MT VOID 12/21/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 25, Whole Number 1472

MT VOID 12/21/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 25, Whole Number 1472

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/21/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 25, Whole Number 1472

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, La Honcha Bonita: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Question (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

If it really is unsafe to swim within one hour after eating, how come after more than a third of a billion years we still have sharks around? [-mrl]

Trivia Question:

There are several English words with an apostrophe in them, such as contractions and possessives. Name an English word containing two apostrophes. We will print the answer next week. [-ecl]

Socialized Services (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Not too long ago when we were having some work done on out house the people doing the work accidentally almost set the house on fire. And the fire department sent around several men and a fire engine. It turned out to be minor and we did not need them. But that is not the point I would like to make. It costs somebody a fair amount to send around a fire engine and all those men. We never got a bill. That is all paid for by tax money. We would never get a bill from the police, which we have not needed specialized attention from (luckily). That is tax money that takes care of that also. The government provides services and pays for them with tax money. And that keeps the price in line. The police cannot unilaterally raise their wages. If their quality drops off, they are held accountable. Fire Departments cannot just say they are going to start charging more for their services. The government holds them in line. And the quality of their service has not really noticeably suffered as a result. Probably none of this comes as a surprise to anybody reading this. So why am I bothering to say this? I am saying it because I have been hearing bitter arguments over socialized medicine.

Now why can't we do the same thing with medical care that we do with police and fire services? For one thing it may be that we have waited too long. Medical costs are already so high that the government may not want to take them on. It may also be that medical care is more personal than police and fire. Police and Fire services only non-frequently are protecting our persons. More often the Police and Fire are protecting our financial wellbeing. Sometimes the police are just protecting rules that are meant to benefit a few people. Medical people a much larger proportion of the time are protecting our bodies. For something so personal we are reluctant to let the government rule it.

I think in medicine there are all sorts of tradeoffs that have to be decided also. You have to make decisions that affect people's bodies. Consider the case that one test is 90% effective and costs $50 and another test is 95% effective and costs $700. Somebody has to decide whether to save money or spring for the more expensive test. If the cheaper test fails to detect a life- threatening condition, is the decision to go with the cheaper test legally actionable? It may be. Yet if you too frequently go for the most effective and most expensive test, you quickly run into big expenses. That is part of what is happening with the medical system. Police and Fire decide for themselves whether they will use costly and effective means or less costly but less effective means. They are really just responsible for the outcome. If the crime rate goes up in an area, they look bad.

According to one Internet site, "Healthcare system costs in the United States are 16 percent of [the Gross National Product] (and currently increasing 14 percent per year); no other country in the world has healthcare costs which exceed 11 percent of GNP and the average among developed nations is 9 percent." The article goes on to say the costs of benefits including insurance are hamstringing our competitiveness with other countries. They are a big reason for outsourcing labor to other countries.

I recently had my pulmonologist suggest that I want to get a new mask for my CPAP every six months. Now a CPAP mask is a fairly simple mechanism and one that is unlikely to fail. But he suggested that I should be getting the mask because I do not want to be buying one on my own because they are expensive. (A fact that became painfully obvious to me when I was traveling and found I had forgotten to pack one.) They cost on the order of $400 for something that is little more complex than a vacuum cleaner attachment. Further, I asked him how do the masks fail and he says that the seal to the face leaks. The fact is that a CPAP is designed to keep the pressure at a certain level and most masks leak somewhere, some by design. The pump just has to work a little harder to keep the pressure constant. A leak is a minor inconvenience. But he points out that the mask is fully covered by my insurance. I had recently heard an ophthalmologist give me the same argument when he wanted me to come back for a test rather than have it done on the same day for which they charge less. The difference in price is completely covered by my insurance. Another healthcare professional has told me that I should not worry about costing the insurance company money, the insurance companies have "lots of money." That may be, but they are not going to give up their salaries, they will simply raise their rates. People paying for their own insurance and people who get it as a benefit will both suffer. Make no mistake; we pay a heavy price for costs that are "totally covered."

What is needed? The same sort of uniform control that Canada has. If that is socialized medicine, so be it. For a long time our dollar was stronger than the Canadian dollar because we had a stronger economy and we felt that meant we were doing things right. But we are hamstringing ourselves. We ought to look to places like Canada as models for how to run a healthcare system. We may not be able to get medical costs back into line. We may not even be able to stop the growth of the bite of medical costs. But we really need to slow that growth. [-mrl]

I AM LEGEND (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Richard Matheson's classic horror novel I AM LEGEND comes to the screen with CGI and lots of guns, most of which work against rather than for the story. Will Smith plays Robert Neville robbed of most of his anguish and his advancing madness. Some of the visual images are nice, but this is a story that needs to be made on a low budget to really work. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

If one were to choose the Great British Horror Novel it would likely be DRACULA or perhaps FRANKENSTEIN. The Great American Horror Novel would probably be Richard Matheson's 1954 I AM LEGEND. Stephen King acknowledges the debt he owes to I AM LEGEND and to Matheson in general. This short novel reverses the conditions of DRACULA. In this story there is a single human in a world full of vampires. By day Robert Neville hunts vampires as they avoid the sunlight. At night the tables are turned as he barricades himself in his house and the vampires try to break their way in or tempt him outside and into their clutches. What has left the world in this state was an all-consuming pandemic. A deadly plague has ripped through the human race, killing all but one man. However, while the plague appeared to bring death, it did not really. Instead it put its victims into something deeper than a catatonic sleep. After a period of time they rise up again with many of the classic characteristics of vampires. The flashbacks are rich in some very basic human fears. One is the fear of disease and of being its victim. The other is the fear of not being its victim, losing all ones loved ones and being left alone. And I suppose we all have some revulsion of the dead made even worse with the fear they will arise.

Prior to the current film version there were two others. The first was an American/Italian co-production starring Vincent Price, called in the United States THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964). Charlton Heston starred in a 1971 version entitled THE OMEGA MAN. The latter was in my opinion terrible and very different from the novel. The first version was fairly faithful to the book based on Matheson's screenplay, though Matheson objected to changes and used a pseudonym. The novel and the first adaptation inspired George Romero to do the similar story NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and hence all zombie films owe their inspiration to the original Matheson novel. The novel was one of the first sources to suggest the idea that vampires were not supernatural beings but diseased humans. One of the virtues of the story as a source for film is its minimalism. It requires no special effects and only minimal makeup effects. This undoubtedly was an attraction for Romero. The makers of the Italian version seem to have realized this. THE OMEGA MAN went in for exaggerated makeup for the infected and big action scenes, some involving large guns. The new version I AM LEGEND starring Will Smith also has its guns and action. And in this version the infected turn into rabid CGI-animated monsters that are a far cry from anything a virus could likely produce.

It is a little hard for me to evaluate the new film version without comparing it to the book and to THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. The new film version (directed by Francis Lawrence) does not take full advantage of the story but does have some original and very nice touches. The premise is that Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) is the only human left in Manhattan and maybe the world. In this version it is a human-made plague from a virus originally intended to cure cancer. The plague seems to kill people, but then brings them back as monsters. Neville wants to turn these vampires human again by nullifying the infection. But he is being slowly driven insane by his extreme loneliness, his memories of the loss of his family, and this unending regimen of hunting vampires by day, and being hunted by them at night.

For me Will Smith is out and out wrong for the role of a man with such mental anguish. He does not have the range to play someone mentally breaking down. Smith seems to have gotten into physical shape to play Neville as an action hero, a complete misreading of the novel. Smith's never has much chance to get as lonely as the character in the book. Though much of the film he has a dog for companionship and talks to her like she is a sidekick. He also talks to mannequins, which is probably a symptom of his solitude, but it is treated very lightly. We see not the pain that Neville feels but instead his spirit of soldiering on.

Francis Lawrence's directing of the screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman have spiced the story up with battles and chases through dark buildings, sadly dumbing down the concept. There are hints that the infected might be intelligent, but it never goes much beyond their setting the same sort of traps for Neville that he had previously set for them. The story is so distorted that the infected seem to be little more than fierce animals and no longer capable of having legends. So when for the first time a film takes the title of the novel, it is given a different meaning. What is nice about the film is its visualization of Manhattan abandoned for three years and already in the process of being reclaimed by nature.

Perhaps the biggest problem of this film is the size of its budget. The best versions of I AM LEGEND, namely THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and arguably NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD were made in black and white for pocket change and were much more effective because of that. The real problem with I AM LEGEND it that there is just too much money on that screen. Most of it just ruins the tone. I would rate I AM LEGEND a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The film leaves the way open for a sequel. Warner may already working on II AM LEGEND. We see in the film a 2009 billboard suggesting that Warner Brothers, who produced this film, will then be releasing a film that brings together Superman and Batman. I am surprised they will take that long to make that one.

For those interested in seeing the original film version THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, it has fallen into public domain and is very available in a low-quality transfer in what must be a dozen different DVD horror film collections. There are higher quality transfers available at higher prices. For those highly tolerant there is even a free low-resolution version on line at the URL below. Since this was a minimalist film and not a highly visual one, it does not suffer too badly from the low-quality reproductions.

Film Credits:


GOLDEN DOOR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is a slow but richly textured look at the early 1900s experience of Sicilian immigrants leaving all they know to come to America and to be processed to become American citizens. The film has something to say to Europeans and Americans alike. Without ever appearing to be didactic, it conveys the confusion and fear of thrusting oneself into an alien and mysterious land. The early parts require some patience, but the film richly rewards that patience. I know of no film that so patiently and so completely documents the Ellis Island experience. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Told with very little dialog and with little more plot, GOLDEN DOOR documents the story of a Sicilian family's journey to America in the early 20th century. Writer and director Emanuele Crialese gives us what might almost be a docu-drama of the emigration experience. It is done mostly in long takes with little explanation to the viewer. We start by seeing life in the hills of Sicily. Here we do not learn much of the family's background and instead we follow a wide range of their current experiences. Here is how they sell their animals. This is how they buy clothing for the journey. That is how they purchase food. This is what it is like in the crowded hold of a boat when there is a bad storm. A wide range of experiences are dramatized as the Mancuso family sadly leaves the home they have known and sets out on the frightening adventure of moving to a new country so far away.

Salvatore Mancuso (played by Vincenzo Amato) has heard wild stories of how good life is in America, and he credulously accepts them. He takes his mother and his two sons and sets out to find this mystical land. Most of what we see is very real, but occasionally the film gives us little surrealistic insets of Salvatore's dreams of the new country. In one of people dwarfed by the huge vegetables they have pulled up from the ground. The film goes on and on with what were probably typical occurrences, the experiences of thousands, rather than characterizing this one family. The story starts to be particularized when the family is getting a photograph as a souvenir of their leaving. Unbidden an attractive woman drifts into the picture and poses with the family as if she is one of them. Salvatore is too polite and surprised to say anything. When the picture is taken the mysterious woman drifts off again. She is an Englishwoman travelling on the Italian ship and seems to have picked out this family for something, but for what purpose? Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems to hang over the family and even play peeking games onboard ship with the bemused Salvatore. The film builds to a fabulously reconstruction of the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. We have see this before in films, but even in documentaries at the museum we rarely get so intimate and complete a view of so many different parts of the experience of being processed at Ellis Island and the immigrants' fear of rejection. The film is not judgmental for or against the system. It just gives a very dispassionate recreation.

The style of the film is somehow reminiscent of Italian neo-realism. It shows life, warts and all, and spends little time explaining itself to outsiders. The spell is broken when some late 20th Century music is incongruously added to the score. The pacing is very slow to give the viewer a chance to get into the texture of a scene. A similar approach was used by Amos Gitai's KEDMA, but somehow it works better here.

It is odd seeing Vincent Schiavelli having a role in what is to me a current film. Schiavelli died of lung cancer in 2005 and his presence in this film demonstrates how long it must have taken to make this film. His role in this film is mysterious and abbreviated due to the fact that he died while making the film. His unusual face will be familiar from films as far back as ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.

One of the most memorable set pieces is looking down on a sea of people standing almost silently and as we look they separate and we see that one mass was on the stern of the boat and the rest were on the dock. As they separate we feel the separation of the emigrants as they leave what they know and head towards what they do not know.

This film richly documents a chapter of both European and American history as seen from the European perspective. I rate GOLDEN DOOR a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The Ellis Island sequences should be shown at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Film Credits:


What Has Been Proved (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):

In her column in the 12/14/07 issue of the MT VOID, Evelyn wrote, "Adams and Heath claim that 92% of Americans own at least one Bible, yet fewer than half can name the first book of the Bible. (Then again, all they know is that 92% of Americans *say* they own at least one Bible.)"

Mike Glyer writes, "Yes, it is always a good question to ask yourself 'what has been proved?' by a particular piece of information. One often has to fall back on that question in my work, where so much effort is invested in legal smoke and mirrors." [-mg]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: DARWIN, INTELLIGENT DESIGN, GOD, OXYCONTIN, AND OTHER ODDITIES ON TRIAL IN PENNSYLVANIA by Matthew Chapman (ISBN-13 978-0-061-17945-7, ISBN-10 0-061-17945-0) is an account of the Kitzmiller v Dover case of 2005, with several parents suing the Board of Education in Dover, Pennsylvania, over its attempt to introduce "intelligent design" into high school biology classes. Chapman just happens to be the great-great- grandson of Charles Darwin (which does not seem to have influenced his views), and was raised and educated in Britain (which does). Even though many European countries have official state religions, they seem to have no problem with teaching evolution in the schools, and no interest in cluttering it up with "intelligent design", "creationism", or "last Tuesdayism". In fact, on the whole they think Americans are a bit loony to have a problem with evolution at all.

Anyway, the book covers the trial, but also includes a lot of editorializing by Chapman. I particularly found Chapman's personal opinions of all the participants annoying at times, though others may prefer his approach. A better (in my opinion) account was "Nova"'s "Judgment Day--Intelligent Design on Trial". (This uses recreations for the trial scenes, so there may be undetectable bias. This can be watched on-line at .)

Chapman's title comes from an exchange at the end of the trial. One of the defense lawyers said, "By my reckoning, this is the fortieth day since the trial began, and tonight will be the fortieth night, and I would like to know if you did that on purpose?" Judge Jones replied, "That is an interesting coincidence, but it was not by design."

Oh, and the outcome? The plaintiffs ( who opposed the teaching of intelligent design) won. Judge Jones minced no words when he referred to "the breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision" to promote intelligent design. Ironically, by the time the Board of Education lost, though, almost all those who had tried to promote intelligent design had been replaced by "evolutionists" in the fall 2005 election. (In fact, one of the new Board members was also a plaintiff in the case.) So in some sense the winners had to pay the fine and costs anyway!

[And this whole drama is starting again in Pinellas County in Florida. There some schoolboard members are pushing to teach intelligent design along with evolution. As an interesting coincidence they are trading ideas with their neighboring Hillsborough County School Board who also seem to want to avoid endorsing evolution. Hillsborugh was the name of the fictional place where the "monkey trial" was held in GONE WITH THE WIND. -mrl]

I read THE COMFORTERS by Muriel Spark (ISBN-13 978-0-140-01911-7, ISBN-10 0-140-01911-1) because a film reviewer noted that the basic idea of STRANGER THAN FICTION--that someone suddenly starts hearing a voice narrating what they are doing and thinking and realizes that they are a character in a novel--was taken (without credit) from THE COMFORTERS. This appears to be true, but I found THE COMFORTERS strangely un-engaging. Maybe it was because the novel that the character was in was not very good.

Our book discussion group chose YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks (ISBN-13 978-0-142-00143-1, ISBN-10 0-142-00143-0) for this month's discussion. The book is about a plague village in England that voluntarily seals itself off from the outside world in an attempt to prevent the spread of the plague. This is based on an actual village that did this, and many characters are based on actual people. (But not all--the end note discusses some specific fabrications.) In my opinion, the book is a little too much "female empowerment"--there are long sections about the old wise woman midwife with her herbal cures, etc. I haven't read DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis in a long time, but that is the obvious comparison, and I think the Willis is better.

I re-read I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson (ISBN-13 978-0-765-35715-1, ISBN-10 0-765-35715-1) after seeing the movie. I have to agree with Mark--the movie that us most faithful to the book is the 1964 version, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. In fact, the current film credits not just Richard Matheson but also the screenwriters of the 1971 film, THE OMEGA MAN, for the story. So not surprisingly, the current film resembles that in many ways. Of the current film, I will say that it is probably worth seeing the movie for the production and set design, but not for the action sequences or make-up. One note: the 1954 Fawcett edition of I AM LEGEND is 160 pages long; the 1995 Tor edition (reprinted in October 2007) is over three hundred pages long. This is not just larger print and wider margins--the Tor edition also includes ten additional short stories, hence is actually a collection. Normally one would expect a title such as I AM LEGEND AND OTHER STORIES, but I guess they felt that just I AM LEGEND was stronger. [The novel is 159 pages of the Tor edition. -mrl].

TIME TWISTERS edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg (ISBN-13 978-0-7564-0405-5, ISBN-10 0-7564-0405-3) is an anthology of seventeen stories, about two-thirds alternate histories, the rest time travel or similar. (Some pretend to be alternate history, but I don't count stories that go right up to the change and then stop as true alternate histories. Nor do I count stories where the change is purely local, such as someone marrying a different person, but no other real change.) As with all too many of these theme anthologies, the stories are mostly uninspired, seemingly written more to write a pre-sold story than from any true inspiration on the part of the author. The only stories than seem to rise above this are Harry Turtledove's "Occupation Duty", Robert E. Vardeman's "The Power and the Glory", and Skip and Penny Williams's "One Rainy Day in Paris". [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           What makes all doctrines plain and clear?
           About two hundred pounds a year.
           And that which was prov'd true before
           Prove false again? Two hundred more.
                                          -- Samuel Butler

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