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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/28/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 4, Whole Number 1345
Table of Contents
Various Pointers (Art and Science):
See for classic comic book covers.
See http://people.uncw.edu/smithms/ACE_doubles.html for covers of old Ace doubles.
See http://www.krazydad.com/visco/ for lots of science fiction covers, accessed entirely randomly.
See http://www.realtechnews.com/posts/3148 for a history of the "@" sign in email addresses.
See http://www.physicsweb.org/articles/world/19/7/3/1 for an article about Hollywood physics.
Report Card (comment by Mark R. Leeper):
Norman Bates needs to work on his intra-personal relationships. [-mrl]
Can the End Justify the Means? (comment by Mark R. Leeper):
Okay, let me be a little philosophical this week. Also perhaps a little academic.
I was reading an essay on the subject of euthanasia. The author pointed out that the arguments in favor of euthanasia seemed to be utilitarian and assumed that the end of easing pain justified the act of taking a human life. The author pointed out that was assuming that the end justified the means. I suppose the author assumed that was some sort of a trumping argument. It is assumed to be immoral to allow the end to justify the means. We all know that it cannot do that. The end never justifies the means. We all have heard that. I remember my high school history teacher, one Walter Rapucci, emphatically telling his class the end *never* justifies the means. It never can. It never will. Case closed.
I am not going to take a stand on euthanasia specifically in this article, but I do want to take a stand on the moral assertion that the end does not justify the means. Being the sort of person I am I ask myself if the assertion is really true. Is that what the world believes? Is that what the world should believe.? I am a little tired of hearing this principle chanted by people who have not given it a lot of thought. The truth is that we go through life assuming time after time letting the ends justify the means. Let me give an example. I grew up in the years when childhood inoculations had become popular, but the means of administering them was still crude. I mean that when a doctor put a hypodermic needle into your arm, you felt it. It was like a javelin piercing your arm. That was not the only time you felt it. You felt it in the car on the way home. That night in bed if you rolled on your arm you felt it. It took a while for the memory to be more memory than current pain. What that doctor did to me was bad. However, I admit I did not get polio. I did not get smallpox. I do not think I ever got any of the diseases I was being inoculated against. Perhaps the inoculations saved me, perhaps not. Even today every time a doctor sticks a needle in a child's arm he is causing pain to that child. That is a bad thing. But the end is justifying the means. Is it right to cause an innocent child pain? But an inoculation does protect the child from disease.
What about eating? Anybody who believes that the end never justifies the means has to be a vegetarian and perhaps should even starve himself to death so he does not do evil to plant life. Whenever anybody eats he/she consuming life. But it is doing it in the cause of surviving. That presumably is a good end achieved via bad means. One has to take the means and the end and consider them as a utilitarian whole. If it contains more good than bad, then the action is just.
One has to ask if the end is good are the means really even morally bad or are they good as a means to an end. Mortimer Adler says, "You cannot use bad means for a good end any more than you can build a good house out of bad materials." That seems a strong stand, but I think he would accept that sticking needles into children's arms is not bad means if it helps to preserve the life of the child.
I believe that the history of world since the French Revolution has had a large number of so-called reformers who may have been idealists, but who did more evil than good trying to achieve what they considered to be a good end. They have tainted the tacit acceptance that ends could justify means. But the popular belief has too far swung in the other direction, certainly in the case of Mr. Rapucci. It may seem that it is a bland conclusion--that you have to look at the overall picture and see where the greatest good is. But the issue shows up frequently in people's arguments as if it was to be assumed. Just be skeptical when you see the argument used. [-mrl]
What Is a Western? (film comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[There will be some spoilers.]
A few years ago we went to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time in the hall devoted to film and popular culture. One exhibit towards the end asked the very intriguing question: "What is a Western?"
For example, they gave the description: "Two misunderstood and alienated outlaw buddies cross the American West trying to elude a posse and escape the border. The chase ends abruptly, and the leading characters choose violent but honorable death over capture." Is this a Western?
If you say yes, and I tell you that the movie is THELMA AND LOUISE, does that change your mind? If I tell you that, no, it is really BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, what does that do?
Just as it is impossible to define science fiction, it may be impossible to define the western. Just as there is a list of books that one puts forward to test definitions of science fiction (and to test the "line" between fantasy and science fiction), so is there a list of films that test the boundaries of a definition of the Western, and I would propose the following:
Let's go through the list one by one.
BRONCO BILLY takes place in the West, and involves a Wild West show, but the setting is modern, and the story is more about the interface between what Bronco Billy sees as the code of the Old West, and that (if any) of the modern world. (GREY OWL is a similar movie.)
Now, I would think that DANCES WITH WOLVES is clearly a Western, but I have heard people claim it is not. I suppose the idea is that it has too modern a sensibility, or too many Indians, or something--don't ask me.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (and OF MICE AND MEN) also take place in the West. The latter even has two buddies traveling together. But both are set well into the 20th century. Also, the people in both are traveling ranch help, but they are working with crops rather than cattle.
KINGS OF THE SUN deals with settlers encountering hostile Indians, but the settlers are Mayans, they have traveled to the western coast of Mexico, and the hostile Indians are Toltecs.
The book THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS was displayed in one of the other exhibits at the Museum. It has a lot of the basic elements we expect in a Western: the frontier, settlers, a fort, hostile Indians, and so on. The only problem is that it takes place in upstate New York. I suppose one can argue that at the time of the story, that *was* the West.
MARK OF ZORRO (and all the other Zorro movies) take place in the West (Los Angeles is about as far west as one can get in the continental United States), but the whole dynamic seems wrong for a Western. (Later sequels had a more Western feel.)
QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER would appear be the quintessential Western. It has all the tropes, except that it is a little too far west-- Australia to be precise. [The same goes for the recent film THE PROPOSITION. -mrl]
RED SUN takes place in the West--our West, the Old West. The fact that one of the two main characters is a samurai makes it a bit iffy, though.
THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO has a Chinese main character, but that is not the problem (there were lots of Chinese in the West). The problem is that there seems to be too much emphasis on the fantasy elements and not much Western flavor.
WHITE FANG is a representative of a particular sub-branch of Western, the Northwestern. Yes, there really is such a concept, and apparently audiobooks marketed to truckers find this a very popular category.
(I have not seen KINGS OF THE SUN, so cannot comment further on it.)
So where does this leave us? Location is obviously not sufficient, since a "save-the-ranch" film set in Nebraska in 1870 would almost definitely qualify, while the same film set in 1970 would not. But it is necessary either, because QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER and THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS would seem to qualify.
Time period is not sufficient--MARK OF ZORRO seems a bit iffy even though the era is right. (Or is it? Maybe it is too early to be a Western?) The older time period may not even be necessary--what about THELMA AND LOUISE and BRONCO BILLY?
It is tempting to say that it is a combination--there needs to be a "frontier" and that is a combination of both time and place. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS takes place on a frontier, as does QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, as does DANCES WITH WOLVES. RED SUN, in spite of its unusual main character, qualifies on this basis. And WHITE FANG is certainly on a frontier. One can even argue that some of the movies take place on frontiers between cultures (for example, BRONCO BILLY). But MARK OF ZORRO does not take place on a frontier--Los Angeles is settled, has a stable government, and displays none of the characteristics of a frontier. The same is true of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, OF MICE AND MEN, and THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO. For all their similarities with the Western, I would say that they lack the basic trope of the frontier.
Now I am sure that other people can pick holes in this--they may be willing to extend the genre to cover some of what I have excluded, or exclude some of what I have covered. Even I am not entirely satisfied--THE NEW WORLD and POCAHONTAS just do not seem to be Westerns, frontier or no. It could be that this is an exercise in futility, and that Westerns, like science fiction, are what we point to when we say it. [-ecl]
[More fringe cases with less-respected films: THE UNDEAD and BILLY THE KID MEETS DRACULA each take place in a traditional Western setting, but it just adds a vampire. SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT, sadly a very rare film these days, says things like it is dangerous to get close enough to stake a vampire, so you are better off shooting stakes from a distance with a sort of six-shooter. Similarly all the rules of dealing with vampires, thought out and taken to their extreme, turn into tropes of the Western and the film culminates in a traditional Western shoot-out. There was also a film JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER. -mrl]
MONSTER HOUSE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A house possessed by an angry spirit turns into a monster and is ready swallow all the kids in the neighborhood when they come trick-or-treating one Halloween. Three brave kids have to prevent the disaster. Most of the characters are cliches, but the horror shows some imagination. One comes away at least having sympathy for or even liking most of the major players including the house itself. This is not a classic animation film, but it is a nice and sometime grizzly little horror story for kids. Gil Kenan directs a story by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In the 1940s a series of cartoons were made by George Pal--yes, the same George Pal who in the next decade would be associated with some of the best science fiction films. Pal used wooden figures with replaceable parts. It gave the figures a three- dimensional effect making them seem more real and immediate in spite of their storybook look. He photographed them directly making them move using a pixilation process. The technique did not catch on the way other stop motion animation at the same time. In the years to come it would be used for the occasional industrial film and a few other animated films, but nothing like a feature film. However, the technique caught on again with the advent of computer animation since rigid pieces were easier to simulate with a computer. Now it seems that most animated feature films have computer-generated 3-D animation. MONSTER HOUSE is the current descendent of the old Puppetoons.
It is October 30th. Halloween is coming to a pleasant suburban neighborhood. DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) lives across from the one scary house on the street. That is the Nebbercracker House. Toys that land on the big front yard of the Nebbercracker House seem to stick there until Old Man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) picks them up and takes them inside, never to be seen again. Everybody in the neighborhood tries to keep his or her distance from the ugly old house with a front that looks like an angry face. Sam Lerner voices Chowder, DJ's best friend who has a lightweight mind and a heavyweight body. Chowder has a particular fear of the house. DJ has been left for a day with a nasty and irresponsible teenage babysitter while his parents go to some dental health event. Then Chowder loses his basketball in the Nebbercracker front yard. DJ tries to retrieve it he ends in a fight with Old Man Nebbercracker who keels over dead. We soon realize that the crotchety old man was restraining the house and the house itself is the real evil. The house is coming to life and will literally eat all who come near. That will be a lot of kids as Halloween approaches. DJ and Chowder are joined by a new friend, Jenny (Spencer Locke), a cute and bright but dishonest little sharpster. The three team us to slay the monster that the house has become.
The various story elements of MONSTER HOUSE are familiar. Monstrous houses appeared in such films as THE HAUNTING and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. There was an entire series of horror films called HOUSE. This film goes further than most to make the house a living and breathing organism with a nasty face and a worse personality. The main characters are something of a cliche. We have the good-looking kid, the little girl smarter than the boys, and the oafish overweight sidekick. The idea that the evil that is only evident to kids who are not believed goes back at least to INVADERS FROM MARS and THE BLOB. But just when we expect the whole affair to be rather commonplace we get some decent writing. The house is not just there to make a story. Both the house and the nasty old man have their motivations for what they do. They nearly make it as sympathetic characters. I do not know if it was intentional, but there are also borrowings from DINOSAURUS! and (a personal favorite) QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (a.k.a. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH).
The story is fun, especially in its more horrific moments. I would probably not recommend it for the under-ten set, but kids a little older should have a good time. I rate MONSTER HOUSE a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
BROTHERS OF THE HEAD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A 1977 novella by Brian Aldiss is the basis for this punk rock pseudo-documentary about conjoined twins who become punk rock stars in the mid-1970s. The pace is slow, the story is slight, and the music is loud. I must not have been the filmmakers' intended audience. Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
There have been at least two pseudo-documentaries about rock music that I have liked a great deal. There is THIS IS SPINAL TAP. (Well, pretty much everybody likes SPINAL TAP for the humor, if nothing else.) There was also Peter Watkins's nearly forgotten PRIVILEGE, about a fabulously popular rock musician and a plot by the British government to exploit him to manipulate the public. BROTHERS OF THE HEAD is a third rock documentary. The first two shared a very important characteristic that the third did not. Their music had melody and was not unpleasant. This is a characteristic that BROTHERS OF THE HEAD unfortunately lacks. I found the music of BROTHERS OF THE HEAD simply irritating. Everything about the film is meant to be disturbing and unpleasant. Rumor has it that even science fiction writer Brian Aldiss did not like the film, and it was based on a story he wrote in 1977. Directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (who made LOST IN LA MANCHA) tell the story of the flash-in-the-pan freak punk band The Bang Bang with two conjoined twins, and something extra.
The story concerns the Howe Brothers, Tom and Barry (played by Harry Treadaway and Luke Treadaway), who became a punk rock sensation in the 1970s. In spite of the fact they seem to be nearly lacking in talent, their anger and their freak value can be used by promoter Zak (Howard Attfield) who defends his crassness with "I never exploited anyone who didn't want to be exploited." They go from a squalid world of abuse and poverty to be a major phenomenon in the fledgling punk rock scene. The story delves into their ugly past and their ugly present. The plot takes some grotesque turns and follows their love lives and how success affects the conjoined twins who are into the expected sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. A woman comes into their lives and forms with them a triangular relationship with a very narrow base. Tania Emery plays Laura, who is a writer reporting on the two boys who becomes interested and for her own reasons wants to separate the boys. Ken Russell plays himself making his own film about the Howe twins.
The style is realistic, almost reality-TV-like, but the people and the music are unpleasant and so is the whole experience of the film. This is a film for a very select audience. I was not selected. I rate BROTHERS OF THE HEAD a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Until a short while ago, I was unaware of the existence of SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares (ISBN 0-525-20480-6). I thought I had looked through all the bibliographies and such for Borges, but I suppose that they may not have included books that were co-authored, or they were in a separate section or something. But checking what Borges was available at the library, I ran across this delightful book. These six detective stories feature Don Isidro Parodi and are (not surprisingly, given his name) parodies of classic detective stories. For example, Parodi is frequently referred to as "the prisoner in cell 273", which cannot help but evoke Jacques Futrelle's classic story "The Problem of Cell 13" as well as Baroness Orzy's "Man in the Corner" (who solves mysteries without ever leaving his corner table in the coffee shop). There are references to more Hollywood movies than one can imagine, as well as to such authors as James M. Cain and H. G. Wells. And when one reads, "My brain is a huge refrigerator. The circumstances of the death of Julia Ruis Villalba--Pumita to her peers--live on in this gray vessel, untainted," one cannot help but think of Hercules Poirot and his habit of referring to his brain as "the little grey cells." Even some of the plots copy classic stories; one seems heavily modeled after a Sherlock Holmes story.
(Borges's co-authored books include SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI, CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ, EXTRAORDINARY TALES, and NEW CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ (all with Adolfo Bioy-Casares); AN INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE (with Esther Zemborain de Torres), THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS (with Marguerita Guerrero) and ATLAS (with Maria Kodama). ATLAS, AN INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE, and THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS are non- fiction. "The Immortals" ("Los inmortales") from THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES 1933-1969 is from CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ. I mention this because it is *not* included in Borges's "complete" COLLECTED FICTIONS, which omits all co-authored works.)
And speaking of mysteries, R. Austin Freeman is best known for his shorter "Dr. Thondyke" mystery stories; the mostly widely available collection has been THE BEST DR. THORNDYKE DETECTIVE STORIES (ISBN 0-486-20388-3), but Freeman also wrote several "Dr. Thorndyke" novels, including THE STONEWARE MONKEY & THE PENROSE MYSTERY (issued in a single volume, ISBN 0-486-22963-7). The first story, according to E. F. Bleiler, is the only mystery novel to trigger a genuine archaeological dig. And both are well worth reading.
There are many essays in THE DIN IN THE HEAD by Cynthia Ozick (ISBN 0-618-47050-6, 978-0-618-47050-1) worth reading; I will comment on only one. "Young Tolstoy: An Apostle of Desire" discusses Tolstoy's short novel THE COSSACKS, and considers the historical reality versus the artistic description. Ozick says that Tolstoy surely knew of "the Cossacks' long trail of pogroms and butcheries." (In a single year between 1648 and 1649 alone the Chmielnicki Cossacks murdered 300,000 Jews.) What Ozick says of Tolstoy's story is that "the Cossacks are meant to carry the romantic magnetism of the noble primitive." So, she says, leaving this out of THE COSSACKS is literary license, just as Jane Austen never talks about the Napoleonic Wars. (Also, she argues, Tolstoy's point-of-view character would not know of these massacres--or care.) Ozick does point out The irony to all this, though--forty years after writing THE COSSACKS Tolstoy declined to sign a manifesto in favor of Dreyfus, and instead focused his energies on relief for the Dukhobors, a sect being persecuted for their pacificist beliefs. And who use the instrument of their persecution? The Cossacks that Tolstoy had so admired.
Coincidentally, someone in our discussion group wanted to read a Russian novel, but no one wanted a "doorstop", so we chose HADJI MURAD by Leo Tolstoy (GREAT SHORT WORKS OF TOLSTOY, ISBN 0-060-58697-4). (This book also contains THE COSSACKS.) HADJI MURAD came highly recommended by Harold Bloom, but on the whole we were less than bowled over. Though Bloom claims the characters are all very detailed and well-drawn, we did not find it that way. An additional problem for me was that while there was a short glossary provided for the Tartar (Chechen) words, the edition I was reading did not translate any of the French that the characters spoke. I realize that all of Tolstoy's contemporary audience understood French as well as Russian, but the audience here and now does not. (Later translations seem to have fixed this with footnotes.) Oddly, this novel was made into the Italian movie THE WHITE WARRIOR, with muscleman Steve Reeves, and Mark said if you read it as an action-adventure novel, it is not bad.
JULES VERNE: THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY by William Butcher (ISBN 978-1-56025-854-4 or 1-56025-854-3) has a definite agenda: Jules Verne has been completely misunderstood, mis-interpreted, and mis-translated by everyone except (apparently) Butcher. One point he claims is that Verne did not write science fiction. That Butcher is not clear what this means is clear from the fact that he refers to PARIS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY as an "anti- science fiction novel". Anti-science, perhaps, but then all novels are "fiction novels". No, Butcher must think that being negative on technology makes something "anti-science fiction", or "anti-science-fiction". Butcher seems to think that because rudimentary submarines existed when Verne wrote TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, that novel was not science fiction. (At least he makes no such claim about the spaceship in FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON.) A further irony is that in spite of Butcher's protestations that Verne is not a science fiction writer, the introduction for this biography is by Arthur C. Clarke, and the back blurb is by Ray Bradbury--two authors best known as science fiction authors.
Butcher also leaves loose ends. He writes, "Verne is the most read of all writers--nine times as much as the next Frenchman." The citation for this is Charles-Noel Martin's Ph.D. thesis, but I would like to know what this statistic is based on--and who the next Frenchman is. The citations are done in an academic style that makes them hard to decipher; the index has errors. (At least one title I looked up was supposed discussed on page 225, but I cannot find anything on that page or either of the adjacent ones.) No one disagrees that most of the translations of Verne until very recently have ranged from poor to execrable. But Butcher is so adamant about how everyone was unjust to Verne that even though it is all true, it becomes tiresome. In fairness, I should add that also tells how unfair Verne was, with so many stories of plagiarism, racism, anti-Semitism, and general obstreperousness that one finds it hard to gather a lot of sympathy for Verne either.
Butcher also spends a lot of time detailing all thirty-three addresses where Verne lived, every trip he ever took, and so on. I suppose for a Verne scholar this might be a valuable book, but for the average reader, your money would be better spent buying some of the recent, accurate translations of Verne's works from Oxford, Weslyan, and others. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The strongest of all warriors are these two-- Time and Patience. -- Leo Tolstoy
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