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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/28/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 22
Table of Contents
Get It Right (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I mentioned this in the VOID about eleven years ago, but I am reminded of it again. Where we live you see a lot of people getting into the Christmas spirit by putting all sorts of decorations on their houses and lawns. One that you see a lot is plaster deer on lawns. They are all North American deer like you see in wooded fields in my area. Well, people assume there is a connection between North American deer and Santa Claus. It makes us look silly to people from other countries. North American deer do not look much at all like reindeer. The idea of harnessing our sort of deer to a sleigh is actually fairly humorous. They are just not built for that kind of work. It is like casting Woody Allen as a gladiator. Reindeer are compact, muscular caribou. They look a lot more like small moose than they look like the deer you see on lawns. (I suppose in some sense they are all the same really big family, but the biggest they really share in common is that you use the same word for the singular and plural. You know, caribou, moose, deer, elk, and reindeer.) When I see North American deer I feel pretty much the same as when I see some store with a sign that says .89 cents. [-mrl]
Look, Who's Coming Back (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Ask people what happened forty years ago last Saturday and most will know it is the Kennedy assassination. But this was an eventful few days in the field of British science fiction. Dying the same day as President Kennedy were C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Lewis was the writer of two popular series, a science fiction trilogy composed of OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, and THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. He also wrote the Narnia fantasy series. Now, in spite of the fact his writing was sugarcoating for religious allegory, he is still fondly remembered. And Huxley was the author of BRAVE NEW WORLD. But as two science fiction icons went out of existence, another was born. That Saturday, November 23, 1963, the public saw the first of the man with no name. No, not that "man with no name." This is the science fiction man with no name. He has come to be known by the two-word question asking what his name is. He is "Doctor Who." If you want to call him by name, he is "The Doctor."
That Monday started a television serial of a girl who seemed to have better knowledge of history than such a young girl would be expected to have. It turned out her grandfather had a time machine and took her for jaunts into history. I am not sure how this was eventually reconciled with the grandfather being a stranger who travels through time, always landing where there is a serious threat of evil to the status quo. He is a Time Lord, something that transcends being human or alien and out-ranks both. His time machine is a TARDIS. That is an acronym for "Time and Relative Dimensions in Space." It seems like a poor phrase to use as a noun since the sentence "He has a Time and Relative Dimensions in Space" seems to be nearly meaningless. Further peculiarities of his TARDIS come from that fact that it looks like a London's policemans' telephone box from the 1960s. Had the BBC known that the series would be so popular they could have picked something that might not look so anachronistic in the years to come. A police call box does not looks so nicely inconspicuous today as it did in the 1960s.
The series has had a long life and the plots frequently have the Doctor saving Earth from the clutches of evil aliens or dangerous monsters. The budgets are low, but the BBC monster prop department always seems to turn out something that looks good. (See http://tinyurl.com/wsmt for a retrospective of the aliens.)
William Hartnell played the first Doctor. He was 55 at the time the series started and could not play the Doctor for the span of the series's popularity. The series was going to remain popular after Hartnell would no longer want the title role. Like the James Bond and Jack Ryan films, they could have just put another actor in the role and quietly said nothing. They decided to actually reflect the change of actor in the story itself. This is science fiction, and anything can happen, right? So the story was that the Doctor has multiple lives, each in different bodies. When a new actor takes over the role, that is just another life of the Doctor. He has had a sort of metamorphosis. In his next life, he transformed into Patrick Troughton. Some of you may remember Troughton as the over-ripe priest who gets skewered with a falling pole in THE OMEN. In the mid-1960s Amicus made two films of the Doctor fighting his favorite enemies, the Daleks. A Dalek is a robot that looks rather like a badminton bird rolling around feathers down. Peter Cushing took the role in those films. The first Doctor I ever saw in the role was Jon Pertwee, who was the Doctor from 1970 to 1974. I got interested in Doctor Who before most American fans. The biggest growth of interest in Doctor Who came in this country during the period when deliciously overripe actor Tom Baker had the role from 1974-1981. Arguably he gave the Doctor more personality than he had had with any of the other actors, before or since.
Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy have been Doctors since until the series was discontinued in 1989. The fans have missed the program, but the BBC just found that they were not interested in continuing the series. There were three "Doctor Who" movies, the two mentioned above and an American TV-movie in 1996 starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. It was about as satisfying as the American version of GODZILLA.
The Doctor has a ready-made, if now aging, fandom. There have from time to time been suggestions that the program should be brought back. Any plans have fallen through. Finally, on the 26th of September of this year BBC announced that indeed there would indeed be a new series of Doctor Who. The new Doctor has not yet been cast.
But here we are on the 40th anniversary and there has not been a new Doctor Who program done since 1989. Au contraire. The BBC has written a full 90-minute "Doctor Who" story. Rather than doing it in live action, they have done it in six fifteen-minute animated pieces. They are posting the pieces, one a week, on their web site. I infer that they publish each Thursday. As of this writing there are two pieces posted. The complete story will be there on Thursday, December 18. The story is "Scream of the Shalka" and can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/doctorwho/shalka/>. Richard Grant, a good actor who is probably best known for his role in the TV version of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, is a somewhat dour-faced Doctor. Apparently Derek Jacobi is also in the cast.
I cannot claim that I am one of the program's cult of fans. However just hearing that there will be some new episodes perks my interest and perhaps makes me feel a little like the old days. Somehow with all its silliness, the program's characters feel like friends in the way that the X-Men never approach. I may be looking forward to the new series much more than the older ones. [-mrl]
BAD SANTA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Billy Bob Thornton plays a department store Santa who behaves abysmally anti-socially on and off the job. In the end it all comes to good as you might expect for a Christmas comedy, but the viewer goes through a lot of dirt and ugliness before getting to the white Christmas. This film is not my cup of wassail. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), high +0 (-4 to +4)
What would happen if a store Santa were not the kind of person that you would want around children? Suppose instead he was a totally selfish, degenerate alcoholic who had the wrong body build for Santa, was obviously drunk on duty, refused to wear the Santa beard correctly, hated children, and could not talk to his little visitors without swearing like a sailor? Who knows? It is impossible to tell exactly which of the thirty-seven great reasons to fire him would be the one used. Would he be canned in the first five minutes or only in the first half-hour? It is the conceit of the contrived film BAD SANTA that this totally wasted human can be hired year after year by different unsuspecting department stores, based on falsified resumes, and somehow each lets him stay for thirty days.
Every year thief and lush Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) and his fed-up dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox) work for some department store their thirty days as an un-jolly Santa and his elf. Then they rob the safe on Christmas Eve. Willie is not the usual Santa Claus. He has a constant five-day growth of beard, always seems to have a bottle in his pocket, and is playing sex games in the dressing rooms with overweight customers. Willie does everything he possibly could to get fired and because the store manager is trying to be nice and at the same time politically correct, Soke gets to hold onto his job and maintain short but mutually-destructive relationships with children who come for their annual visit with Santa. That is the background of the story. In the main plot Santa forms a lamprey-like relationship with a snot-nosed Pugsley of a child when he discovers that the boy effectively lives alone in a fancy house. The boy should be tended by his grandmother (an uncredited Cloris Leachman) but she has gone senile and that leaves the boy pretty much alone. He is the mark for the local bullies and Santa decides there is nobody to stop him from flopping in this nice house, eating the food, and borrowing the family car. He even brings his new girl friend Sue (Lauren Graham), a woman whose Santa fetish is the only explanation for her attraction to Willie. (One loose end, by the way, is how the house is being cared for and how the groceries seem to appear in the kitchen. It does not appear to be the kid or his grandmother who is doing the work.) The story goes back and forth between endless repetitions of incongruous anti-social Santa behavior and Santa's exploitation of his new little friend as Marcus tries to do what will be necessary for the projected heist.
In addition to the question of who is taking care of "the kid" (we not told his name until almost the end), there are other questions the script leaves unanswered. If Willie as Santa is such a liability to Marcus's heists--and he is--why does Marcus want to have such a non-productive partner in that role? There is nothing that Willie is contributing as Santa that any drunk Marcus could pick up could not be doing better. Early in the film Marcus does his part of the heist in costume. It makes no sense that he does not at least take the head off the costume since it, like Willie, is just holding him back.
This is a Christmas film like few that have ever been made, and it certainly gets points for originality, but it is mean-spirited, repetitious, and not very funny. The script is sloppy and needed work to tie up many loose ends. One critic said that this film is replacing A CHRISTMAS STORY as his annual Christmas day watch. Mine was, and remains, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. That film's position is safe. I give BAD SANTA a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
LE TEMPS DU LOUP (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4)
What has happened is never explained. There is no more government. There are no police. Order has broken down. People are banding together in small societies for protection. There are hints that cattle have died from drinking contaminated water, but whether that is a direct result of something like fallout or if it is just something that happened after the disaster we don't know. As the film open a family of four is going to their summer house in the woods. They find a family already there who have broken in and are squatting. Within minutes our family of four is reduced to a mother and two children. With nothing but a bicycle they are looking for a place of safety.
So begins the chronicle of one family in the worst of times after the unnamed disaster that has reduced the world to barbarism.
It is difficult to decide what happened what happened. The disaster does not seem to have left radiation. There is no widespread disease (yet). There just seems to be no government, but trains seemed to have been seized by someone and still seem to be moving on tracks. There is little food available but people seem to be surviving. By not specifying what has left the world in this state, the filmmakers have headed off some accuracy complaints.
This was probably a very low-budget film since this is a science fiction film in which there are no expensive sets, no special effects, and no special costumes. In addition there is no musical score, which actually enhances the raw effect. Not all but most scenes are set at night. To minimize camera setups and shorten the script and the acting required, many scenes are very long takes with little action, in the style of Tarkovsky. The final scene may even be an homage to Tarkovsky's STALKER. This is a very simple, quick, and dirty way to turn out a science fiction film. [-mrl]
EMILE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)
Sir Ian McKellen stars as an agronomist who come to Victoria, British Columbia, to accept an honorary degree. He stays with his niece and her daughter. That is already a spoiler since it takes a good deal of time for the viewer to piece together enough information to know that. As a young man Emile left his and his brothers' farm to go to college. Later he went to England for several decades and this is his first return. Nadia, his niece, resents that he did not adopt her when her father died. She has become moody and cold with just about everyone including her daughter and especially her uncle. The film looks at how she was hurt and how Emile now reaches out to his Canadian family.
Much of the film takes place in Emile's memory of his two brothers and of Emile's decision not to adopt Nadia. It is also about Emile and his bridge-building to his grand-niece Maria. The story telling is cold and dry for the first half hour, then the plot starts to come together and the characters become more meaningful.
EMILE was written and directed by Carl Bessai. Curiously for a film of this dramatic content the screenplay is original and not based on a previously existing play or novel. [-mrl]
This Week's Acquisitions (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Usually I talk about what I've read, but this week it's probably worth talking about the acquiring of books as well.
I had been doing really well on my "to read" stack, and by a combination of reading ad weeding it was down to only 113 books. However, after this weekend it's up to 161. How could such a disaster happen?
Well, near us is a local book wholesaler that deals in remainders, returns, and such, normally to the retail or educational trade. But one weekend a year they open their warehouse to the public. Cleverly timed to be right before gift-giving season, it also is fortuitously timed to be right around my birthday. (Or perhaps not so fortuitously--it's clearly a matter for debate.) So for my birthday I asked for a trip there and we drove out Saturday to see what it was like.
The center of a large warehouse is filled with tables and pallets of books, mostly trade paperbacks, with some hardbacks as well. The hardbacks were $4 each or three for $10; the paperbacks were $3 each or four for $10. At these prices, one can stock up on a whim--a book costs less than a latte at Starbucks. People had baskets, small carts, and large wagons they were hauling around. We made do (barely) with a small cart.
When I say I added 48 books to my "to read" list, that's deceptive. Twenty-two of them were the Canongate Bible books, with the shortest (Ecclesiastes) at quarter-size 26 pages, and the longest (Psalms, abridged) at 134 quarter-size pages), and they were sold as two boxed sets, each counting as one paperback. Yes, I already have a copy of the King James Bible, but these have introductions written by people such as E. L. Doctorow, A. S. Byatt, and the Dalai Lama. It's a bit confusing, because the first boxed set has different introductions for about half of the books, depending on whether one has the British or American editions. Will Self wrote an introduction for "Revelation", but it was apparently so outrageous that even Grove Press refused to run it, and ran another by Kathleen Norris instead. The same happened with Louis de Bernieres's introduction to "Job", replaced by one by Charles Frazier. On the other hand the replacement of E. L. Doctorow for evolutionist Steven Rose ("Genesis"), Francisco Goldman for A. N. Wilson ("Matthew"), Barry Hannah for Australian rock star Nick Cave ("Mark"), Thomas Cahill for Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh ("Luke"), and Darcey Steinke for Blake Morrison ("John") probably had more to do with switching to American authors than any content problems.
But if those are all short, then I did get some doorstops. Willis Barnstone's THE OTHER BIBLE (a collection of apocrypha and pseudigraphia) was 722 pages. A D-K chronology of cinema was 923 pages. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's THE HARD SF RENAISSANCE was 960 pages; THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ARTHUR C. CLARKE was 966. And if the book sale wasn't enough, we went afterwards to a used bookstore nearby and used our store credit to get (at half price) Neal Stephenson's QUICKSILVER (916 pages) and Plutarch's LIVES (1296 pages). The latter is the complete set, done as parallel lives as Plutarch wrote it, with the comparisons, and not split up into early Greek, early Roman, late Roman, etc., as Penguin has done it. (One is reminded of the person who decided to re-edit the New York Public Library's copy of INTOLERANCE so that each of the four stories ran separately instead of interleaved.) Given that the Plutarch was in an older Modern Library edition with a cover price of $10.95, so that it cost only $5.47, it was probably the biggest bargain of the day.
Among the rest were three Italo Calvino books, Jasper Fforde's LOST IN A GOOD BOOK (this is not even listed as being out in trade paperback yet, so I have no idea where this came from), collections by John Barnes and Terry Bisson, some David Mamet plays, the three volumes of the SFWA Grand Masters anthologies edited by Frederik Pohl, and many more too numerous to mention.
I think I'm set until next year--or at least until next March and the big Bryn Mawr used book sale in Princeton and the East Brunswick library sale. The only saving grace is that our own library book sale is in June--and we're always on vacation somewhere else. The last time we were able to go to it, I ended up with about two dozen Dover mysteries for $2 on "bag day." As I've noted before, being retired means you have more time for reading, but also for going to book stores and book sales, so you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I had read Anne Fadiman's EX LIBRIS: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER a while ago, but immediately afterwards loaned it out to a friend and so couldn't really review it well. But I found another copy cheap (see article above) and so will cover it now.
Anne Fadiman is Clifton Fadiman's daughter, and so grew up in a house of books and learning. They could all be science fiction fans from some of their traits. For example, there is the chapter that begins with them sitting down in a restaurant. Anne's brother says, "They've transposed the 'e' and the 'i' in Madeira sauce." Anne notes, "They've made Bel Paese into one word, and it's lowercase." And their mother adds, "At least they spell better than the place where we had dinner last Tuesday. *They*" serve P-E-A-K-I-N-G duck." (This may not be representative of all science fiction fans, but proof-reading, spelling, and grammar are major topics in rec.arts.sf.fandom.)
And if you read in my article on acquisitions that what I got for my birthday was a trip to a book warehouse's annual sale, I should add that the idea came from this book, where Fadiman describes her 42nd birthday, when she was "spirited away to a mystery destination," which turned out to be Riverrun Bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson, where she ended up with nineteen pounds of used books. (We bought considerably more than that at the warehouse, since the cinema book was over seven pounds by itself, and the Hartwell, the Clarke, and two science books three pounds each. Of course, ours weren't exactly used.)
Fadiman also writes about odd words, strange books, and the other usual topics one finds in this sort of book (i.e., books about books).
Our library group read Tracy Chevalier's GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. I wish I could say I liked it, but it really didn't do anything for me. People apparently liked the way it evoked that period in Delft, but as someone who reads a lot of "world- building" books (for worlds both historical and fantastical), I didn't think it was exceptional. And in fact, several other people found it not as enthralling as the reviews would make one think. It is popular with reading groups, and I would attribute this to two facts: it's short (233 pages), and its protagonist is a woman (a girl, actually). Since most reading groups are either all-female or mostly female, the books popular with them seem to have a preponderance of female protagonists. I suppose I should suggest some Joanna Russ or James Schmitz (although female authors seem to get extra points also).
I also read Plutarch's FALL OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC, but as I noted in my article on acquisitions, I have just gotten the complete Plutarch, with the parallelisms intact, so I will end up re- reading all these at some point. Well, they are some of the most interesting: Pompey, Crassus (and the Servile Wars), Julius Caesar, and so on. It will be interesting to see to whom he compares them. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The nature of men and women--their essential nature--is so vile and despicable that if you were to portray a person as he really is, no one would believe you. -- W. Somerset Maugham
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