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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/12/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 7, Whole Number 1295
Table of Contents
On On Bullsh*t (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was staying at a Holiday Inn that served sweet rolls at breakfast. Over them there is a sign that says, "we are warming these rolls just for you." How thoughtful considering they didn't know I would be there! On the television in the breakfast room a television was showing an interview. The interviewer was asking some complex questions and the person being interviewed just luckily had just the right viewgraphs to illustrate his answers. Some coincidence! Nearby there was a restroom, but somehow the people who were going in were not looking for rest. I just looked around me as I was writing this and found three examples of obvious bullsh*t. We must see hundreds of examples every day.
I read in some site like "Arts and Letters Daily" that there was to be a new book coming out called by the whimsical title ON BULLSH*T. It is written by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.
Just a side note here: ON BULLSH*T is, of course, not the title. The book is not published with a cutesy little asterisk that does absolutely nothing to hide what the word actually is. However, as I mentioned recently, if I call the book by its title, there are some sites that will reject our mailings of the MT VOID. The fear is that some innocent little child will come upon the Void and read the word and be shocked to find out that bulls have pretty much the same digestive system that the child himself has. I think that that fear is bullsh*t, but what can you do?
In any case, I thought that it sounded like a book that could have some interest value. Just the fact that the other is willing to make that the title of the book raises expectations that the subject might be whimsical treatment of a very serious subject. A master of such essays was C. Northcote Parkinson, the author of some very wry essays about business that functioned equally well as serious comment and as humor. Parkinson's best- known observation is that "work expands to fill the time available." People who have seen the principle, called Parkinson's Law, in action may laugh at it, but in fact it is a useful principle to remember when scheduling projects.
A book with such a title should make some telling comments on a society that produces automobile ads, like the one I see near my house, that say, "You'll love us as much as the car." This is a very special kind of bullsh*t. It is made with full consent of the publisher and the reader that all acknowledge that it is a lie. Customers don't love their car dealers and the car dealers know it. Customers and car dealers always have an adversarial relationship whether it is acknowledged or not. I have never found a car dealer whose primary goal was not to maximize profit. I don't expect anything different and the dealer knows I don't. The difference in car dealers is what they are willing to do to maximize profit. Some have scruples and some do not. A car dealer who starts by claiming I am going to love him is starting out our relationship with a lie and I would never let him get to try a second one on me. This is the sort of observation I thought that ON BULLSH*T would be making. Sadly the book is a missed opportunity.
If the book is disappointing, at least it does not waste a lot of my time. Though someone thought the essay is worthy of its own book, it makes a very short one. The book is made of 67 short pages, and I mean short. There is something like 130 words a page to make the whole book less than 10,000 words. That does not even make for a long essay.
Brevity could be sole of wit, but this book is either not witty, or it is written in a wit so dry that it may have turned to powder and blown away. Certainly on the surface the essay is dry and academic. Frankfurt begins, reasonably enough, by trying to ascertain the definition of the word and comparing it for precise contrasts to the similar word "humbug." He spends an inordinate amount of time trying to determine if someone who believes a falsity and insincerely presents a statement that happens to be true, does that qualify or not? In an essay so short any anecdote must be well chosen since it will make up a major part of the essay. Frankfurt analyzes a story that when an injured friend of Wittgenstein said she felt like a dog who has been run over, Wittgenstein claimed that she could not possibly know that.
Frankfurt tries to draw what I think are false connections between the term and the term "bull session." He is much more concerned with getting a precise definition of what it is than to see what it does. He draws academic distinctions between one who lies and one who is a liar. This could be okay, if it was in service to a later goal of examining the phenomenon of people making false statements, but the tiny books ends before it can look at the implications of what the author has written. Perhaps deconstructing bullsh*t is as useless as it is unsavory.
This book has left the field open for someone to discuss the little white lies that we all are expected to tell. Some could discuss statements that people tell knowing that everybody knows they are false like advertising copy. We live in a world that thrives on bullsh*t and perhaps could not function without it. It is a thing that everybody detests, everybody tolerates, and everybody produces. And that is no bullsh*t. [-mrl]
PULSE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review was published in the 09/21/01 issue of the MT VOID, but is being re-run because it is *finally* getting a release here.]
CAPSULE: The director of CURE brings a weird and very complex concept to the screen. One viewing will not be enough to understand fully the premise of PULSE. The idea is something about ghosts and the Internet. The film has an amazing apocalyptic style. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Perhaps the most disturbing (and disturbed?) filmmaker in the world is Kiyoshi Kurosawa. His films all seem to have one style, bleak. The worlds he creates are terrifying and cold. Little known in the US to date, his films deliver the kind of horror that so many of our filmmakers promise and are unable to deliver. Most of his ideas are fresh and at the same time morbid. His 1998 film CURE, with one of his niftiest ideas, is just now getting a sadly limited release in the US and hopefully enough people will see it that his name will soon be one to conjure with. CURE is probably his classic. Last year he released SEANCE, a remake of SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. That was perhaps a miscalculation inserting supernatural elements into a non-supernatural story. PULSE is Kurosawa back on form.
Taguchi, a young computer expert, is late with his delivery of some important software. Two co-workers go to his apartment and find it a dismal dark affair in spite of his computer equipment. Taguchi, acting very strangely, lets his friends look for the missing software. Meanwhile he slips behind a plastic curtain. When he fails to respond to calls his friends follow him behind the curtain and discover he has hanged himself. If that was not horror enough the body seems to disappear leaving just a strange dark mildew-like spot on the wall. Taguchi's computer seems to have been infected with some kind of computer virus. People whose computer gets the virus seem superficially to die via suicide. But they are not entirely dead. Their spirits seem to remain present somehow in the real world and on the Internet. People who get the computer virus are asked if they want to see a ghost. If they say yes, they seem to be able to see real time images of the spirits still nearby somehow. The computer shows them impossible images of ghosts in their own rooms as seen from cameras that do not exist. This is all somehow connected to heaven and hell somehow filling up and overflowing "like a computer disk." Instead the dead seem to be staying on earth and inhabiting computer viruses. There is some sort of passage between worlds having something to do with doors marked with red tape and strange electronic disturbances on computers. Leave it to Kurosawa to find a new kind of death.
This is a film that has more weird ideas piled together than LIFEFORCE and somehow Kurosawa makes the film all work. It may not totally convey his message of isolation and its parallels to death, but whatever it does convey is nightmarish. Kurosawa, who directs his own screenplay, ties his story into the real world with some familiar and accurate computer discussion. Frequently the plot is advanced with character hunches being assumed to be fact. His plotting is frequently hard to follow and always very strange.
Junichiro Hayashi, the cinematographer who recently has been doing all of Kurosawa's films, creates a dark, cold, and gloomy tone. Images are obscured by semi-lighting or are behind plastic curtain. Scenes are not milked for their horror the way American exploitation films might. People are shot with guns but there is little if any blood in evidence. Seeing black silhouettes on computer screens is not immediately scary. Kurosawa is not going for and easy visual shock, but a deeper metaphysical dread.
Of any horror filmmaker in the world, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the one to watch. I rate this metaphysical look at isolation a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last weekend, the Sidewise Awards were announced at Interaction in Glasgow. I am on the jury, but have held off commenting on the stories before now, so as not to provide any hints as to who the winners might be.
Of course, for the Long Form, there was not much suspense. The short list consisted of one entry--Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, on which I commented in the 10/22/04 issue of the MT VOID. The reason for this brevity was that many of the works that came out in 2004 that might have been eligible were actually only part of a single, multi-volume work, and these are considered as a whole when they are finished.
The Short Form, on the other hand, had six entries and even then there was not a big gap between those and several others that just missed making the list.
L. Timmel Duchamp, "The Heloise Archive" (LOVE'S BODY, DANCING IN TIME, ISBN 0-974-65591-0): The premise is that Heloise (of Heloise & Abelard fame) is visited by visions which direct her into forming a new, more feminist branch of the Catholic Church. As one might suspect, this series of letters leads heavily towards being a bit too preachy.
Warren Ellis, Chris Weston, and Laura Martin (nee DePuy), "Ministry of Space" (ISBN 1-582-40423-2): There was a lot of debate as to which category this graphic work belonged; eventually it was but in the Short Form on the basis of the average amount of time it took people to read it. (The version we got was two-volume work with no page numbers, but it's around eighty pages.) This is another in a current spate of alternate British space programs. I thought the denouement obvious, and the last frame did not seem to me to be consistent with the rest of the story, but I can't deny that the visuals make this a better story than it would be if told strictly in words.
Sean Klein, "Five Guys Named Moe" (scifi.com, Feb 23): A band consisting of five guys each named Moe is sent on a secret mission to Cuba by President Joseph McCarthy. I started it several times and eventually managed to finish it, but it never "worked" for me. (Obviously others disagreed, or it would not have made the short list.)
John McDaid, "The Ashbazu Effect" (REVISIONS, ed. by Julie Czerneda and Isaac Szpindel, ISBN 0-7564-0240-9): This assumes that the idea of embossing whole pages at a time onto clay tablets has been discovered in Sumeria, and shows the next stage. As seems to be very popular, within the story someone talks about alternate histories ("fiction-that-continues-a-line"), including of course our own timeline. This gets extra credit for a more interesting setting and divergence point than one normally finds. (I commented on the entire collection in the 10/01/04 issue of the MT VOID.)
Chris Roberson, "Red Hands, Black Hands" (Asimov's Dec 04): This is part of an upcoming book of connected stories, THE CELESTIAL EMPIRE: FIRE STAR. Another part won the Sidewise last year. That one took place several hundred years ago; this one is set (probably) in the future, when China has colonized Mars. One can argue this is "less" alternate history than the earlier one, because one could presume some change in the future that would result in a Chinese colonization of Mars. Well, actually, one doesn't have to suppose much change at all from the current trend. However, the China that has colonized Mars here is Imperial China, not the People's Republic of China. (And to emphasize the alternate aspect, there is speculation by characters within the story about alternatives to *their* history.) I thought it more interesting as a science fiction than as an alternate history, though set in a series of stories in this timeline, it may appear better.
Lois Tilton, "The Gladiator's War: A Dialog" (Asimov's Jun 04): The dialog here is between Crixus and Marcus Terentius Varro. Varro was a real Roman historian and Crixus was a real Gaul who fought with Spartacus. In this dialogue, they discuss the effects of Spartacus's burning of Rome. It's fairly dry, having the same fault that people accused Asimov's early "Foundation" books of having: all the action happens off-stage and all we get is people talking about it. I don't find this a major problem, and really liked this story. (And the final line is a nice ironic nod to a William Tenn story.)
My voting order was: Tilton, Ellis, McDaid, Roberson, Duchamp, Klein
Harry G. Frankfurt's ON BULLSH*T (ISBN 0-691-12294-6) is a slim volume which I had hoped would be about the eponymous topic and its manifestations in today's society. Instead, it was almost entirely an analysis of the origin of the term and its precise definition. At about 9000 words, it's a long analysis, but not worth buying a hardback for, even at $9.95. (If it were a science fiction story, it would be at the low word-count end of the novelette category.) I suspect this will be purchased mostly to give as gifts with inscriptions either warning the recipient to watch out for bullsh*t, or telling the recipient to stop spreading it so much. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him. -- Robert Benchley
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