Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society

12/20/19 -- Vol. 38, No. 25, Whole Number 2098

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,

Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,

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Mini Reviews, Part 2 (THE REPORT, HOTEL MUMBAI)
 (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper)
          THE AMERICANS: The Seduction of Paige Jennings: A Coda
 (television review by Dale Skran)
Capsaicinoids (letters of comment by Scott Dorsey and Peter Trei)
ROMAN EMPIRE) (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)


TOPIC: Mini Reviews, Part 2 (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper)

More mini-reviews, this time of narrative films based on actual


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).



TOPIC: 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


- Paige spies on Pastor Tim, eventually finding and reading his

diary.  This is key to her alienation from the Church, as the diary

reveals that what Pastor Tim thinks of Paige and what he tells her

he thinks of her are not the same thing.  In addition to suggesting

that even the most trusted people in your life (your parents, the

pastor you turned to because you did not trust your parents) cannot

be trusted, the incident suggests that only through spying can the

truth be known.

- Eventually, Phillip and Elizabeth hit on the idea of getting

Pastor Tim out of their life by asking the KGB to have a "friend"

offer him a far-away job he can't refuse.  With Paige's approval,

they implement this plan, but Paige is more than a little impressed

that the KGB has the ability to make something like this happen.

It is perhaps at this moment that she starts to understand the

power of working for a large team with vast resources.

- When Paige watches her mother kill a would-be rapist, her eyes

are opened both to the random danger of the world, and her own

inability to deal with those dangers.  In contrast, she is stunned

to find her mother is a world-class killing machine, who dispatches

the criminal like you or I might stomp on an ant.  This inspires

her to ask her mother to teach her how to "defend herself."

- But of course, that is not the end of things.  Paige does learn

how to fight, and eventually takes out two horny college students

who lay hands on her in a bar.  This is her first real fight--the

first time she has actually hit someone with the intention to hurt

them--and she is more than just successful.  The boys are utterly

overwhelmed by her offense, and are left bleeding on the floor.

There is a sense of power that comes from knowing you can defend

yourself, but perhaps a greater high from actually doing so.  It

must occur to Paige that although there are rules about being a KGB

agent, it is to a large degree a license to hurt and kill at will.

- Paige is deeply isolated from her peers and her boyfriend once

she learns at about age 16 that her parents are KGB agents.  Once

she has put Pastor Tim behind her, she is drawn to the "sisterhood

of spies"--Claudia and Elizabeth, and to some degree another woman

who works for Elizabeth and appears to also be a deep cover

illegal.  Claudia, Elizabeth, and Paige spend long hours watching

Russian movies, cooking Russian food, talking about sex, and

drinking vodka the KGB way.  This intense, adult relationship is,

of course, intended to seduce Paige into working for the KGB, but

that does not make it any the less seductive.

- Paige seems both attracted and repulsed by the idea of using sex

to get information.  She is angry her mother seduced a college

student, but also defies her mother to sleep with a Congressional

aide.  There seems to be a part of her that is drawn to the power

of sex over others, just as she is drawn to having physical power

other others.  Her anger at her mother may be just that she felt

her mother should have let her seduce the younger men, or anger at

herself that she is drawn to the idea of seduction for information.

- Paige is shown as participating in a significant number of KGB

operations her mother organizes, including one where she is tasked

to take pictures of targets in a hotel hallway using a camera

concealed in a purse.  She makes some mistakes in these missions,

but as Phillip says, the issue is not can she learn to be a spy, it

is should she learn to be a spy.  However, Phillip seems to have

accepted that Paige is on a path to being a full-fledged agent.

- On thing is certain, although Paige may not have received the

full range of KGB training, when it comes to real deception of

people close to her, she has years of experience hiding from

Matthew, her first boyfriend, Stan Beeman her FBI neighbor, and

Pastor Tim.  These events are not classroom excises, but everything

on the table interactions with people who could destroy her life

and put her parents in jail, or worse.  In effect, in terms of what

really matters about being a deep cover agent, Paige has years of

training from two of the best, Phillip and Elizabeth, and that

training was far more than academic.

- What does Paige make of the final confrontation with Stan?

Phillip denies some killings Stan accuses him of, and sounds

sincere, but Elizabeth remains silent.  Stan is perhaps a bit of a

sexist, and may not be ready to accept that Elizabeth's body count

greatly exceeds that of Phillip.  Does Paige feel revulsion, or

admiration for her mother?  Does she fully understand some of the

implications of the confrontation?  The most important question is

how much does Paige understand about the schism in the KGB, and how

her parents have taken Gorbachev's side?  It is entirely possible

that, assuming she does understand and believe what her parents may

have told her, that she decides in the end to remain in the US to

serve Arkday and Oleg's faction of the KGB.

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]


TOPIC: Capsaicinoids (letters of comment by Scott Dorsey and Peter


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]

Peter responds:

I had no idea that showering with a parrot was a thing.  [-pt]

Scott replies:

Parrots LOVE the shower!  They would spend all day in there if they

could!  It's just like a rainforest!  [-sd]


TOPIC: 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


Gibbon (Penguin, ISBN 978-0-307-70076-6).

I will divide my comment into three parts, corresponding to the

first three volumes of Gibbon.

Book I:

"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


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


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.



                                          Mark Leeper

         Did you hear about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who

         stays up all night wondering if there really is a Dog?