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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/08/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 15
Table of Contents
A Sign of the Times (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There was a time when the maid service at a motel cleaning the bathroom would leave a ribbon of paper across the toilet to show it was clean. Fancy hotels would instead do some sort of origami with the toilet paper. These days what they do is leave the seat up. I think this is emblematic of our times when vulgarity seems more acceptable. Perhaps it is an improved way of doing things. It is faster and cheaper. It requires no special materials and it takes just an instant to do it. It just somehow lacks the charm. [-mrl]
Influenza 102 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was talking last week about influenza and in particular the pandemic that was likely influenza that followed World War One. Let me start with a correction. Well, sort of. I said in the last issue that it was still not certain that the 1918 pandemic was a strain of influenza. Articles I have been reading over the week suggest that it is now reasonably certain. My information was based on an article in the "New Yorker" magazine from a few years ago. However in the interim lung tissue has been found from a few people who died of the 1918 pandemic, including a United States Soldier. The 1918 strain is now known to be a variant of Influenza A. It was a close relative of the influenza viruses we get most commonly. It is now shown that very deadly varieties are only a simple mutation or recombination away. It was too close for comfort. I think that is actually bad news. There have been two pandemics since 1918 and both have been Influenza A variants. There was a pandemic of the Asian Flu in 1957 and the Hong Kong Flu in 1968. The more recent reports downplay the bird-origins of the virus saying that it probably spent several years in human and/or pig systems before it mutated to the virulent form.
I actually find it fairly interesting how the pandemic interlocks with the war. Most years the influenza outbreak that comes around is mostly an inconvenience. It feels unpleasant for a day or two. That is bad enough, surely, but it could be a lot worse. There are probably worse flu viruses, potentially fatal ones, but those are the less successful ones. There are reasons for that lack of success. A really bad virus will debilitate its host. The host may be bed-ridden. In any case the host will not be moving among people and they will not catch the virus. So it is really the flu viruses that do not debilitate the host that will likely spread to a lot of people because the carrier will be well enough to move among them.
That is not how it happened in World War One. Much of the war in Europe was fought in trenches. That meant that if someone was infected with the influenza virus the dynamic was just the opposite. If a soldier got a relatively benign virus he would feel bad but stay at his post, probably in a trench, and continue fighting, but not coming in close contact with many people. A really bad influenza virus would send him to a field hospital where he would be in contact with doctors and other patients. He would see more people and they might return to service spreading the virus to other trenches. The more serious the flu virus the more likely it was to spread. Then once the virus was cultured in this way, the soldiers were placed on high-occupancy troop ships home. A trench war is a perfect setting to choose for the propagation of the worst viruses.
The influenza virus itself is particularly simple. It is just the right string of eight genes. And it is not a very robust virus. If it lights just about anywhere it the human body, it is ineffectual and is killed by the body's defenses. You would think that it is too weak and vulnerable to be the killer of what is probably more than thirty million people in the year following World War One. But if it finds the right location in a human, it is a different story. The right place to lodge the virus is the lung. The virus can bond with a lung cell and make it into a little production facility for mass reproducing the same eight genes. The new viruses bond to new lung cells and the result is a chain reaction. And many of these strains do travel out from the lung on a breath and are then breathed in by someone else.
The danger of another very deadly influenza pandemic, one as bad at the 1918 one, is a lot like the danger of a meteor strike or the danger of a really big earthquake in California. Everybody who studies the subject is moderately sure it will happen, but we just have no idea when. One more thing to worry about in an increasingly worrisome world. [-mrl]
PRIMER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This SF film gets the research environment and the baffling scientific techno-jargon just about right. The story is hard to follow, but that might not be so unrealistic either. Definitely this is a demanding and puzzling film that does a lot with its miniscule budget. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
PRIMER is a foxy, ultra-low-budget, amateur film and is perhaps the most believable time-travel story on film. It may also be one of the most incomprehensible. This is a real physicist's science fiction film. If time travel is going to be invented in the next decade, the research environment shown in this film is probably the sort of place it will happen. And these are the sort of people who will do it. The viewer goes through a lot of obfuscation to get to the point, only to find that the confusion and the verbal fog are much of the point. For about the first twenty minutes of this film there is nothing really comprehensible said but business and scientific babble. We are clearly looking at a startup technical company with a very great deal of technical expertise. The talk sounds believable and is delivered with realistic overlapping dialog.
We are looking at a startup company of a handful of young physicists who have incorporated and then done something extraordinary in a garage. Leading the project are Aaron and Abe, two people who are on a higher plane of technical expertise than anyone you know. Something amazing has been developed here in a Texas garage, but the viewer does not know what it is that the company has created. When we get enough clues finally it turns out has something to do with what uninitiated laymen would call time travel. Confusing the issue is a short discussion thrown in about fungus. What fungus has to do with time travel is never explained. (Heck, nothing is every explained in this film.)
There is a plot dealing with causality problem avoidance and multiple parties trying to counter each other's actions. One probably has to see the film several times or even many times if the plot is going to sink in. If PRIMER has anything to offer the viewer it is intelligence. And intelligence is a commodity missing from so many films; PRIMER is worthwhile for science fiction fans and for techno-geeks and especially techno-geek science fiction fans. It is enjoyable for those who like puzzle films. Others may go running out in frustration.
This film somehow got the Best Drama award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. That is something of a jaw-dropping surprise. Director, writer, actor, cinematographer, producer, editor, and composer Shane Carruth actually needed a few other people, notably actors, to make his film. Just how he managed to both run the camera and star in the film is anybody's guess. But he made an intelligent, albeit frustrating, science fiction film and copped a major award with it at Sundance. It won't have a wide audience and for those who equate science fiction and special effects it will not have a lot to offer. Those looking for sci-fi instead of science fiction will not like it. And those who absolutely hate being baffled will not like it. Who does that leave? [-mrl]
LES REVENANTS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A creative and intelligent recycling of the horror concept of the dead returning, but this time it is used for non-horror purposes. LES REVENANTS runs into pacing problems toward the middle. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
This film is a sort of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD without the horror premise. One day everybody who died in the previous ten years or so comes back to life. In a George Romero horror film the zombies want to eat the living and the premise is used for horror. In this film the dead have come back a little slower and not as bright as they were, but notably no more malicious than they were in life.
So all these dead people have returned. Now what? Who is going to feed and care for them? Can their small economy give them jobs? Will they be putting the living out of work? What problems are there in integrating them back into society? Do the dead feel oppressed by the living? Do the living feel endangered by the dead? Certainly not the issues that George Romero faces. They have to be treated like refugees with living accommodations. Some go back to live with their families, some do not, and we see the reasons why. On the whole it is more the living who have unfinished business with the dead.
This could have been a zombie film with intelligence instead of horror. It very nearly is. Co-writer and director Robin Campillo does not handle the film as well as it might have been. Part of his point is that the dead are slow and a little dazed, but in this film the living also become slow and a little dazed. This leads to slow and introspective conversations between the living and the dead punctuated with meaningful stares and spoken in disjoint four-word phrases with long pauses. (That does make the subtitles easier to read.) The film then takes on a lethargic pacing and tone. In the final reel the pace picks up a little, but also betrays the spirit of the film to that point, much in the way Tod Browning's FREAKS did.
Sidenote: There seem to be obvious problems with the film. When we first see the dead they are marching from their graves in a mass exodus, wearing casual clothing like sun dresses. Are people really buried this way in France? I doubt it. For that matter many of these people would have long since decomposed. This has to be seen as a pure fantasy with most logic questions delegated to a willing suspension of disbelief. The mechanism is not as important as what is done with the ideas. This film is more an interesting failure than great use of a very different idea. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Russell Hoban is one of my favorite authors, but his novels do not always get published in the United States. HER NAME WAS LOLA (Arcade, 1-55970-726-7) is his first to "cross the pond" (I believe) since ANGELICA'S GROTTO; the intervening AMARYLLIS NIGHT AND DAY and THE BAT TATTOO are available only in British editions. In LOLA, as in many of Hoban's books, the main character seems patterned after Hoban himself.
Max Lesser is a Jewish expatriate American author living in England. Max is the author of many financially successful children's books and several financially unsuccessful novels. However, I do not think the novel itself is auto-biographical, any more than TURTLE DIARY (or RIDDLEY WALKER, his best know adult novel). Max meets first Lola Blessington, and then Lula Mae Flowers, and finds himself enmeshed in a romantic and sexual web. At the same time, he tries to break out of his writer's bloc with a novel about Moe Levy, who meets Lulu and Linda Lou under suspiciously similar circumstances. Apparently Max can talk to Moe; what's worse, Moe can talk back. Oh, and Max also has arguments with his own mind, and three-way conversations with his mind and the dwarf demon Apasmara Purusha, called Forgetfulness.
Hoban's style is (to me) quintessential magic realism, and incredibly poetic, and I wish his adult books were not so hard to find. (His earlier ones, such as PILGERMANN, THE LION OF BOAZ-JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ, and TURTLE DIARY, do show up occasionally. RIDDLEY WALKER is unlike any of his other works-- it's great, but do not assume it is typical.) HER NAME WAS LOLA, like all of Hoban's books, gets a strong recommendation from me.
Jasper Fforde's SOMETHING ROTTEN (ISBN 0-670-03359-6) is the fourth in the "Thursday Next" series. It's good, but do not start with this one--start with THE EYRE AFFAIR (which my book discussion group is reading in November, so I will undoubtedly be saying something about it then). THE EYRE AFFAIR had a fairly substantial alternate history element, but that was pushed to the back burner by the second book, or indeed, off the stove altogether. Instead, Fforde concentrates on the more literary aspects of his milieu, with the main supporting character here being Hamlet, hiding out in England while the literary detectives try to prevent the hijacking of the play script. I actually think this is an improvement over the previous book, so I'm looking forward to more.
Henry Kyd Douglas's I RODE WITH STONEWALL (ISBN 0-891-76040-7) is one of many first-person Civil War accounts I picked up when one of the local used bookstores closed. Douglas was on Jackson's staff, and so there is a lot more about the major personalities and anecdotes and less of details about battles than one would find in a foot soldier or line officer's account. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Dawkins's Law of Adversarial Debate: When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not lie half way between them.
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