MT VOID 06/22/12 -- Vol. 30, No. 52, Whole Number 1707

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/22/12 -- Vol. 30, No. 52, Whole Number 1707

Table of Contents

      Spencer Tracy: Mark Leeper, Katherine Hepburn: 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 Hugo Nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation--Long Form (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Well, this is the time of year people intending to go to the World Science Fiction Convention have to start thinking about how they are going to vote for Hugo awards in the various categories. I suppose because I have such an interest in both science fiction and in cinema, the category that interests me the most is the Hugo for the Best Dramatic Presentation--Long Form. This is actually a little harder than choosing what films should get Academy Awards. For the Oscars, usually the major contenders I will have seen recently. If a filmmaker thinks his/her film is worthy of an Oscar, that film will probably be released as late as possible before the end of the year so it will be fresh in the voters' minds. One usually does not have to remember back very far to bring to mind the films that have been nominated. It is different with the Hugo Awards. One of the nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation, SOURCE CODE was released fourteen months ago. That is part of the point of this article. I will remind the reader what the films were about and give my opinions. Taking the nominees in reverse alphabetical order (for a change) we first come to ...

I think "VIDEO GAME" would have been a much better title. Source code, while it can be pretty scary, particularly to a programmer, is never mentioned in the film. But the idea does have a sort of video game since the main character gets to live the same eight minutes again and again until he gets them right, not unlike Donkey Kong. The main character finds himself on a train living over and over the last eight minutes before the train blows up. He has to play the game repeatedly until he can prevent the explosion and find a way to stop the terrorists who planted the bomb. The main character is actually inside the mind of one of the victims of the explosion, but for some reason by exploring the victim's mind he is able to go places the victim did not and see things the victim did not see. There is much more to the story than that, but that is the premise we start with. None of this makes a lot of sense. I am not going to rate this film very highly. Is this science fiction? Very definitely. Is it good science fiction? I would not say it was. The premise was not very well thought out.

This is Martin Scorsese's first children's film that I am aware of, but it is so well constructed I still considered it worth seeing for people of all ages and in fact I chose it as the best film I saw in 2011 (though the jury is still out in my mind on TREE OF LIFE). For the first half of this film set in the 1930s it is a very highly polished story of a twelve-year-old mechanical genius living by his wits in the walls of the Paris Train Station and incidentally maintaining all the clocks. He tries to finish a project his now deceased father was working on and avoid being caught by the toy vender from whom the boy occasionally steals. Midway in the story we become aware that one of the characters is a real historical personage and the film is really an introduction to who he was and why his work was important. The story is beautifully visualized and uses its 3D well. HUGO is entertaining and well acted and very, very visual. At the end of my review I asked would HUGO win a Hugo. Friends convinced me it probably should not be eligible since it is a real stretch to call it fantasy or science fiction. However, here it is on the ballot and I am not very surprised.

This is the final HARRY POTTER film. It is a hard film to like if, like me, you have a limited memory. Of all the works described here this is the hardest to follow since so much of it depends on earlier films or books. I remembered enough of the previous entries to know what was going on much of the time, but material from films I saw five or so years ago would have been necessary and is long forgotten. The series started out with children's films that adults could well appreciate. The last entry is an adult fantasy that the children who grew up with it can enjoy. Unique among the series I know, the stories matured along with the characters as it went along. My big complaint is that this would be the film where we should really get to know the villain Voldemort. The film is very stinting on the back story that would make its ugly villain three-dimensional. On the other hand the series has had more than enough time to make a real breathing character out of Harry though it was never very successful at that. The two main characters we have now seen grow up and Emma Watson has matured into a good emoting actress while Daniel Radcliffe presumably under the same directing seems detached and cold. Still, there is a lot to see in this film even if it was hard for some of us to understand what we were seeing. This series would have been one where the makers could have broken the cliche of making the villains ugly and the good guys attractive or at least cute. But you could show somebody who did not know the series photos of all the major characters and it would be a cinch with 95% accuracy to tell which are heroes and which like the nasally- deprived Voldemort are villains.

HBO is an option on many cable services, so they have to convince viewers to take the option. The cable channel has the money and the facilities to make really good original series if they want to. They seem to want to. Some of the best drama on television is made for HBO. This is the first of a set of mini-series based on the novels by George R. R. Martin. It is the story of seven noble families of the mythical land of Westeros, vying for power. Many storylines are told in parallel in intersecting each other. The story changes. Characters you like die. Characters you hate prosper. The game of wheeling and dealing for power is played on a grand scale. And the storytelling is surprisingly economical considering the amount of story conveyed. The acting is wonderful by familiar actors like Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage. Viewers become mesmerized watching the complex story work its way out. I saw the first season on disk and now I might even subscribe to HBO. This is one of a very few stunning and compelling series on television. You know from just the title sequence that the series is going to be very well produced. From the beginning the viewer is involved in struggles for power, love, hatred, murder, sex, corruption, treachery, and greed. In fact, it is about everything that makes life interesting.

I used to like superhero films. I never liked them as much as several people I know--I am not an aficionado of the Marvel Universe, but I was into some of the films based on comic books. One a year was plenty for me. However Marvel has had this campaign to do a separate film for each of several of their popular heroes and then bring then all together in a single film. This requires them to make what I consider entirely too many of these films. Captain America had to have his own film with his name as the title before he could be in THE AVENGERS. And like all of Marvel's superhero films it involves fights and chases whose outcomes are never either interesting or in doubt. The best thing about CAPTAIN AMERICA is the art direction which beautifully uses WW-II vintage images to help to explain away the fact that he has the most Gawd- awful suit any superhero was ever called on to wear. The look of the film for everything but the title character is terrific. In fact it is an embarrassment that this film was sold to a global market with a main character that looks to jingoist-kitsch. Actually when the villain of the piece unzips his face to reveal a bright red phantom of the opera face under it, this was not a very good moment either. With all the chases and fights, we know who will win and just have to sit patiently while it happens. I will say what the film does well are the special effects and the art direction. The end credits are worth seeing on YouTube even if you have missed the rest of the film.


Those are just my choices but I would be well and truly gob-smacked if any candidate other than GAME OF THRONES turns out to be popular enough to take home the rocket. [-mrl]

Now is the Time--Today is the Day! (report on the 2012 International Space Development Conference, May 25-28, 2012, by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):

Recently I attended ISDC 2012 in Washington, DC. This was the first ISDC I have attended that coincided with a major space milestone. The SpaceX Dragon capsule was grappled by the ISS (International Space Station) robot arm the morning of Friday, May 25th during the speech being given by Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator, to the ISDC audience. I give General Bolden great credit for speaking to the ISDC while his team was executing a critical and challenging milestone.

The berthing of the Dragon with the ISS marks the first time a privately built spaceship has delivered supplies to this international laboratory. Previously, supplies were delivered by Russian, European, and Japanese robotic ships, and the American Space Shuttle, now retired from service. NASA has decided to, rather than build a new government rocket to supply the ISS, instead rely on services provided by two private companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. SpaceX has built and tested a new rocket-- the Falcon 9--and a new capsule--the Dragon--at a fraction of the billions of dollars normally associated with space ventures.

The success of the Falcon/Dragon heralds a day when governments no longer control access to space, which instead will be available to anyone who can afford to go--and at a price much lower than ever before. The Falcon/Dragon will eventually loft astronauts to the ISS for a cost of about $20 million per person. This may seem like a lot, but it is much less than Russia is currently charging the US per astronaut to the ISS--$63 million per seat!! (

Sadly, although this news was greeted with great enthusiasm at the ISDC, the halls of Congress produced only muted praise as many there see SpaceX not as the basis of an affordable and expansive future in space but only as the end of jobs in their home districts.

Bolden's talk at the ISDC was followed by Mark Sirangelo, the Chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. Sierra Nevada is building one of the four vehicles--the Dream Chaser--competing to provide private astronaut access to the ISS (the other three are SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin). The Dream Chaser derives from the HL10 (see ) developed by NASA in the 1970s. The Dream Chaser launches vertically on an Atlas 5 and lands horizontally on a runway. Among its many advantages are:

Mark's talk was excellent. Just a few days after the ISDC the Dream Chaser completed captive carry tests, i.e., suspended from a large aircraft via a cable. The Dream Chaser is the kind of doable and potentially reliable project that NASA could never complete, because NASA tends to be driven to be all things to all people.

The next big name speaker was Steve Cook of Dynetics. His talk was delayed a bit by an impromptu report from SpaceX on the successful berthing of Dragon with the ISS. Cook gave a general report on the activities of his company, which operates out of Huntsville, Alabama and has many aerospace products. Of the greatest interest to ISDC attendees, Dynetics is system integrator for a new project called "Stratolauncher." Stratolauncher is funded by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft. The Stratolauncher will consist of the world's largest airplane--the engines from two 747s fused together with a Scaled Composites double-hull similar to the White Knight carrier aircraft for Space Ship One--carrying a Falcon 9 booster in the middle. The general intention of this new company is to provide cost-effective Delta-2 class launch services without requiring a launch pad. Check out for more information.

The Friday lunch speaker was Eric Anderson, Co-Chairman and Co- Founder of Planetary Resources, a company that recently announced plans to mine asteroids. Funded by a gaggle of billionaires, including the founders of Google, Planetary Resources envisions a three-step plan to exploit the resources of asteroids:

Their focus is on mining water for the manufacture of rocket fuel, and also on extracting platinum-group metals. You can learn more about this exciting new company at

By 2PM on the first day of the conference, the ISDC had already seen more solid space development excitement than any five-year period in the 1990s, including the Dragon's honest-to-goodness real historic space milestone occurring live on TV while the ISDC attendees watched.

To start the afternoon, I moved to the Space Investment Summit track with the 3PM panel "Policy Implications for Commercial Space." This panel featured two senior congressional staffers speaking off the record, one from the office of Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and the other from the office of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Rohrabacher is well known as one of the strongest friends of commercial space, but the staffer for Hutchison also seemed quite strong for commercial space. Since the statements were all off the record, I won't repeat any of them here, but the discussion was interesting and politically mature.

Returning to the featured programming, I took in the Space Launch System (SLS) panel at 4PM. Staffed by high-level NASA engineers from Huntsville, Alabama, the panel gave a good overview of the SLS program. The new SLS does seem an improvement over the canceled Constellation, although it lacks any particular mission and is gobbling up a significant part of the NASA budget. The SLS, sometimes mockingly called the "Senate Launch System" by its detractors because the Senate was so active in specifying the details of its design, would certainly be an asset to the US space program. However, funding SLS heavily at the expense of Commercial Crew to ISS is surely a grave error.

Next, the 5PM panel discussed the so-called "Liberty"--ATK's entry in the Commercial Crew booster competition against the SpaceX Falcon 9, the ULA Atlas 5, and the Blue Origin New Shepard (see for more info on Jeff Bezos' entry in the new space race). The Liberty is a reincarnation of the Ares I from the cancelled Constellation program with a few new wrinkles. Among the new wrinkles are an all-composite capsule with a mushroom-hat puller escape rocket system and a second stage from the Ariane 5 first stage. The Liberty first stage is exactly the same as the Ares I first stage--a five-section solid rocket booster (SRB) from ATK.

The Liberty team has a reasonably strong case that the Liberty will have a safe launch process, but a much weaker case that the Liberty can be operated economically, especially compared to Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 is stacked horizontally, moved to the pad on a truck or train, and then erected on the pad as is the Russian practice. This allows the vehicle to be assembled in a normal- sized building and to be easily reached anywhere by people with long ladders as opposed to a gantry. In contrast, the Liberty is stacked in the super-large vehicle assembly building and moved to the pad on the mammoth crawler like the Shuttle, which is a fundamentally more expensive process. Also, the Liberty is about 50% made outside the US, while the Falcon 9 is 100% made in the USA. Still, competition is good, and the Liberty team deserves credit for competing.

The main Friday evening event was the 25th Anniversary NSS Governors' Dinner. It was held at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, with a reception in the America by Air Gallery, an awards program in the Milestones of Flight Gallery, and a dinner in the Space Hall. Hosted by Hugh Downs, the ceremony included Senator John Glenn and Commander Scott Carpenter receiving the NSS Space Pioneer Award for Historic Space Achievement, and a keynote address by Mark Sirangleo, Chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. In addition, we viewed a video of Dr. Stephen Hawking receiving the Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award from NSS's Paul Damphousse.

This was an amazing event, perhaps the best one yet put on by the NSS. The Milestones of Flight Gallery was a fantastic backdrop to the awards, with the recently added Space Ship One hanging right in front of us, the Bell X-1 to our right, and the X-15 just behind us, not to mention the Liberty 7 and the Apollo 11 Command Module. Paul Damphousse, the new NSS Executive Director, deserves enormous credit for the staging of this event.

Saturday I started bright and early at 9AM with Doug McCuiston, the NASA Director of Mars exploration. This was an excellent and highly professional survey of NASA's efforts to explore Mars, and a nice summary of some of the latest and most exciting results. Very recent photographic evidence suggests for the first time the actions of actual liquid water on the Martian surface in the form of "seeps" that melt on hot days to leak out some water and then freeze up. The big event everyone is looking forward to is the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars this coming August. If the landing is successful--the very first usage of a rocket crane as a lander--the largest rover ever, and the first with a nuclear power pack, promises a long and eventful journey of exploration.

The next panel, "International Space Sustainability," proved to be one of the less interesting panels of the conference, and I left early. Fortunately, the lunch speaker, Michael Lopez-Alegria, the President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, proved to be a pleasant surprise. I expected a possibly dry talk by a leader of the commercial spaceflight movement. Instead, I got a fascinating exposition on Russian cosmonaut training and equipment by one of America's most experienced astronauts. A veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and one ISS mission, Lopez-Alegria has performed 10 EVAs (space walks) in his career, making him the most experienced American spacewalker. He is also in second place in the longest-EVA race and has the longest spaceflight duration of any American at 215 days. His presentation was the best I have yet seen on how the Russians train and fly. A special treat was that Ben Bova received the 2012 Space Pioneer Award. Ben Bova is a well-known SF author and the former NSI President during the L5/NSI merger that produced the current NSS.

After lunch I visited the Space Solar Power (SSP) track for an hour, the first talk of which promoted an effort to create a straw baseline solar power satellite design using the latest technology. Jumping over to the Mars track, I listened to Joe Cassady of Aerojet present one of his company's Mars mission plans. The most interesting thing is that I ended up in the front row sitting next to Buzz Aldrin (yes, the second man to walk on the Moon!). For some reason, Buzz decided I was THE guy to whisper questions about things he didn't understand in the presentation. This put me in the odd spot of being flattered but having not the slightest idea what to say. I tried to resolve things by asking the speaker what he meant by a "dead-head" orbit, one of Buzz's questions. It turns out this refers to returning from Mars with an empty cargo hold.

Following this, I escaped back to the commercial track and picked up the "Space Markets" talk at 4PM. This panel proved to be an interesting one, with a diverse mix of viewpoints, including a European one that sought to explain the relatively lesser European interest in commercial space. I finished the day at the commercial track panel on X-prizes, and thought that Larry Cooper of NASA especially gave a great presentation on how NASA is making use of prizes to spur innovation. This may seem hard to believe, but the NASA prize rules seem less onerous than the notorious Google X-prize lunar landing rules.

The day concluded with dinner speaker Jeff Greason, CEO & Founder of XCOR Aerospace. Jeff gave a follow-up to his lecture at the last ISDC advocating the creation of a network of fuel depots in space. You can catch the video at on YouTube. I thought his speech was actually better than the one last year, and certainly more entertaining.

Sunday I slept late because I planned to attend the NSS Chapters Assembly meeting in the evening after dinner (shameless plug--I am running for the Board--vote for me if you are a member of NSS!!). At 11 am I rolled into the NSS Heritage panel, featuring Lori Garver (former NSS Executive Director and now #2 at NASA), Robert Ordway, Ben Bova, and Art Dula. This was a great panel, and it was pleasure to see everyone, including Ben, on the stage.

The Sunday lunch featured long-time space activist Rick Tumlinson, giving one of his patented rambling but inspirational talks, hitting on his latest thoughts. The afternoon consisted of the NSS Board meeting, which I am *not* going to cover in this report, except to say that NSS is lucky to have Paul Damphousse as its new Executive Director. Paul was responsible for getting Buzz Aldrin on the Colbert Report to give Steven Colbert an NSS award. See the video on YouTube at Paul has achieved more positive publicity for NSS in a few months than many NSS Executive Directors achieved in years.

The speaker at the Sunday dinner was Lori Garver--mentioned above. I've said this before--but I'll say it again. If you'd told me back in 1990 that in 2012 NSS Executive Director (ED) Lori Garver was going to be #2 at NASA pushing every day for commercial space, and that her NSS successor, George Whitesides, was going to be the CEO of the leading space tourism company, aptly named "Virgin Galactic," I'd have thought this was nothing more than a fantasy dream of wish-fullfillment. And yet, here we are. In 2012. And Dragon has berthed with ISS, delivered its first load of supplies, and returned safely to Earth.

So I say it again--today is the day--now is the time! To quote Mark Hopkins at the ISDC, "We are winning!"

Today is the end of the beginning, and dawn of the true Age of Space. Ad Astra! [-dls]

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Seven English retirees come to a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India, most unprepared for the culture differences good and bad that await them. Their five or six different intertwined storylines tell stories of past love, present love, humor, and pathos. Perhaps only one of the stories rises above cliche, but they are all told well with the total being more than the sum of the parts making for a satisfying and even touching experience. And these seven British actors would make a powerhouse cast for any film. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

In Agra when I got off the plane there was a man waiting there who asked me was I Mr. Sakajima. There was a flood of cab drivers who would not let me go, each hoping to get me into his cab. On a later pedicab ride I was kidnapped and taken not to my stated destination but shopping instead so the driver could get a rake-off from the shop owner. In New Delhi the same incident happened two days in a row. A small boy would throw moist cow dung on my wife's shoes and each time a man came up to her to tell her that a local shoemaker would happily clean her shoes for a very modest price. On national television on morning we watched as an expert demonstrated cleaning his system by drinking water and vomiting it into a bucket. Even in the 1990s India was another world with surprisingly little of Western culture. With so many Indians it had too much cultural inertia to pick up much of Western ways of doing things. Most Westerners who come to India end up with no small degree of culture shock. That is probably inevitable. Different people will handle it differently. In THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL we have a story seven different Brits each adapting in his or her own way to the cultural tidal wave that is India.

A fairly common film plot has someone from either the United States or Britain going to some place that has an exotic and unfamiliar culture. Little by little the stranger is won over by the differences and learns to love it, even wanting to remain a part of it. Bill Forsyth's LOCAL HERO sets the story in Scotland. John Jeffcoat told much the same story set in India in OUTSOURCED. THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL tells the same story multiple times as seven elderly English people coming to Jaipur at the same time. It seems British money goes a very long way in Jaipur, and that is the attraction for seven Brits who come in answer to an ad promising beautiful grounds for a retirement hotel. In this way the film can show seven different ways people might react to the alien world that is India. Among the seven one finds a widow needing to survive on what little her husband left her (Judi Dench), an anti- Indian bigot hoping to find a cheap hip replacement but not sure she trusts Indian medicine or Indians in general (Maggie Smith), a couple who lost their nest egg investing in their daughter's startup (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), an executive trying to deal with unfinished business from his past (Tom Wilkinson), and two others each hoping to meet a mate. Those seven by themselves constitute a very impressive cast.

Frequently it is said of a film that the setting becomes like a character of the film. In this case the setting is powerful enough to be at least two major characters. There is not really time for the film to tell any of its stories in more detail than perfunctorily. The characters who hold our interest the most are probably Tom Wilkinson's Graham and Dev Patel's owner-manager. Dev Patel will be familiar from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Deborah Moggach's novel and Ol Parker's screenplay seem to try to present India as a troubled and at the same time wonderful place. It is, but the filmmakers left out or glossed over a lot of the rough edges. What it gives is not at all a view of life in India for any but a very lucky few. But if director John Madden's film minimizes some of the negatives of Indian culture, it also understates the wonder that is India.

This film is fluffy, but it is absolutely guaranteed to have good actors doing what they do well (and not to have one single superhero). The stories are not demanding, but they are pleasant and warm. I rate the film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


MARY PICKFORD: THE MUSE OF THE MOVIES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: At one time Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. Even before the cinema was truly globalized Pickford was recognized all over the world for her films. Nicholas Eliopoulos's biographical documentary recounts the story of Mary Pickford from having to go on the stage at age five to support her family to her co-founding of United Artists when she was second only to Charlie Chaplin as the face most recognized all over the world. MARY PICKFORD: THE MUSE OF THE MOVIES tells the story of Pickford and of the fledgling film industry and how the two grew together. The story is told with interviews of the people involved in her life including Pickford herself, with stills, and with film clips from her movies. While the film is not groundbreaking in style, it is a history of the exploding film industry and of one of its most remarkable figures. The story is narrated by Michael York and by Pickford herself in recordings made before she died. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

While the world saw Mary Pickford perpetually as a little girl she became in her time the most famous woman in the world and one of strongest forces in the early days of cinema. One woman was a film "actress, writer, director, producer, and studio boss" as we learn in Nicholas Eliopoulos's MARY PICKFORD: THE MUSE OF THE MOVIES. She was the driving force behind the founding and running of United Artists. Her story is quite literally rags to riches. Born in Toronto, her father died when she was five years old. Her family was so poor that to feed them she had to start earning money on the stage, billed as Baby Gladys--her real name was Gladys Smith. Actors at the time had no respect for the coming of the little one- reel films that were the output of the newly-born movie industry. Mary would later proudly tell people that she was born the year that Edison invented the movie camera.

Desperate to earn money she applied for acting work in film and was rejected, then only moments later discovered by D. W. Griffith, who convinced her to be a part of the new industry. The two of them with Charlie Chaplin and her later husband Douglas Fairbanks would found United Artists to give the actors and directors greater control over the films being made. Later she would be a major force in the founding of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She won the first Best Actress Academy Award.

She had power never matched in the film industry. For most of her career Pickford could and did insist on veto power over her film roles, script choice, director choice, and co-star choice. This assured her of the quality of the films she made and no doubt added to the popularity of her films.

Her best-known roles were those where she played young girls with long hair and looks that earned her the title "America's Sweetheart." She was playing a child up until her early thirties. In 1928 with the dying of silent film, she decided that she had played her last little girl. She bobbed her hair and began speaking in film. But the public's affection was for that little girl whom she could no longer play, and she had lost her characteristic appeal. She retreated from acting, though she still had power at the studio.

Director Eliopoulos, who also produces and edits MARY PICKFORD: THE MUSE OF THE MOVIES, has presented the viewer with home movies, interviews with family, friends, and associates: people like Lillian Gish, Buddy Rogers (star of WINGS and Pickford's third husband), and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. While generally the film is very complimentary to Pickford, it does rather gloss over some of her problems like her alcoholism late in her life.

This is very much a "life and times" biography telling the story of Pickford's remarkable life and at the same time the story of the budding film industry. If you are interested in Pickford herself or just in the early history of the Hollywood film industry, this is an enthralling documentary. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

MARY PICKFORD: THE MUSE OF THE MOVIES was made in 2008 and has been playing at film festivals. On June 19 it was released by Cinema Libre on DVD with a photo gallery, a Q&A with the director, and an interview with the director.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


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

Once again, the Hugo nominations have come out, and as usual, I will be reviewing the short fiction, as well as the novels and the related works (although I have already reviewed one novel, EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville).

This year is believed to be the first time that five women have appeared in a single fiction category (Best Novella), the first time that one of the fiction category has had *no* white males (Novella), and the first transgendered fiction nominee. It is also the first time (I believe) that women outnumbered men overall in the fiction categories (if one counts by work rather than by author, given Mira Grant's double appearance).

Best Novella

Some surprise was expressed that a $30 chapbook from WSFA garnered enough nominations to make the ballot. But "Silently and Very Fast" is also available as a Kindle e-book for $3.99, so it is possible that it achieved an audience that way.

"Countdown" by Mira Grant (Orbit) is yet another episode in Grant's "Newsflesh" (a.k.a. "Zombie Apocalypse") series. It is good, but one can have too much of a good thing. Still, it is better than some of the other nominees.

"The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF 11-12/11) works at its almost-fantasy-like milieu (albeit with light-speed travel). The description of the city, its inhabitants, its government, and so on, all seem as if they came from fantasy rather than science fiction. All this makes the reference to a "Turkish coffee machine" all the more jarring. Gilman's parallels with our world seem at times obvious (though one might claim that some aspects of the human condition are universal). I am not entirely convinced by the assertion that corrupt governments are less intrusive than honest ones, though it is a provocative claim.

"Kiss Me Twice" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's 06/11) is a police procedural with an AI as part of the police team. Much as I like movies, I thought the film references and quotations were a bit overdone and became tedious after a while. Still, this is the sort of classic science fiction story that goes back at least to Isaac Asimov's CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN, and is always a joy to read when well done. And if you care, it even probably meets the requirements for "Mundane Science Fiction", since it does not have any fantastical science.

"The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson (Asimov's 10-11/11) is okay, but it just does not seem very science fictional. There is some other-worldliness in the mist and its denizens, but really, it is just an engineering story that also looks at the social change brought about by that engineering.

I will admit up-front that I skipped/skimmed parts of "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu (Panverse 3). Part of it consists of (graphic) descriptions of medical experiments conducted by the Japanese on Chinese prisoners during World War II, and these I skipped. Whether this disqualifies me from reviewing this, you will have to decide. In any case, Liu has a lot of different themes and threads going.

The science fictional premise is that a technique is developed that lets people experience the past as if they were there. But it is a "destructive" technique, in the sense that when someone has "gone back to" a particular time and place, no one else can ever visit that time and place again. The question of whether this would actually work as described is not clear. Is going back to a place a hundred feet to the west of the place visited allowed? As a premise, though, it is in a science fiction tradition of destructive procedures (e.g., teleportation which destroys the original). This finality, this inability to change one's mind, works as a counterpoint to the all-too-frequent trope that any problem can be solved by a wave of the technological hand. The latter is part of what Geoff Ryman et al are protesting in the "Mundane Manifesto".

But the notion that one cannot press the reset button, or have a do-over, is clearly also tied up in the historical part of the story. Whatever decisions people made in the past, they cannot go back and change them. This ties in with the issue of what people *can* do if they realize they have made wrong decisions, and the question of what purpose apologies, compensations, or anything else serves. And the ending, in particular, asks how much of the past is important to know, and to whom.

Liu also looks at what constitutes historical evidence. As with the Holocaust in Europe, even eyewitness testimony does not convince some people. (Although it is true that in small details-- was the thief wearing a black jacket or a green one?--eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, it is usually true on the macro level--did the thief shoot ten people or just take a candy bar?) Evan thinks that sending the doubters back to experience the past will solve this but, not surprisingly, it does not. Instead they say that it is all a trick of virtual reality or some such.

All this is a lot to pack into a novella, but Liu manages it well.

"Silently and Very Fast" by Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA Press, ISBN 978-1-9368-9600-4) did absolutely nothing for me. When reading it, each phrase or sentence made sense, but taken as a whole, it was incomprehensible.

My ranking: "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary", "Kiss Me Twice", "Countdown", no award, "The Ice Owl", "The Man Who Bridged the Mist", "Silently and Very Fast"

Best Novel

At least some of the popularity of AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton (ISBN 978-0-765-33172-4) is probably due to its lavish use of science fiction (and fantasy) books in its plot. Mor (short for Morwenna) is constantly reading science fiction books, talking about science fiction books, and comparing life to science fiction books. At first, this seems similar to how Stephen King achieves a level of realism by referring to real brands (e.g., someone does not ask for a soft drink, they ask for a Coke). And Mira Grant does this to some extent in DEADLINE, but with a more limited set of specifics. But Walton seems to have decided to include all her favorite books (or one assumes they are her favorite books), and the result is that at times the discussion of, and references to, science fiction books overshadow the fantasy elements of the plot. By the way, the Ace Double mentioned with Samuel R. Delany's "Empire Star" is M- 139, and the other half is Tom Purdom's "Tree Lord of Imetan".

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by George R. R. Martin (ISBN 978-0-553-80147- 7) presents a dilemma. It is book five of a series. Everyone who has read it seems to agree it does not stand alone--that is, it will not make sense if I have not read the first four. Its fans say I should either read all five books, or not vote in this category. Well, neither of those things is going to happen. I can take one of three approaches. I could say that if everyone agrees that it does not stand alone, I will vote it last on that basis, because I am foolish enough to believe that a novel should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or I could start it and decide for myself after a hundred pages or so whether it stands alone, and whether the writing, etc., seems worthy of a Hugo. Or I could watch the mini-series "Game of Thrones" (also nominated for a Hugo) and hope that provides enough background. (I opted for a fourth approach--reading the summaries of the first four novels in Wikipedia.)

Last year I voted FEED by Mira Grant first, but DEADLINE (ISBN 978- 0-316-08106-1) is, in some sense, just more of the same. In addition, it does not stand on its own--it relies on you having read (and remembered) FEED and it has no ending. It shares this characteristic with A DANCE WITH DRAGONS--it is actually a little annoying to have so many "incomplete" stories nominated. (The Sidewise Award tries to avoid this by considering multi-volume works as a single work. This still has the problem of knowing when the last volume has come out.) For what it's worth, although the narrator of DEADLINE is male, I could not avoid thinking of him as a female.

I have already reviewed EMBASSYTOWN (ISBN 978-0-345-52449-2) by China Miéville. It has an interesting premise that has not been seen in countless other novels. It is similar to Miéville's THE CITY & THE CITY in that the fantastical in both of these is found in a state of mind, not in technology. In THE CITY & THE CITY the premise is geographical, here it is linguistic. I find the differences among languages (even just human languages) fascinating and so I enjoyed this a lot.

LEVIATHAN WAKES (ISBN 978-0-316-12908-4) by James S. A. Corey is a classic space opera in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein, with battling space ships, complicated politics, etc. Following what was going on was not always easy (because of the use of jargon), and the ending seems contrived. Also, it is the size of a doorstop, 600 pages in a large trade paperback format--you might have stuck RED PLANET in a back pocket, but this requires a tote bag. This makes it inconvenient to read.


Best Related Work

I also read/listened to the nominees for Related Work, and I have to say I am very disappointed in the slate. We have the third edition of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight, a worthy enough work, but is it that substantially different than the previous edition that won a Hugo? There's a CD of songs, WICKED GIRLS by Seanan McGuire, for which some of the songs have some marginal connection to fantasy, but on the whole I found it to be basically mainstream folk singing, rather than anything I would want to give a Hugo to. (Note that I am not denigrating the quality, but rather its eligibility.) And even if it were fantasy, why here rather than Dramatic Presentation?

WRITING EXCUSES (SEASON 6) by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Jordan Sanderson is a podcast series. I'm not sure why it is a Related Work rather than a Fancast, or a Dramatic Presentation. Then again, it wasn't clear to me why METATROPOLIS was a Dramatic Presentation rather than a Novel (or a series of Novellas). In fact, I think all this attempt to make sure everything is eligible for a Hugo makes it almost impossible to figure out what Hugo it is eligible for. (See my comment above on WICKED GIRLS.)

JAR JAR BINKS MUST DIE ... AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS ABOUT SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES by Daniel M. Kimmel (ISBN 978-1-617-20350-3) is actually related to science fiction, and maybe because I am particularly interested in science fiction movies, I liked it a lot. (Full disclosure: Mark is mentioned in it.)

However, THE STEAMPUNK BIBLE: AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO THE WORLD OF IMAGINARY AIRSHIPS, CORSETS AND GOGGLES, MAD SCIENTISTS, AND STRANGE LITERATURE by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers (ISBN 978- 0-810-98958-0) blows all the other nominees away. It is dense with information and beautiful artwork, and an aesthetically pleasing object as well. (I refer here to the hard-copy version; no one could call the PDF sent to Hugo votes "an aesthetically pleasing object" even though it does manage to convey the images within the book fairly well.)


Next week I'll cover the novelettes and the short stories. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella 
          when the sun is shining, but wants it back the 
          minute it begins to rain
                                          --Mark Twain

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