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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 12/20/19 -- Vol. 38, No. 25, Whole Number 2098
Table of Contents
Mini Reviews, Part 2 (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
More mini-reviews, this time of narrative films based on actual events:
THE REPORT: The flavor of the month in true stories of international spying is the whistle blower. Recognizable names like Julian Assange, Mark Felt, Eric Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg become national known figures. Less familiar perhaps is Dan Jones, who reported to Congress about the CIA's use of torture to interrogate prisoners. Adam Driver plays Dan Jones, who endangered his career and likely his own life spending five years writing a mammoth report on the subject of the US CIA's usage so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques to collect what they hope is strategic intelligence in the Iraq War. The story is all too real. Central to the atrocities is the CIA's investigation of the supposed "science" of interrogation trying to get reliable information from captured enemies. Be warned, the story involves explicit descriptions and graphic depictions of torture. The verbal and visual recreations are as strong as I have encountered in 2019. The issues of the policy are batted back and forth between the agencies of the government. While the film takes effort to help the viewer follow it is powerfully written and right now it stands as one of the best films of a quickly closing year. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4).
HOTEL MUMBAI is a very familiar formula and it usually makes for dramatic goings-on. The story is inspired by real events (the 2008 attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai), often involving machine guns. The viewer sees one or more members of the hotel staff risking their lives to save the innocent and usually kill some of the terrorists. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4).
THE AMERICANS: The Seduction of Paige Jennings: A Coda (television review by Dale Skran):
One interesting thread in THE AMERICANS is Paige's journey toward being a KGB agent. Paige is a bit of a "Nancy Drew" and runs several "operations" to figure out what is going on with her parents. Of course, the highly skilled Phillip and Elizabeth out maneuver her in each case, but she is clearly inclined toward seeking information via risky actions. Her judgement about danger is not the best, as when very early in the series she and Henry take a ride home from the mall with a young man who may be a would- be rapist or even a serial killer. Working together, Paige and Henry are able to escape, but even from a very young age Elizabeth has been exposed to life and death situations.
Still, what draws Paige toward the spy life? Some examples include:
Because Paige's situation is so twisted and difficult, there is clearly another story to tell, although I think virtually no chance the creators of THE AMERICANS will return to it [they claim they are done with the characters]. How could Paige figure out who to trust in the KGB? How could she get in touch with Arkady, who she almost certainly does not know exists? Would she try to help Oleg in some fashion? Would she try to engineer a detente with Stan? How could she complete her training, and how obedient to the KBG would she be? What would she do when the Soviet Union collapsed, return to a private life or seek to employ her skills in another cause? Would she grow tired of being alone? Would she ever see Henry, or her parents again?
It is, of course, possible that Paige would be alienated from the KGB, but still seek a cause. It is December 1987. You are a junior KGB illegal, without a support network, with only your wits and your training to rely on. You know too much--and too little--about the world. If it were 2001, it is easy to imagine her getting drawn into the "War on Terror" but that moment lies well in the future. One possibility is to spurn fixed affiliations with national spy agencies, but to develop an independent group works on projects as Paige sees fit. This is a modest extension of the established KGB pattern of building teams of local partisans to support KGB operations. Precisely because this project seems so challenging also makes it interesting to think about. It amounts to a more realistic version of MODESTY BLAISE. It would be very hard to do right, but just as the search for a cause draws Paige onward, the challenge makes it more interesting. However, THE AMERICANS seems like the last word on down-beat spy shows, so a sequel ought to seek a new tone, one appropriate for the more hopeful era after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The thing that might give impetus to THE AMERICANS: PAIGE'S STORY could be just this conflict--to serve the KGB, to seek a new cause, or to seek a new life outside the spy game. Season One almost writes itself. Paige would need to gather resources and complete her training, with or without help from the KGB. She might claim loyalty to Claudia's faction while building a separate network of her own, and seeking to contact Oleg, who is the only connection to Arkady's faction she might know about. Stavos might be her first recruit. And how would she get to Oleg?--almost certainly by using Stan Beeman in some fashion.
The new series would start in January 1988, and continue to the 1991 KGB coup against Gorbachev, a period of four years. Paige would no doubt play a key role in thwarting the KGB coup against Gorbachev, as would her parents, and the series might conclude with a reunion with her parents [and Henry] outside of Russia, something that would only be possible after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The final scene might the four of them sitting down for a meal in Vienna, perhaps with Oleg and his family, symbolizing the possibilities for them--and for Russia--in the new era. [-dls]
Capsaicinoids (letters of comment by Scott Dorsey and Peter Trei):
In response to Peter Trei's comments on capsaicinoids in the 12/06/19 issue of the MT VOID, Scott Dorsey writes:
[Peter Trei wrote,] "I think the critical insight is that birds can't taste capsaicinoids, but mammals can." [-pt]
Coco the electus parrot loves eating habaneros. She will eat habaneros, and then preen herself so that she is covered with habanero oil. When my wife takes her into the shower, she flaps her wings spraying burning toxic capsaicinoids all over the bathroom, often into one's eye. [-sd]
I had no idea that showering with a parrot was a thing. [-pt]
Parrots LOVE the shower! They would spend all day in there if they could! It's just like a rainforest! [-sd]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
As I noted last week about the film GETTYSBURG, on re-watching (or re-reading) something, one can always find something new one had not noticed before. So here are some more comments about THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Edward Gibbon (Penguin, ISBN 978-0-307-70076-6).
I will divide my comment into three parts, corresponding to the first three volumes of Gibbon.
"Under a democratical government, the citizens exercise the powers of sovereignty; and those powers will be first abused, and afterwards lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy multitude."
E: When Gibbon refers to the "citizens" of a democratical government, he is using the term as it was used in ancient Greece, the Roman republic, and the England of his time (mid-18th century). For example, in Gibbon's England, less than 3% of the population was eligible to vote. When the United States was created, racial and economic limitations meant only about 6% of the population could vote. So Gibbon's distinction between "citizens" and an "unwieldy multitude" had real meaning then. By comparison, currently in the United States roughly 70% of the population is eligible to vote.
"The deification of Antinous, his medals, his statues, temples, city, oracles, and constellation, are well known, and still dishonor the memory of Hadrian. Yet we may remark, that of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct."
E: One editor of Gibbon, the Reverend H. H. Milman, felt obliged to note that Hadrian's passion for Antinous was not that unique among the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
"Something of a doubtful mist still hangs over these Highland traditions; nor can it be entirely dispelled by the most ingenious researches of modern criticism; but if we could, with safety, indulge the pleasing supposition, that Fingal lived, and that Ossian sung, the striking contrast of the situation and manners of the contending nations might amuse a philosophic mind. The parallel would be little to the advantage of the more civilized people, if we compared the unrelenting revenge of Severus with the generous clemency of Fingal; the timid and brutal cruelty of Caracalla with the bravery, the tenderness, the elegant genius of Ossian; the mercenary chiefs, who, from motives of fear or interest, served under the imperial standard, with the free-born warriors who started to arms at the voice of the king of Morven; if, in a word, we contemplated the untutored Caledonians, glowing with the warm virtues of nature, and the degenerate Romans, polluted with the mean vices of wealth and slavery."
E: When Gibbon wrote, Ossian was widely accepted as an authentic third-century poet and his poems as based on historical fact, although we can see that even Gibbon had some skepticism. Now we know they were at best James Macpherson's retelling (with many additions and modifications) ancient Gaelic folk tales, and comparing the personalities of Fingal and Caracalla is doubly meaningless: Fingal is fictional (even if there was some historical person on which he was based--not unlike Malory's Arthur), and both personalities were constructed by Macpherson in Gibbon's time. One of the editors does indeed comment on the implausibility of all this even then:
"[Footnote 14: That the Caracul of Ossian is the Caracalla of the Roman History, is, perhaps, the only point of British antiquity in which Mr. Macpherson and Mr. Whitaker are of the same opinion; and yet the opinion is not without difficulty. In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus, and it may seem strange that the Highland bard should describe him by a nickname, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emperor, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians. ... Note: The historical authority of Macpherson's Ossian has not increased since Gibbon wrote. We may, indeed, consider it exploded. Mr. Whitaker, in a letter to Gibbon ... attempts, not very successfully, to weaken this objection of the historian.--M.]"
E: All this reminds me that among the many anachronisms in the film within the Coen brothers' HAIL, CAESAR! is a reference to the Baths of Caracalla hundreds of years before their construction.
"The old emperor [Septimus Severus] had often censured the misguided lenity of Marcus [Aurelius], who, by a single act of justice, might have saved the Romans from the tyranny of his worthless son [Commodus]. Placed in the same situation, he experienced how easily the rigor of a judge dissolves away in the tenderness of a parent. He deliberated, he threatened, but he could not punish; and this last and only instance of mercy was more fatal to the empire than a long series of cruelty."
E: This is proof that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it: Septimus Severus's son was Caracalla. Both Commodus and Caracalla are universally considered among the five worst emperors Rome ever had.
"[A] woman is often acknowledged the absolute sovereign of a great kingdom, in which she would be deemed incapable of exercising the smallest employment, civil or military. ... a female reign would have appeared an inexpiable prodigy in the eyes of those primitive Romans..."
E: Yet somehow no one in Gibbon's time, though perfectly accepting of a female monarch (Mary, Elizabeth, and Anne all pre-dated Gibbon in England), seemed capable of drawing any progressive conclusions about extending from this to civil or military employment.
"What in that age was called the Roman empire, was only an irregular republic, not unlike the aristocracy of Algiers, where the militia, possessed of the sovereignty, creates and deposes a magistrate, who is styled a Dey. Perhaps, indeed, it may be laid down as a general rule, that a military government is, in some respects, more republican than monarchical. Nor can it be said that the soldiers only partook of the government by their disobedience and rebellions. The speeches made to them by the emperors, were they not at length of the same nature as those formerly pronounced to the people by the consuls and the tribunes? And although the armies had no regular place or forms of assembly; though their debates were short, their action sudden, and their resolves seldom the result of cool reflection, did they not dispose, with absolute sway, of the public fortune? What was the emperor, except the minister of a violent government, elected for the private benefit of the soldiers?"
E: This is an interesting take on military governments, which does presume that the rank-and-file of military have some freedom of choice in the matter. This may have been true in Imperial Rome, but it is no longer so in the modern armies of today.
"A warlike nation like the Germans, without either cities, letters, arts, or money, found some compensation for this savage state in the enjoyment of liberty. Their poverty secured their freedom, since our desires and our possessions are the strongest fetters of despotism."
E: There are a couple of ways to interpret or apply this. One is that without real estate or large amounts of tangible property, the Germans could pick up and move whenever the need arose. The other is that if the Germans possessed real estate or tangible property, the fear of losing it through confiscation would prevent them from opposing a despot.
"Heroines of such a cast may claim our admiration; but they were most assuredly neither lovely, nor very susceptible of love. Whilst they affected to emulate the stern virtues of man, they must have resigned that attractive softness, in which principally consist the charm and weakness of woman."
E: Gibbon was a man of his time, who apparently considered "attractive softness" more desirable in a woman than the "stern virtues" that he lauds in men. But why he concludes the women were neither lovely nor capable of love is just pure prejudice--he has no evidence whatsoever of this.
"[The] emperor Probus constructed a stone wall of a considerable height, and strengthened it by towers at convenient distances. From the neighborhood of Newstadt and Ratisbon on the Danube, it stretched across hills, valleys, rivers, and morasses, as far as Wimpfen on the Necker, and at length terminated on the banks of the Rhine, after a winding course of near two hundred miles. This important barrier, uniting the two mighty streams that protected the provinces of Europe, seemed to fill up the vacant space through which the barbarians, and particularly the Alemanni, could penetrate with the greatest facility into the heart of the empire. But the experience of the world, from China to Britain, has exposed the vain attempt of fortifying any extensive tract of country. An active enemy, who can select and vary his points of attack, must, in the end, discover some feeble spot, on some unguarded moment."
E: So apparently throughout history, attempts to fortify a tract of, say, 1,954 miles (just to pick a number at random) are doomed to failure.
"Such extravagant compliments, however, soon lose their impiety by losing their meaning; and when the ear is once accustomed to the sound, they are heard with indifference, as vague though excessive professions of respect."
E: This may explain why some people find it necessary to exaggerate even what is good--if they are used to be fawned over, merely good is not good enough.
"[Licinius's] ambassador Mistrianus was admitted to the audience of Constantine: he expatiated on the common topics of moderation and humanity, which are so familiar to the eloquence of the vanquished; represented in the most insinuating language, that the event of the war was still doubtful, whilst its inevitable calamities were alike pernicious to both the contending parties; and declared that he was authorized to propose a lasting and honorable peace in the name of the two emperors his masters."
E: I am reminded of the scene in A BRIDGE TOO FAR in which a German approaches the outnumbered and surrounded Allies and says his general wishes to discuss terms of surrender. The Allied officer replies, "We haven't the facilities to take you all prisoner! Sorry!" In neither case is the bluster effective.
"... the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in arts and learning as well as in arms."
E: Gibbon is quite up front about his bigotry here, though of course he saw it as a plain statement of fact. Europe's pre- eminence in the arts and learning is apparently the judgment of ... Europeans. If one asked an Arab scholar, or a Chinese scholar, one might get a different opinion.
As Ali A Olomi said on Twitter recently, "Your God is a Middle Eastern Jew, your theology North African, your science is Arabic, your numbers Indian, and most of your politics southern Mediterranean. Western Civ is a lie you tell yourself to avoid the reality that all you've got you stole from the rest of the world." This is an overstatement, yet it is clear that the European civilization Gibbon so vaunts was built on the art and learning of the rest of the world as well.
"And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church."
E: The logic of this is indisputable, yet I cannot recall ever seeing it sufficiently addressed in Christian theology. Clearly the Catholic Church asserts that miracles still exist, but Protestant theology (at least initially) seemed to say that the age of miracles was over. Does anyone put a specific date on when the last miracle was?
"But it is always easy, as well as agreeable, for the inferior ranks of mankind to claim a merit from the contempt of that pomp and pleasure which fortune has placed beyond their reach. The virtue of the primitive Christians, like that of the first Romans, was very frequently guarded by poverty and ignorance."
E: This is otherwise known as "sour grapes."
"About a century afterwards, Ossian, the son of Fingal, is said to have disputed, in his extreme old age, with one of the foreign missionaries, and the dispute is still extant, in verse, and in the Erse language. See Mr. Macpher son's Dissertation on the Antiquity of Ossian's Poems, p. 10."
E: See my comments, above, on Ossian
[Eusebius writes,] "'They presume to alter the Holy Scriptures, to abandon the ancient rule of faith, and to form their opinions according to the subtile precepts of logic. The science of the church is neglected for the study of geometry, and they lose sight of heaven while they are employed in measuring the earth. Euclid is perpetually in their hands. Aristotle and Theophrastus are the objects of their admiration; and they express an uncommon reverence for the works of Galen. Their errors are derived from the abuse of the arts and sciences of the infidels, and they corrupt the simplicity of the gospel by the refinements of human reason.'"
E: In other words, Eusebius is objecting to trying to make any logical or scientific sense of the scriptures.
"Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendor. The season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age."
E: The idea that maybe none of the philosophers, poets, or historians of that era witnessed or heard of such a thing, and that maybe it never actually happened, does not seem to cross Gibbon's mind at all. Or maybe he is just following Eusebius's philosophy. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Did you hear about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who stays up all night wondering if there really is a Dog? --UnknownTweet
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