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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/21/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 21, Whole Number 1833
Table of Contents
Updated Film (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I understand that they are going to remake the Cold War thriller THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN. It will be updated to the present and will be called THE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLAR BRAIN. [-mrl]
How Can I Love Dogs and Not Want One of My Own? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have always loved dogs as far back as my memory goes. When I was young I would have sworn that when I was an adult and had my own house I would most certainly have a dog. Even today I can be in the middle of a conversation with someone and a dog wanders onto the scene and I almost cannot continue the conversation. I can try, but my mind will be on the dog. I will want to be petting and interacting with the dog even as I am talking. A dog is more than enough to highjack my attention.
Several friends have independently given me the same piece of advice: I should get my own dog. As well-meaning as the suggestion is, it does me no good. I choose not to get a dog. The fact that I like dogs so much is precisely why I do not want to get one of my own. Is that odd? I don't think so. I refuse to abuse a dog. And I am convinced that abusing the dog is inevitable. Just the act of getting a dog is cruel.
I would not intentionally treat the dog badly. The way I would abuse a dog is not what most people would call animal abuse. There are dogs that actually are horribly abused in this country. They are fought for sport; they are starved; they are kept in disgustingly unsanitary conditions. And I have to admit that I would like the people responsible to be treated just as barbarously as they have treated dogs. But again that treatment of a dog is not what I am referring to. What I am referring to is what better dog owners do to their pets, things that if done to a human would be recognized as cruel. Let me give an example of what my family did to our dog.
I grew up with a dachshund I named Sam. Let me tell you about what I am afraid was the happiest moment in Sam's life. I think I never saw Sam so happy before or since that moment. I think Sam was less than a year old when my family went on vacation. We could not take a dog along, so we boarded Sam with his veterinarian. After two or three weeks our vacation was over and we went to the vet to pick up Sam. The moment he saw us he was in ecstasy. His tail whipping the air, he was so energized he ran back into the cage room and then out again. He was just that happy to see us.
But why was he so happy? Well, we had no language in common. We could not tell Sam beforehand we would be back after two or three weeks to pick him up and take him back to the home he loved. For all he knew this restricted life in so many cages and with so many restraints was to be for him the new normal. He undoubtedly spent his sentence very unhappy. And it must seem like a very long time for a dog--not understanding what was going on. Sam's experience being boarded must have frightened the daylights out of him. Seeing us told him this unpleasant interlude was coming to an end. It is bad enough that we did not give much thought to this situation before we boarded Sam. Even worse was not giving it any thought even after Sam made it so obvious what a bad time he had had.
As Sam got older he apparently got over his separation anxiety, but that was a matter of him coming to trust us. Most dogs spend their lives trying to understand what is going on around them, even learning words in human language. They have involuntarily been dropped into a new world alien to their natures.
Speaking of separation anxiety, dogs experience it early. Dogs are probably born with the same affection and need for their mother that most humans have. The difference is that a mother dog may or may not be experienced with giving birth and nurturing her puppies only to have them suddenly disappear from her company, never to see them again. What does it do to the mother the first time this happens? What does it do to her when it happens repeatedly? What does it do to a puppy to be taken from its mother at a young age?
This sort of treatment is not generally considered animal abuse. In fact these separations are the core of the pet industry. But it must be an emotional jolt to the dog involved. I have no reason to believe that splitting up families is any the less tragic and painful for dogs than it would be for humans. We have come to realize how bad it is for humans, thank goodness, but we give it very little thought when it happens to dogs.
And what kind of a life does a dog have once brought to their new homes? My dog must have slept eighteen hours a day. It was not that he was tired. He did not need that much sleep. Dogs do not need that sleep, but what else can they do to pass their time? They are lucky if they get some sort of exercise beyond walking more than once a week. We give most dogs very little to amuse themselves. I would not even know how to give a dog a life any better. It would be one thing if I lived on a farm and the dog had animals to have contact with. What Sam had during those eighteen hours was a couch that with some effort he could jump on and curl up for more sleep to pass what must have been a very long and slow day or a slow night for him. That cannot have been much of a life.
When Sam went for a walk if he would see another dog he would pull on the chain to get as close to the stranger as possible. He was so desperate for contact with others of his own species. He might have maybe five minutes a day on average communing with other dogs and exchanging information, mostly by smell. Then no matter how he resisted he was pulled away by the chain around his neck and dragged back to his home and the same boring couch.
I would really like a dog around the house. Yes, I really would. But if I could not give him a better life than Sam had I think I have no business getting a dog.
I have made these observations before and I get responses like, if I am going to get a dog, of course I have to take him from his mother. Of course I cannot take the dog just anywhere I vacation. Of course the dog is going to have to get used to being boarded. It is hard on the dog, but after all he is only a dog. Few of us would accept similar treatment being given to other humans. But after all a dog is only a dog.
That "only a dog" rankles a bit. A dog can feel pain. A dog can worry. And it is even worse than a human being worried because he cannot ask questions. I see no reason why it should matter less if the emotions are happening to a dog. I can only hope other people who own dogs think about what they do through a dog's eyes. And frankly, I just do not want to make the necessary sacrifices to treat my own dog truly humanely. [-mrl]
INTERSTELLAR (film review by Dale L. Skran):
I'm just going to come right out and say it--INTERSTELLAR is probably the best SF film in many years, and the best space SF film in decades. It is hard to know what is good enough to make a comparison worthwhile doing--maybe CONTACT or WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE or IMPACT or 2001, but it is not a long list. There are other very good SF films: THE PRESTIGE (directed by Nolan, as was INTERSTELLAR) and Mark Leeper's favorite, THE MAN FROM EARTH, but this list is really not all that long. INTERSTELLAR is about 100x as ambitious as the recent and well made GRAVITY, which I liked.
INTERSTELLAR is an all-out, no-holds-barred argument for the human settlement of space, the emptiness and desolation of our likely future on Earth, the endless wonder of the universe, and the magnificent destiny the human race might have if only we have the courage and hope to seize it. This is a movie with all the balls in the air--Von Braunian space exploration, O'Neillian space colonization, Sagan's human-robot partnership, and Egan's ascent to higher dimensional spaces. INTERSTELLAR is a tale of brave heroes Heinlein would be proud of--astronauts who put everything on the line to give the human species a marginal chance of survival, and scientists who work in secret to save any scrape of humanity while the world slowly dies.
Populated by some of the best actors of our time--Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, and Matt Damon--INTERSTELLAR tells a human tale of desperate people taking on the greatest possible challenges in the depths of interstellar space. This is a film of dazzling vistas, the pain of a broken man, the love of a father and daughter, and the frightening indifference of the universe. It is also a story of the highest human aspirations and our deepest fears. INTERSTELLAR is not going to win the Oscar for best picture, but in some better alternate universe than ours it would.
INTERSTELLAR has wonderful inside views of an O'Neill cylinder--perhaps the best yet to appear in a major movie, and in the context of an entirely positive human movement into free space. INTERSTELLAR also features a no-apologies effort to preserve the human species, and a hero who is not afraid to say that humans belong in space, not "in the dirt." There is also a wonderful moment of humor when Astronaut Cooper discovers why the O'Neill cylinder is named Cooper. Supported by physicist Kip Thorne, INTERSTELLAR may be the only film that will result in the publication of a scientific paper based on new black hole results found while attempting to create realistic special effects. I have only one bone to pick with INTERSTELLAR, which is that some may come away with the impression that the settlement of space requires contact with advanced aliens who provide tunnels in space to allow us to visit distant Earth-like planets. To refute this view would take too much time for a movie review, so I refer you to the National Space Society produced "Roadmap to Space Settlement" which can be found at: http://www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/.
Mark Leeper has rated INTERSTELLAR a +3 on the -4 to +3 scale, and I certainly agree that it deserves at least a +3. This is a film that takes on so much, and achieves so much, that any failings are of a minor nature. I haven't said this in a long time, but INTERSTELLAR makes me think it may be time to unlimber the rarely-used +4 rating. A film can really only be a +4 in retrospective, but INTERSTELLER is certainly a worthy candidate. INTERSTELLAR is rated PG-13, and includes a fairly desperate fight scene, along with much perilous action, but somehow is easier to take than GRAVITY. INTERSTELLAR is too complicated and intense for young children, but may be experienced on different levels by tweens and up.
** SPOILER ALERT **
Don't keep reading if you haven't seen the movie, and if you are concerned about spoilers. Jeff Foust has written an article in SPACE REVIEW where he questions why NASA is so gung-ho on interstellar flight in the movie, given that it seems well established that they have the technology to, say, settle Mars in hand. This is explained pretty well in the movie. NASA is well aware that apparently friendly aliens have placed a wormhole mouth near Saturn, and have, via their super-science, gathered some "Earth-like" planets at the other end of the worm hole. This is clearly an unexpected situation from our viewpoint, but once you know about it, it seems quite reasonable that NASA would focus on planets more Earth-like than Mars given the opportunity. Also, from the plot of the movie, it is reasonable to conclude that although NASA has a lot of resources, they likely fall well short of what would be required to settle the solar system in any time scale that would allow for a significant number of humans to be saved.
I've seen critics on the Net that complain about the apparently magical rockets used in the movie. I'm not sure what they are complaining about as the movie seems to take place at least fifty years in the future. They have a robot with human or super-human intelligence and a very advanced body design. It is certainly possible that the ships are powered by the mini-fusion drives Lockheed just announced they are developing, or something similar. The movie establishes subtly that NASA has been working in secret for a long time to build all this equipment, and it is implied that a large fraction of tax money goes to NASA, since little is available for other purposes. The rockets don't have unlimited fuel, and the lack of fuel plays an important role in the plot.
Other Net critics complain about the contrast between the relatively primitive life of the corn farmers and the advanced NASA technology. In particular, people seem to be driving cars that look a lot like the cars of today. First, the famers use fully automated combines, so it is not true that no advanced technology is in use. Second, it seems clear that the government is secretly devoting much of the GNP to NASA, while pretending that NASA has been shut down. It is possible, that, as was the case in WWII, car and truck production lines have been shut down to produce other things--like rockets, but that this is not known to the general public, who are being fed lies that the moon landing was faked. Yet another critic complained that it was not likely that the farmers would be growing corn as corn does not do well during droughts. While this was not justified during the movie, it could easily have been explained by just having a character say, "Thank heavens for this GMO drought-resistant corn. We would have starved years ago with the old corn."
Still another complaint is that the astronauts are launched on a Saturn V shown in stock footage. No "stock footage" of a Saturn V is in evidence that I can recall. The astronauts are launched on some kind of multi-stage rocket, but you never see the rocket stacked on the launch pad. Instead, you see the stage separation. It does look a bit like the stage separation of a Saturn V, but it could just as easily be a SLS or Musk's proposed Mars Colonial Transport. I note that the retired Saturn V, the cancelled Ares V, and the currently under construction SLS all look a lot alike, even sporting similar paint jobs.
Another complaint is that the movie is full of weird and unexplained jumps and events. There are certainly many surprising turns, but to my reading things were well explained, or at least as well as one can expect in any fictional story. It does help if you have a basic understanding of relativity and understand that time passes more slowly near a black hole. At the very end there is one scene that doesn't seem to quite make sense from a time perspective, although it just now occurs to me that possibly Amelia Brand is supposed to have lived for many years with Edmonds and the embryos at the colony, and Edmonds has just now died. This would fit in the timeline better than what I first thought. However, this lack of clarity in the final scene is a minor blemish on a great film. [-dls]
Many thanks for the reference, Dale. My review can be found at http://leepers.us/interste.htm, or in the last issue of the MT VOID.
I keep my +4 limber and ready to use on any film. Two years ago I used it for LES MISERABLES. I did not use it here in part because the drama seemed a little lopsided. For example, Cooper has two children, but one is used only as a plot contrivance. He is never developed as a full character, I seem to remember. There are some weird things like beer made when people are starving for food. I like the film a lot, but it has some problems. Some of the explanation is very hard to follow. [-mrl]
Code Knocking (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to letters of comment on code knocking in the 11/14/14 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
I'd use a knuckle roll for the longs, presuming the rhythm wasn't a dead giveaway all by itself. (Knuckle here indicates the main bend of the finger, but I'm not aware of a simple word for that.) [-kw]
INTERSTELLAR (letter of comment by Andre Kuznariak):
In response to Mark's review of INTERSTELLAR in the 11/14/14 issue of the MT VOID, Andre Kuznariak writes:
I would argue PRIMER is a far more audacious SF film than INTERSTELLAR, especially since it seems Nolan was trying awfully hard to make his film approachable via a number of audience-friendly tropes and fantastical elements, whereas Carruth makes no compromises with narrative structure or his world-building rules. [-ak]
Andre, you are right that the dialog in PRIMER is probably more realistic than that in INTERSTELLAR. However, realism is a dubious virtue in drama. It is a secondary virtue. I would say that realism is much less important than communication with the audience members. You can do a great drama in a style very realistically. But if the audience does not get what is going on and never would, it is a waste of their time.
PRIMER takes several watchings for the viewer to understand (most of) what is going on. It is a puzzle for the viewer to solve. Solving the puzzle may be fun, as a challenge. Christopher Nolan knows how to put in-line puzzles in his film as he did with THE PRESTIGE, but by the end of THE PRESTIGE he has given the viewer the solution to the puzzles and he has communicated with the viewer. Carruth has left the viewer to watch multiple times to try to work out an understanding of what PRIMER was all about.
Actually I thought some of the scientific exposition could have been made a little simpler for my taste. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis (ISBN 978-0-451-53086-8) is the story of one man from boyhood through medical school and then career. Martin Arrowsmith is constantly coming into new situations full of idealism and noble intent, but running up against entrenched ideas, commercialism, greed, and all of humanity's other flaws. Unlike many such novels, though, he is also imperfect. He has a terrible bedside manner and, indeed, shows little interest in actually using his discoveries to help humanity--he desires the knowledge of the causes, cures, and prevention of diseases for its own sake. He is abrupt to everyone around him, especially his first wife, Leora. However, one aspect that has not stood the test of time so well is Lewis's seeming attitude toward women/wives. Although it is seems clear that Lewis is critical of Martin for his attitude towards Leora, Lewis also seems to hold her up as the perfect wife, completely devoted to her husband. This does not play so well these days; although Joyce Lanyon is often shallow, she at least has some spirit and will of her own. Lewis seems to emphasize the shallowness, with passages such as:
"They really had, it seemed, to stay with the Principessa del Oltraggio (formerly Miss Lucy Deemy Bessy of Dayton), Madame des Basses Loges (Miss Brown of San Francisco), and the Countess of Marazion (who had been Mrs. Arthur Snaipe of Albany, and several things before that), but Joyce did go with him to see the great laboratories in London, Paris, Copenhagen. She swelled to perceive how Nobel-prize winners received Her Husband, knew of him, desired to be violent with him about phage, and showed him their work of years. Some of them were hasty and graceless, she thought. Her Man was prettier than any of them, and if she would but be patient with him, she could make him master polo and clothes and conversation ... but of course go on with his science ... a pity he could not have a knighthood, like one or two of the British scientists they met. But even in America there were honorary degrees...."
In this we see one constant of Lewis's writings: cynicism about people and their motives. We see it in MAIN STREET and BABBITT before ARROWSMITH, and in ELMER GANTRY and DODSWORTH after it. Here we see it in such passages as:
"Roscoe Geake was a peddler. He would have done well with oil stock. As an otolaryngologist he believed that tonsils had been placed in the human organism for the purpose of providing specialists with closed motors. A physician who left the tonsils in any patient was, he felt, foully and ignorantly overlooking his future health and comfort--the physician's future health and comfort. His earnest feeling regarding the nasal septum was that it never hurt any patient to have part of it removed, and if the most hopeful examination could find nothing the matter with the patient's nose and throat except that he was smoking too much, still, in any case, the enforced rest after an operation was good for him. Geake denounced this cant about Letting Nature Alone. Why, the average well-to-do man appreciated attention! He really didn't think much of his specialists unless he was operated on now and then--just a little and not very painfully."
Lewis is even cynical of his protagonist, noting how fickle Arrowsmith is in his hero worship: "And the great god Sondelius had slain Dean Silva, as Silva had slain Gottlieb, Gottlieb had slain 'Encore' Edwards the playful chemist, Edwards had slain Doc Vickerson, and Vickerson had slain the minister's son who had a real trapeze in his barn."
I suspect (though have not verified) that Arrowsmith's "Prayer of the Scientist" is one of the more quoted passages of the book:
"God give me unclouded eyes and freedom from haste. God give me a quiet and relentless anger against all pretense and all pretentious work and all work left slack and unfinished. God give me a restlessness whereby I may neither sleep nor accept praise till my observed results equal my calculated results or in pious glee I discover and assault my error. God give me strength not to trust to God!"
One of the issues Lewis touches on--though not perhaps as deeply as one might wish--is the morality of conducting clinical tests with control groups when testing vaccines or cures against deadly plagues. If the untreated group is sure to die, then what is the purpose of leaving them untreated?:
"'It comes to me that there is pneumonic plague in Manchuria and bubonic in St. Hubert, in the West Indies. If I could trust you, Martin, to use the phage with only half your patients and keep the others as controls, under normal hygienic conditions but without the phage, then you could make an absolute determination of its value as complete as what we have of mosquito transmission of yellow fever, and then I would send you down to St. Hubert. What do you t'ink?'
Martin swore by Jacques Loeb that he would observe test conditions; he would determine forever the value of phage by the contrast between patients treated and untreated and so, perhaps, end all plague forever; he would harden his heart and keep clear his eyes."
It is not just for the ideas and "philosophy" that one reads ARROWSMITH, but also for the style, the turn of phrase, such as:
"He had not merely to get through each minute as it came; the whole grim thirty minutes were present at the same time."
Watters's house was new, and furnished in a highly built-in and leaded-glass manner. He had in three years of practice already become didactic and incredibly married; he had put on weight and infallibility; and he had learned many new things about which to be dull. Having been graduated a year earlier than Martin and having married an almost rich wife, he was kind and hospitable with an emphasis which aroused a desire to do homicide."
When Leora received the idea that he was going off to a death-haunted isle, to a place of strange ways and trees and faces (a place, probably, where they spoke funny languages and didn't have movies or tooth-paste), ...
Another reason I read ARROWSMITH is that it has been given as an example of a book that seems to meet many definitions of science fiction, yet few would actually claim it was science fiction. For example, Barry N. Malzberg wrote, "[Collier's Encyclopedia says,] 'Science fiction is that form of literature with the effects of technological change in an imagined future, an alternative present or a reconceived history.' Workable and cautious, but it does not evade what could be called the ARROWSMITH problem--Sinclair Lewis's novel, that is, which all of us science-fictioneers would instinctively agree is *not* of the genre, would probably fall into it under the terms of this definition."
Martin Arrowsmith is born and grows up in "the state of Winnemac [which] is bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana." Zenith is its largest city; the state university (with five thousand students at the start of the twentieth century, but twelve thousand in 1924) is in Mohalis. Martin is from Elk Mills. All this certainly seems to be "an alternative present or a reconceived history." And the book is about "the effects of technological change," the technology in this case being medicine, which Martin constantly in conflict with doctors who want to stick to the old-fashioned ways (which certainly to us in the twenty-first century look like little more than patent medicines and humbug), while Martin wants to develop new, more effective methods--better diagnoses, vaccines, effective public health measures.
Yet I must agree that this is a book that shows that Collier's Encyclopedia's definition does not fully capture science fiction, or rather, like trawling nets for tuna, captures a lot that it is not intended to.
(Winnemac and Zenith figure in other Lewis works, and there is some cross-over. For example, Arrowsmith meets George F. Babbitt at lunch one day. And the concept of "boosterism" plays a role in ARROWSMITH.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: If God creates a world of particles and waves, dancing in obedience to mathematical and physical laws, who are we to say that he cannot make use of those laws to cover the surface of a small planet with living creatures? --Martin GardnerTweet
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