unnamed activity has much the same effect on our lives.
In spite of the fact that everybody does it rarely is mentioned in our literature. You could read the entire works of Jane Austen without finding a single reference to this activity. The works of Shakespeare are different, of course. Only recently have films included scenes of this activity and twenty-to-one such scenes overwhelmingly involve males.
What is going on here is humanity's dirty little open secret. We like to think of ourselves as personalities floating on air. We are more than just animals, but we pretend we are not basically animals that function like all animals do. Most things that seem to be insults to human dignity seem to be associated with pointing out we have animal bodies, in spite of the fact that we all do. The things that elevate our spirit deal with our higher natures, and not our animal bodies. This is why Jane Austin has no mention of the activity. She does not like to talk about the animal nature of her characters. They are actually animals running around, but Austin does not like to talk about that. Shakespeare is much earthier and much more accepting of his characters' animal nature. Shakespeare is a realist in ways that Jane Austin could never allow herself to be.
The things that embarrass us seem to be things that remind us we have animal bodies. The only major spectator activity which calls attention to the physical human body is athletics. (Well, I suppose there is also pornography. This is a disrespected genre of art because it focuses on the animal and actually exploits the fact that we are animal.) But this one type of activity gets thought of much less because it is a purely animal act. It reminds us of the truth that we are really animals running around with pretensions of being something much more.
That is why I went through this whole article without ever saying what I was talking about. But we all know what it is. (Nod, nod, wink, wink.) [-mrl]
I, ROBOT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In 2035 there is a murder at U.S. Robotics and a robophobic policeman, played by Will Smith, believes robots are responsible. Mixing animation and live action nearly seamlessly, I, ROBOT turns Isaac Asimov's robot world into the backdrop for a prosaic summer action film. It is not a film Asimov would have enjoyed much. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
Isaac Asimov wrote about psychohistory, which implied that there were certain tides of history that could not be avoided. Had he lived long enough he might have extended it to psychocinematics which would include a theory that a summer science fiction film in the 21st century might even start with ideas from his stories, but eventually the forces of the box-office would make it a mindless action film. That seems to be what happened with I, ROBOT. In spite of frequent references to Asimov's laws of robotics, this is a rather prosaic story of a conspiracy involving robots. The robots' behavior is examined and analyzed in terms of the three laws, but you could analyze a human slave's actions in much the same way. In the end the actions of the robots is sort of rationalized in terms of the three laws, but not very convincingly.
We are in Chicago in the year 2035. Del Spooner (played by Will Smith) is a stereotypical wisecracking good cop, but one with a bad attitude when it comes to robots. The reason why he hates robots is eventually revealed as being both well-intentioned and totally wrong-headed. But hate them he does though he is a good friend of one of their prime inventors, Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) of the U.S. Robotics Corporation. Lanning commits suicide by throwing himself through an unbreakable glass window and his less than objective friend comes in to investigate. The investigation leads Spooner to work with robot psychologist Susan Calvin (attractive Bridget Moyahan). Side note: in the book Calvin is plain looking but is the brilliant Mother of Robotics. In this film no mention is made of her seminal role in the development of robotics. Instead she is reduced to the role of corporate flunky.
I knew Isaac Asimov a little (as did most people in Massachusetts science fiction fandom in the 1960s). I am reasonably confident that if he had seen this film claiming to be based on his writing he would have cut it to pieces with a few quick but well-chosen verbal barbs. The film is really a travesty on his style of writing. He might have appreciated the rationalization that what is happening in the film is arguably consistent with the laws of robotics. But his heroes use brains and not brawn.
Spooner is just not a hero in Asimov's style. Like a James Bond he has an uncanny ability to get out of tight situations that would look ridiculous in a serious film. And he does it in ways that as Asimov would point out contravene physics. The cars are futuristic with spherical wheels that go in any direction, but even so, Spooner's control of these cars verges on the supernatural. It is a sign of poor scriptwriting to make the main character too unrealistically skillful and Spooner is almost a superhero. Fans of CSI will look on in horror as Spooner vandalizes a crime scene under investigation, further undermining the believability of the action. It is a little surprising that director Alex Proyas, who previously directed DARK CITY, would not have held out for a better and less cliched script from Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman.
Much of what we see is simply impossible by the laws of physics, but then the filmmakers proudly point to the high degree of CGI in this film. I, ROBOT is one more film that blurs the distinction between live-action and animation. It is in large part an animated film with live-action elements and a realistic animation style. Like Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the major robots are actually played by real actors with images replaced by computer.
It is something of a surprise after years of discussion of how properly to do Asimov's world and of a never-produced script by Harlan Ellison, that when the first major film is made of the I, ROBOT stories, it is so mundane an effort. I, ROBOT is being handled as if it is a major film event. A lot of attention may have been lavished on the production, but the script keeps the film a non-memorable, strictly second-rate production. It dumbs down Asimov and replaces the thought with special effects. I rate it 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
CHILDHOOD'S END (copyright 1953, Ballantine Books, Library of Congress Catalogue Number 53-10419, $0.75, 218pp, paperback) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Some things are better left undone.
Evelyn asked me if I would review the retro-Hugo nominated novels, and I thought I'd give it a shot. I hadn't read some of these novels since I was a kid, and some of them, I'd discovered, I'd never read at all. So, when I was making the decision as to which one to pick up, I thought I'd start with CHILDHOOD'S END. It was an all-time favorite of mine. Do you remember the question "what's the Golden Age of Science Fiction"? The debate ensues: 1940s, 1950s, or whatever your favorite era is. And then the true answer comes out: 12. The golden age for of SF for anyone is when they are 12. That's when the reader is most impressionable, and when the sense of wonder that is generated by a novel like CHILDHOOD'S END is absolutely astounding.
In looking at the printing history inside the book, I found that I had a copy (that I remember buying new at the time) that was part of the 18th(!!!!) printing, dated June 1971. I was 12.
The book doesn't hold up that well for me. The basic storyline of the Overlords that resemble devils coming to earth to nurture humanity through its final 150 years for some unrevealed (until the end, anyway) and unknown end was fine enough. I had actually forgotten much of the story, so some of it was fresh. But it still seemed a bit padded, almost quaint. Clarke spends much of the novel making predictions of how things would be once we were living in a nearly utopian state, with all war, hatred, and poverty relegated to the scrap heap. Some of the predictions are not too far from the truth, and some are so far off it's laughable. But to be fair, it's tough to make predictions about the 21st century in 1953 and have them hold up in the 21st century itself. It really is tough to see the internet and music CDs coming, you know?
The sense of wonder stuff, the description of what stowaway Jan Rodricks sees out in the galaxy, seemed to drag on and be, well, boring. I don't know why that is--maybe I'm just too old and jaded. I just found myself skimming all that, and I know that's the kind of stuff that turned me on to the genre.
I wish I hadn't reread the book. I liked my memories of it better. Still, it was nice to reminisce for a little while. But sometimes you just can't go back. [-jak]
FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury (copyright 1953, Ballantine Del Rey Books, 50th Anniversary Edition, ISBN 0-345-34296-8, 165pp, $6.99, paperback) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
You know, up until now I'd never read this Bradbury classic. Oh, I knew about it, saw snippets of the movie, and always thought that I needed to get around to reading it one day. I'm glad I did, certainly, because I thought it was a terrific book. But I have this issue with the novel being considered as science fiction.
Sure, it has the trappings of the genre, probably more so than a lot of the dreck that passes for SF these days, but its strength is not in the sfnal stuff. The small amount of sfnal stuff is just window dressing for the terrific story that Bradbury tells us about censorship, rebellion, and the future. And to top it off, it holds up extremely well, fifty years after its publication.
Most of you are familiar with the tale, the title of which comes from the fact that paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Guy Montag, the central character of the story, is a fireman, but not a fireman as we know them today. No, firemen in Bradbury's tale *set* fires-- specifically, they set books on fire. Montag enjoys his job until he meets Clarisse, a young neighbor who has a mind of her own and who opens Montag's eyes to the fact that there is something better out there than what he is experiencing. After his meeting with Clarisse he becomes fascinated with the thought of reading books, and in fact has several stashed away in his house that he takes down, shows to his wife Mildred, and begins reading. He is sent further down the road to "ruin" by Professor Faber, whom he met in the past and who is one of the dissenters, one of the believers in books. Faber tries to help him with a scheme to revolt against the other firemen--a scheme that backfires when Montag's wife reports him to Fire Chief Beatty, who makes Montag set fire to his own books and house.
As I said earlier, the strength of this novel is its tale of censorship and rebellion. It holds up well because what led to book burning in the novel seems to be the path that society today is treading down. It is quite simply a wonderful novel.
There's one other thing about this book that makes it absolutely fantastic. The book proves that you don't need a 600-page doorstop to tell a terrific tale. This story is told in a mere 165 pages. Someone needs to tell modern publishers, editors, and writers that more is not necessarily better, no matter how much it jacks up the cost and increases profits. [-jak]
TWO BROTHERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Jean-Jacques Annaud who directed THE BEAR returns to the wild for the story of two sibling tigers separated as the result of an incursion of humans into their territory. As with THE BEAR much of the plot is carried by animal photography, though this film has considerably more human plot. This is a good family film, not quite up to the standard of the first film, but a moving experience. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
In 1988 Jean-Jacques Annaud made what may well be the best live-action animal film ever made, THE BEAR. It follows a young bear from the accidental death of his mother. The cub befriends a very large grizzly and is soon involved in the grizzly's battle with human hunters. This film is made with a minimum of dialog of any kind. What little human talk there is does not advance the plot. In the commentary on the DVD for THE BEAR, Annaud said essentially that he made that film for the sheer joy of working out in the wild with animals. It would be hard for him to match that film, but fifteen years later he has returned to the nature adventure with a story of two tiger siblings separated by human interference in their lives.
In a year of lots of comic-book action films this film comes like a breath of fresh air. There is a danger that this live-action film about animals will be pigeonholed as a children's film. This is a film that children should enjoy yet the human characters are three-dimensional. The film develops them and combines good and bad aspects in many of the humans. There is better characterization than in many of the film's bigger budget competition this summer.
The time may be something like the 1930s and the setting is French Indochina. (The movie was actually filmed in Cambodia and Thailand.) The plot is simple. The real power in government seems to be from the French. Meanwhile two sibling tiger cubs live in the wild until humans come along and upset their serenity. The leader of the humans is English game- and historical-artifact-hunter Aidan McRory (played by Guy Pearce). The hunters see the forest as ripe for plunder of wildlife and antiquities. McRory has little respect for the things he steals, or for the local government.
Back in the nature plot, the mother tiger takes her two cubs into hiding while their father confronts the humans and is killed in the process. Eventually the mother too is shot and the two cubs are captured by the hunters. One of the cubs is adopted as a family pet (now there's a disaster waiting to happen) and the other cub is given to a circus. Each cub grows to adulthood in captivity and the two stories will again converge.
THE BEAR was nearly entirely a visual film. The dialog is not used to advance the plot and in fact for most of the film there are no humans on the screen. That does not make the story any less compelling. If anything it holds the viewer's attention on the screen in a way that most sound films do not. TWO BROTHERS has considerably more dialog than THE BEAR and spends much more time with the humans. That allows for richer characters among the humans, but there is not as much nature photography and the story it tells. Each film has the same anti-hunting message. (Please note on this issue I am officially unbiased. In my review of THE BEAR I subtly hinted I had an opinion on the issue of hunting. I sure won't make that mistake again. No siree, Bob! I've sure learned my lesson. This time I am not setting myself up against anyone from any national association or sporting lobby.)
The last time Jean-Jacques Annaud made a film like this, he made a classic. (THE BEAR is now on DVD from Tri-Star and is recommended.) This film does not measure up to that one, but it still is a good film for the whole family. I rate TWO BROTHERS a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Robert Ludlum's mysterious United States government assassin again returns from what some assumed and hoped was death. Again we have a complex plot with twists and doublecrosses. Again the infallible and deadly assassin is pitted against the agency that made him what he is. Joan Allen and Brian Cox play senior intelligence officials trying to track down the man most dangerous to all sides, the loose cannon agent Bourne. Dizzying editing and camera work will bother some, and the sheer complexity of the telling will confuse more people. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY is a sequel to THE BOURNE IDENTITY with Matt Damon again playing Jason Bourne, the enigmatic United States government assassin whose amnesia makes him as mysterious to himself as to anyone else. In some senses Jason Bourne is the thinking man's James Bond. Bourne is very good at what he does for a living. Unlike James Bond there is no evidence that he is good at baccarat, skiing, sky diving, skin diving, or skeet shooting. Beautiful women do not fall at his feet. The skills he has are those that an assassin really needs. He knows what to do in a fight. He is a good driver when he has to be. His ability to turn objects around him into weapons is intriguing. And most important he can think three moves ahead of his opponent. He makes very few mistakes. But as in the last film his opponents are frequently those from his own organization who made him the way he is.
The story is set against the backdrop of several different countries: the United States, India, Italy, Germany, and Russia. Jason Bourne has gotten away from his old dirty business and has gone into mellow retirement in Goa, India. Like Michael Corleone just when he thought he was out they drag him back in. There is an attempt to kill Bourne and his girlfriend is killed instead. Why does his old agency not just let sleeping dogs lie? In turns out there is a plot against Bourne that will again get him and the agency stalking each other. The camera seems always anxious to show us stacks of passports that are part of the standard quick-change identity kit. Bourne and the story seem to constantly flit from one country to the next with just the right passport he needs.
Even more than the last film the torrent of names and plot twists will be hard to comprehend on a single viewing. Names fly back and forth at times and plot complications come even faster. Not that there is much doubt all along as to whom the real villain will eventually turn out to be. The real mystery is not whodunit but just what is happening to whom and why. More than once my audience gasped in awe at the coups Bourne is able to accomplish, even if he is just a fictional character. Occasionally Bourne tries things that would seem to be not humanly possible, e.g., giving mouth to mouth resuscitation when totally submerged in water.
Supporting Damon are Joan Allen who so well plays women of iron will. Also there is Brian Cox who is always watchable is Brian Cox who generally has a subtle menacing manner. Cox is probably tired of having people note he was the first Hannibal Lecter. I will point out how good he was as Hogan in the Sharpe series. Chris Cooper has an uncredited cameo reprising his role as Conklin.
What some will find off-putting is the style of the editing and the camera work. There is frequent use of hand-held camera combined with a staccato of short jumpy edits that will add to the dizzying effect of the complex story. Frequently the viewer will find that it is not clear what some half-second shot is showing. The effect of the editing and the over-fluidity of the camera for a moment puts us in the rapid-fire mind of Bourne. The climax of the film is one of the most exciting car chases we have seen in quite a while that is done without recourse to computer graphics.
This is a film with fast action and some clever ideas. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In his introduction to the original anthology MICROCOSMS (ISBN 0- 7564-0171-2), Gregory Benford mentions such classics of the sub- genre as Sam Moskowitz's "Microcosmic God", Frederik Pohl's "The Tunnel Under the World", and James Blish's "Surface Tension"--all of which are must-reads. And the first story, Jack McDevitt's "Act of God", has definite echoes of Moskowitz's story. It is also one of the strongest stories. (This isn't a big surprise. The conventional wisdom for an anthology is to put the strongest story first, the second strongest last, and the rest in-between, in general trying to separate pairs of stories that are too similar.)
Geoffrey A. Landis's "Ouroboros" is computer-based, but unlike some of the other computer-based stories here, is a true microcosm (rather than just a virtual reality situation). While clever, it was also a bit obvious, and also dependent on what may at first appear to be proofreading problems.
Most of the stories in MICROCOSMS, however, seem more about something other than what I would consider microcosms. Robert J. Sawyer's "Kata Bindu" does seem to draw somewhat on "Surface Tension"--but also perhaps on David Brin's "The Crystal Spheres". Pamela Sargent's "Venus Flowers at Night" has a virtual reality that someone in our world experiences, not a microcosm in the sense I would use it. Russell Blackford's "The Name of the Beast Was Number" suggests the idea of a microcosm, but never goes anywhere with it. Robert Sheckley'a "A Spirit of Place" is a limited society, but not a microcosm as I would use the word. Tom Purdom's "Palace Resolution", George Zebrowski's "My First World', Paul Levinson's "Critical View"--they're all something *like* microcosms without actually being them. And Howard V. Hendrix's "Once Out of Nature" isn't even science fiction so far as I can tell.
Jamil Nasir's "Dream Walking" is somewhere on the border, and related, I think, to Christopher Anvil's "Mind Partner"--though not quite as extreme. In fact, the whole idea of recursion seems to be connected to macrocosms, even since Augustus de Morgan wrote, "Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum, And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on, While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."
And in "The We Who Sing", Stephen Baxter seems to draw on Olaf Stapledon in what I suppose could technically be called a microcosm, although it could be considered a macrocosm just as easily.
Moving on, Gary Greenwood's THE JIGSAW MEN (ISBN 1-902-88077-3) assumes that the events in both Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN and H. G. Wells's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS were real, and constructs an alternate world based on that. While as an alternate history it is not particularly successful (too much remains unchanged between that world and ours), it succeeds as a story of "jigsaw men"-- soldiers (mostly) who are resurrected when they die, and what that does to them and to society. Published by a small press in Britain, it is probably a novella rather than a novel, and may make it to the United States eventually as part of an anthology.
Another British book that if we're lucky will come to the United States is WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: IMAGINARY HISTORY FROM TWELVE LEADING HISTORIANS edited by Andrew Roberts (ISBN 0-297-84877-1). (Of course, there may be a title change--there has already been a series of anthologies with the name "What Might Have Been" edited by Gregory Benford.) Roberts's book is on a somewhat higher level than most, as is clear from his introduction, in which he for example, says, "The Whig and Marxist theories of history should have long ago been replaced by a more believable one, in which What Ifs can play an important role by reminding us that no route is predestined. In this view of the world, Man is a fallen, Originally Sinful being, who strives to do better than previous generations by trying to learn from them, but is ever conscious of the abysses below, and is as familiar with a knowable past as he is suspicious of plans to get to a necessarily unmappable future utopia." (The Marxist theory is the inevitable "withering away of the state" into a workers' commune, and the Whig view is of the inevitability of liberal democracy and the "Brotherhood of Man".)
The stories, alas, cover some of the more common or obvious points of divergence:
Most are well thought-out, if dry, counterfactuals. I use that term rather than "alternate histories" because the latter need to have some plot other than a dry recounting of historical (or ahistorical) events. It's not enough to say Napoleon triumphs in Russia--one must have a Russian character reacting to this, or a French character in Russia, or *someone*. The most current of the counterfactuals (David Frum's "The Chads Fall Off in Florida"), however, while achieving some level of characterization and hence being an actual alternate history, is either just silly or a satire, neither of which is in keeping with the rest. (Sample: "[Gore] issued an executive order the day after [his] Inaugural requiring that all proposed military operations undergo environmental review.") Upon reading the biography of David Frum, I discover that he is a former speech writer and special assistant to President George W. Bush and a well-known conservative, which explains this. But while as a stand-alone or with other less academic works this story would almost definitely have seemed clever, here it suffers by appearing to be ill thought-out. It's like being the only one in jogging clothes at a formal dinner. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Truth is not determined by majority vote. --Doug Gwyn
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