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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/11/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 37 (Whole Number 1273)
Table of Contents
The Weather Problem (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Russia is not known for its moderate climate. The winters in Russia are a real force to be reckoned with. In fact Europe's two greatest modern conquerors, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, can each be said to have destroyed their own military might by throwing their armies against the Russian winter. It has been said that Russia's greatest military heroes are General December, General January, and General February. This year General January did a real number on the city of Moscow. There was a blizzard that dropped eight inches on the city overnight on January 29. That does not sound like all that much but there were insufficient street cleaners to clear the snow. This left many roads impassible.
One reputed problem that the Muscovites face is that when really bad weather is ready to strike they are not getting sufficient warning from their weather bureau. The accusation of having way too many inaccurate weather forecasts has been leveled at the beleaguered local meteorological bureau. The Mayor has decided to do something about it. He has decided to simply not fund the meteorological bureau until he gets his demands. His demands are that they would be paid, but only so long as they give accurate forecasts. If they misjudge the weather and it double-crosses them, they will have to pay fines that will come out of the weathermen's pockets. The weathermen are protesting. They say that weather forecasting is not an exact science and that they get it right about 94% of the time.
Any weather forecast the Russians or anyone else makes is something of a gamble. We have models for the behavior of weather patterns, but chance plays a very large part in these forecasts. (As an aside, I am writing this on a morning after a snowstorm that was predicted to drop four to eight inches of snow on us. I was relieved to find that for once things were a lot better than predicted. We got barely two inches. Little enough that I probably will not worry about clearing the driveway.)
To some extent we want weathermen to go out on a limb and risk being wrong. What good is a weather forecast that says that tonight there will be widely scattered darkness. The darkness will be lifting toward morning. I think it was George Carlin who forecast the weather that way. Robin Williams in GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM forecast the weather for Saigon as "Today: HOT! Tonight: HOT! Tomorrow: HOT!" This is useless information. Perhaps the Moscow Weather Bureau should do it the way some weathermen do it here. Rather than commit themselves they say there is a 23% chance of rain. That passes the gamble on to the listener. If it rains, well that was the 23% chance. On just one day it is impossible to tell if the weatherman really had knowledge that he imparted or was just bluffing. However, suppose the weatherman says every day there is a 23% chance of rain and it rains 23% of the time, he may not be helpful, but at least he is right. I guess there are different degrees and breeds of prediction correctness. It would be better information if he could tell the probability day by day, but he isn't really wrong either. At least by some interpretation he is correct. He would be more helpful if on the days it rains he says there is a 100% chance of rain and on the days it does not he would say there is a 0% chance. But in weather forecasting there is correct and correct. Now comes the question that has bothered me for years. If a weatherman says each day that the probability of rain is 23% and it rains 23% of the days, he is probably right. Suppose now that he says some days that there is a 23% chance of rain and on all other days he says it is a 77% chance of rain (or a 23% chance of non-rain). Then if on 77% of the days the weather that had the higher probability happens (rain when there was a predicted 77% chance of rain, non-rain when there was a predicted 77% chance of non-rain) again he will have been shown to be correct. But what if many different days the probabilities he gives range all over the place? One day he gives a 47% chance of rain, the next a 59 or an 83. If he does that is there a way to judge from the data if his estimates are correct? Maybe we have some statisticians reading this who know how you judge the accuracy of those predictions? [-mrl]
THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER (letters of comment):
On THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER (reviewed in the 03/04/05 issue), Joseph T. Major writes:
The reason that the ending of "The Mysterious Stranger" is "more nihilistic and bitter than the rest of the story" is that the textual history of the story is rather more complex than it seems.
When Twain died, he left several unfinished manuscripts. Two in particular featured a "mysterious stranger" of dubious supernatural background and power. In one, titled "The Mysterious Stranger", he claimed to be an angel, came to a printshop in sixteenth-century Austria that nevertheless was run remarkably like a nineteenth-century printshop in Missouri, provided artificial workers to replace the natural workers, and ended up telling the narrator that the narrator is the only real conscious being in all existence.
In another, titled, "Young Satan", the "mysterious stranger" claimed to be the nephew of Satan, demonstrated various supernatural powers devised to show the random cruelty of God and associates, and intervened maliciously to get a popular priest nearly sent to prison for theft.
Twain's literary executors combined the two stories, tacking the ending of "The Mysterious Stranger" onto the unfinished "Young Satan", making some other revisions (such as making the accuser of the priest an astrologer, instead of another priest), and publishing the whole thing under the title "The Mysterious Stranger".
I have (somewhere in my house) a version of the original "Mysterous Stranger", titled "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger". It's less interesting than the other version.
[Thanks, Joe. I had known that there was the "No. 44" story, but didn't know how it was related. -ecl]
And Dan Kimmel writes, "I'm also a Twain fan, having spent most of last summer reading the most recent massive biography of him. I have a relatively recent edition of 'Captain Stormfield' that includes an essay by Frederik Pohl! Apparently it's part of a series of reprinting Twain's complete works with essays by current authors."
[My one problem with the fact that Twain is always being reprinted is that it is very difficult to figure out what I already have and what I don't, since they keep mixing and matching stories (and essays) in various collections. -ecl]
Bookmobile and Children's Books (letter of comment by Carl Aveyard)):
In response to Mark's bookmobile article (02/25/05), Carl Aveyard asks if we have children, adding "Kids today are so spoiled for choice. Thirty years ago, I grew up visiting the library as a regular school activity--go in, choose a book, leave. I remember when I was old enough (about 10/11) to be allowed in the library unaccompanied after school. I could pick any book (hence was born my Sci Fi habit). It felt then like the greatest of honours. Today my daughter can read a book, watch a DVD "book"/game/puzzle, play educational games on the PC CD ROM, play on the Internet . . . and, oh, use the phone for free to call her friends. This diversification is good if supported and controlled. Just my 2 cents..." [-ca]
Troy (letter of comment by Guy Ferraiolo):
In conjunction with Mark's writing in his TROY review (05/28/04), "However, since there are no accounts of the first ten years of the war as far as I know, ...", Guy Ferraiolo informs us, "I just had to mention 'The War at Troy' by Quintus of Smyrna (available from amazon.com)."
[Oh, of course. How could I forget Quintus of Smyrna? -mrl]
IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross (Ace, 2004, ISBN 0-441-01159-4, 355pp, $23.95) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Charles Stross continues to get high praise from SF critics and readers alike, and the latest object of their affection is IRON SUNRISE, the follow-up novel to last year's Hugo-nominated SINGULARITY SKY. IRON SUNRISE is set in the same universe as SINGULARITY SKY, with the same main cast of characters dealing with another sticky situation involving the Eschaton, the sentient machine intelligence that was introduced in SINGULARITY SKY.
This time, the big thingie-do is that the sun around which the planet Moscow orbits has been blown up by an iron bomb--never mind the details, other than to note that the opening of the novel contains the best ever in the history of science fiction description of a star blowing up. After that, the novel could have fallen apart, but it sped off in three different directions that kept my interest up throughout all 350+ pages. But I digress. The surviving Musovites in other systems blame the neighboring system of New Dresden, in large part because there has been a dispute between the two systems, and, well, who else were they going to blame?
The problem is, of course, that New Dresden didn't do it. So, into the fray jump our two heroes from SINGULARITY SKY, Rachel Monsour and Martin Springfield. They are tracking down a series of assassinations of Muscovite ambassadors. It seems that Moscow launched an automated retaliatory strike against New Dresden, and the only way to stop it is to get these ambassadors to send a signal to stop the weapons before they hit New Dresden. However, somebody doesn't want that signal sent. But who?
So now we have two mysteries: Who blew up Moscow Prime, and who doesn't want the retaliatory attack prevented?
Enter teenage girl Wednesday, who along with her family lived on a space station that was part of the Moscow system. She and her family are exiled along with the rest of the residents of the station before the shock wave of the iron sunrise reaches it. However, Wednesday has some knowledge that she doesn't know about but the ReMastered (ah, you knew there were some bad guys involved) do. So, she's being hunted by the ReMastered, and her family is killed in the process. Oh, yeah--you can count among her friends an entity named Herman, an agent of the Eschaton who just happens to also be in touch with Martin Springfield.
As with SINGULARITY SKY, the whole situation is convoluted and twisted, and, again, not everyone is as they appear. At the end, I wasn't quite sure whether the ReMastered were actually bad guys or not. But in the end, the situation is resolved, although not all loose ends are tied up. In fact, no matter what a couple of reviewers in "Locus" said in their 2004 recommended reading issue, I don't think this is the last novel that Stross will write that is set in this universe. On the other hand, even if it is, if he continues to turn out books like this one and SINGULARITY SKY, he'll have quite a career ahead of him. [-jak]
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Director John Moore remakes one of the better-remembered adventure films of the 1970s and actually makes a version that compares favorably with its original. A plane crashes in the desert and, with rescue unlikely, the survivors hit on a plan to save themselves that might be genius and might be madness. The original was a white-knuckle film in its time and the remake almost matches the tension. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
For a filmmaker who wants to get good critical attention it is a gamble remaking a well-liked film. Simply reproducing the original film is not enough. If the film is too different from the original, the audience who loved the first movie will hate the remake. On the other hand, if the films are too similar, what is the point of remaking the film? To remake a respected film, the filmmaker needs to make a list of things that can be done better in spite of the first film's popularity.
The new film FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is based on Elleston Trevor's 1964 novel THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX and on Lukas Heller's screenplay for its 1965 film adaptation. It would be difficult to discuss the new film without comparing it to the now classic original version. Scott Frank (who wrote for the television series "The Wonder Years") and Edward Burns (who wrote and starred in THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN) wrote the new adaptation. In some ways the script is better that the original and visually it is more sensational. There are spectacular shots of flying over the desert before and during a windstorm. The film features one of the most harrowing plane crashes in memory. We have a better feel for the mechanics of the survival plan in the film.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the story deals with an airplane that crashes in a desert. [In the original the crash was in the Sahara. Perhaps for political reasons the site was moved to the Gobi.] Faced with almost certain death, the survivors find an ingenious and seemingly impossible plan to rescue themselves. But to escape the desert they must overcome the personality conflict between the grizzled pilot, Frank Towns (played here by Dennis Quaid), and an enigmatic passenger who suggests an unexpected plan for survival. Here the passenger (renamed Elliot) is played in a fascinating performance by Giovanni Ribisi. In the original the corresponding character was called Heinrich Dorfmann and was played by Hardy Kruger. Kruger played the character disdainfully laid back. Ribisi almost resembles Kruger but he plays the part entirely differently. He fashions himself as a tightly wound little martinet with a nasal voice. He stands almost at attention with his hands behind his back. He projects being naturally detestable even before he gives his first order. In the original film there supposed to be doubt whether this expert was really right or wrong, but the viewer knew deep down that he was right. The tension between him and Frank Towns was all in whether Frank would overcome his personal demons and recognize the assertive passenger really had reason on his side. Ribisi makes it much harder to sympathize with that character in this film. He is precisely what the story requires and while Kruger was merely good.
The original film has a soaring and beautiful orchestral score by Frank De Vol. It had one piece of source music, Gino Paoli's song "Senza fine." Marco Beltrami's score relies heavily on familiar source songs starting with Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere." It does not capture the emotion I expected. It seems a cheapened effect. On the other hand the visuals, enhanced by digital effects, are stunning. That is particularly true of the early flying scenes and the plane buffeted by the dust storm. The air crash may be the most exciting I have seen filmed. It is far more dramatic than the one in the original film. Perhaps it is overstated, but it is a real experience and is literally breathtaking.
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX has not gotten good critical response. Still, I think that even for those who have see the 1965 film version this film has much that is worth seeing. If I had seen this film before the original, I might have actually preferred it. I recognize the first adaptation as being a great adventure film and for me it is the better film. But I also greatly enjoyed Director John Moore's take on the story. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. The original would have been a +3 or a 9/10.
Trivia note: the novel is credited to well-known thriller writer Elleston Trevor. This is one penname for Trevor Dudley Smith. He is the same man who wrote under the penname Adam Hall the Quiller spy books, starting with THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, which was also adapted into a popular film. [-mrl]
OPEN WATER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A simple and ingenious horror premise drives Chris Kentis's film of two tourists who are accidentally left abandoned in shark-infested tropical waters. Chris Kentis is the director, writer, editor, and the cinematographer in this low-budget and sparse, but very effective thriller. The film is short and anything but sweet. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
OPEN WATER really is one of the grimmest and most frightening horror films that come to mind. The reason is simple. It does not rely on ghosts or vampires or science-created monsters. The horror is brought about by something as common as a counting problem. To most viewers the concept of a vampire has a distancing effect, since few of us ever expect to meet a vampire. But we have seen people make counting errors all the time. And we rarely think about the cases when such a small error could be the difference between life and death. And the story of OPEN WATER is inspired by actual incidents.
Blanchard Ryan plays Susan and Daniel Travis plays Daniel, two young successful people who go together to the Caribbean for a vacation of sun and fun and water. They go out with a boatful of tourists to open water to dive in the deep azure waters of the Caribbean. While they are out swimming the crew's count of who has gotten back on the boat is confused by one obstreperous tourist who apparently could not go in the water and then could-- again a normally pedestrian situation. A mistake in counting is not unlikely and is a common sort of mistake, but in this case it is a very dangerous one. Susan and Daniel surface to discover that they are floating in the water without any boats around. They have been told that the sharks in these waters are harmless, but sharks are not the only hazards of the open sea. Writer Chris Kentis has a good feel for the dialog and the stages of reaction that people in this situation would go through. (I am not saying that I believe my wife and I would blaming each other and giving in to recriminations so soon if we were in a situation of this type, but I am not denying it either.)
The basic story is so uncomplicated it could have been told in half an hour, so even this short film of 79 minutes has been stuffed with a fair amount of island paradise and nature photography. It does a little to enhance the mood but mostly seems filler to act as spacer between plot developments. Kentis treads a narrow path between having this nice photography create the mood and having it be an annoyance distracting from the central story. Luckily he is able to make sure that even as we see the tropical paradise footage, our minds are elsewhere worried about the fate of the two swimmers. There is also some attractive ocean photography which at the same time advances the story. Where I think that Kentis does make an artistic mistake is having a musical score that includes human voices singing. This tends to undercut the feeling that the two swimmers are so utterly isolated. The musical score better enhances the "tropical paradise" feel than the terrifying situation that the two unlucky swimmers are feeling.
Kentis had an intelligent idea how to make a really good tense believable horror film on a modest budget and that has not been done so effectively since the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and classics like CARNIVAL OF SOULS. To do so much with so little is a talent to be admired. I rate OPEN WATER a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book and film comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Woody Allen's THREE ONE-ACT PLAYS (ISBN 0-812-97244-9) was published only recently (2004) but the plays seemed older. "Riverside Drive", for example, seemed to be a work that he later expanded into one of his movies. (I won't say which one, though I suspect you'll recognize it about a third of the way through.) Well, checking on it, I discovered that "Riverside Drive" was apparently written *after* the movie, and could be considered a condensation of it--not the usual direction a writer takes.
[And successful writers don't usually plagiarize their own works. At least not ones of Allen's stature. -mrl]
"Old Saybrook" is an Escher-esque sort of work that examines whether life reflects art, or art reflects life, or maybe neither. And rounding out the set is "Central Park West".
Brian Lamb's BOOKNOTES: STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY (ISBN 0-142-00249-6) is a collection of essays derived from the interviews on Lamb's show from C-SPAN, in specific with those authors who wrote books about American history. (Unfortunately, Lamb has decided to end the show.) Whoever did the editing did a reasonably good job, though at times the bracketed words and phrases used to cover elisions and references to dropped material get a bit obtrusive. Arranged chronologically by history (rather than by interview date), this book provides a way to dip into American history in small, conversational pieces. While it may seem superficial or skimpy at times, don't forget that these were interviews with authors of *books" about these topics, so the articles should be thought of as "free trials" for the books themselves.
Last week we went to see the film BRIDE & PREJUDICE, a Bollywood- UK co-production that is an adaptation of Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (ISBN 0-553-21310-5). Screenwriters Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha have transposed the Bennets into an Indian family in Amritsar, made the Bingleys an Indian family living in the United Kingdom, and made Darcy and Wickham Americans. This allowed them to film in three countries, giving a wide visual palette for the film. I definitely enjoyed the film, and particularly enjoyed the songs. (Many of them were dubbed into English, and fairly well, because I didn't realize that they were dubbed until I went to a web site to play samples of them and discovered that there they were in Hindi.) One song ("No Life Without Wife") was staged in a manner reminiscent of a song from "Fiddler on the Roof", and the songs in general showed a wide range of other influences. And the adaptation worked--the use of the Indian culture allows for a stronger emphasis on arranged marriages and family dynamics in a modern-day version than if someone attempted to set it in a strictly Anglo-English family. Of course I recommend the book, but I recommend the film as well. Even if you're not an Austen fan, if you like romantic musicals, go see BRIDE & PREJUDICE. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with noconformity. --Eric Hoffer
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