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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/05/12 -- Vol. 31, No. 14, Whole Number 1722
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ):
October 4: OCTOBER SKY (1999) (film), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 6:30PM October 11: GATTACA (1997), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5PM; discussion of film and novel FRAMESHIFT by Robert J. Sawyer after the film October 18: THE KALAHARI TYPING SCHOOL FOR MEN by Alexander McCall Smith, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM November 1: TWO FAMILY HOUSE (2000) (film), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 6:30PM November 15: TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM (note this is the *third* Thursday) December 20: DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM January 24: THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM Speculative Fiction Lectures: October 6: Ellen Datlow (Hugo-Award-winning editor), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N November 3: Linda Addison (Bram-Stoker-Award-winning author), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N
Northern New Jersey events are listed at:
Humorous Comment (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Aristotle thought the body was a system of four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. I would have thought the four humors were stupidity, pomposity, incongruity and sex. [-mrl]
Nice Little Problem--Solution (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I gave this problem:
You have a square that is 13 units on a side (the sides horizontal and vertical). At the top of it, pointing upward, you construct a 5-12-13 triangle with the long side being upper horizontal side of the square. Similarly at the bottom, pointing downward, you construct a 5-12-13 triangle with the long side being the lower horizontal side of the square. Do it so the whole figure is symmetrical around the center point of the square. You now have a figure whose outer boundary is six-sided. The sides that make up the outer boundary are 5-12-13-5-12-13 in order. The two points furthest apart are the very highest and very lowest points of the figure. How far apart are they?
Solution: Construct two more triangles identical to the ones you have already constructed on the vertical sides of the square so the figure is still symmetric around the center of the square. The outer boundary of the new figure is a square 5+12 = 17 units on a side. The two points have become the ends of a diagonal of the square so they must be 17*sqrt(2) apart.
I received correct answers from: David Shallcross, Tom Russell, and Keith Lynch.
What I like about this problem is that it seems like a complex geometry problem, but if you add two triangles that you do not actually use, suddenly you can visualize what is going on. The solution is so mathematically elegant I could answer it in three sentences without a diagram. It truly is a "nice little problem." [-mrl]
What Is Science Fiction? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was on a panel at Chicon 7, this year's World Science Fiction Convention. The title of the panel was "What is Science Fiction? And the description went: "Star Wars is not Science Fiction! Are rocket ships and ray guns all you need to call it Science fiction or is more needed."
The panel attempted to define science fiction. Now supposedly the task of defining science fiction is very difficult. Many people have tried, but nobody has ever settled on one universally accepted definition. Damon Knight decided it was totally subjective. Knight adapted Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward's definition of "pornography". Stewart simply responded with "I know it when I see it." Knight defined "science fiction" with "science fiction is what I point to when I say science fiction." This is totally subjective and a retreat from defining the term. Knight's definition, if extended to everybody would just mean that everyone could decide for himself or herself what is science fiction.
The problem of defining science fiction may not be all that difficult however. It may well be that there is just no authority who can take a definition of the term and ring a bell saying that we have our definition. There is no way a given definition can come to be accepted by everyone.
Let me then attempt my own definition. I need to get a characterization that works for me. The way science fiction is different from pure fantasy is that there is a measure of plausibility given to the proceedings. In science fiction the scientific basis of the story makes the story seem conceivable. Not all "scientific" explanations are equally convincing to one person and they what is plausible for one person is not necessarily plausible for others. Greg Benford does not believe that the speed of light can be surpassed. If a story involves faster-than-light travel to him that story is fantasy. To most other authors FTL travel will not disqualify a story from being categorized as science fiction.
I consider all fiction to be fantasy with varying degrees of plausibility. If it is Abraham Lincoln talking to Mary Todd, the writer is inventing what Abe is saying and trying to keep it reasonably plausible. But generally we apply the term "fantasy" to just the fiction that is written without much plausibility. Dragons and flying carpets can be part of good stories but are not plausible in the common meaning of plausibility. On the other hand such stories can take place in a fantasy world that has its own rules and the stories can be consistent or inconsistent with those rules. One can discuss whether Dracula really could take a voyage on the ship Demeter if he cannot cross running water. But that is saying that there are separate rules for this world and the story can correctly follow these rules or not.
So in general there is a spectrum of plausibility with realism on one end and pure fantasy at the other end. On one end of the spectrum you have IN COLD BLOOD, which author Truman Capote immodestly categorized as a new type of book, a "non-fiction novel." That is an oxymoron and really to call it a non-fiction novel" just means that it is a historical novel that was well researched. At the other end of the spectrum is the pure fantasy like Grimm's fairy tales or the Arabian Nights. On this spectrum each reader has his own sub-interval that is science fiction. The interval has indistinct boundaries that fade into realism on one side and fantasy on the other.
The name "science fiction" is an unfortunate one, since many of these stories that fall into the interval may have little or nothing to do with science. Alternate history falls into the same interval and has little science. It deals with how the world might have been different if some historic event, which may not even be specified, had happened differently. This causes some confusion as it has been claimed that science fiction goes back only to Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN or the fantasies of the real-life Cyrano de Bergerac. (Actually even FRANKENSTEIN is not literally science fiction. Mary Shelley never says which of the many disciplines that Victor studied was used to animate and bring to life the creature. The creature could be a homunculus and that would as easily fit Shelley's description.) But if alternate history is indeed to be called "science fiction," then it probably goes back to prehistory. Certainly the ancient Greeks must have given some thought to the fact that if Xerxes's invading troops had not been defeated, life would have been very different in Greece. But alternate history definitely fits into that interval of plausibility that I would call "science fiction."
As a side thought, there also is not a firm boundary between alternate history and standard historical novels. Consider GONE WITH THE WIND. Most people would recognize that as a pure historical novel. However, if you had an expert on society in historical Atlanta, he or she would know that there was no Rhett Butler who had the impact on society that Margaret Mitchell attributes to Butler. So in that sense this would be an alternate history for such an expert.
The question the panelists were asked is, "Do ray guns and rocket ships make a story science fiction?" I guess they might take a story that has no scientific content, like a Western, and move it into the range of plausibility. My gut instinct is to say no, but in fact, if you are translating a Western to a science fiction sort of setting, rays guns and rocket ships do help to make it plausible. We do have both rocket ships and ray guns in our present world. We might as well ask, "If you take a Shakespearian tragedy and move it from Verona to a contemporary New York City and give the characters revolvers and knives instead of swords can we still call it a tragedy?" I think we have to say it is. SHANE on Mars with ray guns does make it science fiction. Whether it makes it good science fiction is another issue and will depend on the author. [-mrl]
[See http://tinyurl.com/void-sf-defn for a whole list of definitions of science fiction. -ecl]
LOOPER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In the year 2044 time travel has not yet been invented, but criminals from 2074 are sending back victims to 2044 to be killed by hit men. Loopers are the contract killers who have agreed to tie up loose ends for their masters, including killing the 2074 version of themselves, thirty years older but the same person. Are you confused? LOOPERS is a complex story that is too much focused on its action and whose ideas, though numerous, are not completely thought out. There is a lot to think about here and a lot of it is made of plot holes. Rian Johnson makes a loud, dark, highly stylized film that looks good but whose ideas do not really bear close examination. The film works better as a source for ideas than as a credible science fiction story. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
It is not as if science fiction films that play with time paradoxes and time travel are still a novelty. After superheroes and robots, time travel and paradoxes are the most common themes in science fiction films. We have had TIME CRIMES, the "Back to the Future" series, etc. Last year there was SOURCE CODE.
The year is 2044, and most of the world is in collapse mode. Organized crime seems to rule the cities with impunity. To make matters worse, some time before 2074 time travel will be invented and the criminal network, still powerful, is using 2044 as a dumping ground for inconvenient people. It trusses them up, sends them back in time to 2044 where hired killers execute them and destroy their bodies. The killers are called Loopers because they know that in thirty years they themselves will be sent back in order to be killed by their own younger selves, thereby closing the loop (what loop?). The rules say that loopers have to kill immediately whoever is sent back, even if it is the person they will age into.
Joseph "Joe" Simmons (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such killer. And sure enough, he is eventually asked to kill his later self, Joseph "Joe" Simmons (played by Bruce Willis). The rules are enforced by killer from the future Abe (Jeff Daniels), sent back from 2074 not to be murdered but to run the organization from 2044.
Now some questions immediately come to mind. Assuming you (a "you" from 2074) have the power to send people back in time, wouldn't such a time traveler be exceedingly dangerous to you? It would not take a lot of waving of butterfly wings to change your 2074 world (inadvertently or advertently) so that you never come to power. It might be one thing to go back in time yourself, but you would never want to send anyone else, no matter how friendly to you they appear. You would never send a proficient killer like Abe, since Abe would know whom to kill so that the power went to him. Come 2074, Abe would be El Gran Queso. In a world where time travel is possible everybody's most vulnerable part is his or her past. Just how Abe is controlled and his success measured from thirty years after the fact is never explained.
Also thrown into the mix is a second premise that much of society has suddenly discovered they have some limited telekinetic power. The second premise does not make the story any more credible. But (Pavel) Chekhov's Law says any mysterious psychic power shown in the first act will be exercised in a later act. The presence of widespread psychic powers is another idea thrown into the mix when one premise should have been enough to make a good story. While in some ways the script is polished and gives us some real characters to work with, the plot seem less original and more a mix of ideas from films like THE TERMINATOR and FIRE STARTER.
Incidentally another unexplained assumption seems to be that there is a way of communicating over distances by producing arm scars. And another is drugs taken as eye drops. Those assumptions mount up.
Writer/director Rian Johnson previously wrote and directed BRICK (2005), the nifty high school film noir story, and the whimsical THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008). BRICK starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt who looked the age of a high school student at the time and has looked young in his films as recently as THE DARK KNIGHT RISES earlier this year. Now he looks older, but it is hard to tell because his face is made up crudely with androgynous face makeup, presumably to add prosthetics to make his face look a little more that that of Bruce Willis. The effect is almost to feminize his face. Nevertheless in a scene in which he sits at a table and confronts his older self they clearly cannot be the same person. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has no earlobes and Bruce Willis has normal earlobes. Admittedly the shape of the ears is where a lot of films fall down when having two actors play the same character. But little care was taken really to make the two look like the same person at different ages. And something was missing so they really did not feel like the same character either.
This is a big film, but not really an accomplished one. I am convinced that with some work LOOPER could have been a really good time travel story. But too often the script seems unnatural. There is some verbal explanation why the Bruce Willis Joe does not remember things learned by the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Joe. Some-hand waving in the script says that he would not remember these things until his younger self learns them. That sounds like it is a contrivance to make the plot work rather than a rule coming out of physics.
The photography seemed a little dark (or was projected that way at my theater). The caballero cowboy hats coming back into style in 2044 was a clever touch. But otherwise the grunge sets and the dark photography played the near future world in a minor key.
LOOPER has gotten a very good reception from the public. As of this writing 94% of the Rotten Tomatoes critics have given it a thumbs up and I am about to join them with mine, but mine is a weak thumbs up. It has some good characters. That in 2012 is a rarity in major science fiction films. But if a scriptwriter wants the viewer to think out the plot, he has to think out the plot even more. I rate LOOPER a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1276104/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/looper/
THE MASTER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In the years after WWII Freddie Quell, an unbalanced and misfit Navy veteran, finds and comes under the sway of an American cult led by charismatic demagogue Lancaster Dodd. Quell becomes a fanatic believer in the cult, but can never get the full approval from Dodd that he desperately seeks. Selective in its appeal, the film has a lot to say about the nature of religious belief, the personalities of radical followers and generally the functioning of cults. Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs a film that is cryptic and compelling. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Serving in World War II has left Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) alcoholic and nearly psychotic. He looks like he has fallen back a step or two in evolution, dirty and emaciated, full of pent-up hatred, constantly drunk, and on the verge of senseless violence. Quell tries a few jobs, screws up, and barely avoids being jailed each time. Fleeing from one of his screw-ups, he hides by jumping on a convenient yacht. He awakes in the morning not to be thrown from the boat, but invited to talk to the owner of the yacht, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman as you have never seen him). Dodd leads a philosophical quasi-religious cult adhering to Dodd's philosophy and mystical discipline, The Cause. Dodd has use for Freddie and also a taste for a somewhat toxic alcoholic concoction that Freddie makes. Dodd begins to analyze Quell and to indoctrinate him into the cult. From the start Dodd treats Quell like an old friend at the cost of Quell submitting to Dodd's pseudo-psychological examinations and treatments. Dodd's power seems to heavily draw strength from his gentle but quietly creepy wife Peggy (Amy Adams played with a touch of sinister unlike anyone she has played before). Peggy (among others) senses that Freddie is driven by hidden furies. She projects some odd combination of sinister and the innocence she has had in previous films.
Paul Thomas Anderson, who writes and directs, contrasts the very postures of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Quell is gaunt and walks stooped over and round-shouldered. Dodd seems to feel supremely confident of his stout body and moves about almost like a dancer. Phoenix and Hoffman perform remarkable feats of physical acting.
THE MASTER dovetails with Anderson's last film, the five-year-old THERE WILL BE BLOOD, a film with it own charismatic and manipulative religious leader Eli Sunday. This film could in some ways be an elaboration on Eli Sunday taking to an extreme. Joaquin Phoenix seems not so much improved by his relation with the The Cause as channeled to use his rage to do what he sees as defending the religion.
Anderson uses a naturalistic style that in the early part of the film seems to be slowing the narrative in his 135-minute film. It is much the same style he gave THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which also began with a slow segment. It does give the proceedings a feel of authenticity. Those hoping to see the film shed light on just how a cult works may be disappointed to find that the film is mostly about Quell. Though Dodd claims a scientific background, which may be fabricated, there are certainly some differences between The Cause and Scientology.
Anderson seems in his films to keep returning to people with unusual power and how they express this power over others: a gambling guru, a porn film director, an oil magnate, and now the founder of his own religion. As the latter, Dodd may be the most powerful of these men. If Anderson is going to continue this theme it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. THE MASTER is both intelligent and scary. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1560747/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_master_2011/
ARBITRAGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Richard Gere, having grown into looking the role of a silver fox of finance, plays Robert Miller, the head of a successful hedge fund. A deal has gone very badly for him and he desperately needs four hundred million dollars to cover his losses. When things look like they could not get worse he is blind-sided by a serious problem in his personal life. One problem or the other will almost certainly land him deservedly in prison. The viewer may be unsure to hope he wins or loses. One almost roots for the perfectly cast Gere, all the while seeing him as a slimeball. Oh, and you will learn more about arbitrage from this review than you will from ARBITRAGE. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Financial Master of the Universe Robert Miller (played by Richard Gere) begins the film by saying that he learned in college that world affairs hinge on five things ... M, O, N, E, and Y.
Certainly as the film opens Miller's affairs are hinging on money, or rather the lack thereof, and he is in bad trouble. He has embezzled four hundred million dollars from his own company, borrowed money to cover it, and cannot pay it back. Now he has kept the borrowed funds much longer than the agreed term of the loan. And as he is trying to save himself he commits a second unrelated (non-fiscal) crime. Now there are any number of people who are threats to him. Almost certainly his empire will crumble if he cannot sell off the company that he founded and then betrayed. When that sale falls through he has to decide, can he save himself or will he have to go to prison? A suave, hypnotic personification of corporate villainy, Miller repels and fascinates the viewer, a screen villain for our time much as Gordon Gekko was for his time. The audience with schadenfreude may be silently hoping to see him brought down. In its own way this is an exercise in suspense as much as it is a portrait of an expert thief willing to mortgage his relationship with his family to get what he really wants. Still, Nicholas Jarecki, who writes and directs his first fiction feature film, never judges the amoral Miller.
The story asks the question who really is and is not honest. Some of the people who betray trust are totally unexpected. Jarecki has a good cast assembled. Susan Sarandon is somewhat under-used as Ellen Miller, Robert's too easily manipulated wife. Tim Roth is a police detective who appears to be in the Columbo mode. Stuart Margolin, usually a comic actor, comes off surprisingly distinguished as a high-powered lawyer. Chris Eigeman, veteran of Whit Stillman films, has a less intellectual and lower-key role here than one is used to from his previous films.
Since the 2008 crash there has been increased public interest in very-high finance and particularly illegal and/or immoral deals. The practice of arbitrage--the simultaneous buying and selling of a commodity to profit from a rate difference--has a particularly unsavory reputation. The middle-man can reap large profits for little service. Some unsavory doings do occur in ARBITRAGE, but not arbitrage. In fact, ten years ago the nearly identical story could have been told with the main character selling a piece of real estate and owing money to a loan shark. A film like MARGIN CALL is much more closely tied to high financial dealings than Jarecki's is. I rate ARBITRAGE a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1764183/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/arbitrage/
TCM, AMC, Hugos, Puzzle (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to several items in the 09/28/12 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
A few comments are in order on your lastest MT VOID.
Unlike Chris Garcia and like Gregory Benford, I always read MT VOID every Friday when its pixels park themselves in my e-mail inbox. There is always something interesting of note in your weekly zine, and this week's is no exception.
First off, I likewise enjoy the month of October on TCM--and AMC, for that matter--for the wealth of science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies on display. Mark's selections are good ones, such as DEAD OF NIGHT, which I have always enjoyed whenever given the chance to watch it, and I look forward to seeing LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT; being from 1927 and starring Lon Chaney, Sr., I take it this is a silent movie? I remember Forrest J. Ackerman's comments about it being not really worthy of a fan's interest, but I'm with you in that it should be interesting to see what it looks like. Also, agreement with your assessment of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT; it's a good one, definitely.
The comments about the Hugo Short Form Dramatic Presentation were interesting to read, especially Chris Garcia's that noted if he and James Bacon had refused their nomination (which I personally believe they should have, but that's simply my opinion) then "The Fabulous Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" (2011) would have made the Hugo short list. I will have to peruse the Internet and see if that one is available for online viewing. It probably is. But overall, I don't care for what is generally known as the "Doctor Who Hugo Category," so really don't pay attention to it much. Now, if it was renamed the Television Series/Mini-Series category, then other programs may be drawn into consideration.
Overall, I don't really pay attention to the Hugos as much as I used to. Greg Benford's assessment that they are a sorry sight nowadays is very true.
I refuse to do that problem-solving prompt of yours. In June of this year I passed my last class on my doctoral degree plan-- Educational Statistics--and figure I have met my math requirements for the year. So, thanks for asking, but forget it. Now my son, on the other hand, could probably solve it in no time at all. I may just run it by him and see how he does.
Thanks for the posting, Mr. and Mrs. Leeper. I look forward to seeing you two in San Antonio next year; I'm hosting the fanzine lounge at LoneStarCon 3, so if you're there, you know where to find me. [-jp]
I probably should look at what AMC has to offer for October. I tend to ignore it. This is mostly because I want to avoid commercials, but also I do not like their selection of films. They seem to hate black-and-white and have very little in the way of older films.
Yes, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT was made pre-sound, but this is even more so since it is just music, enough stills from the film to carry the story, and inter-titles. It is one way to get a feel for what the film would have been like.
"The Fabulous Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" is indeed on YouTube. I published a link with my comment. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
CYBERIAD by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Michael Kandel, ISBN 0-380-51557-1) was this month's science fiction discussion group's choice. There were a couple of interesting points. In "Trurl's Machine" the machine insists that two plus two is seven. Trurl insists it is four. At one point, Trurl says, "Two and two is--as it always was--" but is interrupted by the machine insisting it is seven. All this is very reminiscent of the discussion between O'Brien and Winston in George Orwell's 1984 about how Big Brother (the State) can convince anyone that two plus two is five.
As far as I can tell from Kandel's translation, Lem relies a lot on word-play, puns, made-up words, and so on. And this is because the stories in English have a lot of word-play, puns, made-up words, and so on. But this tells me nothing about what the original Polish looks like. And there is so much of it, that one begins to think that Kandel is the author and Lem merely the supplier of the underlying idea. In any case, a little Lem goes a long way, and even these short stories at times seem too long.
MOBY-DICK: ISHMAEL'S MIGHTY BOOK by Kerry McSweeney (ISBN 0-8057- 8002-5) makes a useful distinction between what McSweeney calls "Ishmael the character" and "Ishmael the narrator." Ishmael the narrator is the one who talks about all the cetology, all the books written by explorers, and in general all the stuff that Ishmael the character would have no reason to have knowledge of before or during the journey of the Pequod. However, it is Ishmael the character who writes the passages that foreshadow the end of the book, because writing the book after all the events in it have happened, he would obviously know those.
This distinction has probably been made by other critics, but I thought this way of identifying the two aspects of the "first person" in the book is better than the usual "Ishmael vs. Melville" distinction, since calling a first person voice "Melville" is awkward and illogical.
My annotations for MOBY DICK proceed apace. I have finished 36 of the 135 chapters and am up to about 25,000 words. I have discovered at least one error in THE COMPACT EDITION OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, and also realized that the pronouncements of professors on the subject are not always to be trusted. After years of teaching MOBY DICK one professor still had no idea what "hypos" meant on the first page, though it is in THE COMPACT EDITION OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY). And the interpretation of a character saying "we are all bats" as meaning "we are all insane" (in addition to "we are all blind") seems to be incorrect, as I can find no evidence of that colloquial definition being active in 1850. I would love to get some feedback on these annotations. [-ecl]
[Sadly, Melville remains silent. -mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Without troublesome work, no one can have any concrete, full idea of what pure mathematical research is like or of the profusion of insights that can be obtained from it. --Edmund HusserlTweet
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