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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/02/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 44, Whole Number 1491
Table of Contents
An Inspirational Moment (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Ah, spring is here. People around the world look to this time of year as being a season of great hope, a time of renewal. Spring is a time deep symbolic significance. This is the time of re- birth. There is the eternal cycle of birth, growth, ripeness, decline, and death. It is the Great Cycle of Life revered by cultures all over the world. It is a symbol of great fortifying power and of universal hope. Well, wise up, Bunky. The cycle may go on, but you sure as Tax Day don't. When you're dead, you're dead, kid. There's no more picking up the marbles. So whether there is a cycle or not is pretty much academic. Grab it now or lose it forever.
[Portions of the above inspirational message may not apply to parents, Hindus, and residents of the Southern Hemisphere. Void where prohibited by law.]
Anthony Boucher (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is sad news in the review column I just read in a science fiction magazine. According to the editor, "There seems to be some evidence that the boom in science-fiction-in-book-form, which began about five years ago, is starting to wane." That is kind of a sad thought since I look forward to this particular book reviewer and magazine editor's recommendations. Luckily I have a good-sized collection of books to tide me over during the hard times coming. The reviewer and editor who is telling me this is Anthony Boucher in the September issue of the MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. That is September, 1954.
I know what you are thinking. Have I accidentally fallen into a time warp? (That was what you were thinking, wasn't it?) Let me assure you that the answer is no. Certainly not. I have not accidentally fallen. I intentionally jumped. I meant to do that.
The story is this. Evelyn had a stand to hold a picture near our kitchen table. She got the bright idea to liven up the area by displaying a 1950s issue of GALAXY magazine. That was OK for a week or two, then I started to get a little tired of it and I proposed to her that I would change the magazine each week. I would work my way through the issues we have of GALAXY. After a month or so I said that I preferred the art work on MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION in the early Fifties. We have pretty much a complete collection. She said that F&SF would be fine. So I am displaying issues of F&SF from 1953 on.
Fairly quickly I realized that it nice to read a little of the magazines before putting them back on the shelf. Of particular interest is Anthony Boucher's book review column. We have this big collection of science fiction books collected over the years, bought cheaply from used book stores. But what we need is something to get us really interested in the books. Well Boucher's contemporary book reviews are just the thing. If he recommends a book, I can probably walk into the other room and get a copy. This is something Boucher's original readers would have probably envied me.
I can actually see the then new field of science fiction develop during the exciting years of the early 1950s. We go through it in fast motion were every week corresponds to a month.
This month there is a new writer whose work, Boucher tells me, is good enough to stand beside Asimov, Clement, and Pangborn. He had written a very nice juvenile, THE VAULT OF THE AGES. But now Mr. Poul Anderson is trying his hand with an adult novel, BRAIN WAVE. This novel, I am assured, is "wholly satisfactory." He is a little cooler on Jerry Sohl's new novel ALTERED EGO. "It's almost rational ... as Sohl novels go."
Last week/month Boucher was recommending Robert Sheckley's collection UNTOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS. His comment on it is both exciting and in retrospect a little sad. He calls it "as brightly individual and entrancing a group of science fantasies as we've seen in some time--from an author who has only barely begun his career!" Of course, if I reach into my other mind I would know that a young Mark Leeper would discover Sheckley stories in another five years when NOTIONS UNLIMITED would become Mark's first science fiction book intended for adult readers. My other mind could see the span of that great career including, sadly, Scheckley's death many years later. No, that is my 2008 mind. It is a lot more fun returning to my 1954 mind and picking out the books I want to read. Maybe I will go in and get myself a copy of UNTOUCHED BY HUMAN HANDS and put it on my bed stand.
While my 1954 mind is frolicking through the blossoming fields of 1954 naive science fiction, my 2008 mind is trying to slog through Greg Egan's DIASPORA. This is the book chosen for our book discussion. Evelyn, who is in every way a better reader than I am, is having a hard time making out what Egan is saying. It is about 300 pages and Evelyn does not seem greatly excited by the ideas or the adventure. Hey, no contest. If you want me I will be back in 1954. You know Groff Conklin has just brought out a whole book of computer stories called SCIENCE FICTION THINKING MACHINES. Boucher thinks Conklin has never done a better job of creative editing. That's for me.
If you have some old science fiction magazines, give this a try. Sometimes you *can* stop at Willoughby.
[Postscript: In March of 1955 we get an assessment of the fantasy novels of the previous year including THE BROKEN SWORD by Poul Anderson, THE VICTORIAN CHAISE LONGUE by Marghanita Laski, and THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J. R. R. Tolkien. Of the latter he says, "Long and even cumbersome though it is, the Tolkein may well be the year's most distinguished work of imagination." That may prove true.] [-mrl]
YELLA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: German film director/writer Christian Petzold's YELLA is a suspenseful film carried off without the viewer knowing what the suspense is all about. It is a film about a capable but very material woman making her way in a new town. She turns her back on her unlucky former husband and goes to western Germany where the financial prospects are better. This is a film where what is happening in the margins becomes increasingly more interesting than the main story. During the course of this film something strange is happening in conjunction with the main story, but the viewer is never sure what. The mystery happening in the margins of this story is more interesting than the mainline plot. Nina Hoss won a Silver Bear prize for Best Actress for her role in YELLA, and the film won Best Picture by the German Film Critics Association. It also won Best Picture, Director, Actress and Cinematography Lola awards (the German equivalent of the Oscar). Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Yella (played by Nina Hoss) is leaving her home town of Wittenberge, leaving her husband, and leaving her old life. Her husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) at one time looked like a man of great prospects, but his business plans failed and at the same time so did their relationship. Yella is a smart woman with a good knowledge of accounting, but she is also a very material person. Ben can no longer support her in the style to which she wants to remain accustomed. On top of which Ben is tightening his grip on her and she knows she must leave him. Ben tries to one last futile stunt to hold onto her and nearly kills both of them.
Yella now knows she made the right decision to leave. She is going to escape from her town in the eastern part of Germany and go to the richer prospects to Hanover in the western part. Still shaken by her brush with death, Yella goes to a new town where she has been offered a high-paying accounting job. Now it is her luck that is going sour. The job turns out to be a fraud and she is just being used. Just when things look bleak she runs into Philipp (Devid Striesow). Philipp is himself a sort of financial wheeler-dealer who treads a narrow line between honesty and dishonesty. Expecting to just to use Yella as a distraction for the other side in negotiations he discovers that Yella can be more valuable for her mind than for her body. But Yella herself can be a dangerous ally. Does she want Philipp or does she want what she can take him for? And what will she do about Ben, who has followed her to her new town?
The characters in YELLA are a little cold to American tastes. There are a number of reasons why this may be true. Part of it may be a cultural difference between how Germans portray Germans on the screen and how Americans portray Americans. Part may be because of the specific situation in the film. In addition, much of the plot is about financial dealings. While everybody is fascinated with money, somehow it is a subject that does not do well on the screen. Alan J. Pakula's 1981 film ROLLOVER comes really close to being financial science fiction and a stock- market-based thriller and it is about as thrilling as anyone could make incidents whose impact is shown by numbers on the screen. It is as hard to make finance exciting in a movie as it is to make Pilgrims erotic. It just does not work. But if the finance is not interesting, the metaphysical and fantasy-tinged margins of this story compensate. Petzold creates prominent contrasts in the film. The film contrasts what has become of the old East Germany with the west of Germany. It bounces back and forth from stifling business offices to frequent interludes with nature with birds, trees, and especially water. There are recurrent images of water as a symbol of death and of rebirth.
The press materials that came with the film mentioned that the film was inspired by a certain semi-well-known American film and one that I happen to like a great deal. Unfortunately, knowing the connection with the American film is a massive spoiler. It tells much too much about where the story is really going. The original, however, did more on what I can only assume is a small fraction of the budget of YELLA. For those who have already seen YELLA, I will leave a link at the bottom of this review for the American film that inspired YELLA.
Christian Petzold's story-telling is slow but intriguing. He builds suspense without defining letting the viewer know what to be uneasy about. That is not easy to do. I rate YELLA a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0806686/
SPOILER: This film is strongly inspired by http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0055830/
THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert A. Heinlein (copyright 1965 by Robert A. Heinlein, Blackstone Audiobooks, 12 CDs, ISBN 0-7861-9885-0) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Book two in my Heinlein education is the 1965 classic THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967 and runner-up for the same award in 1966. I don't recall ever seeing a novel eligible in two different voting years--I presume it has something to do with the fact that it was serialized in If Magazine across the end of 1965 and the beginning of 1966. It would be his last Hugo-winning novel.
The story is set on the moon in 2075. The colonists, or Loonies, are either criminals or political exiles or descendants of the same. The moon is governed by the Lunar Authority, which has put in place a warden to keep things in line. Our story starts with one Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis, a one-armed electronics and computer expert on assignment to repair the central computer that runs the lunar colonies. Mannie has been called in because the central computer pulled a practical joke by paying one of the janitors or some such an outrageous sum of money. Mannie makes a fascinating discovery--the computer has achieved self-awareness. Mannie names him Mycroft Holmes, after Sherlock's brother, or Mike for short. Mannie and Mike become friends. Mannie works out a method of communicating with Mike, and it's apparent that something will be brewing shortly.
Mannie attends a meeting of a group of anti-Authority activists, where he meets Wyoming Knott, or Wyoh for short, a beautiful blond revolutionary from Hong Kong Luna, one of the many warrens on the moon. She gives a speech at the meeting, but some of her views are rebutted by Professor Bernardo de la Paz, or "Prof". Prof is an old instructor of Mannie's from long ago. Together, the three of them, along with the help of Mike, begin plotting a revolution that will eventually give the lunar colonies their freedom.
My suspicions are that most of the readers of this esteemed journal (any bonus points for that one, Evelyn? :-)) know the story. It follows a nice little progression: the plotting of the revolution, the take-over of the colony after some Authority thugs rape and murder innocent women, the trip to Earth to plead the Loonie case (now *that* sounds wrong) to the Earth authorities, the attack on the Lunar colonies by Earth, and the Loonies' retaliation, eventually ending in freedom for the Loonies.
I enjoyed this novel much more than I did METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, but there were some things that annoyed me a bit. In my opinion, Wyoh degenerated from the beginnings of a very strong character to yet another stereotypical Heinleinian woman. Yes, she did contribute to the revolution, but as far as strong female characters go, I like my women like "Babylon 5"'s Susan Ivanova or Delenn. The endless description of the details of plotting the revolution drove me nuts after a while--I just got tired of it.
We also get an extended glimpse of Heinlein's Libertarian views on government as well as his revolutionary views on the different types of marriage, an idea that may be intriguing but one that I'll never ever get used to. We learn about rational anarchists, and the catch phrase TANSTAAFL ("there ain't no such thing as a free lunch") takes hold here.
So, would I recommend this book to someone? As representative of late-prime Heinlein, certainly. Yes, it won the Hugo, and it is considered one of the all-time classic works of the field, but it's not in my top ten (maybe we'll get into that sometime). It was certainly an enjoyable novel, and it was entertaining on top of that. A pleasant listen.
Oh, that brings me to the reader, Lloyd James. His voice grated on me after awhile, and the accents he gave to the characters were distracting. I guess I'm spoiled--I like the guy who read Card's EMPIRE.
Next up is THE GHOST BRIGADES by John Scalzi, after which the Hugo reading will begin.[-jak]
THE COUNTERFEITERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Austrian-German production THE COUNTERFEITERS is good cinema that deals with serious moral issues. It is about the ethical question of concentration camp prisoners prolonging their lives by helping the Nazi war effort. The issue is at what cost is survival. Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky does not give a pat and easy answer. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Based on a true incident, THE COUNTERFEITERS tells a story that is roughly parallel to SCHINDLER'S LIST, but makes its central theme a moral issue that was entirely side-stepped by the Spielberg film. The story involves concentration camp inmates who survive by allowing the Nazis to use their talents to further the German war effort. Of course, many prisoners were in the position from the Jewish Sonderkomandos to the slave laborers who assembled the V-2 rockets at Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp to many different types of slave laborers in the camps. Nearly everybody who was not murdered was put to use in some way for their Nazi captors. Is this work acceptable in the name of self- preservation? Does it become less acceptable if the work being done actually makes a strategic difference in the war? In SCHINDLER'S LIST workers were making enamel cookware for the army. It did not make a big contribution to the Nazi war effort, but it made a difference. In THE COUNTERFEITERS the work being done could easily destabilize the economies of Britain and the United States.
Stefan Ruzowitzky's film focuses on Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (played by Karl Markovics) a counterfeiter who is living a high life in Berlin of the early 1930s. Then he is captured by police Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). Herzog does not hide his admiration for Sally whom he admits he considers the best counterfeiter in the world. In time not dramatized in the film Sally goes to prison. When the political situation becomes worse he is moved to Mauthausen concentration camp. There Sally is able to trade his talent as a graphic artist in return for some modest mouthfuls of food, and hence is able to stay alive. Suddenly he is transferred to Sachsenhausen camp. Expecting the worst he finds instead that he has been hand-picked by Friedrich Herzog. Herzog is heading a project to destabilize the economies of enemy countries. He is using his knowledge of counterfeiting to run Operation Bernhard, an operation within the camp to print up millions of counterfeit pounds and dollars. They will be put into circulation intended to ruin the economies of the United States and Britain. Not incidentally the money is also needed to buy petroleum and other resources that the Third Reich is running short on.
Within the camp Herzog has a whole printing shop staffed with dozens of prisoners working on creating undetectable forgeries of foreign money. Herzog's admiration for Sally's skills prompts him bring in the master forger to manage his shop. Just a few feet away people in the thousands are being murdered and the staff of this shop is living in conditions perhaps not comfortable, but easily survivable.
Not everybody in the shop feels that this sort of survival is worth having knowing that it is supporting the Third Reich and helping them to continue their factory murder practices. Counterfeiters are playing ping-pong in their off-hours where murders are taking place right outside the windows. Adolf Burger (August Diehl) is Sally's press operator who wants to sabotage the project, even if it will bring the Nazis down on the whole shop of workers. Sally has to decide between protecting the workers who are depending on him for their safety or sacrificing them all to stop the Nazi plan. For a man who is basically a ruthless criminal, he is in an unfamiliar position making serious moral decisions.
The film's grim visual style complements the subject matter. The colors are washed out in the camp scenes to give an atmosphere as downbeat as could be created in monochrome. As Sally, Karl Markovics shows little emotion. He coldly calculates and plans to do what he can to do good without doing bad in the process.
Films about moral issues are not uncommon. Films that leave the questions open are considerably rarer. This film trusts the viewer to make his own moral judgements as well as dramatizing a nearly forgotten chapter of history. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0813547/
For more information on Operation Bernhard, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Bernhard and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Burger.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS by Jeffrey E. Barlough (ISBN-13 978-0-978-76340-4, ISBN-10 0-978-76340-8) is the fourth of Barlough's "Western Lights" books, the first three being DARK SLEEPER, THE HOUSE IN THE HIGH WOOD, and STRANGE CARGO. Those were published in trade paperback editions by Ace, but apparently they did not sell as well as Ace hoped, so this volume (and the upcoming ANCHORWICK) is being issued by Gresham & Doyle.
While the books are part of a series, they each stand on their own. The back-story of the series is that the last Ice Age did not end, so Pleistocene mammals still survive: mastodons, smilodons, and short-faced bears, among others. There are also Lovecraftian touches, connected in part with "the Sundering", which has destroyed all but a small area of civilization, now stuck in a Victorian Era culture--hence place names such as "Yocklebury Great Croft" and "Upper Lofting, Butter Cross, Wuffolk".
I am really glad that there is a publisher willing to publish Barlough, because I love his style. Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS:
"In the springtime of our grandparents--that is to say, when our grandmothers and grandfathers all were very young--there occurred in the town of Market Snailsby, in Fenshire, a mystery of singular character and incident. More precisely, it was the unraveling of this mystery that occurred, for the mystery itself had been a staple of popular legend for a good many years, during which time it had resisted all solution. This is the story of the working out of that mystery, and of what was discovered in Marley Wood, and who discovered it and how, and what came of it all in the end."
"Market Snailsby was one of those long, lazy, meandering sorts of towns that are often met with in the marshlands. Its quaint old houses and ancient cobble streets were scattered in profuse array along the banks of the River Fribble near its junction with the River Lour. The Fribble was rather wide for a Fenshire river, but not very deep, and navigable only by the lighter barge traffic. It was a good eel-river, though, and a fine one for fishing, and of much benefit to the townspeople. There was a beautiful old stone bridge crossing it, at a point midway between the Market Square and the Church of All Hallows. On the other side of the bridge, on the river's south bank, stood the pretty little ivy-covered posting-inn called the Broom and Badger. It was here at the Badger that the drivers of the mastodon trains used to put themselves up, after putting their teams out behind it on the broad, open stretch of meadowland that was Snailsby Common."
If that doesn't grab you, well, then maybe this is not for you.
One difference that has occurred with the change of publishers is that this book (at 270 pages) is considerably shorter than the pevious ones (484, 318, and 481 pages, respectively). Whether this is Barlough's choice, or whether Ace asked for the previous novels to have a certain minimum length longer than this, I do not know, but at least now I have the feeling that Barlough is able to write the novels the way he wants to. (ANCHORWICK, I notice, seems to be back in the longer range--387 pages)
I loved this book, and I eagerly await ANCHORWICK in October.
(I noted in my review of STRANGE CARGO that Barlough seems to be part of the movement called by Frederick John Kleffel "The New Victoriana", which includes books by such authors as Tim Powers, Neal Stephenson, and Susanna Clarke. See http://trashotron.com/agony/columns/2004/09-03-04.htm for more on this movement.)
IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: AN EATER'S MANIFESTO by Michael Pollan (ISBN-13 978-1-594-20145-5, ISBN-10 1-594-20145-5) is a plan for an intelligent diet and is in some ways a continuation of his OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. Pollan again talks about "nutritionism"--the change from emphasis on foods themselves to an emphasis of components of foods (e.g., vitamins, Omega-3 oils). It all builds to Pollan's final section, devoted to the mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Pollan has several "rules of thumb" for determining what "food" is:
The rationale for the third one is that only the big food companies can manage to get the FDA or American Heart Association to approve their claims; it's difficult for the local potato grower to get FDA or AHA approval for health claims for potatoes (and harder still to figure out how to put them on each potato!).
The last rule is meant to encourage people to buy from farmers' markets. I'm all for this, but it just doesn't not seem very practical around here. There are produce stores *called* "Farmers Market" and such, but they are not true farmers' markets in the sense of selling locally grown produce directly from the farmer to the consumer(*). In the summer, one can find some stands with very limited supplies, but if one is supposed to eat "mostly plants," this is not a shopping plan that will achieve that goal in New Jersey.
(*) At my local produce store, I saw some tomatoes once where the sign above them said "Jersey tomatoes", the printed weight label said "Israeli tomatoes", and the sticker on the tomatoes themselves said "Canada"! [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. -- Maya Angelou, PBS, 28 March 1988
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