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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 06/10/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 49, Whole Number 1914
Table of Contents
Whole Window (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Gene Cernan was talking about the experience of being in space. He said that when he got into space he looked back and and saw, to use his words, "your whole window is filled up with the Earth." He didn't need a rocket flight for that. That is what I see through my bedroom window. The window is filled up with Earth and there is a lot of Earth left over. [-mrl]
Welcome to Legitimacy, Science Fiction Fans. (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When I was growing up my parents thought that my interest in science fiction was a breed of immaturity. I grew up on science fiction, somewhat in spite of my parents. On gift occasions I frequently would get roller-skates or a game that simulated basketball. The hope was that playing the board game Bas-Ket I would develop a great enthusiasm for basketball. These gifts mostly collected dust.
My parents looked down on genre fiction as being absurd fantasy with blaster guns and ugly monsters. The worse science fiction is portrayed on TV and in the media, the more people like my parents believed that science fiction is really as puerile as it is portrayed. (And I am looking at you, Ben Affleck, and at your film ARGO.)
There were films with some themes my mother might have liked, but if it had fantasy she would reject the whole package. I remember my sister, herself no great fan of fantasy, recognized my mother would probably like some of the themes of the film COCOON but my mother refused to see the film because it had bits of science fiction.
In large part, science fiction is about how people react to change. And living is changing at a rate like never before. Now when my mother travels on a plane and everybody in the seats ahead are tapping merrily away on their cell phones or laptops or tablets she likely finds the change bewildering. She was opposed to science fiction and yet has been sentenced to live in a world that is changing away from the world she knew much faster than she can keep up with, really faster than anybody can keep up with. She has more or less insulated herself from having to face change.
Over my lifetime I have seen science fiction become much more widely respectable faster than I myself can keep up with. In the past science fiction has been considered declassé to downright disreputable and pulpish. In my school when we were supposed to choose a book for a book report we would be told in advance not to choose science fiction. Any science fiction book would be rejected out of hand by a teacher who considered it to be a waste of time. But with newsstands full of science fiction books with bizarre covers, most of which were misleading, science fiction just did not have a respectable image. With some effort one could get my teachers to make exceptions. 1984 by George Orwell sometimes teachers could have heard of and some would accept it, perhaps for no other reason they had heard of the book and reading the book report would have saved them from having to read the book to find what it was all about. I did get approval for reading BRAVE NEW WORLD and FRANKENSTEIN. Today science fiction is much more acknowledged as the literature with important content about change and some of the ideas people need to think about. It is a literature people actually need in order to be prepared to understand the world.
These days schools actually assign science fiction books to students. In part, that is because students are more likely to carefully read a book they enjoy. But also it is because of the nature of science fiction. Science fiction is in large part how the world (or other worlds) are changing and what those changes mean to people. Back in the bad old days, the world was fairly stable. The technology that we students saw in fifth grade would be very much the same as what we saw in tenth grade. Today technology and the scientific outlook have changed a great deal in the last five years. Changes are hitting us faster and faster. Science fiction is looking at issues of cloning and of artificial intelligence and robotics, the same issues that the sciences are considering.
Scientists and engineers are freely saying that they got started on their field by reading science fiction. The sci-fi ghetto has a lot of noted science fiction personalities.
So people who are condescending to science fiction (like Ben Affleck) are a little out of date. Science fiction seems today as respectable as it has ever been. It now is getting the respect it has deserves as a legitimate branch of literature and perhaps a most important branch. As Hannah Arendt said in THE HUMAN CONDITION (published in 1958) "Science has realized and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle. What is new is only that one of this country's most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires)." [-mrl]
THE LOBSTER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD: This review tells some of the rules of the strange world the story is set in.]
CAPSULE: CAPSULE: This is an absurdist comedy drama that drops the viewer in a world where people who are single have a limited time to find a mate or they have to be turned into an animal, but at least into a species of their choice. I know--that makes no sense. But the freedom to not make sense is the core of the story's style. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in the intriguing look at the importance of having a spouse in our society. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999) was a very original film. In the first half hour or so the Charlie Kaufman's script introduced three or so really off-the-wall changes to reality and then the film just played out with those strange ideas. At the time it seemed odd that these weird ideas could unapologetically be presented without being explained or justified. THE LOBSTER takes the same approach of throwing in absurdist premises but they never stop raining down. While the world setting looks deceptively like our world, the viewer is never allowed to feel he/she really understands what is going on. Strange ideas just keep being added to the mix.
David, a nebbish played by Colin Ferrell, is facing the trial of his life. He has gone to a hotel where single adults are sent to find a mate among the other people searching. If a person fails to find a life-partner by a fixed deadline he is turned into an animal, but an animal of his choice. The person who finds a partner must show that the partner will have something enough in common with the chosen mate, even if the similarity is something like that each has frequent nosebleeds. Some of this may be speculation, since the rules are mostly communicated by viewer deduction. These are people depersonalized by the entire situation. Most are given no names but a characteristic they have. Leading characters include the limping man (Ben Whishaw, best-known as Q), the lisping man (John C. Reilly), and the heartless woman (Angeliki Papoulia). There is some hope. Out in the forest there is a counter-movement of Loners who have banded together, contrary to their name. There the narrator of the first half of the film incarnates as the near-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz).
This may sound strange, but many of the rules of dating and finding a mate are very recognizable. Every day we see people desperate to find a mate. This film of a foreign yet occasionally familiar world was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos based on a script he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou. This is their first English language film.
One obvious problem is the camerawork. Perhaps it is intended to be disorienting, but shots are incorrectly framed. People appear in the frame only up to the shoulders or only one side of the body. Somehow the film loses some of its initial joy of discovery when the novelty of new strange concepts wears off a little. I hope we hear more from Lanthimos. I rate THE LOBSTER a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3464902/combined
What others are saying: http://tinyurl.com/void-rt-lobster
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (film review by Dale Skran):
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE has not been loved by the critics, but still managed to pull in $284M or so worldwide in its opening week. Don't let the chitter-chatter of the nattering nabobs of negativism keep you away from a basically entertaining and well done X-Men movie by Brian Singer. There are some flaws here, but first I'd like to point out the good stuff:
There are some weak items here, including:
There has been some controversy about a movie billboard that shows Apocalypse choking Mystique with the title "Only the strong survive." "Feminists" have been claiming that the poster glorifies the beating of women. Never mind that we see a purple monster choking a blue-skinned mutant who is not even obviously female. Never mind that in the movie just before the billboard scene Mystique had slit Apocalypse's throat. Never mind that a few minutes later in the movie Jean Gray blasts Apocalypse down to his constituent atoms. There have a lot of comic covers showing Superman or Batman apparently beaten up, but this does not lead to any protests that such covers encourage violence against men. There surely have been exploitative movie ads that deserved protest, but all good principles can be carried to insane extremes. The logical outcome of this "feminist" thinking is that women can only be shown is positions of absolute equality with men, or in domination over men on movie billboards or anywhere else.
There have also been criticisms that Apocalypse is a weak villain, or at least not interesting. It is certainly true that he is not as nuanced as Magneto or Dr. Doom. However, I contend there is nothing inconsistent or unlikely in how the character is presented. Apocalypse has lived many lives, and stolen the powers of many mutants. He has come to think he is a god, and with such vast abilities, such a delusion is understandable. Over the ages, Apocalypse has become just the pursuit of power. Whatever back- story he had has been lost in the sands of time.
Another much-discussed topic related to super-heroes is how collateral damage is handled. The recent CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR focuses entirely on this matter in a serious fashion. In the context of X-MEN: APOCALYPSE a number of scenes must have entailed vast loss of life. In particular, Magneto, his powers enhanced by Apocalypse, undertakes to destroy all the buildings in the world. Now, of course, we could choose to believe that once the creaking and groaning starts, everyone runs outside and there is no loss of life. However, on a global scale there would surely be large numbers of deaths. It also follows that there would be a profound effect on human society from the reality that beings like Apocalypse exist, and seek to work their will in the world, but such effects logically should appear in the next X-Men movie. We'll just have to wait and see.
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is fine for tweens and up, although too loud and scary for little kids. In particular, there is a scene in which Magneto's wife and small child are killed with an arrow that many will find disturbing, not because it is graphic but just because of what is happening. Also, there are some Holocaust flash-backs that although brief may be too much for some. I'm rating the movie +1 on the -4 to +4 rating. but it is a must-see if you like superhero movies. [-dls]
The Babel Fish, Mathematics, THERAPY FOR A VAMPIRE, Samuel Pepys's DIARY, and Muhammed Ali (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to Evelyn's comments on the Babel fish in the 06/03/16 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
Sorry to have been amiss in not writing on earlier issues of your weekly VOIDing --that certainly sounds problematic--but such is the way it goes in the world of online communication. Your most recent entry sparked a few comments.
I wonder if the creators of that Pilot translation device ever saw HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE, because the Pilot certainly does bear a strong resemblance to the Babel fish. So many other innovators were inspired by STAR TREK devices--such as the handheld flip-top phone, now even a tricorder and medical scanning probe are in development- -that I would not be surprised that the Pilot developers watched any of the many iterations of STAR TREK. Such a communication breakthrough would be a game-changer in international diplomacy. [-jp]
I don't know anything about the creators of the Pilot, but when science news media wrote about the Pilot they introduced it by comparing it to the Babel fish. I think many people made the same connection. [-mrl]
In response to Mark's comments on mathematics, John writes:
Mark, you are talking about mathematical gobbledygook again. My eyes have glazed over and my brain has grown numb. Excuse me while I go watch some baseball to snap myself back to a semblance of normalcy.
Okay. I'm back. [-jp]
For once I agree with you that the mathematics was gobbledygook. That was the point of the article. But I know how lost I often feel in a world where if a news item mentions prime numbers they feel they have to define what a prime number is, but they feel they can assume everybody knows what "a touchback to the end zone" is. [-mrl]
In response to Mark's review of THERAPY FOR A VAMPIRE, John writes:
THERAPY FOR A VAMPIRE sounds like a lot of fun. I am definitely going to watch for it in this area. Odds are it won't hit Bryan- College Station area, but Houston is only an hour and a half away, so that movie would make for a fine segment of a day trip to see out daughter and son-in-law in the Woodlands. THERAPY sounds like my kind of movie: I enjoy different takes on familiar tropes. Many thanks for the heads up on this. [-jp]
In response to Evelyn's comments on Samuel Pepys's DIARY, John writes:
When I was in high school I attempted to read all of the volumes of Samuel Pepys' DIARY; our local library had a matched set of this nine-volume historical document--for lack of a better term, it is definitely this--and made it as far as the fourth volume before I couldn't take any more. Some year I may have to go back to it, but only if I feel like subjecting myself to 17th century English language grammatical constructions, which could be quite convoluted. I honestly don't know which would be worse: reading Samuel Pepys' DIARY or a mathematics textbook. They are both tortuous. [-jp]
Sad news in the world a couple days ago with word of Muhammad Ali's passing. He was inspirational on many levels and will be very much missed. Requiescat In Pace. [-jp]
Natures (letters of comment by Philip Chee and Peter Trei):
In response to Mark's question ("When they say that an action is "second nature" to someone, what are the other natures?") in the 06/03/16 issue of the MT VOID, Philip Chee writes:
Inaction? Sloth? Procrastination? [-pc]
Peter Trei responds:
To take the question seriously.
My interpretation is:
One's 'first nature' consists of the instincts, abilities, and reactions one is born with--the ability to walk, learn speech, etc.
'Second nature' refers to a skill or ability you were not born with, but gained through training to the point that their exercise is as automatic as those that were. [-pt]
As I thought, people disagree on what first nature is. We only really agree on "second nature." But them being cynical is third or fourth nature to me. [-mrl]
"If This Goes On..." and "Blowups Happen" (letter of comment by Gary McGath and correction by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In response to Evelyn's comments on the two versions of "If This Goes On..." in the 06/03/16 issue of the MT VOID, Gary McGath writes:
What were the differences? I've read the version in THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW, which I think is the same as the one in REVOLT IN 2100, but I may not have read the one in EXPANDED UNIVERSE. (I'm sure I have both books somewhere; I'm just being lazy and asking. And perhaps starting an interesting discussion.) [-gmg]
Well, first of all, I misspoke myself: it was "Blowups Happen" that was updated, not "If This Goes On...". (My only excuse is that when I'm reading half a dozen Heinlein stories all at once, they tend to run together in my mind.)
Anyway, regarding "Blowups Happen" (if you're still asking the question):
Having put the books away (and EXPANDED UNIVERSE being in a box three down in the stack of twenty-pound boxes), I'm going from memory, but it was basically an updating of the technobabble to coincide with post-1945 knowledge, and also mentions both Hiroshima and the Manhattan Project. See http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=102573. [-ecl]
THE DIARY OF SAMUEL PEPYS by Samuel Pepys (Part 2) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
As indicated last week, I will split my comments into topics, the first being government:
It is clear that government appointments at the time had little to do with qualifications, as Pepys writes, "[We] were sworn justices of the peace for Middlesex, Essex, Kent, and Southampton; with which honour I did find myself mightily pleased, though I am wholly ignorant in the duty of a justice of the peace." [September 24, 1660]
Some things never change, like the people's feeling about government waste: "But I do not see much thorough joy [at the queen's arrival], but only an indifferent one, in the hearts of people, who are much discontented at the pride and luxury of the Court, and running in debt." [April 15, 1662]
Bribery and graft were so common that the editor notes, "[In earlier days Pepys noted for us each few pounds or shillings of graft which he annexed at each transaction in his office.}" [January 24, 1663] And indeed we see entries such as, "This morning Mr. Cole, our timber merchant, sent me five couple of ducks." [February 13, 1663]
And eventually he has gotten ridiculously adept at this: "I met Captain Grove, who did give me a letter directed to myself from himself. I discerned money to be in it, and took it, knowing, as I found it to be, the proceed of the place I have got him to be, the taking up of vessels for Tangier. But I did not open it till I came home to my office, and there I broke it open, not looking into it till all the money was out, that I might say I saw no money in the paper, if ever I should be questioned about it." [April 3, 1663]
"This day Captain Grove sent me a side of pork, which was the oddest present, sure, that was ever made any man; and the next, I remember I told my wife, I believe would be a pound of candles, or a shoulder of mutton; but the fellow do it in kindness, and is one I am beholden to." [May 1, 1663] This reminded me of the character in the film MY FAVORITE YEAR who is always sending weird presents, such as a set of tires, or a dozen steaks. (These days steaks are not that odd to send, but in the 1950s of the movie they were.)
Pepys explains that there was "one that got a way of coyning money as good and passable and large as the true money is, and yet saved fifty per cent. to himself, which was by getting moulds made to stamp groats like old groats," but frankly his explanation made no sense to me. [May 19, 1663]
Given the rather severe penalties for theft, I was surprised to read, "This evening the girle that was brought to me to-day for so good a one, being cleansed of lice this day by my wife, and good, new clothes put on her back, she run away from Goody Taylour that was shewing her the way to the bakehouse, and we heard no more of her." [August 20, 1663] However, being in a position where your employer can beat and abuse you may make you more fatalistic about the possible consequences of trying to escape that sort of life.
Pepys describes a public execution: "And there I got for a shilling to stand upon the wheel of a cart, in great pain, above an houre before the execution was done; he delaying the time by long discourses and prayers one after another, in hopes of a reprieve, but none came, and at last was flung off the ladder in his cloake." [January 21, 1664]
Pepys seems to have been appointed to a position requiring more education (or training) than he had, but one can sympathize with him when he writes, "He showed a very excellent argument to prove, that our importing lesse than we export, do not impoverish the kingdom, according to the received opinion, which, though it be a paradox, and that I do not remember the argument..." [February 29, 1664] I find that there are many explanations in economics that make perfect sense while I am listening to them, but a few hours later I would have difficulty explaining them. Later some one explains to Pepys how "the old law of prohibiting bullion to be exported, is, and ever was a folly and an injury, rather than good." [January 27, 1665]
While we have seen that we cannot entirely trust Pepys's descriptions of things he has only learned secondhand (or thirdhand), it is still instructive to read this description of Moscow before Peter the Great embarks on his modernization/ Westernization program: "... Though Moscow is a very great city, yet it is from the distance between house and house, and few people compared with this, and poor, sorry houses, the Emperor himself living in a wooden house, his exercise only flying a hawk at pigeons and carrying pigeons ten or twelve miles off and then laying wagers which pigeon shall come soonest to her house. All the winter within doors, some few playing at chesse, but most drinking their time away. Women live very slavishly there, and it seems in the Emperor's court no room hath above two or three windows, and those the greatest not a yard wide or high, for warmth in winter time; and that the general cure for all diseases there is their sweating houses, or people that are poor they get into their ovens, being heated; and there, lie. Little learning among things of any sort. Not a man that speaks Latin unless the Secretary of State by chance." [September 16, 1664]
Pepys is still engaging in financial shenanigans that seemed to have been standard then, and possibly even legal: "In one business of deales on L520, I offer to save L172, and yet purpose getting money, to myself by it." [September 24, 1664]
A note describes the system of "tallies", or notched pieces of wood, which seemed to be a combination of I.O.U. and money substitute. They were discontinued in 1824, and "the destruction of the old Houses of Parliament, in the night of October 16th, 1834, is thought to have been occasioned by the overheating of the flues, when the furnaces were employed to consume the tallies rendered useless by the alteration in the mode of keeping the Exchequer accounts."
We learn something about the taxation of the period when Pepys writes, "This morning come to me the Collectors for my Pollmoney; for which I paid for my title as Esquire and place of Clerk of Acts, and my head and wife's, and servants' and their wages, L40 17s; and though this be a great deal, yet it is a shame I should pay no more..." [April 5, 1667]
Pepys also shows us that attempts to weasel out of taxes by trying to twist the law when he reports that someone "here lies in a messenger's hands, for saying that a man and his wife are but one person, and so ought to pay by 12d. for both to the Poll Bill; by which others were led to do the like; and so here he lies prisoner." [June 5, 1667]
After the Raid on the Medway in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, Pepys observed that "our own soldiers are far more terrible to those people of the country-towns than the Dutch themselves." [June 30, 1667] Of course, the Dutch were fighting mostly on the water, while the soldiers were land-based.
Next week: society. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I have previously mentioned "The Lottery in Babylon" by Jorge Luis Borges in passing, but having just listened to the SFF Audio podcast about it, I decided to write more, in part because this podcast (and their previous Borges one on "The Circular Ruins", which I mentioned last week) makes the mistake of analyzing word choices when what they are reading is "just" a translation. The fact that the different hosts read different translations should have given them a clue that maybe they should go back to the original and see (for example) whether the fact that one makes reference to a left index finger and the other to a right was not just an error somewhere along the line.
In fact, the title itself is a clue to this. In the original Spanish it is "La loteria en Babylonia" is variously translated "The Lottery in Babylon", "The Lottery of Babylon", "The Babylon Lottery", "The Babylonian Lottery", and possibly other variations.
And another translation issue: Anthony Kerrigan, in FICCIONES, gives us this translation of Borges: "A happy drawing might motivate his elevation to the council of wizards or his condemnation to the custody of an enemy (notorious or intimate)...." How could a "happy" drawing lead to one's imprisonment by one's enemy? Looking at the original Spanish, I found it said, "Una jugada feliz podia motivar su elevacion al concilio de magos o la prision de un enemigo (notorio o intimo)...." This is better translated as "A happy drawing might cause his elevation to the council of mages or the imprisonment of an enemy (notorious or intimate)...." (I will note that John M. Fein gets in right in in his translations fpr LABYRINTHS, as does Andrew Hurley in his translation for COLLECTED FICTIONS, and Norman Thomas di Giovanni in his on-line translation.)
Early on, we encounter the sentence: "For one lunar year, I was declared invisible; I cried out and was ignored, I stole bread and was not executed." The podcasters wondered if this was the inspiration for Robert Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man". "The Lottery in Babylon" was published in 1941, and first translated into English in 1959. (It has actually been translated into English *four* times.) Silverberg wrote "To See the Invisible Man" in 1963, so it is quite possible he had read "The Lottery in Babylon" by then.
Towards the end, Borges (in the voice of the narrator) talks about an infinite number of drawings being possible, in the sense that time is infinitely divisible. In this regard, he references Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which is more about the divisibility of space than of time. The same is true of the dichotomy (or racecourse) paradox; of the three most famous paradoxes of Zeno, only the arrow paradox divides time.
Babylon was abandoned in 141 B.C.E. Zeno of Elea lived about three hundred years earlier, but Elagabalus was emperor of Rome from 218 to 222 C.E., so either 1) the narrator's reference to him is anachronistic, or 2) the narrator is seemingly immortal, or 3) everything and everyone is adrift in time. It is not just that time is infinitely divisible, but that time not linear either, at least in the universe of "The Lottery in Babylon".
In the 11/16/2007 issue of the MT VOID, I wrote about someone's comment that as far as government health insurance goes, all they want is the same medical plan their Congresspersons get. This would be far more likely in a situation such as that in "The Babylonian Lottery", because the Congresspersons would know that with the next roll of the dice, they could end up with whatever health plan a random person in the society gets. Both seem founded in the "veil of ignorance" philosophy of society propounded by John Rawls. This philosophy says that to set up a just society, the creators should not know where in that society they will be. In Plato's "Republic", one can presume that Plato saw himself as one of the rulers, and not one of the slaves. If Plato were forced to wear the "veil of ignorance", he would have to assume that if he sets up a society in which 90% are slaves, then he would have a 90% chance of being a slave, and he might not be so keen on that set- up. (In some sense, this is just a variation on Kant's categorical imperative.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: I used to sell furniture for a living. The trouble was, it was my own. --Les DawsonTweet
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