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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/23/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 4, Whole Number 1607
Table of Contents
Counter-Proposal (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We recently spent some time in Richmond, Virginia, going to Civil War sites. You hear over and over again about the generous terms that Lincoln and Grant were willing to give Lee in the Appomattox settlement. I think they should have suggested making it two out of three. [-mrl]
History Channel (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I recently looked at the History Channel listings ("Monster Quest", "Pawn Stars", "Modern Marvels: Pyramids", "Violent Earth: Hurricanes") and wondered, "Why do they call it the "History" Channel?" And then I realized, perhaps because my interest in the channel is now history. [-mrl]
Fritz Leiber and the Oil Spill (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The WALL STREET JOURNAL has an interesting article about, of all things, Fritz Leiber and his 1964 short story "The Black Gondolier", in which "petroleum threatens humanity not as a mindless environmental hazard but as a sentient menace. As one character speculates, what if man hadn't found oil, but 'oil had found man'? What if the dark ooze 'had thrust up its vicious feelers like some vast blind monster, and finally made contact'?"
See http://tinyurl.com/2vekk83 for the full story. [-ecl]
Pupsicles (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Just in case any of you have given into despair about the financial health of the country, I have recently seen a hopeful sign that the economy really is expanding. The frozen dessert industry now has expanded to making frozen confections for dogs. In fact, there are two competing brands, Dogsters and Frosty Paws.
Frosty Paws has tempting flavors "Original" and "With Peanut Butter." Dogsters goes with "Minte Kissably Fresh" and "Peanut Butter and Cheese."
Now your dog can have frozen treats to go with his horsemeat. Is this a great country or what?
Warring on Weekends--Civil War Style (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Evelyn and I recently spent about eight days in and around Richmond, Virginia, mostly looking at Civil War battle sites and Civil War museums. There are several battlefields to visit in a small area and a couple of good Civil War museums. We saw in the process of studying the war a lot of dates.
Now some of you may know that when I was about twelve I found a formula for computing days of the week for given dates. Not happy to leave well enough alone I streamlined the formula to be able to execute it in my head. Now when I see dates in history I frequently will mentally calculate on what day of the week the date fell. The formula can be found at http://leepers.us/pepcal.txt.
So I was hearing a lot about the Civil War history and was figuring dates when I could. And then I started noticing an unexpected pattern. Warring is a seven-day-a-week job. But I could not help but notice that events kept occurring on Saturday and Sunday--what we would call the weekend. Most dates I was computing were coming up as either Saturdays or Sundays. The observation may not be statistically significant, but it is at least surprising. It is probably just coincidence, but if I look at what events took place on Saturday or Sunday, it seems like most of the major events of the war. If you look at the weekend events of the Civil War, you have a most of the important dates. Though later in the war, Wednesdays show up surprisingly often. It is difficult to collect dates objectively and not make some dates more important because they fit the pattern.
Here is what I have found. These are Civil War events that happened on Saturday or Sunday. If you know something about Civil War history you will see most of the most significant events of the war with the exception of the Battle of Gettysburg. Here are the events I found:
Confederate States of America formed -- February 9, 1861 [Saturday]
Fort Sumter captured --April 14, 1861 [Sunday]
Robert E. Lee resigns the US Army -- April 20, 1861 [Saturday]
First Battle of Bull Run -- July 21, 1861 [Sunday]
Battle of Monitor and Merrimac -- March 8/9, 1862 [Saturday, Sunday]
Battle of Shiloh -- April 6/7, 1862 [Sunday, Monday]
The Battle of Seven Pines -- May 31, 1862 [Saturday]
Robert E. Lee become commander of Army of Northern Virginia -- June 1, 1862 [Sunday]
Second Battle of Bull Run -- August 29/30, 1862 [Friday, Saturday]
The Major action of the Battle of Fredericksburg -- December 13, 1862 [Saturday]
Lincoln appoints Gen. Joseph Hooker Commander of the Army of the Potomac -- January 25, 1863 [Sunday]
The Battle of Chancellorsville -- May 1-4, 1863 [Friday-Monday]
Stonewall Jackson accidentally shot by own troops May 3, 1863 [Sunday] (It should be noted that Jackson was extremely important to Southern strategy. While he lived he was the most important general under Lee.)
Stonewall Jackson dies of his wounds -- May 10, 1863 [Sunday]
President Lincoln appoints Gen. George G. Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac -- June 28, 1863 [Sunday]
[Probably the most important battle, Gettysburg, does not fit the pattern having gone from Wednesday to Friday.]
The besieged Vicksburg surrenders to Grant's forces -- July 4, 1863 [Saturday]
"Negro" troops attack Fort Wagner -- July 18, 1863 [Saturday]
Battle of Chickamauga -- September 19/20, 1863 [Saturday, Sunday]
With the Army withdrawn, the remaining residents of Richmond surrender to Grant's troops -- April 2, 1865 [Sunday]
Lee surrenders the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant, effectively ending the Civil War -- April 9, 1865 [Sunday]
Death of Abraham Lincoln -- April 15, 1865 [Saturday]
INCEPTION (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: There comes a point when enough is too much. Writer and director Christopher Nolan makes an intelligent thought-piece that is at the same time an explosive action thriller. There is little time to absorb the ideas. Still, where else are you going to get so intelligent a film in mid-summer? It may be better to see it more than once. In a world where a few people have the capability of invading and redesigning dreams, a team induces dreams in the heir to an industrial empire and then enters those dreams to plant an idea. This is a long film with a lot of fiery explosions, intelligent ideas, sputtering machine guns, and violent car crashes. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Spoiler warning: This review may contain some minor spoilers, but it will be a small fraction of what one learns from trailers and phone apps ad publicity for the film.
People frequently ask science fiction authors, "Where do you get your ideas?" Director Christopher Nolan seems to specialize in films in which psychology is important. Here he suggests a process that might create some ideas. The process involves car chases, big explosions, drugs, cities folding in half, and perhaps industrial espionage. Since Nolan directed FOLLOWING in 1998 every film he has directed has been something of a gem. His 2006 film THE PRESTIGE has been pretty much his crowning achievement, though his second Batman film, THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), has brought him the most attention. The theme of manipulating or visiting other people's minds and dreams goes back at least to ESCAPEMENT (1958), DREAMSCAPE (1984) and particularly THE CELL (2000). But it will be a long time before anyone tops INCEPTION.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his associate Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are experts at a very particular sort of industrial espionage. Cobb has a process, never disclosed, in which he is able to invade people's dreams and interact with the dreamer. In doing so he can find secrets from the unprepared minds of his victims. And at the same time he can plant ideas in the mind of the victim. However, he is unsuccessful in invading the mind of a businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe of THE LAST SAMURAI). Saito is prepared for Cobb and defeats him, but offers Cobb a job. Saito wants to get into the dreams of the son of a competitor and plant an idea. He assembles a team of dream invaders who will specially induce dreams. They will actually build the multilayered world of dreams within dreams in the competitor's son's mind.
Nolan, who both wrote and directed, creates a complex mythology of the world of dreams and the rules that it follows. The rules are a little ridiculous, but in the world of the movie the viewer accepts them as plausible enough. This is a long film, 148 minutes, with a much more complex plot than I can describe here.
INCEPTION has a large, oddly matched, cast of good actors including Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, and Lukas Haas.
In a summer in which interesting ideas in films seem to be thin on the ground, this one film more than compensates. Nolan gets very high marks for being a man with new and engaging ideas. Usually if he is not making a "Batman" film his works are much more idea-films than action. Sadly, Nolan must have picked up bad habits from the "Batman" films, BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. A "Batman" film needs action scenes and frankly, he is not really good at directing them. They go by at staccato pace and frequently are hard to follow. In a "Batman" film one can accept that. INCEPTION has long violent sequences. He may be trying too hard to make this at the same time an intelligent thriller and a slam-bang, high-octane action thriller with lots of explosions. This is certainly his least pleasant film to watch, even if it does have many of his best ideas and images.
Nolan began THE PRESTIGE with the question, "Are you watching closely?" This film also requires that you watch closely to understand what is going on. Even for a film of 148 minutes, there is a lot going on. Much of it will be needed later in the film. I suspect this will be a better film on its second viewing. I rate INCEPTION a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/inception/
PALIMPSEST by Catherynne M. Valente (copyright 2009, Bantam, $14.00, 367pp, ISBN 978-0-553-38576-2) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
There have been a few times in my life where, when I've finished a book, I ask myself some variation on the following question: What just happened here? I remember asking myself that when I read DHALGREN by Samuel R. Delany back in about 1976 (I'm still not sure what happened there, some thirty-four years later). I also asked myself something like that back when I read CUSP by Robert A. Metzger. But when I asked that question about CUSP, I thought it could have been one of the worst books I'd ever read, or a brilliant masterpiece that I didn't understand.
PALIMPSEST is another one of those books that prompted the question, but for a different reason, I think.
DHALGREN was a book that not only I didn't understand, but I know I didn't like. CUSP was a book I enjoyed reading and liked, but wasn't sure why. PALIMPSEST? It was a difficult read without much of a plot or conflict, about people I certainly didn't care about in a setting using a premise that I had no interest in.
Other than that, I think it was fine. Look, PALIMPSEST is a fantasy, but if this is fantasy please give me back wizards in pointy hats and unicorns.
Palimpsest is a city that one can get to only through the dreamscape that occurs after one has sex with a person who has a particular tattoo like mark anywhere on their body. It is a paradise for some, hell for others. The story (such as it is) follows (if you could call it that) four people who came to Palimpsest together and were bonded by a strange woman with a frog's head (if I remember correctly--honestly, I don't even want to go back and look it up). Their fortunes within Palimpsest are bound together. What one feels, the other three feel. The ultimate goal is to permanently go to Palimpsest, but to do that all four of your group must find each other in the real world.
Our four protagonists are not likeable at all, although some are more likeable then others. The writing style is more like flowing poetry and flowery prose than a narrative. For me, it was extremely difficult to follow. That may just be me, of course, but there it is.
I really can't write much more about PALIMPSEST because I just didn't get it, didn't understand it, and didn't like it. For those of you who were hoping for something better, I apologize. I actually don't care enough about the book to write about it.
Okay, one more to go: JULIAN COMSTOCK. [-jak]
Richard III (comments by Kip Williams):
In response to Evelyn's comments on "Richard III" in the 07/16/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Back in the late 90s, Cathy and I went with her Mom on a Richard III trip in England. I enjoyed being on a path that was generally not the standard tourist itinerary, seeing locations that I'd read about, following the steps of the classic Shakespeare villain. We stood on Bosworth Field, and I wondered how the hell the numbers of troops reported in the histories could have all fit in the place. (At one point, puffs of steam rose from among thick trees in the valley below. I speculated that it might be a Stanley Steamer.)
Almost as interesting as the trip was the company of our fellow tour members, many of whom had very definite ideas about Richard and the wrongs done to him by history. I tended to be a moderate advocate, saying he was likely no better or worse than a lot of kings, probably not guilty of everything flung at him, nor innocent of all blame. It was a middle path most of them were willing to consider, at least.
We went to a banquet at the end of the tour, after many interesting bus trips and travels, and I got an idea of where some of the certitude of my companions came from: they'd been there. Apparently, reincarnation was all the rage, and most people who reincarnate had very interesting past lives. Several on our trip, therefore, had first-hand knowledge that someone like me could only envy. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
GLOBISH: HOW THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE BECAME THE WORLD'S LANGUAGE by Robert McCrum (ISBN 978-0-393-06255-7) attempts to explain why English is "the world's universal language". There is a very favorable blurb on the back by Malcolm Gladwell (author of THE TIPPING POINT), but John McWhorter's review in THE NEW REPUBLIC (http://tinyurl.com/2c5g52a, "Is English Special Because It's 'Globish'?") does a fairly thorough job of discrediting McCrum's theories.
Briefly, McCrum seems to believe that it is something inherent in English that makes it suitable as a universal language rather than just the fact of English and American culture being so pervasive (English through the 17th to early 20th centuries, followed by American). He says, "Language ... is intrinsically neutral, but it is no contradiction to claim that English ... is unique." He then spends most of the book recounting the history of English, and England, and the United States--it's not clear that one needs dozen pages about slavery to explain why so many Chinese speak English today. McWhorter's review also points out many errors in fact as well.
But McWhorter is most critical of McCrum's underlying reasoning. McCrum attributes the popularity of English to its "being light on conjugation suffixes ... and not having gender." But as McWhorter notes, Russian has the opposite of these characteristics and other complexities as well, yet is (or was) spoken by a vast number of people as a second language. The reason is simple--Russia was the superpower in Communist world just as the United States was in the West. (The effect of the British Commonwealth in spreading English should not be completely ignored either, obviously.)
McWhorter points out that McCrum also assumes that simplicity causes universality, while (according to McWhorter) it is actually the other way around.
The subtitle of NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA by Barbara Demick (ISBN 978-0-385-52390-5) is not quite accurate, because the six people Demick writes about all have something that set them apart from most North Koreans--they have escaped to South Korea. However else they may be "ordinary" North Koreans, that they had the desire and initiative to flee North Korea means that they are not ordinary.
What made them defect? Demick gives a few examples of what tipped the scales. One saw an American nail clipper and thought, "If North Korea couldn't make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?" Another was someone who accidentally heard the South Korea broadcast of a situation comedy where two young women were fighting over a parking space. It isn't clear which flummoxed him more: that young women could own private cars or that there were so many cars that there weren't enough spaces for them. But the one that rang a bell was the person who saw a photo in the official media of oppressed South Koreans picketing against their exploitation by the capitalist system. All he noticed was that the oppressed workers had jackets with zippers and ballpoint pens in their pockets--both luxury items in North Korea. This is basically the same story as what happened in Russia when they screened THE GRAPES OF WRATH to show how bad American farm workers were treated: people's reaction was "You mean that in America even the poorest families own their own car?!"
The most specific part of Demick's book, and indeed of the people's stories, is about the Great Famine. Caused in part by factors beyond the government's control (flooding and natural disasters), it was exacerbated by the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalism in China, with both countries cutting back on the economic aid they gave North Korea through subsidized prices and other ways. (In particular, the loss of imported oil was a major factor, affecting not only electricity production and fuel for farm machinery, but the manufacture of fertilizer and many other products necessary to maintain a standard of living. This is worth remembering.) Add to these factors the unwillingness of North Korea to admit there was a problem and to accept humanitarian aid until the famine had gone on for several years, and you have the reason that between one and three million North Koreans died as a result of food shortages. (As one escapee put it, by 1998 the worst was over, not because anything got better, but because "everyone who was going to die was already dead.") Demick describes how the six people she describes were affected by the famine and how they dealt with it.
All in all, a very enlightening book. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The function of vice is to keep virtue within reasonable bounds. -- Samuel Butler
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