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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
MT VOID 02/23/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 34, Whole Number 1429
Table of Contents
L.A.con IV Con Report Available (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
My L.A.con IV report is *finally* done, and available at: http://fanac.org/worldcon/LA_Con/x06-rpt.html
There are three minor corrections in the "Overrated Films and Overlooked Movies" section:
There is a missing closing parenthesis after "not as scary flesh-eating monsters but just annoyances".
In "Last Night", the world is going to end, not "en".
It was "The Jetsons", not "The Flintstones", that had food pills. (I must have been thinking of the vitamins!) [-ecl]
Film Summary (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: Loose bots jam watts. [-mrl]
The Upside of Brain Damage (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In 2004, what many of us thought was the best science fiction film of the year was Michel Gondry's THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. The concept of the film was that someone who was deeply in love with a woman but with whom a relationship did not work out could have his memories and more specifically his need for this particular woman surgically removed from his brain. Much of the film goes on in Joel's mind as he is remembering his lover even as the memories are being surgically removed. Jim Carey plays Joel. The film puts the viewer right in the middle of memories as they are being erased. Details of the memories are disappearing even as Joel is remembering. In a flashback when Joel is investigating the procedure and considering having it done he asks cautiously, "Is there any risk of brain damage?" Dr. Mierzwiak, played by Tom Wilkinson, tells him candidly " Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss." Just like some toxins like botulinus can be used for a positive effect, it is the premise of this film that some forms of brain damage can actually help a person, particularly in addictive behaviors.
My memories of the film have not dimmed and are coming back to as I read a story about the possibility of actually surgically removing a smoking addict's addiction. It seems that a patient identified in the literature only as N had been an addicted cigarette smoker from the age of 14. The no doubt led to his stroke at the age of 28. He recovered from the stroke, but he never smoked again. Well, that part may be impressive, but it is not surprising. Obviously for heath reasons he might not want to smoke again. What seemed interesting was that he never even wanted to smoke again. As he described it to his doctors, "my body forgot the urge to smoke." His brain damage might have had had a positive effect. That was certainly an intriguing possibility. Perhaps the right sort of brain damage might help someone give up on something that until that point was a physical or psychological need. At least that concept was what neuroscientist Antoine Bechara wanted to investigate.
N's damage has been in the insula, a part deep in the cerebral cortex. So the next thing to investigate was were there other smokers who had had strokes. There were 69 they identified, and 19 of them had insula damage. How many of them had given up smoking after the stroke? It turned out it was all of them. Damage to other parts of the brain did not seem to ease the difficulty of giving up smoking. What is more while this finding might make sense, it does not make complete sense.
The insula or the insula cortex seems to be involved in the bodies "gut reactions" to food and other substances. Sniff some month-old milk and you are liable to feel nauseated. That is a small part of the brain the size of a prune that is telling your body "no way". That is the insula. It seems to control only acquired tastes. People who have acquired a taste for the nicotine in smoke are feeling the reaction on their insula cortexes. Damage the insula cortex and the addiction goes away. However, people who have had this damage have not lost their urge to eat food. That is not an acquired taste but a very natural one. That must be controlled by some other part of the brain. But this is a different function.
Now there are questions that come to mind. One is how effective would this technique be against other forms of addiction. It has been shown to be no good for over-eating. What about drug addiction? Would it work on someone who had a cocaine addiction or, say, a heroin addiction? But there is another important question. Who is going to administer such a cure? Dr. Mierzwiak of THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND seems perfectly comfortable about administering brain damage to heal a broken heart. But the brain is a delicate organ. Are people going to want their brains fiddled with for promised good results? In SLEEPER Woody Allen's Miles Monroe does not want anyone tampering with his brain. He laments, "My brain! It's my second favorite organ!" A condition would have to be fairly drastic before most people would allow anybody to go in and tamper. And will there even be doctors like Dr. Mierzwiak who would be willing intentionally damage brains for a positive effect? [-mrl]
C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (film review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I've written in various places about C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, notably in my Hugo recommendations, but I have never written an actual commentary on the film. SPOILER WARNING: I will be talking in some detail about parts of the film that are best experienced "fresh", so this article is intended more for people who have seen the film already, or who do not want to be surprised.
C.S.A. is a pseudo-documentary, or rather an alternate history documentary. Done in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, it tells the story of the origins and history of the Confederate States of America, from around 1860 to the present day. It is supposedly made by the "British Broadcasting Service", and so is able to discuss slavery from an external viewpoint. (The experts presented are primarily non-Confederates.)
In addition to filmed interviews with these experts, C.S.A. also has silent films, archival photographs, and archival film footage (including a speech by an exiled Lincoln in 1905)--all created just for this film. It also used existing photographs, footage, etc., but puts them in a new context. (For example, the painting of the surrender at Appomattox is described as Grant surrendering to Lee.) Interspersed are commercials for products, services, television shows, and so forth, all true to the alternate history described. I noted only one possible mistake: assuming one says that Jefferson Davis's term started in 1861, there would not have been a Presidential election in the CSA in 1880, because the Presidential term specified in the C.S.A. Constitution was six years. However, it is not clear whether that clause was intended to be implemented from the beginning or only after the "War of Northern Aggression" was over. (According to a friend, Davis was named "provisional president" by the Confederate constitutional assembly in February 1861, but elected to the presidency in November 1861, and inaugurated in February 1862. That still makes 1880 the wrong year for an election.)
What I find most notable about this film is that writer-director Kevin Wilmott has created a whole world. Most alternate histories create an altered political and/or social history. The written ones may have a few comments about an advertisement that is subtly (or not so subtly) similar to one from our world (e.g., "Fred got on the elevator, where his ears were assaulted by the Burger Emperor jingle. "Have it any way you want", indeed, he thought!) Even visual alternate histories rely on a few quick gimmicks--red and green traffic lights reversed, a "Sushi Hut" franchise, or whatever. But Wilmott has taken all this to a new level. *Everything* here is different. Because it is presented as a documentary, there are no long stretches of people sitting around dealing with inter-personal relationships, or travelers from our world talking about what is different and how it got that way.
The most creative parts, I think, were the commercials. These are actually of two types. One type are the obviously alternate history ones, such as the opening commercial, for "Confederate Family Insurance Co.". It talks about the viewer's role as "husband, father, master of the house", all while showing happy 1950s-sort of family scenes. It finishes with "For over 100 years, serving a people" [scene of happy family] "and their property" [pan to smiling black man weeding the flower garden]. The other type are commercials for products with derogatory names and or images of black people, such as "N****rhair Cigarettes". These did not seem as creative as the first kind, but ironically, these are all based on real products sold in the twentieth century. "Coon Chicken Inn" may not sound familiar, but Sambo's was around the final quarter of the century. A section right before the end credits tells the history of all the real products. But the commercials that will stick in your mind are the completely original ones: the Confederate Family Insurance Company, along with ones for The Shackle, Better Homes and Plantations, and the Slave Shopping Network.
There is also a recurring idea of "freedom illnesses" (which cause slaves to think they are unhappy and would be happier if they ran away to freedom). This is based on actual theories, which proves, I suppose, that people can make up the most amazing rationalizations.
There is one aspect that does not work too well, and that is trying to come up with a Presidential scandal in the present that would parallel Clinton's problems. Wilmott uses racial identity rather than sexual impropriety, but frankly, this story line seems strained.
Wilmott does not just cover the differences in United States (and Confederate States) history, but looks at world history as it might have been different. The C.S.A. becomes the imperialist power, but with slavery as an institution at home, their attitude toward other nations is even more oppressive.
I consider this a gem of alternate history. Yes, the scene of an Apollo rocket with a C.S.A. flag instead of a U.S.A. flag is contrived and done more to be "clever", and the Presidential scandal seem like it came out of a different movie, but overall this is a must see for fans of alternate history (or of Ken Burns), as well as anyone interested in "racial politics". [-ecl]
CHASM CITY by Alastair Reynolds (copyright 2001, Gollancz, $11.99, paperback, 616pp, ISBN 0-575-07365-9) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
The problem with having so many books on my to read stack is that time gets away from me. For example, in my review of Reynolds' REVELATION SPACE I basically said that I'd be looking forward to reading more of his books. The implication was that I would read them soon.
That was in January of 2004.
So yep, it took me three years to read his next novel, CHASM CITY. I wish I hadn't waited.
CHASM CITY is set in the same universe as REVELATION SPACE, but is not a direct sequel. Since I'd read REVELATION SPACE three years ago, I did some research on the Internet to discover that most of CHASM CITY takes place before REVELATION SPACE. Some of the characters and races from the previous novel are mentioned in CHASM CITY, but in reality this book stands very well on its own.
Our main character is one Tanner Mirabel, a personal security specialist who fouled up--a woman in his care by the name of Gitta was killed during an attack by Argent Reivich. Reivich has a vendetta against Gitta's husband Cahuella, who dealt in some illegal arms that were stolen and eventually used to kill some of Reivich's family. Mirabel pursues Reivich to the planet Yellowstone in the Epsilon Eridani system, where he descends into Chasm City, a domed settlement. Chasm City has fallen victim to the melding plague, a nano-virus which has corrupted all the nano-machines in both humans and the buildings. The result is some gothic-like setting that has regressed to a technology from the time before the plague.
Let's back up a bit. Mirabel is from the planet Sky's Edge. Sky's Edge was settled by humans who traveled there via generation starship from Earth. The planet is named after Sky Haussmann, the captain of the ship that landed ahead of the other ships in the original flotilla. Sky is considered both a hero and a villain; he's considered a hero for making the first landing, but he's considered evil and a villain because of the nefarious methods he used to get there first.
Tanner follows Reivich up a space elevator type transport in an effort to finish off the job. During the trip he encounters Vadim and Quirrenbach. Vadim is trying to sell him protection for his trip, which is summarily turned down. Quirrenback gets the same offer, and Vadim and Quirrenbach end up in a fight, which is broken up by Mirabel, who along with Quirrenbach later raid Vadim's room. In that room Mirabel swipes a coat, some "experientials" (a program where the viewer can experience what someone else did), and some red fluid--which turns out to be Dream Fuel.
Tanner travels to Yellowstone on an Ultra ship in a sort of cryogenic freeze, and wakes up with temporary amnesia, a standard effect of the freeze process. He is tended to by the Mendicant Amelia, who tells him about his amnesia and is concerned for him.
Back on Sky's Edge, before he left, Mirabel was inflicted with a virus that gives him two things: an affliction suffered by Sky Haussmann, in this case an open, bleeding wound on one hand, similar to the one Sky suffered during his crucifixion for his crimes; and access to memories of Sky Haussmann's life, which you can imagine disturb him to no end, as not only do the public records of Sky's life don't match what Mirabel is seeing, but he is also seeing things that no one ever has.
Okay, now it gets complicated. :-)
Tanner begins recovering his memories and starts to realize that he isn't who he thinks he is--in fact, he may be more than one person, as the memories of his life, Cahuella's, and Sky Haussmann's come crashing together all at once. In fact, no one is really who we think they are.
And therein lies the fun in this book. You really don't know who is who when, and what's going to happen. Once the story starts moving, it moves at a breakneck pace so fast that your head spins--and you don't know where you're going to end up. If I have any complaints, it's that the setup is too long, much like Revelation Space, and the book itself could probably be shorter. But it's a great book, and once again I look forward to the next book from Reynolds. I just hope it doesn't take me three years to get to it. [-jak]
NOTES ON A SCANDAL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In this the strong and disturbing story of two school teachers Barbara (Judi Dench) befriends and subtly controls her Sheba (Cate Blanchett). When Barbara discovers Sheba's indiscretion with one of her students she is able to make Sheba her puppet without Sheba ever realizing it. This is a real departure for both actresses, each giving a furious performance. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
I am writing this review just nine days after the death of Ian Richardson. Perhaps his best performance and perhaps his best known, particularly to the British, was in HOUSE OF CARDS and its two sequels, TO PLAY THE KING and THE FINAL CUT. In these films he played Francis Urquhart, a statesman who made a study of looking innocent but all the while fighting as dirty as necessary for power. In these series he break the fourth wall, making the viewer his confidant as he gives a little course in how to be incredibly unscrupulous struggling his way to being the most powerful man in Britain. I am reminded of the HOUSE OF CARDS films when I see NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Judi Dench plays an elderly schoolteacher whose goals are less ambitious, but who is cut from the same cloth as Francis Urquhart. And Dench narrates her strategies, not by talking to the camera, but by writing a diary and we hear the words she writes, not unlike what was done in BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, but the woman Dench plays is no Bridget Jones.
Dench plays Barbara Covett, apparently the point of stability and reason in the staff of a public school. She herself is an institution as the moral standard and a woman who makes clear she will brook no nonsense, from students, faculty, or administration. At least that is how she appears. As we hear her private thoughts, her dignity hides a very hate-filled and judgmental woman. Her judgement falls on all. Her attitude toward her profession: "One soon learns that teaching is crowd control." There are daggers in her smiles. As the film begins she is judging the new bohemian art teacher, Sheba (short for Bathsheba) Hart (Cate Blanchett). Sheba is 35-ish, attractive and willowy--an instant favorite with the teachers and students. Sheba has a husband and two children while Barbara goes home to an elderly cat. Barbara is instantly jealous and before long is hatching plans to destroy Sheba by first working her way into Sheba's confidence. When she discovers that Sheba is having a dalliance one of the students she knows she has the lever she needs to destroy Sheba and make the resulting wreck her puppet.
Blanchett is excellent, but in the early parts of the film Dench's acting dwarfs hers. Fear not, Blanchett will come into her own later in the film. Judi Dench is not really a glamour actress, but this role she seems to play with a minimum of makeup. She looks very much the role of a 70-ish schoolteacher. She seethes with rage and it takes a while for Blanchett to match her. The film also features Bill Nighy, a longtime staple of British drama, tough many Americans did not notice him until his standout performance, really the best feature of LOVE ACTUALLY. Director Richard Eyre most recently gave us STAGE BEAUTY, but has directed as well several award-winning productions at the Royal National Theatre. It shows what a fine director can do with two great actresses. The film was written by Patrick Marber based on the aptly titled novel WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?: NOTES ON A SCANDAL by Zoë Heller. Philip Glass's score seems to mirror the intricacies of Barbara's machinations. (It should be noted that Dench and Blanchett are both nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards. Glass's score is nominated for best score. Marber's screenplay is nominated as best adapted screenplay.)
This is a strong drama that simmers its way to a boil by the end of the film. It falters only at the very end, in which the story falls back on a cliché. Somehow the British seem to do better with their school films. Perhaps they have a different relationship with schools than we do in the United States. We did have Evan Hunter's BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and then dozens of imitation. We seem to like to cast the teachers as heroes against the students or vice versa. But we have little to match the drama of films like THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE or NOTES ON A SCANDAL. I rate NOTES ON A SCANDAL a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE HIDDEN YEARS edited by Michael Kurland (ISBN-10 0-312-31513-9, ISBN-13 978-0-312-31513-9) is a collection of eleven stories set during the years when Sherlock Holmes was presumed dead, that is, between the events at Reichenbach Falls ("The Final Problem", 1891) and those of "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1894). In the latter, Holmes gives a brief account of his travels during that time, and several of the authors here have used that as a basis for their stories. For example, Michael Mallory's "The Beast of Guangming Peak" is rooted in the notion of Sigerson, the Norwegian explorer in the Himalayas. Carolyn Wheat's "Water from the Moon" has him in Siam, and while Peter Beagle's "Mr. Sigerson" puts him in Europe and Linda Robertson's "The Mystery of Dr. Thorvald Sigerson" in Alaska, Holmes is still Sigerson. (No one can seem to agree on his alter ego's first name, of course.) Other authors move him to locations not mentioned in the Canon: Bill Pronzini's "The Bughouse Caper" puts him is San Francisco and Carole Bugge's "The Strange Case of the Voodoo Priestess" in New Orleans. A couple of them (Wheat's story and Rhys Bowen's "The Case of the Lugubrious Manservant") use the trick of Holmes having (temporarily) lost his memory. Michael Collins's "Cross of Gold" delves into politics. But all of these have a similar problem--the basic appeal of the original stories is that of Watson chronicling Holmes's cases. (The two stories not narrated by Watson--"The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" and "His Last Bow") are generally considered among the weakest of the Canon.) But since these stories occur during the period that Watson presumes Holmes to be dead, they are of necessity narrated either by an omniscient third-person voice, or by another character in the case, who usually focuses on his own role rather than that of Holmes.
A few avoid this snare. Michael Kurland's "Reichenbach" manages to use the constraints in an ingenious way into the basis of the plot. Gary Lovisi's "The Adventure of the Missing Detective" is an alternate history. Richard Lupoff's "God of the Naked Unicorn" is so far out I cannot begin to categorize it.
THE BLACK SPHINX by Matt Hart (ISBN-10 0-552-55421-9, ISBN-13 978-0-552-55421-3) is a young adult novel from Britain. The premise is some sort of alternate history, where London is a small village, and Wolveston is the big metropolis. Except for that, there is little alternate history aspect, and it is more a straight fantasy novel with Dickensian influences. (I guess I was hoping for a world in which the Egyptian dynasties and religion survived.) However, as a fantasy it is pretty good. The cover illustration, by David Richards, is reminiscent of Edward Gorey. (The back cover, however, is rather hideous, as someone apparently decided to maximize the number of fonts used; I think there were fifteen, but it was hard to tell.) And to give the young readers something to do besides just read the book, each page has a couple of words from the Black Sphinx's curse, done as a substitution code with heiroglyphs for letters. I did not bother to decode 294 pages of these, but someone might.
BABBITT by Sinclair Lewis (ISBN-10 0-553-21486-1, ISBN-13 978-0-553-21486-4) is a classic that is still relevant almost a century later. It is not just the theme of a man who is the ultimate conformist, a man who will justify whatever path is most convenient. It is all the fine details. It is about people who want an easy path to success: Babbitt's son believes all the "learn-by-mail" offers he sees. "We teach boxing and self- defense by mail. Many people have written saying that after a few lessons they've outboxed bigger and heavier opponents. The lessons start with simple movement practised before your mirror...." When Babbitt says, "But I thought they taught boxing in the school gymnasium," his son answers, "That's different. They stick you up there and some big stiff amuses himself pounding the stuffin's out of you before you have a chance to learn." In other words, he wanted to *have learned* boxing, not to learn boxing, without realizing that the latter is a requirement for the former. This desire for a quick path dates back at least as far as Ptolemy I (who was told 2300 years ago by Euclid, "There is no royal road to geometry") and up to the present day, though now it seems more focused on entrepeneurial ventures and less on learning by mail (or learning in any form, alas).
Babbitt is completely self-delusional. He says things such as, "We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven't got one particle of race- prejudice. I'm the first to be glad when a n***** succeeds--so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn't try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man." [my asterisks]
Another classic element is Babbitt's speech on how wonderful their city of Zenith is because of "the finest school-ventilating systems in the country" and "the second highest business building in any inland city in the entire country."
I put BABBITT on my reading list because everyone says it is a classic, and because I kept seeing allusions to it, but I kept reading it because it was a great book.
KIM by Rudyard Kipling (ISBN-10 0-140-18352-3, ISBN-13 978-0-140-18352-8) was this month's discussion book. It seems to be catalogued at the library as a juvenile book, but I think that it would be a rare juvenile today who could read Kipling's elaborate prose interlaced with Hindi, Arabic, and other languages. (amazon.com says "age 9-12".)
John Sutherland is a professor of literature who writes short pieces on "puzzlements" in literature. For example, can Jane Eyre be happy? Henry V, war criminal? Is Heathcliff a murderer? Where was Rebecca shot? Who betrays Elizabeth Bennett? (Indeed, these are the titles of the various collections of his essays.) And one of his essays in IS HEATHCLIFF A MURDERER? (ISBN-10 0- 192-83468-1, ISBN-13 978-0-192-83468-3) is "How Old Is Kim?" The only problem is that it is pretty clear how old Kim is, and even Sutherland basically admits this. At the beginning, Kim is thirteen; at the end, seventeen. The confusion Sutherland addresses is more that Kipling has Kim a specific age, and then ignores that whenever he feels like it. In specific, Kim's behavior at the start of the novel is too childish for a thirteen-year-old, particularly one who has been living on his own in India for years.
And in one of those instances of synchronicity that are becoming more and more common ("Year of the Jackpot", anyone?), the day before the meeting, Fred Lerner's fanzine LOFGEORNOST arrived in the mail. (This was actually doubly synchronicitous, because we had just watched BEOWULF & GRENDEL two days ago.) And the lead article was "The Tragedy of Rudyard Kipling", which Lerner sums up as "Rudyard Kipling came to discard the liberal sentiments that informed his youthful vision of empire. He became a reactionary and a racist an a vicious antisemite...." Lerner notes that the Kipling who wrote KIM was someone who appreciated the diversity of India, and respects the many cultures. But at some point, Kipling became a misanthrope, hating just about every group. Luckily, we are able to read his earlier work in all its glory without his later personality intruding.
However, while I enjoyed KIM, the rest of the group gave it a "thumbs-down": language too convoluted, too much use of words in the vernacular, and so on. People were unhappy with the use of non-English words which were not translated, but also with non- English words which were used (and translated) once, then never used again. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Sir, I say that justice is truth in action. -- Benjamin Disraeli
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