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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/12/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 24, Whole Number 1523
Table of Contents
Spam Message (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I'm sorry. It may be a cruel form of humor, but I have to say that every once in a while I take a perverse pleasure in seeing a really incompetent piece of spam in my email box. This was a lot of fun. Only the phone digits have been edited.
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[Where were these guys when I was in school? -mrl]
John Thain's Decision (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
John Thain is the chairman and CEO of Wall Street bank Merrill Lynch, which was given $10,000,000,000 in aid this year taken from your pocket as a taxpayer. Some quotes tell a story. (References at end of article. Words in full caps are my emphasis.)
"John Thain, who took the reins of Merrill Lynch A YEAR AGO, has suggested to its directors that he be payed [sic] the multimillion- dollar 2008 bonus but the company's compensation committee is resisting, according to The Wall Street Journal." His company "lost 72 percent of its stock market value this year." "A proposal had been sent to Merrill's compensation committee a few months ago for Thain to be paid more than 30 million dollars for the year including bonuses, but that figure has since been pared down." A little later "Mr Thain had let it be known to the board's compensation committee that HE DESERVED a $5-$10m bonus. The report suggested that he felt he had EARNED THE MONEY." "Meanwhile, for the second year running, Mr Thain's opposite number at Morgan Stanley has also decided to pass on his bonus." New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said "The performance of Merrill's top executives throughout Merrill's abysmal year in no way justifies significant bonuses for its top executives." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid condemned Thain's bonus request, "Americans deciding which bills to pay this month just to make ends meet do not want their hard-earned money even indirectly spent rewarding executives from banks that are largely responsible for the economic crisis." "The newspaper said the committee and full board were to meet Monday to hear Thain's bonus requests for himself and other top executives of the firm that suffered billions of dollars in losses this year and narrowly avoided collapse by selling itself to Bank of America."
Mr Thain "on Monday night told the board that HIS DECISION not to take a bonus was appropriate 'given current economic and market conditions'."
Forrest J. Ackerman, R.I.P. (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I guess it is time to say good-bye to Forrest J. Ackerman. I knew that he was very highly regarded among the fans. I just did not realize how many people in how many news media were his fans. I thought there were a few monster geeks like me who knew of him, but I am seeing tributes come from all over the country. Apparently there were legions of us who owe a debt to Forry.
I didn't need Forry to become a monster geek myself. I loved monsters from the age of five or six. When I was nine or so I heard another kid say that he *had* to get a copy of "Famous Monsters". As soon as I knew there was a magazine called "Famous Monsters" (more accurately "Famous Monsters of Filmland") I wanted to get some for myself. "Famous Monsters" indeed turned out to be what I was hoping for, a magazine devoted to horror and science fiction movies, generally with some kind of monster. And the magazine had a host. "Time Magazine" or "The Saturday Evening Post" did not have a host. Most magazines don't. But "Famous Monsters" was created by Forry. He put it together. All the pictures from monster movies were from his collection. And he wrote the text. It was full of bad puns. Now usually when you call something a bad pun you really mean that it was a good pun. His bad puns were genuinely lame. He would say things like "that's Poe business." Or he might turn a phrase like these films coming along "will separate you from your sheckles like Hyde from his Jekylls." They might be more colorful than understandable. He created an alter-ego for himself--Dr. Acula--perhaps so he could pretend to be another voice but more to try to look clever. When you saw pictures of him, usually I remember he was clowning around making faces, maybe dressed in a Dracula cape. I mean there was no attempt on his part to write or act like an adult. He got away with being a kid all his life.
The writing in the magazine was usually by him and usually not so hot. One of the policies of the magazine--I later found out it was imposed by his publisher--was that he liked *every* film. Or at least he pretended to like every film. Which meant when he gave you a recommendation for a film you could take it to the bank. And any bank would give you for it exactly what it was worth. He recommended films like THE FLESH EATERS (mostly boring) and THE CREEPING TERROR (orders of magnitude more inept than PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE). But when you are a kid like I was or like Forry was you don't notice these editorial problems. You want the pictures.
Oh, I mentioned the pictures. They were wonderful. I guess he lived in Los Angeles and could get stills directly from the studios who I am sure were glad to provide materials to a popular magazine that would claim to love every film, even THE CREEPING TERROR. Most issues of "Famous Monsters" had beautiful color renderings of images from horror and science fiction films. They were probably based on his collection of stills, but they were individually painted and, I think, generally looked better than the photographs they were based on. I wish I had some of those paintings.
I don't think that I needed "Famous Monsters" to know I wanted to see the films FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. But Forry told me the greatest science fiction film ever made was METROPOLIS. So I had to see it. It was in black and white? So what? A silent film? Hey, if it is a good science fiction film I want to see it. Today most kids don't want to see a black and white film much less a silent one. But I wanted to see the silent film METROPOLIS. I really wanted to see it. And after that I wanted to see THE GOLEM and NOSFERATU and a lot of other silent films. And foreign horror films. I think it was Forry who taught me that there were films I would be missing out on if I decided no subtitled films, no silent films, and no monochrome. If it weren't for Forry I would probably not have the broad taste in cinema I have today.
I could list some of his other accomplishments. I could say how he discovered Ray Bradbury, how he was a literary and sometimes acting agent for some of the most famous names associated with the fantastic like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Curt Siodmak, and L. Ron Hubbard. I could tell you how he supposedly invented the term "sci-fi" which turned out to be a mixed blessing for science fiction. Well, "Famous Monsters" was a mixed blessing. Much about Forrest Ackerman was a mixed blessing. Those things affected me, but it was only indirectly. But for every fan of fantasy and science fiction who grew up in the 1950s or 1960s he was sort of an unofficial uncle. He was the funny uncle who never become adult and dull.
Forry turned 92 years old on November 24. He died of heart failure December 4, 2008. There is nobody out there who can replace him. Rest in Peace, Forry. [-mrl]
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An 18-year-old street boy tells the story of his life to a police commissioner. He has been arrested on suspicion of cheating for answering too many questions on a television quiz show. Each episode in his life explains how he knew one of the questions he was asked on the show. Together the chapters form a mosaic of the life of a Muslim street child on the streets of Mumbai, India. Much of the story seems distorted for melodramatic effect. The concept of the film makes it seem light, but the first reel is very violent and perhaps harrowing. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a look at life in modern day India from the bottom up. The main character is Jamal Malik, who at an early age was a "slumdog." Slumdogs seem to be parentless children living wild in the streets who frequently die early or grow into gangsters. Jamal has a chance at something a little better. He is on the Hindi version of the popular quiz program "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" In fact, he has gone higher in the program than anyone else ever has. And the police want to know how can a slumdog without an education do so well without cheating? But Jamal claims he really knew all the answers. Each question he answered he knew from some chapter in his life. He tells the police this story of his life by telling them the incidents from which he knew the answers to the questions. We flash back and forth from the recent past on the quiz show where he is browbeaten and manipulated by the show host to the more distant pass when Jamal's integrity and character are formed by the beatings he gets in school and the predators he has to fight off and escape from.
The chapters Jamal describes add up to a very disturbing view of lives of crime, violence, and religious strife. We see an operation that turns healthy children into maimed beggars. We see some of the Bombay Riots of 1992 and 1993. There is slavery. Eventually the film turns into more of a crime film. The crime portion of the film reaches his climax at the same time that Jamal is one step away from the highest prize on the quiz show. Even when we get to the quiz show, where we would be expecting more civilized behavior, Jamal still has to defend his life against a system that is rotten throughout.
Eclectic director Danny Boyle has given us such diverse films as TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER, MILLIONS, and SUNSHINE (2007). To make this film in India he can leverage from the lower costs and use the resources of the largest film industry in the world, the Bombay (a.k.a. Mumbai) film industry. He even incorporated a Bollywood-like dance production number. Most of the actors are Indian and will not be familiar to American audiences. One exception might be the Police Inspector played by Irfan Khan. Khan has been in several major films seen internationally of late. His keystone performance as far as the international audience is concerned was as Ashoke the husband in Mira Nair's very fine film THE NAMESAKE. Since then he has also been seen in A MIGHTY HEART and THE DARJEELING LIMITED.
The premise of the film is extremely contrived. Jamal does not have broad knowledge. He just happens to learn the answers to each question, each in a different chapter of his life and each in the same order the questions were asked on the quiz show. The odds against this happening must be colossal. The fact that his personal story and the story of his stint on the quiz show both reach their climax at the same time is also seems a bit artificial.
This is a minor point of the film, but it really stands out for me. Not only does the Mumbai police kidnap the main character, but he is (semi-graphically) tortured. And he is arrested and tortured only on a suspicion of cheating on a quiz show, and the charge is based on an accusation of just one person who has no official standing. It is bad enough if the police routinely torture suspects, but if they do this on only one person's biased accusation then something is rotten in the state of Maharashtra. It may cause even more controversy because, though the film was shot in India, it is a British/American co-production directed by Danny Boyle. So SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is made by outsiders but it is based on a novel by an Indian, Vikas Swarup.
It is hard to tell if the brutality of the system is entirely real, but the story is engaging. I rate SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://tinyurl.com/67b7tj
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Generally clever screenwriter Charlie Kaufman directs for the first time. That should make for a fascinating film, but somehow it does not. A community director wins a grant and stages a play of his own life including the staging of the play in an infinite regression. This makes the film interesting in concept but disappointing in execution. And surreal touches added throughout that just do not add up to anything but a film more challenging than rewarding. A good cast cannot make this exercise engaging. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
I have to be honest. As much as I have liked and admired BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and even parts--not all--of ADAPTATION I do not think Charlie Kaufman's new film does much for me. Kaufman is on his way to being a real name brand in film writing. But I have to say that whatever Kaufman was trying to say with SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the message was just not intercepted.
The first puzzle of this film is its title. There is no Synecdoche, New York. Perhaps the title is a corruption of Schenectady, where part of the action takes place. But nothing is ever explained. A "synecdoche" is a figure of speech, as I discuss at the end of this review. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a director of local community theater. Through casting necessity or artistic design he has a young man playing Willie Loman. The production has dubious success. Meanwhile his wife (played by Catherine Keener), a successful artist, is taking their daughter to visit Germany. But secretly she is planning to dump Caden and just not to come back. Meanwhile Caden wins a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and stages a play of his own life. He rents a big open space warehouse in New York City and inside makes his own replica of New York City. There he stages the story of his life including the staging of the play itself. So real people are mixing actors playing themselves or actors playing the people around them. Then when real people interact with actors in the play new actors must be added to the play to dramatize those interactions.
The confusion increases exponentially as players play players in the play. The production drags on and on for years without ever opening to an audience. Yes, there is surrealism going on, but Kafka, wherever he is, has nothing to worry about. The complexity increases more like the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene, but not nearly so amusingly. And if all this is not strange enough Kaufman throws in a burning house that like the Burning Bush in the Bible burns but is not consumed. One of the characters lives in the house oblivious to the unusual nature of the building. There is also some strange sh-t going on with strange sh-t. And at least once there is something creepy with his peepee. Delightful. If there is such a thing as organized surrealism, this is not it. There is no obvious connection between the plays being staged and the tutti-frutti human waste. They are just there.
Kaufman has assembled a very good cast with Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But in so surreal and obscure a story the actors cannot have been inspired since it is not clear even what their performances meant. It is difficult to contribute to a film that does not know what it is doing.
Something clever could come out of the symmetries of the situation, but it never really does. When the film finally ended one woman from he audience came over to me and asked if I understood it. I said no and that while I like to come into a film not knowing what it is about, I hate leaving a film that same way.
Somebody must be getting something from this film because it is getting some very positive (and a few very negative) reviews. But SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK seems like a long drawn out shaggy dog story with no punch line. It is more an interesting idea for a film than an interesting film. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
(When I asked for my wife's hand in marriage I really wanted to get the whole woman. A "synecdoche" is a figure of speech in which the part is used to represent the whole. I suppose I could read into the film that the play being produced somehow represents the whole life. It seems to me what we are seeing is less like a synecdoche than like those magazine covers that show someone holding that very magazine whose cover shows someone holding that magazine, etc. There is also probably such a thing as a false-synecdoche where the part is not actually part of the whole. I would explain that in detail but now I have to get my tail out of here.)
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0383028/
1776 (book review by Mark R. Leeper):
Pulitzer Prize-winning David McCullough is both America's best- known historian himself and also a familiar narrator of historical documentaries. He frequently narrates historical documentaries by Ken Burns and many times on PBS's "The American Experience." In addition he writes (mammoth) popular histories himself, which not unusually become bestsellers. One of his histories was JOHN ADAMS, which sold over a million copies in hardcover and became an HBO docudrama series. It of course told of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence.
As a companion piece he wrote 1776 (ISBN-13 978-0-743-22672-1, ISBN-10 0-743-22672-0). The purpose of 1776 was to give a military history of when an action went from a revolt to a full-scale revolutionary war that year. Little mention is made of the wrangling in Philadelphia, as it would be redundant. McCullough instead chronicles the state and fortunes of George Washington's army, under-provisioned and incompetent. He also covers the war from the British perspective.
One perhaps might have expected that this would be a story of a glorious year in the fight for independence, but that would simply not be an accurate view. In fact, 1776 was a terrible year for the Continental Army. Following a few lucky victories around Boston, it was an almost unremitting string of setbacks and defeats pointing to what must have seemed an almost inevitable failure. Had such a failure occurred, as it appeared to be doing, most of the major figures of the revolution would have died on the end of a British rope. This book is really about the courage of these people to continue fighting, often with support from their own side that was insufficient or non-existent.
Were it not for the comfort of the successful Battles of Trenton (12/26/76) and Princeton (01/03/77) at year's end this would be indeed a very dark book. However the battles of Trenton and Princeton were no small comfort. They very well may be the turning point of the Revolution as Gettysburg was to the Civil War and Midway was to the Pacific War. It was there that the Continental Army had its proof of concept. Victory of this ragtag band of malcontents against the most powerful military force in the world became a real possibility. The significance of these battles could not be seen at the time.
The British earlier in the year had captured Boston, but Washington seized Dorchester Heights and forced General Howe to retreat from Massachusetts. The defense of New York was similarly ill-fated, with the loss to the British of Fort Washington and Fort Lee. General Charles Lee, the most powerful general under Washington was captured in November. 1776 was very much a bleak year of defeats and mistakes for Washington. The British war effort after the retreat from Boston was hampered, but their goals were all or nearly all achieved over the remaining nine months.
McCullough covers all this at great length. The continental army was slovenly, frequently drunk, often AWOL, and their camps smelled badly of human waste. McCullough does not lionize Washington. The Virginian general (temporarily) bars blacks from enlistment. His strategy and tactics were less than ideal (or even incompetent). He made huge errors in judgment and was frequently indecisive. But he was the right man in the right position and he did inspire his men to keep fighting and to not accept failure.
Where McCullough falls down is in conveying the texture of battle in this pivotal year. One percent of the new country was killed in the course of the Revolutionary War. We can read a Michael Shaara and get some feel for what it is like to be in battle. McCullough's descriptions are factual but colorless. Perhaps at the time few of the participants gave emotional accounts of battle. Nearly every other detail seems covered but getting inside the men's heads. His ability to collect volumes of detail seems to go beyond the possible.
Another fault is the strictures that McCullough has placed on himself. We join the rebellion in progress at the beginning of 1776 and leave the rebellion in progress less than a week into 1777. Not much background is given before that year and we are assumed to know how it all comes out. It is almost as if the author is leaving the way for volumes 1775 and 1777.
Still, the book is a treasury of historic detail and we can almost hear the words being spoken in the author's own voice. [-mrl]
The Class of 2100 (letter of comment by David Shallcross):
In response to Evelyn's comments on the mindset of the Class of 2010 in the 12/05/08 issue of the MT VOID, David Shallcross writes:
I assume it was a mistyping when you wrote:
The first item on the Beloit College "Mindset List for the Class of 2100" is "What Berlin Wall?"
(I suspect the list in question was really for the class of 2010, 2011, or 2012), but it would be interesting to speculate what would be on such a list.
(x) The moon has always been inhabited.
(x) It has never snowed in Wisconsin.
Evelyn responds: "As noted, I meant '2010' but transposed two digits. I do like your suggestions, though. Would other people like to contribute to a 'Mindset of the Class of 2100'? Noting that there will be a revolt in it will mark you as a Heinlein geek. :-)" [-ecl]
INDEPENDENCE DAY (letter of comment by Kenneth Howard):
In response to the on-going comments about INDEPENDENCE DAY in the 11/07/08 issue of the MT VOID, Ken Howard writes, "I had considered writing a note commenting on your INDEPENDENCE DAY article, but the mistake of mixing the mothership and the city-destroyer ships was well discussed. I did not see any discussion of your comments on the tides. You did a good job of describing the tidal force that could be generated by the mothership, but neglected to point out that it would not cause "tides" in the usual sense, because the Earth would not be rotating underneath the geo-synchronous ship. It would cause a distortion of the oceans of approximately the magnitude you described, but it would be static. This could still be catastrophic, so it does not detract from your point, but us dweebs like to nit-pick." [-kh]
Mark replies, "It is a semantic question. Tides have always moved. If you have a mountain of water that does not move, is that still a tide? An interesting physics problem is whether the tide would be larger because it is static. Does a moving tide dissipate some of its umph by moving? A tidal thickening must pull in water from the sides. Once that water is moved it does not have to be pulled in again in a static tide. You might get less friction, for example, if the tide is not moving at the same time it is pulling in water." [-mrl]
Alternate Histories (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):
In response to Evelyn's comments on alternate histories. in the 12/05/08 issue of the MT VOID, Mike Glyer writes:
[Evelyn wrote] "The answer to 'Are alternate histories really science fiction?' seems to be yes, though the explanation varies."
I was thinking about this not too long ago, and some of the "yes" arguments on your list occurred to me too.
I also remembered back in the 1970s hearing SF authors (Poul Anderson most memorably) hinting that their science fictional future histories borrowed heavily from the mundane history of the Byzantine, Roman or British empires, the Hanseatic League, etc. In Anderson's case, I believe as he thought of a hard SF idea that could drive a short story, in fleshing it out he would appropriate motivations conflicts, and character types from historical situations.
So while Anderson did "hard SF", in hindsight it's harder to deny the alternate history subgenre's attachment to the larger science fiction genre because all along SF writers have been borrowing from history to create traditional SF stories. Alternate history was implicit in "future history."
Greg Benford objects to the trend to do SF without hard science. But thinking back to a lot of Poul Anderson stories set in the Polesotechnic League or the Terran Empire, the scientific ideas are just part of the attraction, with charismatic protagonists and military or espionage situations being no less important to their success. It's not a big jump from that kind of story to alternate history. [-mg]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Once again, just as I could see the light over the top of my "to- read" stack, life conspired to change that. Philcon was opposite the local book warehouse sale, so I didn't go to the latter, but we did stop at the Cranbury Bookworm on the way to Philcon and bought a couple of "Da Vinci Code"-like books (Paul Christopher's MICHELANGELO'S NOTEBOOK and Brad Meltzer's BOOK OF FATE), as well as JUNG: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION.
Then at Philcon, I bought a couple of books (Avram Davidson's ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY and Mary Gentle's CARTOMANCY). I also picked up a few books from the freebie table/book swap: a couple of advance reading copies of science books, Nigel Calder's book about Halley's Comet, and Isaac Asimov's NEMESIS. (Since I put eighteen books out on the table, at least I did have a net outflow of books.)
So far, so good. But then Cranbury Bookworm announced a half-off sale on *everything* last weekend. Well, they are so inexpensive to start with (the fiction books I bought before Philcon were fifty cents each!), that with half-off they are practically giving the stuff away. So we trundled off to Cranbury (well, drove, actually) last Friday and bought three dozen books for ourselves and another dozen for others (more on that later).
In our books were a dozen "old" mysteries (from the 1930s and 1940s) re-printed by Rue Morgue Press in nice trade paperbacks, on sale for $1 each. There were also a dozen Alfred Hitchcock anthologies for twenty-five or fifty cents each. (Even at full- price these would have been ridiculously cheap.)
We got a few science books, Dashiell Hammett's THE CONTINENTAL OP and a couple of more current mysteries, GI JEWS, and a first-year Latin text. (I still hope to teach myself Latin.)
And for $2 we got THE ADVENTURE OF ARCHAEOLOGY by Professor Brian M. Fagan, a coffee-table book on ancient civilizations which will be an excellent adjunct for the Teaching Company course "Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations"--taught by Professor Brian M. Fagan.
I got a large-print edition of General Schwartzkopf's biography for my father for $1.75, as well as some Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes for a quarter each. A children's sign language book for my niece was $1.
The most unusual purchase, though, were the six copies of Poul Anderson's THE ENEMY STARS. These were from the back porch, where the books are normally six-for-a-dollar, so with the sale they were about eight cents each. Why buy six? Because that's just about the right number for our science fiction book discussion group, which often has a problem in finding enough copies of a book in the library.
I spent a fair amount of time looking through all the foreign- language books for books in Spanish. The foreign-language books are supposedly sorted by language, but there are two factors which have lead to this turning into a more chaotic arrangement. First, customers don't reshelve books properly. Second, when the shelves were labeled, the proportions of French, German, Spanish, etc., may have been accurate, but as books come in and go out, these have changed. (All it takes is the purchase of a single substantial library in any one language to throw this out of whack.) And I thought I had found an Isabel Allende novel (EVA LUNA), but on opening it I discovered it was a German translation! [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Most people are born originals but die copies. -- Anonymous
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