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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 01/13/17 -- Vol. 35, No. 29, Whole Number 1945
Table of Contents
Six-Foot Submarines (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The Italian restaurant near us put up a sign that said "Six-Foot Subs". What they didn't say was how many of those hexapods did they put in the sandwich. [-mrl]
Mini-Reviews of 2016 Films (Part 1) (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
I am a member of the Online Film Critic Society and like most film societies each year we give out awards for what we think were the best films we have seen released that previous year. This requires a lot of film-watching every November and December. It is a terrible price to pay, but, hey, I am retired and I have the time to set aside. But I do not have enough time to write one of my usual film reviews for each film. That is I do not have time to write a review for every film I see if those reviews will be of the usual length. Films that are not of general interest I write no review for, but I find that I can write some single paragraph reviews and at leas make the important points. So as the New Year rushes in I can write a paragraph-long review each for several films rather than just a few longer reviews.
Here then are the first of my mini-reviews for 2016 films. Each film is rated on my usual -4 to +4 scale.
JACKIE The title character is Jackie Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman. Not long after the events in Dallas Jackie is interviewed at her palatial home in Hyannis Port, The primary subject of the interview is the assassination of her husband and her past as First Lady. Her memories are dramatized in flashbacks. Kennedy herself was hard to gage as her emotions remained so repressed and bottled up. She is dignified, almost regal, but her eyes and her bearing are dull. Director Pablo Larrain takes the point of view that there were quiet storms going on behind here yes. Her every word is carefully chosen. Every question and comment from her interviewer is taken like a chess move and evokes an immediate defense response. Frequently she is intentionally shocking in what she says. We get a view of her as being vindictive and cold but powerful. Watching the film it is a little hard to keep straight which actor is playing whom. The actors make no attempt to copy the accents of the original people. Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy without Kennedy's famous accent. It is odd to have a film about an American incident directed by a Chilean director. But it is of some interest to see the point of view of someone who is not from the US. Rating: Low +1
THE BEST DEMOCRACY MONEY CAN BUY Greg Palast, the Rolling Stone investigative reporter, investigates what he believes to be evidence that the GOP party is intentionally conspiring to disenfranchise seven million minority voters. Of course they have a constitutional right to be voters. To make his report more entertaining Palast follows Michael Moore's lead by making the telling comic where possible. He dons the wardrobe of a film noir detective and has the movie filmed in noir visual style. Most of what he finds is horrifying and I personally believe most. On the other hand my wife took great exception to the comedy styling that she found extremely off-putting. It would be a pity (that is a humongous understatement) if the style gets in the way of getting the message out. Palast concentrates on the very super- rich like (and especially) the Koch brothers. Rating: +1
FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY Shot in very realistic style, this story takes place in one day, New Years Day in Iran. The narrative is the interlocked story of three couples. We see love, infidelity and six people it is really hard to keep straight. If I knew the Persian language and recognized the actors a little better I would have gotten a lot more out of the film but as it is I can neither fairly praise or criticize the film. It does give a reasonably informative view of the Iranian middle class. Rating: High +1
KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE This is a documentary about actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to play Christine Chubbuck. In Florida in 1974 Christine was a television reporter who suffered from depression and killed herself on-air. If this sounds like the film NETWORK Christine was the inspiration for the character Howard "I'm mad as hell" Beale. The assumption of the film is that Kate will come to an understanding about Christine. Whether that assumption is valid is open to interpretation. Kate certainly is successful in finding a depression, but we can never know if it really is an understanding of Christine. The issue is that the station continually chose high rating, "blood and guts" journalism over serious informational news. Is the experience unique? Yes. Uplifting? Definitely it was not. The film takes a long time to get where it is going, but it boils up to a scalding climax. Rating: High +2
I will send out more mini-reviews of 2016 films on an irregular basis in the weeks to come.
Fast Radio Bursts (comments by Gregory Frederick):
Scientists for the first time have determined where a fast radio burst [FRB] came from. But they still do not know what causes them to form. So-called fast radio bursts (FRBs) picked up in 2016 by a telescope in New Mexico likely emanated from a dwarf galaxy some three billion light years from Earth, the scientists reported in the journal NATURE. FRBs flash only for an micro-instant, and can emit as much energy in a millisecond as the Sun does in 10,000 years.
I heard about this. This is a dwarf galaxy under-populated with only a comparatively small number of stars. Just the sort of galaxy that would want to pull a stunt like this. It is just trying to get attention. My advice would be to ignore it until it matures and is ready to join its community of galaxies. [-mrl]
THE OBELISK GATE by N. K. Jemisin (copyright 2016, Hachette Book Group, $15.99, 407pp, ISBN 978-0-316-22926-5) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Joe Karpierz):
N. K. Jemisin's THE OBELISK GATE is book two in The Broken Earth series and the direct sequel to last year's Hugo-winning THE FIFTH SEASON. That book was far and away the best book of the year; THE OBELISK GATE may be close to being the best book I read from 2016. It suffers from being "the second book in the trilogy syndrome", but that's not a fair accusation. That malady is usually given to second books in a series which exhibit a dramatic drop in quality from the first book. The difference between THE OBELISK GATE and those other second books is that the word "dramatic" can be removed from the previous statement.
The novel starts out pretty much where the first one left off-- right after that killer last sentence. In that last sentence, we discovered that the planet used to have a moon; in fact, it is referred to as "the" Moon, which leads me to feel (and this is my deduction) that we are on a far future Earth. The lack of the Moon is what is causing all the seismic disturbances that have been plaguing the planet--or at least contributing to them. The reader can then infer (at least I did) that the orogenes, the Guardians, and the Stone Eaters all developed in response to the planet's instability.
In THE FIFTH SEASON, we followed the story of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. By the end of that book we discovered that the three of them were in fact the same person at different stages of her life. Damaya had her Guardian (as does every orogene) in the person of Schaffa, and Syenite traveled with Alabaster, the ten-ring orogene- -the most powerful orogene there is--who caused the event that resulted in the latest Season. Essun was in search of her daughter Nassun, who was traveling with her father Jija, who killed their son Uche.
THE OBELISK GATE brings things more in focus while simultaneously exploring the complexities and the vast story of the Stillness. This book focuses on Essun and Nassun. Essun has been requested by Alabaster to build the Obelisk Gate to bring the Moon back, which has apparently been sent into an elongated, elliptical orbit, and does pass near the planet periodically. Nassun, while traveling with her father who clearly hates orogenes but can't bring himself to hate her, meets up with our old friend Schaffa. Nassun has become an extremely powerful orogene at a very young age, probably more powerful than her mother Essun. Her power and her decisions could possibly make the situation brought upon by the Season worse than it already is.
And there are the Stone Eaters, who play a much more prominent role in this story. We learn throughout the course of the book of the thousands year old war with multiple sides involved, and how the Stone Eaters, the Guardians, the orogenes, and the Stills (standard humans) are players in that war.
This is a truly complex book, as Jemisin takes what we know about the Stillness from THE FIFTH SEASON and expands upon it, reveals more about its history, and leaves us wanting for more, all the while teasing us about the origin of all these types of characters, and how they fit in to the grand scheme of things. As with THE FIFTH SEASON, there's a lot going on here, and I can't go much further into it without giving things away. Suffice to say that the both the story and the characters have great depth and complexity, and they go hand in hand in order to make this book work beautifully.
As with most second books in trilogies, this one really doesn't settle much of anything; rather, it opens up more questions and plot threads that Jemisin will need to follow up on and close off in the final book, due out this year. After the first two books, I firmly believe that Jemisin is up to the task. I'm eagerly awaiting the final chapter in this story. It should be terrific. [-jak]
BEYOND EARTH: OUR PATH TO A NEW HOME IN THE PLANETS by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix, Ph.D. (book review by Gregory Frederick):
This space science book covers some ideas about colonization of other planets or moons in the solar system. It discusses the pros and cons of living on our Moon, or Mars for example. The authors have put their thinking caps on and created original concepts about why humans should go into space, including a novel idea about going to and living on an obscure moon of Saturn, Titan. The authors divide the book into essentially two sections: the present day and an extrapolated future. Eventually the book focuses on Titan. Titan is the only solar system body with a relatively denser atmosphere and a solid surface analogous to Earth which has an environment we could cope with. Venus's atmosphere for example is extremely dense and hot and would crush and fry a human in a short amount of time. Mars has a very thin atmosphere so radiation plus micrometeoroids would be a problem when you are on the surface. Earth's atmosphere is mostly made of 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen while Titan has 95% nitrogen and 5% methane. Titan's atmospheric pressure is 50% greater than Earth's and the cold of Titan makes the air four times denser. Humans could adjust to these conditions and Titan's atmosphere would provide adequate shielding from radiation and micrometeoroids even on the surface. Titan has ethane and methane lakes that can provide fuel for a power plant. The oxygen needed to combust the fuel would be obtained from the frozen water ice on Titan. Titan is very cold at -290 degrees Fahrenheit but with thick insulated clothing (or with heating elements) and an oxygen mask you could walk on the surface without the need for a bulky pressurized space suit. You need a pressured space suit for Mars or our Moon. The authors combine a visionary approach to space colonization combined with the realities facing the project currently. This is an interesting book with a bit of science fiction mixed into the non-fiction story which is both engaging and well worth reading. [-gf]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
COPENHAGEN by Michael Frayn (ISBN 978-0-413-72490-5) is a play about the meeting in Copenhagen in 1941 between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg explained many times what was said, but the accounts were never clear and were inconsistent with each other. (One is sorely tempted to say his accounts were uncertain.) Basically, he claimed he was trying to convince Bohr that both sides should stall the production of atomic bombs in the hope that Bohr would convey this to scientists in America. Bohr wrote his version of what was said, but at the time of the writing of the play, his account was scheduled to remain sealed until fifty years after his death. However, the success of the play led them to release the papers, which were many drafts of the same letter, in 2002. In them, Bohr claimed Heisenberg was boasting about how Germany would soon have the atomic bomb and would soon win the war. Heisenberg's son says that Bohr was just unable to detect the subtext of what Heisenberg was saying, because Heisenberg had to be very circumspect.
This Frayn knew, of course, and acknowledged it early on, having Bohr's wife say, "He knows he's being watched, of course. ... He has to be careful about what he says. ... You know you're being watched yourself." This is interesting not just to help explain why the dialogue between Heisenberg and Bohr could not be straightforward, but also as a reference to the Uncertainty Principle, at least as it is understood by most people: the act of observing affects what is being observed.
However, this is not quite an accurate summary. As Heisenberg says in the play, "Everyone understands uncertainty. Or thinks he does. No one understands my trip to Copenhagen." One might add that even people who think they understand his trip to Copenhagen are mistaken as those who think they understand uncertainty, and vice versa.
Throughout the play, one finds oneself constantly asking if Heisenberg is amoral, or clueless, or both. His opening conversation with the Bohrs about sailing, skiing, and general conditions seems to indicate that there is at least a certain level of cluelessness. But Bohr clearly thinks Heisenberg amoral, accusing him of ignoring the ethical implications of his actions by saying, "Your talent is ... for always being in more than one position at a time, like one of your particles."
Throughout, Frayn uses the language of physics metaphorically. Not only are there at least hints that uncertainty applies to people's interactions as well as particles', but Frayn will have Bohr talk about the lack of cadmium control rods in Heisenberg's early reactors, and then admonish Heisenberg about not thinking ahead by saying, "I should have been there to slow you down a little."
There has been a version of COPENHAGEN filmed for PBS, and another recorded as a radio play for L.A. Theatre Works. Both are abridged from Frayn's original playscript, so even if you have seen/heard a dramatic version, there is more to be gained by reading the script. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The average dog is a nicer person than the average person. -- Andy RooneyTweet
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