To the Seven Brave Ones
Reflections on the Columbia disaster
As I write this,
the Columbia tragedy (space shuttle loss) 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.
The AlienistCaleb 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.
Adaptationa 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.
Anyone who has spent time with or as a child is probably familiar with the classic
Warner Brothers cartoonsBugs 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. Orwas 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 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.