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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 12/22/17 -- Vol. 36, No. 25, Whole Number 1994
Table of Contents
The correction to last week's MT VOID was to restore the initial paragraph of my "This Week's Reading" column, which was accidentally omitted. Since that said what the book was that I was discussing (TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain), it was not a minor error, which is why we sent out a corrected version.
Thanks to Fred Lerner for catching it and reporting it. [-ecl]
Take the Plunge:
This is rather exciting. Too bad it is only a simulation. Dive into the red spot:
The Opposition (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We saw a sign for the Christian Motorcycle Association. What do they call themselves, Heaven's Devils? [-mrl]
Mini Reviews, Part 1 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It is that time of year again when I vote on awards for films. This is one very nice perq of my hobby of writing film reviews and being a member of the Online Film Critic Society. Filmmakers and publicists *want* me to see their films in the hopes that they will be considered for awards. So I get to see new films either on-line or I get disks. I have not yet worked out if the makers of films like SAUSAGE PARTY and DESPICABLE ME 3 really expect the critics to fall in love with their films. But at least they offer me a chance to see their output and there always will be a few really good films.
I cannot write my usual format for every film I see, but I can write brief reviews. I do not know where these films will play. These films may play in local theaters or in Manhattan art houses. But I can let people know what to look for on Amazon Prime and/or NetFlix.
I will start with the most enjoyable film of the year, at least for me. Two of the reviews are really left over from last year. Both are available from sites like Netflix. Each film below is rated on my -4 to +4 scale.
This film is based on a true story. Molly Bloom wanted to be an Olympic skier and came very close to making it before she had an accident, was washed out, and had to give up making it to the Olympics. By chance she ended up inheriting the job of organizing the most exclusive weekly poker game in the world. This task brought her some small fame and some major fortune in (honest) tips. MOLLY'S GAME is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin who wrote THE SOCIAL NETWORK, STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and A FEW GOOD MEN. He also did much of the writing for "The West Wing". I will be honest that sports films are not my thing, and poker films are not my thing either. I started this film thinking it was not for me. It took five minutes or so before I became fascinated by this film and this character. Jessica Chastain is enchanting as Bloom and Idris Elba is her lawyer. When the two talk they are really convincing as being very, very smart. Much of the film revolves around the fact that Molly has very high scruples. The FBI did not believe that, but I do. This film was a lot of enjoyment and it may well be the most fun I will have at the movies this year. This is a major role for Chastain and I suspect that from now on she will be thought of as a glamorous actress. Rating: +3
IN THE FADE
This is a film very much in the style of BBC plays though it is predominately in German. The script is timely and provocative. The film is co-written and directed by Fatih Akin. Life in Germany is good for Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger). She has a husband, a son, a nice home, and a source for marijuana. The latter she uses in moderation. Then in an instant a terrorist attack takes away her husband. The film is divided in three chapters. The first is the crime and its effect on the devastated Katja; the second chapter is a courtroom drama as the case goes to trial; the third chapter is the results of the trial. The script leaves room for some serious drama and some action. It does not have the sort of overly satisfying American film ending. Kruger won the Best Actress award at Cannes and was Germany's Official Academy Award Entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Rating: high +1
FREE STATE OF JONES
This is a 2016 film based on a true story. However, director and co-writer Gary Ross rather freely does his basing on the books THE FREE STATE OF JONES by Victoria E. Bynum and THE STATE OF JONES by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight who during the US Civil War deserts from the Confederate army and establishes Jones County as a sanctuary for escaped slaves and poor farmers. Together they hold the land against the Confederacy with captured munitions. This is a story that really needed more of an epic production. Rating: low +2
This is really a film from 2016. It is not at all what it appears to be, that is one more action film padded out with gunfights and maybe a little sex. So what is it? It is the true story of Robert Mazur (played by Bryan Cranston). It has a lot of tension, but it is not from gunfights to pad the story out. There are no gunfights in the film. It is really a character study of Mazur worming his way into the Medellin Drug Cartel from his start in the guise of a money launderer. This is a good suspense film. Rating: high +2
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: As we left the "Star Wars" story two years and two chapters ago, Rey has found the missing Luke Skywalker. But Skywalker now lives and looks like a monk. He refuses to bring Rey into the Jedi order. Meanwhile the First Order is preparing an insidious attack against the Rebellion. The Jedi have not gone out of the universe yet, but the story structure of a beginning, a middle, and an end has. Rian Johnson writes and directs. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
It is early December, the new standard release time for a new "Star Wars" film. Last year it was STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE and the year before it was STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Back when the major series would release in December it would be a chapter of an existing book like from the "Harry Potter" or Tolkein "Middle Earth" series. The viewer had some guarantee that the film was based on a book that had an ending. We were assured that the story had an end coming in a year or two. But now "Star Wars" films were never based on a book. The "Star Wars" series is "sustainable" in the worst sense of "sustainable." As long as the writers keep on writing the series may never come to an end. We may be seeing a high-tech "General Hospital". Certainly this latest chapter has a lot of soap-opera-style plot twists to keep the viewer coming back. The writers love leaving misleading clues to what is going to happen and then something else happens instead. Little in the film is highly predictable. Speaking of the writing, I think people were disappointed when Disney got ownership of the series. "Star Wars" films would be coming from the people who made films like THE LION KING. But I am not hearing a lot of complaints that the writing has suffered since the ownership has changed. The writing now is better appreciated than that of the prequel trilogy.
A few days after seeing the film I think the most common complaint I have heard about STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is that the film is just too big. It is more than 150 minutes long. It has too many plot twists and too much fighting and too many characters. If you want to claim the acting is bad there are scenes with fairly good acting. But if you say the acting is good you can pick out scenes that are not. The script has a large number of stories developed and many of them get twists. Battle scenes are no longer one X- wing being chased by two enemy TIE fighters down a trench. Instead, the film shows the viewer one huge tapestry of fighting with action in six or seven parts of the screen. The excitement comes from a sort of sensory overload. And it is more than just two or three battle set pieces. There is a lot of loud and action- filled fighting.
You know your fantasy may be getting a little florid when--as in Russian novels--characters have two different names. Ben Solo is also Kylo Ren and Adam Driver plays him. I have not seen a lot of Driver and have liked him in previous films, but he certainly has an unusual acting style. He bears watching. And much more experienced but always bearing watching is Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo. Mark Hamill has a fair amount of screen time but gives a performance that is only adequate. In addition to Luke Skywalker, he plays a character named Dobbu Scay in the casino scene. I guess I did not notice. Carrie Fisher plays an aging Princess Leia Organa for the last time.
If you are going to another galaxy you might as well pick a beautiful place to visit. The cinematography and the art direction are as usual first rate.
One more thing is worth noting. Until now the series has been about a conflict that is essentially a feud within a single family. That is just a bit claustrophobic. At least the new film is trying to broaden the character base. That means the most interesting people are no longer related to Darth Vader. I rate STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2527336/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_wars_the_last_jedi
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin (copyright 1969, Penguin Group, $9.99, 304pp, ISBN 978-0-441-00731-8) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Gwendolyn Karpierz):
I will start with this: THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is very good.
We can leave it there; go ahead, go home, skip the rest of this. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is very good and you should add it to your to-read list.
Okay, now this: I'm not sure I liked it.
Except that's not right. I don't read books I don't like. If it hasn't caught my interest in the first 50-100 pages, I abandon it; life's too short to reading boring or terrible books. But I felt ... compelled to finish THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS.
So say rather ... It made me uneasy.
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is told primarily from the point-of-view of Genly Ai, who is essentially a human as we know them. He is acting as Envoy to the planet Winter (called Gethen by its inhabitants), which is populated by a race of androgynous ambisexuals, which is to say, they exist in a hermaphroditic state until they enter kemmer, their phase of sexual potency, at which point they can choose either male or female. Now it is important to know that these Gethenians are *also human*. They're just a divergent race of humans with very unusual characteristics.
That's not really what it's about, though.
It seems like it would be, doesn't it? But this book isn't a treatise on the extremely polarizing discussion of gender. That's just a feature of the world.
And what a world. Le Guin has gone far beyond the level of world- building that I could even begin to comprehend. She clearly knows everything--from tricks and ticks of the languages, to how the people evolved both culturally and physically to acclimatize to their Ice Age of a planet, to different folk tales from the different countries. Admittedly, some of this world-building does occasionally, at least in the first half, get in the way of the plot and characters. Le Guin is so intent on feeding her readers the details of the world, as if trying to prove she knows what she's doing--which she certainly succeeds in doing--that it creates a distance between the readers and the story.
Furthermore, the beginning of the book is often about the political climates of the two countries (Karhide and Orgoreyn), which is just never my favorite plotline. It's not a flaw in the book; it's personal preference, but it's definitely one of the things I didn't appreciate in the beginning.
There's something uneasy, too, and hopeless, about watching two countries that have no word for war hurtling almost inevitably toward it. There are moments, though, where we catch glimpses of the characters as more ... *vulnerable*, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to keep reading.
There's a turning point, though, in which THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS becomes a much more human story.
"They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire."
To be a great writer, you have to understand something about humanity. Something deep and inextricable from the human condition. Not only that, you have to be able to express it to other people, to say something that is understood but not necessarily acknowledged.
Le Guin understands something about being human.
"It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give."
This comes at the point for me which began to change my uneasy opinion of the book. After this, it went from being about the political intrigue of an alien on a strange world of eternal winter to being a story of what it means to be human. To be human together, despite differences and misunderstandings. To accept those things and still become friends.
Of course, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS isn't just about that either. It's about a lot of things. It is about political climate and manipulations, to a small extent. It's a bit about aliens, and culture shock. It is about gender, to a very small extent (and, without getting into a fight about the extremely polarizing subject of gender, I do wish it hadn't characterized all "female" traits as worthy of disdain). It explores the clash between order and passion, between dull refinedness and chaotic freedom. It doesn't villainize either of these, but rather, I think, the lack of cohabitation between the two. It watches two peoples learn about war. It's about humanity and friendship and alliance, between people and countries and planets. It's about strength, and hope.
I guess that means there's something for everyone.
So did I like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS? Whoops, it turns out I really did. [-gmk]
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin (copyright 1969 Ace Science Fiction, 2016 Recorded Books, narrated by George Guidall, 9 hours 39 minutes, ASIN B01N1WTLS7) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: an audio book review by Joe Karpierz):
As with Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those writers whose works I was not ready to read earlier in life. I tried reading both THE DISPOSSESSED and THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS more than thirty years ago; I struggled with both, giving up on both of the novels before I got too far into them. The writing style was not for me, nor was the subject matter. I'm fairly certain that's because I was coming from a background of reading more traditional science fiction, basically space opera and hard science fiction. These books were different. They were more literary, both in style and content. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was considered a game changer in its time. Published in 1969, it won both the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel in 1970. It was one of the first feminist science fiction novels. I was not ready to read either it or THE DISPOSSESSED.
Then, like so many other audiobooks that I've listened to, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS became a daily Audible special a while back. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could finally read (or listen to) the book and get something out of it. Still, it languished in my library as I was still not sure I wanted to give it a try. Of course, I finally did. And yes, I was ready for it.
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is a novel in Le Guin's Hainish sequence of stories. It follows the story of a man named Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen sent to the planet of Gethen as an emissary whose task is to convince the people of Gethen to join the Ekumen, which is a union of more than 80 worlds. Ai has the ability to "mindspeak", which apparently the residents of Gethen have as well, but have lost the ability to do so. Gethenians are ambisexual; 24 days out of 26 they are essentially androgynous, while during the other two they are said to be "in kemmer". While in kemmer, Gethenians become either male or female. The concept of androgyny was new to science fiction at the time, and Le Guin used the Gethenian ambisexuality to describe a world without war, a world where society is responsible for raising children, a world whose culture is built around the concept that sex and gender are fluid rather than fixed.
The story is familiar to long time readers of science fiction. Ai lands in Karhide--with his starship remaining in the solar system and it's crew in a state of suspended animation--and spends two years attempting to convince the people of Karhide to join the Ekumen. He befriends the prime minister, Estraven, who seems to believe in Ai's cause and tries to counsel the king, Argaven, to join the Ekumen. Estraven is accused of treason and banished from Karhide. Ai has an audience with Argaven, who rejects the proposal to join the Ekumen. Ai then decides to travel through Karhide during the summer, as the weather has warmed, the snow has melted, and the rest of Karhide is accessible. He eventually ends up in Orgoreyn, where the ruling people there seem open to the proposal, but eventually Ai is imprisoned and almost dies. Estraven rescues Ai, and, now that winter has returned, the two of them travel across the frigid land and across a vast ice sheet back to Karhide in the belief that Argaven will concede to the proposal.
As I read that last paragraph I realized that while it is a high level overview of the story of Ai (and Estraven), it fails to do justice to the story that Le Guin is really trying to tell here. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is a story of loyalty and betrayal, of a society where gender does not play the same role in society as it does in ours. Indeed, Ai is labeled a pervert, as he is stuck in one gender; he is a freak. The novel also explores the differences in communication between the societies: the mindspeak of the Terran native Ai, the concept of shifgrethor of the Gethenian natives, and the inability of one to understand how the other works. These differences, among many others, make Ai's mission difficult, but the mission of convincing the natives of Gethen to join the Ekumen is really secondary to what the novel is trying to do. The mission is a vehicle to get the story rolling, and while the mission itself is eventually accomplished, the real story is the exploration of different societies which work by different rules, primarily, it seems, based on their sexuality. The gulf between them seems insurmountable at first, but through persistence, loyalty, and a bit of love, I think, the union of Gethen and the Ekumen is accomplished.
The narrator of the book, George Guidall, seemed out of place to me at first, but after awhile he did grow on me and he eventually felt right for the story. I believe that the fact that the residents of Gethen sort of defaulted to male (as far as Le Guin depicted them) made it easier for Guidall as he didn't have to portray female characters. I've tried to envision him doing so, and I've come up empty. Still, it now feels like no one else should have read the novel, so maybe he did work after all.
So, have I grown up as a reader? Was I able to read--or listen to- -THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and not be daunted by it? I think so. I also understand why the novel garnered all the acclaim it did more than 45 years ago. I didn't recognize it as a groundbreaking book, but that's because I didn't read it back in 1969, when it was indeed groundbreaking. I do believe that the book holds up today, 48 years after its initial publications. It truly is a masterpiece. And will I read more Le Guin? There's bunch of Le Guin on my book shelves waiting to be read. And I think I'm ready. [-jak]
ASTROPHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN A HURRY by Neil deGrasse Tyson (book review by Gregory Frederick):
Well-known scientist, author, and TV and radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson is the author of this compact and very interesting book covering our current knowledge in the field of astrophysics. Topics covered in this book include the CMB (cosmic microwave background), dark energy, dark matter and many more subjects of fascination for scientists and the casual reader as well. The CMB is the cooling remnant of the brilliant glow that was once the hot big bang. It is one piece of evidence of this universe-creating event. The CMB has been mapped by orbiting spacecraft. Dark matter, which makes up a large percent of the matter in the entire universe was first discovered as far back as the 1930s. Fritz Zwicky, an astrophysicist, found that galaxies in the Coma Cluster were moving at a higher velocity than could be account for by the observable mass in this cluster. A greater gravitation force will cause galaxies to move at a faster speed and this is created by a larger concentration of mass. But not enough observable mass was seen in this cluster so the assumption was that some type of unseen Dark matter was causing this added gravitational force. Dark energy is the mysterious pressure that acts against cosmic gravity and is accelerating the current expansion of the universe. If you do not have a lot of time to read about astrophysics but want to learn more about this subject then this enjoyable, short, and concise book is for you. [-gf]
INGRID GOES WEST (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Ingrid is very good at using social media but very bad at keeping friends. Most of the Internet applications she uses were intended for what she uses them for. Ingrid decides on a clever but insidious campaign to make herself an Instagram celebrity at the expense of current web celebrity Taylor. Nominally this is a comedy but somehow the comedy of the story comes out very dark. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Ingrid Thorburn (played by Aubrey Plaza, who also co-produced the film) has severe psychological problems. She has anger issues and for which she is receiving therapy. But her stunts have lost her any friends she once had. After she ruins a former friend's wedding she decides that she must move away and start the social process over again. Los Angeles seems inviting, and she picks out an Internet celebrity whom she wants to make her friend. Ingrid has one thing going for her. She knows how to use the social media, and how to manipulate people with the information she can glean so easily from stalking on social media. The star she picks out is Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Taylor has no idea how vulnerable she is to Ingrid's snooping and creative deceptions. Ingrid moves into Taylor's neighborhood and then is ready to pounce.
The film is directed by Matt Spicer, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Branson Smith. While the film is initially comedy as well as drama, as the film progresses the comedy (of which there never was a lot) diminishes and the tone goes darker and darker. Ingrid has the power to think fast and manipulates people with reality-bending stories and scams. She can think of what effect she wants and knows just the right lie to get the effect she wants. The subject of how to lie on the Internet to get results seems very opportune. But Plaza can at the same time show a very vulnerable side to Ingrid.
Plaza has a long list of credits going back to 2006 and it shows in her performance. When she is spinning plots in this film you feel that there really is a mind behind her actions. Elizabeth Olsen seems simpler than Plaza and seems a little bit vulnerable, which is just what the story calls for. While the message of the film is about how vulnerable people are on social media, Ingrid comes off as a little brighter than most Internet predators.
Films about the dangers inherent in social media are not exactly a rarity these days. This is a deceptively small and simple film, but it has a good deal to say about what abuses are possible and occurring in the social media. It should make you uneasy in places Stephen King cannot touch. I rate INGRID GOES WEST a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5962210/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ingrid_goes_west
UNAMERICAN STRUGGLE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a portrait of what the Alt-Right--the groups in the United States with nationalist far-right ideologies--is and what it is doing to our country especially over the last two years. Inter-cultural bigotry is on the rise. The film takes a (short) look at each of several minorities. It argues for the viewer and all minorities to stand up against bigotry. Ric Osuna wrote, directed and appears in the film. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Through my life, from the 1950s, I have seen in the United States an arc of generally greater acceptance of minority groups by the majority. In general things have gotten better. But over the last two years the trend has reversed. To track this Ric Osuna has written, directed, and appears in a film documenting the breaking up of those inter-group bonds. Osuna makes a case for the extent of the problem and ties it to the right wing in general and to Donald Trump in particular. Osuna's effort is to show the return of bigotry and places the responsibility for the return on the influence of Donald Trump.
Osuna opens with interviewees saying how bigotry is returning, how serious the problem is, and in specific the negative effect of Donald Trump. This part of the film is more or less a scattershot look at incidents of the regression into acceptability of intolerance of minorities.
Osuna goes from one cultural group to another. He tells a little-- very little--of their place in the culture of this country and generally shows the damage that Trump is encouraging. Groups that are feeling the sting of bigoted attacks include immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, black people, women, and transgender people.
Finally the director returns with a message that Trump is not the only person who can influence the behavior of people, even people he has never met. The public needs to stand up and work together to reverse the changes that are happening to our country.
What we face is an ironic problem: we want to get people of all different backgrounds, all different races, all different creeds, all different mind sets, all different philosophies, all different political viewpoints and get them all thinking the same way: that they will accept and embraces everybody's differences. But it is gong to take a real effort to get this country to go back in the right direction.
This film has a rating of 2.1/10 in the IMDB. It has received only eight votes of which seven are the lowest possible rating and one is the highest. It looks like the film is already under attack. For my part I would rate the film a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Release: Available on DVD and streaming on December 19.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt7106410/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_unamerican_struggle
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (letters of comment by Fred Lerner and Peter Rubinstein):
In response to Evelyn's comments on TESTAMENT OF YOUTH in the 12/15/17 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
Does Brittain mention anything about shell shock in her book? [-fl]
Yes, though I don't think she used the term, and her official nursing duties were primarily of those with wounds or physical diseases. She did see it in the hospitals as well as in soldiers back in England in non-nursing situations. [-ecl]
Peter Rubinstein writes:
Perhaps it's just because my mother was a journalist in New York, and I heard it from her, but my impression was that Dorothy Kilgallen was an influential columnist in the entertainment field. [-pr]
That could be. I could also be conflating her with a different famous game show regular. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
FINDERS KEEPERS: A TALE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL PLUNDER AND OBSESSION by Craig Childs (ISBN 978-0-316-06642-6) is a book with an agenda. Childs is using the phrase "finders keepers" ironically (or possibly sarcastically). Far from believing that people who have found archaeological artifacts are entitled to them, he does not believe anyone is entitled to them--they should remain in the ground (or wherever they are). Museums should not get them--they are already overflowing with artifacts in storage rooms. Even the indigenous people (or whatever group is associated with them) should not get them--he describes one tribe that is digging up their artifacts and selling them to support the tribe.
Childs does somewhat grudgingly acknowledge that "salvage archaeology" (removing artifacts that are discovered when a new subway tunnel is dug, or the ground excavated for a new building, for example) may be necessary. When he asked a Phoenix area developer how he felt about destroying a Hohokam burial ground (which involved removing all the corpses and giving them to the local tribes (who are not Hohokam, but claim descent from them), the developer said, "Tell me a place you can dig in the valley without hitting something Hohokam."
But in general Childs believes that what is in the ground should stay in the ground. If he thinks there is value in studying what is found, he also believes it should be returned to where it was found--exactly--in the same state in which it was found. He believes this even though he realizes that doing that leaves it vulnerable to "pot diggers", but since he does not think putting things in a museum is any better than putting them in a private home, this does not change his mind. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A book that is shut is but a block. --Thomas FullerTweet
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