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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/15/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 42 (Whole Number 1278)
Table of Contents
http://www.interaction.worldcon.org.uk/hugolink.htm has links for many of the Hugo nominees. Note that the links for books are to excerpts or pages where you can buy them, not to a copy of the work itself. The link for the Bujold novella is to a site where you can buy an electronic version for $2.24.
Star Trekkin' Across the Universe... (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Somehow the word "trek" is showing up places as being a super- scientific journey. You hear talk about a trek to the stars. People have forgotten what a trek is. When Gene Roddenberry named his show "Star Trek", it was a silly malapropism. My dictionary says a trek is a) A journey or leg of a journey, especially when slow or difficult. Or b) South African: A journey by ox wagon, especially a migration such as that of the Boers from 1835 to 1837. Trek has a connotation that it is a trip made by muscle power or other primitive means of transportation. When I hear the name "Star Trek" I think of someone taking an interstellar ox-cart across the galaxy. "C'mon, ol' Moses. Warp Two."
The Magic Numbers of the Universe (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
You see mysticism about all sorts of things these days. Big name entertainers are going in for a sort of counterfeit version of the Jewish Kabbalah. Much of mankind seems to have a need for mysticism. The opinion of late is that some of us are actually genetically programmed to be mystical. I have to say I think I am missing that mysticism gene altogether. I find myself singularly devoid of any mystical fiber. If it is genetic it may be linked to the capability of generating exercise endorphins since I seem to be singularly devoid of that capacity also. But if I were to get mystical it would be over the strange constants that the universe chooses for mathematics and physics.
Consider Omega. Omega is a measure of the density of matter. If it were a little higher, the Big Bang could not have happened. This would be a very dull universe. All matter would have just sat at one tiny point and never scattered. You think it is a small world now. That would have been a small universe. If Omega were numerically a little smaller matter would have just diffused in the universe and would not have formed into galaxies. People use this as a proof that there is some intelligent tinkering. Sure, it could have happened differently and the universe would have been unlike what it is now. Perhaps someone or something else somewhere would be contemplating the universe. If I had gone to Oklahoma U. when they tried to recruit me I would have still had a future, just a different one. The universe has no shortage of possible futures. And you just have to pick a very slightly different value for Omega to change the universe. A few decimal places don't seem like much yet they rule the universe.
As for the fact that certain constants show up in mathematics and physics and get used over and over imply that there is some connection we do not understand. When I was a boy we had a typewriter and I was fascinated that there would be a little lever here and if you flipped it something that appeared unrelated and that was several inches away would move. I would turn over the typewriter and look at the mechanism and try to figure how they were related. There would be bars or sticks that linked the two areas together. The universe is much the same but it is harder to see the mechanism. And a lot of it you can figure out with no more than pencil and paper.
This ties in with a question I was asked this week. A psychobiologist asked me why mathematicians find the formula following formula so beautiful:
e^((π)*i) + 1 = 0
I explain it this way. Suppose you found out that Al Pacino, your plumber, your best friend when you were in third grade, and Vice President Chaney were all together in Miss Hardwick's seventh grade English class at Walt Whitman High School in Perry, Montana. They are all people you know of from contexts that seem very different yet they are have this relation to one another. It would be strange and pretty amazing. It might lead you to believe that there was something behind it all because it is too much to just be a coincidence.
The exponential function e^x comes out of calculus. Any function that is its own derivative is e^x or some constant times e^x.
π is this obstinate hard-to-deal-with number that comes out of geometry. The universe has somehow picked this weird number to be the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It seems completely arbitrary.
The number i is even named to indicate that it cannot be real. It is called imaginary, though it is every bit as real as 1. It was invented because you could find numbers that when you square them you could get 1 but nothing that you could square to get -1.
They sound like they have nothing to do with each other, and then suddenly the universe decides they are intimately connected to each other.
In the real world it some people's mystical philosophy that everything is connected to everything else. But in mathematics it seems to be true. Certainly there are connections between things you would never think were at all related. Algebra and topology seem about as unrelated as Thursday is to elbow. But there is a whole field of study that is algebraic topology.
My friend tells me he does not understand what it means to take a number to the power of an imaginary number. Well, guess what? Nobody else does either. But the function e^x can be expressed as an infinite sum in terms of powers of x. And once you have done that, there is no law that says you cannot plug a complex number in for x. And the results you get from that seem to be perfectly consistent. You are finding something that is true, even if it goes beyond what you can imagine. There is something more to the function e^x beyond just multiplying this number e by itself x number of times. That was just what got you looking at this peculiar function to start with, but there is a lot more to it than that. It is something we cannot appreciate or imagine, but it is there nonetheless waiting to be explored. It has been true from the beginning of time and it is true in the furthest reaches of space. The mechanism by which we can make an imaginary number the exponent of the number e can be explained to a high school calculus class, but the results you get are mystical and mysterious. Yet everyone gets the same results if they don't make a mistake. There is something almost mystical about these strange numbers and how they fit together and interconnect. [-mrl]
MAN ON FIRE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A guilt-ridden but very deadly assassin drops his defenses to love the little girl he has been hired to guard. When she is kidnapped he returns to the violence that he knows best. Denzel Washington brings to the screen one more portrait of a bloodthirsty, unstoppable avenger with no bounds. And isn't that an accomplishment! Visually the film is nice, but the images are in service to a violent and ugly film. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10. Warning: Minor spoilers that would have been obvious from the film's trailer.
Denzel Washington plays Creasy, an alcoholic, burned-out assassin ridden by guilt who yearns for death. He asks a retired associate (Christopher Walken), "Do you think God will forgive us for what we've done?" With a moment of thought the response is "No." I mean these guys have been really, really bad men. Get the picture? These are the kind of guys who like to sit around and drink and savor the wisdom of sayings like "A bullet always tells the truth. It never lies." Ain't it the truth?
But Creasy takes a job in Mexico City guarding the totally delightful child with the totally delightful nickname Pita (short for Lupita). The totally delightful Dakota Fanning plays the totally delightful Pita who melts Creasy's heart, getting him to drop his emotional defenses. They love each other as much as a totally delightful little girl and her super-ruthless, guilt- ridden, hired-killer bodyguard can. Then the totally delightful little girl is kidnapped. Creasy goes into overdrive at being super-ruthless to try to get the totally delightful Pita back.
Once Pita is kidnapped the film becomes sort of a minimal detective story. Creasy seems to know all the right questions for the bad guys that he tortures so that he is able to get closer and closer to the real bad guys. (Just who do you think is at the center of the plot?) To underscore the tough-guy talk, Scott prints it on the screen in titles sometimes in large font sometimes in the middle of the screen. The script does not give us much time to get to know the bad men. Once Creasy finds out who they are they are not around for long. Creasy himself is shot several times, but the will to do the right thing keeps him going. He cleanses himself by floating in Pita's swimming pool as his blood colors the water. As he gets closer to the bad guys we get many of the standard surprises much telegraphed.
The photography is actually quite good. The film is shot in a moody color palette, much the same palette as we saw in THE GODFATHER. It also gives the film a nice Mexican mood. This is the kind of film in which you wish the cinematographers, in this case Paul Cameron and CÚsar Charlone, could have fired director Tony Scott and scriptwriter Brian Helgeland (MYSTIC RIVER?). Helgeland's script takes better (or worse) than an hour developing Creasy and Pita's character but only makes them more of the cliches that they are. It also introduces us to characters that will be important later in the story. You can pick out the villains because they are the people who are less attractive.
In spite of suggestions that this film is really about the affection that Creasy feels toward Pita, it is just a violent, mean-spirited Western with cliched characters. Washington seems to have gotten away from playing role models, but the irony is that this is one film in which his character really will be imitated. Gang kids who idolize SCARFACE's Tony Montana have another nasty S.O.B. they can use for inspiration. The mood of MAN ON FIRE is a lot better than the plot. I give MAN ON FIRE a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. If you want an honest and real film about crime, go further south for CITY OF GOD, set in the slums of Brazil.
(Available on DVD.)
THE LIBERTINE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Johnny Depp plays a role unlike any he has played before. (Doesn't he always?) This film about a great rake in Restoration England is a literate morality tale. The writing is good, but the presentation is indifferent. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
"Anyone can oppose. It's fun being against things. But there comes a time when one must be for things." This is the advice that Charles II (played by John Malkovich) gives supreme cynic John Wilmot (Johnny Depp) in the film THE LIBERTINE, directed by Laurence Dunmore from a literate and intelligent screenplay by Stephen Jeffreys based on his play.
During the English Restoration period the John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, is one of the great minds of England as well as one of its most shameless rakes. (Historically the two capacities do seem to go hand in hand.) His father saved the life of King Charles II and Charles admires Rochester's talent for words, but Rochester just wants to be the worst bad boy he can arrange to be and to squander every advantage he has. On a bet Rochester adopts a very bad stage actress and tutors her on his own ideas about acting. Though he really has no credentials he manages to turn her into a very fine actress. Requested to write a major literary work for Charles to use as a status symbol for his country, Rochester decides to write an extreme embarrassment for Charles. Perhaps a story that dwells so long on one man's decadence is not the highest aspiration the film could wish for, but the Depp performance certainly makes the film worthwhile by itself.
In stark contrast to Michael Hoffman's RESTORATION, set in the same period and making it look magnificent, Dunmore gives us images of painted dandies and fops walking in streets of running mud, muck, and sewage. The photography and language are murky and smoky. Depp really stretches his range in the sort of role that at one time might have gone to John Hurt. The film shows the degradation of the character from handsome fop to . . ., well, to a much lower state. Depp may well be the finest actor of his generation. Certainly he is frequently claimed to be. And this could well be regarded as one of his best roles, if the film will get a release. I saw it at a film festival where it was called a work in progress. It is not clear what the producers want from the film. It could be it needs more technical enhancement, as the photography seemed so dark. If there were dramatic problems or production problems like editing they were not evident. I rate the version I saw of THE LIBERTINE a high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We took a brief vacation this week, visiting family, so I did a little less reading than usual. I'll fill in by responding to a friend who asked why I reviewed all sorts of unavailable or expensive books. Well, all I can say is that *I* managed to find them, and not by paying lots of money. It's amazing what sorts of things turn up cheap at used bookstores, or at library book sales, or even at local thrift shops. For example, I found George Eliot's LIFE AND LETTERS at the Strand in New York for $15 for the two volumes, and Russell Hoban's UK-published THE BAT TATTOO at a used bookstore in Northampton, Massachusetts, for $6. Expensive reference books can be found in large libraries, and can be read there even if you're not a resident.
[Being fair I must add that we spend a lot of time in used bookstores, library book sales, etc. etc. If we spent much less time we would probably find fewer rare books. -mrl]
Now on to the reading I did get done.
Joseph Mancure March's THE WILD PARTY (ISBN 0-375-70643-7), illustrated by Art Spiegelman, is a re-issuing of what is described on the flap as a "lost classic", a "hard-boiled jazz- age tragedy told in syncopated rhyming couplets". Here's a sample of the style:
Christ, What a crew! Take a look at Madeline True; Her eyes slanted. Her eyes were green; Heavy-lidded; pouched: obscene. Eyes like a snake's; Like a stagnant pool filled with slime. Her mouth was cruel; A scar In red, That recently had opened and bled.
As you can see, the couplets are not always obvious to the eye, and the punctuation is idiosyncratic. The story itself has echoes of Frankie and Johnnie, and was made (with many changes) into a 1975 film (also titled THE WILD PARTY). In this re-issue, Art Spiegelman, best known for MAUS: A SURVIVOR'S TALE, provides wonderfully evocative woodcut illustrations for this story in verse that conveys both the exuberance and the desperation of the Jazz Age.
INTRODUCING ANTHROPOLOGY by Merryl Wyn Davies (with illustrations by Piero) (ISBN 1-840-46663-4) was a disappointment. First, I found the book to be much sketchier in its coverage than other books in this series. For example, the book says that some anthropologists study kinship structures, and gives the reader a lot of terms used in this area, but doesn't say anything about what different structures might mean. And in general, Davies just tells the reader that anthropologists look at this or that, and what that sub-field is called, rather than attempting to talk about what has been discovered in these fields. It's possible that one is not supposed to expect any sort of conclusions or even theories from anthropology (and indeed, Davies spends a lot of time attacking earlier styles of anthropology that presented conclusions like "Englishmen are superior to everyone else"). But if this is the case, Davies doesn't make it clear. And I found Piero's style of art annoying. It seemed overly political (though that could be the captions Davies placed on it), but also seemed to try to make people, well, ugly. I've liked most of this series, but this one didn't work for me. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions. --Charles Steinmetz
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