MT VOID 12/25/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 26, Whole Number 1577

MT VOID 12/25/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 26, Whole Number 1577

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/25/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 26, Whole Number 1577

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

That Time of Year (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I hate holiday-themed gifts. Can anybody tell me what I am supposed to do with myrrh? [-mrl]

Erasing Memory (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

An article I read about Alzheimer's disease made an interesting philosophical point. It said that patients really lose their identity. Your identity really is the sum total of your memories. Or perhaps it resides in your memories. If I lost my memory could I still do mathematics? Could I still review films? Would I like sushi? Could I make a joke? Probably not. Everything that makes you who you are is in your memory. If you change your memory you change who you are.

One of the two best science fiction films of the decade (in my opinion) deals with the subject of memory. It is ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and it deals with the subject of writing and erasing memories. (The other of the two best, THE MAN FROM EARTH, also deals with memories and whether someone's memories are true. But it is something of a stretch to tie it in here.) The 2004 film ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, written by Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, involves a patient of a doctor who can use some strange surgical methods to remove specific painful memories. If it makes you unhappy to remember a former lover you can have the surgeon just remove those specific memories from your brain. At the time I thought that while it was an interesting idea, it was entirely impossible. One can remove memories, but it could only be done by crudely destroying brain tissue and then the surgeon could not discriminate by subject matter. That was what I thought. In fact, that actually happens in the real world as a result of stroke. But specific memories on a particular subject can never be found and eliminated. It is not even clear what form a single memory takes. And even in the film the point is made that the operation really cannot be done without brain damage:

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage? Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss.

The film does not actually address the issue of how they could possibly locate and excise specific memories of a specific person. For that reason I thought of the film as an interesting fantasy rather than real science fiction. The only way something like this might be feasible would be through hypnotism. Folklore says that hypnotists can tell a subject to forget some subject. I guess someone adept at brainwashing might be able to give the instruction "You will forget all about the IPCRESS File."

But what do I know?

It turns out that a common drug, dare I say one I have used, can erase unpleasant memories. Propranolol, a drug that is generally used to control blood pressure, seems to have the property that it targets bad memories and destroys them. In a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, propranolol seems to select and wipe out only unpleasant memories.

Merel Kindt and his team from the University of Amsterdam conditioned a group of subjects to fear spiders. He then had half have propranolol administered and half had placebos. The group that had the real drug administered had markedly less fear of the spiders than those who had had the placebo. But they did not have other memories removed. It seems the drug worked only on negative memories as far as the researchers could tell.

Now this is not exactly erasing the memory, it is erasing the negative reaction to the memory. But in a sense this is erasing the meta-memory that the response to the memory is negative. It does make me wonder, as a one-time propranolol user, whether there were nasty events in my past that the drug has covered up.

Of course, the human mind really does forget pain all on its own. And that is probably a survival trait. If women remembered the pain of childbirth nearly everyone would be or have been an only child.

For more information see:

AVATAR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: AVATAR is very much a DANCES WITH WOLVES set on an alien world. It brings to the screen some great imaginative sequences and some great lapses in imagination. It is about great evils in our past, but becomes a simplistic and self-righteous polemic. Like James Cameron's previous film, TITANIC, there are enough good bits to make a really great film and enough bad bits to make a real stinker. Go for what is good and ignore the bad. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Spoiler warning: There are some spoilers in this review.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, what I considered the most beautiful science fiction images would show up on the cover of the science fiction magazine ANALOG. An artist named Jack Schoenherr painted many of these covers. To me science fiction worlds and alien species looked exactly like Jack Schoenherr painted them. Science fiction films always fell a little short of creating that imagery, though I felt his influence in STAR WARS, DUNE, and LOST IN SPACE. (Admittedly this art was not all by Schoenherr, but it still showed his influence.) James Cameron is the first director to create a world in a science fiction film that reminds me of Analog. AVATAR has the most fully visually realized science fiction world I can remember in a science fiction film. Cameron has envisioned a beautiful alien world complete with only semi- Earthlike creatures. Some of his images could be from ANALOG and some from Cameron's own film THE ABYSS. There are dragons and forest predators. There are horses and flying reptiles. The film is a joy to look at. But it is not an unalloyed joy. The visuals still had their problems. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The year is 2154 and Earth humans have a mining operation on the alien world Pandora. Huge machines move the earth operated by men who must wear masks in this atmosphere. The goal of the mining is to get even miniscule amounts of the valuable mineral unobtanium. The mining operation is running into trouble from the local population, the Na'vi, who are so-called "savages". They are on about the level of sophistication that the Native Americans were when the Europeans came to the New World. The natives want the mining operation to stay out of their sacred lands. To study the local people Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) uses Avatars. These are alien-like bodies that humans when asleep, can project their minds into. The humans basically created alien bodies for themselves. One human who does this is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine and now a paraplegic. He no longer can have a good life as a human so after some coercion he agrees to project his sleeping mind into an alien avatar. But being able to put himself in the place of the Na'vi things go much the way they did in DANCES WITH WOLVES or THE WILBY CONSPIRACY or DISTRICT 9. He begins to appreciate them as people and to respect their culture. Each film goes much the same way and makes the same statement. There never is any doubt that that is what Cameron, who wrote AVATAR as well as directed, is going to do with this story. What surprised me was how heavily and pretentiously he lays on this message.

Now what did I dislike about the visuals? Well, the aliens are basically human-like with faces and tails like big cats. This goes back to the imagery described by Edgar Rice Burroughs whose alien creatures on Mars were chimera-like combinations of Earth creatures. How likely is it that something would evolve with human bodies and cat faces? How much different would the story have been had the combination been pigs with cat faces? We have that "Star Trek" conceit working for us that almost all aliens look like us. The females all had luscious bodies that were only minimally covered. It is convenient that in their culture they have chosen to cover the same anatomical bits that we do. And there seem to be loose-hanging bits of their harem-like costumes. Somehow they are not all scratched up. It makes for enjoyable images, but it does not take much thinking. The animals of the planet come in shapes and much like variations on Earth creatures. When we see a native horse, there is no doubt in our mind that it is a horse even if its lines are somewhat different. It has six legs, but it still is obviously a horse. Cameron does not stray too far from Earth animals on Pandora.

The story is very much like the history of what happened to Native Americans in our own country, very likely the Lakota of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The had their sacred lands, and they were sitting on the their own version of "unobtanium", namely gold. But there is in the film no one who asks if the situation is not a lot like how the Native Americans were treated in the Americas and isn't history's verdict that that was a terrible injustice? It is possible that a supremely irresponsible government might ignore the rights of the indigenous population, but that nobody even notices the parallels needed some serious explanation in the script and it is just not there. Cameron takes shots at the American military (or the government) from the Indian Wars up to the Iraq War. He makes a comment about how we find some resource we want and then declare the people who have it "the enemy". I may sometimes feel that was the reason, but it is a bit of an oversimplification. Even if I agree with Cameron, I respect the alternative view and not think this particular piece of politics belongs in this film. Ironically, the same corporation that brings you Fox News produced the film. The Fox Corporation is so big occasionally pieces it try to sue other pieces and have to be reminded that a company should not sue itself.

Some problems could have been fixed. Apparently cigarettes and attack helicopters will be a lot the same in 2154 as they are today. So will be phrases like "in *this* economy" and "shock and awe" that are more from our time than of 2154.

AVATAR is what I call a film of high standard deviation. Parts and aspects of the film are a lot better than other parts. So with some ambivalence I give AVATAR a middling rating of high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


9 (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

[This is not to be confused with the film NINE.]

CAPSULE: In the short film of the same title, a world ravaged by the vicious robots built by a fascist dictator, several small mute homunculi, each numbered, battle to survive. The Oscar-nominated ten-minute film is stretched to feature length. There are lots of fights and the story a little bit extended with more plot. Also voices of good actors are added to the formerly mute homunculi. But what worked in the shorter form is not as impressive as a 79-minute film. The film is unusual and visually striking but not really special as an animated feature film. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

The doll-like homunculus 9 finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world laid waste by evil robots. He befriends another homunculus like himself named 2, and when 2 is captured by a robot 9 decides to rescue his friend. 9 leads a revolt of doll-people against the machines. On the way he will learn about what brought the world to this sorry condition.

When Shane Acker released his mysterious short film "9" it had an impressive impact and was even nominated for an Academy Award for animation. It featured a mysterious little mute doll-robot or homunculus with no name but the number 9. He lived in a ravaged, post-holocaust version of our world. 9 and his fellows, each roughly six inches tall, seemed not made of metal and silicon like the robots outside but of soft materials like burlap cloth and even a zipper. This was a little pliable thing in a world destroyed by hard machines with sharp edges--mechanisms of metal and bone. The short film was a calling card and it bought Acker an opportunity to expand a ten-minute project into a feature-length film. But the perfect length for this story and these mute characters is ten minutes.

The short film version just had to create the imagery and to tell a very short story. A feature film required a more complete and complex story. The mysteries of the short film had to be solved for the viewer. The characters that in the shorter version got most of their power from facial expression without sound. For the feature they were given voices of familiar actors. Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau gave voices to the characters. But this made them less effective and not more.

The feature really needed to be a story as good as the images it created. Acker faced the problem that after a few minutes the novelty of the visuals would wear off and the story would have to carry the viewer. Pamela Pettler extended Acker's story by having more fighting with more evil robots and by spelling out a whole political back-story. The mystical whatever-it-is that happens in the short film happens in the longer one, but that part remains mystical.

Disturbingly, one can easily tell whether a doll, an animal, or a machine is friendly or not. Evil robots have one big red eye or many little red spiderlike eyes. They have sharp claws. If it looks ugly it is bad and if it look pleasant it is good. This is the same convention that Disney animation films have followed for a long time. And that studio has been teaching children to use that same criteria in real life, where it might not be so good an idea.

There is a lot that is interesting to see in the world created by Shane Acker but not enough to make the feature film satisfying. The story is somehow similar to that of THE DARK CRYSTAL, but with less complexity. The feel of the story is also somehow reminiscent of the stories of science fiction writer Clifford Simak. One might have some idea of what was coming considering that among the producers were Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. The latter directed NIGHT WATCH, DAY WATCH, and WANTED. It is not a bad animated feature, but in the general run of animated films these days the word for it disappointingly is "unexceptional." I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:

Original short film:


CRAZY HEART (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a once-great country music singer who at 57 is reduced to playing in bars and bowling alleys. He has one last chance at love with a reporter sent to interview him. The reporter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, could use a father figure for her son and Bridges likes the role. But there is a reason Bad is screwing up his life. Scott Cooper writes and directs based on Thomas Cobb's novel. The story is familiar, but the Cooper gives us characters with texture. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Bad Blake (played by Jeff Bridges) was a country singer who in his time had something of a following. Many of the current popular singers owe their style to learning from him. But the show is ending for Bad Blake. He gets a few paying gigs these days, but nothing great. He drives his pickup all over the southwest to rundown bars and bowling alleys that still have a place for him to entertain their customers. Bad gets his entertainment from the bottom of a bottle. He prides himself on never having missed a performance, but too often when he should be on stage his face is in a trashcan losing his last few drinks. In Santa Fe attractive reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) interviews him and the two of them hit it off. He even likes Jean's little boy. The problem is that Bad and Jean and the bottle make for a crowd of three and it is one too many. Bad wants to commit, but he cannot help living up to his first name whenever he passes a bar or sees a cute young fan in the audience.

Bridges plays the role note-perfectly. He seems to like to play singers in lots of different genres. He was a stoned-out rock singer in TIDELAND. Earlier in his career he was a lounge singer in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS. He can be a maverick automobile executive, a mathematics professor, the President of the United States, or an alien. He will not be typecast and his characters have depth and authenticity. With Robert Duvall as a bartender and an old friend of Bad, that makes two actors of that quality in this film. And the two actors have something else in common. Neither has much of a singing voice. Bridges does his own singing in this film, but I do not expect he will cut an album any time soon. Robert Duvall may be the greatest American actor today (and he does a mean tango), but when he tries to sing in the closing credits the results are painful.

Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett wrote the country music. Burnett is himself a country music legend. In addition he provided music for O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and THE LADYKILLERS (2004). Here he lends a tone of authenticity and style. The film is reminiscent of Robert Duvall's TENDER MERCIES. It is a sort of old shoe of a film, comfortable with nothing really fancy. You really care if these two people will make it together. And there is some nice scenery that Bad Blake passes as he travels the Southwest. But the center of attraction is that performance by Bridges.

Some good country music and some people you care about make this film likable if nothing flashy. But Bridges's characterization is first rate. I give CRAZY HEART a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


THE YOUNG VICTORIA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriter Julian Fellowes bring us the story of the rocky, early years of what was to become England's longest monarchy. The film starts with some of the drama of that other film of another English queen, ELIZABETH. Perhaps because of the directing or perhaps because of stilted manners of the late Georgian and early Victorian era the film never again catches fire as it does in the early scenes. This is a story of romance, of influence peddling, and of betrayals, played so dryly that we never strongly care what happens. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Very early in THE YOUNG VICTORIA we see the future queen (played by Emily Blunt) just seventeen years old and ill while her stepfather is browbeating her and she is vehemently resisting. He could be trying to convince her to take cough syrup. In fact, he is Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) and he is trying to coerce her to sign an order making her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), her regent. That would be making him the de facto ruler of the United Kingdom. She has power now, even if too young to wear the crown, and if she gives it up she will probably never get it back. It is the signature moment of the film. Here is a girl the age of a high school junior and her family squabbles and her attitudes and decisions will heavily impact not just her life but also the future of her country, Europe, and the world. She is a young woman, but she is the center of a very high-stakes game for power.

This is the story about how Victoria played a dangerous game of power and tried to find love and fulfillment. Suitors besiege her in the hopes of winning her hand and her power. Many would wish to be her advisor. In the next few years she would ascend to the throne as Queen of England and would have to run her country. Needing help in playing the game she gets an advisor whom she at least temporarily trusts, Lord Melbourne. (Melbourne is played by Paul Bettany who had no easy time--and in fact fails--playing a man who was forty years Victoria's senior.) One of her suitors is Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg (Rupert Friend). At first he is obviously a puppet groomed and tutored to attract her with pretended identical interests, a ruse she sees through immediately. Once Albert can be himself, the two find that they might just like each other. Their on-again, off-again relationship might lead the viewer to wonder if they have a future together (at least if the viewer has not been to the Victoria and Albert Museum).

As a viewer I was interested in the history, but found this film frustrating. People of this time period were expected to behave very properly and to not show a lot of emotion, certainly in public. That or the acting robs these characters of much of their interest value. Blunt is charming as Victoria in ways that may not be expected by most people who have seen the usual rounded and older pictures of The Old Queen. But the people of this story are not much more interesting than they would be in a non-fiction history book. It is worth seeing the late Georgian fashions and furnishings, but the actors are little more. Bloodless and reserved, they just never come to life. All the plots against Victoria are just ever so slightly distressing. There would be little dramatic tension even if the viewer were uncertain how it all came out, but the future of this couple and later of just Victoria is just too well known. Even to the end we are never sure if she love better Albert or her spaniel. But she was the longest reigning monarch of Britain, a title she will continue to hold until she is surpassed on August 20, 2015.

With expectations from films like ELIZABETH, the viewer might be disappointed at how unexciting the presentation is here. The film is better as a history lesson, albeit not a reliable one, than as an exciting historical entertainment. I rate THE YOUNG VICTORIA a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

In FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN (ISBN-13 978-0-553-58580-3, ISBN-10 0-553-58580-0), Kim Stanley Robinson invented the League of Drowning Nations: nations, mostly small islands, which are threatened with inundation by rising sea levels. There was no such organization--then. But a few weeks ago on PBS's "Now", they were talking about the Alliance of Small Island States. It sounds a bit less pre-determined than the League of Drowning Nations, but it's ultimately the same thing.

AOSIS consists of Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cape Verde, Comoros, Cook Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Grenada, Guinea- Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Singapore, Seychelles, Sao Tome and Principe, Solomon Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Here are some statistics:

    STATE                       MAX ELEVATION
    Guernsey                    114 m (374 ft) (not a nation)
    Qatar                       103 m (338 ft)
    Kiribati                     81 m (266 ft)
    Bermuda                      76 m (249 ft) (not a member)
    Vatican City                 75 m (246 ft) (not an island)
    Nauru                        71 m (233 ft)
    Bahamas                      63 m (207 ft)
    The Gambia                   53 m (174 ft) (not an island)
    Turks and Caicos Islands     49 m (161 ft)
    Cayman Islands               43 m (141 ft) (not a member)
    Marshall Islands             10 m (33 ft)
    Tuvalu                        5 m (16 ft)
    Maldives                      2 m (7 ft)

And if they take parts of countries, Florida (105 m (345 ft)) and the District of Columbia (125 m (410 ft)) may want to join.

Note that the elevation is a maximum; even if it is not submerged in a sea level rise, most of the populated/arable land may be. I cannot find a table that shows what percentage of land in given countries is under 5 meters but (for example) a one-meter sea level rise could flood 17 percent of Bangladesh and reduce its rice- farming land by 50 percent (according to the UK Royal Society). point

I started LAND OF THE DEAD by Thomas Harlan (ISBN-13 978-0-765-31204-4, ISBN-10 0-765-31204-2), set in a world in which the Japanese reached the Aztecs before the Spanish did. However, it had two strikes against it. First, it is the third in the "Time of the Sixth Sun" series. And second, it begins with three pages explaining the measurements and Mexica ship names, and a long table of equivalences between military ranks of the Mexica, Nisei, fleet, and army/navy ranks. An attempt to read it decided it--the first few pages seemed to assume a knowledge of what had come before that I did not have. The series may be good, but one apparently has to start with the first book. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Such is the advantage of a well-constructed 
           language that its simplified notation often 
           becomes the source of profound theories.
                                          -- P. S. Laplace

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