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Copyright 2007 by John Zipperer.

The Employment Movies
By John Zipperer

(June 29, 2005) A year and a half ago, I reviewed movies I had seen while I was temporarily unemployed. So what have I seen now since I've been employed these last 18 months? And what did I think of them? Here are some reviews from a partial list of flicks I've seen lately.

Howl's Moving Castle: At the beginning of Star Wars Episode III, the crowd in my sold-out downtown San Francisco cinema cheered when the Lucasfilm logo appeared. I was prepared for that, because it had happened several years earlier when I had seen Episode II. But I was unprepared for the audience to applaud this past week when the logo for Studio Ghibli appeared at the beginning of Howl's Moving Castle. Ghibli is the great Japanese anime studio behind such films as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. More important, Ghibli is the studio of Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (which was both a manga – graphic novel/comic – and a film). His recent films have each shot to the top of the all-time highest-grossing Japanese films upon their release. Here in the U.S., despite distribution by the Walt Disney Company, Miyazaki's films garner little attention and generally small audiences.

Big shame. I think the people who cheered the Ghibli logo are right: The simple two-color logo was a sign that they were about to be treated to something unusual: a story told by a master and not a Hollywood formula hack, and a human and humane message.

In Howl's Moving Castle, a girl named Sofi is turned into an old woman by a witch, so Sofi runs away and ends up cleaning house for a wizard named Howl who, um, well, has this moving castle. It's, like, a bunch of buildings smashed together ... um, and ambulates on four mechanical legs. It's all operated by, uh, this demon that also manifests itself in the fireplace.

Kinda hard to explain.

Suffice it to say, she has her adventures amid the magic, the weird characters, and the odd flying whatsit. But what's important to know is that the film carries Miyazaki's trademark concern for war and peace, as well as his attention to how people treat each other and their world. This is a very good film and it's worth dragging out an old cliche because it's very true: This film is great for audiences of any age.

Good-Bye, Lenin: I believe it was Roger Ebert who raised the question of whether or not it was right to have a film that looked back nostalgically at a despotic regime like the former East Germany's. Though Ebert remains an unusually brave and often quite perceptive critic, I think he was wrong on this one. This story is not a love story for Communist East Germany; it's a very personal story about a family making uneven progress in a world where its society is crumbling.

Briefly, East German mother goes into coma just before Berlin Wall comes down. Wakes up in reunified Germany, and her family – led by her son – conspires to recreate everyday Communist East German life for her because they're afraid the shock of losing the country to which she was so devoted could kill her. It's a very cute film, quite clever and funny at times, and it is very well made. There's also some irony in the position of the son, who works so hard to create a lie that he ends up caring more about than anyone else.

It's just not an investigation into East German life. If you want that, go pick up Timothy Garton Ash's book, The File, or see The Legend of Rita – a much more serious film about someone deluded by the horrid political system that the KPD and the Soviet Union created. But for a touching, funny, and surprising film, Good-Bye Lenin is a good choice.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Many many moons ago, when I was a 13-year-old-or-so, my mother indulged my odd reading habits by subscribing to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, bringing home stacks of Omni magazines from her coworkers (well, coworker, who incidentally later became my stepfather), and even took me out of school one day to go hear scientist Gerard K. O'Neill give a speech. She also brought home a book one day called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which each of us kids eagerly read and enjoyed and laughed our heads off about. Just a few of the many reasons why I think my mother is a wonderful mother and human being, though she does now profess ignorance about ever having brought home the Hitchhiker's book.

No matter. Douglas Adams' book and its sequels were fantastic, rule-breaking stories that put science fiction as a genre into a whole new light for me. (Trust me, that was an important development. I was a 13-year-old – or whatever – who was diving deeply into the well of the classic SF books by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and others; soon, I'd discover the "new wave" SF writers such as Ellison and Gerrold and Spinrad, but my problem of taking it all too seriously would remain. Adams didn't take anything seriously, and his approach was one I would appreciate all the more for its freshness as for its rarity. Only Terry Pratchett, who has done the same skewering of a genre – fantasy, in his case – can be said to come close and, in my opinion, surpass Adams).

And finally they made a movie out of it. And it was good. Truncated and changed and all that, but a good movie that doesn't appear to have become a blockbuster, so a sequel may be in doubt unless overseas receipts put it well over the top. But it's a movie that I think can be enjoyed by people whether or not they've read the book.

Don't even ask me to racap the plot. Big aliens. Highway in space. Destroying then rebuilding the earth. And mice. Ya jest gotta see it. And if the movie doesn't hang around long in your multiplex, READ it.

Sin City: Bruce Willis was made to play the role of a tough guy who must stick with his integrity despite fighting against great odds. That's because it's the role he plays in most of his films, isn't it?

Anyway, as you know, Sin City is from a Frank Miller (very) graphic novel. I have not read the graphic novel, and because I have a rather low tolerance level for people's innards being blown apart or ripped from where innards are supposed to remain, I don't think this movie will impel me to go pick up the comic version. That said, I guess it's a good film; it certainly is different from the typical Hollywood dreck. I just fear that Hollywood won't learn from the parts of it that are stylistically innovative or thematically creative, and will instead just think it was a success because it pushed graphic violence to a new degree.

So go, but don't eat first, and leave the kids with a baby sitter. A very trustworthy babysitter. You'll see what I mean.

Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas' saga of good, evil, space opera and Marin County pop Buddhism comes to an end, um, or middle, with this movie that wraps up the first half of the movie series and lets you finally know how and why everything happens in the final three movies. In a word, great. In a string of words, spectacular, breathtaking, cool, fun, amazing, etc. The story you already know by now, I'm sure: Anakin loves Padme. After Padme combs her hair a lot she dies giving childbirth. Yoda fights Palpatine, who finally comes out of the closet as a Sith lord. Obi Wan tries desperately to win the Clone War but finally has to pack it in and move to a planned retirement community in Arizona (or Tatooine; same thing). Much killing goes on. Many people die. A corrupt republic finally falls, and corrupt empire rises, and one character — I won't tell you who! — becomes Darth Vader.

Episode II was a heck of a lot better than it's been given credit for being, and it ends with the best 30 minutes of nonstop science fiction action in memory. But Episode III delivers the action and more. Yes, there is still some wooden acting, but less of it than in previous entries in the series. There's also some of the sense of fun that some critics had faulted episodes I and II of lacking – especially with R2 D2 in the robot army's command ship near the beginning of the film.

Episode III is also great because – as of this writing – it has already grossed more than half a billion dollars globally in less than two weeks in release. What that means – besides enabling George Lucas to stop eating Ramen noodles every day – is that the much-ballyhooed boycott by the radical Right has as much power as a Britney Spears wedding vow. Nichts. And if it took the collapse of a republic and the birth of a new Sith apprentice to prove that, then a happy happy happy day indeed it is for everyone.

The Unemployment Movies
Reviews of Movies I've Seen During My Employment Hiatus
By John Zipperer

(08/25/03) At the end of May, my publishing company closed the magazine for which I was an editor, and I — along with the rest of my coworkers — was laid off. Since then, I have filled my time with a combination of freelancing (including for my former employer, for which I remain grateful), reading, and seeing a lot of movies. So, I present for you here some short reviews of some of the many movies I've sat through; some were endurance tests, some were okay, and a surprising number were unexpectedly enjoyable.

California's Silicon Valley isn't as easy a place to see movies as Manhattan was. During the nearly two years in the canyons of NYC, I took full advantage of the great number of movie theaters located within a short walk or subway ride from my East Side apartment. And, because it was New York, there were new foreign and independent films to see almost every weekend, as well as plenty of sites showing the latest Hollywood product. I don't miss the jam and crush of Manhattan, but I do miss those wonderful cinemas. Out here in the land of the rising sun, it is much harder to get the foreign and independent films, and they often disappear very quickly if they do make an appearance here. So, my list of films is a bit heavy on summer blockbusters (and blockbuster-wannabes).

American Splendor: Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland clerk at a Veteran's Administration hospital, created the American Splendor comic book that tells about his life in sometimes excruciatingly honest detail. (I first heard about him and his work in my friend Aaron Barnhart's addictive TVBarn Web site.) This is his story, told through actors, the real people from Pekar's life (including Pekar himself, who narrates), and the occasional cartoon character. This is not a movie for everyone; in essence, if you are squirming in your seat during the scene recreating Pekar's "On Strike Against NBC" appearance on David Letterman's old television show, then you're probably not going to sympathize with Pekar, his wife, or the topics that interest him. However, if you sat there during that scene and thought, "He's too abrasive but what's so bad about what he's saying about NBC?" then this movie should really click for you. For me, it's a movie that should not be missed. If you complain about too many formulaic Hollywood movies that don't take chances, here's your antidote. Was it worth my spending scarce unemployment-era money to see? Absolutely.

Camp: Musically inclined city kids go to a music and arts camp for various coming-of-age stories. It's formulaic, yes, and some of the acting is a bit below par. Yet, I admit I liked it. Misfit-centered movies always have a chance with me. Here, there are plenty of gay characters, unrequited love, odd parental relationships, etc. Not a movie on which I'd spend my scare dollars for the director's cut DVD, but worth seeing in the cinema.

Charlie's Angels Full Throttle: If Camp was designed to appeal to gay audiences, Charlie's Angels is red meat for the straight male crowd. You know the story, such as there is: Three woman fight crime, there's a bad guy (woman, in this case), and things explode. All in all, Spike TV was created to air this thing in repeated telecasts. A fun movie, yes. Even enjoyable. And stupid as paint. I don't regret paying my scarce unemployment dollars to see it, even though I'm not in the target audience.

Dirty Pretty Things: Illegal immigrants in London stumble across another kind of illegal activity: illicit trade in human organs. If this movie were made by Hollywood, I would shudder to think how the lead characters would indignantly overcome the prejudices against them and triumph against the bad guys, who would of course die in an extended and possibly explosive death scene (multiple angles available on the DVD). But this movie was better than that; even with an ending that seems hopeful, it does not solve problems in that "all's well" American viewpoint; instead, the characters are given a way to continue their lives in another place. Good way to spend scarce unemployment dollars? Absolutely.

Finding Nemo: Ellen Degeneres, underneath layers of makeup and heavy prosthetics, gives the performance of a lifetime as a fish with a short-term memory problem. Who knew she could swim so well? There's also a subplot involving a fish dad who's lost his fish son (named Nero or something like that), but the real joy of this movie is Ms Degeneres. Well, I should give a tip of the hat, too, to the Pixar creative geniuses. Absolutely worth spending scarce bucks to see.

Freaky Friday: Here was a movie I went to with very low expectations. I had never seen the original, but the previews of this one looked good, and Jamie Lee Curtis is something of a favorite actor to me, probably because she comes across as someone who doesn't play the Hollywood game. (Maybe she does, I dunno; but she seems like a cool person who doesn't try to hide the fact that she came to fame as a scream queen in low-budget horror films.) So, the story is just like any of those dad-and-son body switcheroos that we saw a decade or so ago; nothing fantastic in the originality department. But this movie nonetheless worked on every level for me. Curtis was a hoot to watch; the film moved along at a quick pace; it was actually funny; and I was very touched by the sappy ending. Absolutely, absolutely worth spending your last unemployment dollars to see.

The Hulk: Eric Bana's not difficult to look at, but director Ang Lee, a favorite of mine from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Wedding Banquet, was the main factor drawing me to see The Hulk. It also stars Jennifer Connelly, who is kind of the requisite girlfriend for movies aimed at the 15-45 male market. (There are apparently two directives in moviemaking: Gérard Depardieu must be in every French film, and Jennifer Connelly is the hero's perfect girlfriend.) Here, the story is formula, formula, formula, the type of film where you glance at your watch while knowing that it can't be over yet because there hasn't been an apocalyptic CGI-assisted battle between the hero and the main villain. This is the first Marvel comics-derived movie in the past few years that has been a clunker. Was it worth scarce unemployment dollars? Nope.

The Italian Job: Hollywood studios should probably get audited more often by the IRS, because they have millions of dollars to pump into movies such as this, which seems to have no reason to exist other than presenting a by-the-numbers caper. This remake of a '69 Michael Caine movie pretty much urges you to forget it as soon as the lights come back on and you're heading back into the lobby. What was that movie about I just saw? Whatever — I wonder where I'll pick up dinner tonight. If you like looking at Mark Wahlberg — and who doesn't? — then this movie might be worthy of consideration. But if you like looking at a film that tells you and shows you something you haven't seen a hundred times before on television crime dramas, then this movie ain't it. Unemployment dollars? Nope.

Johnny English: Oh, dear. I am beginning to face up to the face that I really like Rowan Atkinson solely for his Blackadder programs. They were smart, funny, and original, and certainly the brainiest television shows ever in which the British monarch forced her nurse to dress up in a cow costume. (Just trust me on that one.) But Johnny English...oh, dear. Mildly amusing setpieces follow one another, and I found myself thinking that it may not have been the worst way to spend my time, when the filmmakers decided to go for bathroom humor on a level so base that one wants to stare them in the face with a blank look in one's eyes and ask just how they thought that was funny. (The audience I was with did not laugh; they groaned and gasped.) Did they really think it was appropriate? Was it really necessary to show everything? Ugh. Maybe I'm getting uptight, but that scene showed where a lack of talent and real humor will lead a filmmaker under pressure. Unemployment dollars? Never again!

L'Auberge Espagnole: A mildly interesting French student leaves his mildly comforting French girlfriend to go spend some time in Spain with some mildly annoying students collected from across Europe. They argue, they date various people, they get annoyingly PC, mildly interesting French guy goes back to France and becomes as bored as the audience members. Then he decides to become a writer, which he apparently does naked in front of his computer. Yep, that's pretty much it. Unemployment dollars? If you've got ten bucks burning a hole in your pocket, then go ahead.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Sean Connery could make a film of the telephone book and I'd probably want to see it, because he's such a pleasure to watch. Some of his movie choices have been worse than phone books, but this one is an okay comics adaptation. There's some questionable CGI in it, and some liberties are taken with the source material that League purists might resist. But it's a fun movie that tries hard to be diverting and succeeds. Unemployment dollars? Sure.

Legend of Suriyothai: If The Iron Ladies demonstrated that Thailand could produce entertaining and refreshing comedies, then Legend of Suriyothai demonstrates that Thailand can also produce some stultifying, confusing, and boringboringboring historical films. It's a story about early Thai rulers and dynastic intrigue, along with lots of killing. Unfortunately, I kept getting the lead female characters mixed up and couldn't remember who was alive, who was good and who evil, and long before the halfway point I didn't care. Unemployment dollars? Only if you want to boost Thailand's film industry.

Le Divorce: Ah, isn't divorce wonderful? This large-cast film details a marriage breakup, a not-so-secret affair, and a fight over a piece of artwork. As a piece of fluff, it's quite good. As anything to be taken seriously, it's a failure. This is a film for those people who don't believe in love but rather equate it with liasons. There is no reason to share scarce unemployment money with the people who made this film. They might do better with the self-reflection derived from a little unemployement themselves.

Marci X: Spoiled Jewish rich girl in NYC tries to save daddy's business empire by taking on the public relations problem posed by an obnoxious gangsta rapper whose records are distributed by daddy's company. An extremely unfunny movie, offensive when it's not boring, Marci X seems to challenge the audience to ask itself every five minutes: Are you embarrassed you paid to see this movie? Are you embarrassed now? How about now? Unemployment dollars? For heaven's sake, of course not.

Northfork: Pretentious, poorly acted, and confusing, this is the type of story a junior high schooler who is artistically inclined (that's kind of a compliment, and the only one I'll give this flick) might dream up as he plans his future film career that will challenge the world, if only the machine that is Hollywood doesn't destroy him. Every bloody line is delivered as if the actors and the filmmakers think it's significant, and each line serves to indicate their complete lack of understanding of significance. Unemployment dollars? I want mine back.

Open Range: This is a western from Kevin Costner. Time to run and hide? I mean, I hate westerns. Let me put that more truthfully: I HAAAAAATE westerns. And Costner ranges from the cool to the good to the pretty bad. But I went anyway, having seen everything else even remotely digestible at the local cineplex. You know what? I liked it. A lot. I liked the recognition of the corruption of the remote western towns, something we usually get glossed over in the glorified view we've been handed of the Wild West. It's a movie with heroes and villians and lots of people stuck in between who have to make a choice. This is one of Costner's good ones, and it's definitely worth receiving unemployment dollars.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: I was expecting to be bored out of my skull when I paid to see this film. (Then why did I see it? As I wrote above: I AM UNEMPLOYED.) But I enjoyed it quite a bit. Orlando Bloom was a pleasure to look at, as usual; Geoffrey Rush might want to consult with his agent about better role selection; the female lead who could have been Jennifer Connelly but wasn't at least didn't get in the way too much; and Johnny Depp made me actually laugh out loud at one point. Taken all together, this film is nothing that deserves Criterion DVD treatment in the future, but it's not a bad way to spend a couple hours. Unemployment dollars? Sure.

Seabiscuit: The previews for this film promised a boring, self-infatuated film that centered around a rich race horse owner. Ugh. I hate animal racing. I hate self-loving films. And I put this low on my list of things to see. Well, being unemployed and all, I actually got that low on my list and spent a couple hours in the theater being very pleasantly surprised by this very touching and human film. Yes, I can be a sap, but how can you not choke up a little with the determination of Jeff Bridges' character to put his heart ahead of his drive to win? Unemployment dollars? Absolutely.

S.W.A.T.: Colin Farrell is fantastic in his role as a very attractive cop who runs around, looks serious, takes off his shirt to work out on the beach, and smiles. I think there's a film plot here somewhere, too, but it wasn't thick enough to attract attention. It probably was the Typical American Plot: Bad buys want to do something bad; much gets exploded. But all the while, Colin Farrell is there, as if Hollywood is whispering in our ear, "Do you really need anything else to get your fanny into the cinema seat?" Do we really? I didn't. Unemployment dollars? Sure, but with guilt.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: California's governer-wannabe, Arnold Shwarzennsomethingorother, comes back to reap yet more dollars for his film studios. Compared to the superlative (and underrated in the brains department) T2 Judgement Day, this film is a letdown. Compared to Charlie's Angels, this film deserves an Oscar. All you need to know is that bad guys want to do something very bad, and much gets exploded. Some of the action scenes seem strangely truncated, as if the film editor didn't want to be accused of dwelling on the explosions and destruction. But those are the reasons we came to see this film, right? It's not like it starred Colin Farrell, after all. Unemployment dollars? Okay.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life: In an old issue of Starlog magazine, the letters page includes a letter from yours truly describing my disappointment with the first Tomb Raider film. I had seen that film while on a business trip to Atlanta, where I was so bored I wanted to waste two hours in a cool theater. Therefore, I had very low expectations, and the film still failed to deliver. The Cradle of Life is much different, in that more things explode and, well, okay, I lied: not much is different. It's still not a good film. Unemployment dollars? No.

28 Days Later: Despite my addiction to Fangoria magazine, I have to admit that I'm not into horror films very much. I'm far too much of a wimp to watch the bloody gross ones, and they just don't make many subtle ones. (Yes, there are some; not many.) Along comes 28 Days, hyped by Fango and others, and it is the first film in years I have actually paid to see twice. The characters are interesting to watch, the action is unsettling, the storyline disturbing, and heck, a few things even explode. Unemployment dollars? Yes, please. I hope they get a lot of unemployment dollars, so the filmmakers will have the money to make even more films in the future.

When Revisiting Childhood Classics Becomes a Letdown
By John Zipperer

(04/22/03) Come visit my fantasy world: In it, my younger self was a very smart and perceptive boy, with high standards and a low tolerance for mediocrity. That's the fantasy I've long held on to, but occasionally I am reminded of the real world, in which the things I loved as a boy in my early teens turn out upon adult scrutiny to have been, well, bad. Let's face it: Some of the books, movies, or television series I loved when I was 11 or 13 just were unworthy of my adoration.

That thought first came to me when I went back to read a classic SF author after a number of years away from his writing. About a decade ago, I finally read Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg's Nightfall novel (actually the novelization of Asimov's earlier short story) and found it to be, well, juvenile. I felt guilty for thinking this, because Asimov has practically been canonized by the SF literary crowd, but the writing was flat, uninspiring, and somewhat silly. That view became cemented even further when I reread one of his Foundation novels, and found myself picking apart the politics and concluding he just didn?t know what he was talking about.

But my guilt didn't come into play when it came to considering other childhood favorites. I'm not afraid to admit it: I loved Battlestar Galactica when it aired in the late 1970s. I watched every episode, I even drew floorplans of a giant spaceship modeled on the Galactica, and I was very sad when the show was canceled. So sad, in fact, that I actually watched every episode of Galactica 1980, the cheap retread ABC threw together after they canceled the original series.

But a few years ago, during a very rotten holiday season when I was alone at home suffering from a bad case of pneumonia, the Sci Fi Channel aired a marathon of Battlestar Galactica on Christmas Eve, and I watched every
episode they aired. Some of it gave me great feelings, as I fell once again into the melodramatic saga, the tragedy of the whole storyline, and my hero worship of Capt. Apollo and Lt. Starbuck. But there were also the signs of incredible scientific ignorance (or disinterest) in the stories, such as they way they tossed around regional descriptions of "galaxy" and "star system" with no appreciation of the difference in scale. Then came the episodes that must have been filmed after they used up their famed $1-million-per-episode budget, with the nadir being one that ended with a search through some factory basement. It looked like it was one step above shooting on location in Joe's rec room.

The show's mythology episodes still struck me as rather cool, but the weak episodes just stank.

A little while after Galactica aired in its original run, a Japanese anime made a big-screen appearance and developed a rabid following that included me. My father took me to see Space Battleship Yamato (or Star Blazers, as the series was known when it subsequently aired in the U.S.). Maybe it was because my exposure to animation had been confined to funny-animal stories from Disney and Warner Brothers, but the dramatic sweep of a space saga with action and where people actually die captured my imagination. So then cut to last weekend, when I purchased a DVD of Yamato and sat down to watch it, expecting to be reminded of that early appreciation.

I wasn't. In fact, I spent much of the movie cringing at the cheapo animation and the storyline shortcuts, and I wondered why I hadn?t noticed them when I first saw it. When I was young, I did notice bad storytelling and cheap effects. So why did my discrimination desert me with some shows?

With Yamato, I was probably swept away by the fact that it was better than much else of what I was being offered. But I have to wonder how much better it would have been if I'd been exposed at that time to an anime series that had better ideas, better characters, and much better animation, such as the superior Mobile Suit Gundam series. I suspect that my youthful appreciation would have been renewed as an adult.

So did science fiction media get better in the intervening years or did I just get more discriminating?

One mitigating factor may be that — at least for the movies and TV part of the situation — there were not a lot of offerings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though I'm proud to say that I never fell for Universal's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, I can't blame people who did like it, because there wasn't much else available. Starlog editor
David McDonnell recently wrote about his own viewership of that series, when "in the long-ago days of SF drought, you just grinned sadly and watched, supporting even the lamest stuff, because there were so few SF series on at all."

Contrast that with today, when we have many science fiction, fantasy, and horror offerings from which to choose. There is new or recent stuff that is exciting, well-made, thought-provoking, and even intelligent. Farscape, The
, the Lord of the Rings movies, Mystery Science Theater, Spirited Away, or books like China Mountain Zhang, The Thief Lord, Terry Pratchett's incredible Discworld novels, the Harry Potter books, and on and on.

The stuff that will leave a bad taste in your mouth is still being produced, but with more to choose from, it's just possible that young SF readers and viewers today are a bit more likely to take a bite of the piece of the pie that is made up of good stuff. It's a larger pie, so even if most of it is still bad, the piece that is good is also bigger.

Parallel Universes, Part II (or, ad infinitum)
By John Zipperer

(04/22/03) The idea of parallel universes — and, in particular, the idea that there is an infinite number of nearly identical worlds to our own differing in only details — has long left me somewhat mystified. The more people try to explain it to me, the more it has sounded like science-fiction wishful-thinking to me. (See my previous article on this topic.) But it may be humble-pie time for me. Now, I have to admit that the basic the idea is plausible, thanks to a recent cover article in a leading popular scientific magazine.

In his article in the May 2003 issue of Scientific American, "Parallel Universes," Max Tegmark gives me an answer that I more or less can't reject, at least if his basic assumptions are correct. In brief, it's based on the idea that if the universe is infinite, sooner or later the same forms must repeat. Though Tegmark gives some numbers based on estimates of the amount of matter in space, one doesn't need to take those numbers literally. (I have heard so many differing estimates about how much and what type of matter is in the universe that, even though scientists seem to believe they are closer to the truth than ever before on that topic, I'll remain agnostic concerning the exact final figure.) Whatever the number, at some point it would have to repeat, because there are only a certain number of ways the atoms can be combined, even a very large number of atoms.

It's a new take on the theory that an infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters will sooner or later write the works of Shakespeare, or at least Tom Clancy. That much I understand, and really it's sufficient to render the multiple-Earths scenario plausible. I'm also pleased to see the recognition of what "infinite" really means, because in far too many discussions of space, I hear what appears to be an imagination-challenged inability to grasp the probability that something is likely to exist beyond whatever boundaries we think exist.

Tegmark, a cosmologist at the University of Pennsylvania, goes further, trying to explain the physical landscape of a cosmos in which these worlds exist. He gives four levels of mutiverses, from simple to complex, but you can visit his site (see the link above) for an explanation of those. Hint: It helps if you have at least a nodding acquaintance with Big Bang science and quantum theories. (Poor old Schrödinger's cat must be the most-abused pet in Western history.)

I take some comfort in assuming that on at least one of those infinite parallel worlds, my doppelgänger has not made all the mistakes I have, but did make the right investments or bought the right lottery ticket or whatever, and perhaps is too rich and busy to spend his time writing speculative articles for his personal Web site.

Multiple Universes in Science Fiction -- but not Fact
By John Zipperer

(11/22/01) To science fiction writers, there's an idea that's too useful to pass up. And given the fact that it has something of a scientific pedigree, writers can feel justified in using it, almost as if they're helping to spread scientific knowledge. Maybe they can get a National Science Foundation grant! What's the idea? No, I'm not writing about time travel, that old idea that I believe was copyrighted by the Star Trek: Voyager producers. Instead, I refer to the idea of multiple universes, and paticularly the idea that there is an infinite number of universes because a new one is created every time there is a choice made between various alternative futures. For every possible decision or action, a new universe comes into existence in which each decision was made or each action did occur, thus giving us an infinite number of universes. Sounds like bunk to me. You?

These thoughts were stirred up in me by a couple recent run-ins with this theory, one on television and one in a novel.

The first was in a recent Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon on TNN, in which they showed a series of Worf-centered episodes. One episode begins with Worf returning to the Enterprise from a battle competition only to find himself slipping between universes. There's a rip in the separation between the universes, and Worf keeps slipping between them. We get to see a variety of Enterprises, where the changes are small — Picard is either stuck on bridge duty or he's free to attend Worf's birthday party — or large — Worf is married to Troi, or even one where the Borg are winning the war against the Federation. With the plan that Worf must travel back through the rip in space in order to return to his own universe, his ship returns to that spot only to find an infinite number of other Enterprises popping into its universe from others. Worf saves the day by flying into the rip and all is healed.

In Terry Pratchett's 1976 novel, The Dark Side of the Sun, our protagonist is Dom, the heir to an aristocratic fortune on a distant planet. As he's about to assume power of his planet, people are trying to kill him because (or causing, as it may turn out) he is destined to discover the existence of the ancient alien race known as Jokers. Dom's people practice probability theorizing, in which they (in shades of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series) predict the future according to mathematical formulas. Dom, being fatastically "lucky," keeps deftly avoiding falling victim to his assassins, while becoming aware that there are other universes where those assassins succeeded.

To many people, the theory of infinite chance-created universes might be alluring. After all, there would be universes where the high school football stud didn't dump you at the prom but married you and lived happily ever after. Or, more serious, there would be a universe where you child's car didn't swerve into the oncoming lane and crash. That's what wishing and religions are made of, but science?

I've tried to understand the theory many times, and I'm not sure if I'm just incapable of it or if the theory is being misunderstood by the masses and the real theory is more sensible. But as I hear it, these universes go spinning off into existence whenever any decision or choice or moment of chance occurs — any, which means they would be happening all the time.

The problem is that that places us in a different field of philosophy, because it requires a sapient being to spin off new universes — how else can one determine when a "choice" has been made? Blind math can't; we can barely define it, because it has to cover everything from real life choices (do I marry him or not? Should I have this surgery? Should I go to fight in this war?) to the ridiculously minor (How fast or slow should I type? Do I pick up my salad fork now or now?). And you have to include all of those little things, because you would never know when the speed of your typing gets you finished with the paper more quickly, so you get up to go for a walk and get hit by a truck that would have missed you if you were there three seconds later.

But an even bigger problem is that what difference do such things make to the universe? This is not the universe caring or being affected by whether or not your life goes one way or the other. It's humans who keep needing assurance that someone cares, that our lives have some effect. And in this world — where the evidence from wars and massacres and terrorists and physical and mental violence and illnesses strongly suggest otherwise — the only help we've had is the assurance that either there's a god or gods who care or that the people around us care. Both ideas have been shaken pretty badly in the previous century.

Escapes from reality are sometimes what science fiction (and its related brethren, fantasy and horror) provides. But it seems to me that science needs to do a better job of explaining itself in terms of a physical, non-supernatural universe, or it needs to come up with a substitute theory that can't be turned into a quick Farscape script.