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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/22/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 17
Table of Contents
Frank R. Paul Gallery (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the 1920s and 1930s the most prominent name in science fiction was Hugo Gernsback who published several proto-science-fiction magazines. His magazines always had amazing imaginative covers. Gernsback's best cover artist was Frank Rudolph Paul (1884 - 1963). Frank R. Paul is remembered by many as the best science fiction artist ever. Paul's work graced the covers of "Amazing Stories", "Air Wonder Stories", "Science Wonder Stories", and "Wonder Stories". Among his work was probably the most famous pulp cover ever, his cover for the "Amazing Stories" publication of H. G. Wells's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. A huge collection of his art can be found at http://www.frankwu.com/paul1.html. Scroll down the page and visit each of the rooms of Paul's art. Or click on one cover and then click the right arrow at the bottom of the picture to step through each cover. It is worth the trip. Boy, those were fun days for science fiction. [-mrl]
Be Happy in Your Work (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Humanity is reaching a crossroads. I know what you are thinking. But it is not that crossroads. No, it's not that one either. This is a crossroads that has generally gone unnoticed, but we are coming to it. This one is going to really raise some moral issues. They may have some knee-jerk responses, but we have to think about them.
In the film THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, Colonel Saito, the Japanese prison camp commandant, tells his British prisoners, "Be happy in your work." It is an ironic line since these captured soldiers are essentially being used as slave labor to build the eponymous bridge. There is not much chance that these soldiers will be happy in their work and they are going as slowly as they can without inviting being shot. Presumably the bridge they build is of high quality, but when workers are not happy in their work you cannot expect that. What if old Colonel Saito really had the power to actually make the prisoners happy in their work not by rewarding them, but by making their minds happy in their work?
You can see this question from two different aspects. My first response is to react with horror. Slavery seems the lowest human condition. To turn people into happy slaves is horrific. On the other hand what are we saying here? We really do not want the prisoners to be happy? The Japanese Imperial Government was going to use them to build the bridge in any case. If suddenly they were made happy in their work wouldn't they be better off. Wouldn't their Japanese taskmasters also be better off having happy workers? Any way you look at the question it is a difficult moral issue. The problem is that we are coming to that very moral issue.
Barry Richmond, a neurobiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health has published findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience. In the project he led showed that rhesus monkeys can be permanently changed from being antagonistic to obedient. In trying to find ways to combat mental depression they blocked a gene in the brain called D2. Now what does that do? Well the reason we work is because we hope to be rewarded for our work. A lot (most?) of the people who work in our world have onerous tasks that they would not be doing but for the reward they hope to get. The association of work and reward is somehow controlled by D2. Block D2 and rhesus monkeys become excited and enthusiastic about their work without worry about the food pellets dropping. They become compliant and happy slaves.
The monkeys were given a task of working levers in certain ways based on colors on screens in front of the levers. Prior to blocking D2 the monkeys had a "What's-in-it-for-me?" sort of attitude. When the food pellets stopped coming, they got very disinterested in the task. When D2 was blocked in their brains, the monkeys just ignored the fact that the rewards stopped coming. They were just happy in their work with no thought of reward. Rhesus monkeys are not the only animals to have this D2 gene in their brains. Homo sapiens have an identical gene. Presumably we now have a way to make humans happy and motivated in even disagreeable jobs.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We don't like the idea of whole armies of soulless workers who have been manipulated into doing what they are told and liking it. On the other hand, there are certain days when I think I would like to be a little more happy and enthusiastic about tasks like cleaning bathrooms and scrubbing floors. There are days when I would like to just be a happy, contented slave for the next eight hours and then return to myself. If there were a pill I would gladly take it and enjoy my work. I just don't want to see the captains of industry slipping something like this into the cafeteria food at their places of business. But even there I am not sure it would be a bad thing. What is wrong with being satisfied and happy in a job for a few hours if the job has to be done anyway?
The researchers were looking for ways of treating mental illness and depression. And whose to say that unhappiness in a job is or is not a form of mental illness. At least it is a form of mental inconvenience. This is all reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD. There you had the high caste people, alphas, who reaped much of the material rewards of the society. And you also had the laborers called epsilons. They were drugged to enjoy their assigned duties and they too were finding a kind of happiness. So if everybody was happy in this system, who is to say that the lowly epsilons were losers? If a system like Huxley's makes everybody happy, what is wrong with that? Is it better than our system, which is rife with discontent? Is happiness at the price of a low status that does not bother you such a bad thing?
This is the kind of question that the next generation is going to have to ask itself.
Letters of Comment:
Regarding STAR WARS revisions, Andre Kuzniarek writes: "You can get a decent presentation of the originals with the original laserdiscs. If you have a player, these discs are generally cheap and easy to obtain. I wonder if the purist market might actually increase their value. The prints are not the best, and a lot of the special effects matting in the space battles is exposed, while the same artifacts have been mostly cleaned up on the DVDs. Another benefit of the revised versions is that the finale for the last movie is really better by avoiding the cheesy Ewok music and expanding the context of celebration. The original ending had a certain quaintness that is lost though. The content 'improvements' to 'IV' were totally unnecessary though, and fortunately very little was done to 'V'. Sadly, the main change is right up front in the snow monster scene: the old result had a lot more tension (which means it was better) when it was edited to avoid SFX shortcomings." And Joseph T. Major points out: "Ever-revised re-releases of movies are not exactly a modern phenomenon. FANATSIA (1940) was supposed to be continually updated with new segments. Instead, it was cut in various ways for re-release through the Forties and Fifties (and today; racially-offensive scenes have been deleted in various ways)." Joseph T. Major also responds to Evelyn's comment about Russell Hoban's HER NAME WAS LOLA ("Max meets first Lola Blessington"): "Was she a showgirl? With yellow feathers in her hair, and a dress cut down to *there*? Sorry, I heard that song about a million times, thanks to automatically programmed Top Ten Hits radio stations. Oddly enough, long before that song was conceived, *I* went to the Copacabana in New York --- with my church choir!" [Actually, Hoban has Lola Blessington comment on always being associated with that song, as well as references to other well-known works involving Lolas. -ecl]
THE GRUDGE (2003) (Japanese version) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[The American remake of THE GRUDGE opens this week. This review of the original Japanese film ran in the 12/12/03 issue of the MT VOID.]
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
THE GRUDGE, written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, does not have an intelligent plot, but it is still an intelligent horror film in that Takashi Shimizu has thought out what it takes to make a ghost scary on the screen. William Castle would put a skeleton on the screen and perhaps over the audience. A film like GHOST would put a translucent image of a human on the screen. Neither of these are really scary images because they are so familiar and were when they were used. Takashi Shimizu makes his images unfamiliar as well as weird. Or he creates a symbol of security on the screen, for example a blanket, and then has it betray its victim. The story is not intelligent but the images are. Many of the frightening images are associated with strange ghostly child.
This is not one long story but a number of short stories, connected incidents somehow connected to one modern and innocent-looking house that is filled with malice. The stories are told out of chronological sequence and really do not shed a lot of light on each other except to show how ghosts can spread their evil. If Shimizu's THE GRUDGE catches you in the right mood, this is a very effective ghost story. [-mrl]
DEAD BIRDS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: About the only thing that is original and unfamiliar about this house of horrors horror film is that it is set during the Civil War. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
There was a time when horror films were always set in distant places and were either period pieces or left in an undetermined time. That was the convention of German Expressionism and Universal did not set a horror film in anything like current day and the United States until 1941 with MAN MADE MONSTER (1941). Their only major series films set in the United States were SON OF DRACULA and the later Mummy films. These days the convention is to rarely do horror as a period piece or set outside the United States. When Guillermo Del Toro sets a horror film during the Spanish Civil War that is considered a really artistic touch. DEAD BIRDS is unusual just because it is a period piece.
During the American Civil War, a band of deserters robs a gold shipment and then holds up in an abandoned Southern mansion where evil mystical rites had once been performed on unwilling slaves. The creaky old estate proves to be a poor choice for a place to seek refuge. This particular set of deserters is not the most companionable bunch of people anyway. But the problems they have with each other are small compared to the ones they have from whatever inhabits that house. Alex Cox directs a script by Simon Barrett.
The setting of the story in Alabama during the Civil War is the most creative thing about DEAD BIRDS. Few horror films have been set at that time, though horror and supernatural writer Ambrose Bierce used the period quite effectively. The return to his setting is an inexpensive way to give the film a feel of some stature and some atmosphere. The constant hiss of insect noises helps to make the setting unsettling. Sadly that is about all that is really creative about this film. The film is a very standard issue haunted house sort of film, sort of a slow-to-start and low-grade version of THE EVIL DEAD. Depraved rites have turned the children who used to live in the mansion into ugly demons that look not unlike similar demons we have seen before in other films. Just what these rites were or what happened in this house in the past is never clearly explained.
Standard script mechanisms do not help. There are the usual jump-shot false alarms that are too predictable to pack much punch. The story develops very slowly once it moves to the mansion. There is only one dead bird in the entire film. At least there is only one dead bird that is noticeable. The director assures us that another scene has many, but by his own admission they just look like clods of dirt. The backstory of what happened in the mansion originally is less than clear. Much of the period feel is poorly handled. The good-looking woman--yes, of course there is one--has obvious makeup that she would probably not have, and if she did she would not use. The Southern uniforms look nice and clean and well tended, not at all dusty.
There are really only two settings in the film. The mansion is a brooding old place that in real life was previously a religious retreat. The town we see briefly at the beginning was purchased cheaply by redressing a village from the film BIG FISH. The demon children are a CGI effect created in Korea.
Thus a promising idea was turned into a rather mundane horror film. [-mrl]
SIDEWAYS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film is getting a lot of attention, but it is really just a likable romantic comedy of personality as two buddies learn about each other on a road trip prior to the marriage of one of them. The film will be of particular interest to wine lovers. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
Something you should know about me before reading this review. Like a certain famous personality I never drink . . . wine. The appreciation of wine might have much helped my enjoyment of this film.
Miles Raymond (played by Paul Giamatti) is a fairly serious personality living each day of his life with frustration and disappointment. He is an aspiring writer who is marketing a novel and at the same time teaching English in middle school. Adding to his dissatisfaction is his recently divorced. His ego is taking a real beating. Meanwhile his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church)--handsome but a little superficial--is a TV actor about to get married. Miles, who is to be the best man, has arranged a road trip. The two will drive around southern California playing golf, having a good time, and visiting wineries. Miles is a wine connoisseur, knowing each vintage as if it was a friend for years. Jack just likes drinking wine and fooling around with women, enjoying both without learning much about either. Everyone makes fuss over Jack, but Miles can see the selfishness and tastelessness in his Jack as only a friend can. The two are old pals but are very different types. Miles is shocked to hear that Jack also wants to take his last unmarried week to get some sex and also to get Miles to have sex. What follows is a sort of laid back comedy of romance and personality. Waitress and wine- enthusiast Maya (Virginia Madsen) and a tasting-room hostess Stephanie (Sandra Oh) offer the romance.
The film, directed and written in part by Alexander Payne, is a mini-education in wine as well as an endearing look at one of those people who cannot seem to make life work for him. Payne had previously directed ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT. In the former he looked at the sort of character who feels he has value, but is just not the sort of person the world rewards. Paul Giamatti is one of those character actors who always seems talented and engaging but who rarely seem to get a lead in a film. He is a face I have seen in film for years with small but magnetic roles in films like PLANET OF THE APES and PAYCHECK opposite leads perhaps not unlike the character Jack in this film. But until last year's AMERICAN SPLENDOR I never remember him getting a lead role. In spite of his long-since receded hairline and his edgy manner (or perhaps because of them) he has some sort of magnetic appeal on the screen.
I cannot claim this is my kind of movie, but it was a pleasant and insightful comedy of character. It is receiving some very strong praise from other corners. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
My main reading this week was Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (ISBN 0-618-50928-3). Apparently that has been a lot of people's reading--this is probably the first alternate history to make the best-seller list since Sinclair Lewis's IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE. (If it isn't, I'm sure someone will point it out.)
For those of you who don't follow the best-seller lists, the PLOT's plot is that in 1940 a dead-locked Republican convention nominates Charles Lindbergh as their Presidential candidate, he defeats Roosevelt, and his pro-Nazi sympathies have a devastating effect on the United States. Roth claims he wrote the book in 2000, which makes some of the parallels between Lindbergh's America and that of 2004 particularly startling. (On the other hand, in any time of crisis, there will be some group that the rest of the population will choose as the scapegoat to blame.)
The book is told in the first person by a "Philip Roth" who is seven at the time of Lindbergh's election. (Apparently Roth often uses some version of himself and his family in his novels.) This "Philip Roth" is Jewish, lives in New Jersey, and has a family diverse enough in character to cover all the types Roth (the author) wants to show--the honest, the dishonest, the violent, the peaceful, and so on. Some have said that what the narrator says seems too perceptive for a seven-year-old, but one can argue that it is actually being told several years later by an older boy (or man). My objection is that the ending seems a bit forced, and the reversion to so many similarities with our own timeline seems unlikely.
Yet Roth does capture the essence, by making the reader feel as thought he or she is in that world, that these rabble-rousing speeches have been made, that people have been co-opted in relocation plans, that there are roving gangs attacking people who don't fit their idea of "Americans", and that everything that seemed secure is no longer.
However, I do have a few bones to pick with Frank Rich's review in the "New York Times". Rich describes the book by saying, "The plot of 'The Plot' belongs to a low-rent genre, 'alternate history,' in which novelists of Mr. Roth's stature rarely dwell." Well, yes, if reviewers are going to call it a low-rent genre, it's no wonder that serious novelists shy away from it. Later, however, Roth says, "By sweeping us into an alternative universe, it lets us see the world we actually inhabit from another perspective." Precisely--that is why alternate histories are meaningful, or can be when done well. The fact that many are not done well does not make the good ones any less valuable. And a couple of weeks ago, Charles S. Harris commented on Rich's review, noting "Mr. Rich doesn't even comment on the most glaring improbability in this supposedly scrupulous alternate history book: The 1-cent Yosemite National Park stamp pictured on the cover was issued in 1934, and therefore would no longer be available to receive the swastika overprint in 1940, the crucial election year in the novel." Well, it turns out the stamp pictured on the cover (with overprint) is one that the main character (a seven-year-old budding philatelist) sees in a dream when the events begin unfolding in 1940. Obviously bothered by all the talk of the Nazis and such, he dreams that when he opens his stamp album he discovers that his George Washington stamps now have Hitler instead, and the National Parks stamps have the swastika on them. No, it isn't logical, but it is the dream of a seven-year-old, and admittedly a striking image for the cover.
I also read Lisa Endlich's OPTICAL ILLUSIONS: LUCENT AND THE CRASH OF TELECOM (ISBN 0-743-22667-4). For anyone who worked for Lucent during the period covered, there will not be a lot of new information, and most of the book is about the higher-ups. There is some discussion of Bell Labs which those of us from Bell Labs might find interesting, but this is one I'd recommend you borrow from the library rather than buy (especially all of you who found yourself laid off or retired early and are now getting by on a tighter budget thanks to Lucent :-( ). (Another book I would like to read is Narain Gehani's BELL LABS: LIFE IN THE CROWN JEWEL (ISBN 0-929-30627-9) but none of the libraries around here seems to have it.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Maddox's Second Law: Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are the least likely to draw attention to its achievements, but are prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos.
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