MT VOID 10/14/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 16, Whole Number 1671

MT VOID 10/14/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 16, Whole Number 1671

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/14/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 16, Whole Number 1671

Table of Contents

      Heckle: Mark Leeper, Jekyll: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to


The beta text of the third edition of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA of SCIENCE FICTION by Peter Nicholls et al is now available at

Socrates (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

We know almost nothing about the life of Socrates. Nobody ever wrote his biography. In specific we are not sure why he acquiesced so quickly to his execution. I think he found out that Plato said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Then Socrates looked around and discovered that nobody was examining *his* life. [-mrl]

A Few Minutes Break (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was at Renovation, the World Science Fiction Convention, this year held in Reno From August 17 to August 21.

Now when you go to a science fiction conventions there are usually hours when there are two or three program items you want to see and you have to choose which one you will attend and which ones you have to sacrifice. Other hours there is nothing at all. Sometimes it is in-between. There are programs items of minor interest and you choose one to attend. One hour I chose one with the unpromising title, "A Science of Science Fiction: Applying Quantitative Analysis to Genre Individuation". The description was "Recent research by Ryan Nichols and Justin Lynn tests hypotheses about genre differentiation by compiling millions of words of fantasy and science fiction with a quantitative textual analysis tool. Dr. Nichols presents the results, which he suggests call for data-driven revisions of a priori definitions of 'science fiction' from Suvin, James, Hartwell, and others."

Now one does not generally see items with words like "individuation" in the title of a Worldcon program item. This is not to say that there are not some fairly high-level program items on topics like recent research on Global Warming. But this seemed a bit more abstract. But I was curious to see how they were applying mathematics to science fiction study. But I have to admit to listening with only half an ear as like I said it was not a discussion I had a strong interest in. I may represent some of the ideas wrongly below. At the same time I was listening I also fooling around on paper looking for a graph theoretical approach walking all around the dealers' room passing by each table exactly once. (As I say, I may not be giving exactly a fair and accurate representation of the material being presented.)

What the research being presented entailed was having computers look at the text of a large number of stories and to see if software could tell which were science fiction, which were horror, and which were fantasy. It is very hard to define, for example, what exactly science fiction is. This has long been a topic for debate and frequently the searches for a good definition end up circular. Damon Knight said that science fiction is what I point to when I think "science fiction." I think this was modeled on the judge who would not define pornography beyond saying, "I know it when I see it."

Lynn and Nichols approach was to do a word count. It was sort of what we all do. If I open up a story and see the words "warp drive," that is probably science fiction. "Dripping ichor" suggests horror. "Unicorn" or "Genie" points to fantasy. My suspicion is that this is not a very useful tool. It might recognize some obvious cases. But there are a lot of pieces that are science fiction that probably do not use the tropes of science fiction. I would be curious to see if their analysis could pick out FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes as being a science fiction novel.

What the researchers are doing is tantamount to being the equivalent of racial profiling for searching for terrorists. Some countries have done this very effectively, but it probably will never be foolproof.

But as I say, this article is not to evaluate their research. In fact I *still* have not gotten to the point. Something like twenty minutes into the talk Lynn and Nichols did something bizarre. They said they would now take a five-minute intermission. The audience members should take this time to introduce themselves to the person sitting next to them and discuss the talk so far to their neighbor.

First thought: what a dumb idea. Is this some sort of touchy-feely Diversity meeting? But people tend to do what they are told. And I introduced myself and told my neighbor about how I doubted they could recognize FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. Two people from the row ahead joined in to make it a four-way conversation. After five minutes they started up again and the material became more interesting. My ideas were more focused. I am still sure that I believe there is much to learn from statistical analysis of vocabulary. But the break to discuss the material is actually very good. I wish when I used to do software classes I had known about discussion intermissions in presentations for people to discuss the material. That was the best idea I heard expressed the entire convention. [-mrl]

50/50 (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young man who has a possibly terminal case of spine cancer with 50/50 odds of surviving. His disease transforms his relationship with people he knows, particularly his complete vulgarian best friend played by Seth Rogen and his novice therapist Anna Kendrick. Jonathan Levine directs a film that may be one of the year's best but still makes one yearn for the serious and uncompromising films of the 1950s and 1960s. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

In a previous age the film industry could have made for its general audience a grim and hard-hitting film like THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. That film looked at the problem of alcoholism. It is a love story too, but at the same time we know that it is a story of doomed love. We know from the beginning that it is about what happens when alcoholism destroys lives. These days we know that what the core audience is buying is films like CAPTAIN AMERICA, GREEN LANTERN, and THOR, albeit bringing in diminishing audiences. With 50/50 the filmmakers are testing the waters with a mainstream film on the subject of cancer, but sweetening the pot with raunchy comedy and a sweet boy meets girl subplot. It is not as if they are doing a good job of bringing a serious subject to Saturday night audiences, but it has become amazing that they are doing it at all. And I am sure they are paying a price for it. I know of a film fan who would not go to Disney Studio's excellent THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA or the equally good AWAY FROM HER because those have some grim and realistic elements.

Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a seemingly healthy man about twenty-four years old with an attractive girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and a best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) who is a bit crude. Make that "more than a bit." But Adam has been suffering from a backache and a visit to the doctor tells him that it is caused by a rare form of spinal cancer. Adam researches his affliction on the Internet and discovers that his odds of surviving are somewhere around 50% (hence the title of the film). Adam is prescribed a course of chemotherapy. What follows mixes comedy and high drama as his relationships to Rachael, Kyle, his mother (Anjelica Huston), and pretty much everyone he knows will now be driven by the fact that in a year Adam may no longer be alive. He gets a young therapist to help him cope Katherine (Anna Kendrick of UP IN THE AIR). She turns out to be something of a novice and is awkward around Adam, her third patient. He makes friends with two older men, both also getting chemotherapy, whom he sees at the hospital, Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer of "Max Headroom").

Gordon-Leavitt does not have what I would consider an expressive face. In INCEPTION he played the role very straight and deadpan. That may not be the most communicative acting, but here it probably works in his best interest. Adam is the sort of person who will remain bottled up inside himself until he boils over. Gordon- Leavitt is actually a good choice for Adam. Scriptwriter Will Reiser based the script on his own experience in his bout with spinal cancer. During that time he too had a tasteless best friend like the one that Seth Rogan plays. His best friend was Seth Rogan. In a sense, Rogan is playing himself, so his acting cannot really be faulted. Anna Kendrick has yet to do any powerful or impressive acting in anything I have seen her in--which is to say in this and UP IN THE AIR. She has a fresh face and manner that is pleasant to see on the screen, but it will be interesting to so if she can take on more demanding roles. If she lacks range it may not be such a grievous fault. In most of her early films Audrey Hepburn did not show much dramatic range I am aware of. She also had a fresh face and manner.

To me this film seems like a compromise with the viewing public. Your spoonful of sugar is a rollicking and a little gross comedy and a love story with attractive people. But you have to swallow down your cancer story with it. At least it is closer to the real world than THOR is. I rate 50/50 a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Superthunderstingcar (letters of comment by Kip Williams and Paul Dormer):

In response to the pointer to the video of "Superthunderstingcar" in the 10/07/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:

SUPERTHUNDERSTINGCAR! A perennial favorite, and I will amplify the recommendation by repeating it in RASFF [rec.arts.sf.fandom, where this was originally posted] (again). Not only does this cast of two manage to portray almost all of the cast, but the attention to detail is remarkable. The walks are perfect and the American accents are hilarious (Peter Cook's version of a bad English accent is lovely). The props are only slightly better than the real show. The most telling detail is the eyes. Watch the eyes. They don't blink! Well, Dudley blinks once, but he does it in character. Worth re-watching. [-kw]

And in response to Kip, Paul Dormer writes:

I actually remember that when it was first broadcast.

Curiously, the only other sketch from that series I remember was an interview with a film director who made films about burglars who surprise young women and make them take off their cloths and young women who take off their clothes and surprise burglars. I would have been about thirteen at the time. Can't think why I remember that. [-pd]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

I recently listened to the L.A. Theaterworks (LATW) audio performance of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller (ISBN 978-0-14- 048134-1). (At one point, this would have been called a radio play, but that seems a bit archaic now.) I also have recently listened to the BBC version as well. Now, I had always heard that one difference between movies and plays was that the moviemakers (primarily the director) could change the script without getting the writer's permission, while in a play one has to get the writer's approval to change anything. Assuming this is true, I thought it also applied to audio performances, but apparently not. I cannot tell all the changes LATW made, but a major one is that LATW dropped the scene between the mother and the two sons over their desertion of their father in the restaurant. (There also seems to be some re-arrangement of the flashback to the Boston hotel room.) I have no idea why they did this--it certainly does not improve the play. To me, it is as though they decided to do Hamlet and left out the speech of Polonius to Laertes. And when I went back and compared the LATW production with the play, I found a lot of other changes. For example, all the conversations between Biff and Happy about womanizing were dropped, and in other places two or three lines seem to have been cut for no particular reason. I usually like the LATW productions, but they fumbled the ball on this one.

[Perhaps there were time constraints. -mrl]

The play itself was written in 1949, but still has a lot of relevance today, over sixty years later. It isn't just the job of traveling salesman that is stressful and insecure, but almost every job. Willy Loman bemoans the fact that "in those days there was personality in it.... There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it's all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear--or personality." Everyone can identify with the person who gives the best years of their life to a company, only to be discarded when they are no longer at their peak. "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit." We want to think that we are better than Willy--not as deluded, not as fickle in our opinions--but we still have the same concerns about our jobs that he does.

One thing that does trouble me is the tendency in some schools to adopt Loman's attitude toward his sons, working more to build up their self-respect, or perhaps more accurately, their "amour propre", than to emphasize hard work and perseverance. Loman doesn't tell Biff to study more so he won't flunk math--he just insists that Bernard will give Biff the answers. He tells Biff and Hap how much better they will do in life because they are so much better-looking and personable than Bernard, without ever asking if they have any skills. All of this is reminiscent of something covered in the movie WAITING FOR SUPERMAN where students in the United States place somewhere around 18th the developed world in math skills, but when you survey them on where they think we place, they overwhelmingly say "Number One!"

[In 12th grade we are 19th, according to . -mrl]

The BBC also made cuts, but different ones. They cut a reference to smoking and several sections dealing with football, boxing, and other sports (probably too obscure for a British audience, much as most Americans wouldn't understand details about cricket), but also the stealing from the construction site and other lines important to portraying the characters.

Indeed, that is what makes this play so great. Almost every line is full of meaning and connections to other lines. For example, in one line Willy says that Biff is lazy, then three lines later he says that one thing about Biff is that he is not lazy. In one place, he says he never taught Biff to steal, but elsewhere he tells him to go get some sand from the supply at the construction site. On page 80, Willy says Howard's father asked him what he thinks of the name "Howard" for his new son, but by page 97, he is saying that he named Howard. In the restaurant, is Happy denying that Willy is his father supposed to echo Peter's denial of Jesus? And so on. If I started doing a commentary on everything I noticed, this would go on forever. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

         To solve any problem, here are three questions 
         to ask yourself: First, what could I do? Second, 
         what could I read? And third, who could I ask?
                                          --Jim Rohn

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