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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/04/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 49, Whole Number 1600
Table of Contents
The Wrong Split (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Light has the properties of being a particle. Other experiments show it behaving more like a wave. Because it seems to be neither but has properties of both it has been dubbed a "wavicle". They have created a chimera word taking "wav-" from "wave" and "-icle from "particle". But I would claim that they broke the words the wrong way. I would say because light can act as if it were a particle and act as if it were a wave they should have called it a "parve". [-mrl]
You Can't Make This Stuff Up (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
"Carradine's Widow Files Wrongful Death Suit in LA"
"The lawsuit claims the company promised to provide [David] Carradine the best possible amenities and an assistant to help him navigate Bangkok but left him behind for dinner on the night before the actor was found dead... Carradine, 72, was found hanging naked last June in a suite at a luxury Bangkok hotel."
Call me anything you want, but don't call me late to dinner.
This is the same David Carradine who seemed so invincible on "Kung Fu". [-mrl]
CRACK IN THE WORLD: Sudden Relevance? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have been thinking about an old science fiction film from 1965. CRACK IN THE WORLD (tagline: Thank God It's Only a Motion Picture!) was a big disaster film about an experiment that goes terribly awry. I have to admit that a lot of the film is rather silly, but some of it rings quite true. Dana Andrews plays a scientist who wants to drill through the Earth's mantle into the region of hot magma. If he can do that he will have virtually limitless stores of clean energy from geothermal heat. The problem is the layer being bored through is so dense and hard it cannot be drilled. What to do?
Andrews wants to send down a nuclear bomb. That would melt the barrier and release the magma. However, Kieron Moore, who is Andrews's assistant, is concerned that the effects of the bomb may be more extensive. He is afraid that the explosion may cause cracks in the crust that will spread out causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Each puts his case before government regulators. It seems the government regulators are insufficiently knowledgeable to know whom to believe. The project goes ahead and the title of the film will tell you what the disastrous results are. The regulators come back to the scientists and accuse them of taking a "calculated risk that was more risk than calculation." That is true, but the problem could also have been avoided if the regulators understood the technical issues better. But that may not be so easy as it sounds.
And CRACK IN THE WORLD has a larger message. There was a time that people were small and the Earth was big. There was not a lot that people could do that would affect much even only a mile or two away. Those days are gone. Today it is perfectly conceivable to do things that will have major irreversible environmental impacts. It is possible today, and we have to be very careful not to do it. The problem is that as a species we have very little capacity to be careful, particularly if making lots of money is involved. It is indeed quite possible for a small number of people to create a disaster that there is simply no way to stop. It is not easy to convince someone that it is important that they be careful when they can make a whole lot more money by not being careful.
I am writing this on May 30, 2010, when it was announced that British Petroleum's latest attempt to plug the hole they have created 5000 feet down has failed. They ominously call it a "top kill". But no matter what they call it, the effort is dead now. Maybe by the time this article is published the news will be better, but I doubt it. But after three different approaches to stop the geyser of oil leakage it is starting to appear there technically may be no way at all to stop what has been started.
Now supposedly there was a "fail-safe" mechanism, a "rig blowout preventer", that could have stopped the blowback that caused the problem. Apparently federal regulators had been reassured that the procedures made the drilling safe. However, in the interest of saving time and money the fail-safe procedures had not been used. In fact reportedly the deep-water rig was wanted elsewhere for more drilling, so apparently the procedures were rushed or eliminated. And the regulators either through ignorance or unconcern allowed BP to circumvent the safety mechanisms.
It may just be that we have crossed a line that we cannot step back from. British Petroleum, who are trying to stop the leak, may be fresh out of good ideas for what to do. In any case their next idea probably will not be as good as the last one or they would have done that one first.
[Postscript: the next plan was to saw off the end of the leaking pipeline which would make the leak go faster but might be easier to plug. The saw jammed and now things are a bit worse.]
It is not true that what people can do people can undo. We have to face the possibility that at this point we as a species may have created an increasing and irreversible environmental disaster that humans simply do not have the expertise to stop. Nobody who is knowledgeable at this point is talking about just what is the worst-case scenario--what if the geyser cannot be stopped--even as we seem to be on a collision course with that exact scenario, but it looks after forty days that we are already poisoning our oceans. And so far there is nothing we can do to stop it.
It certainly reminds me of CRACK IN THE WORLD. One of the more absurd things about that film is how the problem came to an end. There was no credible way to stop that disaster and it is beginning to look like there is no credible way to end ours. We humans have done a major piece of reengineering our planet. We wanted that underground pool of petroleum brought to the surface and it looks like we managed it. I do not think we are going to like the results.
If anything good can come out of this "everybody-loses" scenario, it may be the general public's realization that environmental issues are deadly serious and we need to save what will remain of the environment. [-mrl]
June Movies on Turner Classic Movies (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We are coming to a new month on TCM. I will point out what I think are the interesting films.
Early in the month they play in short order MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1929) (06/04), 20,000 LEAGUES UNER THE SEA (1954) (06/04), and CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY (1969) (06/05). As has been discussed recently MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is interesting as a very early sound era film. It is mostly a silent film with some sound sequences. To have MYSTERIOUS ISLAND scheduled before 20,000 LEAGUES looks a bit odd. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is generally considered the literary sequel to 20,000 LEAGUES. If you read the books you realize that Verne makes the dates irreconcilable between the two novels. 20,000 LEAGUES is strictly post-Civil War. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND begins during the Civil War. Nemo supposedly found his island after the events of 20,000 LEAGUES and lived there six years before the balloon landed. That would be 1859, but at the same time after events of 1866. Anyway... CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY is a bit disappointing, but Robert Ryan (Nemo) is always an interesting actor.
ROBOT VS THE AZTEC MUMMY (06/05) is a little low-quality horror fun with the best monsters you can make with cardboard boxes and some first aid bandages. It is enjoyable enough if you like low-budget Mexican films. It was probably done on MST3K.
10 RILLINGTON PLACE (06/16) is the British film based on a notorious Christie Murders. Richard Attenborough plays John Reginald Christie who killed at least six women. Christie lets another man be hanged for his crimes. John Hurt plays the innocent man, Timothy John Evans. I am not big on the film myself, since it is a little static. But it is a good exercise in atmosphere and most critics like it quite a bit. It is worth trying at least.
The first two-thirds of BRAINSTORM (06/29) are really excellent. A device is invented that allows the transferring of mental images and feelings from one brain to another. It starts out as an entertainment device, but as the film progresses it becomes obvious that it is going really to transform just about everything about the human race. The film is brilliant and features a much more accurate a representation of the research environment than is something like Cronenberg's THE FLY. The film was on its way to being a superior SF film when tragically Natalie Wood died and the filmmakers had to end the film any way that worked. But this a sadly overlooked science fiction film for the parts that are good. Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher, Natalie Wood, and Cliff Robertson star.
Before the disaster film craze that feature the AIRPORT films and the Irwin Allen disasters was THE LAST VOYAGE (1960) (06/12). Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone play a husband and wife passengers on a luxury liner that is sinking. Rather than depend on special effects and miniatures the film is actually shot aboard a sinking ocean liner the Ile de France, which was going to be scuttled any way. Also in the film are George Sanders, Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode, and Jack Kruschen.
DIABOLIQUE (06/10) is one of the better psychological horror films, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The bathtub scene is a genuine classic. This film was an inspiration for many films that followed it. [-mrl]
EXAM (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Eight people in one room are competing for the same great job and must take an exam to find who gets it. They are told they have eighty minutes to answer just one question. But after the exam starts, they find out they are not given the question. The hardest part of the exam is to figure out what is the question being asked of them. And the ninth person working on this puzzle will be the viewer. First-time director Stuart Hazeldine knows how to hold the audience's attention. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
[EXAM will premiere exclusively on Video on Demand under the IFC Midnight label beginning in July.]
I have a fondness for puzzles and for puzzle films. I am not talking about mystery films, though I guess those really are a breed of "puzzle film." I like the kind of film that asks an abstract question, and then lets the viewer solve the problem along with the film's characters. Vincenzo Natali's CUBE is a puzzle film. A group of people is placed in a very unfamiliar environment, a set of cubical rooms each of which leads to other cubical rooms, some of which have deathtraps. The characters have to figure out the rules of moving from cube to cube. In Luis Piedrahita's and Rodrigo Sope¤a's FERMAT'S ROOM, mathematicians are put in a room and given mathematics problems. If they do not get the answers the room starts closing in ready to crush them. This is the ultimate mathematics test pressure. The viewer is essentially invited to solve the same problems.
EXAM is a new puzzle film in which eight applicants compete with each other for a near perfect job. They must take a test and the person who does the best wins the job offer. But passing the qualifying exam will not be easy. The applicants are put in a room and told they have eighty minutes to answer just one question. These are the inflexible rules: They are not allowed to talk to the guard proctoring the exam; they are not allowed to leave the room; they are not allowed to spoil their test paper. So far, not so bad. Then comes the kicker. Each sits at a small desk, and turns his/her paper over to see the question only to find it a blank sheet. Without being told what the question is they have eighty minutes to figure out what it is and then to answer it. There are four women and four men from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. How they go about trying to solve the problem and what their approaches say about them is ultimately more interesting than the solution to the problem they have been given.
Their prospective job will require analytical skills and superb reasoning. And the exam is meant to test those qualities. They have to decide a strategy for what degree to cooperate with each other and to what degree do they should be looking out for themselves. This is a story of trust and betrayal. The approaches to solving the problem speak about the participants and go far afield of simple logical reasoning. You follow them through their eighty minutes in near-real time, adding to the tension.
As in the other puzzle films above, EXAM does not need a large budget. Virtually the entire film takes place in one room. There are only ten actors and only nine who speak. The same story could have been done as a stage play with very few changes. The primary actors are generally experienced with a few films, but are far from familiar faces. The cinematography and the editing seem both to be well done, though perhaps not as challenging as a greater variety of environments might post. The film is done very well on what could well have been a very modest budget.
On his first film as director Stuart Hazeldine also writes the screenplay and co-produces. Few first-time directors can wear all three hats and have a good film as a result. Hazeldine is an exception. The film does have some violence and some fringe science fiction, but neither are really essential to the story. Mostly this film is just an engaging brainteaser. I rate EXAM a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. If you want to solve the puzzle, play close attention to the ground rules.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1258197
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/exam/
VALHALLA RISING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This Danish-British co-production is a sort of minimalist historical epic. A mysterious Norse warrior escapes from slave captivity and joins Crusaders preparing to leave for the Holy Land. Fog and windless seas will send them to a different location. With only sparse dialog, a mute main character, and some strong violence this film is slow, taxing, and brutal. Even with colors subdued, the photography is beautiful and the tone is believable, though far from pleasant. This is Viking life unromanticized--don't expect Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Nicolas Winding Refn directs and co- authors. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Minor Spoiler: I will reveal geographic details and tell a little more of the minimalist plot.
One-Eye (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is a mysterious, half-blind, mute warrior kept prisoner like a fighting animal. He is tethered to a pole and pitted against other animal-men in fights to the death. Young Are (Maarten Stevenson) feeds and cares for him. One day One-Eye finds an arrowhead and uses it to kill his master and to escape. He is followed by young Are, the only person in the world who cares for the animal-man. One-Eye encounters some Christians who are new to the land and they are leaving. They are going to go on a Crusade intending to capture Jerusalem. Perhaps with deaths heavy on his conscience One-Eye agrees to join the Crusaders. They set out in a Viking boat, but soon run into windless fog. Drifting for days they find a place where the water is not salty. This is a certain sign they are near land. But rather than finding hostile Muslims they find hostile Indians. This is for the Crusaders a new sort of enemy that few people not from the Americas have ever seen.
VALHALLA RISING is paced slowly and deliberately. The script, written by director Nicolas Winding Refn and by Roy Jacobsen, divides the story into six parts, though without much dialog even the short chapters seem long. This also limits the development of the characters. Some of the chapters also jump around in time making them still more effort to interpret. One-Eye remains enigmatic in his silence. Director and co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn gives us long stretches atmospheric camerawork without dialog, punctuated by particularly strong violence. Refn had similar violence in his previous film BRONSON, but there was more story between the violent moments in BRONSON. This view of Viking life is probably realistic but often not a pleasure to watch. Much of the budget seems to have gone to Morten Soborg's photography, one of the film's greatest assets.
Mads Mikkelsen makes a particularly foreboding-looking Viking looking stiff and tall with the one lost eye as we watch trying to detect... what? But too often he just stands and looks like he is silently snarling. On the other hand, the Indians look not at all like Indians. They just do not have the chiseled features we have come to expect of Indians. There is certainly some implication of the conflict between the Nordic pagans and the new Christians, but with a script so sparing with dialog the issue is not developed. We just get a feeling that Christians and pagans do not get along.
The film definitely has some points, but overall it is not the kind of film I can whole-heartedly recommend. I would give it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Most sources I see are saying that this film takes place in the year 1000 A.D. However, I see no reference to that date in the film and the Crusades did not begin until about 95 years later. It is more likely this story is set in the 1100s or 1200s. The title does not make sense since unlike Hades or Hell, there is nothing in particular above Valhalla.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0862467
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/valhalla_rising/
CAMOUFLAGE by Joe Haldeman (copyright 2005, Audible copyright 2008, Audible Frontiers, 8 hrs 10 minutes, narrated by Eric Michael Summerer) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
I discovered Joe Haldeman back in the 1970s during my mid- to late- teenage years. I read in quick succession THE FOREVER WAR, MINDBRIDGE, and ALL MY SINS REMEMBERED. I remember being blown away by all three books, and I swore that I would read every book he wrote from then on.
But I didn't.
I got back into Haldeman again recently through the wonders of the audiobook (see my review of THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE). I don't know why I never got back into his stuff after those first three, but I took advantage of audiobook technology to start catching up with his work again. And while those that I've listened to so far don't match up with those first three--I find it hard to believe any could--they are nice reads and good stories. You know, the kind of thing we look for in SF.
So, there's this thing buried under several feet of sand seven miles below the surface of the ocean. It's discovered when the Navy is trying to recover the wreckage of a submarine. The artifact (the thing) is raised from the bottom, pushed, poked, prodded, drilled, lasered, and has just about everything imaginable done to it that you can, well, imagine. It's dense. It can't be communicated with, broken into, or cajoled into acknowledging humans' existence. It fascinates the scientists that are studying it, and the rest of earth's population who read and talk about it. Is it man-made? Is it from outer space? Is it from our future or past? Is it a giant inedible burrito? (Okay, I made that last one up. But that's what you get when I write a review when I'm awake).
Meanwhile, there are two creatures roaming the earth for thousands, if not millions of years--the changeling and the chameleon. They each don't know the other exists, but they both have some memory of the artifact, and are drawn to it.
The changeling spends its time on earth adapting by changing its form--from shark to snake to man to woman to television set to rolled up flooring--to help it survive throughout the millennia. One of the most fascinating pieces was its participation in the Bataan Death March--fascinating enough that I was compelled to do a bit more reading on the subject on the web.
The chameleon, on the other hand, seeks out death and destruction, and survives by killing anyone or anything in its way if necessary. It really doesn't care about the sanctity of life and people. It survives on death and mayhem.
Eventually, as you might expect, the chameleon, the changeling, the artifact, and the scientists all come together in a climactic scene that reveals all that has been going on. It's neat, it's tidy, and it works. It really works.
There are a couple of things that impressed me. First, the evolution of the changeling from a mindless shark to caring human being was wonderful--and just another way that it learned to blend in with humans (better camouflage, you know). The second is the fact that Haldeman once again draws on his military experiences to make the story seem much more real.
So how good is it really? To me, pretty good. I enjoyed listening to it. Eric Michael Summerer did a pretty good narration job. I liked the story, and it was complex without taxing my brain-- something that's critical these days. Is it good enough to win awards? Well, SFWA thought so, as they awarded it with the 2005 Nebula. I'm not sure it was *that* good, but it definitely was good. I recommend it.
Yeah, I know, last time I said that the next review would be THE WINDUP GIRL. Hopefully that will be true next time. [-jak]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Back in January 1996, Mark wrote about alternate pasts in the MT VOID. Briefly, he said:
"It is the usual model to say that the set of possible alternate histories has a tree structure opening toward the future. That is, that you have at some point in time events happening that could go one way or another so you consider this a branch point to two or more alternate futures. ... For me anyway it seems likely that if there are alternate futures, there should also be alternate pasts. The branching should take place going in either direction. Most reactions in science are time-symmetric. With the exception of entropy most reactions are reversible in time. ... Currently we think of the whole set of possible alternate futures as a big and rather motley set. We think of there being only one past, because that is what we remember, but there would have to be an infinite set of pasts all of which lead to this one present and then the timelines diverge again going separate ways into the future. ... The problem is that while it is easy for us to imagine a huge array of different possible futures that come out of our present, it is difficult to imagine even one significantly different past that could have led to our present. About the nearest thing to it in human experience is the fact that different cultures have different creation myths. ... It nonetheless would be interesting to see if a good writer could give us a convincing alternate past story. It might be easy enough if it were set back in the Triassic, though it would be less interesting than a setting more recent. But any convincing alternate past supposedly from another timeline is probably indistinguishable from a viable theory of our own past."
At the time I might have said something about how this was effectively a description of what alternate history fans usually call "secret histories". Wikipedia says, "A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or not a subject dealt with by respectable scholars. Further, it says, "Secret history is sometimes used ... to preserve continuity with the present by reconciling paranormal, anachronistic, or otherwise notable but unrecorded events with what actually happened in known history."
However, I recently ran across another, more "pure" example of alternate pasts: the fictional book "April March". Long-time readers of this column will hardly be surprised to hear that this was invented (possibly) by Jorge Luis Borges in "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain".
One could say that "April March" was in the structural genre of MEMENTO and Harold Pinter's "Betrayal", except that "April March" predated both of them.
"April March" begins with a chapter which takes place on a railway platform. The next three chapters are three different possibilities for what happened the evening before, and the next nine provide the preceding evening to each of these, again three each.
Now I suppose that this is just a slightly fleshed out version of what Mark had said--after all, Borges does not actually write any of the stories.
[A side note: there are two sorts of stories that run backwards. One is the sort we have been discussing, where there is standard time-flow but episodes are examined in reverse order. The other is actual "time reversal" fiction, such as Martin Amis's TIME'S ARROW and Philip K. Dick's COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD. I don't *think* Borges wrote any of the latter, though it seems like his sort of thing.]
And speaking of alternate histories, THE SECRET HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (ISBN-13 978-1-892391-93-3) is described on the back cover as "exploring an alternate history of science fiction." Secret history, alternate history--it sounded promising, maybe an anthology of science fiction stories that might have been written if Thomas Pynchon's GRAVITY'S RAINBOW had won the Nebula instead of Arthur C. Clarke's RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. (This is not a random choice--it was the premise of an article by Jonathan Lethem in 1998, "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction".) Alas, it was not to be. Instead, this is simply an anthology of "literary" science fiction stories, written and published in our timeline, that Kelly and Kessel think would have been successful in that other timeline (and would have been published in "mainstream" magazines). The stories are good, but I feel that the marketing is a bit deceptive.
(Actually, what I thought on discovering this was, "It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham"--but perhaps that's a bit extreme.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes. -- Walt Whitman, 1870
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