MT VOID 01/15/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 29, Whole Number 1580

MT VOID 01/15/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 29, Whole Number 1580

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/15/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 29, Whole Number 1580

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted 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

Science Fiction Discussion Groups:

January 28: TRUE NAMES by Vernor Vinge, Old Bridge (NJ) Public 
	Library, 7PM 
February 2: GROUNDHOG DAY/REPLAY by Ken Grimwood, Middletown (NJ) 
	Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book 
	after film
February 2: TOTAL RECALL/"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by 
	Philip K. Dick, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 
	5:30PM, discussion of film and book after film
	Public Library, 7PM

Meta-Problem (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Suppose you have three Ph.D.s of whom only one correctly understands the solution of the Monty Hall Problem. You pick one Ph.D. at random without asking him to explain his solution. However, someone picks one of the Ph.D.s you did not choose and asks him to explain his solution and he gets it wrong. You now have a choice of sticking with your Ph.D. or switching to the other Ph.D. who has not been asked yet. Do you improve your odds of getting the right solution by asking your Ph.D. or by asking the other one? [-mrl]

My Top Ten Films of 2009 (film comment by Mark R. Leeper):

Up until the last sixty days of the year or so, 2009 had been a somewhat weak year for film. People asked me what I could recommend and I could not give a strong recommendation for any film. Again the film industry was saving its best for the end of the year in the hopes the better films would be too recent to be forgotten. I suspect the most remembered film of the year will be THE HURT LOCKER, and a good film it is too, but it seems to me to be suspenseful action with not enough character. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS gloried in the absurdity of its story, but the story was more a set of exercises in style. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend either. But in the last two months I saw a few films that I really can recommend.

I am a little surprised that three of the ten films are animated. Animation is becoming a very large part of the film industry.

1. PRECIOUS The real title of this film is the unwieldy PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE. When I first saw a bit of the film I decided I definitely wanted to see it but expected few other people would. That shows how little I know. It is showing up on several top ten lists. I felt for the characters just seeing a clip of the film. This is definitely a feel-bad/feel-good film in the tradition of Charles Dickens. The girl named Precious has a lot more wrong with her life than being saddled with a silly name. She is an obese black teenager who is tormented by her fellow students, by her mother, and even by strangers on the street. Precious's mother is a human monster. Toward the end of the film you get to understand the mother a little more so you see why she does what she does, but she is never likable. That is a hard balance to hit. Precious, who is years older than others in her grade, is sent out of school to a special learning center. There a teacher is able to show her that she has some value. That makes the film sound a little trite, but it is very human. Very fine performances by both Gabourey Sidibe in the title role and Mo'Nique as her mother. Rating: +3

2. FANTASTIC MR. FOX Wes Anderson brings us a thoroughly delightful animated film. With wit, grace, and charm we get the story of a fox trying to evade three nasty farmers who are trying to kill him. But the animal characters are written very human and at the same time very funny, and they are made real by an all-star cast of familiar voices. Add a bunch of clever movie references and we get a lot of film for the price of a ticket. Wes Anderson humor generally does not work for me. Nor do Roald Dahl fantasies. But together they work magic. This film is obviously stop-motion without the perfection of CGI and even that works well for the film. Rating: +3 (Up-rated from my review rating of low +3)

3. UP IN THE AIR George Clooney who has had a fairly successful 2009--killing chickens and staring goats to death--rounds out the year as another suave character who this time flies around the country passing the bad news to people fired by their bosses. Jason Reitman co-writes and directs with a style as smooth and assured as Clooney's. Eventually the film is about good choices and bad, about independence and commitment. Costars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick hold their own playing opposite Clooney. This is just a very polished production. The acting is first rate but even the photography is just about perfect. Rating: low +3

4. SLEEP DEALER This could easily be the best Mexican science fiction film ever made. It is a very believable look at what the future may be like all over the world. It takes place somewhere around twenty years in the future when people can connect directly to computers through jacks in their arms. But this is anything but a polished future. We meet Memo who lives in a village where the people have been fenced off from their water supply and are made to purchase their water. The Draconian laws are enforced by high technology and warplanes. To earn money Memo becomes a laborer for a corporation in the US. Robots do the actual work, but Mexican laborers who never leave their country control them. Labor can be exported without the inconvenience of actually bringing the laborers bodies to the US. Memo hooks up with a woman who sells her dreams electronically. In the end the case may be a little overstated, but it still is a powerful view of a believable future. Rating: low +3

5. THE MESSENGER The Iraq War film that seems to be getting the best critical response is HURT LOCKER. I found this quiet drama more affecting and the characters more real and believable. Sgt. Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster), wounded in Iraq, is sent stateside for the last three months of his enlistment. He draws one of the most unpleasant jobs. He has to go to the families of soldiers killed in the war and inform them of their loss. He is taken under the wing of a captain who has never been in combat, but specializes in breaking bad news. Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) shows Montgomery the ropes with rules like never allowing himself to care about the bereaved. But the job is slowly killing Stone and Montgomery starts to care too much for one of the widows he informed. Rating: low +3

6. UP Certainly UP is one of Pixar's best films to date. The reason is not that it has some of their best animation, though that arguably is true. FANTASTIC MR. FOX uses much older technology, but is at least on a par. Pixar's story values may be improving even faster than their animation. UP is a story with genuine pathos on themes of loss and of unfulfilled dreams. All this mixes with an adventure story that builds to an action climax. Kids will love this film, but some of the notes of UP will definitely resonate with adults. The bittersweet prolog really works to make this film unique. Unfortunately, most of the story virtues are in the first half of the film. The film heads toward a rather prosaic action finale. Those are just OK, but the prolog is one of Pixar's best sequences and is genuinely moving. Rating: high +2

7. THE STONING OF SORAYA M This is a harrowing true story set in Iran, but it could take place in any country where fundamentalist religion has power. An Iranian woman becomes "inconvenient" for her husband. He wants to trade her for a younger wife and so frames her for adultery. He connives to have her found guilty and sentenced to death, and then knowing she is innocent participates in her execution. We see the stoning in horrific detail. The story is simple and compelling and the title leaves no doubt where the story is going. THE KITE RUNNER also involves a stoning, but knowing of a stoning is not as terrible as being shown one. In a few unnecessary places this film has a little irrelevant dramatic action, but the core story is very strong. This is a powerful film for those willing to see its extreme violence. Rating: high +2

8. SITA SINGS THE BLUES Nina Paley interweaves her own story of her relationship with her lover (husband?) with a parallel story from the Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. Paley emphasizes the relationship of Rama and his wife Sita. Each layer of the story seems to have its own animation style and the narration, apparently done by shadow puppets, is apparently informal and very funny. Sita sings out her sadness in the voice of 1920s blues singer Annette Hanshaw. The film is charming on many levels. It may be running on PBS stations, but it can be downloaded for free. You will not see it at the Academy Awards because the commercial use of Hanshaw's music is apparently copyright infringement. But it is well worth downloading and watching. Rating: high +2 (The film is on-line from Channel 13, New York, at

9. RED CLIFF John Woo tells the story of the famous Battle of Red Cliff in this fictionalized version. In China in A.D. 208 General Cao Cao gets permission from the Emperor to lead a ruthless campaign against the armies of two warlords. The warlords band together to fight back. John Woo fills the action-filled war story with plenty of spectacle, much of it generated digitally. This is a 150-minute Western release edited down from 300-minute Chinese release. It reputedly has most of the action but not so much of the back-story. The action never goes as over-the-top as it does in Woo's Hong Kong films, but it certainly is never dull. Rating: high +2

10. THE BURNING PLAIN This is as much a puzzle as it is a story. As with his 21 GRAMS, writer-director Guillermo Arriaga shuffles his story lines so the film jumps around in time. THE BURNING PLAIN challenges the viewer to piece together a story involving three generations of women and an apparent murder. Kim Bassinger and Charleze Theron play mother and daughter caught up in heavy emotions. It is not clear the shuffling really improves the film, but allows Arriaga to give the film real impact having the key scene at the very end. Rating: high +2

That's it. I did have one more high +2 film. I am of a minority who was quite impressed with the science fiction film KNOWING. It is not easy to shock me and this film did have one moment of genuine shock. And after QUATERMASS AND THE PIT I really like films that give scientific explanations for non-scientific belief systems. This film gives interesting rational explanations to both scientific and religious phenomena. And it really kept me wondering where the film was going. And once it got there it had the courage of its convictions. It is a very unusual film. [-mrl]

Top Ten Films of the Decade:

There is no "Top Ten Films of the Decade" in this issue because the decade still has a year to run. [-ecl]

THE NEW SPACE OPERA edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (copyright 2007, EOS, $15.95, 517pp, ISBN 978-0-06-084675-6) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

Granted, I don't know my readership out there, but I'd be willing to bet that most of you cut your science fiction eye-teeth on space ships, aliens, galaxy-spanning wars (and stories), and great space adventures. What a sense of wonder those kinds of stories provided! And then, the sense of wonder went away. And so did those stories. We had New Wave, Cyberpunk, Techno-Thrillers, Slipstream, Steam Punk and a whole bunch of other sub-genres of SF that had absolutely nothing to do with the kinds of things that originally turned us on to science fiction. That's not to say that all those sub-genres don't have good stories in their arsenal. They just don't have that big wow that we loved.

Somewhere along the way, Space Opera returned. There have been articles written about its return--Locus had an issue devoted to the new space opera, and there have been more than a few books that contain it. THE NEW SPACE OPERA has to be one of the best, in my opinion. It contains eighteen stories by some of the biggest names in science fiction today (and even yesterday), including Dan Simmons (who I think has the best piece in this book, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Peter F. Hamilton, Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds, Mary Rosenblum, and a whole bunch more. Every last one of these stories evokes memories of our youth, of the SF that we grew up loving. There's not a dud in the bunch, and one, "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" was nominated for a Hugo (and which I think is one of the weakest stories in the book, but we all know that my taste appears to be different from those who nominate for these things).

"The Muse of Fire", by Dan Simmons, as I said is the best of the lot. His habit of including classical literature references as integral parts of his stories--such as Keats in the Hyperion novels and Homer in ILIUM and OLYMPUS--is in full force here as a band of Shakespearian actors must put on the performances of their lives in order to save the human race. Nancy Kress's "The Art of War" makes a surprising connection (to me) between art and war, and is quite a nice read. "Minla's Flowers", by Alastair Reynolds, tells a very traditional story of a man trying to save a planet's population from a cosmic disaster, only to find that the people that he has been helping have not been helping their own. "The Worm Turns", by Gregory Benford (a direct sequel to his story "A Worm in the Well", which I didn't read but didn't need to to enjoy this story) is a nice little tale of alien contact on the other side of a wormhole. "The Emperor and the Maula", by Robert Silverberg, is a very traditional story about a woman who risks all to get near the Emperor of the Universe. "Remembrance", by Stephen Baxter, is a story early in his Xeelees sequence, about passing down memories of an early invasion of earth. There are a bunch more, but I think you need to go read them yourself instead of having me tell you about them.

As I said, every last one of these stories is wonderful, and will send you spinning back to your youth. Don't think, however, that these stories contain a bunch of old hackneyed cliches, cardboard characters, and all the bad things about the stories of our youth. These are good, powerful stories by our field's brightest stars telling stories in a very grown up manner. If you enjoy Space Opera, then you will enjoy this book immensely. [-jak]

More on the Linguistic Problem (letter of comment by Sam Long):

Sam Long responded on my item last week. I said, "Although the Aq'ta people have twelve different way to express it, there is no way in English to express their idea that..."

Sam: That what?

Me: I'm sorry. There is just no way to express it in English. :-)

Sam: *Groan* I feel excessively dense. But one could "approximate" the Aq'ta idea to a greater or lesser extent in English, I should think.

That brings up an interesting philological point, the fact that words in one language often don't have exact equivalents in other languages. The homely word "homely" is very difficult to translate into other languages like French or German, because it has associations and connotations that the corresponding words in other languages don't have. The chief meaning of the German word "heimlich" is "secret", not "typical of a (humble) home" (c.f. Burns's "What though on homely fare we dine...", where the German equivalent would be "buergrlich") or "less than beautiful", where the German equivalent is "unscheinbar". It works in reverse too: the German word "Gemuetlichkeit" has been adopted into English because we don't have an equivalent, and "homely comfort" doesn't quite match; nor does the syllable-by-syllable translation "[i]moodlihood". "Moodlihood" may have existed in Anglo-Saxon, but no longer; and we no longer construct English words in that manner- -though German does, and even more so Icelandic. A German-born singing friend of mine, though, was appalled during our choir tour of Austria and Switzerland a few years ago at how modern German had taken to itself so many "foreign" words in the last few decades, especially in computer and pop culture applications, where the previous practice had been to "Germanize" them. Thus "telephone" became der Fernsprecher a century ago, but "computer" is "der Computer". See the list of German computer terms at . On the other hand, someone with more time on his hands than most of us have has compiled a vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon computer terms: , in which "computer" becomes circolwyrde (m), or searowundor (n). The vocabulary is often amusing: "nerd" is translated as oferleornere (m), or, as we might say today, had the word really existed in A-S and come down to use from a thousand years ago, "over learner".

But we can translate from one language to another, even "express ... [an] idea that...". We just have to use paraphrases or periphrases in some cases. Jubal Harshaw and Dr Mahmoud discuss this in Stranger in a Strange Land with reference to English and Arabic; and even more so Earth languages and Martian. In a sense, though, you're right: in SISL, disciples have to learn Martian-- and how to think in Martian--in order to make progress in waterbrotherhood, because, we're told, the concepts can't be expressed in English.

But I still feel "...duh", so you're one up on me.

Me: Well, you should not feel "...duh." People do get caught on that one. It is kind of an impish joke and what you have to say is of interest. Are there examples of people who learn a new language and find they really did find ideas no expressible in their native tongue? If you learn one language as a native tongue, certainly for many years you are still thinking in the thought patterns of that language. This all connects to the fact that people blind from age two I believe have significantly better spatial understanding than people blind from birth. [-mrl]

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

I've read several books on thrift/cheapness/pricing lately, of which the most interesting was CHEAP: THE HIGH COST OF DISCOUNT CULTURE by Ellen Ruppel Shell (ISBN-13 978-1-594-20215-5). One example Shell uses throughout the book is that of watered milk. Assume that a fair price for milk sells for $1 a quart, but some people cannot afford that and so watered-down milk sells for 80 cents a quart. If everyone knows which is which and they are priced accordingly, there is no problem--everyone can buy whichever they prefer at a fair price. But if the two sorts of milk are packaged identically, then no one is willing to pay more than 80 cents a quart for any milk. This in turn means that it is no longer economically feasible to sell unwatered milk and it will disappear from the market. The end result is that the only product available is the low-quality one.

Shell also discusses IKEA at great length. She observes, for example, that while IKEA makes a big deal of using "ecologically sound" materials and processes, they also position their stores such that people need to use a lot of gasoline to get to them (and to return for missing parts, etc., which is apparently very common). IKEA also encourages the idea of discardable furniture rather than items built to last.

And a couple of books I did not read:

I am a fan of alternate history, but when a book about an alternate Tudors has a blurb explaining, "The evil elf-lord Vidal Dhu had no intention of losing the flood of power the misery of Mary's reign would bring the Dark Court" and "And since Oberon and Titania had disappeared, there now was no one except the double pair of twins to stand between the mortals of England and the rule of Evil," that's where it and I part company. So I did not read AND LESS THAN KIND by Mercedes Lackey & Roberta Gellis (ISBN-13 978-1-4165- 5533-9); your mileage may vary.

And I started EYE OF THE CROW by Shane Peacock (ISBN-13 978-0- 88776-877-4), the first in a series of books about the teenage Sherlock Holmes. Telling it in the present tense was an interesting stylistic choice, but for me it made it just too different from the original stories' style. Add to that a completely different tone, and it completely failed to engage me the way an "authentic" Holmes story would. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           There is no excellent beauty that has not 
           some strangeness in the proportion.
                                          -- Francis Bacon

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