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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/29/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 5, Whole Number 1660
Table of Contents
Rob Mitchell sends the following link of Neil Gaiman, Adam Savage, and Gollum:
And Evelyn recommends impressions of celebrities doing Shakespeare:
Appropriate (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The other day Evelyn was watching UN CHIEN ANDALOU. She had not remembered ever seeing it. I was also in the den and watching it with half an eye, which afterward it occurred to me was appropriate. [-mrl]
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (Part 2) (retrospective by Mark R. Leeper):
[This is not a review, but a retrospective. I will make no attempt to avoid spoilers.]
Last week I was writing about the 1969 film COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT.
My observation of COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT is that science fiction fans seem to think it is a good science fiction film, but people listing the noteworthy SF films mention COLOSSUS. At the RottenTomatoes website it rates an 88% meaning most people think that it is worth seeing. But I have never seen it listed among the best science fiction films of its decade, and nobody I know would go out on a limb and claim it was great. Perhaps part of the reason is that it was released in 1969, a year after 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and a year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Each of those films has strong advocates and COLOSSUS is lost in the valley between them. Incidentally the film is known variously as COLOSSUS and THE FORBIN PROJECT as well as COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. It did not get a very good release from Universal Studios and most people who saw the film saw it on television. But the film's style was low-key and it still works well on the small screen.
The casting of this film is particularly good with a lot of familiar faces doing well in dramatic roles. Eric Braeden was already a familiar face on the screen when he made COLOSSUS; though it was the first time he had used that name. Earlier he had used his real name, Hans Gudegast. He had played the German foe in the TV series "The Rat Patrol." However for this film Universal did not want to make a film in which the leading role was played by someone named "Gudegast". From that point on he always used the name Eric Braeden. He was in several other films including ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. He continues his career, mostly appearing on TV soap operas, on which he is quite a familiar face. Gordon Pinsent, who plays the President of the United States, is a popular Canadian actor particularly familiar on Canadian television. Braeden is a good choice to play Forbin. He strikes the viewer as intelligent, as if there is a lot going on behind his eyes even as he speaks.
The villain of the piece, if that is what he is, was played by about five million dollars worth of Control Data Corporation computer equipment, supplied to the filmmakers free of charge for some obvious product placement. The voice is created in 1969 by what we thought a computer voice would sound like. It is credited to Paul Frees using what sounds like a mechanical larynx. He voices the computer totally without emotion. Perhaps what is irritating about Colossus is that it is do emotional. Its attitude seems to be that Forbin plotted against Colossus. That got a lot of people killed. That is all in the past. Now here is the next step. The computer voice is totally cold and logical without a hint of emotion. Frees had a voice that showed up in a lot of films. He is the narrator of the opening of WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) which also had Robert Cornthwaite. They were previously together in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and they were together once more in COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. Another face in this film familiar from 1950s science fiction is William Schallert. The screenplay was written by James Bridges (who wrote and directed THE PAPER CHASE). It was based on the first book of a three-book trilogy by D. F. Jones.
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT is not a film with a lot of fancy special effects, even for its time. What the viewer sees is basically a real computer running. What does make the visuals look futuristic is that many of the exteriors were shot at the recently opened Lawrence Hall of Science on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The filmmakers got a futuristic look without creating it themselves. Overall the film probably looks like a much more expensive film. The film maintains a low-key tone that lends it a certain authenticity.
I have not read the second and third books, but I think Jones's point to all this is quite clear. The story is then a lot like some of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" stories. Forbin wanted to create a benevolent dictator. It is a lot easier to define exactly what a dictator is than to define what benevolence is. Forbin got what he defined, but that was not what he wanted. Perhaps it is better to have no dictator at all. (Perhaps?) [-mrl]
TEST PILOT PIRX (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Stanislaw Lem's space pilot Pirx is given a double task. He is to orbit two satellites in Saturn's rings and at the same time see if he can detect which of his crew is actually a humanoid robot. This Eastern European co-production has engaging ideas floating around, but feels off-balance through the entire story. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Stanislaw Lem's character Pilot Pirx came to the screen in a 1978 film. Though the film was a Polish-Russian-Estonian coproduction the first half of the film is set in the United States. It seems to be a Soviet film with an American hero. Human-looking robots have been invented and given the unexplained name "non-linears" as if they are expected to be out of line. Unfortunately for the corporation selling non-linears, the public is suspicious of the robots. A decision is made to have a demonstration proving that non-linears are indistinguishable from real people on the job. Pilot Pirx is given a mission to Saturn's rings and given a crew of five, or rather four humans and one non-linear. Pirx will not be told which of his crewmembers is the robot. Instead he must decide for himself which of the five crewmen is not a human. It will not be easy because even the human crewmembers seem mechanical. TEST PILOT PIRX was produced four years before BLADERUNNER, and the theme of a test to distinguish robots from humans appeared in film here first.
What Pirx does not know is that another group of robots does not want the space pilot performing this test and is trying to kill him even before he leaves for space. Like many films of these years-- apparently even Eastern European ones--there is an effort to shoehorn in a theme of Cold War intrigue probably inspired by the then popular James Bond films.
Once Pirx is in space the tone changes from action thriller to cerebral mystery. One crewmember claims to be human, another to be the robot, but Pirx does not know if he can believe either of them. He must proceed with his task of putting two satellites in orbit within the rings of Saturn. Incongruously, after a while in space the focus shifts to a courtroom inquest into Pirx's actions. As with the film THE CAINE MUTINY, the courtroom becomes a mechanism, albeit an awkward one here, to explain Pirx's actions earlier in the film. The special effects are kept to a minimum and not particularly convincing, but they are sufficient enough to tell the story.
Stanislaw Lem is well known in his native Poland but very little known in the United States by anyone but long-time science fiction fans. Lem (1921-2006) was the premier science fiction author of Eastern Europe. He is the author of THE SILENT STAR, TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT, SOLARIS, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS, CYBERIAD, THE INVINCIBLE, and A PERFECT VACUUM, but his best-known work is probably SOLARIS, which has been adapted to film twice. TEST PILOT PIRX is of course based on one of his stories: "The Inquest" from TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT. The film was made in 1978 and the story was published in the United States in 1982 in his short story collection MORE TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT. This film won the "Golden Asteroid" at the 18th International Cinema Festival at Trieste in 1979.
For fans of the small collection of Eastern European science fiction films--and there are just a handful of these films--TEST PILOT PIRX is something of a find. Two other such films, based on Lem stories, are the Soviet SOLARIS (directed by cult director Andrey Tarkovskiy) and THE SILENT STAR (a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS). The IMDB suggests Lem also contributed to IKARIE XB 1 (a.k.a. VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE). I rate TEST PILOT PIRX a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080010/>
At the time of this writing TEST PILOT PIRX can be streamed free of charge at http://stagevu.com/video/zugcqarivgjx or http://tinyurl.com/leeper-pirx.
3D Printers (letter of comment by Richie Bielak):
In response to Mark's comments on 3D printers in the 07/22/11 issue of the MT VOID, Richie Bielak writes:
Here is a solar-powered one:
Pi Day and Pi Approximation Day (letter of comment by Jo Paltin):
In response to the comments on pi and tau in the 07/22/11 issue of the MT VOID, Jo Paltin writes (on 07/22):
I am sure you know about Pi Approximation Day [celebrated today], but still I could not resist:
And you have the people who celebrate March 14 as Pi Day. And they will probably always disagree. I guess it is sort of a religious issue. [-mrl]
A Culinary Wasteland (letters of comment by Pete Brady and Kip Williams):
In response to Evelyn's comments on Worcester (MA) in the 07/22/11 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Brady writes:
Regarding your article on Worcester, a culinary wasteland, this reminds me of something that happened to us around 12 years ago.
We flew into Kansas City, Mo., to attend a week-long conference held at Rockhurst University, which is on the southern end of Kansas City. We arrived by taxi around 5PM on a warm June evening. We could register for the conference, but the dining room was closed and we had to walk to any restaurant we could find.
This is a nice college, but in a somewhat bleak neighborhood, and it seemed void of restaurants. Finally, someone recommended "Go, Chicken, Go" which I guess is a chain, which was about a half mile away. So, we trudged over to it.
It was a plain building on a busy highway, kind of run-down (resembling a White Castle restaurant), which served fast food, specializing in fried chicken. It was about half full of people, and we were the only whites, which didn't bother us, except that we were uncertain what kind of food we would get.
We then had the *very best* fried chicken dinner we have *ever* had. You just don't know! [-ptb]
I'm sorry. To be polite I should be feigning some sort of surprise. The fact is that same experience happens so often it no longer surprises Evelyn or me. And where a different ethnicity is involved it is ever more likely to happen. We went to a Somali restaurant. The place looked like two amateurs were running it. Except for smaller tables all of the glasses and plates looked like someone would have in their home. They served us out of Tupperware. It just did not look like a restaurant. I think we were the only people who were not immigrants from Somalia. And what the heck is Somalian food? Answer: I don't remember but it was great.
Kip Williams writes:
Did you go to the Armory in Worcester? I think it's the Higgins. Lots of great stuff--suits of armor, of course, in a hall made to look all stony and medieval. Pretty neat trick for a building with steel plates bolted on its outside!
I never tried to eat in Worcester that I can remember. I hear the sauce is good. [-kw]
No, we didn't go to the Higgins Armory. I'm not sure we even knew about it. We were looking for something to do while we were in western Massachusetts visiting family, and we had never seen the art museum there, so we picked that. [-ecl]
BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR (letters of comment by Kip Williams, Paul Dormer, Kevin J. Maroney, and Tim McDaniel):
In response to Joe Karpierz's review of ALL CLEAR in the 07/22/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
I hear from reliable sources that the book contains a number of mistakes that ruin it for those to whom they matter a lot. (I remember when a movie was filmed in my home town, and people would step into a door at the university gym and come out in the student center. What a howler!) The complaint is also made about its length, but to me, the sheer amount of time spent in unresolved limbo is a way of invoking the unresolved limbo of those who were really in the war, not knowing how it would come out or when. I'm not sure I want it shorter. [-kw]
Paul Dormer responds:
Although some of the mistakes have been corrected in Blackout for the paperback edition I read last month. The anachronistic tube lines have been removed, pillar boxes are no longer used for telephone calls. Still have people using tokens on the underground, though. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
A new series has started on the BBC called "The Hour". It's being called the British "Mad Men", although it's set in the Fifties, not the Sixties, and in television news, not advertising. This sparked an article in the paper last week on historical accuracy in TV shows: http://tinyurl.com/void-hour
I liked that in "Mad Men", "A sharp-eared (and eyed) fan of the show noticed that a record played at a Christmas party was the right era (1964) but in a 1970-issue sleeve." [-pd]
Kevin Maroney replies:
This could spiral into the new Ridiculous Movie Geography, but: In the 1987 film THE LOST BOYS, Corey Haim's character lectures the comic shop employees (the Frog Brothers) on mis-filing their old Superman comics, making learned (and reasonably accurate) reference to issue numbers 77, 98, and 300 as he moves comics around on the shelf. The problem is that the issue under discussion are all 20- to 40-year-old back issues, and the comics in the frame are contemporary and displayed as such. Just weird what sneaks through. [-kjm]
Kip Williams responds:
Sneaks, or just doesn't matter to whoever makes the decisions. In the animation apa I was in for years, someone in the business reported on catching awful mistakes in the animation and asking for a do-over, and being told it wasn't necessary because (totally flat inflection here) "kids blink." So, when you see something stupid or otherwise inexplicable on the screen, it just doesn't matter. Kids blink. [-kw]
And Tim McDaniel adds:
I got an introduction into the My Little Pony craze that's apparently sweeping the Web, via a posting about the political economy of Ponyville or whatever it's called. ("a Marxist analysis" ... "I can't believe I just typed that".) They mentioned that one fan favorite pony, becoming a new character, was due to an animation error. There were some background ponies in a scene, they readjusted some, one's face was revealed, and the eyes were pointed in different directions. Fans dubbed her "Derpy". The animators have since run with it. [-tmd]
And Keith F. Lynch adds:
The earliest versions of Dilbert's boss didn't have pointy hair. It's not clear whether he was intended to be the same guy or not.
One could build a whole theology on animator errors: Maybe the universe wasn't originally intended to contain intelligent life, but God goofed, and decided to "run with it." [-kfl]
And Evelyn notes:
On her web site ( http://www.sftv.org/cw/), Connie Willis says, "All I know is that as soon as I heard about time travel, I fell in love with the idea. I loved the possibility that we could go back to the past and change mistakes we made--which I am always wishing I could do--and that we could go see the St. Louis World's Fair or the Colossus of Rhodes or Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address. And that we could change history--shooting Hitler in Berlin in 1934 or knocking the gun out of John Wilkes Booth's hand."
So it seems fitting, if annoying to bibliographers, that the paperback editions of her books correct the mistakes in the hardback versions. [-ecl]
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (letters of comment by Philip Chee and Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's comments on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT in the 07/22/11 issue of the MT VOID, Philip Chee wrote:
Someone will send a T800 [Terminator] back in time to destroy the special chips that go into the making of Colossus of course. [-pc]
To which Kip Williams responds:
On January 1, 2000, the problem solves itself. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis (ISBN 978-0-553-56273-6) was the science fiction discussion group's choice for this month. This book is 445 pages long and is usually described as being about a time traveling historian going back to the time of the Black Death. However, a third of the way through, while the time traveler has traveled back, she has spent all her time sick with a fever (not the Plague), unable to communicate and unsure of where or when she is. (The communication was supposed to be aided by a translator which seems to be magic compared to all the other technology, even the time gate, since it somehow not only translates incoming sounds into modern English, but takes the wearer's brain waves and translates them into Middle English.) Two-thirds of the way through, not much has progressed in the past, but we have read a lot about the influenza in the time from which she was sent and how it is disrupting all sorts of things--including trying to get information about the time traveler, or to contact anyone in authority. After three hundred pages, this seems incredibly contrived. It is not helped by the fact that Willis wrote this almost twenty years ago, before mobile phones became ubiquitous, so now this seems even more artificial. Indeed, in BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR, set in the same universe, apparently mobile phones (or email) still don't work in the future Oxford, because if they did, solving the communications problems of the plot would be too easy.
THE RIDDLE OF THE COMPASS: THE INVENTION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Amir D. Aczel (ISBN 978-0-15-600753-3) is a bit lighter than his earlier books (FERMAT'S LAST THEOREM, THE MYSTERY OF THE ALEPH, PROBABILITY I, and GOD'S EQUATION). Aczel starts in Amalfi, home of Flavio Gioia, cited by the Amalfis as the inventor of the compass. But since the compass seems to have been invented by the Chinese several centuries earlier, and since Flavio Gioia seems not even to have existed, the amount of time Aczel spends on this seems excessive. He also talks about Marco Polo, but barely mentions the current controversy about whether Polo actually made the trip himself. Given that I think there is considerable support for the view that Marco Polo got most of his information about Asia from other travelers and did very little traveling himself, this is odd. There is also a lot about navigation before the compass in this book and surprisingly little about the compass itself. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is. - John von Neumann
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