@@@@@ @ @ @@@@@ @ @ @@@@@@@ @ @ @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @@@@@ @@@@ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @@@@@ @ @ @ @ @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@
Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/17/12 -- Vol. 30, No. 34, Whole Number 1689
Table of Contents
For Best Results (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was watching ON THE BEACH and they reached the point that the Australian government was giving out suicide pills to save people from the ravages of radiation poisoning. It occurred to me to wonder if the pills came with a "best if used by ..." date. [-mrl]
You Control the Powers of Ten (comments by Greg Frederick):
You may like this. My niece in Poland sent this link, which is a very cool interactive video of the various sizes of things in the Universe. It's goes from the Planck length to as far as we can see in the Universe. If you click on the object it also displays a description of the object. There is a small commercial shown first though.
It is sort of like the old documentary "Powers of Ten," but the viewer has control.
It reminds me of the xkcd "Powers of One" cartoon:
Lost in the Dark (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am going to discuss an issue that I have never heard another film reviewer or critic mention. Perhaps I am the only person with this problem or to whom the question applies, though I very much doubt it. I think it is more a question of film critics and reviewers not really wanting to admit that the issue exists. After all, when someone writes about film they are presumptuous enough to say that they know something about cinema and have something worth saying. A reviewer wants the reader to have some confidence that he or she is reading the opinions of someone who knows what he is talking about. So the question is this. What if the reviewer does not really follow what has happened in a film? That has to happen to critics and reviewers all the time. How many people can actually say they came away understanding Luis Bunuel's "Un Chien Andalou" on first viewing? A critic can analyze the film after the fact, but probably not understand the film when first encountering it. That is an extreme case, a very surreal film. But I am talking about a more normal film.
Well, I am probably lucky. Nobody assigns me to review a specific film. For me cinema is just a hobby. I am not being paid for my writing, so I feel no obligation to review a film if I do not feel I understand it. Does Roger Ebert ever come away from a film saying "no comment?" Maybe he does, but I don't hear about it.
As an example, did I understand INCEPTION? Well, actually I think I did reasonably well. After seeing the movie my wife Evelyn asked me some questions about details of the film, and I was unable to answer them. I am not sure that means that I did not understand the plot. I like to think of myself as an analytical person and not very emotional, but Evelyn is much more analytical about film plots than I am. When I go to see a film I just sort of let the film wash over me. Watching Peter Jackson's KING KONG, I would be thinking of what it must be like for someone held in an ape's hand while the animal does acrobatics. Evelyn is more likely to ask something like, "Wouldn't she be dislocating bones all over her body?" Yeah, I guess so, but that was not what was on my mind when I saw the scene.
So I can miss fine points of plot while I just go with the flow of the film. Evelyn is more likely to road-test the plot and to see if it hangs together. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong. But I am not really very good at remembering the plot as a whole and certainly not fine details.
Different filmmakers will know that some, perhaps most, viewers may not follow a given plot. There are different approaches to handling this. In ANDROMEDA STRAIN Michael Crichton does a very good job of explaining the science of the investigation into the alien life form. The viewer fairly well understands everything the scientists do. They measure the size of the microbe by seeing how big a hole it will fit through. That is easy stuff to understand. How likely is it that in a real such investigation all the experiments and tests could be so easily understood by the general public? My guess is that in a real investigation the experiments would be a lot more technical and the discussion of the scientists would have a lot more technical jargon.
A recent movie that does use financial jargon is J. C. Chandor's MARGIN CALL. This is a film about the early days of the financial crisis and how one company could have been involved with creating the problem. I have some idea what a "margin call" is from listing to NPR's "Planet Money" podcast and I don't think the term is ever used in the film. Still, there is a lot of dialog that is just too technical and jargon-filled to follow. Nevertheless by the end of the film you can pick up that the company has bought too many securities that were backed by risky mortgages. They spent a lot of money on something that was now of little worth. The question becomes what should they do about that. That is the gist and it is not hard to pick up. And to make it that clear people keep asking other people, "Can you tell me in plain English...?" The viewer just needs to understand enough of the financial talk to appreciate the drama of the situation. Every scene holds the viewer's interest and conveys an emotional message. And that is good enough.
On the other hand, there is also a recent redux adaptation of John LeCarre's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, directed by Tomas Alfredson. I saw it with a group of friends and we spent a long time afterward trying to who was who and what was what. I do not think I was very helpful. I seem to remember that after the television version people spent a lot more time figuring out what they had seen. Reading a latter-day John LeCarre novel is like playing five-dimensional chess. There are a lot of characters, a lot of flashbacks, some jargon, and some scenes in which you are not sure you understand what you have just seen. Such a film is intended to be a difficult puzzle for the viewer and it probably can only be understood with several exposures to the story. I would say there is also some drama as there was with MARGIN CALL but less and not really enough to make the film worthwhile without also making out the plot.
And some time there is no meaning to understand. A reader once wrote me asking about what Christopher Walken's character in MAN ON FIRE meant when he says "A bullet never lies. It always tells the truth." You know, I might guess, but I do not think I really know. What you see and hear from the film, that's all there is.
So that is my confession. You frequently cannot get everything out of a film that there is in it. When I write a film I am really writing about an experience I have had and my reaction to that experience. Not every film I write about can I say I fully understand. If I feel I have missed too much, I have the freedom to say I will just not do a review. [-mrl]
The Globalization of Electrical Adapters (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We just got back from South Africa, where we added to our experiences with electricity around the world. South African outlets take a peculiar type of plug found nowhere else in the world--three large round prongs in an equilateral triangle. (Well, okay--Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe uses it as well; I'm not sure about the rest of Zimbabwe.) On our recent trip to South Africa, we brought eight adapters, including one specifically for Africa and an "all-in-one"--and none of them fit. Some of our hotels did have one "international" outlet that our Africa adapter fit, but it was often inconveniently located, and not every hotel had one. So we needed to buy an adapter. (Oh, and some "international" outlets did not take North American plugs, so at one point we used our Japanese adapter as well!)
It used to be very hard to buy an adapter in country X that would convert from country Y's plugs to country X's. Everyone assumed that the people in country X would want to buy adapters to convert the other way when they traveled. But with people buying electronics from all over the world, "in-converting" is becoming more common. We found adapters in both supermarkets we looked in, with all the other electrical stuff. But the only "in-converting" adapters were from the (two) European round pins to a South Africa plug. Luckily we had several US-to-Europe adapters, so we could plug a recharger into one, and then plug *it* into the South African converter. To plug our netbook in, we have to use a 3- prong-to-2-prong converter first and plug *that* into the US-to- Europe adapter. And if we find ourselves with only one outlet, we have a solution: Plug the recharger into one US-to-Europe adapter, and the netbook into a 3-prong-to-2-prong converter which in turns plugs into another US-to-Europe adapter. Then take both US-to- Europe adapters and plug them into the multi-plug we got in Italy, plug that into the universal adapter (to step down from three prongs to two), then plug *that* into the South African adapter (which was R10.99, or about US$1.34 at the exchange rate we got when we bought rand at the bank). All this, by the way, is why it is a good idea to bring *every* adapter you have--who would have thought that a US-to-Europe adapter would be necessary in South Africa? (One additional wrinkle is that the South African adapter takes only oblate hexagonal European plugs, or plugs with long prongs, and only two pronged. One way around the first half is to have someone at the hotel hack off the plastic shield on the input side.) [-ecl]
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2011 film and London stage play) (film and theater reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2011)
CAPSULE: This is a finely-tuned, horrific ghost story, adapted from the novel by Susan Hill. Director James Watkins makes this an almost perfect ghost story. He had nothing he had no message to send, no comedy to add, and no 3D or CGI to show off. He orchestrates the film nearly perfectly so that it does just what a ghost story should do, no more and no less. He wanted only to make an unabashed atmospheric ghost story to make the viewers' skin crawl. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There is a relatively new production company, dating only to 2007, calling itself "Hammer Film Productions". That was the name of the fondly remembered production company that made a name for itself making low-budget quality horror and science fiction films in late 1950s and the 1960s. The new Hammer has even taken images from the original Hammer's films as part of their logo. Now I am hearing people saying that this new production company is not really a descended from the original Hammer. So far I have seen their two biggest productions to date, LET ME IN and THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Frankly I do not care if they really are or are not the original Hammer. They are making movies in the best tradition of Hammer Films. They are not in the same style, but they are solid genre films made intelligently to make the most of a smallish budget. That is the best tradition of the original Hammer. Even if they only bought the name, they are doing well by it. And their current offering THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a good example of the Hammer tradition.
The Hammer film is just one of several dramatic adaptations there have been of Susan Hill's 1983 novel. On the stage it is the second-longest-running play ever in London's West End, having played since 1987. (I include a review of that play with this review.) There was a dramatic version made for BBC Television in 1989. Unlike the Hammer version, the BBC TV version is done With considerably less subtlety in the visual images, but it is also an effective horror film that deserves wider exposure. There was also a BBC Radio version serialized in four half-hour chapters. Each of these has to solve different problems in how the horror is communicated to the mind of the viewer. The BBC TV version goes so far as to shake the ghost in the face of the viewer, while the Hammer has more subtlety and does more with quick flashes. These visual approaches would be impossible for the stage play, which relies more on sudden loud noises--a scream or a slamming door-- coming unexpectedly in a darkened theater. This does not work well since inserting startling noises is not really the same thing as genuinely inducing fear.
The new film version of THE WOMAN IN BLACK is notable for what it does not do as well as what it does do. There are only a handful of film ghost stories that really are just ghost stories. Some feel obliged to break the tension with gratuitous comic relief or throw in a romance. Some use excessive art design or end up with a cheap look. Some have heavy CGI effects or just give in to overkill or throw in a crime plot. Maintaining the dark atmosphere is just beyond some directors' abilities. Director James Watkins's adaptation based on Jane Goldman's screenplay is a horrific ghost thriller and tries to be nothing else. And it works.
Daniel Radcliffe, twenty-two years old, has played only one film role other than Harry Potter since that series began--he was in the film THE DECEMBER BOYS (2007)--so he is fresh from that series. With the exception of his bright blue, piercing eyes he strikes one as having a rather bland face. That is just about right for his role here as Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor in Edwardian England and a very young widower. Already failing in his career, Kipps is given the unpleasant assignment of settling the estate of the late Alice Drablow. Drablow lived in Eel Marsh House on an island in-- what else?--Eel Marsh. The land is empty and the house is creepy from the very beginning. It is accessible only by a causeway and is cut off from the mainland at high tide. A village nearby can be reached only at low tide. Visiting it, he discovers that locals do not like Eel Marsh House and he is warned to stay away from the house and that he cannot even stay at the inn. (Hey, would it be a Hammer film without an inhospitable innkeeper somewhere?) Local Sam Daily (played by Ciar n Hinds) does befriend Kipps. Daily does not believe the superstitious stories about Eel Marsh Housel. Kipps sets to work finding legal papers in the house. He had been told he would be alone in the house, but he keeps hearing noises and then even sees a strange woman dressed as if in mourning. Soon he also hears about a rash of child suicides in the area. Are they connected to the house and its past?
This is not a film to throw a lot of scary CGI at the audience. I am told that Watkins steadfastly refused to make THE WOMAN IN BLACK in 3D. The film has a long slow start to get the acclimated to the dark and the dank and dead atmosphere. There a few false jump scenes, too many really, that do not advance the story, but are intended to make the viewer jumpy. And soon there are enough real jolts to "satisfy" the viewer, if "satisfy" is the right word. Watkins knows how to make his viewers' skin crawl as the weird becomes sinister. I rate THE WOMAN IN BLACK a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596365/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_woman_in_black_2011/
I attach below my comments on the British stage play "The Woman in Black"
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (London stage play by Stephen Mallatratt)
What would you do if you had a good ghost story to tell? It is a Victorian ghost story, perhaps the sort of story that an M. R. James might have written. In this case the story is taken from a novel by Susan Hill. Still, there are not very great financial possibilities for a short punchy ghost story. Stephen Mallatratt saw the possibilities of putting the story on the stage as a modest three-person play. It has apparently run for some sixteen years on London's West End.
As if the strictures of reducing a story to a few short scenes to be done on a stage were not enough to limit what can be done, the story is padded out. We are not simply told the story. We are told that years after the events the main character, solicitor Arthur Kipps, of the story feels compelled to tell the story to his family and friends. Absurdly enough he has rented a theater for this purpose and wants to tell his family as a dramatic reading. And he is not very good at dramatic reading. Recognizing that his telling of the story is insufficiently impressive, he has hired a dramatic coach to help him present effectively. The coach suggests he not just to tell the story but to dramatize it. The coach shows him how to do it not just by explaining but by showing him how taking the part of the man at a much younger age. The story then unfolds as a story within a story.
As with any good ghost story the less said about the content the better. I will not say much about the central story except that it involves a house out on a dreary moor, strange noises at night, and the spectral appearance of the mysterious lady of the title.
If one were staging BEN HUR (as has been done), one would need to somehow represent an entire exciting chariot race on the stage (as has been done). The demands of a good ghost story are far less difficult. Ghosts are scary and they do not have to do very much to frighten an audience. To an audience who has been prepared by the actors a door that mysteriously slams, a scream in the night, a light that turns on mysteriously can be as effective as they are economical to produce.
Why the play needs the framing sequence I can only guess. The sequence is really more about how to tell a story on a stage than it is about the central story. The framing sequence participates only minimally in the horror. It seems almost to be filler, though it does set up the story.
Overall I would say this is an effective play, and its long life seems to attest to that being the case. It is a testament to an audience's ability to suspend disbelief and be pulled into a good scary story. [-mrl]
PHYSICS OF THE FUTURE by Michio Kaku (book review by Greg Frederick):
The most recent book I have read is titled PHYSICS OF THE FUTURE by Michio Kaku. Dr. Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York.
This book looks at cutting edge scientific and technological research and predicts what the world of 2100 will be like. The author also looks at the middle period of this future century too. The future of the computer, artificial intelligence, medicine, nanotechnology, energy, space travel, wealth, and our humanity are covered. Advanced research in the medical field to combat cancer using nanotechnology is discussed and is very interesting since cancer is still a major factor causing illness and death for people today. One future approach is to engineer nano-particles of between 10 to 100 nanometers in size. These particles are basically very small capsules containing a cancer-fighting drug. Because they are designed to be of this particular size they are too large to enter the pores of red blood cells for example but they can enter the larger pores in a cancer tumor cell wall. So the chemotherapy would not poison normal cells but only enter a cancerous tumor cell. This would mean that the drug is site specific like a smart bomb and is much less likely to sicken a patient as current chemotherapy does.
A small pill-shaped device with a video camera and cutting surgical tools built into it is also being developed. This small device would be swallowed and since it contains an iron-based metal it could be maneuvered thru the gastro-intestinal track by a magnetic field surrounding the patient. A surgeon would be able see the interior of the gastro-intestinal track and cut away any cancerous polyps seen without cutting the patient open.
Energy is always of concern because of pollution and an increasing demand which increases the cost of oil for example. The future of nuclear fusion is covered and seems to be closer to becoming a reality on a commercial scale. Nuclear fusion is a clean source of energy and it produces more energy than nuclear fission and creates much less radioactive waste. Also it does not have the potential for a meltdown or a release of radioactive gas. Fusion radioactive waste would be mainly the fusion chamber and it is only radioactive for a few decades where fission radioactive waste can be dangerous for thousands or millions of years. Fusion is a nuclear reaction where two atoms of hydrogen are squeezed together to produce a helium atom. Current multi-national research using supercomputers to design a magnetic bottle (in the shape of a doughnut) that squeezes charged hydrogen gas into a uniform and very small compressed geometric shape to initiate the reaction seems to be the best way to achieve this.
Alternate propulsion systems for spacecraft is also being proposed and researched and these include; solar sails, ramjet fusion, and antimatter rocket engines. Amazing technological advances in other fields were detailed too. So, I would recommend this book if you want to see what maybe in our future. [-gf]
I definitely know of Michio Kaku. He is something like a celebrity around New York. He had a program called Explorations on New York's non-conformist radio station WBAI. I am not sure he still does. I used to listen it frequently until they had too many reruns. He frequently shows up in interviews on science documentaries. Even if he is doing just voice-overs you can tell it is him because he has a very distinctive voice. His books are thick with mind-bending ideas. He is a big advocate of string theory. I have never gotten through one of his books, but that is more my fault than his. If you are looking for exciting scientific ideas, I would say his writing is more exhilerating than that of most science fiction writers, and it is non-fiction.
You can explore his website to see what kinds of ideas he presents.
Slime Molds, the Reset Button, and Subtitles and Dubbing (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's comments on slime molds in the 02/10/12 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
When workers came to our house in Virginia to prune the live oaks, we had the amputated limbs made into mulch. After a time, the mulch pile developed what looked like gleaming stationary cockroaches. These were the vanguard of the slime mold, which came out as yellow fuzz. For a time it looked like it was trying to spell something out, but it eventually gave up the attempt and just became very decorative. I took a bunch of photos of it as it progressed. Eventually we were about to move, so we had the pile taken away so it wouldn't interfere with selling the house and packing up and so on. It was interesting stuff. I had no idea how interesting before reading your piece here. [-kw]
In response to Nick Sauer's review of BLAKE'S 7 in the same issue, Kip writes:
I'm not sure I heard the "reset button" nomenclature for shows that manage to return to the status quo at the end of each episode, but it's certainly a familiar concept. I used "rubber sheet universe" years ago when writing about the early 1960s Herbie comics, because even though an episode may end with Herbie's dad somehow left at giant size after an adventure, once it's over, it's over, and it will never be spoken of again. With the exception of a couple of secondary characters (I think Professor Plumduffle was in more than one story, and the standard-issue movie monsters who hung around The Unknown may have reappeared), it was just Herbie, his parents, and possibly his grandfather, starting from the same premises in each amazing story; two to the issue.
Did I already tell how I saw Marv Wolfman in Dallas in 1984 and asked him why he hadn't managed to revive the series yet? He said the legal situation was so mucky, the only way to find out who owned it was to publish and see who sued, and DC wasn't ready to try that. I asked if Ogden Whitney was still around, and he said he was, but not in any condition to work. I asked about Shane O'Shea, and Wolfman told me about Richard Hughes, who wrote all the ACGs by that time under a variety of nyms ("Greg Olivetti" was named for his typewriter), and edited the letters page, and wrote many of the letters. Other letters were written by names I'd recognize in later years, like Richard "Grass" Green, who went on to an underground career that sometimes paid homage to the off- center superheroes of the American Comics Group. I'd also seen the name of one Marvin Wolfman, who came in third in a contest to write a Herbie story. I'd like to see what he came up with. [-kw]
Gee, I have not thought about "Herbie" comics in decades. I remember him from "Forbidden Worlds" comics. People know DC and Marvel, but I rarely hear anyone refer to comics from the American Comics Group. You might be interested in the cover galley from "Forbidden Worlds" starting at http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/forbidden-worlds and the one for its companion magazine "Unknown Worlds" at http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/unknown-worlds.
(Thanks, Wikipedia, for helping me remember where I saw Herbie comics.) [-mrl]
In response to Mark's comments about subtitling and dubbing in the same issue, Kip writes:
I favor a scattershot approach to subtitles vs. dubbing. I will agree that having the titles on screen rivets my eyes away from visual information, and it's possible for the amount of speech to be impractical for titles--as in overlaid dialog, or muttered background speech, or just somebody who rattles on at hyperspeed. On the other hand, a wrong voice yanks me right out of the movie. I sometimes sit through Spanish dubs of United States movies on cable stations and it's not just that the voice I'm hearing isn't Nicholas Cage or whoever, it's that it couldn't possibly be him. Dubbed Popeye and Simpsons cartoons in Italy were much closer to the ear-conic voices for the characters, and thus much easier to take. [-kw]
THE WASHING OF THE SPEARS and Sid Coleman (letters of comment by Guy Ferraiolo and Gregory Benford):
In response to Evelyn's comments on THE WASHING OF THE SPEARS in the 02/10/12 issue of the MT VOID, Guy Ferraiolo writes:
If you can't trace events, the maps or the text are bad. It's very easy for things to get out of control. My repeated attempts to read the purportedly definitive EMPIRE OF THE STEPPES always foundered on the author's assumption you knew what many geographical terms referred to. The best I've ever seen was Shelby Foot's THE CIVIL WAR. Every place referred to in the text is on the map. Every place! And there's very little extraneous material on the map to distract.
Anyway, I blame the book, and probably the maps. [-gf]
And Gregory Benford writes:
Good points. We studied the tactics of Rorke's Drift in infantry For the adroit use of limited troops. A remarkable battle.
On another topic, Gregory writes:
If you knew Sid Coleman, I have a piece on him on my blog. [-gb]
Coleman seems to be one of those science fiction fans who did the real science also. I was unaware of him until you pointed him out.
Readers can see Gregory's article at http://www.gregorybenford.com/tag/science-2/.
Passwords (letters of comment by Jay E. Morris, Keith F. Lynch, and David Dyer-Bennet):
In response to Evelyn's comments on passwords in the 02/10/12 issue of the MT VOID, Jay E. Morris writes:
The way I normally create a password is using two unrelated six letter words. Then do two things.
First, top row substitution. Any key on the top row is replaced with the key above it from the number row. q = 1, w = 2, etc.
Hold shift for one of the words.
So kittenfeeder becomes K*%%#Nf33d34
I've settled on this style because of the high security requirement on the work system. Except this pair fails because repeated letters are not allowed.
deletestarted = D#L#%#Ds5a453d would work.
This works for 90% of the sites I have passwords on. If not, I can normally still use the base pair in some way.
Oh, and for work I actually have to have at least 14 characters. So I added 1234 to the end. The advantage to this is, since I have to change passwords every ninety days, I just add one. Except where it would result in a repeat.
And yes, I do use the same password on many sites. Those sites that wouldn't result in the lose of money if compromised. [-jem]
Keith F. Lynch replies:
The ideal password should be completely random. And, being random, has a good chance of having repeated letters. So by banning repeated letters they're making passwords weaker.
What about loss of reputation? For instance if a malicious person were to start posting to Usenet or editing Wikipedia in your name in an attempt to make you look bad? [-kfl]
To which Jay responds:
[And regarding reputation] Probably couldn't do any worse than I do to myself. [-jem]
David Dyer-Bennet responds to Keith as well:
I've encountered many password rules requiring me to weaken the sort of password I usually use.
As you may have noticed, the world is full of idiots.
[And regarding reputation] That's clearly a loss, yes.
How much reputation one loses differs by who you are and who is judging the reputation. Mostly there's no long-standing belief that it was actually you who posted the bad stuff, so it's more the "they got careless and got hacked" loss of reputation than the "they said these horrid things" loss of reputation.
However, for some of us with pretensions of some knowledge of computers and online security, it'd be more embarrassing than for others. And for those whose profession is computer security I imagine it'd be even more embarrassing still. [-ddb]
Gestalt Creatures (letter of comment by Steve Milton):
In response to Mark's comments on slime molds in the 02/10/12 issue of the MT VOID, Steve Milton writes:
Sponges are also gestalt creatures. [-smm]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
For the last two weeks I have been talked about non-fiction books that I read in preparation for our southern Africa trip. This week I will wrap up with comments on some fiction and some films. But first, one more non-fiction book, by an author better known for his fiction. I read Anthony Trollope's SOUTH AFRICA (ISBNs 978-0-86299-319-1 and 978-0-86299-357-3), written in 1877. While perhaps the most literary of the books, it is also the most racially biased (for all that Trollope appears to think himself a "progressive" Englishman).
Of the Dutch settler's attitude toward slavery, Trollope writes, "Taking him altogether we shall own that we was not a cruel slave owner, but he was one to whom slavery of itself was in no way repugnant." These days, even if this is not a self-contradictory statement, historical records indicate that the treatment of slaves was indeed cruel.
Equally incorrect is Trollope's perspective on the Zulu War (which he calls the "fifth Kafir war"--he doesn't even give it the dignity of capital letters). He says, "It began in 1850, and seems to have been instigated by a Kafir prophet." This is the only mention of Shaka Zulu, and is the equivalent of saying (with no sense of irony) that the European war in the early 19th century "seems to have been instigated by a Corsican soldier." Then of the period after the war he writes, "In this time there came up a prophecy among the Kafirs that they were to be restored to all their pristine glories and possessions not by living aid but by the dead. Their old warriors would return to the world from the distant world, and they themselves would all become young, beautiful, and invincible. But great faith was needed. They would find fat cattle in caves numerous as their hearts might desire; and rich fields of flowing corn would spring up for them as food was required. Only they must kill all their own cattle, and must refrain from sowing seed." Everything I have read indicates that these drastic measures were not to satisfy some prophecy of victory, but were mandated by Shaka Zulu as mourning ceremonies for his mother.
Regarding self-government by, or even the franchise for, the non-white population, Trollope makes a comparison: "It is a matter of course that Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] should be governed as a Crown Colony,--with edicts and laws from Downing Street, administered by the hand of a Governor. A Cingalee Parliament would be an absurdity in our eyes." The franchise should be granted to all regardless of color, according to Trollope, but it should "admit only those who are fit." (He makes several references to the post- Civil War South, and one need only look at its use of voting tests to see where this would lead.)
Later, Trollope says (apparently with a straight face), "It was not intended that the country should be taken away from the Kafirs;-- but only the rule over the country, and the privilege of living in accordance with their own customs." I'm sure were it another country--say, Germany--who wanted not to take Britain away from the Britons, but merely rule over it and take away the privilege of the Britons to live in accordance with their own customs, Trollope wouldn't mind at all.
Of the labor situation, Trollope tells of black workers who would trod out the wool for 4s.6d. a day. Not a day's journey away, white men were earning 1s.7d. plus board, or the equivalent of 2s.6d. a day to build a dam. "They explained to us that they had found it very hard to get any job, and had taken this almost in despair. But they wouldn't have trod the wool along with the black men, even for 4s.6d." Does this sound familiar? If not, check out the web site TakeOurJobs.org, a site trying to match up people who are unemployed and complaining about illegal immigrants taking all the jobs, with the jobs that illegal immigrants take. What it has revealed is that many of the people who say they want illegal immigration ended because of the jobs would not take a job as a migrant farm worker.
Speaking of the transition from Dutch (or what we now call Afrikaans) to English, he says, "Now [English] is general everywhere in the colony, though of course Dutch is still spoken by the descendants of the Dutch among themselves: and church services in the Lutheran churches are performed in Dutch. It will probably take another century to expel the language." Well, okay, that is clearly a prediction that has not come to pass.
While most of my reading for this trip was about South Africa, Botswana did not get completely ignored: I re-read (or rather, re-listened to the audiobook of) THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith (ISBN 978-1-4000-3477-9). McCall Smith may be Botswana's best good-will ambassador; though there are villains in his books, on the whole he makes Botswana seem wonderful and its citizens honest, friendly people. When there is corruption revealed, it is punished, which is not the way of most of the rest of Africa. If Mma Ramotswe bemoans the loss of many of the traditional values, she is also proud of how much her country has achieved.
But McCall Smith has now written twelve books in the series, and he is starting to forget (or ignore) things he said earlier, resulting in inconsistencies. For example, in the first book he says, "Mma Makutsi was the widow of a teacher and had just passed their general typing and secretarial examinations with an average grade of 97 percent." Her widowhood seems to have disappeared and by book four (THE KALAHARI TYPING SCHOOL FOR MEN) Grace Makutsi has apparently never been married, or even had much to do with men at all.
Also, McCall Smith initially wrote of Mma Ramotswe's inheritance (that let her start the agency), "She went to the lawyer at Pilane, who had arranged for her to get her father's money. He had organized the sale of the cattle, and had got a good price for them. 'I have got a lot of money for you,' he said. 'Your father's herd had grown and grown." But in book seven (THE MIRACLE AT SPEEDY MOTORS), Mma Ramotswe says, "I have a large herd. My daddy was very good with cattle. He left me some very fine beasts, and they multiplied. There are many of them now." That in book one the herd was spoken of in the past tense indicates that they had all been sold, yet in book seven she still seems to own most of them.
Of course, these are the same sorts of contradictions one finds in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. They are interesting to note, but do not detract from the stories themselves. BEETHOVEN WAS ONE-SIXTEENTH BLACK AND OTHER STORIES (ISBN 978-0- 374-10982-0) and LOOT AND OTHER STORIES (ISBN 978-0-374-19090-3) by Nadine Gordimer are two collections of stories by one of South Africa's leading writers. I suppose some of them have some sense of the place in them, but I think maybe you need to be South African to appreciate it. (Somehow I get a stronger sense of place of Botswana from McCall Smith's "Number One Ladies Detective Agency" stories.) The same is less true for me of J. M. Coetzee's DISGRACE (ISBN 978-0-670-88731-5), which gives at least some feel of the rural areas of South Africa, albeit an unfavorable one.
Gordimer does seem to be a member of the "longer sentences are better" club: "This sort of pleasant exchange struck up only after the tape on a glass signalled that the host, Minister or Chairman, was about to make a welcoming speech, and discussion of the latest announcement or 'pending' announcements (development topics had their own evasive lingua franca) on trade tariffs, bills coming before parliament for land reform, proceedings of Mercasur, SADEC, the EU, had been respectfully listened to or contested over the skill of eating and drinking without appearing to be aware of this lowly function." 84 words, 8 commas--and it's not even a sentence, but a sentence fragment. Between Gordimer and Jose Saramago, I begin to wonder if the Nobel committee doesn't have some sentence- length requirement for laureates.
I have no idea if Beethoven was one-sixteenth black.
I re-watched a few movies: INVICTUS, THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY (set in Botswana), GOLD, THE WILBY CONSPIRACY, ZULU DAWN, ZULU, and DISTRICT 9. Of the latter, the highest (indirect) praise came from a (white) friend who came from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and lived for a while in South Africa during apartheid. He said that he started to watch DISTRICT 9, but found it too painful because of its accuracy in paralleling how white South Africans treated blacks. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite. --Paul DiracTweet
Go to our home page