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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/07/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 45, Whole Number 1596
Table of Contents
Personal Interest (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
KFC, the fried chicken people, are currently running a promotion that if you get a pink bucket they contribute fifty cents to fight breast cancer. However, they do not even mention diseases of the thigh and drumstick, and certainly contribute nothing at all to halt the spread of breast consumption. [-mrl]
Hugo Nominees in the Dramatic Long-Form Category (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The Hugo Award Nominees have been announced and due to popular demand I am giving my take on the five films. ("Popular" in this case spelled E-V-E-L-Y-N.)
Screenplay by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter; Story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, & Thomas McCarthy; Directed by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar)
To be honest I think the second half of this film is overrated. The story, which had some good human drama, devolves into a gratuitous high-speed action sequence in the sky. That is hardly unique. What sets this film apart is the set-up, a ten-minute prolog telling the story of two young people who had a dream of traveling to exotic places but never fulfilled it. It is rare that a cartoon leaves the audience misty-eyed, but this one does. This prolog explains why the main character has become a grumpy old man (Ed Asner--is it redundant to say he is terrific?). Most of the rest of the film just requires that he be grumpy until he knows better. There is a villain who never ages (and nobody seems to comment on that). Pixar does some wonderful things with the animation. Evelyn pointed out that Asner's last shave gets older and older as the film progresses. That is real attention to detail. There is also a nice bit with a dog collar that allows dogs to talk only to prove that dogs suffer from ADD. The film takes the audience through a wide range of emotions in characters the viewer can care about. I am glad it was nominated. I don't think it should win.
Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Directed by J.J. Abrams (Paramount)
Two years ago the "Star Trek" franchise had pretty well seemed to have run its course. There was a notable loss of popularity that even some good episodes of "Star Trek: Enterprise" could not revive. The idea of having a story about the Starfleet Academy days of he characters seemed weak. It seemed unlikely that anyone could get interest flowing again, so they brought in TV idea man J. J. Abrams. He made just about the best Trek film ever in spite of a lot of silly ideas in the plot. (Red matter??? What's red matter? If it's painted blue, is it no longer red matter?) The story tells how Kirk and Spock got into Starfleet Academy, came to hate each other, and then have their first adventure together in space. One highpoint: Commander Pike gives the young, unenthusiastic James T. Kirk a pep talk that had half the audience ready to jump out of their seats and join Starfleet. With just a few lapses I think this was a really good film.
Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by Duncan Jones (Liberty Films)
Judged simply as a science fiction story, MOON is the best film nominated. Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell, lives a solitary life on the moon mining Helium-3, a product much needed on Earth for clean energy. By radio he communicates with his wife on earth, his only companionship besides the robot GERTY. He is however having hallucinations seeing other people on the moon. Sam is nearly killed when he has an accident in his rover. Then things start to get really strange. This film had a lot of hype on the Internet, but it is a pretty good story and perhaps nearly worth the hype. It feels like an American film but is actually British. Rockwell is very good and the exterior lunar scenes stretch a small budget well.
Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp (TriStar Pictures)
What is it like to see the world not just through the eyes of an alien, but actually as an alien? For one thing it is not very safe. Humans feel threatened by aliens in this film set near an internment camp near Johannesburg. We follow the story of a human who gets a chance to inhabit the body of an alien and actually to become one of the creatures he has been told to mistrust. Seeing things from the viewpoint of an alien is a revelation for the hero. But when real conflicts come between humans and aliens our hero must decide where his true loyalties lie. The film starts thoughtfully, but by the final act it is basically an action film. But what action! Terrific special effects make this film a real spectacle, but the anti-intolerance message leaves the viewer with something to think about and makes this film unique.
Screenplay and Directed by James Cameron (Twentieth Century Fox)
What is it like to see the world not just through the eyes of an alien, but actually as an alien? For one thing it is not very safe. Humans feel threatened by aliens in this film set on Planet Pandora. We follow the story of a human who gets a chance to inhabit the body of an alien and actually to become one of the creatures he has been told to mistrust. Seeing things from the viewpoint of an alien is a revelation for the hero. But when real conflicts come between humans and aliens he must decide where his true loyalties lie. The film starts thoughtfully, but by the final act it is basically an action film. But what action! Terrific special effects make this film a real spectacle but the anti- intolerance message leaves the viewer with something to think about and makes this film unique.
So what do I think will win? No question that the smart money bets with AVATAR. I think it is already the most financially successful film since at least the fall of the Hittite Empire.
What deserves to win? 60% of the films have strong anti- Establishment themes. That is a bad sign. I would rule out the two "My-Life-As-An-Alien" twins. If I look at the remaining three, UP would be the first to go, reluctantly. I am very ambivalent about STAR TREK. MOON is a nice uniformly good science fiction story. I think I would go with STAR TREK for the high points and try to forget Scotty getting jammed in the plumbing.
If the Mexican-American co-production SLEEP DEALER were nominated I would have remembered Scotty in the plumbing and voted it best. But, alas, not enough people saw SLEEP DEALER. (Interestingly at this writing SLEEP DEALER has just gotten even more relevant thanks to the State of Arizona.) [-mrl]
Financial Science Fiction (letters of comment by Peter Rubinstein and Rick Kleffel):
In response to David Goldfarb's comments about financial science fiction in the 04/30/10 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Rubinstein writes:
You could add Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" to the list of financial SF. From WikiPedia, "Riders of the Purple Wage is an extrapolation of today's tendency towards state supervision and consumer-oriented economic planning. In the story, all citizens receive a salary (the purple wage) from the government, to which everyone is entitled just by being born." [-pir]
Rick Kleffel writes:
When I saw that heading, I first thought it was a reference to those sort of budget projections by doomsayers who predict that "By 2032 Social Security will be bankrupt!" or "By 2050 Medicare will consist of 50% of the GDP!" (As opposed to "By 2032 Social Security will be managed by a surly and slightly corrupt artificial intelligence!" or "By 2050, Medicare will employ 35% of the nanobots with voting rights!") I'd give 'em all equal weight, and that feather on the other side of the scale would still win. [-rk]
Mark responds, "I think anything you can project will seem mild compared to what really happens." [-mrl]
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and the Rosenbergs (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to the 04/30/10 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
Review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: "The visitor realizes that the real villains are not the natives but his own people. ... The story must be mythic because it shows up with minor variations so often. Beside AVATAR and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON it was the plot of DANCES WITH WOLVES, POCAHANTAS, FERNGULLY, DUNE, THE LAST SAMURAI, several westerns, and probably a lot more."
Or perhaps "anti-mythic", given that a myth upholds a culture rather than attacks it? What we might call the "noble treason" narrative has become commonplace in Hollywood only in recent decades. (No doubt a future Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner will make THE LAST COMMISSAR, or DANCES WITH STORMTROOPERS!)
DUNE is not a very good example, however, as Paul's "own people", the Atreides, are presented positively. Come to think of it, nor is HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: the Vikings are not imagining that the dragons are stealing their food and burning their homes, nor is it something they provoked.
On the subject of treason, there were some comments in an earlier issue about the Rosenberg spy case. Doing a quick Google search, I was surprised to find that, after decades of claiming their parents were not spies, by the early Nineties the Meeropol brothers were reduced to insisting their parents were ineffective spies.
Well, maybe. But we have Khrushchev's testimony that Stalin and Molotov (of Molotov-Ribbentrop fame) praised the Rosenbergs by name. As information continues to trickle out of the former Soviet Union, we learn Julius Rosenberg seems to have been more important than we thought, a spymaster rather than just a spy.
How important as an "atom spy" is not clear, however. After all, the Soviets had real physicists feeding them information, like Bruno Pontecorvo and Klaus Fuchs. And Theodore Hall, thought of as a "victim of McCarthyism" for forty years, until the Venona decrypts were declassified in the Nineties.
On the other hand, it now appears that while Robert Oppenheimer was a secret member of the Communist Party--denying this, he must have perjured himself dozens of times--he was not a spy.
How important were the atom spies? They certainly sped up the development of the Soviet A-bomb, imposing the threat of nuclear destruction on the West. Also, we now know Stalin refused to greenlight Kim Il Sung's 1950 invasion of South Korea until he had his own atom bomb. The Korean War cost as many as 1.6 million lives. [-tw]
On the issue of being what you call "anti-mythic" might you be confusing being anti-culture with being anti-government or against some government actions and policies?
I find it interesting that you term these films "treason." Opposing specific government policies, in a film or elsewhere, does not constitute "treason" in a free society. In specific, I know some far right advocates who are very much against some government policies currently, but I do not see that as being treason but exercise of free expression.
If I remember, it is not clear in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON who provoked the conflict between dragons and humans. We joined the story with hostilities on both sides already in progress. I think that the film leaves open the interpretation or even implies that humans started the hostilities. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
STEAL ACROSS THE SKY by Nancy Kress (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1986-9) suffers from a problem shared by many science fiction (and mystery) novels. It is written around a mystery and the reader may well find that she is more interested in just knowing the solution to the mystery than in reading the novel, getting to know the characters, etc. In STEAL ACROSS THE SKY, the premise is that aliens show up and tell us that they feel really guilty about something they did to the human race ten thousand years ago, and they want some humans from Earth to go to other planets and "witness" until they understand what the aliens had done. Okay, but the problem is that given this, I found myself more interested in the "solution", the "answer", rather than the book in its entirety. There can be "puzzle" books that don't have this problem--Raymond Chandler or Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries, for example, or (to use a book discussed here recently) China Miéville's THE CITY & THE CITY. In all of these, even when you figure out the puzzle, the book remains interesting, the characters engaging, the language poetic, and so on.)
KAFKA'S SOUP: A COMPLETE HISTORY OF WORLD LITERATURE IN 14 RECIPES by Mark Crick (ISBN-13 0-15-101283-0) is a collection of recipes, each written in the style of a well-known author. (well, mostly--I had never heard of Irvine Welsh before). One can only appreciate the pastiches of authors one is familiar with, though, so I really only "got" about half this book: Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Homer, Geoffrey Chaucer, and (of course) Jorge Luis Borges. Some of the others I could get a sense of, but realized I was missing a lot. For example, "Tarragon Eggs á la Jane Austen" begins, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that eggs, kept for too long, go off." Or "Lamb with Dill Sauce á la Raymond Chandler: "I took hold of the [leg of lamb]. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner's handshake." Without a familiarity with the original, these homages fall flat. The Borges, in particular, is patterned after a specific story in addition to its more general imitation of style and images. The Kafka, also, has implicit connections to THE TRIAL.
On the other hand, I have no ideas if the recipes are any good. (Having just tried a couple of recipes out of cookbooks that sounded good to me, but turned out only so-so, I am convinced that I cannot judge a recipe on the page.) I do find the idea of Kafka serving "Quick Miso Soup" a bit outré--but maybe that was on purpose. The rest of the recipes seem better paired to their "inspirations."
PAPER TIGERS: THE IDEAL FICTIONS OF JORGE LUIS BORGES (ISBN-10 0-19-815746-0) sounded interesting. After all, what could be more ideal--more perfect--than Borges's short pieces? Carefully crafted, no wasted words, ... Well, first of all, Sturrock did not have this meaning "ideal" in mind. What he was referring to was philosophical "idealism" as opposed to "realism". Realism is "the common-sense doctrine that real things exist independently of the mind," while idealism "holds that mental phenomena are all we can ever know of reality."
Okay, so it's about something other than I thought but, hey, that could be even better. True, I was having some problems following some of the deeper philosophy, but I made an effort, until I got to his discussion of "The Library of Babel":
The story dramatises an idea mooted elsewhere by Borges in his 'Note sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw' ('A Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw'), where it is attributed to a hypothetical scholar by the name of Kurd Lasswitz (taking 'lass' to suggest 'lass'itude, or the French 'las', and '-witz' to suggest 'wits', we end up with the perfectly appropriate meaning for this name of 'Weary-wits').
There's only really one thing wrong with this theory of Borges's intention in making up this name: Kurd Lasswitz is *not* a "hypothetical" scholar, but a real author who really wrote a work entitled "The Universal Library". And not just any author, but the man considered the "Father of German Science Fiction". It's as if Sturrock said that H. G. Wells or Jules Verne was "hypothetical". (Or as if this were one of those "future archaeology" books, where historians in the far future have Churchill fighting Vikings, or decide that William Shakespeare must be another name for William the Conqueror.)
Some may point to Sturrock's continuation ("Lasswitz, who flourished in the late nineteenth century, like so many of the real and counterfeit authorities in Borges ...") as speaking of Lasswitz as if he were real, but of course since he is referring to "counterfeit" authorities as well, this won't hold water.
What is most depressing is that not only did Sturrock write this, but at least one editor at Oxford University Press read it and did not catch it.
Sturrock talks about presupposition, which Borges says "consists in imagining a reality more complex than the one declared to the reader and relating its derivations and effects." For example, "the chair is made of wood" presupposes that there is a chair. However, Sturrock has earlier unintentionally pointed out the flaw in this: the presupposition may be wrong. A statement about something being "attributed to the hypothetical scholar by the name of Kurd Lasswitz" presupposes a hypothetical scholar by the name of Kurd Lasswitz. But there isn't. (Or is there? Does the existence of a real scholar named Kurd Lasswitz preclude the existence of a hypothetical scholar with the same name?)
Sturrock also talks about "so many monkeys sitting at so many typewriter keyboards and hammering blindly away, *must* end by reproducing, Pierre Menard-like, PARADISE LOST." This misses the entire point of "Pierre Menard"--that Pierre Menard is not just copying DON QUIXOTE by rote but writing it fresh with an entirely different mindset.
Sturrock also criticizes Funes (the Memorious)'s attitude towards numbers. Borges writes, "Funes sets out to revise the two systems of representing numbers ..., replacing the orthodox forms with a random assortment of nouns and those old favorites of his, proper names." Sturrock says, "Funes's system of numbering is a poor substitute for the original." That's as may be, but it is actually what many of the "memorious" do, or at least the one described in the classic work on amazing memory by A. R. Luria, THE MIND OF OF A MNEMONIST.
On labyrinths in fictions, Sturrock says, "A Borges story is not labyrinthine; it does not face us with alternative continuations," and adds in a footnote: "It is hard to see how any sequential narrative could be truly labyrinthine, in the sense that it might make us retrace our steps and try some other path through the story every time we get to what is obviously a dead end (but what, in a narrative, *is* a dead end?)." This was written well before hypertext, or even its earlier relative, the "Choose-Your- Adventure" book. He then makes reference to mysteries that offer multiple solutions, but have to eliminate all but the "correct" solution. This reminded me of "April March" in "An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain". "April March" is a novel which has a current situation, then three paths that could lead to it, each of which has three paths leading to it. Mysteries have a similar set- up. We feel they need to eliminate all but the correct one, but Quain does not. Or rather, Quain does not necessarily believe that there is only one correct path and the other eight are incorrect.
Sturrock may be confused about Kurd Lasswitz, but at least Lasswitz is not the subject of Sturrock's book. J. M. Cohen, in the first book about Borges and his work to be published in English (BORGES, 1973, Oliver & Boyd; 1974, Barnes & Noble) consistently refers to "Pierre Mesnard"!
(Cohen also refers to Borges's citation of "one of two obscure Hollywood films" in Borges's essay "Narrative Art and Magic". I find this telling, because it reminds us that Borges was a cinema fan--in fact, was even a movie reviewer for a while--and the fact that he is familiar with obscure films (DISHONORED, UNDERWORLD, and THE SHOWDOWN, if you care) reminds us of that.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers. -- Richard Feynman
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