Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/07/2005]

I finally managed to borrow a copy of Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE (ISBN 0-385-50420-9). Given that the wait list at the library is ridiculous, I expected something better. It is full of the Fibonacci numbers, the Mona Lisa, and Leonardo da Vinci, it is not a difficult book to read, and it at least somewhat works as a thriller, but I cannot see what the fuss is over it as some sort of great revelation. Or rather, if it were a great revelation, I could understand the fuss, but it is a work of fiction. The puzzles seem alternately too obvious or so arcane that no one could ever figure them out. For example, the knight's burial was obvious. For other puzzles, it's as if you had a sequence 1,2,3,5, and were asked for the next number. It could be 8 (if it's a subset of the Fibonacci sequence), or it could be 7 (if it is numbers not divisible by any other number), or it could be 6 (if it is numbers whose representations can be written as a single curve without crossing a point previously drawn), or it could be something else entirely. Also, despite what most readers seem to think, the premise is not new (HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln is probably the best known book about the subject). And as many have noted, what Brown presents as fact is not. (For example, amazon.com reviewer Penn Jacobs points out that the interpretation of the Council of Nicea and the history of the early Church is just plain wrong. And artist Shelley Esaak discusses da Vinci's "Last Supper" at . And finally, characters' decisions at the end of the book are not believable (to me, anyway). NATIONAL TREASURE, often compared to THE DA VINCI CODE, may not have been more convincing, but it was at least more entertaining.

To order The Da Vinci Code from amazon.com, click here.


"The Last Question by Isaac Asimov:
"Answer by Frederic Brown:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2008]

Bud Webster's column in the latest "Helix" (http://www.helixsf.com/pastmasters.htm) is about Frederic Brown, and as part of it he compares "Answer" by Frederic Brown with "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov. Webster points out (rightly, I think) that Brown covers the same material in 250 words that Asimov takes 2500 to do. And he also notes that what most people remember as the last line of "Answer" is actually three sentences from the end. But I think he is wrong that people think that Asimov wrote the Brown story, partly because the last line of the Asimov story is even more memorable than the "last line" of the Brown. (Both stories have been anthologized many times; see http://www.isfdb.com for a list.)


"Etaoin Shrdlu" by Fredric Brown:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2018]

"Etaoin Shrdlu", by Fredric Brown (Unknown Worlds, February 1942): This is a typical Fredric Brown story, with a bit of humor and a punchline ending. It has been said that n one really writes stories like Frederic Brown, and that is probably true. There are other "possessed linotype" stories around ("Printer's Devil" from the original "Twilight Zone" series comes to mind), but this has its own approach, and one which is very topical today.


THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT by Frederic Brown:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/10/2012]

THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT by Fredric Brown (ISBN 0-87923-597-7) is Fredric Brown's first (and perhaps best-known) mystery novel. Published in 1947, it reads like a Heinlein juvenile of a decade later, but with the sexual content of later Heinleins (complete with hints of incest no less!). Not that there is anything explicit, of course--this was a mainstream novel in 1948. But it is clear that at that time writers had more leeway in the mystery genre than in the science fiction genre.

The first person protagonist is an eighteen-year-old boy whose father has been murdered. He teams up with his carny uncle to try to catch the murderer (is there any more classic pairing in juvenile fiction than the orphaned boy and the mentor uncle?). Along the way, he finds out more about his father than he ever suspected, and in general fulfills all the tropes of the classic juvenile novel. It had a certain hard-boiled element from the uncle's interactions with people, but it is not likely to satisfy someone looking for Sam Spade or even Philip Marlowe. But science fiction fans might well find this non-science-fiction work by a classic science fiction author of interest.

(One interesting coincidence is that one of the gangsters in THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT is named Dutch Reagan. It seems unlikely that Brown would have bothered to name a character after someone who was then a minor movie star, or that he would even know that "Dutch" had been Ronald Reagan's nickname, but to the modern reader it cannot help but evoke the 40th President.)

To order The Fabulous Clipjoint from amazon.com, click here.


"The Star Mouse" by Frederic Brown:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/18/2018]

"The Star Mouse", by Fredric Brown (Planet Stories, Spring 1942): I guess back in 1942 the scientist's accent was supposed to be funny, but now it just seems annoying. The phonetic representation means it is harder to read; then again, maybe Brown wanted to have the reader pay more attention, though the fact that the rest of the story is ordinary English means that it only slightly accomplishes that. Without the "funny" accent, the story is really just its "surprise" ending.


HOW I KILLED PLUTO AND WHY IT HAD IT COMING by Mike Brown:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/06/2011]

HOW I KILLED PLUTO AND WHY IT HAD IT COMING by Mike Brown (ISBN 978-0-385-53108-5) is by the discoverer of Quaoar, Sedna, Haumea and Hi'iaka, Makemake, and Xena and Gabrielle (Eris and Dysnomia). Brown spends a lot of time discussing exactly what a planet is, i.e., the definition of planet. But he never gives the definition in a single bullet-list, and what he says does not seem to match what I thought was finally decided by the International Astronomical Union. First, he says that the IAU said that a planet has to be round, or roundish, anyway. That is, its shape has to be affected by its own gravity. Second, it has to orbit the sun. And as a third point, he says that the IAU said that a satellite of a planet is not a planet if the center of mass of the satellite-planet system is within the planet, but is a planet in its own right if the center of mass is outside the planet. But in fact this third point got dropped (due to technical difficulties), and replaced by one saying it has "cleared its neighborhood" of smaller objects around its orbit. This would eliminate all the asteroids, and most of the trans-Plutonian objects, but it seems to me that Sedna still meets these requirements. However, since Brown never gives the exact wording of this requirement (or even mentions it!), it is hard to know.

In addition, according to Wikipedia, Alan Stern objects that "it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between dwarf planets and planets," and that since neither Earth, Mars, Jupiter, nor Neptune have entirely cleared their regions of debris, none could properly be considered planets under the IAU definition. Mark Sykes, points out that "since the definition does not categorize a planet by composition or formation, but, effectively, by its location, a Mars-sized or larger object beyond the orbit of Pluto would be considered a dwarf planet, since it would not have time to clear its orbit."

Actually, it isn't clear what degree of "roundness"--"hydrostatic equilibrium"--is required either.)

(The problems with the "center of mass" requirement are interesting. The rationale is that if the center of mass is outside the larger then the smaller is not really orbiting the larger, but they are both orbiting a "neutral" point. However, by this reasoning, Jupiter is not orbiting the sun, but the center of mass for those two objects is outside the sun. And since the moon is moving away from us, at some point, the center of mass of the Earth-Moon system will be outside the Earth. Does that magically turn the moon into a planet?)

Brown seems to think it is important not to expand the definition/idea of "planet" to include Kuiper Belt objects, asteroids, etc. On the one hand, he says, "Definitions like this are unimportant, [many astronomers] say. I, However, will tell you the opposite." On the other, he says, "[Let] me tell you why you should never think about the IAU definition of the word 'planet'. In the entire field of astronomy, there is no word other than 'planet' that has a precise, lawyerly definition, in which certain criteria are specifically enumerated. ... [In] astronomy, as in most sciences, scientists work by concepts rather than definitions."

To me this latter attitude is just plain wrong. Scientists work by definitions. If you ask a zoologist what a mammal is, he can cite a definition: three bones in the inner ear. If you ask a biologist what a fruit is, he can cite a definition: part of a flowering plant that derives from specific tissues of the flower, mainly one or more ovaries. These definitions may get modified or changed with time as new discoveries are made, but they do exist.

And the common usage of these terms may not match the scientific definitions. In the case of mammals, in casual usage, a mammal is basically an animal that has hair and bears live young. The fact that this does not include pangolins or echidnae doesn't bother most people, though people do often add duck-billed platypuses as an afterthought. The fact that a tomato is biologically a fruit does not mean that people will call it one, or vice versa. Mushrooms are considered plants by the general public, but not by biologists.

Oh, and Brown also tells the story of how the Spanish tried to claim the discovery of most of Brown's objects by hacking into the telescope databases to see where he had been viewing, and then rush their claims to the press while Brown followed standard astronomical procedure.

To order How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming from amazon.com, click here.



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