Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Combination Plate 9

Several short comments about some books I've recently read and films I've recently watched.

Run Lola Run: a film
German import in English
Live action with cartoonish inserts
Director: Tom Tykwer
Lola: Franka Potente

I hadn't heard of the film and I'm not even sure why I rented it, but it was a wonderful accidental discovery. It's mostly live action, but cartoon imagery is used very effectively sporadically throughout the film. It adds a lighthearted touch to the goings on in the film and reminds the viewer that this really is not for real.

The plot is simple: Lola's klutz of a boyfriend is trying to break in with the mob. As a test, he is given 100,000 marks to transport from Point A to Point B. He loses the money and calls Lola to tell her the sad news. I guess Lola's feelings for him demonstrate the old adage: love is blind (possibly not too bright either). As he sees it, his choices are limited: rob a grocery store or get terminated by the mob if he doesn't hand 100,000 marks over to his contact in about 20 minutes. Lola tells him to wait, for she's going to see if she can raise the money in that 20 minutes.

Now, Lola begins to run. As she runs, we get brief glimpses of the future lives of the people she runs into, some literally. Rather than spoil the plot, I'll stop here. The film does not end when Lola finally reaches her boyfriend some 20 minutes later, for the film is a fantasy that gives us the opportunity that we never get in real life: if we could only do it again, how different it would be. In fact, Lola gets three chances to do it. Each trial is different in some ways, with the effects on the others she encounters differing each time, and also producing changes later which result in a different conclusion each time.

Overall Rating: very high. I've seen it twice and will probably see it again.


Mari Jungstedt: The Inner Circle, a novel
Mystery: Police Procedural
Protagonist: Inspector Anders Knutas
Setting: the Island of Gotland, just off the Swedish coast

This is appears to be the third novel in the series set on Gotland with Inspector Knutas. In this novel, a young archeology student on a dig in a Viking settlement has been murdered. Does this have anything to do with the decapitated horse found several days ago? Moreover, there seemed to be a suspicious lack of blood where the horse was found. It seems clear that there is a ritual element to this murder--a human sacrifice? As the body count increases, the tension rises, among the police who have no clues to go on and among the archeology students who are at the dig and also among the general populace.

It's a well-told story with a intriguing plot. The denouement is satisfying and fair--no last minute twin or sudden insertion of a character in a late chapter or a flash of insight that leaves the reader wondering where that came from. It's a good smooth translation also.

My only quibble is a personal quirk: mysteries should focus on the mystery. This one, well--to quote the back cover comment from the Svenska Dagbladet, "she succeeds in combining a fascination with macabre acts of violent crime with a focus on relationship drama..."

That's my problem--the "relationship drama" has little to do with the plot, except that it involves the secondary POV character Johan, a reporter who decides he will investigate the crime himself. As part of the "relationship drama," the reader is suddenly blessed with a chapter or two with Emma, the reporter's love interest, in the birthing room as she gives birth to their child, and then on the effect this has on their relationship.

Overall Rating: good--I would especially recommend it for those interested in reading crime fiction from other countries.


Javier Sierra
The Secret Supper
Historical mystery: set late 15th century Italy
Focus: Leonardo da Vinci and The Last Supper

What secret code, if any, did da Vinci incorporate in his painting, The Last Supper? This novel is bound to draw comparisons with the more famous one by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. However, this one is better, by far.

Agostino Leyre is a monk in the Order of Saint Bethany (OSB?), a super secret group buried within the Dominicans. The Order was "set up to examine government matters that might allow the Holy Father to foretell the movements of his many enemies. Any scrap of news, however minuscule, that might affect the status quo of the Church would immediately pass into our hands, where it would weighed and transmitted to the pertinent authority. That was our sole mission."

The Vatican has received several anonymous letters warning them of da Vinci's intention to insert heretical symbols in The Last Supper. Leyre is sent to Milan to investigate the claims and also to identify the sender of the anonymous letters. Then, the murders begin, and the hunt is on.

The usual suspects are present: The Last Supper, da Vinci, Mary Magdalene, St. John, the Cathars, the Gnostics, and Church/State politics. I don't remember the Templars making it into this one, though.

Overall Rating: good--nice depiction of the historical setting, interesting code set up for the interpretation of the painting, and characters that are a bit more than two-dimensional.


Nine Queens: a film
Argentina, subtitles
a caper film

Two con men, the old wise experienced Marcos and the young inexperienced Juan, stumble into a swindle involving the Nine Queens, a sheet of rare and incredibly expensive stamps. Their target is a rich businessman whose hobby is stamps. However, he has to leave the country the next day, so he won't be able to give the stamps the thorough testing he normally would. That's the con men's advantage, for the stamps are forgeries, good ones, but they won't stand up to thorough testing.

The film follows the two as they desperately attempt to put their scam across. At each turn, there's a new and unexpected hurdle, each one threatening disaster for their plan. The fun is, of course, watching them struggle with each new potential catastrophe.

Overall Rating: good, a enjoyable couple of hours, with the usual twists and turns and crosses and double-crosses and triple-crosses that one would expect. One might wonder if there really
is honor among thieves. Nine Queens makes me reflect on what other gems might be awaiting discovery down there.


The Producers
A Mel Brooks film

This is one of my favorite goofy movies of all time. Zero Mostel is a producer who has hit bottom. His most recent plays have all been flops. Gene Wilder plays the naive, innocent accountant whose consciousness is raised by the wily and unscrupulous Mostel.

After doing Mostel's books for his latest flop, Wilder discovers that several thousand dollars are still in the account. But, since the show was a flop, everyone assumes all the money is gone. Mostel sees the golden opportunity and persuades Wilder to go along. They will select a play that is a surefire loser, raise money from backers, spend as little as possible, and close out the books when it flops. Overall, they manage to sell several thousand percent of the proceeds to various backers, mostly little old ladies charmed by Mostel.

Their choice for flop of the year: Springtime for Hitler, written by a Nazi who attempts in his play to present the "real" Adolf Hitler, not the evil one portrayed by Allied propagandists. This, they are convinced, absolutely can not fail to fail.

They select a director and cast that hasn't enough talent to be even second-rate. Dick Shawn is a brain-damaged old hippie who is selected to play Hitler. I think his portrayal of Hitler can best be described as surreal.

One of the great scenes in the movie is that of the audience who are open-mouthed in shock as the play opens with the first song:

"Springtime for Hitler and Germany,
Winter for Poland and France.
Bombs falling from the skies again,
Deutschland is on the rise again."

Sheer lunacy. Warning: it's a catchy tune, so you might find yourself humming it days later.

Overall Rating: Great. If you haven't seen it yet, then go rent it somewhere. If you have seen it, then perhaps it's time to see it again.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

T. S. Eliot: September 26, 1888--January 4, 1965

T. S. Eliot--poet, playwright, and critic. He is a favorite of mine, and "The Hollow Men" is one of my favorite poems by him. At present, it's hard to see what Eliot's legacy will be, assuming that he isn't forgotten as the decades pass. Will his poetry be remembered and read by both the public and critics, or will he be read mostly by critics and English majors in class? Or perhaps, he will be remembered only by critics who will discuss his criticism in the future, and his poetry will be ignored, except perhaps as examples of poetry from the first half of the 20th century?

My first encounter with Eliot was at an early age, much too young to really appreciate the poem. In fact, it wasn't the poem but only the last stanza that I read, and I didn't know where it came from until years later. It was used as an epigraph for a SF short story, whose title and author I have long since forgotten. It is the epigraph, not the story, that has stayed with me through the decades.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

I read it in the '50s when the Cold War was at its hottest, and nuclear annihilation was one of the most common themes in SF (commonly dismissed as "escapist fiction"). This suggested another way for the world to end, one that was directly contradictory to the prevailing fears of the time--"Not with a bang but a whimper." I found this intriguing, and perhaps hopeful? It was not until perhaps the early '60s in an English Lit class when I discovered the source of the epigraph.

The poem itself has two epigraphs. One, "Mistah Kurtz--he dead" is from Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. It occurs near the end of the novel, shortly after Kurtz has been taken aboard the river boat that has come upstream to investigate strange and frightening rumors that have circulated about his methods. Kurtz is at the "heart of darkness" or perhaps he himself may be the heart of darkness. Kurtz may have recognized this on his deathbed, when he utters his last words--"The horror...the horror."

Francis Ford Coppola, the director of Apocalypse Now, a film inspired? by Conrad's Heart of Darkness, recognizes the relationship between Eliot's poetry and Conrad's novel. Where Eliot echoes Conrad with the epigraph from Heart of Darkness, Coppola reverses the relationship when he has Kurtz quote several lines from Eliot's poetry in his conversations with Willard, the officer who has come to "terminate him with extreme prejudice."

I think Eliot wishes to tie in his formulation of the death of western civilization during the horrors of World War I with Kurtz, a highly civilized man and a paragon of humanitarian motives, who becomes far more savage than the "savages" he is supposed to be bringing the benefits of civilization to.

The second epigraph, "A penny for the Old Guy," comes from the traditions surrounding Guy Fawkes Day. English children (perhaps this tradition now has passed into oblivion) go about with straw effigies of the 17th century traitor Guy Fawkes and ask for pennies for fireworks which will be set off as the effigy is later hung and burned. Perhaps this is Eliot's brief commentary on the strange relationship between the innocence of children and the savagery of "civilized" law.


Mistah Kurtz--he dead

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Any thoughts? Which would be worse--the world ending in a bang or a whimper?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Samuel R. Delany: The Einstein Intersection

I suspect that Samuel Delany is one of those SF writers that readers either highly admire or find unreadable. My own reaction is mixed: some novels I thoroughly enjoy while others...? The Einstein Intersection belongs in the first category. It is one that I have read several times.

SF writers frequently borrow mythic themes for their tales, and Delany is no exception here. If you know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, then you have the basic plot structure. However, don't assume that Delany slavishly follows the myth. He does bring in a few changes to the story. Moreover, Delany isn't satisfied with just bringing in one myth; in fact, some might argue that the story suffers from a touch of mythic overload. I wouldn't go so far as to say that, though. But, a few more might push it over the edge.

One of the reasons I reread it, aside, of course, from enjoying it, is the hope that one day I will be able to clear up some of the issues that perplex me. One major issue is the setting and the nature of the characters that Delany puts into that setting.

The story takes place on Earth, some time in the far future. But, the humans have long gone somewhere else. The planet is now populated by aliens who have been drawn to Earth in some way. Their civilization ranges from people living in small isolated villages, which survive with a mix of hunting/gathering, herding, and small farming plots, to at least one large city with perhaps several million people. Much of the countryside is still uninhabited.

Fortunately, for the reader anyway, we do get some answers, although I'm not sure how helpful those answers are. As befit a tale with Greek mythic overtones, we find an oracle in a cave, and that oracle is one of the computers built by humans but left behind long ago--PHAEDRA.

PHAEDRA (which stands for Psychic Harmony Entanglements and Deranged Response Association--and no, I didn't leave out the first A--it isn't there) tells Lobey, the main character,

"'Up there on the surface. I can remember back when there were humans. They made me. Then they all went away, leaving us alone down here. And now you've come to take their place. It must be rather difficult, walking through their hills, their jungles, battling the mutated shadows of their flora and fauna, hunted by their million year old fantasies."

'We try,' I (Lobey) said.

'You're basically not equipped for it,' PHAEDRA went on. 'But I suppose you have to exhaust the old mazes before you can move into the new ones. It's hard.'"

I'm not sure whether this answers any questions or just adds confusion. There's almost a suggestion that, while the humans have physically departed, there remains a psychic residue, which consists of their dreams, their terrors, and their fantasies and that the aliens are trapped into living them out until all have been exhausted or perhaps exorcised before the aliens can go on to live out their own unique destinies. Please feel free to disagree here.

I mentioned above that some might complain about a "mythic overload." I don't agree, but mythic elements are everywhere. Lobey, the main character, is a young male who lives in a very small village. He hunts and also herds goats with some of his friends. His weapon is an ax whose handle is also a flute which he has taught himself to play. At the time of the story, he and Friza, a young woman who has recently joined the tribe, have paired off. Unfortunately, she dies, seemingly for no particular reason. He hears rumors that others have died in the same way, and that Kid Death is responsible. PHAEDRA suggests that he might be able to persuade Kid Death to release Friza. This, then, is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, the musician, goes down to Hell to bring back Eurydice, his wife.

Delany describes Lobey as being relatively normal from the waist up, but he has the "thighs, calves, and feet of a man (gorilla?) twice [his] size (which is about five-nine) and hips to match." The hair on his legs is very dense and thick. After reading this description, I had to think of Pan, the woodland god of the Romans, with the upper body of a human and legs that are goat like in appearance. Pan is also noted for being a flutist of considerable skill.

Before Lobey begins his quest, he goes hunting and encounters a strange creature: one who appears to be human from the waist down and a bull from the waist up. This sounds much like the Minotaur that Theseus, from another Greek myth, encountered in the maze and killed. Lobey also chases the Bull into a cave with many side passages and dead ends. At the furthest end of the maze is PHAEDRA, who is also a part of the myth with Theseus and the Minotaur. She in fact becomes Theseus' wife after he kills the Minotaur, and in a sense, she is the step-sister of the Minotaur, if I have my mythic genealogy correct.

So, in Lobey, we have connections to the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, Theseus and Phaedra, and echoes of the Roman woodland flute-playing god Pan. Moreover, we learn that the Orpheus legend got mixed up in some bizarre way with the legend of the Beatles, specifically Ringo, the one who did not sing.

Kid Death is an interesting character. In one of the rooms near PHAEDRA, Lobey discovers what appears to be a TV set. While fiddling with the dials, he sees Kid Death on the screen. The Kid tells him that "My mother called me Bonny William. Now they all call me Kid Death." William Bonney is better known as the gunfighter Billy the Kid, who boasted on his 21st birthday that he had killed someone for every year of his life. Here's a borrowing from the myths of the Wild West, and not the only one either.

While on his journey, Lobey gets taken on as a cowboy to help drive the herd to market. Actually, dragonboy would be more accurate because what's being driven to market is a herd of dragons, not cattle. One of the other drovers is Green-eye. He's relatively normal except that he has only one eye and it's green. In addition, he can perform miracles and even raise people from the dead, or so it is told.

Green-eye is taking a risk for his home town is the market city--Branning-at-sea. His family is there, as are numerous enemies. He hopes to enter the city quietly so his enemies are unaware that he is there. Not knowing this, Lobey (Judas?) tells a stranger on the road that Green-eye is with them. As they approach the city, a large crowd of Green-eye's family and friends meet him, singing and chanting in joy as they escort him into the City. Those familiar with Palm Sunday and the story of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before his betrayal and crucifixion might see some similarities here. On the other hand, there's the story of Odin, the greatest of the Norse gods, who, to gain his superior wisdom, had to hang on a tree for ten days and also had to give up one eye.

One minor puzzle is that of Lobey's name. In Lobey's village, the traditional honorifics are still used. Lo means a functioning male, or at least one not so severely genetically damaged, that he can't function on his own--Lo Hawk, for example. La refers to a functioning female--La Friza-- and Le to a hermaphrodite--Le Dorik. Therefore, Lobey, when formally addressed, is called Lo Lobey. It sounds as though it should signify something, but so far I've not been able to come up with anything.

I'm not even going to try to get into the story after Lobey reaches Branning-at-sea, for that would give away too much of the plot. Let's just say it provides more evidence of Delany's imagination.

It's a short novel, less than 150 pages, but it's a fine print, so a new printing with larger print might push it up to 175 pages, maybe.

Overall Rating: Highly recommended for those looking for a story that doesn't lay out everything clearly and simply and wraps up everything neatly at the end, but requires a bit of work on the reader's part.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ray Bradbury: A Sound of Thunder--story and film

A number of Ray Bradbury's stories and novels have been made into films, with varying degrees of success. Few really have been able to capture the atmosphere that Bradbury imbues in his works. Frequently, it is obvious that the director doesn't even try. Bradbury's short story "The Fog Horn," which I mentioned in an earlier post, is an example of this. It was turned into a creature feature which focused on the destructive creature who destroyed everything it could for no explicable reason. I guess it was just born that way, in distinction to Bradbury's creature who acted out a very recognizable impulse of frustration and loneliness and then went home, somewhere under the sea.

Another more recent example of this is the film version of Bradbury's time travel story, "A Sound of Thunder." The film A Sound of Thunder came out in 2005 and was directed by Peter Hyams. I recognized no one in the cast except for Ben Kingsley.

The story's plot is quite straightforward. Time travel has been invented, and safaris are now organized for those who wish to hunt for dinosaurs. Fearing to change the future in some way, the organizers are very careful to select as prey only those animals who will die in a few minutes or less. Killing them a few minutes earlier reduces the risk of a major effect on the future to a minimum. Moreover, the hunters are warned to stay on a path that will not affect any of the living creatures there.

However, on the trip featured in the story, a hunter becomes frightened, steps off the path, and crushes a butterfly. On their return back to their present, they find that the spelling of English words has changed and the results of an election have been reversed. Instead of Keith, the humane liberal-minded candidate who will work for peace, Deutscher, a hard-liner fascist, "an iron man," has been elected. "Deutsch" is the German word for "German"; "Deutschland" is their name for Germany. Interestingly, "Stalin" means "man of steel" in Russian.

What's left of the story in the film? Well, there's time travel and the hunting safari and the dead butterfly. In one way, this story has also been turned into a creature feature. In the film, the effect of the dead butterfly has not yet happened when they returned. Instead there are time waves that come forward changing everything around them. The simplest living beings change first--plants and insects. This is followed by larger, more complex animals--the mammals. The last wave will come and change the humans into something else.

SPOILER WARNING: Information about the resolution of the film follows.

However, unlike the characters in the story, the film's characters are able to change everything back to the way it was at the end. Unfortunately, this comes about through an apparent contradiction in the plot. In the short story, Bradbury is careful to have his hunt organizers study the prey very carefully, and they have selected a number of them whose death will make no difference.

In the film, the hunt organizers have selected only one T. Rex as the prey for all of the hunts. During the last hunt, the chief guide stands there and predicts each movement by the T. Rex. He has "hunted" this animal so many times before that he knows each step it is going to take and each bodily movement it will make before it makes it. Yet, even though this is the same animal, and it is the same few instants before its death, we see no other hunting parties led by this same guide. Where or perhaps when are they?

The film, however, ignores this problem for the solution is to send the guide back just before the T. Rex appears and to warn them about the death of the butterfly. He is successful: the hunter is prevented from stepping off the path, and we see the butterfly flutter safely off. Everything now returns to the way it was, except that the characters remember what happened. The problem is simple: why was he able to make contact with the last safari and yet see none of the others that traveled back to this exact time. Or, as I asked earlier, why weren't the other safaris able to see each other?

Hyams, the director, turned the story into a decent fast-paced action film with various nasty critters and even a few large carnivorous plants. The special effects were good, and frankly the pacing was so fast that the actors didn't have much opportunity to emote, aside from fear, surprise, and whatever would be expected here.

Sadly, the special effects and the fast-paced plot bury Bradbury's point: that even the smallest action we take has unexpected consequences which we are unable to predict and frequently we are not even aware of them. I guess Hyams, the director, did attempt to make this point at the end when the members of the safari team decided to do what they could to call off the hunts. However, the point made in the film seems to apply solely to the fantasy world of time travel and not to our own actions.

Overall: good short story and a decent action film with special effects, none of which are the effects produced by Bradbury in the story though. It's not Bradbury, but it is a decent late night film that goes well with popcorn and your favorite beverage.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XV

Quatrain XV

First Edition

And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

Second Edition

For those who husbanded the Golden grain,
And those who flung it to the winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

Fifth Edition

And those who husbanded the Golden grain,
And those who flung it to the winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

There seems to be only a single word changed in the 2nd edition and that was changed back to the original word by the fifth edition. FitzGerald changed the first word "And" to "For" in the 2nd edition and then changed it back to "And" in the fifth edition. Just what the change added, I haven't the slightest idea, but whatever the reason, FitzGerald seems to have thought it over and decided to stay with the original word.

And again, the number of capitalized nouns drops, this time from 8 in the first quatrain to 4 in quatrains 2 and 5.

"Aureate" means "golden colored" or "gilded." In this case, I think "golden colored" as in "golden colored Earth" seems to be more fitting than "gilded Earth."

"Husband" means "to spend or use economically, to budget, to conserve."

"Husbandry" relates to farming or careful use of resources.

The quatrain suggests that regardless of whether one uses one's resources carefully and wisely

"And those who husbanded the Golden Grain"

or whether one is a spendthrift

"And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,"

the end result is the same.

"Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again."

There is no difference after one dies, for neither is buried in golden earth and no one would want to dug them up again. The dissolution is the grave in the same for the poor and the rich. Perhaps the grave is the only place where all are equal. I wonder whether this comes more from FitzGerald than from Khayyam, especially when one considers the oft-quoted meditation in Ecclesiastes, "All is vanity" when the Preacher asks:

"What profit hath a man of all his labour
which he taketh under the sun.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever."

What we did when alive makes no difference, once we are in the grave, or does it?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: ROADSIDE PICNIC and STALKER

While Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have collaborated on a number of novels, Roadside Picnic is probably their best known work in the West. It was written in 1971 and published in 1972. It seems to have been first published in the US in 1978, for it was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award for the best SF novel of that year. It came in second place to one of Fred Pohl's best novels, Gateway, and ahead of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly.

It was obviously a highly regarded novel at that time, and it still is, as it was just reprinted in 2007 as a SF Masterworks edition, which is the edition I have. It seems that 1978 was a banner year for SF since the top three finalists for the John W. Campbell Award have all been reprinted in the SF Masterworks Series: Gateway, Roadside Picnic, and A Scanner Darkly.

Andrei Tarkovsky became interested in the work and in 1979 directed a film based on the novel. It was first seen outside the Soviet Union in the Netherlands in 1980, and it appeared in the US in 1982. Tarkovsky won two awards for the film, one being an Ecumenical Jury Award (a special award) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the credited screenwriters for the film, while Andrei Tarkovsky, the director, according to imdb.com, is listed as an uncredited screenwriter. After viewing the film, I suspect that Tarkovsky was a major influence, if not the most significant screenwriter of the three.

As I am usually biased against the film when I read the novel first, I saw the film and then reread the novel. I had read it several decades ago and had only the vaguest idea of what was in the novel.

The Novel: Roadside Picnic

The plot of the novel, Roadside Picnic, is relatively simple. Unknown aliens have visited a number of places in the Northern Hemisphere. Why they came and what they did is unknown. All that is known is that they came and the places they visited have been changed. They also left a number of artefacts behind them which provides the title for the novel. As one of the characters explains:

"Imagine a picnic... A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watch in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. And of course, the usual mess--apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans bottles, somebody's handkerchief, somebody's penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow."

In other words, humans are as unable to understand what the aliens left behind as the inhabitants of the meadow are unable to understand the debris left by humans. And, some of that debris might be beneficial while other items might be most deadly.

The plot element of an alien visitation, and the Zone created by that visitation, was later taken up by M. John Harrison in his novel Nova Swings, published in 2006. It also received considerable recognition as it won the Arthur C. Clarke and the Philip K. Dick awards for best novel respectively in 2006 and 2007.

In Roadside Picnic, the governments has interdicted the area and banned all travel into and within the Zone, the area affected by the Visitation. Red Schuhart works for a government agency and guides scientists into the Zone, both for research and for the artefacts which are brought out for study in various laboratories. When he's on his own though, he is also a stalker, one of those who enter the Zone illegally. He guides clients who pay a considerable amount for his services. He also brings back artefacts which he sells to buyers, who understandably are eager to possess something from the Zone.


In the novel, Schuhart is eventually caught and spends several years in prison. He can't get his job back when he gets out. What happens is obvious. He becomes a stalker. Moreover, he is strongly attracted to the Zone, to the dangers he finds there and which he has successfully avoided so far. These are real dangers, inexplicable as they may be, and someone is injured or killed on all of the trips into the Zone that appear in the novel. In addition, the Zone has other effects as the children of the stalkers show a higher degree of mutation and birth defects than found in the general population. Schuhart's own daughter is nicknamed Monkey primarily because of her high activity level and for the fur that covers her body, and as she gets older, she seems less and less human.

The Artefact that all search for, whether they believe in it or not, is not the Golden Fleece, but the legendary Golden Ball. Supposedly those who find it can make a wish, and it will grant their deepest desire, which may or may not be known to those making the wish. Even here there is danger, for which of us can be sure that we know what we really want. The novel ends as Schuhart approaches the Golden Ball.

The Film: Stalker

The film begins roughly about 1/3 of the way into the novel, shortly after the Stalker (I could never catch whether he had a name in the film version and the cast of characters on imdb.com lists him simply as Stalker) has been released from prison and now is a full time stalker.

The setting is similar to the novel: an alien visitation has created the Zone which the government has cordoned off and forbidden to all unauthorized individuals. At the beginning of the film the Stalker meets his two clients who want him to guide them to the Golden Room (the equivalent of the Golden Ball in the novel) in which one is granted one's deepest desire. They encounter several threats which are never shown and in which the clients and the viewers have to take solely on faith in the Stalker's sanity.

In the novel, the Stalker approaches the Golden Ball thinking of "Happiness for All," while in the film, the Stalker and his clients debate the dangers of the granting people's deepest desires, including those of a very evil person. One of the Stalker's clients in the film is a scientist who has stolen a small nuclear device and intends to blow up the Golden Room, for it is too dangerous to be left for anyone to enter it and get one's deepest desire realized. The others persuade him to dismantle the bomb, and the three leave without having entered the room.

The only "special effect" in the film is Tarkovsky's decision to film the opening scenes, which are set outside the Zone, in sepia. I guess it's sepia as it looks to me like old photographs taken before color film was available. However, when they enter the Zone, Tarkovsky switches to color. It's a very intense color, but I'm not sure if that's just the effect of the first part being shot in brown and shades of brown. For the most part, the environment inside the Zone, mostly rural scenes, is far more pleasant than that outside the Zone, which appears to be a bombed-out area or one affected by urban decay. Tarkovsky then shoots the ending of the film, set outside the Zone, in color, though a washed-out color in comparison to the Zone. One is free to contemplate the significance of the color changes.

The pacing is slow. Be prepared to spend considerable time studying the character's profile, the short bristly hairs on the side of the character's head and unshaven chin. At another point, one gets slow pans of a pond with various submerged objects. Tarkovsky seems far more interested in a film that provides atmosphere and far less interested in telling a story.

Overall Reaction:

I recommend the novel for it has interesting characters, action, and an intriguing SF theme--our perception of truly alien artefacts. A great many SF works, prose fiction and films, assume that we would be able to understand and use alien items while this work suggests it might be more difficult than we assume and in some cases impossible.

I would recommend the film only to those who will not be turned off by the slow pacing of the film and the focus on settings and objects which seem designed more to provide an atmosphere than to move the plot forward. In addition, I would recommend that one does not come prepared to see a dramatized version of Roadside Picnic, except in only the broadest sense--that there is an alien zone and people enter it for various reasons.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Loren Eiseley: Sept 3, 1907--July 9, 1977

Loren Eiseley: anthropologist, poet, essayist, teacher, philosopher, scientist, humanist.

Back in the early '60s, I subscribed to Time Magazine. One issue had an advertisement for The Time Reading Program. The notice included a brief paragraph from a work by a writer I had never heard of--Loren Eiseley. I read the paragraph, and I was hooked. I had to read more by one who could put words together as he does in that brief quote. In this one brief paragraph he combined physiology, art, and evolution. And, he made the point that evolution has not stopped. I immediately joined the book club and never regretted it. The TRP had many books which I enjoyed and learned from, but this is the one book I always think of. I now have ten works by Loren Eiseley.

This quote is the one that hooked me. It comes from his first book The Immense Journey and is part of the essay "The Snout."

"Wherever, instead, the thin sheets of gray matter expand upward into the enormous hemispheres of the human brain, laughter, or it may be sorrow, enters in. Out of the choked Devonian waters emerged sight and sound and the music that rolls invisible through the composer's brain. They are there still in the ooze along the tideline, though no one notices. The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back into the water. There are things still coming ashore."

This is from another essay, "The Flow of the River," also from the same work. Eiseley has been walking for many hours and has come to the Platte River in Nebraska, which stretches from the Rockies to the Missouri and then to the Gulf of Mexico. He is hot and dry and dusty. The River is cold yet inviting and only a few inches deep in most places, but still there are dangerous holes and quicksands. He is alone and he can't swim and he is afraid of water as the result of a childhood incident. Yet, the sight of the river stirs him "with a new idea. I was going to float."

"I thought of all this, standing quietly in the water, feeling the sand shifting away under my toes. Then I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea. I was streaming over ancient sea beds thrust aloft where giant reptiles had once sported; I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion. I touched my margins with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae, and felt great fishes glide about their work.

I drifted by stranded timber cut by beaver in mountain fastnesses; I slid over shallows that had buried the broken axles of prairie schooners and the mired bones of mammoth. I was streaming alive through the hot and working ferment of the sun, or oozing secretively through shady thickets. I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water, the slimy jellies that under the enormous magnification of the sun writhe and whip upward as great barbeled fish mouths, or sink indistinctly back into the murk out of which they arose. Turtle and fish and the pinpoint chirpings of individual frogs are all watery projections, concentrations--as man himself is a concentration--of that indescribable and liquid brew which is compounded in varying proportions of salt and sun and time. It has appearances, but at its heart lies water, and as I was finally edged gently against a sand bar and dropped like any log, I tottered as I arose. I knew once more the body's revolt against emergence into the harsh and unsupporting air, its reluctance to break contact with that mother element which still, at this late point in time, shelters and brings into being nine tenths of everything alive."

There is more, so much more.

The Loren Eiseley Society http://tinyurl.com/ld6lzc

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Combination Plate 8

Kim Stanley Robinson
Vinland the Dream and Other Stories

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite SF writers, a result of discovering his The Memory of Whiteness and the "California Triad" (aka the "Orange County Triad"). I call it a triad because it's not really a trilogy, at least not in the commonly accepted sense, anyway. His short stories are also very good--some SF, some fantasy, some neither.

The quality of the tales in this collection is very high, as it should be, for this is sort of a "best of" collection. It's actually the best of two other anthologies, and that's the problem. All but one of the stories here have already appeared in The Planet on the Table (PotT) and Remaking History (RM). Only "Discovering Life" is not included in either of the two. In addition, there is an omnibus edition, Remaking History and Other Stories, which already includes all of the stories from PotT and RM.

The fourteen stories in Vinland the Dream range from future predictions to recreating the past, or in some cases rewriting the past, as in the title story "Vinland the Dream." In this story we see an archaeologist conduct an excavation to disprove a long accepted tenet, that of the discovery of Vinland by the Vikings.

In "A History of the Twentieth Century: with Illustrations," a historian is commissioned to do a coffee table work with this title. After researching the horrors of the twentieth century he comes up with a rather surprising conclusion.

"Venice Drowned" is the story of a future in which the sea level has risen sufficiently to cover Venice to the point that the shorter buildings are now underwater and the remaining residents have moved either to the upper stories of taller buildings or have build a shack on the roof. One such resident survives by taking sightseers on tours. He also guides and provides diving equipment for souvenir hunters who are busy looting the drowned city.

In the far future, some miners on far flung planets, all but slaves to the mining company, find release and relief in digging in the musical past in "Coming Back to Dixieland." This ragtag group of miner-musicians enter a contest, competing with professionals, with the grand prize an expenses paid series of gigs in the Solar System, one slim chance to escape the trap of the company owned mines.

The last part of the story tells of the concert the group played in the competition, and Robinson's word picture of that concert far surpasses any previous attempt I have ever read. At the end, I felt as though I had been there, immersed in the sounds of classic Dixieland. It reminded me of The Memory of Whiteness for that work also focused on a musician and his music. Robinson must be a musician for he writes so convincingly of music and musicians.

I believe Robinson is also a rock climber for this has played an important role in a number of his novels and short stories. In this collection is "Ridge Running," a story about three men who get together once again to go climbing. It is the first time out for one of them who has had a very serious accident and has suffered brain damage.

"The Disguise" is a neat little thriller, set on the stage in the future. Someone is killing actors on stage and no one knows who it is. Consequently, all involved in the production nervously watch everybody else, wondering if the killer is a part of this cast and crew.

"Mercurial" is a farce. It's a homage to "Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson"' and set on Mercury, in a city that reminds me very much of the city in Christopher Priest's strange little novel, The Inverted World. The city in both stories is set on railroad tracks and slowly inches its way across the landscape. Robinson has also dabbled in gender switching as the detective, Freya Grindavik, is a very tall (over 7 ft tall) lean woman whose arrogance approaches that of Holmes himself. Nathaniel Sebastian accompanies her somewhat reluctantly, which is understandable when he explains the life-threatening situations he found himself in as he reels off a number of her past cases. Sebastian also explains that the life of a "watson" (his term) isn't all that glamorous either.

Overall Rating: I would recommend anything with Kim Stanley Robinson's name on it.


Michael Chabon
Gentlemen on the Road
Adventure tale, mostly

I had heard much about Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, so when this title was suggested for a discussion in the SF group I belong to, I was looking forward to it. From what little I had heard, it appeared to be a "sword-and-sorcery" novel, much like Fritz Leiber's Fahrd and the Grey Mouser tales.
Leiber's "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is, for me, still the classic tale of this sort. The heroes can best be described as gentlemen adventurers; "rogues' or 'thieves" or 'con men' sounds so harsh. They do get involved in a number of capers which would be unacceptable to law-abiding citizens, but they do it more for the excitement and the thrill of a well-plotted campaign than for any thoughts of pecuniary gain. They, of course, wouldn't reject any cash or jewels or plate that came their way.

There is generally magic involved, with the usual assortment of wizards, spells, incantations, demons, and all the usual assorted paraphernalia. Occasionally they will, unwillingly of course, do a good deed or two, usually when there's an attractive damsel in distress involved. The time of the novel would probably be closest to late medieval or early Renaissance. They don't wear armor, but if they did, they would be described as knights in tarnished armor.

Unfortunately, Chabon decided that wasn't exactly the sort of book he wanted to write. His two gentlemen on the road are con men and we meet them pulling off their usual scam. The planet is obviously Earth, and various references to other peoples and countries are mostly historical. The task they get saddled with is the restoration of a spoiled young man to his throne that has been usurped by his uncle.

The sword part is there but no sorcery. It's basically an adventure tale--well written but still a disappointment. However, I am going to read other works by him because he does strike me as a skillful writer with some imagination.


Primer: A film
SF, Time travel

According to a comment on imdb.com, this film was nominated for a number of awards and won two at Sundance. I can't figure out why, unless it was because it was so low-key, but "hurry-hurry-hurry" most of the time. The actors kept stepping on each other's lines, so it was hard to tell who was saying what. Moreover, when the time machine finally became functional, I found it impossible to follow the story line and was completely surprised by the ending.

Four friends combine their financial resources and develop a lab in a garage owned by one of them. Two of them stumble on a time machine and decide to keep it a secret from the other two. The story moves rather quickly and lucidly the first half of the film, until as I mentioned above, they begin jumping back-and-forth in time and eventually lose me. Moreover, a third man, one who wasn't one of the original four, somehow gets involved and begins doing a bit of time-traveling on his own.

Overall Rating: I would give it 3/5 rating, primarily for the first part which focuses on the initial discovery. This part, the discovery of the strange, unexpected effects of the device they were developing, and their attempts to find out just what is happening and what the implications are, is very convincing and interesting.


John Dos Passos
The 42nd Parallel, a novel

This is the first novel in John Dos Passos' "USA Trilogy." The other two novels are Nineteen Nineteen and The Big Money. The novel is set in the USA at beginning of the twentieth century.
It's structure is definitely experimental. Each section has three very distinct parts, distinct as to content and format.

The largest part tells of four or five individuals (three men and two women, in the first novel anyway)-- their lives, their accomplishments, and their fates. Or, at least we will learn this if we read all three volumes. All of the major characters leave home as soon as possible and strike out on their own, some to a large city to find work while others go on the road. Their fates are different, but Dos Passos manages at one point or another to bring most of them together, some briefly while for some it becomes a long-lasting relationship.

The second part is called "Newsreel," and it's just what the title suggests. It consists of headlines, which are presumably found in newspapers at the time: "Six Thousand Workmen at Smolensk Parade with Placards Saying Death to Czar Assassin" or "Riots and Streetblockades Mark Opening of Teamsters Strike" or "World's 'Greatest Sea Battle Near" or "Madrid Police Clash with Five Thousand Workmen Carrying Black Flag." This, of course, provides the context for the stories of the focus individuals mentioned above.

The third section is titled "The Camera Eye" and is the hardest part to follow. It appears to be semi-autobiographical fragments which are based on Dos Passo's life. What follows is the first part of a typical segment: "and we played the battle of Port Arthur in the bathtub and the water leaked down through the drawingroom ceiling and it was altogether too bad but in Kew Gardens old Mr. Garnet who was still hale and hearty although so very old came to tea and we saw him first through the window..."

My only complaint would be Dos Passos' style, which is somewhat flat, almost journalistic. However, he breaks the narrative up frequently with "The Newsreel" and "The Camera Eye" segments, so I wasn't faced with 400+ pages of flat prose. Perhaps that's why Dos Passos decided to break up the narrative portion as he did.

Overall: very good. I have the second and the third books available, and I want to learn what happens to the focus characters, who have now reached a plateau in their lives and careers. They appear to be settled in for the duration, but there's those two other volumes waiting.


Karin Alvtegen
a novel
Mystery? the accidental detective type

The blurb on the back cover reads as follows: "The New Queen of Scandinavian Crime Writing."


Karin Fossum is a Norwegian writer, and Norway is considered part of Scandinavia. I think Fossum has a far better claim to being the Scandinavian Queen of Crime Writing than Alvtegen does.

begins in media res. Sibylla discovers that the man she had been chatting up and manipulating to rent her a room at the hotel is found murdered. Of course, the police suspect her. The novel then spends considerable time detailing her abused childhood (what other kind of childhood can there be?) with the mother from hell and the absent father. Alvtegen fills numerous pages on Sibylla's pregnancy, the loss of the child through forced adoption (the mother from hell again), her time spent in a mental institution (well, she got away from the mother from hell, didn't she?), and life on the street after she left the institution.

Occasionally we return to the present and discover that there are multiple killings. Sibylla is now suspected of being a serial killer, who also (only vaguely described in the novel) mutilates the body and removes unspecified organs.

SPOILER WARNING: I will discuss significant plot elements and the resolution of the novel from this point on.

Buried within all this is a detective story as Sibylla decides that the only way to demonstrate her innocence is to find the real killer herself. Therefore, this is in the subcategory of smart citizen and stupid police. They should have called in Inspector Kurt Wallandar who would have solved the crimes in a few days.

In one of her hiding places, Sibylla meets a fifteen-year-old boy whose mother just happens to be a police officer. She convinces him of her innocence, and he manages to get access to his mother's computer at the police station.

I said above this was an example of the stupid police story. What else can one say when the police are unable to find a link among the four victims even though it's there in front of them, just waiting to be discovered by this homeless woman and a fifteen-year-old boy. For example. the police ignore the facts that all four victims had recently received a transplant. Not only that, they saw no significance in that all four had their operations within a day or so of each other. And, coincidentally, all four received organs from the SAME donor. Obviously, this must be a coincidence; it couldn't be a link among them. Of course not.

At the end, after she has solved the case for the police, she also discovers that her father died several years ago. He had a considerable estate and had left half to his wife and half to his daughter. Now, Sibylla learns that the mother from hell is trying to get her declared legally dead so she could get the millions of kronors that the father had left Sibylla. She finds a sympathetic lawyer, and now she will live happily ever after in that small cottage on that beautiful lake.

Overall Rating: I finished it because it was the choice of the mystery group I belong to. Once burned, twice shy, or something like that.