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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/17/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 29, Whole Number 1789
Table of Contents
Isaac Asimov's Predictions in 1964 for 2014:
"The medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there's no limit to either." -- Duval in FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Libertarian Hall of Fame Nominees:
The Libertarian Futurist Society has announced the short list for this year's Hall of Fame nominees. Voting for both the Hall of Fame will take place in July. The award will be presented at Loncon 3.
Edgar Allan Poe (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Poe was a raven lunatic. [-mrl]
[Happy 105th Birthday to Poe on Sunday, January 19.]
How I Review a Film (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Somebody whom I recently met found out that one of my hobbies is writing film reviews. I think he looked me up on the Internet and was surprised that I had (what is today) 1797 reviews in the Rotten Tomatoes site (though they were all really written for the MT VOID). It seems he runs programs for teenagers. He thought the attendees might be interested to write film reviews themselves. He was thinking he would like me to tell them how I write reviews and hence train my own competition to replace me with my own techniques. But I thought it might be of some interest to tell everyone.
I am not sure I am much of a model reviewer, and certainly there has been no shortage of people to tell me I was all wrong about films in my reviews. But I don't mind sharing how I go about reviewing a film. I thought I would commit the process to words.
First, I would have to say it is good to have seen a lot of films. The number of films a reviewer has seen is correlated to the reliability and credibility of his reviews. Little kids come out of a matinee film claiming it was the best film ever. Rare does a more experienced critic come out of a film willing to call it even "the best of the year." Seeing a great body of movies helps one put a given film into a context and recognize how bad some films are and how good others are.
I rate films on a -4 to +4 scale, but nearly every film I see gets a +1 or a +2. I have on occasion seen films worth giving a +4 to, but that is really rare. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is an example. Every year I see films worthy of no better rating than 0 or even -1. But I have also seen films worthy of a -4 (THE CREEPING TERROR), and so I am not going to give out even -2 ratings very frequently. I need to protect the lower ratings.
So what is my process for reviewing a film?
For some films I have enough to say that I don't need the notes I create in the next step. Some films are remarkable enough that my comments on the film just come tumbling out. And I do not really know even while I am watching a film if it is a film I will have a lot to say about. If it does turn out to be the type of reviewing experience where things to say come out rapid fire I can go directly to the proofreading stage. But such films are rare so I do the following. I am one of those people who incessantly make comments on the film I am seeing. But I do it silently. I make notes on what I am noticing about the film. I write down my observations. Then when I sit down to write about the film I will have my comments right there. Topics I try to comment on include plot (of course), writing, insights into the characters, actors, goofs, similar films, etc. These notes can be done with a piece of paper and a pencil. My current approach is to use a pocket computer on which (after long practice) I can touch-type. (Most notes I make in the dark this way are perfectly readable, but some vsmmpy nr trsd dp rsdo;. Luckily there are usually not many of the latter type.) Then when the film is over I can put the notes in one column of a spreadsheet and the category of comment in another column and can sort the comments by category. The pocket computer makes things convenient, but it is not necessary. I could do the same process with handwritten notes. If I am composing a paragraph about the writing of the film I can then see all the comments I made about the writing and use them as a foundation for a paragraph or two about the writing of the film. I am not limited to the observations I made watching the film, but if I do not have any new ideas about the script I can always fall back on the notes. Even if it is not in my notes, I try to make some comment about the film, either insightful observations just how this film stands out from the crowd of films. Other questions to ask yourself include:
When the review is all typed, which I do in Microsoft Word, I then proofread the review. But even the best proofreader can miss problems in her/his own writing since the author knows what was being said and it is easy to miss where a needed word was omitted. What really helps is to hear the review read out loud by someone else. At one time that was not so easy. But most or all computers and Macs come with a text-to-speech feature intended for the sight impaired. It will read a piece of writing without ever snickering. And it will read it as many times as is needed. If something written just does not hit the ear just right, that is the time it will likely show up.
Now I am going to take this essay and have my computer read it to me. [-mrl]
AD ASTRA (comments by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
This is a short notice to "whom it may concern." I've been writing for the MT VOID for a long time, and it is a pretty sure bet, that with the exception of a few articles that appeared in a fanzine the MSU science fiction society put out a very long time ago, virtually everything I've written that has been published has appeared in either the MT VOID or a Leepercon zine. This is excluding a few professional publications that appeared in the Bell Labs Journal or an IEEE magazine, of course. I would like to take this occasion to thank Mark and Evelyn for this opportunity to reach their audience with my writing.
Lately, I've been publishing somewhere else as well as the MT VOID (yes, caught in the act!). The "somewhere else" is AD ASTRA, the official magazine of the National Space Society (NSS). NSS is the result of the merger of the National Space Institute and the L5 Society, and focuses on promoting space settlement. In any case, I have an article titled "Summer in New Space 2013" in the winter 2013 issue, which can be found at http://www.nss.org/adastra/volume25/v25n4.html. Well, to be exact, you can find the table of contents there. If you want to actually read the article, you need to join the NSS, something which I strongly endorse.
If you do join the NSS, you'll find that I have a book review for "Scatter, Adapt, Remember" in the Spring 2014 AD ASTRA, and I have just sent to them for a future issue a review of Greg and Jim Benford's excellent "Starship Century." In any case, if you want to read any of this, you will need to join the NSS at http://www.nss.org/. There is a lot of great free stuff on the NSS web site, including 241 book reviews (including SF reviews) at http://www.nss.org/resources/books/ (alas, this does not appear to include any reviews published in AD ASTRA, including my own). [-dls]
HER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The lonely, divorced, and insular Theodore has a new operating system on his computer that has a very human-like interface. It is not just like any human, it is Theodore's ideal woman. He falls in love with a woman whose only drawback is that she is a computer program. Spike Jonze writing and directing takes a not very promising premise and creates a many-faceted science fiction film that nicely covers many different themes. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Iv you could zee her through my eyes ... she vouldn't look zoftvare at all.
We have come a long way from Mister Paperclip.
At first thought the idea of a human-computer romantic relationship that is like a human-human relationship is neither a promising nor an original idea. It was used almost fifty years ago on "The Twilight Zone" (February 14, 1964) as "From Agnes--With Love." This is hardly a plot that seems fertile to try once again. Spike Jonze, who directed some good films like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and wrote some lesser works like episodes of the TV show "Jackass" (which he also created), for the first time directs his own script. He gives us an intelligent story that feels not just believable but almost inevitable. Themes included in the story are what will happen to a society when the need for human relationships can be fulfilled by machine. The story is both pessimistic--we are losing our humanity when we can now relate to machines like we used to relate to humans--and optimistic--people who have a hard time relating to humans can now fill those gaps in their lives with electronic surrogates. These are almost opposite points of view and like a piece of fine crystal, this story shows the world differently depending on from what angle you look at it.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore. Though this is a very near-future story, Theodore is in an occupation that does not exist yet. For people who want to live with traditional values, or at least make it appear like they do, he writes emotional letters for his customers, appearing like they are in the handwriting style of the customer. If you want to send a nice message to your mother on Mother's Day, Theodore will compose and create the letter making it look like you wrote it yourself with beautiful words and sentiments. Theodore has a very good feel for other people's emotions, but since he separated from is wife he is emotionally detached and no longer seems be able to find a girl that he wants a relationship with. He is to the point when he prefers playing videogames to dating. In spite of a great looking apartment and greater looking women, he cannot bring himself to be romantic with them.
But then Theodore puts a new operating system on his computer. It has a complete human personality for its interface and it is designed to meet the customer's needs, even if it means building a whole personality, superbly compliant, ready to do as much as software can possibly do. It calls itself Samantha and speaks with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Jonze takes us through the Theodore-Samantha relationship's best and worst moments. Theodore's best human friend is Amy (Amy Adams) a confidant who is married to a friend of Theodore's. Another time they could have been good together.
The film is both sad and funny. As with race, some people are quickly tolerant of the "software-ness" of their friends and friends' friends; others have a hard time accepting it. There are some nice touches. Theodore's big beautiful apartment building's elevator casts tree shadows on its back wall to give a feeling that it is right there in nature. However, when we look out Theodore's windows there is nothing natural to be seen outside the window. There is just skyscrapers, man-made things that have taken the place of anything natural.
Jonze seems to be of the opinion that flesh and blood is better than software, but he stacks the deck. There are multiple women, intelligent, pretty, and sympathetic. If Theodore had been ugly (as it is he is no winner) and nobody was interested in a relationship with him, a program like Samantha might be a real boon. For such a person who does not have Theodore's advantages, the message that he should have a real human relationship is rubbing salt in a wound.
The film gives a nice little cameo role for Brian Cox.
There are two problems I have with the film. It is hard to believe that in Theodore's line of work he would have such a fabulous apartment. Jonze may be saying that there is nothing left of the city but huge skyscrapers and all apartments get great views, but I do not buy that. An event occurs toward the end of the film that if it really happened would have a heavy and worldwide impact. But nothing like that is ever mentioned. There is only so much that can be done with what is basically a "Twilight Zone" plot. Through some sort of alchemy Jonze surpasses that barrier again and again and again.
I rate HER a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798709/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/search/?search=her
[This is a 2013 film, hence eligible for the Hugos which are now in their nomination stage. -ecl]
PROXIMA by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz UK 2013) (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Stephen Baxter ("Xeelee" series, ARK, FLOOD) has returned with a monumental SF novel in PROXIMA. Weighing in at 455 pages, PROXIMA is long enough to contain a lot. Baxter tells the tale of the settlement of Proxima Centura via a long list of characters, including both humans and AIs. The interactions between the humans and the AIs are done especially well, and the reader feels as much sympathy for the machines by the end of the story as for the humans.
Proxima's planets, especially Per Arudua, the target of colonization, are marvels of SF world building, fresh and original. The medium term extrapolation of a solar system split between a US led UN and a Chinese Empire feels real, as does their differing technology paths and their ruthless struggle to both settle Per Arudua and control the home solar system. The technology extrapolation, with one exception I'll describe in a bit, is excellent, and includes a very nice envisioning of Robert Forward's Starwisp interstellar solar sail.
This is not a tale of characterization, as we don't have that much time to get to know each of the many people and AIs that dance across the stage. With a survival percentage similar to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, with a side of Roanoke and the Donner Party thrown in, most of the people you meet are, shall we say, "short timers." The main thing that many may find off-putting is a British tendency toward the macabre. Baxter tells a brutal "Botany Bay" style tale of the colonization of Per Arudua, replete with the grotesque.
The other flaw in what is otherwise a very strong hard SF book is the reliance on a powerful alien technology, the "kernels" which enable speed of light starships and even speed of light teleport gates. There is nothing wrong with Baxter's treatment of this topic, which could be viewed as very advanced hard SF, but the presence of this hyper-advanced technology becomes the axle around which the plot revolves and thus detracts from the tale of settlement and exploration.
A final problem is that PROXIMA ends rather like the STARGATE series, with some of the main (surviving) characters popping through a teleport gate to parts unknown, and other parties setting out on a major voyage in a kernel drive starship. Clearly a sequel is in the offing. This complaint aside, Baxter does play fairer than many authors, and the lays down the answer, albeit in a subtle fashion, to a central mystery in the book, the identity of Yuri Eden, one of the more important characters.
I read PROXIMA in a British edition I bought off Amazon (people see the value in bringing a large number of British editions to the US and selling them locally, allowing US fans to get an early look at British SF) and I expect that this 2013 book will be a contender for the 2014 Hugo, especially with the Worldcon in London for 2014. Recommended for fans of Baxter and British SF in general, but be warned that this is a dark sense of wonder novel. [-dls]
Mary Poppins and Disney Films (letter of comment by Jim Susky):
In response to Mark's review of SAVING MR. BANKS in the 12/20/13 issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:
Your review of SAVING MR. BANKS triggers in me a reminiscence of Disney's MARY POPPINS film.
I first saw MARY POPPINS at a drive-in movie in the middle of the Alaskan summer--I recall fireworks and the detritus therefrom so I think it may have been July 4 (with 19 hours' daylight).
We sang many of the songs in school and I suppose we saw reruns of the film on Sunday nights' "Wonderful World of Disney".
To this day, I've never read MARY POPPINS, nor THE JUNGLE BOOK, (nor THE WIZARD OF OZ)--but of course have seen the movies--not the least on TV (and we wore out our copy of the "Jungle Book" LP).
After a twenty-odd year hiatus I saw (ca. 1990) MARY POPPINS again--played by a young Julie Andrews. As an adult I "appreciated" Miss Poppins in a way I never imagined as a child.
Since THE LOVE BUG (actually, I saw an interminable sequel thereto as a teenager) I have made a clean break with most Disney fare--especially that smug, self-aware, self-consciously witty, animated crap (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST excepted--and I can't recall why I saw that).
Anyone who would put a happy ending on HUNCHBACK is undeserving of my money and (especially) my time. [-js]
I will say that you left Disney at the very lowest point in their history. (Well, the lowest point was probably SUPER-DAD.) I was pretty much gob-smacked when I saw their NEVER CRY WOLF and shortly after that THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN shortly after you quit. Both of which are very good and I would still recommend to you today. Then they started making their Touchstone films and many of their comedies were actually very funny. That was their resurrection. This year they made one of their better animated films, FROZEN. [-mrl]
BEFORE THE DAWN (letter of comment by Jim Susky):
In response to Dale's review of BEFORE THE DAWN in the 01/03/14 issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:
Thank you for an excellent review of a most excellent book, indeed (BEFORE THE DAWN). I read it myself not long after its 2006 publication and did a very short "book report" on it as the topic of a Toastmasters Club speech.
One test of an excellent non-fiction book is that it whets the appetite--leaving the reader wanting more. Wade describes the result of inferences made using human DNA. All of humanity is descended from a single Chromosomal Adam who lived in Central Africa about 58,000 (+/- 20000)years ago. Likewise, the similar matriarchal lineage traces back to a Mitochondrial Eve some 150,000 years ago--with a much greater error range.
Wade reports that the domestication of dogs dates back about 13,000 years in Mongolia--based on the relative lack of canine genetic diversity in that area.
So far nothing that runs afoul of the PC-reflex.
Steven Pinker (in THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE) has recently and extensively addressed the fairy tale of the Noble Savage (which is little more than modern disapproval of modern civilization).
In this book and in some lecture notes here...
... Pinker gathers and processes evidence that "Non-state Societies" were far more violent than civilized societies--by more than an order-of-magnitude.
No doubt Pinker and Wade drew on similar archeological efforts.
Wade, with seeming trepidation, given the Thought Police that populate the halls of his employer, reported on another PC notion--namely that races are artificial cultural constructs. I am personally sympathetic with this idea but had to acknowledge Wade's point that even today, with relatively widespread and extensive human movement, one's DNA correlates very strongly with the continent of one's birth and/or very recent ancestors. [-js]
Glad you enjoyed it. If you know of other books in their vein, I would be interested in your recommendations. [-dls]
Regarding race, DNA studies show that race as a DNA concept is not well-correlated with race as a social construct. According to one study, for example, a Swede and a Maori are closer in their DNA than a Masai and a Khoisan (both Africans). [-ecl]
56 UP (letter of comment by Pete Rubinstein):
In response to Mark's Top Ten Films" list in the 01/10/14 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Rubinstein writes:
[Mark wrote,] "Every seven years since he made 7 PLUS SEVEN in 1970, Michael Apted visits (essentially) the same set of people and he documents how their lives have changed since the last film in the series. They were all 7 years old in 1964, and they are all the same age as each other now."
I'd be really surprised if they were all 7 in 1964 and weren't all the same age now! [-pr]
Rhetoric. I use rhetoric. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I found a copy of LOS HOMBRES LOBO EN EL CINE by Carlos Diaz Maroto (ISBN 978-84-95537-83-4) in Nashville, Tennessee, of all places. Published in Madrid, its coverage of the werewolf film concentrates primarily on English-language films, probably because they form the bulk of the well-known werewolf films.
It is divided into five parts. The first ("Introduction") covers the mythology of werewolves, and werewolves in literature. The second (Chapter I) is a series of short essays about the key films in the genre. Chapter II covers the rest of the werewolf films with only a paragraph or two for each, divided into "Silent Howls". "Howls Are Heard", "Anglo-Saxon Howls", "Werewolves South of the Rio Grande", and so on. Chapter III covers other shape-changer movies (e.g., ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, CAT PEOPLE, THE FLY). Then there is a filmography of werewolf and other shape-changer films, and then a bibliography.
Most of what is in this book is known to fans of the genre. But every once in a while Maroto comes up with a surprise. For example, in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, the beggar at the beginning was originally intended to be more wolf-like in appearance, but the British censor said, "He must not have fangs. He can have fangs, or relations with the girl, but not both." (Censors seem to have had it in for werewolf films; the Spanish censor seemed to object to anything in a werewolf film that would connect it to Spain: names, locations, descriptions.)
Of course, the main drawback for this book is that it is in Spanish. Still, the reading level is probably similar to that of a newspaper rather than an esoteric literary novel. For example, after listing all the classic films done by the creative team behind THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF, Maroto says, "El film que nos ocupa, por el contrario, es un absoluto desastre." You don't need much Spanish to figure that one out. And some of the Spanish neologisms are wonderful: the two friends in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON are described as arriving in a "pueblecito de innegable tono hammeriano" ("a village of undeniably Hammeresque tone").
On the other hand, occasionally one finds a word not recognizable by context and not even in the typical paperback Spanish-English dictionaries. For example, when Maroto talks about "el tono gamberro-yanqui" in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, I had to pull out my 1500-page doorstop of a dictionary (Spanish only) from the Real Academia Espanola to find that "gamberro" means "libertino, disoluto". Those I could translate without a dictionary, and then Maroto's additional reference to Landis's NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE made more sense as well. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Thus, the more succinctly a train of thought was expounded, and the more comprehensive the unity of its basic idea, the closer it would approximate to the prerequisites of the mathematical way of thinking. --Max BillTweet
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