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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 09/25/15 -- Vol. 34, No. 13, Whole Number 1877
Table of Contents
Transience (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A lot of my friends complain that they have gotten old. What started with discounts on movies and in restaurants having special menus with better prices is now leading up to little infirmities as our bodies get old. I try to be philosophical. When a friend complains about entering old age I remind them that if it is any consolation, they just have to wait and "this too shall pass." [-mrl]
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups, Films, Lectures, etc. (NJ):
October 8: THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) (film and THE INVISIBLE MAN by H. G. Wells (novel), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5:30PM October 22: THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH by Leo Tolstoy, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM November 19: WORLD OF PTAVVS by Larry Niven, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM December 17: THE MAN WHO COUNTED by Malba Tahan, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM January 28: "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster and "The Martian Way" by Isaac Asimov (both in SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME 2B), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM February 25: OUR MAN IN HAVANA by Graham Greene, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM March 24: HARD LANDING by Algis Budrys, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM April 28: LOST HORIZON by James Hilton, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM May 26: T. L. Sherred: E for Effort" by T. L. Sherred and "Earthman, Come Home" by James Blish (both in SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME 2B), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM Speculative Fiction Lectures (subject to change): October 3: Ellen Datlow, The State of Horror, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N November 7: Jennifer Walkup, Finding Your Voice in YA Speculative Fiction, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N December: no lecture Northern New Jersey events are listed at: http://www.sfsnnj.com/news.html
My Picks for Turner Classic Movies for October (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is something of an irony that crops up this time of year when I do my picks for October. While most of my readers have a particular interest in one or more of the genres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, that there would be plenty to recommend for the month of October in which TCM celebrates those genres, especially horror, in honor of Halloween. Anything obscure in the fantastic genres has been shown long ago in Octobers past. So what can I recommend? THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) (a.k.a. THE DEVIL'S BRIDE). Or there is THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). What fan of the horror genre has not seen these films?
I do see one very interesting film I can comment on, but I will have to go outside the genre. I have to recommend THE GENERAL (1927), a silent comedy that takes place during the Civil War. It was underwhelming at the box-office and went almost completely forgotten until the 1950s when it fell into public domain and it started to be seen by a generation who did not have bad memories of the Civil War. The film is a beautiful re-creation of the same civil war that Matthew Brady photographed. In spite of all the humor--and Buster Keaton was a comic genius and an amazing acrobat--you can learn a lot about what that war looked like. The film is a dramatization of the Great Locomotive Chase, an actual event of the war. Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a strategic railhead for the South that the Union desperately wanted to put out of action. On April 12, 1862, Union soldiers and Union scouts crept into Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) Georgia and stole a train intending to use it as a platform to destroy bridges, telegraph lines, track, and hopefully make it to Chattanooga and points north to do to the South all the damage they could do. Buster Keaton plays the engineer whose train was seized and who has to chase his train to get it back. THE GENERAL works as an exciting action film and at a comedy at the same time, not an easy balance to strike. Keaton always had a way with props and sets, using them in unexpected ways. The climax has a train crossing the Rock River Bridge, which collapses under its weight. It is no special effect. They actually intentionally collapsed the bridge and wrecked a train for the spectacle of it. Today THE GENERAL is considered one of a handful of the greatest films this country has ever made. If you have never seen THE GENERAL, even if you do not like silent films, this film is a prize and a great film experience. [Friday, October 9, 6:00 AM]
By the way, if the situation of the stolen train seems familiar, Walt Disney used the same incident as the basis for his studio's THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956). Disney tells the story from the point of view of the Union; Keaton tells it from the Confederate point of view.
Incidentally, if you like films about trains, TCM dedicates that whole day till 8 PM to train films. Then they say "enough of that" and till 6 AM the next day they devote themselves to films about mad doctors and other crazies. This is October 9-10.
Trains: 6:00 AM: THE GENERAL (1927) 7:45 AM: THE SILK EXPRESS (1933) 9:00 AM: CANADIAN PACIFIC (1949) 10:45 AM: MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR (1934) 12:00 PM: BERLIN EXPRESS (1948) 1:30 PM: TERROR ON A TRAIN (1953) 2:45 PM: THE TALL TARGET (1951) 4:15 PM: DARK OF THE SUN (1968) 6:15 PM: THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973)
Medical Madness: 8:00 PM: MAD LOVE (1935) 9:30 PM: THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946) 11:15 PM: HANDS OF A STRANGER (1962) 1:00 AM: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962) 2:30 AM: CORRUPTION (1967) 4:15 AM: EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959)
But for my pick for the best film of the month would stick with THE GENERAL. [-mrl]
PAY THE GHOST (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: One Halloween evening literature professor Mike Lawford loses his son at a Halloween carnival. The boy never shows up. For a year Mike looks for his son and tries to find the meaning of the boy's last words, "Pay the ghost." After a year of searching without a clue, horrifying images appear to Mike and his wife, but also patterns start to form in the evidence, just prior to the next Halloween. Mike is afraid that if he does not solve the mystery soon he will never see his son again. Uli Edel directs a screenplay by Dan Kay based on a story by Tim Lebbon. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The film opens in New York of 1679 for a brief look at some terrified children. We see too little to know what is going on.
Next we flash forward, and it is last Halloween. Mike Lawford (played by Nicolas Cage) is having a great holiday. He is thrilled that he has just gotten academic tenure, he is teaching horror stories to his class at college, and he is going to take his son Charlie to see the parade of costumes at a carnival a block or so from their New York City home. Mike has a hard time holding on to Charlie. Then Charlie cryptically tells his father to "pay the ghost" and disappears into the crowd not to be seen again. With rising fear, Mike searches for his son but the boy has just vanished.
Now it is a year later. Mike is obsessed with finding Charlie. He is having what may be hallucinations. He starts seeing graffiti on walls and in tunnels, which says, "Pay the ghost." Is his son the victim of kidnappers or has he fallen prey to something evil and supernatural? Is it something that has its roots centuries in the past? For the first half of the film the pacing is a little slow, but it picks up in the second half. Still there is something lacking here to make the climactic scenes pack a sufficient scare. A final showdown--I will not say with what--is a little bland by today's standards.
Nicolas Cage can play an interesting range of emotions but fear just does not seem to be one. Placed in a terrifying position his ability to emote seems to shut down. And it is just where the viewer could use a little fear to be drawn into the film. We need to feel his danger, but even at the climax he has not won the viewer over to fear his peril. Perhaps he was the wrong actor for this role.
Once the premise is established there is not enough original idea here to sustain a feature film. The film may work for some if they are caught in the right mood and have not seen the films that it borrows from, but in general there is not enough here to excite enough real horror. I rate PAY THE GHOST a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The film opens September 25.
Someone could correct me on this, but I am fairly certain that there were no witch burnings in the North America and certainly not in New York.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3733778/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pay_the_ghost/
DARK MATTER, ORPHAN BLACK, and IZOMBIE (letter of comment by Paul Dormer):
In response to Dale Skran's comments on fall SF television shows in the 09/18/15 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer wrote:
I rather liked DARK MATTER. And it got shown in the United Kingdom just days after showing in the United States.
As opposed to ORPHAN BLACK, where the BBC hasn't shown season 3 yet. They're showing it next week--all of it, more or less. They are showing two episodes of this every night in the early hours of the morning, starting at 2:10 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning.
Apparently, the BBC reckon what with the iplayer and DVRs, no-one cares what time a show is actually shown any more. And BBC3 is supposedly going online only.
From what I've heard of IZOMBIE, and the one episode I saw after Sasquan, I hope some United Kingdom channel picks this up. [-pd]
THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Volume VI of VI) (Part 2) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[concluding my comments from last week]
"In her last decay, Constantinople was still peopled with more than a hundred thousand inhabitants; but these numbers are found in the accounts, not of war, but of captivity; and they mostly consisted of mechanics, of priests, of women, and of men devoid of that spirit which even women have sometimes exerted for the common safety."
E: Again, Gibbon has a very negative opinion of women's military motivations.
"I can suppose, I could almost excuse, the reluctance of subjects to serve on a distant frontier, at the will of a tyrant; but the man who dares not expose his life in the defence of his children and his property, has lost in society the first and most active energies of nature."
E: While the goals of each side may have been clear-cut in 1453, many wars seem a lot less focused. So, for example, during World War I, both sides had to somehow motivate their populations to enlist and fight, because at some point it became clear that they were not fighting "in the defence of his children and his property," but for some more imperialistic goal.
"By the emperor's command, a particular inquiry had been made through the streets and houses, how many of the citizens, or even of the monks, were able and willing to bear arms for their country. The lists were intrusted to Phranza; and, after a diligent addition, he informed his master, with grief and surprise, that the national defence was reduced to four thousand nine hundred and seventy Romans."
E: So out of a population of 100,000, the emperor could get about 5,000, or 5%, volunteers. By comparison, while Lincoln got 75,000 volunteers at the very start of the American Civil War, out of a (Union) population of about 22,400,000, or only 0.3%, by the end of the war about 10% had served. (Many were, of course, drafted.) I admit it is not clear whether it is fair to compare these figures--the increasing mechanization of warfare, even by the time of the Civil War, made the necessity of having a high proportion of the (male) population bearing arms less than it used to be. When Rome was founded, they expected basically a 100% participation rate. As time went on this decreased for many reasons, not all of them as negative as Gibbon paints it.
"The primitive Romans would have drawn their swords in the resolution of death or conquest. The primitive Christians might have embraced each other, and awaited in patience and charity the stroke of martyrdom. But the Greeks of Constantinople were animated only by the spirit of religion, and that spirit was productive only of animosity and discord."
E: In other words, the Greeks (meaning the eastern Romans) spent all their energies fighting each other, and had nothing left for fighting the Ottomans. They were not even willing to await martyrdom, but fought with each other up to the very end. Miyamoto Musashi said, "Only a fool fights in a burning house," and that pretty much sums up Gibbon's view of the eastern Romans (Greeks).
"On the twelfth of December, the two nations, in the church of St. Sophia, joined in the communion of sacrifice and prayer; and the names of the two pontiffs were solemnly commemorated; The names of Nicholas the Fifth, the vicar of Christ, and of the patriarch Gregory, who had been driven into exile by a rebellious people."
E: Well, apparently they did achieve some sort of unity between the Eastern and Western churches, although only four months before the start of the final siege (6 April 1453) and six months before the fall (29 May 1453).
"Their hasty and unconditional submission was palliated by a promise of future revisal; but the best, or worst, of their excuses was the confession of their own perjury. When they were pressed by the reproaches of their honest brethren, "Have patience," they whispered, "have patience till God shall have delivered the city from the great dragon who seeks to devour us. You shall then perceive whether we are truly reconciled with the Azymites."
E: As I noted above, Gibbon excoriates the Mahometans/Turks for believing that they did not have any obligation to keep a promise against the interest and duty of their religion, but clearly here the Eastern Christians made promises to the Latin Catholics that they had no intention of keeping.
"The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured, and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Caesars."
E: Clearly, Gibbon is unimpressed by the Byzantines.
"The example of sacrilege was imitated, however, from the Latin conquerors of Constantinople; and the treatment which Christ, the Virgin, and the saints, had sustained from the guilty Catholic, might be inflicted by the zealous Mussulman on the monuments of idolatry."
E: In other words, the Muslims did no worse in terms of sacrilege than did the Christians, e.g., the Catholics of the Fourth Crusade.
"We may reflect with pleasure that an inestimable portion of our classic treasures was safely deposited in Italy; and that the mechanics of a German town had invented an art which derides the havoc of time and barbarism."
E: Well, I suppose the first part is an excuse for England's taking archaeological treasures from all over the world. The second part is referring to the printing press, which 1) tends to prevent the loss of books that happens when there are only a few manuscript copies, and 2) makes it easier for many people to acquire knowledge from books.
"But the position of Rome was less favorable, the territory less fruitful; the character of the inhabitants was debased by indolence and elated by pride; and they fondly conceived that the tribute of subjects must forever nourish the metropolis of the church and empire. This prejudice was encouraged in some degree by the resort of pilgrims to the shrines of the apostles, and the last legacy of the popes, the institution of the holy year, was not less beneficial to the people than to the clergy."
E: Now even non-religious tourism has become a big source of income for some places. A thousand years ago, travel was much harder, but the incentive of a religious benefit was a great encouragement. If you could not actually travel to a shrine, making a donation to it was the next best thing.
"To the impatience of the popes we may ascribe the successive reduction [from one hundred] to fifty, thirty-three, and twenty-five years; although the second of these terms is commensurate with the life of Christ. The profusion of indulgences, the revolt of the Protestants, and the decline of superstition, have much diminished the value of the jubilee; yet even the nineteenth and last festival was a year of pleasure and profit to the Romans; and a philosophic smile will not disturb the triumph of the priest or the happiness of the people."
E: It is interesting that the popes started by adopting the Roman secular games (called that because they occurred once a "saeculum", or the length of a human life--100 or 110 years). However, once they realized what a good thing they had going, they did the same thing the ancient Roman emperors did--they found excuses to have them more often.
"The sabbatic years an jubilees of the Mosaic law; the suspension of all care and labor, the periodical release of lands, debts. servitude, &c., may seem a noble idea, but the execution would be impracticable in a profane republic; and I should be glad to learn that this ruinous festival was observed by the Jewish people."
E: Gibbon understands that rules designed for a small theocratic agricultural society may not work for a large democratic industrial one. The various Utopian societies that were founded in the nineteenth century discovered this; the only ones that survived were those founded as religious communities. The rest--those that accepted everyone--found that people showed up in the late fall after all the heavy farm work was done, got food and shelter all winter, and then left in the early spring before plowing. Enforcing the law against usury (lending money at interest) was discovered to stifle economic growth, so in some cases usury was redefined at lending money at *excessive* interest, and in others only non-Christians were permitted to lend money.
Indeed, many of the rules laid down in the Old Testament are difficult to follow in modern society. Using electricity is forbidden on the Sabbath (*not* because it is fire, but for a more technical reason), but as more and more of our lives become tied to electricity, what can one do. Door locks are electric, books are on a Kindle, library card catalogs are computerized, lights all over are on motion sensors, thermostats turn on air conditioning if your body heats the room enough, and so on.
However, Gibbon again shows his anti-Semitism by expressing the hope that following the rules of Jubilee will destroy the Jewish people. The best one can say for this is that he is not endorsing ay actions against the Jews, but rather that they (like the eastern Roman Empire) will manage to destroy themselves.
"After a dark series of revolutions, all records of pedigree were lost; the distinction of surnames were abolished; the blood of the nations was mingled in a thousand channels; and the Goths and Lombards, the Greeks and Franks, the Germans and Normans, had obtained the fairest possessions by royal bounty, or the prerogative of valor. These examples might be readily presumed; but the elevation of a Hebrew race to the rank of senators and consuls is without a parallel in the long captivity of these miserable exiles."
E: Again, Gibbon does not seem to mind too much that the Goths, Lombards, Greeks, Franks, Germans and Normans had achieved high standing in the Roman Empire, but the thought that Jews might achieve the same level just curdles his blood.
"[Rienzi] fell senseless with the first stroke; the impotent revenge of his enemies inflicted a thousand wounds; and the senator's body was abandoned to the dogs, to the Jews, and to the Flames."
E: Why the Jews?! I cannot find anything about how they fit into this story at all.
"The nice balance of the Vatican was often subverted by the soldiers of the North and West, who were united under the standard of Charles the Fifth: the feeble and fluctuating policy of [Pope] Clement the Seventh exposed his person and dominions to the conqueror; and Rome was abandoned seven months to a lawless army, more cruel and rapacious than the Goths and Vandals."
E: This refers to the sack of Rome in 1527, and the Charles V is the Holy Roman Emperor, not the French King or any other Charles V. The idea that the worst (by orders of magnitude) sack of Rome was under the authority of the "Holy Roman Emperor" is certainly ironic. The fact that Gibbon gives it only this single sentence is inexplicable.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
SEEING by Jose Saramago (ISBN 978-0-15-603273-5) is a sequel to BLINDNESS, although it takes over a hundred pages to get more than just a passing reference to the first novel. When it does show up, it is in a chapter that pretty much gives up on subtlety for everything, and so we get conversations such as: "Appoint a commission of inquiry, minister. To reach what conclusions, prime minister. Just set it to work, we'll sort that out later."
[Reminder: Saramago eschews normal punctuation and capitalization, and delivers each character's lines as a single sentence with what would be normal sentences separated by commas.]
"... everything is possible in this world, no doubt our finest torture specialists kiss their children when they get home, and some may even cry at the cinema."
"... demonstrations never achieve anything, if they did, we wouldn't allow them."
"... the proof that there is a conspiracy lies precisely in the fact that no one talks about it, silence, in this case, does not contradict, it confirms."
"I've learned from my experience in this job that things half-spoken exist in order to say what can't be fully expressed."
"As I've learned in this job, not only are the people in government never put off by what we judge to be absurd, they make use of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason."
The book begins with an election in an unnamed country (again, as with BLINDNESS, it feels South American to me, but is probably supposed to be Portugal). In most of the country everything goes normally, but in the capital city, two things happen. First, bad weather seems to keep people home most of day, but then they all come out at the end of the day, causing long queues at the voting stations. And second, 70% of the ballots cast in the capital were blank. The government calls for a re-vote in the capital, and that has 83% of the ballots blank.
In addition to the odd punctuation and capitalization that characterizes all of Saramago's later work, SEEING continues the conceit Saramago used in BLINDNESS: he does not name any of his characters. In BLINDNESS, this is fairly natural--the characters had little occasion to introduce themselves or talk *about* each other. But in SEEING, we have the problem of policemen talking to their superiors about "the ophthalmologist", "the ophthalmologist's wife", "the man with the eye patch", and so on. News reports all say things like "a superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant, whose names, for security reasons, we are not authorized to reveal," and even feebler excuses.
Saramago also references his other works, other authors' works, and the real world. For example, "... in order for death to cease to exist, we would simply have to stop saying the word we use to describe it," reminds one of his DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS. The lines, "You resigned. No, I walked out," and indeed the entire premise echoes in some sense Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener". Saramago also mentions fictional detectives (Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe) a few times.
"Here, we each have our own grief and we all feel the same sorrow" is a line that can apply to every disaster: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, epidemics, ... But if there is re-assurance, there is also unease, as when Saramago writes, "Purged of its troublesome members, the cabinet was, at last, a cohesive whole, one leader, one will, one plan, one path." This is just another way of saying, "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer."
But what is most notable is that Saramago seems to be contradicting a major premise of BLINDNESS: In BLINDNESS, people left on their own with no government or police descend into savagery; in SEEING, they continue to function in a perfectly civilized manner.
This is a somewhat borderline fantasy, more a political allegory than a fantasy. Yet a division of Saramago's works into the fantastical and the non-fantastical would have to find this on the fantastical side of the line. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. --Oscar WildeTweet
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