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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/25/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 47, Whole Number 1442
Table of Contents
The Popularity of Borges (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
A month ago, I took advantage of a sale at deepdiscount.com and ordered a copy of CUENTOS BREVES Y EXTRAORDINARIOS by Jorge Luis Borges. This is a collection published ten years ago, in Spanish, of several of his tales. Today I got a piece of email from deepdiscount.com saying, "Due to an overwhelming demand for the item(s)listed, we are temporarily out of stock."
Much as I love Borges's work, I find it hard to believe that there is an "overwhelming demand" for this book. Unless, as Mark suggests, any order is more overwhelming than they expected. [-ecl]
What's in a Name? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was watching HAMSUN, a film set in Norway during World War II. One of the characters we meet is the aptly named Vidkun Quisling the real person who ran Norway as a puppet for the Nazis. It occurred to me that anyone who was particularly useful to the Third Reich was pretty much destined to have been aptly named. [-mrl]
Paradoxes on Seeing the Future (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Longtime member Frank Leisti and I have been discussing the ideas of Philip K. Dick. (See the letter of comment from Frank below.) Two of Dick's stories: "Minority Report" (adapted into a film of the same name) and "The Golden Man" (adapted into the film NEXT) have involved people with the ability to see into the future. This is not so simple as it might sound because when you can see a bad future you can prevent it. But then what you saw was not really the future. The real question is at what point the future is set. That is really dependent on your viewpoint. The *real* story "Minority Report" by Dick, inaccurately presented in the film, has three different psychics seeing three different futures because knowing a future supposedly allows one to avert it and bring about a different future. That was really the point of the original written story. The story is largely a lead-up to making that point at the end. Apparently Steven Spielberg liked the lead-up to the end of the story, but not what it was leading up to. He removed its whole point of the story and instead-- disappointingly--turned it into a hackneyed corruption-in-high- places plot. Dick's ending was better. Spielberg did very well with the body of the beheaded Philip K. Dick story.
My suspicion is that Dick got it wrong. There is at most one real future. Either the future does not yet exist or it does. If it does not exist there is no point in talking about it. You would not be able to see it. If it does exist there would be only one immutable future. But that is not really very cinematically dramatic. In a film you can film three or four alternate possible futures. But if it really is a FUTURE, there cannot be more than one to your universe. Maybe other universes may be in a similar pickle to yours, but they are OTHER universes. You can tell that I am not really keen on the theory that every time somebody wins a battle another universe forks off from ours. That also makes for a fun story, but I am skeptical of the physics. I don't think that once you have seen the future, if it really is the bona fide future, that you can avert it. If you can avert it, it is not the future, it is only a possibility. But that is not very cinematic.
What is more the power to see that future would seem even to the person possessing it as a sort of omniscience. Consider you were someone who sees one minute into the future as facing two doors, one hiding a lady and one hiding a tiger. (Apologies to Frank Stockton.) It would not occur to you even to go to the tiger- door for your power to stop you. Choosing the tiger-door would simply not be one of your futures. Your only future would be the lady-door. So if you head to one door and do not see yourself going through it, you change doors. You essentially immediately know which one is the lady-door because it is your only possible future.
But let us say you are faced with one lady-door and 10,000 tiger- doors. Would you still immediately know which one was the lady- door? If you see yourself walking through a door at all, it will be the lady-door. I suppose a second possible future is you see yourself standing there in total bewilderment because so many of the doors you can think of to go through you don't actually see yourself going through. The best strategy is to head to one door intending to go through and then do just what you see yourself doing one minute in the future. If you see yourself walking to the next door then do that with an intention to enter it. (Of course you do not have any choice in the matter since you are seeing the real future.) Eventually you will see yourself entering a door and it will be the lady-door. Shortly thereafter you will do it. You will never even see yourself going through a tiger-door. Let us prove that like a mathematician would. Assume that you have as your vision of the future a scene of you going through a tiger door and you really do not want to do that. That means in one minute you actually would go through a tiger door involuntarily having seen that in your one and only future. But you would never be stupid enough to do that. So we have reached a contradiction and our assumption that you might see yourself going through a tiger door had to be false.
So if you walk around to all the doors intending to walk through the first one you see yourself going through, that has to be the right one. But you have to really intend to go through each door. If you just walk around waiting for inspiration, looking into the future you only see yourself walking around waiting for inspiration.
All this leaves the question of what happens if you try to avoid doing what you see yourself doing in one minute. You will not be able to avoid a future that is already set and seen. The question is what happens if you try. I think the best explanation is that you cannot see the future. That is sending information backward in time and the universe probably does not allow that. I think that people can have the illusion of having seen the future, but I don't believe that it actually can happen. I know people can have the illusion because once I did. It was nothing really dramatic. I was at summer camp and tried to remember when someone on the volleyball court called to me and waved his arm in a certain way. I seemed to remember it. As I wondered it seemed to happen just as I had seen it. I cannot explain this illusion, but I did have the illusion. Or perhaps it is possible to see the future occasionally, but not to know it is the future. I think the resolution to the paradox is that the situation does not arise because you cannot knowingly see the future. [-mrl]
AWAY FROM HER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A woman develops a new personality in the twilight stages as Alzheimer's Disease robs her of her memories and her old nature, but has not yet robbed her of mechanical function. Her affectionate husband is bewildered by the initial loss, by the new personality, and by choices she is making. Based on the story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro, this very personal film is a deeply affecting work from Sarah Polley, a good actress becoming an even better writer and director. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
There is an obvious way to make a film about Alzheimer's Disease. You could show a family unit and how tragically it is affected when somebody gets the disease. It is "Movie-of-the-Week" sort of pathos material. It would be wrong to say that there is none of that in AWAY FROM HER, but that is not really what the film is about. That sort of film is deadening, but in an odd way this film, as written and directed by Sarah Polley, is stimulating. Like the case histories in Oliver Sachs's THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT it is a study into how the human mind works. Though probably nobody would draw the connection, it also does what the best science fiction does. It shows how recognizable people are affected by one modification to their state of being. Our personality and our identity are in large part made up of our memories and the choices we have made. There may be a twilight stage in Alzheimer's Disease when those memories of who we are and the choices we have made are erased, but mechanical function is not yet impaired. When that happens a different person may emerge, freed by the forgetting of the past.
Grant and Fiona Anderson (played by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) are a cerebral and deeply affectionate couple. As Fiona slips into the clutches of Alzheimer's Disease Grant resists having her institutionalized. It is harder on Grant than it is on Fiona. She sees her forgetting the color yellow as a chance to learn it and enjoy it anew over and over. "Sometimes there is something beautiful in oblivion," she explains. Her bewilderment and loneliness is beautifully visualized as she is alone on a wide plain of snow cross-country skiing. Grant's resolve to hold her becomes even stronger when he visits the local care facility, Meadowlake, and sees the dismal environment of people slowly being taken by the grasp of old age and frequently mental deterioration. Grant is reluctant to give up Fiona and begin the new chapter of his life of living alone. Finally it is Fiona who recognizes that she will continue to lose pieces of herself and the break must be made. "All we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace," she reminds Grant.
The rules allow Fiona no visitors in the first month to help her adapt and adjust to her environment. The separation is very difficult for Grant, but what is completely unexpected is that at the end of it Fiona recognizes Grant only distantly. This alternate Fiona will change the relationships of two couples. Grant finds some solace discussing his situation with an experienced orderly, Kristy (Kristen Thomson).
Though there are several good performances, AWAY FROM HER is really Gordon Pinsent's film. Pinsent may not be familiar to people in the States, but he one of the staple actors of the Canadian film industry. He can be more expressive with his eyes than most actors can be with their entire bodies. It is almost difficult to recognize Julie Christie as the same woman who played Lara in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Here she is a woman determined that she will go gently and peacefully into the coming night. Michael Murphy plays Aubrey, another patient, robbed of his voice and perpetually frustrated. And a very good performance comes of Olympia Dukakis who becomes an important character later in the film.
With what I believe is her first feature film, Sarah Polley joins the ranks of Ida Lupino, Robert Redford, and Clint Eastwood-- people who became known as actors, but who can achieve far more by directing. This is decidedly one of the better films of the year. I give it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0491747/
Conventions, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, GRINDHOUSE, Witchcraft, and EIFELHEIM (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to the 04/20/07 issue of the MT VOID [yes, we're finally getting caught up! -ecl], Taras Wolansky writes:
I usually go to Readercon--it's a pleasant drive to Massachusetts in the summer--but I've avoided the Kirk Poland contest for years.
Japan is just too inconvenient, too expensive, so I'm breaking my chain of Worldcons. Instead, I'm going to the Heinlein Centennial in July, and either NASFiC or Westercon, or both.
The story goes, the movie of THE GRAPES OF WRATH was being shown in the early 1940s to farm workers in the Soviet Union, as an example of the evils of capitalism. But: "Poor people in America can travel without getting permission??"* "Poor people in America have CARS!!!!" And the film had to be withdrawn from circulation.
In general, I agree with Mark's review of GRINDHOUSE, except that I liked the Tarantino more than the Rodriguez. Not that I liked it much: after a while, the incessant chatter begins to pall. Also, even in itself it seems to be two related short films: Kurt Russell's character is rather different in the second half, more out for fun than the half-suicidal, cold-blooded mass murderer in the first half. Too, while the chatter in the second half reveals character, the chatter in the first half turns out to be irrelevant to the story.
Funny thing. I stumbled upon an old "Playboy" interview Tarantino did, in which he explained his decision to divide KILL BILL in two: because a three-hour grindhouse film is inappropriate and pretentious!
The story about Giles Corey of Salem reminded me of how annoyed I was, when Ichabod Crane's witch mother, in Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW, is put to death with an iron maiden. I'm pretty sure there were no iron maidens in North America at the time; they weren't a method of execution; and, anyway, by the 1720s English law had redefined witchcraft as a form of consumer fraud, not a capital crime.
Read Michael Flynn's EIFELHEIM. It's probably getting my vote for Best Novel. [-tw]
Hammer Revival and Indian Films (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to Mark's article on Hammer Films revival in the 05/18/07 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes, "I have to agree with you about the Hammer film revival. While a nice, nostalgic gesture of baby boomers trying to recreate their 'wonderful' childhood memories, a 21st century version would not be same thing. You said that the Hammer films were a reflection of their times; very true. All entertainments are a reflection of the times that produced them." [-jp]
Mark: "Certainly with humor that is true. I like Old Time Radio, but generally not the comedy programs of the 1940s do nothing for me." [-mrl]
John: "Just as we can examine the movies, books, music, television, and art of the late 50s and early 60s, imagine what sociologists fifty to one hundred years from now will be saying about the end of the 20th century and the early 21st century. Somehow I don't think they'll be very kind." [-jp]
Mark: "I rather hope they will be, but I expect they will be looking back from a very different world. I expect a lot more change in the next fifty years than there was in the last fifty." [-mrl]
John: "But back to Hammer films. They had two of my favorite actors of all time: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. " [-jp]
Mark: "Lee is reasonably high in my estimation, but Cushing I thought was a great actor who never got his due." [-mrl]
John: "They could handle any genre, in my estimation, but their gifts were tailor-made for the horror genre. I enjoy their films. Vincent Price, too. There's another classic genre actor." [-jp]
Mark: "In my opinion Price was the least of the three. He needed a good director to restrain him or he would chew up the scenery. He was good at acting weird, but was not very good when he had to play a role straight. In many ways it is easier to play a monster than a normal person." [-mrl]
John: "At present, I can't really imagine any--if at all-- actors/actresses whose work is best-suited for the horror genre. Maybe Keanu Reeves comes closest. The problem nowadays is that nobody really wants to be pigeon-holed into a certain category. Time was, that wasn't really a problem. Just another sign of our society, I guess." [-jp]
Mark: Well, the run of films has changed. Years ago it was actually shocking that Alec Guinness would play in a sci-fi film. Nowadays the really major films are like SPIDER-MAN 3 and TRANSFORMERS, based on comic books, games, and toys. The finest actors are rarely seen in the strong dramas that really require them to stretch their abilities and require a good studied performance. Instead, many of what would be the great talents are trying to do what they can to polish up the quality of "X- Men" sorts of films and being upstaged by CGI effects. Of course if somebody wants to make a strong drama you get really good actors wanting to play in it and willing to work cheaply. That is why you occasionally get remakes of films like TWELVE ANGRY MEN or THE LION IN WINTER with very good casts." [-mrl]
In response to Mark's reviews of Indian films in the same issue, John writes, "Man, you're really getting into the Bollywood films this time." [-jp]
Mark: "I was a house guest for three days of a friend who is Indian and a film fan." [-mrl]
John: "SUPERMAN in Telugu sounds like a real clunker that deserves showing at 4:00 AM in the film room of some convention. I'd show that one sandwiched in between THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Or THE MOLE PEOPLE. Remember: I love John Agar films! " [-jp]
Mark: "I think my friend wanted me to put it in the PLAN 9 category and rate it highly for unintentional entertainment value. I gave it about the same rating as I would give PLAN 9, maybe a little higher, but then I don't like to laugh at badly made films the way some people do." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE LION OF BOAZ-JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ by Russell Hoban (ISBN-10 0-747-54908-7, ISBN-13 978-0-747-54908-6) was Hoban's first "novel for grown-ups" (as Auberon Waugh described it-- unfortunately "adult novel" has aquired a connotation that requires this circumlocution). Hoban starts with a quote from the Book of Job (10:16): "For it increaseth. Thou huntest me as a fierce lion: and again thou shewest thyself marvellous upon me." But the names are from Chronicles II (3:17): "And he reared up the pillars before the temple, one on the right hand, and the other on the left; and called the name of that on the right hand Jachin, and the name of that on the left Boaz."
The story is of Jachin-Boaz, a seller of maps, and his son Boaz- Jachin, a seeker of something. Set in an unspecified country at an unspecified future time when all lions are extinct, the two are somehow connected by a lion from a palace carving, of the distant past, but also of the present.
Hoban's writing is full of poetry and memorable phrases:
"Every person is like thousands of books. New, reprinting, in stock, out of stock, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, rubbish. The lot. Different every day. One's lucky to be able to put his hand on the one that's wanted, let alone know it."
"How many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?" (pg. 154)
"When you get to know a face or a voice or a smell you think the person isn't a stranger, but that's a lie." (pg. 59)
Even the narrative passages are poetic: "In the morning he was awakened by the sun on his face. There was a professional- looking seagull perching on the mast. It looked down at Boaz- Jachin with a contemptuous yellow eye that said, I'm ready for business and you're still asleep." (pg. 97) Note that the gull is "perching", not "perched"--it is not just sitting there, passively but sitting there actively, about to fly off.
Russell Hoban is one of my favorite authors. He is best known in science fiction circles for RIDDLEY WALKER, but has written at least one other science fiction novel (FREMDER), and many fantasy or magical realist novels. I highly recommend THE LION OF BOAZ- JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ, and all of his other novels as well. (My reviews of many of his books may be found at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/hoban.htm.)
"The Merchant Princes" by Charles Stross is (so far) a trilogy consisting of THE FAMILY TRADE (ISBN-10 0-765-34821-7, ISBN-13 978-0-765-34821-0), THE HIDDEN FAMILY (ISBN-10 0-765-35205-2, ISBN-13 978-0-765-35205-7), and THE CLAN CORPORATE (ISBN-10 0-765-30930-0, ISBN-13 978-0-765-30930-3). Each one comes in at between 50,000 and 60,000 words, making them fairly short "novels" by today's standards, and (no surprise here) they are not even stand-alone novels, but three installments of a continuing story. It is reasonably intriguing and entertaining, but given that they are priced at $24.95 each in hardcover, my recommendation has to be to get them from the library. (Even at $7.99 for a paperback, that's a lot for a single novel, albeit issued in three physical pieces.)
MISQUOTING JESUS: THE STORY BEHIND WHO CHANGED THE BIBLE AND WHY by Bart D. Ehrman (ISBN-10 0-060-85951-2, ISBN-13 978-0-060-85951-0) has annoyed those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible (especially the New Testament), buoyed up those who feel that it is the work of fallible people with agendas, and baffled those who do not want to follow the minutiae of translations and copyists. I found it most interesting when Ehrman focuses on a specific verse or verses and traces their history through various manuscripts in detail (e.g. Mark 1:41, Luke 22:43-44, Hebrews 2:8-9). He is less convincing when he moves into more general claims about why it is likely that some verses were changed, rather than providing more substantive evidence. (Of course, one of Ehrman's contentions is that not all differences can be tracked back, and some will have to be analyzed more probabilistically.)
We recently watched THINGS TO COME, based on the novel and screen treatment by H. G. Wells. The miniature of Everytown at the beginning is really marvelous, even though it is only on screen for a few seconds. It incorporates aspects of many British towns (e.g., St. Paul's from London, Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh [I think]) to create something that was truly "Everytown". And there are other touches: all the children's Christmas gifts at the beginning are martial. The Boss is obviously intended to be a negative character in a fascist mold; he dresses like Mussolini and says things like, "You are warriors. You have been taught not to think, but to do--and--if, need be, die. I salute you--I, your leader." But the technocracy Wings over the World brings does not look much better to our eyes. They show up in Everytown, announce that they are taking control, and say things like, "Now we have to put the world in order," and "first, the round-up of brigands." (Interestingly, Wells has them "settle, organize, and advance" first, then round up the brigands, while the film has the brigands rounded up first.)
And what do they do? Well, Cabal announces, "We shall excavate the eternal hills," and then we see massive strip-mining operations and huge factories, apparently fairly polluted, since all the workers are wearing full body suits and helmets. When Theotocopulos cries, "Stop this progress before it is too late!" we are likely to agree at least somewhat with him. (And how do Theotocopulos and Cabal project their voices in their debate across about a half-mile of distance without any microphones or speakers?) In spite of all this, this is a film that cries out for a good restoration--I wonder why no one has done one? [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Literature flourishes best when it is half a trade and half an art. -- William Inge
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