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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/06/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 45 (Whole Number 1281)
Table of Contents
The Next Phase of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
HOLD THE PRESSES
[If the wording of this seems familiar, I am writing this at the last moment to get into the notice. I just found out about this this morning. I am just an updating of a notice that ran last September. At the moment I am too rushed to write some new insouciant humor to go with this story so you will have to make do with the previous souciant humor of the last posting. I will not have time to proofread and apologize in advance for any of words order out.]
BBC Radio 4 has produced another new series of their hugely super-popular semi-sci-fi but mostly comedy series "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". [Also movie currently a. Issue this see.] They began broadcasting on May 3, which may seem like just any other date to you, but it is the day in which the light and darkness are in equal proportions and this is the country of paganism and Stonehenge. [Well, no, that was the last time the notice ran. These days there is more light than darkness. At least in some ways. Oh dear. There isn't time to find something special about May 3 and it has already passed anyway. Rush. Rush. Rush. Okay, how about that we are just half a year round form November 3?]
But, I hear you say that BBC 4 is a whole ocean away. (Well, some of you are now saying no, it isn't, but those voices are saying it in a British accent. (How cultured it sounds. Can this really be the people that spends its evenings drinking in pubs and which produces those tawdry tabloids and whose Ministers of Parliament are so frequently found in their cups and in ladies' foundation garments? (But I digress.))) The inescapable fact is that very few of us on this side of the pond have radios strong enough to pick up the Beeb (that is the super-secret nickname for the BBC that only us aficionados who are real insiders know) so we will have to wait for local broadcasts of the series just like last time. But, hark, many things have changed over the last 26 years since the show's first broadcast. (America still had the respect of the world then, for one thing. (But I guess that was true four years ago too. (But I digress.))) Fear not, fair varlet, if thou hast one of those useful PC thingees with the screen and the keyboard and the spam and the pop-ups. [Jeez, did I really used to write like this? It was clever, I suppose, but I am much funnier today than I was then.] For one can yet get BBC 4 over the Internet. Yet wait, says you, have I (you) not already missed the first episode? In sooth thou hast, but thou canst download an episode up to a seven days after its Thursday re-broadcast. There is still time, but thou bestest rush for the deadline draweth nigher and nigher.
Details at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers/index.shtml and the BBC's own information at http://tinyurl.com/bffat. [There. A whole article written in 47 seconds. And most people probably don't remember I made all these jokes before. Gee, do other people know about the benefits of reuse? Or is it just me and Roger Corman? [-mrl]
Winners of the 2004 Nebula Awards:
Fortune Cookie (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A friend of mine plays a game. When he eats in a Chinese restaurant and gets a fortune cookie he reads the fortune and suffixes it with the prepositional phrase "in bed." This supposedly makes fortunes a lot more funny. So I was showing this to Evelyn and opened my fortune cookie. The fortune was, "You will sleep well tonight." [-mrl]
Do the Math (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A phrase you hear frequently is "do the math." The sort of thing is "One man. Three women. Do the math." Wow. Sounds impressive, huh? Usually when you hear or read that there is no mathematics whatsoever to do. Or if there is mathematics to do, it is second grade arithmetic. There is a one third of a man per woman. So what does that mean? They aren't going to divide him up.
I think the phrase "do the math" should really be licensed and its usage controlled. Anyone who says to do the math should have to prove first that there is some math there to do and second that he himself can do the math. Bluffing is probably more common than bona fide cases where there is mathematics that can be done. You do see cases where the real mathematics is highly sophisticated and the person who says "do the math" has not done any himself. This is closely related to proof by intimidation. Somebody might say, "we will run out of food by the middle of this century--do the math.
Okay. So let's actually do some of the math. In Robert Heinlein's TUNNEL IN THE SKY, a story that takes place considerably in the future, there is a reference to the claim that if everybody in China was lined up four abreast and marched past a point, say a reviewing stand, the end of the line would never pass it. Chinese are born too fast. (Well, I have always heard the problem saying they were walking off a cliff, but that is needlessly gruesome. For once Heinlein is more politically correct than the norm.) Heinlein says the assertion is not true and that even if one ignores deaths it would take only about four years to review the entire Chinese population.
I do not know where Heinlein got his figures, but I went to the CIA web page that gives the population, birth rate, and death rate for China ( http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/print/ch.html). Let's do the math. In the year 2004 there were 1.299 billion people in China. (This assumes that figure is accurate and the Chinese are not hiding from the government the number of children they have. The government punishes families with too many children, and some families really do cheat and hide the number of children they actually have.)
In 2004 there were 12.98 births per 1000 and 6.92 deaths per 1000. That is a net change of 6.06 added to the line per 1000. (I have no idea why all these figures fall so suspiciously close to nice round numbers. What are the chances? Do the math.) With 1.299 billion people that gives you an approximation of 7,817,400 people added per year. That is 21,417 people added per day. That is 892.4 people added per hour. Or 0.247888 people added per second. That is very close to 4 seconds per person. (Another nearly round number.) Or a new row of four people would be added about every 16 seconds.
So for the numbers to work and the statement to be true the row of four people walking abreast would have to pass by every 16 seconds. That is a fairly open rank. I think we picture it as being more likely a row would walk by every two seconds. So walking four abreast is not going to do it. One person walking by every 4 seconds would be about right. But this assumes that children born to parents who have already walked by would have to go through the line. Even with that assumption eventually the Chinese population would have all been reviewed.
Now Heinlein, who I suspect did not really do the mathematics, says that his high school student figured how long it would take to deplete the un-reviewed population. He came up with four years somehow. I tried the calculation and found it to be a nasty differential equation. It has been thirty-one years since I have done a really nasty differential equation. Hey, you want more drama in the MT VOID? Here it is. I am going to face my own demons right here in front of the MT VOID readership. I am going to challenge myself to solve this problem. My own personal demon is the mathematics I have forgotten. Now I will put it to the test. Next week I am going to come back with the answer or I will admit that I am just not the sharp mathematician I used to be. I will report the results next week. I may give the solution technique if I can make it sufficiently clear, but I will come back with some sort of answer or an admission of defeat. I wonder if I can run this like a walk-a-thon. Anyone want to pledge money to Oxford Famine Relief if I am able to solve this problem? (You know, this is going to be pretty depressing if I fail. Maybe this isn't such a good idea.)
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK [-mrl]
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: It is hard to be too harsh on a film with as many smiles as this one has. But for many of us the jokes will be just too familiar. Some of the visualizations are quite good and perhaps the best thing about this version of the oft-adapted stories of Douglas Adams. This film is a pleasant experience but a throwaway one. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
For me, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is getting to be like a good joke that I have heard too many times. Come to think of it, that is exactly what it is. I have heard the original radio broadcasts, read the books, heard the records, saw the TV show, played the video game, read the cereal box, saw the stage play, read the comic, and bought the beach towel. (Come to think of it, where is the beach towel?) Watching the film I had a curious sense of deja deja deja deja deja deja vu. I not only knew the gags ahead of time, I knew the plot that was coming up, and I knew the mid-film allusions to the jokes I was just about to hear. I think I can solidly recommend the film to people who have experienced the story in at least one and not more than three of the above media. You should have experienced none of the media versions any more than three times. If this is your first experience with THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY you risk being completely lost, and if you have dragged through it too many times you risk falling asleep to the tune of gags you can recite in your sleep.
Douglas Adams's humor may not be well suited to visual media. In the radio version Adams has one throwaway joke in which Ford tells Zephod that the extra head suits him. The TV series was then obliged to put a stupid, lifeless head next to Zephod's living one and the actor had to go through the whole series like that. The new film version neatly side-steps the two-head problem. I will give it credit for that. But it takes longer for a visual dramatic medium to establish a setting than it does on radio and this slows down the gags and eliminates some of the nice dialog. This is a much chopped-down version of the plot and the clever one-liners become leaden production numbers. One clever Adams bon mot becomes an entire Broadway-musical-style song to run under the opening credits. It is like casting an ethereal haiku in double-thick iron plating. Even in this hobbled version the brightness of the Adams humor comes through and we can occasionally pretend a bit that we are hearing these jokes for the first time. It is a pleasant if empty experience.
I should say something about the plot, though if you are not already familiar with the plot you may be a little lost in the film. (Now how do I say it without ruining the gags? Particularly because the plot is densely packed with gags.) Arthur Dent is a poor hapless nebbish who cannot get a date and whose house [gag reference deleted] because [gag reference deleted]. He then finds out from his friend Ford Prefect that aliens called Vogons are going to [gag reference deleted] because [gag reference deleted]. Before he knows what is happening he and Ford are on board a Vogon spacecraft with nowhere to go but the inky blackness of space.
The film has most of its rewards in its visuals. The vision of the Vogons as a big, lumbering, oafish race is a very nice piece of translation to the screen. A great deal of effort probably went into making the words fit their big, rubbery lips or really vice versa. But here it is a mistake in translating to the jokes to a visual medium. English words should not fit Vogon lips. The Vogons speak their own language, and the [gag reference deleted] allows the humans to hear in English. It should look to humans like a badly dubbed movie. Scenes toward the end of the film are spectacular and there is even time for a visual nod to THINGS TO COME and another to STAR TREK. There is an extended new sequence centering on a new character named Humma Kavula and played by John Malkovich. The sequence is not really a very productive one, but Humma Kavula is a visually clever idea for a strange alien. I checked and Humma Kavula is not actually a line from the song "Bippity Boppity Boo" like I thought it was. I did, however, correctly recognize Marvin's voice as being that of Alan Rickman. But even outside of a Hitchhiker's context Rickman's voice always had a sort of Marvin quality. It was a good casting choice even if visually Marvin was not my image of the lugubrious robot. Another good casting choice was the choice of Bill Nighy for a character who appears late in the film. Nighy has been a good character actor for years, but I think audiences saw him entirely anew after he was the best thing in the film LOVE ACTUALLY.
Seeing THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY as a film was not the experience I was hoping for, but it kept me smiling. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke (2004, Bloomsbury, $27.95, 782pp, ISBN 1-58234-416-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
It's that time of year again--my annual review of the Hugo nominees. So, forward, into the past . . . literally.
So, a few months ago, one of my neighbors, a science fiction and fantasy fan, gives us this doorstop with the statement "Gwen might like this". Gwen, for those who don't know, is my daughter, and "this", was a book called JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL (and no, that's not a typo--there's no period after Mr). I'd not heard of the book up to that point, but not long after that I started noticing rave reviews for it, especially in Locus' year end recommending reading list. Well, I think you guys all know me by now. It's a fantasy, and I don't read fantasy as a rule not because I don't like it as much as because there's so much science fiction out there to read that I'd rather read the science fiction than the fantasy.
So, in come the Hugo nominations, and in I go to Gwen's room to ask her for the book to read.
Folks, I don't see what all the hype is about. To be sure, it's a very well written book. The use of the language and spelling of the period (early 1800's) is phenomenal. Clarke obviously did her homework in setting up the story in the period and location in which it is set. She also creates a rich enough history so that you feel like it's a very *full* tale, if you know what I mean. Everything is sketched out, and even minor points have some very full backgrounds. But I have two major problems with the novel:
My neighbor said, "Nothing happens until about page 200". At page 210 I confronted him with the fact that nothing was happening. He said, "Oh, maybe I was wrong, I think it was page 300". We played that game for awhile. I haven't seen him in about a week, but I needed to tell him that it was about page 500 before anything interesting enough happened to pique my interest.
Oh, yeah, the story. Magic has disappeared from England. It used to be a commonplace thing, this magic. And I'm not talking about the pointy hat wizard type of magic, with guys in flowing robes running around throwing lightning bolts and fireballs (well, at least there were no flamboyant outfits), but almost "gentlemanly" magic--it's hard to explain. There are still magicians in the world, but they study magic--they don't perform it. They are not practical magicians. In fact, there don't seem to be any practical magicians anywhere in England until Mr Gilbert Norrell is discovered in Yorkshire. He sets about trying to restore magic to England, and since he's the only practical magician in England, he can shape the restoration any way he wants--until Jonathan Strange comes along.
Strange becomes Norrell's student, but the two of them couldn't be any more different. Norrell is cautious, warning England about the dangers of most magic, hoarding all the magic books so that the power they hold and talk about can't be misused by people who don't understand it. Strange is flamboyant, a risk taker. He wants to explore magic and try all sorts of things that Norrell never would. The main point of contention, it seems, is that of the Raven King, whose more traditional name is John Uskglass. Uskglass was a powerful magician who ruled the northern portion of England several hundred years before the time of the novel. He also ruled several other kingdoms, including that of Faerie, where the fairies come from--no not like Tinkerbell or anything like that, but sly, devious, and treacherous creatures who look like men. Norrell wants to drive the memory of Uskglass out of England, and remove his influence entirely from the magic revival. Strange embraces Uskglass and his teachings, claiming that if one removed Uskglass from the magic, one would have no magic at all, because all magic comes from Uskglass.
Clarke does succeed in making you feel at first one way, and then another, about both Strange and Norrell. She also throws in the normal things like prophecies, mysterious characters, scoundrels, and all the other trappings of fantasy, but manages to make it more palatable than the typical sword and sorcery stuff. However, it just never hit home for me--maybe it will for you. [-jak]
[Note: The lack of the period following "Mr" is because that's how the British punctuate--or fail to punctuate--that honorific. -ecl]
SF: EPISODE I (SAMURAI FICTION) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: With its light touch, this is the most enjoyable samurai film that I have seen in years. It is a deft and slightly daft story of a valuable sword stolen by a by an enigmatic but unstoppable swordsman. The unready son of the rightful owner is forced to chase down an enemy whose fighting skills are far superior to his own. The film features beautiful photography and almost no blood. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
In 1616 Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu personally gave a gift of a sword to one of his loyal retainers. Eighty years later that sword is the treasure of one of the Japanese clans. But circumstances cause an untried young samurai, Rannosuke Kazamatsuri, entrusted with guarding the sword to instead steal it and run off with it. The clan's chief official persuades his son Heishiro Inukai (played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi) to chase down Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) and get the sword back. But Kazamatsuri proves to be an unstoppable swordsman and has he his own plan for the great sword. Inukai is not much of a world-beater and is a little terrified of his assignment. That is the bad news. The good news is that Kazamatsuri is very reserved and generally fights only those who try to stop him in his mission. The bad news is nobody but Kazamatsuri seems to survive those encounters.
Hiroyuki Nakano directs and co-authored the script, giving it a quirky touch of comedy. One of his approaches is a sort of irreverent sense for when to mix in whimsical anachronism. For example, a peasant plays a nice rendition of "Swanee River" on a wood saw. A trio of friends is called the Three Stooges. But the film centers on the enigmatic Kazamatsuri. Tomoyasu Hotei is tall and thin and quiet, reminiscent of a MAGNIFICENT-SEVEN-vintage James Coburn. In the cliched way of samurai film he seems nearly defenseless and is instead formidable. Of course we have to have the requisite scene with a bunch of who find that not respecting this stranger is a fatal mistake.
The film is shot in black-and-white with occasional color effects. Rather than showing any blood in the fights, when someone has been killed the screen is drenched in red. But the only blood we ever see is from a nosebleed. The photography is done in a rich spectrum of black and white with scenes being very well composed. The style conjures of memories of Life Magazine photography. There are numerous nods to pop culture and the film is orchestrated to a mostly rock and jazz score.
The title of the film is "SF: Episode 1", implying that it is the beginning of a series, but seven years after the film was made there is no sign of a sequel. That is a pity since this was for me the most pleasant and enjoyable samurai film that I have seen since SANJURO. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
(Available on DVD.)
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I'm somewhat behind in my reading (and writing) because of Passover, so bear with me.
Our science fiction discussion group discussed Robert A. Heinlein's TUNNEL IN THE SKY (ISBN 0-345-35373-0) this month. It was compared and contrasted to such works as ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON by Johann Wyss, THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND by Jules Verne, and LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding. It is worth noting that the only books listed in the "Customers who bought this book also bought" section of amazon.com were five other Heinlein juveniles and Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, and their "Better together" recommendation is one of the Heinlein juveniles. While there is certainly validity in those choices, TUNNEL IN THE SKY is far more closely connected to the works listed above. The science fictional content is minimal, merely a device to strand this groups of teenagers on an uninhabited world. In fact, the main character is convinced for a while that he is actually still on Earth, possibly in Africa somewhere. One thing we agreed on, though, was that Heinlein included a lot more politics than the other "survival" novels. (One on-line reviewer said, "TUNNEL IN THE SKY has variations of the themes covered in LORD OF THE FLIES." He may not have realized that TUNNEL IN THE SKY predates LORD OF THE FLIES by four years. It is even remotely possible that Golding was writing in response to Heinlein.)
I am slogging my way through the thousand-plus pages of St. Augustine's CITY OF GOD (ISBN 0-14-044426-2), but am finding a lot to dispute. Well, the fact that Passover affected my schedule should tell you something, but it's more than that. The first part of the book is Augustine trying to explain why Christianity is objectively provable as better than the Roman religion. In I:6-7, for example, he says that while the Romans would plunder Roman temples in the cities they were attacking, the Romans and even the barbarians respected the Christian churches. Well, even if this were entirely true then (which I doubt), subsequent centuries have shown this to be an anomaly. (And one reason it might have been true then was that the barbarians--the Goths--of which he was writing were also Christians.) In II:3, Augustine talks about all the "calamities [that] befell the Romans when they worshipped the pagan gods." Of course, since 413 C.E. when Augustine wrote that, lots of calamities have befallen Christians, so that argument seems to have caved in as well.
This is not to say that Augustine is not sometimes amazingly topical. In II:11, he writes, "It is another mark of consistency in the Greeks that they regarded even the actors of those stories as worthy of considerable worth" and admitted them to political office. (He thinks this is improper of them, because he disapproves of the stories those actors performed.)
I may have more to say about CITY OF GOD when I get past the Roman stuff and into the theology.
James Gleick's WHAT JUST HAPPENED: A CHRONICLE FROM THE INFORMATION FRONTIER (ISBN 0-375-71391-3) was published in 2003, but is a collection of articles over the preceding decade. As such, a lot of the articles about the Internet, the Web, electronic funds, and so on, are more nostalgic than cutting- edge. It's a little like the feeling one gets when watching DIE HARD 2 and seeing a woman on the airplane carrying a taser in her purse. (Actually, I suspect even back in 1990 people could not carry such items on board.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Life is one fool thing after another where as love is two fool things after each other. -- Oscar Wilde
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