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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/14/13 -- Vol. 31, No. 50, Whole Number 1758
Table of Contents
Personalities (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There are two kinds of people. Those for whom when all they have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and those for whom when all they have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb. [-mrl]
Comments on Watching FRANKENSTEIN (1931) (Part 1) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I took part in an on-line discussion of the 1931 Universal film FRANKENSTEIN. These, barely formatted are observations I made on the film. This week I will talk about the style of the film and of the scientific basis of the story. Next week I will talk more about the production.
FRANKENSTEIN, together with DRACULA the year before, really started the second great cycle of horror films. It drew heavily on the first horror cycle, the German Expressionist film movement in Germany. The movement would continue for about five years, peter out as new management at Universal decided to get away from horror films, and then return to them for about seven years starting with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). All the while it would be Universal Studios leading the way for other studios to copy. But FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA would still be their major successes.
In style FRANKENSTEIN is a little early for the recognizable Universal style we are used to. There is no opening banner with Universal globe. There had not been one in DRACULA the year before. Soon the globe with a plane or the word "Universal" encircling the world would be the trademark opening touch.
What Universal does have at the beginning is a post-production opening. It is a stage with a curtain and Edward Van Sloan coming out for introductory comments, warning the viewer that the film may strain their nerves. I always thought this was a sort of insincere warning and having women dressed as nurses present in the theater was the kind of exploitation marketing that others like William Castle would later imitate. A recent commentary on the film says that at previews people really were frightened by the film and that the warning was sincere.
To further build tension, director James Whale has under the titles pictures having nothing to do with the film. One has a man with claw-like hands and rays coming out of his eyes. The next title has an evil-looking man surrounded by eyes rotating around his right eyebrow. I cannot think of another film that had such creative credits until the 1960s.
In the credits they say that The Monster is played by "?". That may have added temporarily to the aura of the film, though Universal would soon be going to the other extreme billing Boris Karloff as just "Karloff" to say of course you know whom we are talking about. I believe the only other actor who was billed with just a last name was Greta Garbo. It is an interesting point that Karloff did not get the name Boris in the opening titles of a Frankenstein film until SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
The actual story starts with an extended scene of a funeral with Henry (Colin Clive) and Fritz (Dwight Frye) hiding a short distance away, waiting to undo the burial. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN had only a tiny flash of the funeral, but it has footage of the peasants approaching the graveyard that was not actually in FRANKENSTEIN.
The fact that this film shows Frankenstein stealing bodies defines a point that Mary Shelley had left ambiguous in the novel FRANKENSTEIN. In that novel Shelley never attempts to pin down whether the monster is created by science, magic, or alchemy. She played it safe and it made the story more believable. The film ties down the process to being one of parts of dead bodies pieced together and animated with electricity. So while FRANKENSTEIN was considered one of the earliest science fiction novels, it is in fact left ambiguous as to whether it is science fiction at all. Outside of the text Shelley leaned toward the interpretation that Frankenstein used scientific means, but it is never told in the book. The monster could be a large homunculus or a golem. One thing nearly certain is that the creature in the novel is not supposed to be pieced together from parts of bodies as he is in the film. Frankenstein would have had to find a large number of bodies, each of nearly matching super-human size. Where would Frankenstein find so many cadavers of human giants? You certainly could never build one gigantic man out of pieces of three or four short men. Actually in the book the monster is about eight feet tall, much taller than he is ever portrayed in film. (It is interesting to note that Shelley uses the word "stature" seven times in the novel. Five of those usages accompany it with the same adjective, "gigantic".)
Then there is the use of science in the film. I believe that any science you get from the film is best left at the door when you leave. In the real world there are, for example, no visible differences between a normal human brain and a criminal brain.
The flat top of the monster was inspired by the idea that Henry would have taken the top off of the monster's head to perform brain surgery. Are we to believe that Henry never put the top of the skull back and the monster has no bone across the top of his head? Is it just flesh stretched like a drum?
It is not clear why a creature raised in darkness would for that reason walk backwards and when he gets light he would walk forwards. I will say the idea of putting electrical leads in the creature's neck is an inspired piece of makeup concept and design, but scientifically it probably makes no sense.
The script, written by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh based on the play by John L. Balderston, is really very short, making the film only 70 minutes long. Balderston also wrote the play DRACULA was based on and the screenplay of THE MUMMY. He wrote the screenplay or contributed to a large number of classic horror films, though he does not have much name recognition today. It has never been clear to me why he should rename Victor Frankenstein Henry. A friend of Elizabeth not appearing in the novel he gives the name Victor. And then it seems to be a totally superfluous character. Presumably he is there to marry Elizabeth when Henry is dead. But then after the early release the film was modified to have Henry live. I personally take an immediate dislike to Victor when he says it does not matter much if Henry kills a few dogs and rabbits.
I will have more comments on the film next week. [-mrl]
How "Star Trek" Has Damaged Our Future in Space (comments by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
"Star Trek" is widely credited with the inspiration of a generation of scientists and engineers. A recent Popular Science article suggests that Alcubierre of Warp Drive fame was directly inspired in his work by watching "Star Trek". This is only one of many examples that might be assembled to make this point.
However, "Star Trek" has also seriously set back humanities spaceward journey in a fashion that is not widely appreciated. It has been clear for some time that the super-heated atmosphere of the Cold War space program, with NASA being written a blank check and the best and brightest flocking to build moon rockets, cannot be maintained and has not been maintained. We need to admit that the Cold War resulted in a super-acceleration of the first moon landing, moving something that might otherwise have occurred in 2069 to 1969. Sadly, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, the air went out of this balloon.
NASA has trudged onward, striving to re-create the spirit of the
1960s, but to only modest effect. Many space supporters and fans,
see, for example, SF writer Mark Whittington, but many others as
well, are unable to conceive of a space program in any terms but
those of the 1960s - a large, expensive, publicly funded program,
centered for the most part around a giant rocket and specific
destination and timetable. These individuals often detest
so-called "New Space"--companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Bigelow
Aerospace that are bent on building a private road to space. You
can find a nice introduction to "New Space" in a recent New York
Magazine article titled "Welcome to the Real Space Age"
Behind the hopes and fears of many of these space fans lies Gene Roddenberry's expansive "Star Trek" future. Roddenberry's vision was based not just on public funding, but on a positively socialist future. Private enterprise has virtually no role in the "Star Trek" universe. Essentially all the characters live either on Federation starships or Federation colonies. They are amply supplied with food and other necessities by replicators, and seem to have no money or retirement concerns. In SAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME Kirk says "We don't," when asked if they use money in the future. They appear to have no private property beyond a few personal effects. Their work revolves around the goals of the Federation--scientific or military, and any advancement is via the military-style ranks of Starfleet. There are various references to "credits" being used to obtain items, but the overall impression left is of a socialist utopia in which the only businesses are small ones like Quark's bar in DEEP SPACE 9. Quark himself is a most unflattering stereotype of a business owner, supposedly based on old Yankee traders, but to many an anti-Semitic parody of a greedy Jew, endlessly obsessed with "gold-pressed Latinum" and sporting an enormous proboscis. Original "Trek" brought us the trader Mudd ("Mudd's Women", "I, Mudd") and an unscrupulous tribble dealer ("The Trouble with Tribbles"), which unite in presenting capitalists as shady, decadent, overweight, dishonest, and untrustworthy.
A positive spin can be put on Roddenberry's vision by describing it as a post-scarcity economy such as that envisioned by Eric Drexler. Capitalism as we know it has been destroyed by the widespread deployment of cheap and perfect replication technology. Since all material goods are free, there is no further need to be concerned about resource extraction or land ownership. Energy is amply supplied by fusion power plants or Dilithium crystals, apparently "too cheap to meter." There are no waste products and hence no pollution.
This is a wonderful goal for technic civilization. However, we are a long way from any of these wonders. We still live in a world where material goods are not free, there are no replicators, and property ownership is the bedrock of our society. Any movement into space over the next 100 years will bring with it the same economic ideas and forces that shape our world today, including capitalism and property rights. This will create a very different vision for our space future.
For starters, no one is going to do any kind of large-scale activity in space unless money is to be made, one way or another. This need not imply that manufacturing or mining will be done in space and the products returned to earth. There is a web site out there run by an individual who appears to have dedicated a good portion of his life to proving that space mining will never occur. He analyzes at length the cost of flying out to an object in space, mining the minerals, and returning them to Earth. The energy cost of doing this with materials lifted from the Earth always turns out to be prohibitive. The problem with this line of argument is that it is correct, but vacuously so, as mining the asteroids for gold is not what is going to open the high frontier. Most materials mined in space will be used in space.
A capitalist future in space implies a kind of scruffiness that space fans often recoil from. Yes, there will be advertising on everything you can see. Yes, large sums of money will be made from unseemly activities, just as on Earth. Think of gambling, porn, sports, Japanese game shows, and so on. Moreover, nothing will happen unless at this very moment it makes economic sense. Fifty years from now after the moon has been industrialized, it will probably be possible to use that infrastructure to manufacture solar power satellites and beam power back to Earth, but today, lacking the space infrastructure, it would be unprofitable, or perhaps less profitable.
Finally, it has to be possible to make money in space and to keep the money you make. This means that a legal regime exists to allow you to own property and keep the profits you make. Things like the so-called "Moon Treaty" which envision no private property and a big chuck of profits being funneled to the so-called "Third World" may act to prevent any movement into space at all. Also, there needs to be some assurance that your home and belongings will be secure from piracy. This suggests some kind of "Space Guard" that enforces at least minimal property rights.
The current focus of most space activity on science leads many to the false impression that science will be a major driver of the human movement into space. Instead, we have become better and better at using robots to explore space, and may already be at "tipping point" beyond which on a global scale we as a species are already spending as much on scientific space exploration as we can reasonably afford to spend. I wish the Planetary Society good luck in their efforts to advocate for more such spending, but I think it foolish to rely on this motivation.
Let's start by asking what (other than science) do we do now in space that must be done in space in order to provide value. Weather satellites come quickly to mind. There is no obvious substitute for them, and as the recent storm Sandy showed, we really need accurate weather predictions! Alas, there already exists a fairly substantial network of weather satellites, and a modest launch industry to support it. However, although this industry is an important part of the "space baseline" supporting commercial space efforts, there is little prospect for further growth. Earth-sensing satellites can be lumped in with weather satellites as they function in a similar way and face similar growth prospects, although they are clearly less essential.
Next we consider Arthur C. Clarke's "great idea" for exploiting space--the communications satellite. There are two major components to this market--geosynchronous orbit and low-Earth orbit satellites such as the Iridium network. There are only so many geosynchronous orbital slots and most are filled. The low-Earth orbit networks require many more but smaller satellites--Iridium has 66 satellites. They are used to provide telephone, television, service, radio, and Internet access, especially to remote or moving users such as airliners or cruise ships. Satellite TV has proven to be a strong competitor to land-based systems, but the invention of high-capacity fiber-optic cables has reduced the need for communications satellites significantly over what would otherwise be the case. In total, the communications satellite market sustains a considerable and modestly growing launch industry, but provides no motivation to put humans in space.
The third major commercial usage of space is position-based services. These services, typically based on the US GPS network, currently consisting of 31 operational satellites, have become increasingly important as the basis for mobile-phone based location services. These services allow the user to know where they are at any moment, supporting a large number of mobile applications, and allow the US military to strike anywhere on Earth with great accuracy. It is safe to say that the GPS network was relatively unanticipated by science fiction writers and space prophets, but has led to a revolution in how we live at a relatively modest cost. There have been 61 successful launches related to GPS since the service was inaugurated in 1978, and there are currently an additional 36 planned starting in 2014. Replacing and updating GPS satellites is a key part of the baseline of necessary and economically vital launches that support the global space launch industry. Alas, GPS services neither require humans nor are likely to grow significantly in numbers, although some non-US services are currently planned.
Thus, in 2013 was have reached a kind of equilibrium where three all-robotic services--weather predication, communications, and positioning--support a modest global launch industry. This "space program" will continue even if the NASA budget dropped to zero. However, there are no commercial activities that require humans in space or that appear to lead to a significant growth in space launch capacity.
With the completion of the International Space Station and the retirement of the expensive and trouble-prone US Space Shuttle, a new opportunity arose--lifting supplies and crews to/from the ISS. COTS--"Commercial Orbital Transportation Services/Commercial Off The Shelf"--was initiated by President George W. Bush and brought to operational status under President Obama. Two vendors, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, have contracts for significant numbers of supply runs to the ISS. Currently, SpaceX has made two operational Falcon8/Dragon runs to the ISS, and Orbital has just successfully tested their new Antares launch vehicle. With one more Antares test, COTS should be fully operational, ending complete dependence on Russian, Japanese, and ESA cargo vehicles. It appears that by allowing SpaceX to bootstrap itself forward, COTS has led to a significant lowering of launch costs. Although the full effects will not be felt for several more years, the traditional launch providers--Ariane and ULA--are running scared, with the prospect looming of SpaceX significantly underbidding all other competitors, including the Chinese. This must be viewed as an extremely positive development, as each incremental decrease in the cost to low earth orbit will enable more economic development in space.
A second phase of COTS, now called CCDev (Commercial Crew Development), funds three competitors in their development of a means to send up to seven astronauts to the ISS, and return them to Earth. The competitors are SpaceX (Dragon/Falcon9), Boeing (CST100/Atlas V), and Sierra Nevada (Dream Chaser/Atlas V). This program promises significant cost savings over the Russian Soyuz or the Space Shuttle, but at tens of millions per head, it surely cannot be counted as "cheap." Still, the presence of operational private orbital taxis may enable Bigelow Aerospace and others to support modest private space stations, a major leap forward.
This pretty much exhausts current "space applications." Various kinds of research are being done on the ISS, but as yet nothing has been identified that has the potential to drive the economic development of space. The most likely "next big thing" is space tourism. A number of companies, notably Virgin Galactic and XCOR, are well advanced in the construction and testing of single-stage suborbital rockets to support this market. Both have long-term plans for orbital tourism at prices well below those that can be achieved via CCDev.
In a more speculative vein, two companies have been formed to pursue asteroid mining, with the market envisioned as being oxygen and rocket fuel in the LEO system. This is clearly not a short-term prospect, although one of the companies, Planetary Resources, appears at least potentially well funded by a large number of strong backers. It can be stated with confidence that no lunar or asteroid mining enterprise will be successful without private property rights in space, and the exact legal framework of such mining remains obscure
To push the development of an extensive in-space infrastructure, significant additional economic development must occur, initially in the Earth-Moon system, and eventually beyond. One of the greatest challenges in bringing this about revolves around convincing the general public that making money in space is the axis around which the real future revolves. For this to happen, we need to put the fantasy of "Star Trek"'s socialist space future behind us, and begin the hard work of extending a regulated capitalism into space. Only then will humanity have an expansive future in space.
One final word--this essay should not be taken as an eternal endorsement of capitalism as we know it. Just as capitalism replaced mercantilism which in turn replaced feudalism as economic systems, there may well come an improved economic system, perhaps birthed into existence by combination of nano-tech replicators and mass utilization of intelligent robots making jobs as we know them untenable going forward. However, this future economic system will come when it comes. It is minimally decades in the future, if not centuries, and it may not come at all. Our expansion into space begins now, and we can't afford to wait for such a speculative development. [-dls]
SHE DEVIL (1957) (film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a nearly forgotten "sci-fi" (as opposed to "science fiction") film of the 1950s, based on a story by popular SF writer Stanley Weinbaum. A dying TB patient is given an experimental serum derived from insects that allows her to adapt to her disease. Far TOO effective it allows her to break the law and adapt to any consequence, allowing her to make herself an indestructible killer. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
SHE DEVIL was a sort of a family joke when I was quite young. Someone saw it on a drive-in marquee and someone thought it sounded like a terrible film. SHE DEVIL and YELLOWNECK were the archetypal bad films, but at least we had seen YELLOWNECK. A few years later I actually saw SHE DEVIL and discovered that it was actually a science fiction film. At that time I liked almost any sci-fi film I saw and I found I quite liked this one. Then for several years if I heard of the film at all it was in a list with other films. Nobody seemed to be talking about this film.
The film is an adaptation of a popular science fiction story, "The Adaptive Ultimate" from the November 1935 ASTOUNDING STORIES MAGAZINE. The story ran under the name John Jessel, a pseudonym for Stanley Weinbaum. The story was frequently adapted to radio and television. It was on the radio program ESCAPE as "The Adaptive Ultimate." STUDIO ONE on television ran it as "Kyra Zelas." TALES OF TOMORROW adapted it as "The Miraculous Serum." SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE also did their version "Beyond Return." It was dramatized one last time in 1957 as the movie SHE DEVIL.
The premise is not very good science. Fruit flies adapt to new environments very quickly. The reason has to do with large numbers and short generation time. The premise of the story is that a serum can be developed from fruit flies that will work to make humans adaptable to any situation. If you are shot with a bullet, you "adapt" to it in seconds. The first human experimental subject is Kyra Zelas, a patient dying of tuberculosis. With only painful hours to live she gives her consent to being used as a test subject. Apparently it was the right decision. The serum is too successful. In minutes she has adapted to her disease and has recovered. In fact, more than mere adaptation she has becomes nearly indestructible and she knows it. It gives her the power to quickly heal from wounds and when it suits her purpose she can at will change the color of her hair in seconds. The serum may have also mentally warped her. Now she can make life give her what she wants and does not care who is hurt along the way. She kills and her powers help her escape punishment.
In the film she marries wealthy Barton Kendall (John Archer of DESTINATION MOON) after killing his wife. When she gets bored being his wife she kills him. Finally Scott and Bach decide they have to find a way to stop her... through scientific means, of course. For the most part this could be just a standard crime film with very little modification.
The film stars two actors who should be familiar to fans of mid-1900s science fiction films. Jack Kelly played the troublesome Jerry Farman in FORBIDDEN PLANET. He was also Bart Maverick in the Warner Brothers TV western "Maverick." Albert Dekker played Dr. Thorkel in the film named for his nickname DR. CYCLOPS. Director Kurt Neumann made a name for himself when he squeaked in with ROCKETSHIP XM just ahead of George Pal's more widely publicized DESTINATION MOON (1950). His best films are ROCKETSHIP XM and KRONOS.
The film was shot in Regalscope. Regalscope is black and white but widescreen Cinemascope. Regal made the film and released it through 20th Century Fox as they did with their next film, KRONOS. There was little need for special effects for SHE DEVIL. The only effect was the title character changing her hair color from black to blond and back as the situation demanded. This was probably done by the same process invented to turn Fredric March from Jekyll to Hyde on-screen in 1932.
Each of the dramatic versions has a different plot for what Zelas does with her powers. The story of her relationship with Kendall is not in the Stanley Weinbaum original story. There she steals a car and in getting away she accidentally kills a child. She has no compunction in any of the versions, of course.
I had rarely been able to see this film but have always had it in the back of my mind as another decent 1950s science fiction film. Seeing it now I see it was probably not very good, perhaps on a part with MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE (1961) and INDESTRUCTABLE MAN (1956), two similar sci-fi crime films. Until I saw it recently I would have considered it a few cuts higher, but it really does not stand up to memory. Today I would rate SHE DEVIL a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050958/combined
MUD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Jeff Nichols writes and directs a deliberate, well-textured film set in Arkansas river country. Two boys get involved helping a fugitive hiding out on a Mississippi River island and trying to collect his girl friend. Arkansas-born Nichols knows the rhythms of the South and the feel of the country and the people. The languorous setting might capture the viewer by itself if not for the strong performances set into it. Matthew McConaughey's gristly performance stands above the atmosphere. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
MUD is set in DeWitt, Arkansas. That is river country, but the story owes more than a little to GREAT EXPECTATIONS for its initial setup. Two fourteen-year old boys, Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), go looking for a boat that a flood lodged in a tree on a nearby Mississippi River island. They find the boat and with it they find a mysterious stranger, a man on the run, who for a few days is making the boat his home. "Mud" he calls himself, and he is played by Matthew McConaughey, delving deeper into a character than we have ever seen him go before. Mud is in the area looking for his old girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and hiding out from the police. This stranger is wanted for murdering the man who had made Juniper pregnant and then who had beaten her so she miscarried. Mud is hiding from the police and also from the murdered man's family who want their own kind of justice. Mud's plan is to lower the boat from the tree, an engineering feat on its own, and once he has collected Juniper to slip away from both police and the dead man's family.
Wherever one looks in this story there is more detail being added. Ellis's parents are headed for a separation. If they do separate a legal snafu says that the houseboat his family has been living in will be destroyed and he will lose his home. At the same time Ellis and Neckbone are getting interested in girls, and before the story is done they we have a lesson about women that they will remember.
The scenes shot outside are drenched in sunlight, but once you get in out of the sun the lighting matches the mood throughout which is solid film noir. Somehow the Southern atmosphere, the life close to the river, even a feel of some menace later in the story, all seem to go together. There is something of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and of CAPE FEAR here, and perhaps it is even better handled here since Nichols does not depend heavily on the score to create the effect. The river country has its own dangers from reptiles and from shotguns.
This is director Jeff Nichols' third film and his third film I can recommend. Previously he did SHOTGUN STORIES (2007) and TAKE SHELTER (2011), both films with strong atmosphere. In smaller roles the film is packed with good actors from older films. Joe Don Baker is around. He looks considerably older than I remember him but he still plays someone whom I would not want to anger. Sam Shepard is a local who is a man from Mud's past. Ray McKinnon is a familiar face. Michael Shannon for once is reasonably balanced and non-threatening. There is a lot to like in this film, but McConaughey rises above it all with his tattooed and chain smoking air of menace but still treating fourteen-year-olds like equals.
This is a film with a great naturalistic style and captivating performances and which does just about everything right. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1935179/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mud_2012/
THE STROLLER STRATEGY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film is very much a throwback to American 1980s and 1990s romantic comedies. Thomas Platz (Raphaël Personnaz) is told by a friend that a man looks better to women if he is a father. When a baby (literally) falls into his arms and he has to take care of the baby he decides to tell women he is a young father. THE STROLLER STRATEGY never gets near any real humor, but it has a pleasant whimsical tone. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Thomas Platz has trouble finding girlfriends. This is hardly surprising since he is very much self-obsessed. Up to a year ago he was close to friend and lover Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), but she left the boy who would not grow up. In specific, he did not seem to want to marry and raise a family, so Thomas is still searching for a girlfriend to replace her. Then a friend tells Thomas a goofy theory that women are attracted to young single fathers. Thomas gets a chance to test the theory when a neighbor is hospitalized, and Thomas is the only person available to take care of her baby, Leo. The man who did not want to think about starting a family has to give himself a crash course in parenthood: How to diaper a baby he can find on YouTube, but for more complex skills he has to go to Bouncing Babies, a local school for parents of newborns, and Bouncing Babies was founded by his still-beloved Marie.
A script like this has dozens of possibilities, but most have been mined out by other films. Yes, when Thomas thinks about his life he will vacantly stare fixedly into space. Yes, babies need disgusting diaper changes. Yes, Thomas has to learn how to feed the baby and how messy that can be. Yes, he will learn that babies make bad smells. Yes, Thomas will claim to Marie that he is the father without first doing the arithmetic to figure when the baby would have had to have been conceived. Yes, he will lead a life of deception to maintain his lie. And since immaturity and self-obsession are his problems, is it any surprise he overcomes them in the end?
French filmmaker Clement Michel wrote and directed THE STROLLER STRATEGY. He seems to have sewn the story together from parts of other films. He did not provide a script with anything new to say. Clement seems to have just wanted something that would pass for an American romantic comedy and did not need any unique vision. He has one joke that provoked a joke, and that was a film reference.
There is one very non-cliché incident in the film that would probably not play well in the US. At one point for his own reasons Thomas kidnaps baby Leo from right in front of his sleeping mother. This is a little more serious than just trying to fool his girl friend. I do not know French laws, but it would be a federal crime in the United States.
Raphaël Personnaz who plays Thomas has a bland, unshaved look. He can also be seen--a little better tailored--as Count Vronsky in ANNA KARENINA (2012).
What is familiar to the film critics from the 1980s and 1990s may be more new and fresh to current filmgoers. And it may even be nostalgic for the older viewers. On the right audience this film would do well. The film is not doing well with United States film critics, but then they have a longer memory for film than most of the rest of the public. I rate it a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. The film is in French with English subtitles.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2520516/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_stroller_strategy/
DESIGNER GENES: A NEW ERA IN THE EVOLUTION OF MAN by Steven Potter, Ph.D. (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
I don't generally review books on this topic, but there seems to have been a lot of interest in my review of FRANKENSTEIN'S CAT. I think one reason for this is that there really aren't that many good popular science books that you can read to understand the genetics revolution that aren't either (1) a polemic or (2) a decade or more out of date. Although DESIGNER GENES seems like it is most likely a polemic when you read the jacket blurb, after a closer examination it comes out much more on the educational side. If the idea of genetic engineering disturbs you, this book is not for you. However, if you would like to read a series of short, clear, and self-contained essays on different topics related to genetics, this is the book! Although the chapters are strung together to make a book, they seem much more self-contained than is usually the case, with the result that they can be read in any order. I read the chapters backwards!
I'm going to focus on the chapters that I learned the most from, but you may have your own favorites. "Dogs" details how extremely recent (last 8,000 years or so) selective breeding by humans created the entire vast current spectrum of dog breeds. Part of the point of the chapter is that you don't need genetic engineering to do some pretty amazing things--you don't even need to really understand genetics. "The Surprising Embryo" was a revelation to me. I knew that an early stage human embryo can split into different people (identical twins, up to 8 it turns out!), but I did not know that multiple embryos can combine to form a "chimera" who has different genes from different embryos. This results in a person patched together out of several rather different embryos, a kind of natural Frankenstein's monster. Greg Bear used this idea in his novel QUANTICO, but I somehow failed to grasp that this was a real phenomenon. Part of Potter's point is, of course, that given all the amazing things that can happen early in the life of an embryo, and the wildly varying number of humans that result from the process, considering an early stage embryo to be fully human is not well founded. Seems obvious to Potter and St. Augustine, but as I am sure you are aware, mileage varies.
The most mind-blowing idea comes in the "The Future," in which Potter details how the efforts of anti-abortion/pro-life forces to push research on adult stem cells has had a most unexpected result, which, until I read Potter's book I didn't really grasp. All this adult stem cell research has led (almost) to the ability to cause adult stem cells to become sperm and egg cells. Then, the genetic engineering is done *before* the egg and sperm are united, meaning that no embryo is destroyed in the process. There is also no need to extract eggs from women, which is not completely without cost and risk. This introduces all sorts of possibilities, including the idea of creating a "clone+" from your own cells. You create sperm and egg from your own cells, and then use genetic engineering to edit out (or add) small changes, resulting in a clone that is a "better you." Another application of this technology is to implement a kind of "super PGD." In pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a number of eggs are fertilized, and then one cell is taken from the early stage embryo to allow for genome sequencing. This technique allows the parents to only implant those embryo's that, say, lack a fatal disease gene. There are a number of problems with this approach, in that only a limited number of embryos are ever available, and embryos are destroyed in the process, which some object to. In "super PGD" a very large number of sperm and eggs are produced from adult stem cells from both parents. They are all sequenced, and perhaps edited, and then combined into one super-embryo that is the very best possible combination of the genomes of both parents, which is then implanted. This technology is well along, but has not yet been fully demonstrated. It seems like this is only a matter of time, perhaps as little as a few years. For example, it appears that as of October 2012 scientists had succeeded in creating mouse embryos from adult mouse stem cells that resulted in the birth of healthy mice. See http://tinyurl.com/void-stem-cells.
The book also contains an interesting analysis ("The Sequencing Revolution") that explains the lack of success of the human genome project thus far. It turns out that sequencing one person is only helpful in finding single-gene traits. If the traits are affected by lots of genes, you need to sequences 100s or 1000s of people to be able to say anything about what a particular part of a gene does. Fortunately, the cost of gene sequencing has been dropping very rapidly, and we are at the point where we should start to see the real results of the Human Genome Project.
Most of the chapters are very good, but a couple have problems. "Is it Moral?" has a nice analysis but is sloppy about using the term "soul." I don't think Potter really believes in a soul, but it is hard to tell what he believes due to less than clear definitions. He seems to use "soul" as a euphemism for "the point at which an embryo is morally considered a full human being," but he never comes out and says that. I'm sure any Catholic theologian would have a field day poking at this chapter. My vote is that scientists should use scientific terminology, and leave theology to the theologians.
"Alternative Views" examines other visions of the human future, including cyborgization and the Singularity. It is readily apparent that Potter has only a superficial knowledge of these topics, and as a result the chapter provides the reader with little insight. Potter spends a few pages throwing cold water on the idea that cyborgization will ever include memory prosthesis, but this again seems outside his field and weak. This is also not a good policy book, and has little discussion of what a world with widespread genetic engineering might be like. Potter's focus is more to argue that widespread, useful genetic engineering is possible, safe, and moral, leaving policy discussions to others, although he does suggest that eventually providing a child with the best genome may be viewed in the same way we view pre-natal care and vaccines today.
Overall, DESIGNER GENES is a good popular science book on the topic of genetic engineering. Even if you don't agree with Potter's arguments, you will find a lot of good factual, non-polemical essays here. The way the book is organized, it is easy to skip any chapter without much loss of continuity. One warning though--the book was published in 2010, and probably written mainly in 2009, so we all need to catch up to 2013! [-dls]
Remembering Jack Vance (letter of comment by Greg Frederick):
Greg Frederick writes:
After reading that last non-fiction book (CIVILIZATION) which I sent you a review of recently; I plan to read my current non-fiction book about chemistry and how human history was affected by it. Then I plan to do something I rarely do these days. I am going to re-read a couple of old Jack Vance books I have in the basement. Vance died recently at the age of 96. I first got into reading science fiction books back in the early 70's. A friend of mine introduced me to Jack Vance books and this started me reading other science fictions authors and eventually I got into reading non-fiction. Reading about historical events and scientific ideas in the science fiction books started this non-fiction trend for me. Vance's writing was unique in style and he had a very good imagination. He was prolific and wrote more then 60 books including mysteries, fantasy, and science fiction. [-gf]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE CIVIL WAR BOOKSHELF: 50 MUST-READS ABOUT THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES by Robert Wooster (ISBN 978-0-8065-2692-0) is a reasonable listing and critique of a basic bookshelf on the Civil War, I get the impression that he chose fifty books because with the amount he wanted to write on each, that made the right length book. Ten might make more sense as a beginner's list; a hundred is a traditional number for a comprehensive list, but would make the book too long. But fifty books are really more than the beginner would read.
One finds interesting parallels throughout these works. Shelby Foote had a contract with Random House to write a short history of the Civil War. He ended up a trilogy of 1,500,000 words that took twenty years to write. Douglas Southall Freeman was commissioned by Charles Scribner's Sons to write a 70,000-word biography of Robert E. Lee, which Freeman assumed would take a couple of years. It took him twenty years and ended up as a tetrology. One starts to see a pattern here.
One also sees repetition in titles: LINCOLN AND HIS GENERALS and JEFFERSON DAVIS AND HIS GENERALS, not to mention LEE'S LIEUTENANTS (which is, of course, about generals).
I do feel that Wooster's need to rank-order them seems unnecessary. I also think his rule about no multi-volume works--which leads him to list only one volume of Shelby Foote's masterwork, for example--is overly strict.
And there are occasional slips. In reviewing Bruce Catton's A STILLNESS AT APPOMATTOX Wooster writes about "Maj. Gen. Governor Kemble Warren"; in reviewing Michael Shaara's THE KILLER ANGELS he writes about "Gouverneur K. Warren". These are the same person. More annoying, he consistently misspells Mary Chesnut's name as "Mary Chestnut". It is possible that the transition from one publisher to another during the final phases of publication meant that proofreading fell through the cracks, since it seems incredible that Wooster would make these mistakes.
Overall, this is a worthy overview of the most important works on the Civil War for the layman (with the caveats noted).
THE PERILS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Loren D. Estleman (ISBN 978-1-440-54414-9) is a collection of mostly previously published short stories about Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, even those I had not seen before often were a bit obvious in their solutions.
Estleman writes, "It is my belief that THE PERILS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is the first single author collection of short stories published since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own THE CASE-BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES..." Well, no--June Thomson wrote several, and Tracy Cooper-Posey, Ted Riccardi, Alan Stockwell, and Sebastian Wolfe each wrote at least wrote one. And those are just the ones I've run across. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Constant work, constant writing and constant revision. The real writer learns nothing from life. He is more like an oyster or a sponge. What he takes in he takes in normally the way any person takes in experience. But it is what is done with it in his mind, if he is a real writer, that makes his art. --Gore VidalTweet
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