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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/10/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 50 (Whole Number 1286)
Table of Contents
What the Worst-Dressed Superheroes Wear (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Two fashion experts (?) discuss the worst-dressed comic book superheroes and supervillains. Included are illustrations. Must reading for any of you who happen to be radioactive super-mutants just discovering your new-found powers and may need a costume.
The Lucas Loophole (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I read a review of the "Star Wars" series that complained about the absurdity of the whole thing. The author had a number of complaints about characters and motivations, all very much matters of taste. Only one complaint had real substance. The writer complained that the whole idea of a galactic civilization is absurd. The distances are too great. People seem to flit around between star systems as if they were states in the United States. That seems on the face of it absurd.
Actually the complaint is as well aimed at "Star trek" and BABYLON 5. Of these big three, "Star Wars" needs the assumption the least. For any of these series to work it is necessary to have faster-than-light travel. And the writers of space opera seem by mutual consent agree that they will not be bound by the strictures of relativistic physics. They hand-wave with magic like wormholes and space warps. "Star Trek" seems to assume that space can warp space like a fold in a sheet of paper and they can take shortcuts. Even if that were possible, the existence of warp engines implies that they can bend space and generate shortcuts wherever they want at will. This is nearly pure fantasy. "Star Wars" does have a hyper-drive, but they don't explain it as warping space.
Another claim made in "Star Trek" and BABYLON 5 is that you have special passageways called wormholes that work like the diagonal passageways in the game "Clue". You pop into a black hole here and pop out someplace else in the universe unharmed. Various sources these days say this process probably would crush you, spaghetti you, or incinerate you. Wormholes do not seem like a reasonable mechanism for faster than light travel either. We accept them in stories to allow the telling of the stories. We willingly suspend disbelief. Fine, but it is still rather fantastic.
At this point you probably are thinking I am an idiot. "Star Wars" has faster-than-light hyperdrive. We see it in the film. The thing is that we are told that what we are seeing is faster than light travel, but the story does not require it. In "Star Wars" rapid travel between the stars would be possible not by wormhole but by loophole. There is a very big loophole that Lucas has (probably) unknowingly left himself that could make "Star Wars" compatible with Einsteinian physics. It may not be consistent with other physics, giving us sound in space and having ships maneuver as if they were in atmosphere, but "Star Wars" does not necessarily have to assume faster than light travel.
The loophole that Lucas has left himself is the phrase "A long time ago in a galaxy far away...." Part of the implication is that while this is apparently a very human-like race we are seeing, they are not us. We are not them. They may not be like us in all respects. They seem to be able to travel across their entire galaxy in a very small fraction of their lives. Does this require faster-than-light travel? Not at all. What it requires is a lot of time. It could be that we are talking about a race that is very long lived. Perhaps it is a race that lives long enough to cross a galaxy in a fraction of their lifetime at sub-light speeds.
Of course, they do not appear to be long-lived in our terms. Luke Skywalker appears to age in a short time. They do not seem to have very long lives compared to ours and they do not perceive their lives as long, but that is a question of their internal clocks. They also could be on planets whose rotation to us would be so slow we almost could not see the rotation since they do seem to have night and day at intervals that seem to us like our interval of night and day. But then Mercury in our solar system has a very long but not infinite day.
It has occurred to me that of earth life forms, trees would make a better space-faring race than humans since they live so much longer than us and so the distances of space would not be as great for them. The races of "Star Wars" could have a galactic civilization, but probably only if they all live so slowly that Earth civilization could come and go in a blink of one of their human-like alien eyes. A set of very slow races like this could have a galactic civilization in which species come together like they do in the Imperial Senate.
This is all speculation because Han Solo does claim the Millenium Falcon can travel at hyper-light speeds. That is not as fanciful as wormhole travel, but it is still in the realm of fantasy. Still, if one ignores that one line, Lucas's polyglot universe is possible. Galactic civilizations are possible. There can be such universes. Sadly, just not for us Earth people.
P.S. Great minds think alike. National Geographic is also thinking about the technical problems of the Star Wars universe. They discuss faster-than-light travel being necessary so I don't think they have thought about the possibility of super-slow life-forms. If you are interested you can look at http://tinyurl.com/ceh2n.
Typo [with SPOILER] (letter of comment by Bill Higgins):
Bill Higgins wrote "I very much enjoyed your ruminations about 'Star Wars' [in which you wrote], 'So was the pod race sequence of THE PHANTOM MENAGE.' Wasn't there a 'F&SF' competition where you changed one letter in an SF title? This would belong. Maybe it's a sequel to 'Phantom of the Opera' in which the Phantom has *two* girls...." [-bh]
Mark responds, "Really it means a household or a group of people living together as the ghosts do in [TOPPER]. It occurs in your sense, in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, but only as a Menage a deux." [-mrl]
Timelines (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In reference to Sherlock Holmes, Evelyn wrote in the 06/03/05 issue of the MT VOID, "I suspect that, like 'M*A*S*H' on television, or Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' series, there are more stories than time to fit them into." [-ecl]
Fred Lerner responded, "And what about Cabot Cove, Maine? How is anyone there ever able to obtain life insurance?" [-fl]
Evelyn adds, "Or St. Mary Mead?" [-ecl]
Mark, on the other hand, says, "There is some sort of field over Maine that slows the flow of information. Physicists have studied the phenomenon and just like you cannot send information backward in time (or you get into the Grandfather Paradox) you cannot move information faster than glacial speeds in Maine. The news of the Cabot Cove murders had gotten only as far as Freeport as of April. Freeport is not acting on it since they are currently tied up trying to figure out why there has been no word for many years from 'Salem's Lot." The mailman and the milkman have not been heard from. [-mrl]
Hugo Nominees (part 1) (comments/reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Well, there are no Retro-Hugos this year, so I'll have a lot fewer works to comment on because of that. And because two of the five nominees for Best Novel (THE ALGEBRAIST by Iain M. Banks and RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald) haven't been published in the United States yet, that cuts it down even further. I started IRON COUNCIL by China Mieville but it didn't work for me, and since I am not going to be voting on that category, I decided to stop. I already commented on JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke in the 10/15/04 issue of the VOID. And I just haven't gotten to IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross, in part because I find most of Stross's writing too dense for me (but see my comments on "The Concrete Jungle" below).
So my comments will focus on the short fiction. (Luckily, Joe Karpierz will, as usual, cover the novels.) I will try to avoid giving spoilers, so in some cases I will say very little about the plot. My comments will be on the works in ballot order; my rankings will be at the end of each section.
Note that most of the short fiction is available on-line; see http://www.interaction.worldcon.org.uk/hugolink.htm.
"The Concrete Jungle" by Charles Stross (in his collection THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES) is a science fiction story with Lovecraftian overtones, as well as a paranoia piece about government surveillance. I found this to be just about the first Stross story I've tried that I found understandable. Am I getting smarter (or more persistent), or he is simplifying his work?
"Elector" by Charles Stross ("Asimov's" 09/04) could be described as "politics after the Singularity". This is a more typical Charles Stross, i.e, often almost incomprehensible. (It's apparently part of a series, but I have read none of the others.) What can I say about a story that contains sentences such as "Ust why the Vile Offspring seem to feel it's necessary to apply exaquops to the job of deriving accurate simulations of dead humans--outrageously accurate simulations of lon-dead lives, annealed until their written corpus matches that inherited from the pre-singularity era in the form of chicken scratchings on mashed tree pulp--much less beaming them at refugee camps on Saturn--is beyond Sirhan's ken: but he wishes they'd stop." ("Vile Offspring" and "exaquops" are undefined, and yes, he really does use a colon there.) It felt like it was better than I was understanding (if you can follow that), so I've rated it accordingly.
"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton ("Fantasy & Science Fiction" 09/04) is, on the other hand, more in the traditional style. The eponymous character is a dog, albeit a very intelligent dog who is in telepathic contact with his human master/squad captain. If the war (and general political situation) that they are in seem very current, perhaps even too topical, one has to recall that the story could be transposed back to earlier wars as well, so I don't think one can claim this is merely a screed against the current war.
"Time Ablaze" by Michael A. Burstein ("Analog" 06/04) is a competent enough story, but nothing new or special. The entire plot was predictable from the beginning, and I have no idea why this made the ballot when there are so many more original stories around. This story does continue a theme I've seen in a lot of Burstein's work, that of memory and remembrance.
"Winterfair Gifts" by Lois McMaster Bujold (in the anthology IRRESISTIBLE FORCES) is another Miles Vorkosigan story. Way back when, when I was young, and most of you probably not born yet, "Galaxy" magazine ran a back cover on which the left column was the start of a Western story, and the right column was the start of a science fiction story which was identical to the left column with just a few word replacements (e. g., "blaster" for "six- shooter"). And at the bottom, it said that "Galaxy" was going to have real science fiction, not just Westerns tricked up as science fiction. "Winterfair Gifts" is a romance/mystery tricked up as science fiction, and another mystery is how it got nominated for a Hugo.
My voting order: Stross ("Concrete"), Denton, Stross ("Elector"), No Award, Burstein, Bujold
"Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" by Benjamin Rosenbaum (in the anthology ALL-STAR ZEPPELIN ADVENTURE STORIES) has a long, complicated title, and that's just a sign of what is to come. The Benjamin Rosenbaum of the title is a pseudonym for a "Plausible Fable", a.k.a. "PlausFab" (think "SciFi") writer in an alternate universe that is not a Democritan materialist one (as ours is), but one in which the world seems to have its own consciousness and purpose through the Theory of Five Causal Forms. (If I were to compare it to another work, it would be Richard Garfinkle's CELESTIAL MATTERS.) And Rosenbaum (our Rosenbaum, that is) adds another level of difference in the supremacy of the Karaite view of Judaism over the Rabbinical one. You either like this sort or stuff, or you don't, and I can't help feeling that if you don't, the addition of zeppelins won't help it. I liked it--a lot.
"The Clapping Hands of God" by Michael F. Flynn ("Analog" 07- 08/04) is a first-contact story, with the twist that the humans come from a future in which Islam is the primary religion. It's well done, though I'm not sure the twist is not just that--a gimmick rather than an integral part of the story.
"The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link (in the anthology THE FAERY REEL) seems like a typical fairy tale translated to an urban setting. As with many of the nominees, my only question is why this was deemed Hugo-worthy.
"The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalupi ("Fantasy & Science Fiction" 02/04) is about soldiers and a dog (again!). But the soldiers are genetically engineered so that they are no longer really human--they can regenerate lost limbs, and eat anything (including the sand and slag of the title). The dog is *not* engineered, and the soldiers have never had any experience with a natural dog. This is probably a good story, but it is also very unpleasant.
"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe (scifi.com 5/5/04) is another story I found, for some reason, unreadable. Maybe my age is starting to show or something, but a lot of "cutting-edge" fiction seems more like "the death of a thousand cuts" to me.
My voting order: Rosenbaum, Flynn, No Award, Link, Bacigalupi, Rowe
I will conclude next week with the short story and dramatic presentation (long form) categories. [-ecl]
LAYER CAKE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: LAYER CAKE is a violent but intelligent crime film from the United Kingdom. The unnamed main character has his own philosophy of how to stay alive and profit from the cocaine trade. In the course of a few days, his philosophy will be put to the test as he is involved in a totally confusing set of schemes that just keep getting bigger and more convoluted. In addition to the many layers, the story has some serious violence and many dead bodies. Just following what is going on is a big job, but the film has its rewards. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
British crime thrillers tend to be crisp, violent, and totally engaging. Films like THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY; GET CARTER; LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS; THE KRAYS; SEXY BEAST; and the excellent but little-known MR IN-BETWEEN are some of the best of their genre anywhere. For LAYER CAKE, J. J. Connolly adapts his own novel of the same title to the screen. At the beginning of this film the unsuspecting viewer is standing on a whole pile of rugs and should be prepared to have them one at a time pulled out from under him.
The main character of LAYER CAKE is never named, so I will call him Craig since he is played by Daniel Craig. Craig is temporarily in the cocaine business and tells his philosophy of how to succeed and stay alive. Simply put, he says to be a straight arrow, or as straight as one can be in the cocaine business. He plays the game prudent, honest, careful, conservative, and simple. He makes no person his victim and makes no man his enemy. His goal is to make a chunk of money quickly and then to get out of the business without looking back. Unfortunately he must leave this well-ordered life when his boss's boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), asks Craig to take on assignment somewhat out of his line. He is to find the missing runaway daughter of criminal ganglord Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). Also he is to try to get hold of a missing haul of one million ecstasy tablets. Craig hates to leave behind his plan for living, but he does not want to make enemies either.
Telling much more would damage the reader's enjoyment of the film.
The writing of the script is like a golf ball, hard and taut with lots that is tightly wound, dangerous, and unpredictable just below the surface. The scenes with plot twists are edited to make the surprises all the more shocking. When the plot turns it is usually a hairpin turn. The film is full of weird low-lifes, strange in different ways. Everybody has a past that affects their present in unexpected ways. That is one thing that keeps the film going. People keep doing things that make no sense until more of the story is known. Craig has a bewildering mess to navigate while he is trying to stay alive. The film is hard to follow and probably will be the subject of countless conversations over coffee after the movie is over. The accents and unfamiliar slang do not make the film any more understandable to Yanks.
Matthew Vaughn is directing for the first time, though he has produced films like LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. Daniel Craig may be familiar as Paul Newman's trouble-making son in ROAD TO PERDITION or as Sylvia Plath's philandering husband in SYLVIA. This gangster may be the most scrupulous character I have seen him play. For a while he was even named as a possible candidate for the role of James Bond in the upcoming CASINO ROYALE. Michael Gambon, an all-purpose character actor and who is always excellent, plays a voluble but enigmatic crime lord.
LAYER CAKE will be for some very hard to follow, but the atmosphere makes it all worthwhile. A fun film for fans of the British gangster genre. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. (By the way, please do not write me with questions of what actually happened in this one. I have seen it only once. I hope it will be clearer on the second viewing.) [-mrl]
On the Finding (and Buying) of Books (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
People have occasionally asked me where I hear about and find all the books that I review or comment on. The answer is threefold: the library, annual book sales, and used bookstores. The question of where I find out about them has an additional answer: Arts and Letters Daily (http://www.aldaily.com). While I do get some recommendations elsewhere, this is probably my primary source.
[I don't always know where *my* next meal is coming from. Hey, Evelyn, where do you want to go for dinner? -mrl]
You may notice that new bookstores are not listed. That is a function of several factors, two being the cost of books and our retirement. Lest people worry, no, we aren't wondering where our next meal is coming from, but dropping $75 for an annotated Sherlock Holmes (when I already have two different ones, and this one is the short stories only, with the novels yet to come) seems foolish. If I have patience, it may well show up used much cheaper. For example, I just bought a used annotated "Huckleberry Finn" for $12.95 (list price was $39.95).
But I'm not buying as many used books either. [No comment. -mrl] We always went to the library a lot, but the lack of space in our house due to decades of previous book-buying has convinced me to use the library more. So, for example, the three Sherlock Holmes novels I recently reviewed were all checked out of the library, where in the past I probably would have bought them--and then read them once and stored them for decades.
In our area, also, there are no used bookstores nearby--the two closest are each about 45 minutes away. So I'm not constantly tempted by them. Even when I do go, I buy less. This last weekend, I bought just three books (a biography of George Eliot, THE JEW IN THE MEDIEVAL WORLD, and Wilkie Collins's THE MOONSTONE) at the Cranbury Book Worm, where previously I would buy a whole stack. And two hours in the Strand resulted in my finding just one book (the aforementioned Twain). My biggest purchase was at the relatively small Mercer Street Books, where I got Phaidon's THE ART BOOK, Pat and Fred Cody's CODY'S BOOKS, Bev Jafek's THE MAN WHO TOOK A BITE OUT OF HIS WIFE, Theodore Roosevelt's THROUGH THE BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS, and Byron L. Sherwin's GOLEMS AMONG US--all books I am unlikely to find in my library system.
[See my previous "no comment." -mrl]
Of course, I'm lucky in that we have a good library, and a good inter-library loan system. But those who do not, there is only the solace of used book buying, often on-line. This is becoming more of a minefield than before, as more and more inept vendors get involved in it. It used to be that if you saw a book described, you had a reasonable expectation of that description being accurate. Now it's becoming all too common to order what purports to be book and get a completely different one. Everyone seems to call everything a first edition, and I've seen a lot of listings that describe a paperback book as a hardcover--or even as "Hardcover. . . . "Paperback binding"! (It's even worse with DVDs, because many times the cheapest vendors ship bootlegs.) Feedback/ratings mean nothing--I've seen many comments on positive feedback that says, "Shipped wrong version, but gave a prompt refund." If this is what passes to a positive experience these days, that's sad.
But all these on-line booksellers are in part why used bookstores--where you can see what you are buying--are disappearing. Not that our area was ever flush with them, but the three closest to us have closed within the last four years.
And now I hear that new books will be getting even more expensive. Penguin is going to be coming out with a "premium" paperback, selling for around $10. So we will now be getting the British gradations in books, with their "A", "B", and "C" paperbacks having parallels in our mass-market, premium, and trade paperbacks. Considering that new fiction in hardback goes for $25 or more, and non-fiction is often $35 or more, more and more people are waiting for some sort of paperback. The article at http://tinyurl.com/9rwnt says that these will be a half-inch taller than mass-market paperbacks, so anyone who has built shelves especially for mass-market paperbacks will probably not like these. They will have bigger print (29 lines per page versus 38 in the mass market edition of one title) and better paper quality, and will be labeled as "Specially designed for comfortable reading." Whether the premium paperbacks are successful depends on whether people see them as cheaper trade paperbacks or more expensive mass-market paperbacks. [-ecl]
HIGH TENSION (HAUTE TENSION) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review was published in the 10/31/03 issue of the MT VOID, but is being re-run because it is finally getting a release here.]
Rating: -1 (-4 to +4)
This is a French slasher film directed and co-written by Alexandre Aja. In spite of a slight continental feel and a little lesbian relationship, this film is solid cliche from the early days of slasher films. It is one cliché after another, and then at the end the writer plasters on an ending that is logically inconsistent with the rest of the film.
HAUTE TENSION opens in a very standard way. Two young women visit a farmhouse where one's parents and brother work. The audience has seen that a killer is operating in the same area, driving an old truck. On our first view of the killer he tosses a woman's head out the truck window and it falls in a cornfield. This is just to announce the killer's proximity to the characters. We have a few scenes intended to make the audience jump, but which do not seem to advance the plot. Then the action starts.
There is a knock at the door. The owner of the house opens the door and is sliced and diced. The killer continues his way through the house like a rolling Vegematic killing everyone he finds. These sequences are very violent but not much new. There are three people in the house than the two young women, but somehow you know the others will be dispatched quickly so the killer can concentrate on terrorizing the two main characters.
Eventually there are some twists in the plot, but just enough to make what we have seen inconsistent. The ending raises a lot of questions that cannot really be answered by the story. This is not a film for fans of the subtle or the original. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Returning to a topic I first mentioned in the 04/01/05 issue of the MT VOID, Kate Pott pointed out that A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG is another movies very much about books.
Because I'm reviewing the Hugo nominees in a separate article, this will be a shorter column than usual, with just one book. Peter D. Ward's GORGON: THE MONSTERS THAT RULED THE PLANET BEFORE DINOSAURS AND HOW THEY DIED IN THE GREATEST CATASTROPHE IN EARTH'S HISTORY (ISBN 0-14-303471-5) is definitely in the running for longest title. Ward writes about his experiences in researching the Permian/Triassic (P/T) boundary and the cause(s) of the Permian extinction, the biggest mass extinction on earth. I gather that the cause(s) are still a subject for debate, but what there can be no debate about after reading this book is how unpleasant paleontology can be. Ward describes days of heat stroke, poisonous snakes, ticks carrying deadly Lhasa fever, civil unrest, and crime rates that meant no one ever went out after dark. That anyone stays in this profession is surprising. (Then again, Mark reminded me that Garrison Keillor talked about how we know so much more about the natural history of the Bahamas than of Antarctica because the scientists would much rather do research in the Bahamas than in Antarctica.) It's a fascinating book, even if you end up thinking that Ward must have a streak of masochism in himself. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: In the fight between you and the world, back the world. -- Franz Kafka
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