MOVIE REVIEW: 13 Ghosts (US, 1960)

The Zorba family is in a rather bad state. That day, the repo men came and collected all their furniture. There’s no indication as to the source of their financial troubles, but it doesn’t really matter. That night, while eating dinner on the floor (the repo men didn’t take their dishes or kitchenware), a telegram arrives. The father, Cyrus (Donald Woods), is being instructed to show up at the offices of attorney Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner, in his pre “Adam-12” days).

It doesn’t look good at all.

However, once Cyrus gets there, he’s informed that his eccentric uncle Plato Zorba has died recently, and has left Cyrus and his family his house and all its contents. This is a pleasant surprise to Cyrus; he’d though Plato had died years ago. The family quickly relocates to the old mansion (conveniently furnished, and with a live-in housekeeper (played with suitable creepiness by Margaret Hamilton).

There, they find out that Uncle Plato’s eccentricities concerned the supernatural, and he had developed a method that he claimed would make ghosts visible. That would explain the weird glasses that were the only non-house item left by the will. Uncle Plato also happened to “collect” ghosts – and they shared the house with him….

Haunted or no, the Zorbas really don’t have much choice at the moment….

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BOOK REVIEW: The Berlin Project

The Berlin Project
by Gregory Beford
Saga Press
Copyright 2017 by the author

“What if we had the atomic bomb a year earlier? The easiest and least expensive method of separating isotopes, a method used throughout the world today, is based on a centrifuge procedure that Harold Urey proposed in 1940. General Groves chose the diffusion method instead. Karl Cohen, Urey’s able assistant during that period, believes that Groves’ decision delayed the atomic bomb by a year.

“If Dr. Cohen is right, atomic bombs of the simple gun design might have become available in the summer of 1944 and, in that case, would surely have been used against the Nazis. Atomic bombs in 1944 might have meant that millions of Jews would not have died, and that Eastern Europe would have been spared more than four decades of Soviet domination.”

– Edward Teller, Memoirs

Benford posits that the team working on the centrifuge method got enough independent funding to fix the engineering problems they were having, and got their method chosen over the diffusion method.

This alternate history novel takes it from there, and follows the career of Karl Cohen, the lead engineer-chemist on the centrifuge project.

That Cohen happens to be Benford’s father-in-law, well….

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Book Review: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon
Published in six volumes, 1776-1789
With commentary by Henry Hart Milman, 1846

(Project Gutenberg edition)

“It was Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Some months ago, in a discussion of “Great Works”, a friend of mine had mentioned that she’d read Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”. Intrigued, as I was nearing the end of Durant’s “Story of Civilisation”, and looking for something to load onto my mini-tablet for further lunchtime reading, I was pleasantly surprised to find an ePub version of all six volumes available at Project Gutenberg. I quickly downloaded and installed them.

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Book Review: Caesar’s Last Breath

Caesar’s Last Breath
Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
Sam Kean
Little, Brown, and Company
(c) 2017 by the author

In the kingdom of non-fiction books, there’s a land that can be described as “commodity biographies”. Here, the authors take an item or substance of great familiarity, and write about how it has influenced and has been influenced by human history. (e.g Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky). Given air’s ubiquity, it’s kind of hard to write a biography for it. Kean’s book can be better described as a collection of independent essays that together tell a history of Earth’s atmosphere and our understanding of it.

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Book Review: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2005 by the author

The current president likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, choosing Jackson’s portrait to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson is going to be removed from the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. All the hubbub over Jackson has many people in a lather about him; essentially he’s seen as the Anti-Christ for his slave ownership and the “Trail of Tears”.

I thought it might be a good idea, then, to read a biography of our seventh President, and learn something of what all the fuss is about.

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BOOK REVIEW: Time Travel

Time Travel
James Gleick
Pantheon Books
Copyright 2016 by the author

If you were looking for someone who could explain all the ins and outs and forwards and sideways of time travel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better writer than James Gleick. He’s previously tackled topics like chaos theory and the life and work of Richard Feynman. So a history of the idea of time travel seems like a natural subject for him to present to the average intelligent reader.

Gleick starts by taking us back in time to when H.G. Wells was penning “The Time Machine”. He discusses early drafts of the novel, and mentions some of the problems that reviewers noted – what happens if solid objects are in the space the Traveler is passing through, for one, and how do you account for the fact that the earth is both rotating and moving through space (the latter is one that time travelers always seem to forget).

From there, he moves forward in time through physicists treating time mathematically as a dimension, philosophers grappling with the concept of time, and even lexicographers trying to simply come up with a definition of the term that doesn’t wind up spinning in circles: “Time is what clocks measure”; “A clock is a device for measuring the passage of time.”[1]

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Movie Review: Battle Beyond the Stars (US, 1980)

Let’s get the big thing out of the way.

BBtS is “The Magnificent Seven IN SPACE!” Or, since TM7 was actually Seven Samurai done as a western, you could say BBtS is “Seven Samurai IN SPACE!!!”

Produced by Roger Corman and his New World Pictures, it’s a typical example of his later work. Take a simple or hackneyed story, but give it as much “bang for the buck” as you can. Typically this involved reusing shots and sets, but it could also mean finding and nurturing young talent or getting established talent who could be had on the cheap.

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Book Review: Infected

Infected: A Novel
Scott Sigler
Crown Publishers
(c) 2008 by the author

There’s this syndrome out there called “Morgellon’s Disease”. Its symptoms, such as they are, are primarily an unexplained rash accompanied by the usual aches, pains, and tiredness. Occasionally, sufferers have found odd fibers coming out of the affected area. Others have reported the sensation of something crawling around under their skin.

No research to date has come up with a cause (aside from “I told you to stop scratching that, you’ve only made it worse”). The mystery fibers turn out to be bits of cotton, most likely from clothing. That hasn’t stopped people from blaming everything from nanotech to aliens to a government conspiracy.

Sigler’s novel, adapted from a popular series of podcasts, asks and answers the question: “What if Morgellon’s Disease was real?”

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MOVIE REVIEW: Krull (1983)

Ah, the early 80s…. In the cinemas, the hot trend was “sword and sorcery” movies. Swashbuckling heroes, damsels in distress, special effects making magic and monsters….. The stuff of legends, brought to life. They were coming out on a virtually monthly basis. To rise above the crowd, you needed something special.

A combined British and American production team thought about it and said, “Let’s add a little science fiction into the mix! And then throw a heck of a lot of money at it!” The result is our subject du jour.

The sci-fi elements in Krull are there at the start. As ponderous narration informs us, the asteroid we are seeing is actually a spaceship, and it’s setting out to conquer hapless worlds. Its next target is the planet Krull, a rather peaceful place consisting of various modest kingdoms. The conquest is well underway as the plot begins.

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