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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/21/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 17, Whole Number 1305
Table of Contents
Your Horoscope (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Sagittarious: Two weeks ago I converted a bunch of you temporarily to Leos. Last week I annulled that and said you were Sagittarious again. I am getting reports now that some people who were previously Leos also got converted to Sagittarious and THEY SHOULD GO BACK TO BEING LEOS. If you were born a Leo you have to stay a Leo. If you were born a Sagittarius you have to stay a Sagittarious. Look, dummy, it's as simple as that.
Everyone else: The same goes for you. You can't switch to another sign because you think they have better fortunes. I don't care what kind of good looking young thing is dating you because she prefers Leos. If you were not born a Leo you will never be one. Maybe in your next life. Sorry, I don't make the rules.
Remember, the grass always looks greener in the other person's yard. Everyone, back to the sign they were born under. Okay? [-mrl]
Intelligent Design in Court (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is a trial going on right now that is reminiscent of the Scopes "Monkey" trial of eighty years ago. It is probably about the eightieth legal action that will have gotten the sobriquet "Scopes II." The site of the trial is Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-- not exactly the heart of the Bible belt. For those not familiar with the issue (is there anyone who reads this notice who is not?), this is the theory that some biological structures are so complex that they could not possibly have come together by mere chance. Parents of eleven students in ninth grade in Dover have filed suit against the school board for requiring teachers to read the statement, "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view." This, they charge, violates the principle of church and state. Realizing what a hornets' nest this whole issue is, I would like to weigh into it myself.
There are multiple issues about this theory, if that indeed is what it is. The first is whether it is true or not. Related to that is the question of whether there is evidence for this theory or not. There is also the issue of should this contention be taught in the classroom.
In a recent discussion with a friend he pointed out that the theory itself is of no scientific value. What science looks at are those ideas that are falsifiable and which have useful predictive value. There cannot really be a proof that biological mechanisms were not designed by an intelligence any more than there can be a proof that there are no pixies. Is it worth examining the possibility that there are pixies? It probably is not worth examining without a lot of good evidence we do not currently have. But people can examine any ideas they want. Should the possibility of the existence of pixies be taught in the schools? I would say not. Science takes a very utilitarian view of the universe. There is no point in spending much time with an assertion that is not useful in some regard. There is neither practical predictive value in suggesting the existence of pixies or in suggesting that biological organisms were designed.
On the other hand I think my friend may be missing the motive of the Intelligent Design advocates when he says that Intelligent Design is useless as a theory because it does not predict anything. They recognize that it is not a theory that is useful to science. The advocates of intelligent design are not people who are anxious to be of any use at all to science. They are trying to resolve what they see as a contradiction that evolution theory says that the origin of humanity could have come from PURELY natural causes and the Bible says that God did it. They see that as a discrepancy. Their point of view is that Intelligent Design leaves what they consider a much-needed gap. Intelligent Design suggests the open question of is who is the intelligent designer. With this gap left they can then at will say it must be God, because who else could it be?
If evolution is the process that brought humans about without divine guidance, then perhaps we humans did not hold some special place in God's heart. We just were the species that got lucky and amorally grabbed power over the other animals. Evolution seems to them to set a precedent that amorality is natural and even more that it was a winning strategy for humans. They see it as saying that we became a dominant species by pushing the others aside in a game of survival of the fittest.
I don't think Intelligent Design advocates even want science to use Intelligent Design as a theory, just to acknowledge it as a possibility because that will allow them to say that is where God came in. Of course there are many religious scientists that have no problem saying that evolution was simply the process that God used to create modern life forms. There is no way to disprove a contention that evolution itself is God's plan. Evolution does leave an implicit gap that some of the religious people could put God into. But Intelligent Design leaves a much more explicit gap. It naturally raises the question of who the intelligent designer would be.
Speaking for myself I like to play with the concept that the universe and the human race were created. I do this not from a religious point of view but from a science fictional one. Science fiction stories like Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" and Greg Benford's COSM look at the possibility that universes can be created. But I don't think that the classroom is a place to discuss the possibility any more than it is the place to discuss the possibility of the existence of vampires and werewolves. I also think that even if the Intelligent Design advocates' contention is taught in the classroom as possible they will not be satisfied. They will want to make sure that it is suggested the designer actually is (their concept of) God and not just some sort of prosaic extra-dimensional aliens. [-mrl]
Gringos (letter of comment by Lax Madapati):
Lax Madapati responds to Mark's article on classical Indian dance in the 10/21/05 issue: "The only comment I had was we do have a word for gringos: 'goru'. It means a white guy in Hindi." [-lm]
Mark adds, "I will add 'goru' to my list. Why do these words so often start with 'G': gringo, gwei-lo, goy, etc. I guess there is also the Malaysian 'ferengi' and Native American WEI (White European Immigrant), but most start with 'G'." [-mrl]
THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Imaginative film for those who have a capacity for surrealistic and heavily atmospheric narratives that move at a snail's pace. That is probably a narrow audience. Most other people will find this film, soporific, confusing, and even irritating. While this is a mostly live-action film written and directed by the Brothers Quay, it does have some room for the animation for which they are best known. This is a hard film to recommend to anyone not already familiar with the Brothers' work. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
First things first. Who are the Brothers Quay? They are Stephen and Timothy Quay, American-born but they live and work in England. The brothers are best known for doing bleak little stop-motion animated films that frequently feature dolls. If you remember the mutant toys next door in TOY STORY, you have some idea of the sort of thing they might do. Those sequences may have even been inspired by the animation of the brothers. They work conveys a feel of the individual in a lonely, ugly world. The Czech animator Jan Švankmajer inspired much of their work. THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES is their second live-action film following INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE. The Brothers Quay also directed the animated sequences in FRIDA.
With a nod of the head to various versions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA the film opens behind the scenes in an opera house with a sinister goings-on among the heavy curtains. Malvina (played by Amira Cast) is a great diva who is going to marry and go away with her love Adolfo (Cesar Sarachu). But in the middle of her performance she drops dead, murdered by the jealous Dr. Droz (Gottfried John). Droz takes her body to his private island, perhaps off South America, where he uses mysterious means to bring Malvina back to life. Droz's island is remote, has its own complex rules, and guarded by odd automata of Droz's invention. Soon there is another stranger on the island. A famous piano tuner has been brought at great expense to the island. This is Felisberto (Cesar Sarachu in a second role). He is ready to do a great job in tuning Droz's pianos, but there is just a minor problem. There are no pianos on the island. Instead Felisberto is supposed to tune the automata for an upcoming event that will be Droz's revenge on the operatic community.
This all makes it sounds much more fun than the film actually is. The story moves at a glacial pace. It has some of the dream-like feel of Jean Cocteau's or perhaps Guy Maddin's exercises in surrealism. Frequently the viewer has no idea what is on the screen or why we are seeing it. There is, as an example, a recurrent image that looks like some sort of cephalopod legs in fishbowl. What do these legs have to do with anything else in the film is open to conjecture. There is a lot that is weird here, but not enough to keep the film consistently interesting. This is not a film to understand, but one to let the mesmeric mood sweep over you like the waves on the tropical short.
The cast is almost all unfamiliar to United States audiences with the exception of Gottfried John, whom I remember fondly from the abortive television series "Space Rangers" from 1993. He also played a Russian General in GOLDENEYE. THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES is a film that treats strange unworldly atmosphere as if it were high virtue. It was not a pleasant experience to watch, but one that is worth having seen. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (theater review by Mark R. Leeper):
What would you do if you had a good ghost story to tell? It is a Victorian ghost story, perhaps the sort of story that an M. R. James might have written. In this case the story is taken from a novel by Susan Hill. Still, there are not very great financial possibilities for a short punchy ghost story. Stephen Mallatratt saw the possibilities of putting the story on the stage as a modest three-person play. It has apparently run for some sixteen years on London's West End.
As if the strictures of reducing a story to a few short scenes to be done on a stage were not enough to limit what can be done, the story is padded out. We are not simply told the story. We are told that years after the events the main character, solicitor Arthur Kipps, of the story feels compelled to tell the story to his family and friends. Absurdly enough he has rented a theater for this purpose and wants to tell his family as a dramatic reading. And he is not very good at dramatic reading. Recognizing that his telling of the story is insufficiently impressive, he has hired a dramatic coach to help him present effectively. The coach suggests he not just to tell the story but to dramatize it. The coach shows him how to do it not just by explaining but by showing him how taking the part of the man at a much younger age. The story then unfolds as a story within a story.
As with any good ghost story the less said about the content the better. I will not say much about the central story except that it involves a house out on a dreary moor, strange noises at night, and the spectral appearance of the mysterious lady of the title.
If one were staging BEN HUR (as has been done) one would need to somehow represent an entire exciting chariot race on the stage (as has been done). The demands of a good ghost story are far less difficult. Ghosts are scary and they do not have to do very much to frighten an audience. To an audience who has been prepared by the actors a door that mysteriously slams, a scream in the night, a light that turns on mysteriously can be as effective as they are economical to produce.
Why the play needs the framing sequence I can only guess. The sequence is really more about how to tell a story on a stage than it is about the central story. The framing sequence participates only minimally in the horror. It seems almost to be filler, though it does set up the story.
Overall I would say this is an effective play, and its long life seems to attest to that being the case. It is a testament to an audience's ability to suspend disbelief and be pulled into a good scary story. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I was just reading "Vector" ("The Critical Journal of BSFA") from March/April 2001, and saw that Colin Odell and Mitch Le Blanc wrote of GALAXY QUEST, "this is not going to bear too many repeat viewings." I've seen the film several times, so I would put this quote in the same category as Roger Ebert's original claim that the theme song from THE GRADUATE was instantly forgettable. (He has since admitted he was wrong. And their fears that "large- scale animation still seems limited (in the West) to Disney's annual outings" (based on disappointing box-office for TITAN AE and PRINCESS MONONOKE) seem to have been proved wrong by such films as SHREK and THE INCREDIBLES.
[And as if to prove my point, our local four-plex is playing both WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT and TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE. The other two screens are IN HER SHOES and ELIZABETHTOWN (which has shoes as a major plot point).]
But back to books.
I discussed Jorge Luis Borges at length in the 09/09/05 issue of the MT VOID and said, "There's an idea--an anthology of stories all inspired by Borges." There is not yet such an anthology, but there is a web site that lists Borgesian influences: http://www.themodernword.com/borges/borges_influence.html, compiled by Allen B. Ruch, For example, on sub-page http://www.themodernword.com/borges/borges_infl_wolfe.html, Ruch says, "[Gene Wolfe] also brought to life two creatures directly from Borges's BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS and turned them free in the pages of his universe: a giant named Baldanders, and an enigmatic 'fish' that swims in the mysterious mirrors of Father Inire." And China Mieville's "The Tain" is based on Borges's "Fauna of Mirrors."
THE CASE OF THE PATIENT'S EYES (ISBN 0-312-29095-0) by David Pirie is yet another Sherlockian book, but one step removed. The main character is Arthur Conan Doyle, with Dr. Joseph Bell as the major second character. It takes place in the late 1870s, and purports to explain how Doyle learned detection from Bell, and also where he got some of his stories. That is, in this novel Doyle gets a patient who has been invited to a Senor Garcia's house for dinner, but then Garcia disappears, or he has another patient being followed by a cyclist. This means that Pirie has a lot of his work already done for him, and also that the reader keeps thinking, "I've read this before." It is true that some of details and explanations are changed from the Holmes stories, but this makes it seem more like an annotation of alternate explanations, instead of an original novel, and also more like a sequence of incidents rather than a single story. It is interesting, but not great.
THE MATH INSTINCT by Keith Devlin (ISBN 1-56025-672-9) has two "discoveries" worth noting. One is that many animals have mathematical ability, either in their apparent ability to understand basic arithmetic, or in a honeybee's "knowledge" that a hexagon is the most efficient tesselation, or in a dog's ability to determine a minimum-length path that we must use calculus to calculate. The other is that many people who do badly on arithmetic tests can apply that same arithmetic perfectly in real life. (For example, a twelve-year-old Brazilian street vendor had no problem telling a customer how much ten coconuts were if one cost thirty-five cruzeiros, the same child could not give the correct answer when asked what ten times thirty-five was.) I'm not sure all his examples count as a "math instinct" (stereo vision, for example, may have mathematical principles that explain it, but it is not an "instinct" per se), but they are thought-provoking.
AN OPEN BOOK by Michael Dirda (ISBN 0-393-05756-9) is an autobiography of sorts, covering his life through college and focusing on his reading. Growing up in a working-class town sometimes made his reading difficult--of trying to write an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he writes, "Because the Lorain [Ohio] libraries didn't carry much Enlightenment philosophy--there wasn't, apparently, a lot of demand for it--I rode my bike to the Elyria Public Library (eight or so miles), . . ." He also talks about convincing his parents to spend $400 for the "Great Books" by telling them he would then win the $500 third prize for the essay contest and they would be ahead $100, and his school would get a free set to boot. They do--and he does! Not only that, but three of his sisters eventually do as well! (The third actually won the second prize of $1000, and got to keep the books donated to the school: "At that point, the school didn't really want any more "Great Books".) I'm not sure that younger readers will remember that there was a time when there was not a book superstore in every town and amazon.com for the places in between, but a boy had to ride his bike to the drugstore that had a wire rack of books, or the fact that the only places for used books were the local thrift shops. (Well, we may be back to the latter.) For those who remember those times, though, it will be wonderfully nostalgic.
I ran across SHELF LIFE by Suzanne Strempek Shea (ISBN 0-8070- 7258-3) while I was looking for another book about life in a bookstore. I'm somewhat surprised none of my western Massachusetts friends mentioned it, because it is about the author's first year working in Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts. Shea talks not only about that bookstore, but about other notable independent bookstores, such as The Tattered Cover in Denver or the Odyssey in South Hadley. (The latter is less world-famous, but is certainly notable in the western Massachusetts area.) This book is of some interest to fans of bookstores, but of particular interest to Massachusans.
CLARA'S GRAND TOUR by Glynis Ridley (ISBN 0-87113-883-2) is about Clara's travels through Europe in the 1740s and 1750s. Travel then was hard in general, but for Clara it was even harder. Clara, you see, was a three-ton rhinoceros. Brought from India by Douwemount Van der Meer, Clara became a media celebrity, the first live rhinoceros exhibited in Europe since Roman times. The discussion of the logistics of moving this creature is likely to appeal to engineers, and the effect that the existence of this fabled creature (believed by some to be the "behemoth" of the Bible) had on the populace. My major complaint about the book would be that Ridley describes a lot of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other works portraying Clara, yet includes only seven in the small section of illustrations. And Ridley repeats the claim that CLARISSA is the longest novel in the English language. At a million words, it was the longest for centuries (although I know VARNEY THE VAMPIRE, at about 900,000 words, is close, and there may well be other "penny dreadful" novels that are longer) but I would claim that Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Fire" is a single, serialized book that is considerably longer. (Ridley mentions CLARISSA because the fourth edition was revised to include a reference to the rhinoceros, which is almost definitely a reaction to Clara's tour.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition. -- Woody Allen
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