MT VOID 04/04/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 40, Whole Number 1487

MT VOID 04/04/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 40, Whole Number 1487


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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/04/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 40, Whole Number 1487

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, mleeper@optonline.net La Honcha Bonita: Evelyn Leeper, eleeper@optonline.net Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper 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 mtvoid-subscribe@yahoogroups.com To unsubscribe, send mail to mtvoid-unsubscribe@yahoogroups.com

Apology (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I know. I usually try to start off with some pithy comment. Nothing really comes to mind this week. I don't know what it is. Lately I have been feeling like I have been having some six-tana-leaf days. Ya know? [-mrl]


What a Difference Some White Space Makes (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

For the benefit of those who lost the indenting in the item last issue about Orwell and Wells, it was Greg Bucci, city editor of the "Mohave Daily News", who had thought Wells had written the novel 1984 and further confused the 1956 film 1984 with the 1936 film THINGS TO COME. My final line in which I also implied Wells had written 1984 was intended as irony. [-mrl]


It's a Dark, Dark Matter (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

What if Cab Calloway sang about cosmology?

Sound file: http://tinyurl.com/3xpzhx

Lyrics: http://tinyurl.com/2x8zdm

[-mrl]


Hugo Nominees On-Line and Electronically (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

As usual, a lot of the Hugo short fiction nominees are available on-line. See http://www.denvention.org/hugos/08hugonomlist.php for links. Note that the links for book-length works are to pages telling you how to order them, *not* to the works themselves.

Currently, each of the short fiction categories has four of the five nominees available free electronically. The Ted Chiang novella is also available at http://www.starshipsofa.com as a podcast. And the first season of "Heroes" is available for free on-line viewing at Netflix for subscribers.

Also, John Scalzi has arranged for Worldcon members to get free electronic copies of four of the five nominated novels. As he says on his blog:

"For the duration of the 2008 Hugo campaign, Ian McDonald, Robert J. Sawyer, John Scalzi, Charles Stross and their respective publishers are making special electronic editions of their Hugo-nominated works available at request to 2008 Hugo voters. The authors have put together a package of their books for the votersí convenience. Where can they get these special editions? Well, right here, of course!

Send an e-mail to hugo2008@scalzi.com requesting the editions.

IMPORTANT: Your e-mail MUST include the following information: The name under which you are registered for Denvention 3, your full membership number, and your home state/province/country (if not US or Canada). This is so we may confirm you are, indeed, a Denvention 3 member and are thus eligible to vote for the 2008 Hugo Awards. DO NOT PROVIDE YOUR PIN NUMBER. We donít need that, and as per your bank card, thatís not a number you need to share with anyone else."

Full details at http://scalzi.com/whatever/?m=20080402.

[-ecl]


The Ku Klux Klan in the Movies and Superman (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

A woman in the Czech Republic was asking me about the relationship of Hollywood and the subject of the Ku Klux Klan. I told her that with the exception of just a small handful of films, Hollywood really did not fight the Klan as strongly as it might have. Actually it turned out to be the Superman radio show that really effectively fought the Klan. And thereby hangs a tale. Below is what I told her.

The usually great silent filmmaker D. W. Griffith had made THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which was a very innovative film, but it was regrettably favorable on the Klan. In fact, it made them swashbuckling heroes. It seems to me that after the incident of THE BIRTH OF A NATION until the 1960s the film industry sort of stayed away from the KKK. Part of that is just that taking a stand would have alienated their audience. They did not want to pick a fight.

Generally, the studios tried to avoid controversy. The attitude was that if you want to give the audience a message, send a telegram. Movies were made to entertain. There were a few films that did show the Klan. Only THE BIRTH OF A NATION had been at all positive. After D. W. Griffith, who had grown up in the then heavily racist South, made that film and it caused so much controversy, I think Griffith realized he was on the wrong side of this issue. The attitudes he picked up in his youth had stuck with him and he realized they were wrong or at least unprofitable. He made the film INTOLERANCE as a sort of contrition. But really just a handful of films mentioned the Klan. When a film would have had the Klan they might invent a fictional organization that was similar and they give it a fictional name. For example, the Humphrey Bogart film THE BLACK LEGION is really about the Klan, but it is given a different name to give the filmmakers room to deny that they were actually attacking the Klan.

I think, however, the reason goes beyond just wanting to avoid controversy. It might also be because the studios were heavily Jewish. These were people who had faced discrimination in Europe and faced much of the same thing when they came to the US. Most industries did not want to hire Jews and those that did would not give them much room for advancement. So several enterprising Jews developed what was then an almost non-existent industry, filmmaking. Thomas Edison had his claws in the East Coast, often sending gangs of thugs after competing filmmakers. The Jews went to the West Coast and found a little agricultural community in southern California. There the sun was out much of the time and it was not far from the Mexican border if they had to run from the likes of Edison's gangs. That little town was, of course, Hollywood. There may have been one or two studios that were founded or owned by non-Jews, but for a long time filmmaking was mostly a Jewish industry.

But the filmmakers knew that if the product they made was too obviously Jewish it would remind people that it was really Jews who were behind the making of the films It would spark the old prejudices. The filmmakers did not want to be accused of exploiting their position and pushing their own agenda so generally stayed clear of attacking the Klan. The Klan, it should be remembered, was very much a Jewish issue. The Klan hated Jews every bit as much as it hated blacks. The filmmakers did not want to remind the public that Hollywood was a Jewish film industry. So they stayed away from Jewish issues. If Hollywood took the point of view of any religion it was Catholicism. Hollywood showed clergymen at all they were generally Catholic. The lead played by Clark Gable or James Cagney would have an old friend or mentor who was a Catholic priest, maybe played by Spencer Tracy or Pat O'Brien. The joke was that Hollywood was Jews trying to convince Protestant America to be more Catholic. So Hollywood did not distinguish itself for fighting the KKK.

Broadcast radio did a better job, and it makes a funny story. After World War II a man with the unlikely name of Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK. He appeared to be a loyal member but was actually a mole spying on the Klan. He would get information about the Klan like what sort of code words, handshakes, and passwords they had. At first he passed the information to the FBI, but apparently the Klan was being tipped off that somewhere they had a spy, so Kennedy knew he could not take his information to the FBI. Rather than giving this information to law enforcement people, he gave it instead to the writers of the Superman radio program. They wrote a story in which Superman would fight the KKK. Not only was it called the Ku Klux Klan, the stories had all sorts of details about the Klan that was thought to be unknown outside of the Klan. The writers worked into the script the supposedly secret code words and passwords.

Adult Klan members would hear their children playing Superman fighting villains with colorful titles like "Grand Imperial Wizard" that they had thought were Klan secrets. And the children were using authentic Klan secret identification passwords. It even made them sound a little silly. The Klan had always used its costumes and ceremony to frighten their enemies. Now instead they were making the Klan a laughing stock. The order went out to change all their passwords to be different from what their children were hearing on the radio. However, the Superman writers got the new passwords into the script faster than the Klan could spread them to their members.

If you are a member of the Klan your leader has a secret title like Grand Imperial Wizard it makes the whole thing seem maybe even more ridiculous than it is. The Klan lost a lot of members at that time because they could not guarantee the secrecy of their activities and because Kennedy and the Superman people had made the Klan seem so childish and laughable.

The story of Kennedy, a genuine American hero, is told in a short documentary on YouTube http://youtube.com/watch?v=Pi-UCUL441Q&feature=related

[-mrl]


METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN by Robert A. Heinlein (copyright 1958, Signet, 160pp) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

So, I begin my Heinlein education with METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN. As has been noted in earlier issues of the MT VOID and elsewhere across the SF field, this was originally written as a shorter work in 1941 and expanded to full novel length in 1958. This book was recommended to me by one of the readers of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky, after I'd dropped the fact that I'd not read any early Heinlein in my SF formative years. Oh, as a side note, it looks like I actually have an original 1958 paperback edition of the book. Kind of cool in a way, reading a novel that's half a century old via an original copy of the work.

Most folks who read this esteemed publication know the story of METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN (side note: do you realize just how difficult it is to move your fingers in the sequence intended to actually type METHUSELAH? But I digress.). The title refers to members of the Howard families, who live unusually long lives due to a breeding program set up to produce longevity by one Ira Howard back in 1873. The Howard families have been living in hiding for a long time, escaping from the eyes of a tyrannical government. After a revolution, society is changed - people are polite and actually nice to each other, and society is peaceful and stable. The families decide to try to come out of hiding by revealing a few select members to the outside world. However, the rest of society is jealous, not willing to believe that there is really no secret to long life other than the genetic makeup of the families.

The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the families coming out of hiding, how they are treated by the rest of society, and how they plan to deal with it. Their plan is to hijack the New Fronties starship and head for the great unknown. That trip to the great unknown is the focus of the second part of the book.

Part 1 is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First is, of course, the introduction of Lazarus Long, a character who appears in later Heinlein novels. Lazarus quickly becomes the focal character of the novel, stealing it away from Mary Sperling, the first character we meet and one that I wanted to see more of in the book. The second is the depiction of prejudice in a society that is supposedly peaceful, stable, and above that sort of thing. It's an eerie foretelling of today's society--not that we're peaceful and stable by any stretch of the imagination, but although we come a long way in the last fifty years we still have a long way to go. All you have to do is follow the news for stories of modern day prejudice based on misunderstandings and closed minds.

Part 2, not so much. The families travel to a planet that supports life, and after they land they meet the natives who turn out to be something completely different than they appear to be: they are essentially pets of the true masters of the planet. The families are kicked off the planet by the masters and sent to another planet where they encounter a race that is essentially a group mind that wants to assimilate the families into their collective. While I can't believe that this is actually the first appearance of a group mind in an SF novel, it probably is one of the earliest. The families eventually decide to return home when they don't like the second planet, only to find that humanity has discovered a method for extending life spans.

I think the interesting thing here is that you see an early Heinlein (well the 1941 version, anyway) staring to develop the writing style and themes that would play a major role in his later works. I don't think the jargon and technobabble hold up very well, but that's okay because that's not the point of the story. However, there is something that I find quite interesting. One of the complaints that I read about today's SF is that a lot of it depends on the reader already having a knowledge of the tropes of the genre so that no explanation is necessary or provided. The reader is expected to be in on the joke, so just get past it and move on. If any novel I've read in the last 10 years is guilty of that it's this one, and it's fifty years old. To me, one of the reasons that today's novels are doorstops is that there's way too much explanation. This, however, goes too far in the other direction.

In the end, what do I think of the novel? Eh. I wasn't that impressed (maybe I wasn't supposed to be), but I didn't dislike the book. It was just, well, there.

------

So, what's next? Well, three things, really. I'm currently listening to THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRISS, and I'll be reviewing that when I finish it. I hope to follow it up with the audio book of STARSHIP TROOPERS to complete the three recommendations that I received from the MT VOID folks. Next up, of course, are the Hugo Nominees, wherein once again I decide that my tastes are entirely out of touch with what the SMOFs are nominating this year, although with Stross, Scalzi, and Sawyer it can't be too bad. But before that, I'll be reading and reviewing THE GHOST BRIGADES by Scalzi so that I can be up to speed when it comes time to read and review THE LAST COLONY. [-jak]


CRAP SHOOT: THE DOCUMENTARY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is a comic documentary that is supposedly an inquiry into the reasons for the poor quality of Hollywood films. In fact, it is a set of five or six semi-serious interviews about films with minor functionaries in the film industry or the occasional college professor. These interviews are inset in a satire of the documentary filmmaking process and a parody of other documentaries. The result is amusing but nowhere near profound. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

CRAP SHOOT is somewhere in a gray zone between a real documentary and a send-up of documentaries. The film is done on the cheap in digital photography. Ken Close is the writer, director, and producer, worked on the musical score, and did about twenty other jobs listed in the end credits. The supposed intent of the film is to discuss American film with well-known Hollywood filmmakers and with other people close to the film industry. The topic to be explored is, "Why are the Hollywood films that we see so bad?" Why, for example, are we seeing so many sequels and remakes that do not stand up to their originals?

In fact, the intent of the proceedings is a little less serious than that. There are some interviews with real people connected to the film industry. The odds are none of these people will the viewer have ever heard of or remember seeing in a film. However, they are in the film industry and their opinions are of interest and have some value. But all of the connective tissue between these interviews is intended to be comic and it just occasionally succeeds. The result is a film that is amusing (sort of), enlightening (more or less), but nothing to stand beside some of the major documentaries that are being made now. The major insight is what anybody with an ounce of maturity in the film business knows. It is that what makes a good film is a good story and characters the audience becomes involved with emotionally. These cannot be made by a formula, and what films really need is good writing. Even so the system is such that the best scripts are winnowed away with a huge number of very bad scripts. That is not a lot of profundity or reward for 97 minutes of attention. But there are apparently a lot of people in the film industry who do not realize even those basics. How is that possible? The film answers that at the very beginning by quoting the famous 1926 telegram that Herman J. Mankiewicz in Hollywood sent to Ben Hecht in New York. The telegram said: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." (It did get around.)

The supposed story documented is Ken Close's trip to Hollywood to interview many of the major figures of the film industry. Of course none of them will talk to him. With him he brings his long-time friend Jim Horton, a real-life radio personality, who brings his deep radio voice to the narration of the film. The two argue over such minor issues at the poor quality food that Ken is providing. Some of the interviewees are also comic plants who undermine what credibility the semi-serious interviews have. Being fair, in the end it is probably clear who was telling the truth and whose presence was just a joke.

Much more could have been said about the state of the film industry and the quality of the films made, had that been the intent. But that was not really the intent. The intent was to entertain and not to say anything serious or affecting. And that in and of itself is a good description of the sort of film the film industry makes. I would rate CRAP SHOOT: THE DOCUMENTARY a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1062901/

[-mrl]


FODOR'S HAMLET (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: First-time film director Alexander tells a much- shortened version of the Shakespeare play that lives or dies on its extreme style. It dies. "Startlingly original" is not necessarily a good thing, particularly when it is at the cost of good storytelling. This film is an exercise in style lacking in substance that for me falls very flat. Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

One does not judge a new film version of HAMLET by the same standards as typical theatrical films. First of all, the IMDB lists sixty-three film versions and about sixty more that seem to be variations and satires, such as THE FIFTEEN-MINUTE HAMLET and HAMLET GOES BUSINESS. By this point the story has very little surprise value. Just bringing HAMLET to the screen more or less as it was played at the Globe Theater has lost its appeal and novelty. You measure a screen version of Shakespeare by how the filmmakers have tweaked the story and whether the tweaks make it interesting. In 1995 Ian McKellen made his film version of RICHARD III. He did not, however, go the Royal Shakespeare Company route of setting it in 15th Century England with 15th Century English dress. Instead he moved it to 1930s England. It had 1930s dress and it was intentionally transformed by the visuals into an alternate history of an attempted Fascist takeover of Britain. The text was Shakespeare, but the story, or at least the setting, was fresh and new. The viewer heard Shakespeare's words, but they had new meaning because they related to a world that the viewer had some feeling for. The 1999 TITUS had visuals created by the great Julie Taymor. And the feud beyond all reason had Anthony Hopkins playing Titus Andronicus and bringing it some of the same values he put into Hannibal Lector. These were good film versions of Shakespeare. Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET was overloaded with star power and had lavish sets. For me that was not enough, so I consider this a less successful version. But the point is when it comes to reviewing Shakespeare on film one critiques the sizzle and generally ignores the steak.

So what kind of sizzle did Alexander Fodor bring to FODOR'S HAMLET? First, who is this Alexander Fodor who puts his name above the title of what is probably considered Shakespeare's greatest play? He is not a veteran director. At least as far as the information I have seen about him and his film he is something of a man of mystery. The press kit I was sent said nothing about him. The IMDB says that he is a director, writer, and actor with one film to his credit under each of these hats. And that film is FODOR'S HAMLET. He was an associate producer for the film EAT THIS NEW YORK. Apparently the film itself is his claim to the fame that allows him to put his name above Shakespeare's title. So is the film an argument for his manifest genius? Well, it certainly is different from what has been done before. Is it better? Well, I would say 'no' and that it did not do a lot for me.

First and foremost are the visuals. Most of the film is shot was a wide-open lens with luminescent background. What does that mean? Well, picture HAMLET being done in the heart of the same star where Dave Bowman met his future at the end of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The oppressive background light distorts all colors. Occasionally the background goes black and the characters are carved out of darkness instead. But the furnishings look like they are from a contemporary London loft and generally from around London. The characters are dressed in street dress: sweatshirts, T-shirts, and casual wear. The lines are from Shakespeare and with diction a little less formal than the Olivier standard would give them. The words are spoken over the background of a pounding rock musical score or just weird music. There are long interludes of silence, which means that most of the original play did not make the cut, though the original plot is there--sort of. Hovering over most of the play is the ghost of Hamlet's father in a full-length coat that looks like a cloak from a bygone era. He gets Hamlet's attention by invisibly bopping him on the mouth, drawing blood. Now that is a direct approach for a ghost.

There have been other changes to the play without changing the words. Women play the roles of Horatio and Polonius (now renamed Polonia). Hamlet's soliloquy is spoken into a tape recorder. For whom it is recorded I have no idea. But then the logic of the story is unimportant here. It is the sizzle and not the steak, remember. In fact if you actually were unfamiliar with the story, this film would not do much to make it any clearer. Telling the story is not of major importance.

Diction is all-important. Modern diction is what makes MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING more entertaining for me than the classic Olivier production. Some of the line readings are done in such a natural style. Much of the rest sounds like first time line readings. The viewer is startled when this character or that is suddenly vehement without warning, but it does not change other characters' tone. The actors sound like they are not talking to each other and reacting to each other. It is as if each recorded his lines separately from the others or is just reading the lines from a script with a predetermined presentation.

Perhaps it is good to name this vanity piece FODOR'S HAMLET so it is not confused with Shakespeare's. If this were not a supposed adaptation of the Shakespeare play I do not think a film made in this style would get any attention. In any case *L*E*E*P*E*R*'*S* REACTION to FODOR'S HAMLET is that Shakespeare came out the loser on this one. I rate FODOR'S HAMLET a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.

Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0992971/

[-mrl]


MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY and Uplift (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Mark's review of MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY in the 03/28/08 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

After I came out of "MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY", I looked at the poster on the wall of the theater: all four raves were from women reviewers.

This is very much a women's film, with its far-fetched romance and its concentration on clothes and decor, which might win it an Oscar. (It would be neat if RottenTomatoes permitted us to aggregate movie ratings by sex of reviewer.)

A number of moments in the film made me wince. A poor woman doesn't just walk away from all her worldly possessions just because her suitcase opened on the sidewalk; presumably this was the filmmakers' inept way of getting her stuff out of the way. (She bumps into someone she will meet again in her role of faux social secretary--yet this leads to absolutely nothing in the story.) A woman desperate for a job will do what she can to neaten her appearance before meeting a potential employer.

After she gets a makeover, her hair and clothes are improved a little, but her face looks exactly the same, not helping with the far-fetched romance that follows. Thirties filmmakers would have known better than to cast a weather beaten-looking Frances McDormand in this role.

There's an intended running gag about her being around lavish spreads of food but somehow always failing to get a bite, but it's handled so ineptly that it never works. [-tw]

Mark responds, "We list different faults, but I think we are in agreement on PETTIGREW. You have to give them some slack in order to tell the story, but they require too much slack for too little story. If this had been a farce you could have accepted some absurdities in the plot, but this was not really a farce." [-mrl]

And Evelyn adds, "While sex of the reviewer might matter here, it probably wouldn't for a lot of films, while other factors would, e.g., farm movie reviews by whether the reviewer is urban or rural. Also, I think the whole point of the McDormand's romance was that the person saw something in her other than a pretty face." [-ecl]

In response to Mark's article on "uplift" in the same issue, Taras writes, "On 'uplifting' of animals to intelligence: the earliest I could come up with is Clifford Simak's 'City' series from the 1940s." [-tw]

Mark replies, "I guess you are probably right about CITY also." [-mrl]


THE SIRENS OF TITAN (letter of comment by Charles S. Harris):

In her comments on THE SIRENS OF TITAN in the 03/28/08 issue of the MT VOID, Evelyn wrote, "[I]t is good that Vonnegut is not an author who attempts to predict the future:... Magnetically suspended furniture, rocket travel, etc., yet executives make less than a million dollars a year. Oh, if only it were so."

Charlie Harris responds, "Don't jump to conclusions about SF predictions. You have to wait and see. And if no dates are specified, you may not know how long to wait. As a stamp collector, I am very aware that currencies are sometimes revalued in the face of economic pressures, often without changing the unit's name. You might need only a hundred (new) pesos to buy what a thousand pesos bought last year. Likewise for the cigarette smoking that runs rampant in much SF, giving the characters something to do with their hands and the authors something to pad out their word counts. Who is to say that highly motivated tobacco company scientists will not, in the years ahead, succeed in developing a cigarette with no adverse health effects (while retaining the addictive essence)?" [-csh]


SF Authors, H. G. Wells and 1984, and New Films with Old Ideas (letter of comment by John Purcell):

In response to the 03/28/08 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:

While perusing a table of reduced priced books at my campus bookstore, one of them was another novel of Michael Chabon's: GENTLEMAN OF THE ROAD. The dust jacket write-up sounded kind of interesting, too. This guy might bear some checking into some day when I get some free time back. I agree with you about the stars winking out one by one as the great SF writers die. Sir Clarke was always one of my favorites. His last novel--THE FINAL THEOREM, written with Frederik Pohl--is due out later this summer. Of course, I like Pohl's SF, too, and when he goes, I will be sad all over again.

Some of our greatest writers are getting way up there in age: Pohl and Bradbury are in their upper 80s. I am afraid many more stars will be winking out in the very near future. Thankfully we have been blessed by their marvelous imaginations and their fiction will entertain countless readers.

Anyway. I couldn't help but notice in that one article you quoted that Herbert George Wells also wrote as George Orwell. Talented man, that Mr. Wells. Thank Ghu he invented that time machine; it comes in handy for revising history, don'tcha know.

Your commentary comparing SF books to movies is, as usual, cogent. Speaking for myself, I much prefer books over films, but sometimes the film can be quite entertaining and/or thoughtful when in the hands of capable screenplay writers, directors, art directors, and actors/actresses. The concept you key on-- uplift--has been done very well over the years. Until you mentioned it, I had completely forgotten Roger Corman's "classic" WAR OF THE SATELLITES (probably for a very good reason, too) which really does pre-date Brin's "Crystal Sphere" concept by many years. Granted, you can't copyright an idea--like uplift and the crystal spheres--but that doesn't mean a good writer can't elaborate or extrapolate on earlier ideas and/or theories. It has happened over and over; but you know that already. Ah, I enjoyed THE SIRENS OF TITAN when I was a lad of 20-something. Of course, I have always enjoyed Vonnegut's fiction. Now there was a writer with a keen vision and a point to make.

Good issue, sir. Many thanks, and Askance #7 is now posted to efanzines.com. [-jp]

Mark responds:

The stars winking out is a particularly poignant image for me since not only is it a great winking out, but that is, of course, one of his own key images taken from the story "Nine Billion Names of God". I guess we have to expect that the great writers of the 1950s might be leaving us fifty years later. Losing Sheckley was a shock.

It had been years since I had seen WAR OF THE SATELLITES, but the image of the invisible barrier in space had stuck with me. I only recently read "Crystal Spheres" for the first time, but WAR OF THE SATELLITES immediately came back to me.

Yes, I was rather surprised to hear that Wells wrote 1984, but apparently there it was in the newspaper (or rather a newspaper article that Google pointed me to). I have always been partial to Wells's THE LOST WORLD myself. [-mrl]


David Brin and Star Trek (letters of comment by Andre Kuzniarek and George MacLachlan):

In response to Mark's comparison of David Brin's "Crystal Spheres" to WAR OF THE SATELLITES in the 03/28/08 issue of the MT VOID, both Andre Kuzniarek and George MacLachlan wrote us regarding "Star Trek".

Andre writes, "Regarding the 'crystal sphere' concept being a recycled idea: sounds a lot like one of the early 'Star Trek' episodes (one of the pilots I think) where they encounter a barrier at the edge of the galaxy or known universe or whatever, and fail to break through like many attempts before. But there are side effects for certain crew members, etc etc..." [-ak]

And George writes, "Perhaps David Brin was inspired by an earlier episode of 'Star Trek'. I suspect that you may receive more than one feedback mail reminding you of that 'Star Trek' episode where Captain Kirk and his jolly crew tried to exit our galaxy and were confronted with an energy barrier at the edge of our galaxy. Apparently this was a well-known problem to Spock and others and the barrier had prevented star ships from leaving our galaxy (as I recall). My memory is a bit fuzzy about the details, but I believe that the Enterprise had been taken over by a group of aliens who were trying to return to the Andromeda galaxy. If forget what ingenuity prevailed that allowed the Enterprise to pass through this barrier." [-gfm]

[The episode in question is "Where No Man Has Gone Before", the second pilot episode of the original series. -ecl]


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

THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett (ISBN-13 978-0-374-28096-3, ISBN-10 0-374-28096-7) is a wonderful book. I love Bennett's writing in general, and he is at the top of his form here. This book postdates the film THE QUEEN, and seems to have taken some inspiration from it, though it may be that those elements I recognize are things the British already took for granted. The Queen is the eponymous character, one day coming upon a bookmobile outside one of the palace gates and feeling obliged to check out a book. She soon discovers that she likes reading, and finds her attitudes (toward everything) slowly changing. Bennett also observes that her position affects her reading in odd ways. For example, "`... she had handicaps as a reader of Jane Austen that were peculiarly her own. The essence of Jane Austen lies in minute social distinctions, distinctions which the Queen's unique position made it difficult for her to grasp. There was such a chasm between the monarch and even her grandest subject that the social differences beyond that were somewhat telescoped. So the social distinctions of which Jane Austen made so much seemed of even less consequence to the Queen than they did to the ordinary reader, thus making the novels much harder going." Highly recommended for those who love reading, books, libraries, and plain old good writing.

About HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ by Pierre Bayard (ISBN-13 978-1-59691-469-8, ISBN-10 1-59691-469-6) my recommendation is to make this self-referential. The writing style seems aimed more at academics than at a popular audience, and at times seems quite divorced from the book's topic. Why, for example, does Bayard spend ten pages in this 185-page book describing the plot of GROUNDHOG DAY? It has something to do with wanting to use comments about books one hasn't read as part of a seduction, but surely that doesn't take ten pages of detailed plot synopsis to explain.

THE SCIENCE OF MICHAEL CRICHTON edited by Kevin R. Grazier, Ph.D. (ISBN-13 978-1-933771-32-8, ISBN-10 1-933771-32-1) is a collection of essays about the science in Michael Crichton's novel (*not* the movies made from them!). Beginning with THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, and ending with NEXT, each book is analyzed from the point of view of the accuracy--or at least plausibility--of its science. And while the comments on the earlier books are favorable, each succeeding book seems to generate more and more criticism. This is unfortunate, because I suspect too many people get their notions of science from the novels of Michael Crichton (and others--he is not the only one at fault, but he is probably the most popular).

ROLLBACK by Robert J. Sawyer (ISBN-13 978-0-765-31108-9, ISBN-10 0-765-31108-9) has two major problems. One, it has *two* assumptions of the "what if?" variety: we've made contact with aliens, and it is possible to "rollback" someone to the physiological age of twenty-five. Either one of these would be a reasonable basis for a book; both together seem like overkill. In fairness, this is a standard Sawyer technique, so it could just be me who finds this irksome. The other is that the ending depends on a massive coincidence--literally a one-in-a-thousand chance--to work out. (Actually, it is an even less-than-one-in-a- thousand chance, now that I think about it.)

And there are smaller problems as well. Sawyer manages to fit it his usual speech about how much better the Canadian health system (and educational system) is than the United States version(s). Even if it is true, I am not sure a statement to that effect needs to be in every novel he writes. And every once in a while there's something to bring you up short and destroy the sense of time and place. For example, though it's 2048, any sense of being in 2048 the reader might have is quickly stomped on when one character says the following: "Hell, I got an email today with a PDF attachment, and I thought, geez, I wonder if this is going to be worth reading, 'cause, you know, it's going to take, like *ten whole seconds* for the attachment to download and open." Which is less likely: that in 2048 we will still be receiving email with PDF attachments, or that if we were, it would take ten seconds to open them? (For that matter, how likely is it that both the Canadian and United States health systems will remain unchanged by then?)

Sawyer can't have it both ways. He can't write a novel set forty years in the future and have everything the same as now. Nor can he write a novel set in the near future and have the alien contact and rollback as he wants. (The alien contact is *not* faster than light, so he needs time after our reception of the first messages for our reply to travel out and their reply to travel back.)

Clearly, Sawyer has his fans (Joe Karpierz gave this a very positive review in the 05/04/07 issue of the MT VOID, and it did make the Hugo ballot), and Sawyer is usually the example of an "Analog"-style author on the Hugo ballot. But I have to say that this book will not be high among my choices for "Best Novel" on my ballot. [-ecl]



                                          Mark Leeper
                                          mleeper@optonline.net


Quote of the Week:

           I live in the crowds of jollity, not so much 
           to enjoy company as to shun myself.
                                          -- Samuel Johnson

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