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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/18/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 42, Whole Number 1802
Table of Contents
Hugo Nominations Announcement:
The Hugo nominations announcement will be streamed live at http://www.ustream.tv/hugo-awards Saturday, April 19, starting at 8:30 BST (British Summer Time), which I believe is 3:30 PM EDT.
The Hugo Awards this year include awards for work from 2013 and Retro Hugos for work from 1938. The lists will be announced in next week's MT VOID.
The Secret of Pearl (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Pearl necklaces are considered a mark of class around the neck of women like Grace Kelly. At a pearl factory we were told how pearls are cultured by putting an irritant in the oyster and letting the oyster's natural fluids collect around the piece of grit. Is that really so romantic? Isn't that sort of like wearing balls of collected animal snot? [-mrl]
Logical Questions About Worlds with Mystical Creatures (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I sometimes find that I have a problem with a film that nobody else seems to notice or if they do nobody seems to care about. I think the kinds of script problems I see are abstract and nobody else seems to think about them the way I do. I think a film has to have a sustainable plot. Let me explain what I am talking about. I can probably show it best by with examples of a non-sustainable plot.
A film that has a plot that is not sustainable is AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The premise of this film is that there really are werewolves and nearly nobody knows about them. So far, so good. I could say the same about THE WOLF MAN. In AMERICAN WEREWOLF just some little village somewhere in the English Midlands knows there are werewolves. They know how to handle them and just warn strangers to stick to the roads. In the film the main character is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one himself. Under the influence of this curse our main character kills a lot of people and tangles up traffic in Piccadilly Circus. By the time he is killed a lot of people know that there was some strange beast loose. Some very competent professionals know that werewolves exist. This is a new world. Things have changed. Now this could be the point of history when the general public learns that there are genuine werewolves, but that does not make for a good story. If werewolves are so unsubtle, why has it taken so long for their existence to be noticed? You would think some would stray from the English Midlands. People would know. You need an explanation as to why this sort of thing has not happened before or if it has, why is it not common knowledge.
The film has used up the point of history when the general public discovers that werewolves are out there and it does not explain why the public is only now discovering that werewolves exist. You could not tell the same story twice. The second time people would already know werewolves exist.
In Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT we find that whole villages can be taken over by vampires. But such a takeover calls attention to itself. When someone tries to deliver the town's mail to the post office they will be vampirized. There are people who would want to find out where the mail trucks went. It would take 24 hours before the whole country knows that there are towns that something strange has happened to. Then there would be huge investigations.
Not to pick on Stephen King but there is a similar problem with King's THE SHINING. The Overlook Hotel has had great evil done there and the building has just absorbed all that evil like a storage battery. The hotel itself is the source of the evil that Jack Torrence commits. The problem here is that there are a lot of places that should have even greater accumulations of evil. There are the killing fields of Cambodia. There are similar mass burial plots in Indonesia. What about Auschwitz? If places acted as store batteries for evil, we need an explanation for why places where far greater evil has been perpetrated do not also collect the evil and feed it back?
Hammer Films has a way of sort of handling the problem. They say it is Gothic times and the word does not really get around. Everybody in the quaint village of Klausenberg knows that Dracula lives in the castle on the hill. Outsiders think that it is a superstitious rumor. That would account for a sort of steady state. Near vampires' castles the people all are pretty sure vampires exist but until a Van Helsing comes along nobody who does not live in the neighborhood of such a castle really believes in vampires. People are isolated and information travels slowly.
But we are looking at this story from the point of view of the modern world. Why has word never gotten out in the interim that there are vampires around stealing babies or whatever. It would only work if all the vampires had been stamped out in the intervening years.
Perhaps it is a mistake to look at logic in stories about vampires and werewolves, but I think that is a place that you really need logic to work. If logic does not work then anything can happen. And if anything can happen in a story then there is very little point to it. Fantasy has to make sense even if the real world does not. [-mrl]
Three SF TV Shows worth a Closer Look (television reviews by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
As the winter has turned to spring, three SF shows show more than average promise--BITTEN, HELIX, and INTELLIGENCE. I've given a brief introduction to them previously, but it is time to take a closer look as we near the end of the first season of each.
BITTEN, based on the "Women of the Otherworld" series by Kelly Armstrong, stars Laura Vandervoort as Elena Michaels, a female werewolf who has tired of her job as a pack enforcer, and haunted by her own violent nature, moves to Toronto to live as a human. A series of murders draw her back to her werewolf home in Stonehaven, New York, and into the arms of Clayton Danvers, her former lover who also turned her into a werewolf.
Although BITTEN superficially appears a fantasy, a naturalistic approach has been taken to the werewolf mythos. Gone are all the supernatural trappings--the full moon, the deadly effect of silver, and so on. Lycanthropy operates here as a disease spread by blood/bites that convey certain advantages and disadvantages. Once bitten, in human form the werewolves have wolf-like abilities--enhanced smell and hearing, greater than human strength and healing abilities, and a wolfish killer instinct. In wolf form, to which they can transform at any time, they retain their intelligence and natural hair color, but are more governed by instinct. Some of the werewolves, including Elena, can transform just a part of themselves, for example, a hand. There is one small catch--women who are bitten almost always die on their first transformation to wolf form. Elena is the first in centuries to have survived.
The werewolves have a complex culture and law that has gone on for a long time. Their key credo is that all wolves must submit to the "Pack" and that any human who sees a transformation must be killed. Led by Jeremy Danvers (played by Greg Bryk), the alpha wolf, the Pack deals out werewolf justice with Elena and Clayton as the chief enforcers. Elena, as a female werewolf, has the best sense of smell and the greatest tracking abilities, and so is a key part of the Pack.
BITTEN revolves in large part around the theme of the conflict between Elena's attempt to live as a human in Toronto and her loyalty to Jeremy and the Pack. There is, of course, a double or perhaps triple meaning in the title, BITTEN. Elena has been literally bitten, transforming her into a werewolf, but she has also been "bitten" by her attraction to Clayton, who combines a professorial erudition with hyper-masculine violence and a deep affection for Elena. Lastly, she has also been "bitten" by the attractions of a normal human life in Toronto, and perhaps even more deeply by her lust for the hunt and the kill. This might be best illustrated by her signature when she kills--she tears out her opponent's heart with one hand.
Werewolves who are not part of the Pack are called "Mutts" and must submit to werewolf law. The main plot arc concerns the machinations of a group of Mutts who help serial killers to escape from jail, turn them into werewolves, and use them to attack the Pack.
The main weakness I've seen so far is that that Pack has a curious refusal to use guns or other weapons. This is understandable when a Mutt challenges for the leadership of the Pack, but is hard to fathom when they are faced by armed serial killers. Hopefully this will be explained at some point, or it may just reflect strict Canadian gun laws (I'm only partly joking here--the series is made in Canada!).
BITTEN does not seem to have the best reviews, and I've seen critics who opine that the story is derivative and inferior to the werewolf aspects of TRU BLOOD. I'm not sure exactly what these critics think BITTEN is similar to, but I find it a refreshing take on the traditional werewolf story. I also think it is a lot deeper and more interesting than the simple minded packs of TRU BLOOD, which seem mostly to be based on human biker gangs. BITTEN, somewhat like LOST GIRL, has been advertised as a T&A fest, but if this is what you are looking for, you'll find the series a disappointment. BITTEN is not quite the hard R of TRU BLOOD, but does contain a good bit of violence and torture along with some soft focus sex. I would only recommend it for adults, but if you like this kind thing, you should check it out. Of SyFy's three Monday SF shows--BITTEN, BEING HUMAN, and LOST GIRL, I am increasingly finding BITTEN the most compelling.
CBS 10 pm Tuesday brings INTELLIGENCE, a techno-thriller focused on one Gabriel Vaughn (Josh Holloway), a former Delta Force soldier who has a "mutation" that allows him to tolerate a "chip" implanted into his brain which gives him access, not just to the Internet and Google, but also to any sort of nearby computer network, and a vast suite of visualization and penetration tools. This provides Gabriel with an array of tools useful in solving problems of various kinds. In a recent episode he taps into an orbiting satellite to get in infra-red view of an enemy who seeks to ambush him. A series staple is his ability to re-create a crime scene in his head, and then wander through it looking for clues, including things like images in mirrors, and so on. His ability to manipulate electronic locking systems gives him "technomancer" like door-opening powers. For the most part, the things Gabriel is able to do are reasonably plausible, although the distribution of computing power/function between his brain, the implant, and cloud servers is left vague, and probably for the best.
Lillian Strand (Marg Helgenberger) is Gabriel's boss at the United States Cyber Command, and chief manager of CLOCKWORK--the code name for the project to create chip-enhanced operatives. The program is described as having had a number of failures prior to Gabriel, with the chips resulting in death or paralysis rather than super-powers. She assigns Riley Neal (Meghan Ory), a secret service agent, to protect Gabriel, who is her most valuable asset. Shenendoah Cassidy (John Billingsley) and Nelson Cassidy (P. J. Bryne) provide a bit of comic relief as the senior scientist for CLOCKWORK and his equally talented scientist son.
I seem to have missed a key episode in which Shenendoah Cassidy is forced to implant an upgraded chip into a new subject, Mei Chen, which allows her to pull Gabriel into mutual "renders" with her. She seems to have slipped her tethers and now operates as in independent agent for whoever pays her the most. She is dedicated to convincing Gabriel that they are the "Adam and Eve" of a new species.
There is a lot to like in INTELLIGENCE. I've seen critics compare it to the clownish CHUCK, but this is apples to cats. CHUCK was mostly played for laughs, and the "technology" of CHUCK is too silly for words. INTELLIGENCE tries hard to be a serious show, and mostly succeeds. Overall, the plots are reasonable, and many explore the limitations that a chip-enhanced agent might have, i.e. EMP, hacking, and so on. There are long segments of excellent scripting where characters put story line events in the context of the concept of the Singularity. In fact, INTELLIGENCE is a full-color live-action advertisement for the virtues of Kurzweil's man-machine merger path to the Singularity. A good bit of the plot revolves around how the chip might--or might not--have affected the fundamental humanity of Gabriel. And I like a show with the courage to portray a set of villains that make sense in the real world. In other words, the bad guys on this show are, for the most part, North Koreans, Chinese, and Iranians, not South Africans, Romanians, home-grown American Nazis, or, that Hollywood staple, the rogue CIA agent.
Unfortunately, there is a good chance INTELLIGENCE will be canceled. Viewership for the first episode was very high, but dropped off a *lot* when the show moved to Monday night. It's hard to tell if this is due to the slot change or the show, or both. The problems with INTELLIGENCE are the problems with many new programs. In the early episodes, the chemistry between Gabriel and Riley is weak, the direction rough, and there are odd mistakes in the plotting. For example, after being told someone may be infected with a nano-plague, the agents touch him anyway. In another episode, they leave a super-smart hacker alone in a locked car and--surprise--he escapes! These kind of directorial/scripting errors seem to have declined as the show has moved along, with the last few episodes being mostly free of huge plot/script blunders, and the chemistry among all the characters working better.
From some of the reviews on the net, I suspect that a lot of critics just don't get what is happening on the show. For example, one reviewer complained about the unrealistically fast character evolution of Mei Chen once the chip was implanted in her. This complaint is utterly wrong-headed and only shows how little the reviewer understands about what the show is trying to do. Clearly, for an enhanced person who thinks much faster than a normal human, subjective time can be much greater than clock time, and the idea that an enhanced human would in just a few weeks decide that they represent a new species is far from unlikely.
INTELLIGENCE is a general audience TV show, and can be enjoyed by most tweens and up. There is quite a bit of spy thriller violence and tension. However, the density of SF ideas per hour is pretty good.
HELIX ran on Friday nights and has now been replaced by the third season of CONTINUUM, which is high on my "to watch" list as well. HELIX has been renewed for a second season and will return in winter 2015. The start of HELIX makes it seem like SyFy's version of RESIDENT EVIL. A team of CDC scientists, led by Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) arrive at a remote arctic research station run by Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada). It appears that an outbreak of a new virus is turning people into zombies who run around dripping black goo.
Rather like an A. E. Vogt story, there is a new idea every 500 words, or about every 10 minutes. Pretty soon it is clear that a lot more is happening that a mere zombie story, as HELIX mutates into a secret history revolving around immortality and the true masters of the world. Sanada does a great job as someone who at first appears to be an evil mastermind but turns out to be a victim with his own tale of woe. The spring that winds HELIX is the familiar tale of ordinary people who slowly realize that the fate of humanity will be determined by who wins a battle at a remote research station. One by one the CDC team members either are killed or become what they need to become in order to survive a conflict with ancient and utterly ruthless immortals who rule the world in secret. I'm holding back a lot on the plot details here to avoid too many spoilers.
This is a violet tale, with a considerable amount of horror movie gore and spy thriller action/tension. The second season promises to be a lot different from the first, but I won't say why! In any case, recommended for those who like horror/SF combos. HELIX is suitable for older teenagers and up, but not for those who are easily frightened. [-dls]
ABADDON'S GATE by James S. A. Corey (copyright 2013, Orbit, $17.00, 566pp., ISBN 978-0-316-12907-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I have raved about the first two novels in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, LEVIATHAN WAKES and CALIBAN'S WAR. I'm not the only one to have done so. Critics and fans alike have thrown their support behind these old-fashioned space operas, stories that harken back to the old days of science fiction but still pay attention to the modern day sensibilities of the field. The third, and as it turns out, not the last book in the series, ABADDON'S GATE, is no different. It's a terrific novel that brings to a conclusion the storyline that started in the first two novels, but yet leaves the door open for another set of novels (the first of which, CIBOLA BURN, is scheduled to be released in June of this year) that I presume will continue to follow the story of James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante as it tries to discover what's on the other side of that gate.
What gate? Well, ABADDON'S GATE, of course.
Okay, that's not fair, that's just teasing. When last we left things, the proto-molecule was doing something under the clouds of Venus that had everyone worried. Well, lo and behold, an artifact has appeared in the orbit of Uranus - and now everyone is more worried than they were before.
The story starts out with a young kid who, in order to gain notoriety and fame, takes a small ship toward to artifact in an effort to pass through it. The ship is small enough and fast enough to get by any and all ships guarding the artifact. And in fact, it does get through. Well, sort of. A ship at high speed that is slowed down to a crawl in a very short period of time will in fact have nasty things happen to it and its occupants. In this case, well, splat. The kid is killed, and now every one is worried about how the artifact will react. A large fleet of scientific, military, and civilian ships head out to investigate the artifact and determine, well, what to do next.
This wouldn't be an Expanse novel if James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante weren't involved. Unfortunately, they're involved in a very complex and dangerous fashion. There is someone out to get Holden, and that someone will stop at nothing to see him both disgraced and killed. On top of that, Holden is seeing Miller, his old dead detective friend, at very odd and interesting intervals, and of course that can't be good. Just when things couldn't get bad enough, Holden is accused of blowing up one of the ships in the fleet. And so, the only way he can figure to deal with it is to go to follow that kid into the artifact, although of course under more controlled conditions than that little ship did.
The rest of the story is complex, dealing with plots, conspiracy theories, ship-wide coups, maniacal captains, religious leaders who have two different viewpoints regarding how to handle the situation, and, well, romance. Although I'll have to admit that the romance has been toned down quite a bit from CALIBAN'S WAR. There's enough going on here to fill up all the pages in the book and a whole lot more.
But there's another thing going on here, and that's the story of all the different sides in the story that have been at each other's throats for the first two novels learning to work together to solve the problems that are set out in the novel. The lesson is that in the future, no matter how diametrically opposed sides are in an argument, humanity has the capability to put aside their differences and work together for the good of humanity when faced with a very huge, very nasty problem.
ABADDON'S GATE is a terrific novel. The Hugo nominations will be out soon. Let's see if enough of fandom agrees with me. [-jak]
SEPIDEH (film review by Art Stadlin):
The Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) is a gem on the "culture coast" of Florida. On April 9th the SFF partnered with New College of Florida and Daughters For Life to raise funds for women's education. Daughters For Life Foundation is an amazing story unto itself. Started by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, it is a very personal story of positive spirit rising from the war zone of the Middle East.
The story of SEPIDEH aligns nicely with the mission of Daughters For Life. It's the story of a young girl growing up in Iran, a place where it is often difficult for women to realize their dreams. In this story, SEPIDEH has a very big dream: To become an astronaut! Her journey starts with intense interest in astronomy. Something as simple as getting a nice telescope is really not so simple for someone of limited means living in a very conservative country. But her passions run deep, and she presses forward. It's an emotional journey. It's difficult to pursue a dream when there are pressures--even from your own mother--to lower expectations. After all, SEPIDEH wants to go where women in her society rarely go.
At the same time, SEPIDEH is feeling the urges of all teenage girls to want to be accepted by her friends. It's a lot to worry about. On top of that, her late-night sky gazing with the others who are astronomy-minded brings her into the companionship with men. And one man in particular gives her feelings of love and the possibility of a marriage. But even to get married in this culture is a struggle, and she needs permission from her uncle, serving as a proxy for her father who died long ago.
In the end, this is a story of the human spirit, in the body of a women in a restrictive culture, who somehow makes the best of it. SEPIDEH is directed by Berit Madsen, a documentary filmmaker. There are two things missing from this documentary. First, there is no narrator to tell us what is happening or context for what we are seeing. The story itself is rich enough on its own to follow without a guide. Second, this film has no English dialogue. The English-language subtitles are very nicely done and easy to read. There are several funny moments, but only if you are understanding the nuances of the story, and the subtitles are critical to understanding.
There are no "action" scenes in this movie. No car crashes. No foul language. No special effects. It's a "chick flick" to be sure, but yet any man with a dream unrealized should be able to relate to the story at some level. For me personally, I kept reflecting back on my own daughter's dreams and challenges, here in the USA--a world apart to be sure.
I hesitate to give a score on a movie like this. On the one hand the story is excellent and well told. On the other hand, the camera is mainly on the faces. Very few scenes of the night sky or the Iranian countryside. The director set out to tell a story, and he succeeded. The camera work, sound, and subtitles were well done. It looked great on the big screen (we were in about the 4th row of seats at the Sarasota Opera House). However, in my opinion nothing would be lost had I seen this on the "small screen" in my living room.
So, I'll give SEPIDEH an 8 (of 10) for the documentary. Falling short of a perfect score only due to the lack of wide shots of the landscape, and the sky. Those elements (along with some music) could have underscored the idea of thinking big.
Link for more information about this film:
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to Mark's articles on ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS in the 04/04/14 and 04/11/14 issues of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
I remember going to the movie theater to see ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS when it first came out. At that time it was a grand adventure story for a youngster like me--probably only 12 years old when I saw it--so the science didn't matter to me then. Now, of course. I can easily see that the scientific holes are big enough to fly the Millennium Falcon through, but even so, seeing that movie on the big screen made an impression on me. It still holds a fond spot in my memory banks, even as porous as they seem to be getting. We all have great memories from that magical time when we saw our first or early SF movies. Thank you for the two-part treatment of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. I enjoyed your analysis. [-jp]
By coincidence there is a book popular right now that tells of a castaway on Mars. It is getting good word of mouth. The novel is THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. See the review directly below. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (ISBN 978-0-8041-3902-1) is a throwback to the engineering story of the classic Campbell-era ASTOUNDING/ANALOG. (Well, other than the use of the "F" word in the first sentence.) Mark Watney was a member of the third Mars mission, but he has gotten more than he bargained for. A sandstorm has necessitated the abrupt departure of the team, but Watney was skewered by a collapsing radio antenna which punctured his suit, his body, and his bio-monitor computer. So not only has the rest of the crew seen his suit punctured and his body skewered, but all the read-outs from his bio-monitor have dropped to zero. Ergo, they assume he is dead, and leave without him.
Except Watney is not dead, and THE MARTIAN is about how he struggles to survive on Mars. It is indeed "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", but without the cute monkey and the aliens. Similar to Robinson Crusoe, he has materials to work with--Crusoe had the contents of his ocean ship as well as the ship itself; Watney has the contents of the mission's habitat as well as some other materials used by this and other missions.
(One suspects that this was written the same way the James Bond films were written. In the Bond films, the scene in which Q hands over all the gadgets is written last, when the writer knows what gadgets are needed for the plot. It would not surprise me to discover that Weir would come up with a problem, figure out how to solve it with nothing too outre, and then make sure such items were available. (E.g., he could explain away some spare solar panels, but not an entire spare habitat structure.)
THE MARTIAN is very accurate. The problem is that you have to be a real engineering geek to enjoy it completely. For example, there are detailed explanations of how the equipment regulates carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, humidity, and so on. On the other hand, one can skim these parts and still enjoy the story.
This is yet another example of a science fiction novel (a *hard* science fiction novel, no less!) published outside the usual genre publishers, and aimed at the mainstream rather than the genre market. And that such a book is being aimed at the mainstream says something. One could claim that this is a science fiction novel in the tradition of the film GRAVITY, and that both are evidence that hard science fiction has broken out of the "ghetto" of the science fiction marketing genre.
(It was published "in different form, as an e-book in 2011," I think it is quite possible eligible to be nominated for a Hugo for its 2014 publication.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Why can't somebody give us a list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says, and another list of things that everybody says and nobody thinks? --Oliver Wendell HolmesTweet
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