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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/08/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 2, Whole Number 1290
Table of Contents
Articles on Science Fiction:
Two articles on science fiction from the magazine "Science & Spirit"--one by James Gunn and the other by Gregory Benford--have been reprinted on their web site:
I Was Right All Along (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The brain is a sophisticated computer. It is also a mysterious thing. It is capable of processing millions commands to your body every second. Because of the complexity the ways it will behave are unpredictable. No example of this is more interesting than the case of the Y2K bugs. People may remember that I was concerned in late 1999 that when the calendar turned over to the year 2000 many computer systems would stop functioning. Nobody was quite sure what all the effects would be and how serious they would be. It is now becoming clear that the effects were worse and more widespread than even I had expected. Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion there was widespread failure of sophisticated computers. So why were there so few mentions of the failures? It is because the brain is a sophisticated computer. When it failed on January 1, 2000, people were no longer able to perceive and remember the Y2K bugs. Ah, the brain is a mysterious thing. [-mrl]
THE INVISIBLE BOY Has Arrived (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When I was young and just getting into science fiction in a big way one of the films that got to me was the 1957 film THE INVISIBLE BOY. This was a follow-up (and some say a semi-sequel) to FORBIDDEN PLANET, made the previous year. Really, a producer of the earlier film and two of the writers got together to make a second film that would trade off the popular Robby the Robot created for the previous film. There is some suggestion that the robot was brought back in time for events of the second film. THE INVISIBLE BOY tells of a closer term future when humanity is just reaching into space and about a space project. A scientist who does a very poor job of relating to his son has that son, Timmie, learn chess from the project computer. Little does either realize that the project computer is evil and plans on world domination. The computer gets Timmie to repair re-activate Robby. The computer uses Robby and Timmie as agents to work its terrible plan.
As a kid I thought this was great stuff. Then I learned the actual language of computers: FORTRAN. I learned keypunches and card-sorters and printers. And at 20 I quickly came to realize how silly and off-base the film THE INVISIBLE BOY was. I knew everything in it that was absurd and not how computers really work. The problem is that now in my fifties I have a different opinion of what was wrong with the film. A lot of the technology that I knew was absurd at one time is really a part of the fantastic futuristic world of 2005. All one really has to do is consider that the master computer they are talking about is really a network of computers linked by the Internet.
We are told that the computer in the film has the "sum-total of human knowledge, constantly being updated and revised." I knew at the time that that was ridiculous. No computer has that much memory. Even today that is more information that a computer could hold. And I knew the huge effort it would be to collect this information and put it into the computer. All that is still true, but I didn't reckon on the computer being publicly available. Being public, it can distribute the work over millions or billions of volunteers.
One could speak to the computer asking a question in English and it would answer out loud in English. I knew at that time that you talked to computers with tab cards. This one I should have seen coming. Certainly answering in printed English was possible when I was 20. It was rarely done because it was not efficient. These days I can ask a question in English to "Ask Jeeves" and have a pretty good chance of getting the answer, which I can pipe to a text-to-speech program. The only piece that is missing is to be able to speak the question rather than typing it. There are such interfaces now, I think, but they are still experimental and not generally used.
Now this one was really silly. If you connected Robby the Robot to the Master Computer with a cable, the MC actually could take over control of Robby as a sort of mind control. (Say, have you checked your PC for spyware recently? I hope you are using a firewall to keep out hackers.) At one point in the film, the scientist is talking to the master computer which he now at this point to be evil. The scientist asks the computer, "Who am I speaking to?" In other words, "who has broken into the computer and is controlling it?" This sort of person would one day come to be known as a hacker, or more accurately a cracker.
Part of what saves the day in THE INVISIBLE BOY is that there is information on the computer that villains cannot reach. This is because it is protected by what is mysteriously called "a secret numerical combination" that only the scientist knows. Those of us who really know computers will have a special technical term for such a thing. It is what we in the know today call that a "password".
There were two things that admittedly the film did get wrong. 1) As I have said, it was assumed that the master computer was secret and non-public, and there was only one of that power in the world. I effectively own a computer with the power of the master computer right now. 2) The scientist had to explain to his *uninterested* son what a computer was. These days it would be more likely that the son would explain to the father how to reload the operating system.
Usually science fiction films get the view of the future wrong, but THE INVISIBLE BOY got a lot right. Another film, not a particularly good piece of science fiction, that got something very right was RED PLANET MARS (1952). In spite of the absurd (I think) main plot, it does show a day would come when the people who lived in the Soviet Union would say, "We are tired of being Communist. It is not working. Let's be something else." And the government would not be able to stop the tide of popular opinion. I saw that one really happen also. [-mrl]
Parallel Lines (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
Fred Lerner writes in response to Mark's comments on mathematics in the 07/01/05 issue of the MT VOID, "You wrote, 'You cannot have parallel lines on a globe and you can on a plane.' My globe has parallel lines. That is why, in speaking of latitude, we use terms like 'the 38th parallel'." [-fl]
Mark explains, "What is called the 38th parallel is actually a circle whose center lies on the axis of the planet (like the Arctic Circle). It is not a line because (unless there is a good reason not to) we say a line segment is the shortest distance between two points. The shortest distance between two points on the 38th parallel is entirely off the parallel. If you stretch a rubber band between two points on the 38th parallel but otherwise fairly distant from each other, you will see that except at the endpoints the rubber band will lie north of the 38th parallel. On a plane as well as a sphere circles may be disjoint, but they are not considered parallel. On a flat map the surface of a round Earth is distorted and one way in which it is distorted is that circles whose center lies on the axis of the planet usually get mapped to lines." [-mrl]
WAR OF THE WORLDS (letter of comment by Jerry Ryan):
Mark's review of Steven Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS in the 07/01/05 issue of the MT VOID generated this exchange:
Jerry Ryan [GWR]: "I was terribly disappointed with the ending, were you? It felt as if they decided that they were out of film and had to wrap it up early."
Mark Leeper [MRL]: "Perhaps, but I blame Wells for that. I am not sure what else they could do without doing violence to the original story. They aliens do die on their own. Wells has a very unspectacular end for them. About the most that can be done is having the war machines crash spectacularly."
GWR: "Yes, I suppose you're right about that. It has been a *very* long time since I've read that book, and I haven't seen the earlier movie in quite a while either, but I don't remember their endings being that abrupt."
MRL: "Well, the first film built up to an crescendo where it was obvious that everybody was going to die, then suddenly the machines start mysteriously crashing. It is less faithful to the book, but it is more dramatic. Not unlike the climax of BLADERUNNER. Spielberg's was more like it was in the book. But the book is not the best way to do it in a movie.
GWR: " I thought I remembered the illness of the aliens taking more time to unfold, somehow."
MRL: "I don't believe so. It is always handled as a sudden revelation. In the book the main character decides to commit suicide by alien. He finds a war machine expecting it to kill him and then he notices that birds are pecking at brown pieces of meat hanging from the war machine. He never sees another war machine that is not dead."
GWR: "The notion of having the machines buried for a very long time was a bit of a strain, too."
MRL: "I think Spielberg wanted to do an invasion plan never seen before. Nigel Kneale did it with each Quatermass play."
GWR: "If you could come all the way to Earth to bury the machines, why wouldn't you just stay?"
MRL: "Two possibilities come immediately to mind:
1) Keeping options open. There's no place like the Mother Planet, but we cannot be so sure Mars will stay so nice forever. We could live on Earth, but it already has life. We may have to move it out of the way if we need the planet.
2) Xenophobia. Apes on earth have a potential to be dangerous to the Mother Planet if they ever develop civilization and space travel. Let's prepare now before the option to destroy them is out of our tentacles."
GWR: "See, now you're makin me dig the book out and reread! To say nothing of needing to see the Quartermass works, which I know nothing of.
And on the subject of the "why wouldn't you just stay" question... If it's easy enough to get over to Earth to bury machines for a future ambush... And if it's easy for you to remain undetected such that you can send your crews into your buried machines in a way that the earthers think you're just a lightning storm... Then it's easy to just land the ships and blow the opposition away. Yes?
Anyway, an interesting data point: my fifteen-year-old, who has neither read the book nor seen the original film, had similar reactions to the film (strange plot holes w/r/t aliens being on the planet a jillion years ago and deciding to not stay... "quick" ending... Etc).
And on another point: I'd seen "Man on Fire" just a few days before, so I'd had a large dose of Dakota Fanning. This is a very gifted young lady, I think. It will be interesting to watch her career develop."
MRL: "Incidentally, if you do look it up, it is "Quatermass". People spell it like "quartermaster" all the time, but it is incorrect. The name is Welsh. It should not be hard to find material about him since he is *very* well-known in Britain. He is up there with Dr. Who and James Bond: http://tinyurl.com/73oph."
Commentary on a War of the Worlds Festival (film comments by Kate Pott):
[Long-time reader but first-time contributor Kate Pott gives us her approach to the "War of the Worlds" phenomenon.]
Well, the fest started well with a midnight showing of the 1953 George Pal version. The audience was small but well-behaved. No heckling, perhaps some inattention as a shower was taken during the showing. The echo of the Pal's beloved war machines drifted into the hall and brought in next door neighbors complete with cockatiel for the last reel. Synjon, the bird, was held rapt by terrified cats cowering under couch. Unfortunately, he had no comment on the movie.
The programming re-started reasonably early Friday morning with an 11AM showing of the new Spielberg version. Your reviewer once again demonstrated her remarkable talent of entering a fairly uncrowded theater and finding the one seat in front of the guy who has wrapped up a five course meal in carefully knotted plastic bags. A few glares later, and I'm finally able to hear the dialogue for the King Kong trailer. The natives look like Orcs and Kong looks rather small. Having avoided all reviews, I dove in and became one with the screen. Major impressions: movie opens with repeat of Spielberg's fascination with storm imagery as in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, here much more sophisticated and scarier. Immediately like the color palette of the film, grays. Blinding whites, and blood red. Once again forced to watch action through eyes of emotionally damaged children, divorce as usual. Adults, other than usual father figure, dangerous and unable to make proper survival decisions. Required long shot of main character seen framed by forewarning prop, as in Cruise seen framed by window broken by baseball. Spectacular visuals of war machines, crashed plane, but most memorable scene, night battle against Martians by badly overwhelmed military. Civilians running across field in darkness broken only by Martian rays and answering artillery. Military positioned off-screen, furious fire slowing stopping. Humanity at its best and bravest. Pickett's regiment revived. Enjoyed entry into Boston and image of musket-bearing Minuteman. Noticed that for some reason, Spielberg leaves a lot more churches standing than Pal did. Silently cheered when my beloved Corvids once again lead the human hunters to prey by demonstrating that the Martian shields are down. Wonder if they could actually eat Martian road kill? Necessary Spielberg happy ending, but enjoyed the further twist on the Martian lack of immunity to our biosphere, as Morgan Freeman declaims that through a billion deaths we had earned our right to life. Just realized that we don't actually know the aliens are Martians but we don't know they aren't either. Overall impression: great visuals, not at all accurate to original source, but pays homage to previous American versions. After all, if Wells wanted to write a metaphor of colonial repression set in today's world, wouldn't he be tempted to set it in the U.S.? Full of Spielbergian formulaic flaws but a least one scene of real emotion. Will buy the DVD for my favorite scenes but Pal still reigns supreme.
After lunch break at new noodle shop behind main venue, festival continued with showing of documentary: H. G. WELLS AND THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, sponsored by Netflix. Very detailed look at Wells' personal history, focusing on relationship between Victorian politics, sexual mores and his major works. Interesting material, but unimaginative visuals for those of us used to Ken Burns, and delivered in a constant BBC drone, which resulted in an emergency espresso run.
After dinner of Thai curry, next to espresso shop, festival continued with the final program item : H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, photographed, edited, and directed by Timothy Hines. Immediately liked the strange look of the film, with camera work and acting reminiscent of silent film. Suited perfectly the time period of the action. Very accurate to original source, cheered and actually clapped, when for the first time all three of the Martian ships: Tripod, Handler, and Flying Machine are all put on screen! Note in response to friend's review: the red weed is in there, scattered along the country roads and can be seen withered and dying when main character enters the last village before his suicide attempt. Overall impression: film perfectly captures a sense of how such a first contact might be perceived by the late 19th century. The most faithful version to date, which raises an interesting question. Why does a short novel which takes about an hour to read, take three hours to film? I doubt if Wells would have minded greatly had the director deleted a few of those endless rambling hikes. Lots of fun but I will continue to worship at the feet of Mr. Pal. [-kp]
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This was the first special effects extravaganza science fiction film in color. And in the 1950s it was dazzling. At 84 minutes, the film is too rushed with little attempt to expand on some of the more interesting details like the human reaction to the invasion. Much of the potential intelligence of the film is lost in the headlong rush. But it was a great film and one of my great memories of my youth. Rating +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
My earliest memories of ever being in a movie theater were from before I was three years old. I absolutely hated the film I saw, though I am not sure if I was more bored or frightened by the film. We sat through it twice and that was more than enough to please me, at least for another three years when suddenly seeing this film again became a major life goal. The film was George Pal's third and most spectacular science fiction film of the Fifties, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. It is still considered George Pal's film though he produced and Byron Haskin directed. Nothing like it had been done before on the screen and for the pure viciousness of the aliens' military frontal assault the film has rarely if ever been matched. In the novel on which it was based, Wells intended to criticize Britain's militaristic imperialism and created a merciless imperialistic power to deconstruct British society. Wells seemed to take great joy in describing scenes of destruction.
Later Orson Welles's radio play, inspired by the novel, succeeded in terrorizing a large listening audience. In 1953 the film gave us aliens who had two kinds of death-rays that rained horrible death on the Earth people from behind shields that made them totally impervious to human defenses. The Martian destruction strategy was probably also inspired by the German Blitzkrieg. And with German war tactics fresh in the public's mind, this film was made at the time in which its subject matter would have struck a particularly responsive note. The detailed science fictional carnage has probably never been matched on the screen, though films like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS and THE MYSTERIANS have tried. A very popular series of bubble gum cards called "Mars Invades the Earth" was issued and it was clearly heavily inspired by the film. The cards just concentrated on imaginative and gruesome Martian weapons that were just and extension of Pal's creations. In the 80s a TV series was made as a sequel to the film.
Reduce the Wells novel to about five sentences and move the setting to Southern California and you have very much the plot of Pal's WAR OF THE WORLDS. The world suffers an all-out invasion, not unlike an interplanetary D-day, from a technologically superior alien foe. Wells's novel had the Martians vastly superior but occasionally vulnerable to human attack, Pal's film may even be more effective in making them absolutely implacable and invulnerable. Wells's Martians used tripod war machines. Pal's Martian war machines are also tripods, though Pal gave up on showing the legs as electrical arcs. The legs are reduced to rays of force that are just barely visible and then only in one scene. The rout of humanity, which was much more the centerpiece of the Wells novel, is reduced in emphasis and the more interesting battles with the Martians become much more the central focus. However, the street riots do give some evidence that more thought was given to realistic human behavior than in the previous Pal science fiction effor WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. Wells also concerned himself only with England, and this film is actually an improvement over that making the invasion a worldwide thing.
No matter how mature I get, when the film starts I am always dragged into it by Paul Frees's prologue, using the music from the old Paramount newsreels. The narration takes a touch from Howard Hawks and seems to go about one third too fast, but it works. We get into the film and the first thing we have is a tour of the planets of the solar system, showing us the planets the Martians considered. Chesley Bonestell once again provided astronomical art for Pal, but since the story really only required at most a view from Mars at a distance we have a sort of artificially added tour of planets to show off Bonestell art. It is nice and it is spectacular, as his art usually is. But it slows the story and seems repetitive, and it makes no sense that the Martians would have considered anything further out than Jupiter and even that would have gotten no more than a moment's thought.
The writing for THE WAR OF THE WORLDS has improved a great deal over that of DESTINATION MOON, in part because the script is by a much better writer, Barre Lyndon. Lyndon is one of the unsung heroes of the fantasy film. While this may be his best known film, he did a surprising number of really good film scripts in the fantasy genre or plays on which films were based. Among the films that credit him are THE LODGER, THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET, THE CONQUEST OF SPACE, and the under-appreciated DARK INTRUDER. In this film, instead of having DESTINATION MOON's Brooklyn engineer who understands nothing, we have a somewhat selfish fire marshal who cheats at cards and bums cigarettes. And he is dispensed with quickly. Also present are reasonably good character actors such as Robert Cornthwaite of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and Paul Birch. But the real star of the film is an excellent collection of special effects including some terrific miniature sets. This is a film that has special effects though the entire length of the film, rather than at a few isolated points. The Martian war machines have a very original look that combines the shapes of manta rays and cobras. One problem seeing the film on the wide screen or on DVD is that the wires moving the alien craft are all too apparent.
Not everything still plays well on modern audiences. An early scene has the Martian presence stop electricity, borrowing from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, though this seems to be an unintended side effect of the Martians landing and some sort of use of hyper-magnetism. It stops even hearing aids from working but, oddly, has no apparent effect on automobile electrical systems. The heat ray might seem like the precursor to the modern laser (though in the novel it was more closely related to a magnifying glass to focus the sun's rays). But one can see matter moving from the projector so it must be some different principle. Also no heat ray would be likely to leave human- shaped piles of ashes, as the ray does the first time it is used in this film, but only the first time. The Martians have blood so much like ours we can say it is anemic. There is no explanation why our biology should be even remotely like theirs. To represent a really futuristic aircraft, the film uses a flying wing. Wrong guess. There was only one or two ever constructed at that time and by reputation it was a terrible aircraft and a design very quickly abandoned. Turner Classic Movies occasionally shows a single Paramount newsreel showing the wonders of the modern age that seems to have been the source for the stock footage of the flying wing and the computer used in Pal's earlier two films.
Martian biology seems oddly synchronized. All the Martians in Los Angeles die of disease within minutes of each other. Like Pal's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS suffers from a cloying emphasis on religion. The Lord's Prayer is little protection for Uncle Matthew, but when whole bunches of humans pray, the impression is that God stamps out the Martians, though there is a comment to that effect in the book. It took Him a while to get involved but He chose our side.
This was the first real special effects extravaganza of the science fiction film. This was one of the great science fiction films of the Fifties, by some people's estimation the greatest. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale 9/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Michael Dirda's BOUND TO PLEASE: ESSAYS ON GREAT WRITERS AND THEIR BOOKS (ISBN 0-393-05757-7) is a collection of some of his book reviews from 1978 to 2003. One of things worth noting is that Dirda does not review only "literary" fiction or non- fiction. He includes an entire section of "Serious Entertainers" (Vernon Lee, Avram Davidson, Terry Pratchett, and a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs), as well as an appendix of a basic reading list of science fiction. Lest you think this is just setting up a "ghetto" for this, I'll point out that Dirda includes Philip Pullman's THE AMBER SPYGLASS in his "Writers of Our Time" section.
One problem from a reader's perspective is that this is not a good book to read from the library. There are probably close to a hundred reviews here, and after many of them you will want to stop, think about it, go out and find the book(s) discussed, and read them before going on to the next review. Given the usual lending periods of most libraries, this will not be possible. (Of course, from the writer's perspective, this just means that people are more likely to buy the book.) Obviously this was less of a problem when the reviews first appeared, one a week, in the Washington Post. (I've already added works by Fernando Pessoa, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Iain Sinclair, as well as Tyndale's translation of the Bible.)
Bart D. Ehrmann's TRUTH AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE (ISBN 0- 19-518140-9) could be considered yet another book in the ever- growing list of "Da Vinci Code" books (was it in the New Yorker where I saw a cartoon showing a bookstore with an entire section labeled "Da Vinci Code"?), but it is a debunker of the book, not yet another prop to its claims. Ehrmann begins by saying that he has no complaint with the fiction aspect of Dan Brown's book--in fact, as fiction he likes it a lot--but he does take issue with Brown's claim that "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Ehrmann addresses only the documents, but that is sufficient. One might charitably say that perhaps Brown's claim is like that at the beginning of the film FARGO, which says that that movie was based on a true story--in both cases, part of the fiction rather than the truth. Early on in the "Da Vinci" craze, Ehrmann put together a list of ten errors in its claims, and this book elaborates on them. These include (but are not limited to) Brown's characters' claims that Constantine was instrumental in deciding what gospels were included in the New Testament, that before this there were dozens of gospels and thousands of documents to choose from, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were Christian in nature, and that before Constantine Jesus was not considered divine. This is must reading for anyone interested in the claims of the phenomenon.
H. G. Wells's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (ISBN 0-812-50515-8) was this month's selection for our science fiction discussion. Rather than rehash what has been said a zillion times, I'll note two things. First, even H. G. Wells can write an ungrammatical sentence: "No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible and improbable." What is obviously meant is "No one gave a thought ..., [or if they did, they] thought of them only...."
Second (and I know I'm being to sound like a broken record), some of Wells's more bigoted comments have been bowdlerized in later versions. In chapter 16, "The Exodus from London", the original describes the scene after the bag of coins breaks as, "The Jew stopped and looked at the heap," and later says that the brother was "clutching the Jew's collar with his free hand." In later editions, the man (who has been described as "a bearded, eagle- faced man", is referred to only as "the man." And the "Jewess" in chapter 22 disappeared in a major re-write of everything after the death of the curate. (I believe that this rewrite was the conversion of the original magazine publication to book form.)
One line which appeared almost verbatim in Jeff Wayne's musical version was "'The chances of anything man-like on Mars are a million to one,' he said." Wayne changed it to "'The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one,' he said." Timothy Hines keeps it precisely verbatim in his direct-to-DVD three-hour H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. (Steven Spielberg never mentions Mars.)
And since I have mentioned the Timothy Hines version, I might as well say a couple of things about it. It is extremely faithful to the novel, with almost all of the dialogue taken verbatim from the novels. There are a couple of minor differences (the extortionate newspaper cost is one pound, rather than four pence or a shilling as in the book, and the brother finds the bicycle on the street rather than taking it from a shop window).
Yes, the acting is not naturalistic. But it's the same style as the way the Jane Seymour character acts on stage in the Edwardian period in SOMEWHERE IN TIME. Yes, the image compositing has flaws; so does the compositing in the Paris flashback and other scenes in CASABLANCA. Yes, the effects look non-realistic at times, but if you like the visual effects and style of such movies as SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF THE FUTURE or SIN CITY, this should present no problems. [-ecl]
[The Hines/period version is available on DVD for $8.42 at Wal- Mart, or $10.49 from amazon.com. Considering how much movie tickets for the Spielberg version cost, this is cheaper than two matinee tickets. I really hope that people would give this one a chance. -ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: I am not sincere, even when I say I am not. -- Jules Renard
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