February 2003

To the Seven Brave Ones

As I write this, the Columbia tragedy is less than a week old. There are plenty of events in this uncertain world that would seem to take precedence over the deaths of seven space travelers from a small blue planet. A potential war with Iraq and a potential conflict with North Korea, for openers, each of which promises to deliver many more bodies than the space shuttle disaster. And plenty of brave people lose their lives each day on Earth while pursuing their dreams or livelihoods. Space travel is a mundane reality in the movies and books we love. George Lucas has presented us with so many types of vehicles in his films that it's simply silly. And space travel has come to seem mundane in the real world, too. Before Columbia disintegrated, few if any of us noted that the shuttle had even taken off on its latest mission - -to the space station, no less. How many of us as children thrilled to the very words "space station," envisioning one of Willy Ley's majestic, post-modern wheels? Now when someone says those words, we think of cost overruns and bureaucrats. Lest we forget, however we are still in the primitive pioneer days of space travel, no matter how commonplace it may have become to us. We forget the very real dangers. The people aboard the shuttle hadn't forgotten them. A big chunk of their training consists of dealing with events outside the norm; what to do when systems fail. No one can doubt that as their spaceship began breaking up around them, they did everything they could, even in the face of terror and death, to keep on track and bring the mission safely home. That they couldn't is no reflection on the quality of their training or courage. President Bush has stated his continuing faith in NASA, and insists that the space program will continue. All the Columbia astronauts knew and accepted the risks. They would be the first to say that their deaths should dissuade no one from attempting to follow. No doubt, other men and women will die as we seek to gain a foothold in the emptiness above our heads. And no doubt, other men and women and eagerly awaiting their chance to go into space. Before long, they will be flying again. God willing, they will never stop. One day there will be a memorial on Mars to those who have fallen by the wayside. And one day, small children will pass it by on their way to school, with never a backward glance. We can only hope and pray that when those children grow up, they will have some sense of gratitude to the people whose memories are consecrated there, and some small understanding of part of what it means to be a human being.



Recent Raves:

The Alienist - Caleb Carr has produced a remarkable piece of historical fiction. This is a thick, satisfying read that is all but impossible to put down. It's full of compelling characters and colorful scenes. Someone is systematically murdering pre-teen male prostitutes in the New York City of 1896, mutilating them horribly. The officials don't even want to admit that the crimes exist, let alone the perp. This book is a delight for history buffs, because Carr goes to such length to get the feel of nineteenth century New York City right. (He did such a lot of research that there is a good sequel, too.) Theodore Roosevelt is a secondary character, and many other historical personages show up throughout the book. Carr never lets them get in the way of his story, though, which is compelling, horrifying, thrilling, and sorrowful by turns.
Bantam Paperbacks, 1995. 600 pages.

Humans - by Robert J. Sawyer. The second book in a trilogy about the discovery of an alternate Earth inhabited by Neanderthals. In the first book, Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, crosses over accidentally to our world, where he and a human female, Mary Vaughn, realize a mutual attraction. That attraction is consummated in this book, which is, like the first one, set primarily in Canada. The rapist who attacked Mary in the first book strikes again as the Neanderthals return to our world to begin diplomatic contact. Sawyer takes full advantage of the difference between humans and the peace-loving Neanderthals to make some interesting observations on human nature, especially when Mary takes Ponter to the Viet Nam war memorial in Washington, D.C. While never a totally compelling read, Humans undeniably goes down quite easily. Sawyer handles characterizations very well, and spins off plenty of interesting ideas. There's a nice faanish in-joke built into the novel, too, because Sawyer's Neanderthals refer to our brand of humans, who have died out in their world, as glicksins, an obvious tip of the hat to the well-known hirsute Canadian fan Mike Glicksohn. The third book in the series, Hybrids, is due out soon.

Adaptation - a film by Spike Jonez. Written by Charlie Kaufman.
If you saw and liked Being John Malkovich, then you may also like this film from the same director/writer team. In a bravura dual role, Nicholas Cage plays twin screenwriters: Charlie Kaufman and his brother, who may or may not actually exist (in real life, he doesn't). Charlie is attempting to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep) into a screenplay. We follow along via nested flashbacks into Orleans's book and out again, as Charlie struggles with his inner demons. This doesn't sound like much, but believe me it's a knockout. The Orchid Thief is a real book, and Susan Orleans is a real person. I can't help but wonder what she thinks of her character, who is driven to murder and infidelity through her deepening relationship with the orchid thief himself, John Laroche (flawlessly played by Chris Cooper). This is a movie about the lengths people will go to in order to realize their artistic dreams. Cage's Charlie is fat, balding and flannel-clad, and he's Cage's best work in years. The trick shots of Cage in the same scene with himself are so convincing that I forgot he was one actor playing two people. Kaufman has said he enjoys the work of writers ranging from Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick and Steven Dixon to Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith, who both specialize in "the queasy, really subtle shit that happens between characters; it can seem like nothing's happening, but it's horrible just the same." The last section of Adaptation takes a weird turn off into melodrama. It's questionable whether or not this works - and it might be a parody of the slam-bang action films that the Charlie Kaufman's twin brother writes with such gusto. But the movie shouldn't be missed - it's unique. Kaufman has also written the current film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind about game-show tycoon Chuck Barris's supposed links to the CIA as a hit man.

http://raymondscott.com/ Anyone who has spent time with or as a child is probably familiar with the classic Warner Brothers cartoons - Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et al. Part of the brilliance of these animated films is the quality of their soundtracks. Much of the music for the cartoons was written by Carl Stalling. Or - was it? Stalling borrowed themes liberally from band leader and seminal electronic musician Raymond Scott. Scott has a long and varied career, including a stint at Motown under Berry Gordy. Not bad for a white guy. This website is packed with info and sound clips (a few video clips, too) of Scott's various musical efforts. There are plenty of links to available Scott work, including some new stuff just out in February of 2003. More than that, however, the site is beautifully designed and maintained. Like the Deep Cold site I reviewed last issue, this is everything a web site ought to be.