Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/02/18 -- Vol. 36, No. 35, Whole Number 2004

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,
Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,
All material is the opinion of the author and is copyrighted by the
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        Movies for Grownups (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)
        Do Squirrels Play Sports? (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
        ANNIHILATION (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        MOBY DICK (letters of comment by Paul Dormer,
                Kerr-Mudd John, and Keith F. Lynch)
        This Week's Reading (ESSAYS AND REVIEWS by Edgar Allan Poe
                and THE DISPATCHER) (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)


TOPIC: Movies for Grownups (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)

Forty years ago, when STAR WARS first came out, who would have
thought that in 2018 the AARP Awards for Movies for Grownups would
have three of the five nominees for Best Picture be SF, and that
the *tenth* "Star Wars" movie would win?  [-ecl]


TOPIC: Do Squirrels Play Sports? (comments by Mark R. Leeper)

A squirrel ran in front of my car recently. I had to hit my brakes
to avoid hitting him. At this particular instant I saw no car in my
rear view mirror, no car ahead of me.  The squirrel picked just the
wrong moment to run across the street, just ahead of the only car
around.  The traditional explanation for this sort of behavior is
the squirrel has a little tiny brain and was just being careless.
That is an explanation from somebody who doesn't know much about
squirrels. Anyone who has tried to prevent squirrels from stealing
seed meant for birds can tell you that it is a really tough task
precisely because squirrels are amazingly intelligent problem
solvers.  They have an amazing ability to outthink the makers of
so-called "squirrel-proof feeders."  And if one squirrel cannot
steal the seeds by himself, they are perfectly capable or
organizing themselves into teams.  One squirrel will kick seeds out
of a feeder so that another squirrel on the ground can eat them.
Then they will change places. If the task calls for it, they will
use an agility that would put human acrobats to shame.

How might they organize a plan like the birdfeeder heist above?
Well, squirrels do have language.  They can make calls with their
mouths, but they also have a more articulate speaking organ that is
their tails.  They can shake their tails so that they can warn of
danger.  Or tell others that danger has passed.  They can tell
their peers that the two-legs in the house has just put out a pile
of sunflower seeds.  (Or they might wait until they have eaten a
king's portion of the seeds.)

So I cannot believe that the squirrel ran in front of my car out of
stupidity.  That squirrel knew exactly what he was doing.  The only
question is can I figure out why he took such a dangerous chance.
I think I can guess.  Some years ago we traveled in Kenya and had
almost the same experience with gazelles.  Our Land Rover would be
going down a road across a plain at something like thirty miles per
hour and a gazelle would see us and would run in an arc just to
cross the road six feet in front of our speeding car.  I mean,
there might be two or three cars on this road a day and this
gazelle just had to cross the road at the instant a car was
passing.  The near-miss is clearly intentional.  Is it possible
that gazelles are doing this specifically because it is so
dangerous?  What possible survival value could it have for a
squirrel or a gazelle to intentionally put itself into danger?

Well, let's look at a third animal behavior and it could be the key
to the other two.  A large predator bird is chasing a small bird
that is its intended prey.  Superficially it would seem that the
bird being chased should just do what it could to outrun the bird
chasing it, but often that is not what it does.  Rather than
putting as much space as it can between it and its stalker, it does
nearly the opposite.  It starts going through a complex flying
maneuver right where it is.  The predator loses interest just as
when he could be catching up.  If this little bird has so much
energy to waste, he is going to be hard to catch.  The little bird
flirts with death to prove to this and other predators that he is
going to be a hard catch.  Maybe even to prove it to possible
mates.  Maybe even to prove it to himself.  The same goes for the
gazelle and the squirrel.  Now what does this say about human
behavior?  We have our own fascination with behavior that is
dangerous for the sake of the danger and as a show of prowess.
Midnight graffiti raids, kids walking on railroad trestles, any
number of sports--couldn't these all be instinctive signals to
predators that no longer really exist that we are bad choices as
prey?  By flirting with danger we let the world know we are
prepared for it.  [-mrl]


TOPIC: ANNIHILATION (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Alex Garland, who wrote and directed the excellent EX
MACHINA, has co-written and directed a second film.  A strange
expanse has turned into "the Shimmer," a square-miles-wide region
where the laws of physics no longer work.  After scores of men have
failed to return from the Shimmer, a team of five women enters.
(Take that, Bechdel Test).  Garland gives the film a tone that may
not be really alien, but is very foreign.  A lot of the film is
incomprehensible or requires repeated viewing.  I hope it does well
at the box office, but a downbeat title like ANNIHILATION will be a
hard sell to an audience who may not even be able to spell it.
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

The Shimmer.  What is it?  A few square miles on the Eastern
seaboard have become alien territory.  It follows none of the
physical world laws we know.  Several assaults have been made to
understand the field, but as yet nobody has ever returned.  To try
a different approach, the government assembles a team of five women
to take on the suicide mission of entering the Shimmer to attempt
learning its secret.  The main character is Lena (played by Natalie
Portman), who had lost her husband to the Shimmer.  The main
timeline is the story of the team's visit to the Shimmer.  The film
jumps around from that timeline to flashbacks of Lena with her now-
missing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac).  It also jumps forward to
Lena's de-briefing after she is the first and only human ever to
escape the Shimmer.

Like the film STALKER by Andrei Tarkovsky, much of ANNIHILATION
takes place on what might well be abandoned landscape that the
script gives science fictional importance.  That might
significantly ease the budget.  These are some scenes in which our
team is threatened by what can be considered monsters and they are
created visually believable without letting special effects
dominate the film

My wife pointed out two flaws in the script.  It seems unexpected
and a little convenient that in the military there are five
advanced scientists who also happen to have experience with
armaments like assault rifles.  I guess we are to assume that the
weapon creates the action hero.  Also the government would not send
a team into the Shimmer for days on their first time in.  They may
start with a goat on a rope and send the goat in for two minutes;
then pull it out and see if it still lives.  Then it might try
three minutes and gradually increase the exposure.

ANNIHILATION is a rarity.  Among other unusual things it is a
science fiction film in which an intelligent woman is the main
character.  The only other such films that come immediately to mind
are CONTACT and the rare film ADVANTAGEOUS.

This is one of those films that will require six or so viewings
before it starts to make sense.  Ironically though, the tempo of
this film is slow--do not look for STAR WARS pacing--there are a
lot of ideas packed into the film.  So the viewer is never bored.
It is more complex but still not up to Garland's EX MACHINA.
However, expecting a film of that quality is setting the bar very
high.  I rate ANNIHILATION a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:



TOPIC: MOBY DICK (letters of comment by Paul Dormer, Kerr-Mudd
John, and Keith F. Lynch)

In response to Evelyn's comments on MOBY DICK in the 02/23/18 issue
of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:

Moby Dick seems to have that effect.  I re-read it beginning of the
year and several times there were answers in The Independent
crossword that connected with the book.  The answer "chowder"
occurred the day after I read the episode at the inn where Ishmael
is served chowder, and the day after I read the description of the
sinking of the Essex, this clue appeared:

Essex sailor sleeping at home after cold (8)

The answer, of course, was "Coffin", a reference to Owen Coffin,
the unfortunate sailor on the Essex eaten by his shipmates.

Kerr-Mudd John observes:

I'm not very good at crosswords, esp. if I'm looking for an 8
letter word and the answer turns out to be 6 long.  [-kmj]

Paul replies:

Oops!  Typo.

Mind you, I'm in good company.  Yesterday's Azed in The Observer
was set on an 11 by 13 grid, but some clever person at the paper
decided that that couldn't be right and didn't print the final two
columns of the grid.  (Fortunately, there was an on-line version
that had it correct:


Keith Lynch notes:

Today's cartoon references Moby Dick.  More synchroncity,
or just a coincidence? :-)  [-kfl]

And Paul responds:

Indeed, I saw that.  And then I started reading an old copy of
Analog--I'm several years behind--and there was a story in that
called Moby Digital, about a virtual reality version of Moby Dick.

And the John Houston film version was on television just a couple
of weeks ago.

It's taking over.  [-pd]

Evelyn adds:

I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention that I am up to
Chapter 126 in my annotating of MOBY DICK, with Chapters 1 through
105 posted at  [-ecl]


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

ESSAYS AND REVIEWS by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America, ISBN 0-
094050-19-4 consists of Poe's reviews and non-fictional writing
about various subjects.  I was looking forward to it, but when I
got it I discovered that the reason most of Poe's reviews were
unknown is that most of what he is reviewing is unknown today.

Nevertheless, there are a few choice items.  In "The Philosophy of
Composition" Poe describes the process of writing "The Raven", with
details such as why he chose a single-word refrain and how he came
to select "nevermore" as that word.

Other essays of interest include "Maelzel's Chess-Player" and "A
Few Words on Secret Writing" (on ciphers and codes).  These two
show a scientific point of view of Poe that one does not normally
associate with him.

THE DISPATCHER by John Scalzi (ISBN 978-1-59606-786-8) has an
interesting premise, but the problem is that it is a ridiculous
premise.  Even if one accepts the basic framework, the details are
clearly contrived to fit the story.  SPOILERS AHEAD!  The idea is
that at some point in the future, things change and people who are
murdered resurrect back in their own beds.  People who just die or
commit suicide do not.  There is no explanation for either the
resurrection or the teleportation, and someone like Ted Chiang
would spend his time examining the theological and philosophical
implications.  Scalzi mentions these implications, but really skims
over them to spend most of his time on the plot, involving the
details of what all this means in terms of how it is used (and mis-
used).  The first effect is that the job of "dispatcher" is
created; a dispatcher is authorized to kill someone who is about to
die, so that they will resurrect.  For example, if someone is about
to die after being hit by a car, a dispatcher can kill him, thereby
letting him come back to life.  There is a certain amount of reset
as well--clearly coming back to life in the same condition one was
one second before dying is not very helpful.

All this has its own appeal (the same appeal that C.S.I. has, for
example), but the artificiality of the "rules" Scalzi sets up
detract from it.  Recommended, but as a physical "what if" rather
than a philosophical work.  [-ecl]


                                           Mark Leeper

           I loathe people who keep dogs.  They are cowards who have
           not got the guts to bite people themselves.
                                           --August Strindberg