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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/19/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 38, Whole Number 1589
Table of Contents
Improved Transfer of the 1910 Frankenstein (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The earliest (remembered) film version of FRANKENSTEIN was made at Edison Studios. This version was made in 1910 and it is thought that Charles Ogle played the monster, though I do not think that has ever been verified.
This was long thought to be a lost film. Later a single print in poor condition was discovered, only to have the discoverer hold it hostage asking for a special Academy Award for himself for the find. He never got the award, but a copy did make it to the Web. I reviewed the film in 2000: http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/248/24809
A new and considerably better transfer is now available online at
This is a genuine rarity and I am pleased that it is now readily available to fans of film and film history. [-mrl]
Stranger Than Science? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I hate to be a killjoy but...
Once and for all, science fiction is still stranger than science. People have picked this idea up as a modified version of the also questionable truism that truth is stranger than fiction.
Everyone likes to say that science is stranger than science fiction, but it just is not so. *Some* science is stranger than *some* science fiction. I mean quantum theory is stranger than 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, but considering the whole realm of science fiction and the whole realm of science, I have to award the strangeness prize to science fiction. Science comes in a poor second.
I will say that science fiction these days is frequently more incomprehensible than science. That is because people who explain science generally are less interested in making it literary and more interested in making it clear. [-mrl]
A Defense of (Some) Remakes (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
At a recent science fiction convention I went to a panel whose subject was the high number of film remakes we are getting. This is a fairly common convention panel. The idea is to get four to six people who know something about film to get up in front of the audience and gang-shag the whole institution of remaking films. I think I remember being on the panel on the same topic maybe 20 years ago and several times since. And pretty much the same set of complaints is always raised. How the remake just exploits the ready market of fans of the original or people who have heard the original was good and assume the remake will be also. This is the sort of panel you may enjoy the first time you attend when it gets your blood hot. But after two or three times on or at such a panel it is much less interesting.
A year or so ago I was on a panel at a science fiction convention. I think the title was "Make it Again, Sam." I did not want to have it be just of retread (or remake, if you will) of previous panels. So I decided I was going to have to rethink the issue and take an opposing point of view. His is something I like to do in general. I take some opinion I have and try to make myself an advocate for the opposing point of view. If nothing else if done in good faith it gives you an appreciation for the other side's viewpoint. Of course I had sat through my share of pointless remakes. The 2008 THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL comes to mind as a particularly painful and dull remake, but there are dozens more. I don't think anybody wants to see CITIZEN KANE in 3D. (I hope I did not give some filmmaker an idea.)
I decided I had to be on the opposing side and defend remakes, or at least find what was wrong in the common argument. The conclusion I reached was that the problem was not remakes at all. The problem was bad, uncreative films in general. A film does not have to be a remake to be bad and uncreative. When I buy a movie ticket I want to see something I have not seen before. It is harder for a filmmaker to be original when remaking a film, but it can be done.
Philip Kaufman's 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS told basically the same story as the 1956 version, but he rethought the story and created tension in some entirely new ways. He observed that there are many things in our society that seems strange to us right now, and he used them to make his audience see the alien in everyday life. (I guess I always thought that mud baths seemed like an alien idea anyway.) Kaufman found ways of making the normal seem strange and sinister in ways much beyond what the 1956 Don Siegel could have done. In the first version if something seemed weird, it was alien, period. Kaufman's point was that we have come to accept the strange as normal so what seems strange still could be perfectly innocent. So we cannot even use the weirdness of the aliens to detect them. In a world where people carry the Internet in their pocket and people live more in Second Life than in their first, that film becomes more relevant year after year.
Peter Jackson kept the basic story of KING KONG, but broadened the characters. Some of his additions were mistakes. The T-Rex in the flying trapeze and the Central Park Idyll were touches I could have done without. But Ann Darrow is a much more interesting character in his film. The whole story seems a bigger adventure. But at the same time I think he was respectful to the original.
A filmmaker has a responsibility to create a good film. If he remakes a film, it needs to give the audience something more than the first version did. If he thinks he can do that by remaking CASABLANCA he is setting himself an awesome task. If he really is that good, then more power to him. But if he falls short of that mark, he has only himself to blame. If he wants to remake a film, he should pick a film that he knows he can improve upon. I personally was not greatly impressed with William Castle's 1959 THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. When it was remade in 1999 by William Malone I thought it came fairly close to surpassing the quality of the original film. And that is exactly the kind of film that should be remade. The original was not so fine that anyone really felt that remaking it was a desecration. The remake had an interesting look from good production design. It was not really on a par with the 1999 THE HAUNTING. The latter had spectacular production design by Eugenio Zanetti. But I think that the verdict of history is that the 1999 THE HAUNTING was a mistake because the original is such a good film. If a filmmaker is going to remake a film, he should pick a film that is not so highly respected.
But we get a lot of films that are completely original stories and are just not very good films. Occasionally we get remakes that are improvements on the original and are interesting films of themselves. The new THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is bad not because it is a remake. It would have been bad even if it had been totally original. Had it been a good film of itself, the fact that there had been a previous version might have hurt its quality simply because the story is not new. But that drawback could be balanced by making it an intelligent film. There was little attempt at intelligence.
If I needed anything to convince me that remakes need not be bad, nothing could do it more eloquently than a DVD collection I purchased recently called "The Golden Age of Television." It includes TV plays from the 1950s including "Marty," "Patterns'" "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "Bang the Drum Slowly," and "Days of Wine and Roses." Each of these is a good play, though essentially a movie, and each was remade considerably differently as a feature film. And each of those resulting films is good all by itself, even when one has seen the original. I wish I could see the original "12 Angry Men." I suspect it is quite good, but I will still love Sidney Lumet's remake.
It is not remakes that are bad; it is unrewarding films. A remake can be rewarding or not. It is the fact that so many remakes are unrewarding films that has given remakes a bad name. But that is an unfair generalization. [-mrl]
ATTACK OF THE VEGAN ZOMBIES! (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The vines go after the people and the zombies go after the wine in ATTACK OF THE VEGAN ZOMBIES! Writer/director/star Jim Townsend has a feel for older horror films and fresher ideas for a zombie movie. The action scenes do not work really well, but Townsend knows not to let this degenerate into too much of spoof too soon. The film is available from amazon.com. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The first nice surprise about ATTACK OF THE VEGAN ZOMBIES! is that at least for a while it is not at all the sort of tongue-in-cheek spoof that the title suggests it is. Instead it is a low budget horror film with feet firmly planted in the 1960s low-budget horror film. In fact, if it were not for the obvious digital texture of the visuals, it might feel like a 1960s drive-in attraction. The story at least begins by taking itself seriously with a few lapses. This film could have taken advantage of its low budget to add more realism, but writer/director/actor Jim Townsend--a freshman at each of these jobs--was apparently not sure that was what he wanted to do.
Joe Bryant (played by Townsend) and his wife Dionne (Christine Egan) are having a hard time making their vineyard and winery work. The crops have a long history of not doing well at this location under the control of both Dionne's father and later of Joe. Dionne wants to make a go of it and asks for the help of her mother, whom only Dionne knows is a genuine, modern-day witch. The mother (H. Lynn Smith) agrees to use a fertility spell that includes using some of Joe's blood, blood that the witch does not know is a little polluted with alcohol. The spell makes an extremely robust crop, so much so that a local professor brings four of his students to the vineyard to study the phenomenon. The students are two very exaggerated nerdy-Trekkies who add a little unwelcome comic relief and two gratuitous lesbians to do what they do best. Sadly, the vines are just a little too robust as well as being predators looking for--not blood for once--but wine. They go after people because the people have wine in their blood if they have been drinking. (I don't think it is still wine when it hits the bloodstream, maybe some sugars and some alcohol--but I can go with it.) The vine's victims return to life as green-skinned zombie winos. By this point a little too much of the film's earlier serious tone has been compromised and squandered.
This film could have used its low-budget more wisely. But the creation of green-skinned zombies does not work for the film. First, they look like an image out of the original Star Trek of the 1960s. Secondly, the green makeup does not cover the flesh-tone skin beneath. They never look like green people; they look like normal people in green greasepaint, which is what they are. More care could have been taken with the makeup. Townsend and Egan turn in acceptable performances that get the idea across effectively in roles that are not greatly demanding. And cinematographer Max Fisher does a particularly good job of creatively framing the action.
The comic relief is not particularly funny, but the nostalgic 1960s feel to the film makes it all worthwhile. And it is nice to see a few fresh ideas in a horror film for a change. I rate this a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1380852/
FIRSTBORN by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (copyright 2008, Del Rey, $7.99, 410pp, ISBN 978-0-345-49158-9) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I find myself in a monster of a dilemma: I, the self proclaimed extreme disliker of series novels, have found myself in the process of reading or listening to some eight to ten series (I lost track after a while. I tried to write them all down to find out exactly how many I was reading, but for some reason gave up; I probably was too depressed just looking at the list.
I decided that it was time to wrap one of those series up, so I grabbed FIRSTBORN, by Clarke and Baxter, off the to-read stack, and commenced to finishing a trilogy. Unfortunately, it looks like I didn't finish a series. More on that near the end of this review.
If you remember my reviews over the last three years when I started the trilogy, I disliked TIME'S EYE but loved SUNSTORM. My reaction is, once again, thud. Clarke and Baxter make a valiant effort to duplicate the success of SUNSTORM, but that effort mostly falls flat.
At the beginning of the novel, Bisesa Dutt is awakened from a long stint in suspended animation--some nineteen or so years. However, there's no rest for the weary. It seems that an alien object has entered our solar system, and is headed for earth. It seems that our friends, the Firstborn, have decided that since the sunstorm didn't do the trick a couple of decades prior, it was time to send a quantum bomb, or "Q-bomb", to finish off humanity. Bisesa heads up to Mars with her daughter Myra and a Spacer named Alexei. There, she will encounter a couple of surprises--one of which takes her back to Mir.
You remember Mir, don't you? That's our patchwork world, made up of various timeslices of humanity's past. Bisesa starts out in Babylon, but ends up across the ocean in old Chicago, where she hears from Myra in our realspace about plans to communicate with the Martians on the Mir-like Mars of the past. Yeah, it's got something to do with what Bisesa found up at Mars.
Back on earth, our leaders are preparing a starship to take on the Q-bomb. But, as you might expect, whatever that ship does just does not work against the Q-bomb. And it's still heading straight for our planet.
So what's up with these Firstborn anyway? It seems that they've been around since the beginning of the universe, and they realize that the key to longevity is energy. Any other race that consumes energy in an irresponsible manner must be destroyed.
So here we are then--doomed to die. At the hands of aliens. Again. Who don't like what we're doing even though they've technically never even met us--although they've seen us through their Eyes. Again. Us poor humans. Always the brunt of it.
Yep, we've seen it all before.
Oh, there are a couple of interesting items. The space elevator, while not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination, is used here in a somewhat clever fashion. But the coolest idea in the book is not explored anywhere near enough. When it comes time to decide the fate of the Earth and Mars, that decision is not left up to the leaders of the world powers--all of civilization discusses it on the networks. *Everyone* gets to put their two cents in and make a world-shattering decision. *Everyone*. And it worked. That's a culture-changing sort of process, and one that has ramifications for the future, and it's too bad it's not explored further in this novel.
I won't give away the ending, other than to say this. There has to be, and will be, more. The story doesn't end here. It's disappointing that we don't actually meet the Firstborn, but I suspect that will be taken care of in further books in the series. Baxter won't be writing them with Clarke's help, of course. Maybe he'll be free to explore these worlds and ideas in a way that will make them interesting and exciting.
This book wasn't it. [-jak]
COASTING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a simple little story in a low-budget but nicely turned-out film. Two people in unsatisfying and incompatible relationships find each other and are attracted. There is just one little problem... The dialog is entertaining, but where the film is going and that there will be a problem is predictable (though perhaps not what the obstacle is). Michael P. Noens directs and co-writes an unpretentious story of slightly frustrated love. Jonathan C. Legat and Stephanie Wyatt are appealing as the young couple. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Wes (played by Jonathan C. Legat) is in a job that doesn't quite suit him and has a fiancee who does not quite fit him. He has returned to Stillwater, Illinois, for the funeral of his brother's girl friend. Lauren (Stephanie Wyatt) has a boy friend she is not quite compatible with. She has come to Stillwater to photograph the funeral of her friend. Both go to the wake and noticed each other. That evening in the hotel bar they strike up a conversation. A joke or two passed between them and soon they are playing pool together and enjoying each other. They hit it off, but then go their separate ways. Neither can forget that they met. Wes goes back to his work at an employment agency that seems to service mostly welfare recipients who do not really want a job. Both have partners who just do not satisfy them. Neither can forget the other. Eventually they know that this thing was meant to be. Each is willing to throw over his/her current partner, but there is one more twist that fate is to throw in their path.
The structure of the early parts of the film is familiar. We have one long sequence of the couple's "meet cute" in a bar with flashes outward of each's unsatisfying careers and relationships, all calculated to show that the two were just going nowhere and to pull the viewer into the new relationship. One place where the script could be stronger is in the dialog, which is of some interest but somehow never establishes the couple's compatibility on an emotional level. We see that they smile at each other and that there is some physical attraction, but there is no reason to feel that this relationship will be any stronger than the relationships the two had previously. Somehow we would like something stronger than smiles to demonstrate the bond that these two might be able to form. In the recent LAST CHANCE HARVEY the Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson characters seem to be able to mesh on a higher level than just the physical. The same is true of the couple in BEFORE SUNRISE. Each has something beyond the physical to offer the other. The script seems to assume that is they are attracted sexually that is the basis for a strong rapport. This could be a sort of "love is enough" sort of romance, but once we establish that that sort of attraction did not last in each person's previous relationships--relationships that probably started just as amicably as the new one--we need some evidence that the new bond will not just coast downhill the same way. Later in the film we see an obstacle to the relationship and we want to feel that the obstacle is worth overcoming, but it will not be if they allow the new relationship to stagnate like their previous ones.
In a film from a small production company, writing is extremely important. It may be optimistic to hope for strong writing in a tiny $10,000 production from the young company CNGM Pictures, but the company cannot match the majors with visuals or with star power. Writing is the one area where small companies can afford to compete with the major studios and production companies. This is a light enjoyable souffle of a film whose main point cannot be discussed here. It entertains for 90 minutes without having much lasting impact. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Possible spoiler: while this film may have an interesting idea, John Sayles got there first and much more effectively in one of his best films. But then John Sayles is John Sayles.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1262876/
Pi and Powers of Ten (letter of comment by Keith F. Lynch):
In response to Mark's (and Evelyn's) comments on powers of ten in the 03/12/10 issue of the MT VOID, Keith F. Lynch writes:
There's no longer any ambiguity in what billion and trillion mean. The UK abandoned the billion=10^12, trillion=10^18 system over thirty years ago. The French abandoned it in the 19th century.
Also, any claim that over 10^18 decimal digits of pi have been computed with today's technology would be obviously absurd. So a trillion in that sense can't have been meant.
Here's a table of when pi was first known to each power-of-ten number of digits, and how many years since the previous such record:
1400 1 1706 2 306 1949 3 243 1958 4 9 1961 5 3 1973 6 12 1983 7 10 1987 8 4 1989 9 2 1997 10 8 1999 11 2 2002 12 3
We're not yet halfway from 10^12 to 10^13 digits. So perhaps this progress is slowing down. If so, it's just as well, since it is, as you mention, a perfectly useless thing to do.
The continued fraction expansion of pi does appear to be completely patternless. The geometric mean of those terms appears to approach Khinchin's constant. Khinchin proved this is true of 100% of real numbers, but not of all of them. However, neither he nor anyone else has ever proven that it's true of any specific real number such as pi.
Curiously, the continued fraction expansion of the second-best known transcendental number, e, is *not* patternless. (Its decimal expansion apparently is.)
A number being irrational (which pi and e are) means that the decimal expansion will never terminate or repeat. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's patternless. Pi is probably "normal," meaning that every possible pattern of decimal digits occurs about equally often in the long run. But nobody has proven that pi is normal. Anyhow, even normal numbers can have obvious patterns to them. For instance the number constructed by writing every whole number, in order, after a decimal point (i.e. .123456789101112... is normal. "Patternless" is in fact a very slippery and hard to define concept.
Note that I'm not using the term "random." Since pi is a specific number, it makes no sense to call it random. The results of a deterministic calculation can never be random. [-kfl]
Mark responds, "I am always impressed by how much math Keith knows. By the way I was guessing in the original article that there might be a nice continued fraction expression for pi. It turns out that if you ease the restriction that all numerators have to be 1 there are continued fractions that express pi. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi#Pi_and_continued_fraction." [-mrl]
Monty Hall Redux (letter of comment by Pete Brady):
In response to comments on the Monty Hall problem in the 01/22/10 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Brady writes, "I suggest we change the Monty Hall problem so that two doors conceal goats and the third conceals a car, except that the car is a Toyota." [-ptb]
Mark replies, "Hey, I got my first Toyota in 1973 and loved it so much that I have only owned Corollas since. It was a superbly designed car. For me that means it has been reliable with little care. If they have soured, and I think they have, it has only been over the last few short years. (I think their service has soured somewhat also.) If they are having problems now it is likely because of software that they bought rather than making themselves. It is hard to debug a non-reproducible problem. They tried to grow too much too fast. But I still am a Toyota fan." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
LITERARY HOAXES: AN EYE-OPENING HISTORY OF FAMOUS FRAUDS by Melissa Katsoulis (ISBN-13 978-1-602-39794-1) begins with Brian McHale's categorizations of hoaxes into the genuine hoax, the entrapment hoax, and the mock hoax. Though not specifically stated, this book does not cover journalism hoaxes (other than the "serialized memoir" sorts (such as Stephen Glass's articles).
One thing that struck me was how many of the stories of these hoaxes were made into movies: Grey Owl (GREY OWL), the autobiography of Howard Hughes (HOAX), FORBIDDEN LOVE by Norma Khouri (FORBIDDEN LIE$), Mark Hofmann (not a movie, but the radio play "The Salamander Letter").
Katsoulis divides the genuine hoaxes into a set of categories reminiscent of the Chinese taxonomy in Jorge Luis Borges's story "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins". ("In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.") The taxonomy of hoaxes she uses divides it up into such categories as "The Eighteenth Century", "The Nineteenth Century", "Native Americans", "Celebrity Testaments", "Australia", "Religion", etc. While I will admit there is not much overlap between Native American hoaxes and Australian hoaxes, in general the categories are not at all parallel.
The entrapment hoaxes she discusses include the Spectra, Alan Sokal's fake postmodern paper on the linguistic aspects of quantum gravity, and Jean Shepard's promotion of the non-existent book I, LIBERTINE by Frederick Ewing. The latter is known to science fiction fans because there was such demand for the book that eventually it was created, ghost-written by Theodore Sturgeon and with a cover by Kelly Freas.
Oprah Winfrey has been taken in by several of the hoaxes (Forrest Carter, James Frey, Margaret B. Jones, Herman Rosenblat), which should perhaps make one skeptical of her claims about other people, miracle cures, etc.
What I found most interesting, though, was how these hoaxes were exposed. Most were not as obvious as the one that claimed to have letters written by Mary Magdalene in colloquial French (!), but so many seemed to be inept. One was exposed when a letter they produced as authentic had a ZIP code--but predated the ZIP code system. Other hoaxes have fallen apart when they include area codes that are newer than the date when the stationery on which they were printed was produced, non-existent lot numbers for real estate, or (in the case of FORBIDDEN LOVE) having the River Jordan flowing through Amman (it doesn't even come close--sort of like a book describing the Hudson River flowing through Boston). Major flaws in the book include that it has no index, no bibliography, and no footnotes. The writing could also use editing--I found several instances of misplaced modifiers, awkward phrasing, etc.
(Speaking of which, I often notice writers ignoring parallel construction, but what about pseudo-parallel construction, e.g., "He got awakened, ready, and his coat"? Is there a name for this sort of thing?)
I just read an article titled "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia" by Michael Weingrad (http://tinyurl.com/yhv63m5), in which he begins by saying, "I cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note."
Well, to start with, Weingrad explicitly excludes science fiction from fantasy. But even so, Neil Gaiman is hardly, as they say, chopped liver. Or Michael Chabon. Or (to get more classical) Isaac Bashevis Singer. Weingrad gets around the latter by saying, "the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion's capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature." Why this means that Franz Kafka is not writing fantasy is not clear to me. That he thinks this means that Chabon and Gaiman are not writing fantasy is a total mystery--until you realize that when Weingrad says "fantasy" he means explicitly high fantasy, full of medievalism, knights, chivalry, magic, wizards, etc.
Then he says, "Aside from an aversion to medieval nostalgia, there is a further historical reason why 20th-century Jews have not written much fantasy literature, and that is, inevitably, the Holocaust." I guess Lisa Goldstein, Jane Yolen, and all the others who are writing what *I* thought were fantasy stories about the Holocaust don't count either.
"The Jewish difficulty with fantasy is not only historical and sociological. It is theological as well, and this has to do with the degree to which Judaism has banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy. To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this- worldly." This seems to be to be incorrect in its description of both Christianity and Judaism, but also to a great extent beside the point. Weingrad is actually reviewing a couple of books that he *does* consider fantasy, and the "dearth" of Jewish fantasy writing he is decrying is really a dearth of fantasy based in a Christian tradition (medieval chivalry) but written by Jews.
But why should Jews try to write fantasy in a Christian tradition? We have our own rich tradition, and many Jewish writers past and present have written in that tradition. That Weingrad refuses to recognize these as "real" fantasy is his problem, not ours.
[After I wrote this, I discovered that many people have responded similarly to Weingrad--Neil Gaiman among them.]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: After all, all [Shakespeare] did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations. -- H. L. Mencken
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