Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.

TRSF: THE BEST NEW SCIENCE FICTION (No. 1) edited by the editors of the "MIT Technology Review":

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/30/2013]

Our discussion book last month was TRSF: THE BEST NEW SCIENCE FICTION (No. 1) edited by the editors of the "MIT Technology Review" (no ISBN, UPC 09281-01333, order direct from MIT Technology Review). Normally, we try to pick something with enough copies available from the library system, but this is difficult to do: one cannot use inter-library loan for newer books, and too many of the older books have been purged from the libraries. This was cheap enough (and short enough) that we decided to go for it.

TRSF consists of a dozen stories, each tied to a specific technology, along with artwork by Chris Foss. While I like the artwork, I think the layout does it a disservice. As you are reading a story, you come across a page in the middle containing a beautiful painting by Chris Foss, and you spend a minute or so looking at it, admiring it, and trying to figure out what the heck it has to do with the story. Eventually, you realize that the answer is, "Nothing"; the artwork is just randomly placed in the middle of the various stories.

By the way, the cover says "12 Visions of Tomorrow" and then lists the twelve authors represented. Chris Foss's work, arguably more a "vision" than any story of words on paper, apparently does not count as a "vision of tomorrow."

What struck me the most about the stories was that they all seemed to be re-working of older (often classic) stories.

"The Brave Little Toaster" by Cory Doctorow (Communications) is in some ways a re-imagining of Robert Silverberg's "The Iron Chancellor". The big difference is that when "The Iron Chancellor" was written the situation was science fictional; today "The Brave Little Toaster" seems all too close to reality.

(Our own recent interactions with technology support Doctorow's underlying theme of progress having its drawbacks. Our old VCR could be programmed up to a year in advance; our DVR can be programmed only about a week in advance. Twenty years ago we got a can opener that attached to the bottom of the cupboard; now you have to take up counter space for one.)

Cory Doctorow seems to be making a project of re-using classic titles for completely different stories, by the way, and Doctorow's "Brave Little Toaster" has little, if anything, to do with Thomas M. Disch's story of the same name.

"Indra's Web" by Vandana Singh (Energy) seems to have its roots in "Dial F for Frankenstein" by Brian W. Aldiss, but with a more positive spin. For that matter, there are also similarities to "A Subway Named Moebius" by A. J. Deutsch. In all these stories, an entity of one sort becomes sufficiently complex to make a quantum leap to another sort of entity.

"Real Artists" by Ken Liu (Computing) has some interesting ideas about film-making, but I do not think it bears closer examination. For example, the time required to do the sort of development would seem to be too long--the computer parts would be fast enough, but the human interactions can run only in real time. It also harkens back to Connie Willis's REMAKE. It was ultimately disappointing, strangely, because Ken Liu has written some very thoughtful works, and I was hoping for something of that sort.

"Complete Sentence" by Joe Haldeman (Computing) has what has been referred to as a "virtual sentence" as its gimmick. This one reminded me of a story (whose name and author I cannot remember) in which Hitler is resurrected and executed over and over, with the goal of executing him six million times or eleven million times or whatever. These executions were not virtual, but both fall in the category of technologically enhanced punishments.

"The Mark Twain Robots" by Ma Boyong (Robots) is explicitly based on Isaac Asimov and his three laws of robotics, but also connected with Asimov's "Jokester", about the origin of jokes, and "Liar", about the application of the First Law.

"Cody" by Pat Cadigan (Biomedicine) reminded me of Chris Lawson's "Written in Blood", which also used the notion of encoding text in one's DNA.

"The Surface of Last Scattering" by Ken MacLeod (Materials) has as its central conceit "the Rot", a bio-weapon that has destroyed all paper in the world. One is reminded of such works as Kit Pedler's MUTANT-59. (And the existence of a lot of historical documents on parchment would seem to undermine the protagonist's father's intentions.)

"Specter-Bombing the Beer Goggles" by Paul Di Filippo (Web) is a fairly lightweight story about using technology and something like Google glasses to change how you see the world--and more specifically, other people. Whether it addresses the issue of how this objectifies other people is not clear. This almost seems more interested in the vulnerabilities of the technology than the morality of it in the first place. A much better story on a similar idea is Ted Chiang's "Liking What You See".

"Lonely Islands" by Tobias Buckell (Energy) is a short-short about two people matched up with each other on opposite sides of the environmental issue of cars. Eh.

One reviewer thought "The Flame Is Roses, the Smoke Is Briars" by Gwyneth Jones (Communications) was the best in the anthology. I could barely understand it.

"Private Space" by Geoffrey A. Landis (Spaceflight) is a story with a beginning and a middle, but no end, and seems as though it were lifted from ANALOG. "Gods of the Forge" by Elizabeth Bear (Biomedicine) looks at "right-minding", which one could consider as psychological modification taken to another level--and whether that is something we should do.

Though this is described as the first annual anthology, it came out in 2011, and a second volume was never produced.

THE UNINVITED by Dorothy Macardle:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2018]

THE UNINVITED by Dorothy Macardle (Doubleday, Doran / S.J.R. Saunders): It is hard to read this without being reminded by, and influenced by, the film version. That I happened to see the film version less than a week before the nominations were announced merely made this more evident. So while reading it, I kept noticing differences between the book and the film.

For example, in the book Roderick Fitzgerald is an author. In the film, he is a musician, possibly because expressing emotion through music is clearly easier in a film that in a book, and indeed one of the main ways one does this in a film.

In the book, Stella is 18 and Roderick is 23. In the film, she is 19; Roderick's age is not given, but Ray Milland was 37 at the time, and looks it. The result is that the relationship between them is a lot less creepy in the book.

The book seems adequate enough, though there also seems to be a lot of superfluous scenes of Roderick writing his play, meeting with people about his play, re-writing his play, and so on. My other problem is that I am just not a big fan of ghost stories, at least in written form. (Somehow, I enjoy cinematic ghost stories more.) This, of course, is a problem with the Hugo Awards (and others) in general--one is usually presented with a mixed bag of stories in a category and has to compare them. This category, for example, has a political novel, a space opera, a philosophical novel, a technology novel, and a ghost story. For most readers, at least one of these will not be their cup of tea.

To order The Uninvited from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/04/2009]

THE MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES by David Macaulay (ISBN-10 0-395-28424-4) is perhaps the best-known of what might be called "future archaeology" books. A thousand years from now, after civilization was destroyed by being buried under a flood of junk mail and solid pollutants, which apparently destroyed all knowledge of our era without driving everyone back into the Dark Ages. Howard Carson, a future archaeologist discovers and excavates a motel. The story seems like a cross between Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb, and Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy. For example, Carson says he sees "wonderful things," and one of the illustrations shows Carson's wife wearing the "jewelry" and "ornaments" that he found in the motel. The fact that one of the pieces of jewelry is an old-fashioned bathtub plug on a chain, and one of the ornaments is a toilet seat gives you some idea of both Carson's accuracy and the nature of the book. (The motel is called the "Motel Toot'n'C'mon".)

Gary Westfahl wrote an article about this genre: "The Addled Archaeology of the Future". As he says, "there is a sporadic tradition of science fiction stories about future archaeology which endeavor to argue, albeit in a humorous manner, that this [misinterpreting of artifacts] is a genuine danger; however, these texts are rare, they are written by people who are not considered science fiction authors; and they are generally unsuccessful, both financially and aesthetically." He discusses four of these: Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), John Ames Mitchell's THE LAST AMERICAN (1889), Robert Nathan's THE WEANS (1960), and Macaulay's MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES (1979). [-ecl]

To order The Motel of the Mysteries from, click here.

UNQUIET SPIRITS by Bonnie MacBird:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/01/2017]

UNQUIET SPIRITS by Bonnie MacBird (ISBN 978-0-00-820108-1) is the second in MacBird's series of Sherlock Holmes novels. It is competently written, but there is too much about the manufacture of whisky, too many characters with too many secrets in their past, and too much back story about Holmes, dribbled out in bits and pieces, although I will admit that one giant info dump of the whole story would not be better. I suppose my complaint may be more that the Holmes back story is *too* complicated, with too many pieces to be revealed in the first place. However, if you are the sort who wants to know everything about Holmes, from childhood on, you will probably like this more than I did.

To order Unquiet Spirits from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/04/2011]

THIEVES IN THE TEMPLE: THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH AND THE SELLING OF THE AMERICAN SOUL by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (ISBN 978-0-465-00932-9) could just as easily have been subtitled "The Rise of American Churches and the Decline of American Religion", because that is MacDonald's basic message. While church attendance is up and mega-churches with thousands of members are becoming more common, MacDonald sees more and more people who profess to be Christians moving away from the central tenets and beliefs of Christianity.

MacDonald sees the primary problem as consumerism: people are reacting to churches as products, and churches are selling themselves to people as products. Pastors don't give sermons that make their parishioners uncomfortable, because people will leave that church and go to a more comfortable one. Churches now spend millions on state-of-the-art sound systems instead of soup kitchens, and people think charity means a celebrity golf tournament instead of visiting the elderly.

But MacDonald is not negative on Christianity, far from it--he is an ordained minister. What he wants a return to traditional Christian values. These may include traditional marriage, no abortion, etc., but he is more specific that they include honesty, self-discipline, charity, and other values apparently not as emphasized in many congregations. As he says, "Congregants grew more concerned about other people's abortions and euthanasia than about the morality of their own tax-paying and other financial habits." And also, "among those willing to support the use of torture, Christians were at the head of the pack ... the more one goes to church, the more likely one is to support torture."

One can argue, of course, that MacDonald is mistaken in his interpretation of Christianity. But unless you want to argue that Christianity is about finding the church with the best singles group and the least demands on its members, what he says does make sense.

To order Thieves in the Temple from, click here.

HOLY COW by Sarah MacDonald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/16/2008]

HOLY COW by Sarah MacDonald (ISBN-13 978-0-7679-1574-8, ISBN-10 0-7679-1574-7) is the story of a journalist's stay in India, and her quest for religion, or spirituality, or God, or something like that. What is not clear is when or how she decided this was a spiritual quest--that was not why she went to India to start with, yet it is clear that this becomes her goal, or why else would she be so diligent in seeking out every possible religion to find out what they have to offer.

That quibble aside, it seems as though every attempt by MacDonald to find something meaningful in India runs up against what can only be termed "loonies". This includes the Jews, who seem to be all Israelis or Americans, and more interested in hugging, dancing, and smoking hash than in anything that I would consider an expression of Judaism. After reading this section, though, I end up basically discounting all her other encounters with the extremes of each religion. (Trying to get the essence of Hinduism by attending the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad is, after all, like trying to understand the essence of Christianity by standing in St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday, or understanding Islam by making the Hajj.) HOLY COW does give you a sense of India, but often a somewhat deceptive one.

To order Holy Cow from, click here.

HOAXES by Curtis D. MacDougall:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/18/2006]

And then of course, I have to mention HOAXES by Curtis D. MacDougall (ISBN 0-486-20465-0), a 1940 volume which covers the Cardiff Giant, John Wilkes Booth's mummy, and the baby picture of Adolf Hitler (among many others). And even Martin Gardner's classic FADS & FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE (ISBN 0-486-20394-8) covers some of the same territory, though it is more about the delusions than the outright scams. (In some cases, it is hard to tell for sure--was Bridey Murphy a scam or a genuine delusion?)

And this could easily segue into several of Stephen Jay Gould's collections, such as THE MISMEASURE OF MAN. But I've probably suggested enough books to keep you busy for a while already.

To order Hoaxes from, click here.

To order Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science from, click here.

ROMANITAS by Sophie MacDougall:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2006]

ROMANITAS by Sophia MacDougall (ISBN 0-75286-894-2) is set in the present, but in a world in which Rome never fell. (MacDougall conveniently provides an appendix with her altered timeline, and it is the foiling of the assassination of the emperor Pertinax in 193 C.E. that makes the difference.) Rome now rules most of the world (except for the Sinoan Empire, the southern half of Africa, and Australia, which is either completely ignored by everyone or part of Nionia--the map is unclear). Christianity seems to have have failed to take hold, and slavery is still the rule of the land. The only problem is that the story could take place anywhere--it is full of political intrigue, but of a sort that could be transposed to just about any empire. It is well-written, but I found myself wishing that there had been more dependence on the world that MacDougall had created. For example, though Rome controls "Terranova", this is only mentioned in passing a few times. This is a British book, so it is not surprising that it focuses on Europe rather than "Terranova" or Asia (and of course Rome is there and not here), but I suspect that in spite of the popularity of alternate histories in the United States, this may be an obstacle to getting it published over here.

To order Romanitas from, click here.

THE GREAT GOD PAN by Arthur Machen:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2017]

THE GREAT GOD PAN by Arthur Machen (ISBN 978-1-535-41671-9) is supposed to be a classic of horror fantasy, but whether it is the archaic style or something else, I did not find it horripilating at all.

To order The Great God Pain from, click here.


THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS by Ewan Montagu:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/07/2011]

After you've read the title of OPERATION MINCEMEAT: HOW A DEAD MAN AND A BIZARRE PLAN FOOLED THE NAZIS AND ASSURED AN ALLIED VICTORY by Ben Macintyre (ISBN 978-0-307-45327-3), reading the book is almost superfluous. Well, okay, not really, but this is definitely an excessive title. The book tells the true story of a super-secret World War II operation to give the German High Command disinformation. Briefly, the plan was this: take a body, dress it in uniform, plant some fake documents on it that make it look as though the invasion of southern Europe will be in the Balkans instead of Sicily. They would then dump the body off the coast of Spain where the Germans will eventually get a hold of the papers.

The title for the classic book on this subject--THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS by Ewen Montagu (ISBN 978-1-557-50448-7)--was certainly catchier. Of course, that book was less comprehensive, and also much less accurate. There are two reasons for this. One was that Montagu, as one of the leaders of the team that created Major William Martin, had perhaps a natural tendency to inflate his role and minimize those of the others, as well as to emphasize all the good points and omit the various errors. (Another example of this sort of narcissist distortion was Eliot Ness's memoir, THE UNTOUCHABLES.) But there was a second reason, and in this Montagu had a better excuse than most authors, as Macintyre points out: because much of the truth was still classified, Montagu was obliged to hide a lot of the details, change others to obscure the truth, and leave a lot of names out. In fact, Macintyre spends quite a few pages talking about Montagu's book and other accounts, along with the movie. Not surprisingly, the film of the same name was even less accurate than Montagu's book.

For example, Montagu's book doesn't talk about how the original idea for "Operation Mincemeat" probably came from Ian Fleming (who got it from a Basil Thompson mystery novel). Indeed, Montagu makes it sound as though the entire project was his, with only passing mention of other major players. Nor does Montagu talk about how the team actually made a lot of errors in the execution of the plan, such as having no random items in Martin's pockets, or assuming there were no German spies in England who might investigate some of the details. And though Montagu (and everyone else) claimed "Martin" had died of pneumonia, Montagu at least knew that he died from rat poison, and ignored the fact that this could, in fact, have been detected if the Germans were thorough. Or that Montagu's brother was spying for the Soviets in the early days of the war (before Hitler wrote his treaty with Stalin), and

that information was being passed to the Germans at that time. (One might assume that by 1943, of course, this was no longer true).

I do disagree with Macintyre on the "unreality" of the letters supposedly from Martin's girlfriend, which he says read more like letters one would find in a book or movie than in real life. I have read some letters written at that time, and there were certainly some letters written in that style.

And in 1998, Montagu's claims that "Martin" had died of pneumonia and that permission had been granted by his family for the body's use were revealed as false: Martin was actually Glyndwr Michael, he died from eating rat poison, and his family (his parents had been dead and he was estranged from his siblings) had never been contacted. Montagu believed that all evidence of Martin's real name had been destroyed, but it was still on (at least) one document, and that was discovered by Roger Morgan.

To order Operation Mincemeat from, click here.

To order The Man Who Never Was from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/18/2006]

If you liked any of these books, you should read Charles Mackay's EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS & THE MADNESS OF CROWDS (ISBN 0-486-43223-8). This was written in 1841, so the delusions, schemes, and manias are all fairly old--though most are still with us in some form or other. We do not have tulipomania, but every generation seems to have some commodity that becomes vastly over-priced until the bubble bursts. (The 1932 introduction by Bernard M. Baruch mentions the 1929 stock market boom and bust.) Mackay writes about scams such as "the Mississippi Scheme" and "the South Sea Bubble", follies that recur in slightly modified forms such as the Crusades and the witch hunts, as well as seemingly permanent delusions such as alchemy and fortune-telling. Of the Crusades, Mackay says, "Every age has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation. Failing in these, it has some madness, to which it is goaded by political or religious causes, or both combined. Every one of these causes influenced the Crusades, and conspired to render them the most extraordinary instance on record of the extent to which popular enthusiasm can be carried." A hundred and fifty years later, that statement probably still holds. I will admit to not re-reading this whole book to comment on it, but I was sorely tempted, and given that it is seven hundred pages long, that is a strong recommendation.

To order Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madnesss of Crowds from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/02/2005]

Too many alternate histories spend all their time on how things got to be different without telling you how things would be different. One gets a five-hundred-page book that details all of the battlefield and political maneuvers of Lincoln, Davis, Grant, Lee, and everyone else, then ends with, "And so President Lincoln signed his name to the treaty that once and forever recognized the Confederate States of America as a separate country." That's not the end of an alternate history; that's the beginning. So it is wonderful to get an alternate history that looks at just what life would be like in a changed world, and such a book is Ian R. MacLeod's THE SUMMER ISLES (ISBN 1-933-08300-X). The premise (hinted at from the beginning, but spelled out about a third of the way through) is that Britain and her allies lost the War of 1914-18, and was taken over by a "Modernist" (fascist) party. The time frame is 1940, but there is, of course, no hint of a second World War. Our main character is, as is often the case in alternate histories, an outsider, someone who does not quite fit in with the new way of things. But MacLeod does not make him Jewish (too cliché) or Irish (too obvious) or even Communist. No, MacLeod makes the main character a homosexual and by doing so makes it more difficult for readers to see the Modernists just as people who are evil, but of course we would never do anything like that . . . . As an American, it is difficult for me to be sure, but I get the feeling that MacLeod captures very well the feel of Britain and the feel of what a defeated and demoralized Britain might have been like in the 1930s. There is one major plot contrivance that seems forced, but not impossible as described, so I can suspend my disbelief, particularly since in everything else MacLeod takes a very realistic approach. A novella-length version appeared in the October/November 1998 issue of ASIMOV'S, was nominated for a Hugo for that year, and won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Short Form). In spite of this, the novel-length version was turned down by every major publisher, and as a result, is available only as a limited edition from Aio.

To order The Summer Isles from, click here.

WAKE UP AND DREAM by Ian R. MacLeod:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/24/2012]

WAKE UP AND DREAM by Ian R. MacLeod (ISBN 978-1-848-63194-6) is set in an alternate Los Angeles where the talkies were quickly supplanted by the feelies, and so people who would have become great actors ended up in other professions. For example, Clark Gable is a private detective in the Philip Marlowe mold. In addition to the feelies, though, there is at least one other major change: it is 1942 and the United States has not entered the war. This seems to be attributed to a much stronger isolationist--and racist--party in the United States, but I am not sure that explains why Japan would not have attacked us, especially since the racist attitudes make it unlikely that we would be any friendlier towards them.

I have a few nits (other than questioning the premise). In 1942, phone calls were still a nickel, not a dime. Hertz car rental had been around since 1918, but Avis had not been founded yet. And one stylistic (though not factual) mistake: the Clark Gable POV narrator refers to someone wearing a ragged "jumper". The American word is "sweater", and to keep from breaking character, MacLeod should have used that term.

To order Wake Up and Dream from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/05/2006]

Although I started Hugo-nominated LEARNING THE WORLD: A SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE by Ken MacLeod (ISBN 0-765-31331-6), I could not get interested in it, and gave up after about fifty pages.

To order Learning the World from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/24/2010]

When you read the first page of THE RESTORATION GAME by Ken MacLeod (ISBN 978-1-841-49647-4), you think you know exactly what this book will be. "FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER: MARS, 2248 A.U.C." Ah, you say, it's an alternate history, with Rome never falling and now, in what would be the late 15th Century on our calendar, it has arrived on Mars.

Then on page 3, you discover there is a computer simulation running: "Millions--billions!--of fully conscious simulated humans living a history where .... I don't know. Something didn't happen. Something changes everything. The history's still far in the past, thank heavens--a millennium, perhaps. But almost unrecognizable. The City's in ruins, the population tilling the soil and ruled by warrior chiefs, their minds dimmed by some death cult." Okay, you say, that simulation must be our world.

And sure enough, in a few pages we are in our world. Oh, there do seem to be a few anomalies, but they are just the sorts of things one would find in a normal novel--a street name that doesn't exist and such. Or are they?

Luckily, this sort of whipsawing does not continue (though one wonders what a book would be like if every two pages the world in it was completely re-written). Most of the rest of the book is a straightforward story set in our world (although the McGuffin is based on the underlying premise). The problem is that there is no real pay-off to the premise, and the story just kind of ... ends. A pity, since up to that point it was pretty good. (In fairness, I should say that others have found the end satisfying, but it did not work for me.)

There is also a ten-page diary extract that has all the abbreviations and vague allusions that a real diary would have. It is realistic, but it is also very hard to read.

I also have an annotation and a mathematical quibble. The annotation is that the Borges story referenced on page 150 is "The Sect of the Phoenix". The quibble is that MacLeod writes, "There is no such place as Krassnia. If you were to draw it on a map, right where the borders of Russia, Abkhazia and Georgia meet, and then fill it in, you'd need a fifth colour." On a basic level, if one describes an area as where the borders of three countries meet, it is implied that there are no other countries that meet as well, so choosing a color different from that of Russia, Abkhazia, or Georgia would be sufficient. On a more philosophical level, though, saying that adding a country would require a fifth color implies that it will make the world topologically different than it is. Even China Mieville's Beszel and Ul Qoma don't do that. It is a striking image that MacLeod creates, but it also seems typical of the sort of statement made by an author in a field with which he is unfamiliar.

To order The Restoration Game from, click here.

"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2008]

"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod (THE NEW SPACE OPERA): I assume that the title is a reference to the "Outer Limits" episode "Wolf 359" (which was also referenced in "Star Trek" in the episodes "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" ["The Next Generation"] and "Emissary" ["Deep Space 9"]), but MacLeod's story has no other apparent connection to that episode.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/26/2007]

-30-: THE COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN NEWSPAPER edited by Charles M. Madigan (ISBN-13 978-1-56663-742-8, ISBN-10 1-56663-742-2) is a collection of articles by different people, so it is not surprising that they do not all agree on the causes of the phenomenon, the solutions (if any) to the phenomenon, or even the age of the phenomenon. Several writers say that the newspaper has been in decline for decades now. The causes seem to be some subset of 1) the growth of the suburbs, 2) the erosion of advertising revenues, 3) the spread of competing media, and 4) greed. The growth of the suburbs is a two-fold problem. First, the people in the suburbs have more interest in their local communities and less in the big city itself. And second, distributing a daily newspaper over an entire metropolitan area is considerably more difficult than distributing it within the relatively compact city limits.

The erosion of advertising revenues is, again, two-fold. The big city center stores, with their multi-page ads, have declined, and the chain stores in the suburban malls advertise in suburban papers and direct mail flyers. And the classified section is being eaten away by Web sites such as Craigslist.

Competing media have been around since radio became popular, and this is why the story of the decline of newspapers has been around almost as long. For example, the decline of the afternoon newspaper can be attributed to the rise of the evening television news, which competed in the same time slot, but with newer news, and with more pictures.

And finally, greed. As newspapers went public, bought by large conglomerates, their stockholders started demanding higher and higher profits, profits comparable to other investments but not in accord with the more intangible goals of the press. This may be in part why the smaller newspapers are still surviving--they are often still family-owned, and the family cares more about the quality of the newspaper than squeezing out another few dollars.

One local example given by Neil Hickey may serve to explain why there is disagreement. According to Hickey, "when Gannett took over the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, it cut the staff from 225 to 180 and told the theater critic there was no money for him to cover Broadway plays." Cutting the staff means less coverage, and less in-depth coverage, than before, but I think Gannett may have a point on the Broadway plays. At one time Asbury Press and its constituents could have been considered being within the circle of influence of Broadway. Nowadays, that is not true, due to part to rising transportation and ticket costs. If the Asbury Park Press wants to continue to cover culture, it would probably do better for everyone if it shifted its staff to books, which remain far more available to the Press's readers. (One doesn't expect the Allentown, PA, or Albany, NY newspapers to cover Broadway plays, does one?)

As for the solution, some feel a better integration of print format and Web sites would help. Most feel that blindly following what readers say they want (shorter stories, more pictures, horoscopes) rather than providing better, more in-depth reporting and analysis is not the solution. And all agree that the constant cutting of staff most newspapers are trying will not solve the problem. And there should be some solution; Hickey points out that the news business "is the only business protected by the Constitution of the United States, a status that brings obligations for both the shareholder and the journalist."

If you want to read more about the future of journalism (with some comments on newspapers), see my write-up on the panel "The Future of Journalism" at the 2006 Worldcon.

To order -30- from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/31/2003]

I've been reading HOW THEY SAID IT: WISE AND WITTY LETTERS FROM THE FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS, collected and edited by Rosalie Maggio. Two samples:

Edna St. Vincent Millay to Arthur Davison Ficke: "Please don't think me negligent or rude. I am both, in effect, of course, but please don't think me either...."

Agnes de Mille to Anna George de Mille: "Tomorrow at dawn, or literally very early, we motor north. The address will be

This is not a cable code. It is a Welsh address recognized by the Royal Automobile Club and the post office...."

To order How They Said It from, click here.

MONSTER, 1959 by David Maine:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/06/2009]

MONSTER, 1959 by David Maine (ISBN-13 978-0-312-37302-3, ISBN-10 0-312-37302-3) is a re-telling of "King Kong", but set in the late 1950s on a radioactive island which has produced a monster with some characteristics of King Kong, some of Godzilla, and some original. It is an interesting combination of the two themes, but parts are a bit predictable, and the ending is just, well, bizarre (and also probably makes it unsuitable for young adult readers).

To order Monster, 1959 from, click here.

INTRODUCING CAMUS by David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/01/2006]

Coincidentally, the same week I read THE RABBI'S CAT by Joann Sfar (set in Algeria), I also read INTRODUCING CAMUS by David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos (ISBN 1-840-46064-4). Coincidentally, because Camus was from Ageria and set many of his works there. (He also played goalie at soccer. This is a fact which won me a "Dublin Literary Pub Crawl" t-shirt when I was the only one in the group who knew which position he played. This was because it was about the only position I knew the name for.) This is one of the good books in this series, and of necessity covers the political situation in Algeria as well as Camus's life and writing.

To order Introducing Camus from, click here.

100 ONE-NIGHT READS: A BOOK LOVER'S GUIDE by David C. Major and John S. Major:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/03/2015]

I bought 100 ONE-NIGHT READS: A BOOK LOVER'S GUIDE by David C. Major and John S. Major (ISBN 978-0-345-43994-9) with the idea of getting a lot of ideas for our book discussion group. Our group, you see, has a 300-page limit on books, so I figured everything here would qualify. Well, a closer examination indicates that there are probably a few that exceed that limit. The first one I checked was THE HOBBIT and that was 287 pages, so I suspect there must be a few that will be too long. And even the authors says that "sometimes ... perhaps the evening will last a little beyond your normal bedtime..." Still, out of a hundred suggestions there must be quite a few that qualify. Then the only problem is whether they are available at the library. Some are classics, but that does not necessarily mean much--recently Mark discovered that our library did not have a paper copy of THE MOON AND SIXPENCE by Somerset Maugham, only an e-book.

To order 100 One-Night Reads from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/18/2009]

EAT MY GLOBE: ONE YEAR TO GO EVERYWHERE AND EAT EVERYTHING by Simon Majumdar (ISBN-13 978-1-4165-7602-0, ISBN-10 1-4165-7602-9) is supposedly about food, but it is heavily laced with anecdotes and comments about travel, and also about "Clan Majumdar" (the author's family). Unfortunately, the combination did not work for me.

To order Eat My Globe from, click here.

STRANGER THAN FICTION by Aubrey Dillon Malone:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/30/2005]

STRANGER THAN FICTION by Aubrey Dillon Malone (ISBN 0-8092-9904-6) is a delightful little book of literary lists, such as "10 unintentional double-entendres from the classics" and "5 authors who went missing or got lost". And unlike most books of this sort, this one has an index! So if you know there was something interesting about a particular author, you can actually look up that author. (Of course, if it's Ernest Hemingway or W. Somerset Maugham, you still have a lot of pages to check.) Two examples (from another well-represented author): Brendan Behan was asked to come up with an advertising slogan for Guinness. He suggested, "It makes you drunk." And when he was offered thirty pounds for a play if they could change the title, he said, "For thirty quid you can change it to "The Brothers F***in' Karamazov."

To order Stranger Than Fiction from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/27/2015]

JEFFERSON THE VIRGINIAN by Dumas Malone (ISBN 0-316-54472-8) is the first volume of a six-volume work, "Jefferson and His Time", for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1975 (after publication of the fifth volume). This volume, though, was published in 1948 and (perhaps) combined with the fact that Malone was born and raised in Mississippi and Georgia probably explains some of the infelicitous terminology he used at times. For example, Malone speaks of the Indian school at the College of William and Mary, which he says "a few redskins still attended." In describing the printing office of the local newspaper, he says, "People often went there to insert notices about runaways, to advertise the sale of 'parcels of likely Virginia-born wenches,' or to offer to the horse-breeding public the service of stallions in their prime." While Malone's quotation marks around the "parcels" phrase might indicate that he is merely giving a sense of Jefferson's time, he later writes about the Exchange, "where planters ... arranged to purchase Negro fellows or some of those likely wenches." Malone lack of quotation marks here seems to indicate a certain insensitivity to how this would sound to at least some modern readers.

Malone's language suffers from changing meanings as well. When he writes that Jefferson kept horses, "as his gay friend Willis did," he merely means that Willis was what we might call a "party animal," not that Willis was homosexual, and similarly for references to "others of their gay friends."

Jefferson, though very intelligent, could be taken in: he thought Ossian ("this rude bard of the North") "the great poet that has ever existed." But Ossian was a literary hoax by James McPherson.

[As for Sally Hemings, there is merely a brief mention of how Jefferson acquired "the noted Hemings family, who were mostly 'bright' mulattoes" from his wife's family's estate. In this case, again, words have changed or lost meaning--"bright" did not mean intelligent, but light-colored. And in an appendix discussing "the Walker Affair," Malone writes, "In [1802] the notorious scandalmonger, James Thomson Callender, gave wide currency to the story about Mrs. Walker, along with a much more unsavory one about one of Jefferson's slaves." The latter was the story of Jefferson and Hemings. Although it took place after the timespan covered in this book, we would find it odd today if there were not at least some reference, particularly as there are many other "forward references."]

To order Jefferson the Virginian from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/17/2004]

David Mamet's GOLDBERG STREET: SHORT PLAYS AND MONOLOGUES (ISBN 0-802-15104-3 is successful only if you are familiar with Mamet's work on stage and screen. Trying to understand these without hearing them in your head with Mamet's peculiar rhythm would be almost impossible. Even knowing how to "hear" them doesn't always explain what Mamet intended with these pieces. They are the sort of thing one might find in a Mamet film as a way to show a character's state of mind, but standing alone they seem less meaningful. Still, if while you read these, you hear William Macy or Joe Mantegna delivering the lines, the sheer beauty of the rhythm of the words makes it worthwhile. (Synchronistically with the What, many of these plays have Jewish themes or characters.)

To order Goldberg Street from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/03/2006]

1491: NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS by Charles C. Mann (ISBN 1-400-03205-9) sounded promising, but is written in such a dry style, and structured so poorly, that I could not finish it. (By poorly structured, I mean that Mann does not follow any of the rules about having a first and last sentence that help summarize whatever comes between.) In addition, Mann has decided to follow new spellings for names in indigenous languages. So, for example, he uses "Inka" rather than "Inca", "Atawallpa" rather than "Atahualpa" and "Qosqo" rather than "Cuzco". This makes everything difficult to follow, but even worse, he does not cross-reference these in the index, so if you look up "Cuzco", there is no entry for it or pointer to "Qosqo". (I have no idea why someone decided that "Inca" was incorrect and should be "Inka" instead; it is not as though they are pronounced differently.)

To order 1491 from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/17/2009]

THE AFFINITY BRIDGE by George Mann (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-2320-0, ISBN-10 0-7653-2320-6) is a steampunk novel with airships and mechanical automata, as well as a glowing blue policeman who has apparently come back from the dead to avenge his murder. The subtitle "A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation" tells you several things. One, this follows in the great tradition of detective/assistant mysteries. Two, neither Newbury or Hobbes is likely to turn out to be the villain. And three, both will survive, because there seems to be clear intention to make this a series if this one is successful. And it is reasonably entertaining in a steampunky, Victorian-detective sort of way.

However, Tor really needs a better proofreader. On page 98, we read: "The device is designed to power itself. When the automaton moves, a rotor inside its abdomen rocks back and forth, racheting the winding mechanism and causing the mainspring in the chest to become taut. Effectively, the unit is self-winding, and thus it will never power down, unless commanded to do so. If left inactive for long periods without instructions, the unit will eventually move itself to trigger the winding mechanism." This may be an alternate world, but they presumably have not repealed the Laws of Thermodynamics. First, what Mann has described is a perpetual motion machine, one in which no energy is lost while it is operating (a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics). But even assuming that worked, why would it then have to wind itself when it was inactive for a while? That implies that energy is leaking out somehow, but that it can recharge itself as a closed system to restore that energy (a violation of the First Law of Thermodynamics).

(It is true that the person who says this is not scrupulously honest, but there is no revelation that he has lied in this context.)

To order The Affinity Bridge from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/22/2013]

The stories in ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES edited by George Mann (ISBN 978-1-781-18003-9) are well-written, but they are all too often "doubly derivative" (or in Hollywood terms, "high concept"). You know the sort of thing: "Sherlock Holmes meets Raffles", "Sherlock Holmes meets the Martians (and H. G. Wells and Rebecca West)", and so on. And since many of the authors have on-going series with other well-known characters, it is not surprising that, for example, Mark Hodder writes about Algernon Swinburne and Sir Richard Francis Burton. (And for anyone who knows the real-life characters in Hodder's stories, there is not much mystery.)

Still (as I said), the stories are competently written and not so overtly divorced from the original setting and mood of the Holmes stories as to be jarring, so I do recommend this book.

To order Encounters with Sherlock Holmes from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/18/2008]

I got THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION edited by George Mann (ISBN-13 978-1-84416-448-6, ISBN-10 1-84416-449-9) in order to read a single alternate history story in it (Peter F. Hamilton's "If at First..."). But then I read the Paul Di Filippo story ("Personal Jesus"), and then the Stephen Baxter ("Final Contact"), and then decided to read the rest of the anthology. Noteworthy were the Di Filippo and James Lovegrove's "The Bowdler Strain". The Baxter had an interesting idea, but there was a bit too much "British-stiff-upper-lipism" for me. The other stories varied in quality, but in any case it is good to see original un-themed anthologies being published. Tor's "Starlight" series was excellent while it lasted, but ceased after five volumes. Perhaps a mass-market format will last longer.

To order The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/17/2004]

Terry Manners's THE MAN WHO BECAME SHERLOCK HOLMES (ISBN 0-7535-0536-3) is about Jeremy Brett and his life and career, and is probably more thorough about his earlier career than his stint as Holmes. In part this is because his illness (manic depression) became most pronounced during his times as Holmes, and so Manners concentrated more on the illness than on Brett's portrayal of Holmes. It all seemed a bit sensationalist at times, but I suppose if one is attempting to explain a lot that people may have misinterpreted, that is necessary. (For example, towards the end, Brett was too heavy to be an accurate Holmes, but this weight gain was a side effect of medication and not something he could control.)

To order The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes from, click here.

MURDER ON MAIN STREET by Cynthia Manson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2005]

MURDER ON MAIN STREET edited by Cynthia Manson (ISBN 0-56619-927-1), you will be pleased to hear, doesn't have any overt anti-Semitism, though it's unlikely that someone editing a book in 1993 for Barnes & Noble would include any of that sort of material. (Of course, the subtitle is "Small Town Crime from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine & Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine", and one is somewhat less likely to have Jewish characters to comment on in a small town in Nebraska than in London.) As a summer beach read, this is pretty good, because the stories are best read spread out over a week or two of vacation rather than one after another.

To order Murder on Main Street from, click here.

Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page. Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2014 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2014]

This month's general discussion group discussion book was THERE'S MORE TO NEW JERSEY THAN THE SOPRANOS by Marc Mappan (ISBN 978-0-813-54586-8). It consists of a lot of stories from New Jersey history, some as well known as Molly Pitcher or the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, while others deal with less well-known characters and incidents. (And as a lead-in to the next book, his final chapter is called "Brief History of Corruption".)

To order There's More to New Jersey Than the Sopranos from, click here.

THE WILD PARTY by Joseph Mancure March:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/15/2005]

Joseph Mancure March's THE WILD PARTY (ISBN 0-375-70643-7), illustrated by Art Spiegelman, is a re-issuing of what is described on the flap as a "lost classic", a "hard-boiled jazz-age tragedy told in syncopated rhyming couplets". Here's a sample of the style:

     What a crew!
     Take a look at Madeline True;
     Her eyes slanted.  Her eyes were green; 
     Heavy-lidded; pouched: obscene.
     Eyes like a snake's; 
     Like a stagnant pool filled with slime.
     Her mouth was cruel; 
     A scar 
     In red, 
     That recently had opened and bled.

As you can see, the couplets are not always obvious to the eye, and the punctuation is idiosyncratic. The story itself has echoes of Frankie and Johnnie, and was made (with many changes) into a 1975 film (also titled THE WILD PARTY). In this re-issue, Art Spiegelman, best known for MAUS: A SURVIVOR'S TALE, provides wonderfully evocative woodcut illustrations for this story in verse that conveys both the exuberance and the desperation of the Jazz Age.

To order The Wild Party from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/20/2008]

SHINING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA by Stephen Marche (ISBN-13 978-1-594-48315-8, ISBN-10 1-594-48315-9) is arguably science fiction, though I know of no one who reviewed it as such. (The cataloguing data calls it "experimental fiction". It purports to be an anthology of Sanjanian fiction and other writings, with a preface that provides the historical, sociological, and literary background necessary to understand them. Sanjania is an island nation in the North Atlantic, and was formerly part of the British Empire. It is a very literary culture: "Sanjanians are perhaps the most literary people on earth. Bookstalls are as common as fruit stands, the theatres around Saint Magdalene's Square dwarf the City Hall, and on Sanjair flights the stewards push small carts of books down the aisle after the beverages and pretzels."

Later, it says of Saint Magdalene's Square, "Seemingly endless bookstalls fill the square's edge and spill into the side streets in every direction. Bargain hunters and literature lovers cram every nook and cranny from sunrise (more or less) to sundown (more or less)." (Sounds like Hay-on-Wye in Wales.)

The only real drawback to this literary Shangri-La is that it does not exist. Oh, well, you can't have everything.

The earliest pieces--in terms of the internal chronology--are the most interesting, since Mache constructs a separate dialect for that era: "In his eighteenth year, Marlyebone oxchopped and mangled the other wolfheads, Goodfriday Martins, Samuel Baker Deloney, Abraham Crisp and Lover Gromes, and claimed the overward. In his nineteenth year, the Crown pursued him. Crownagent Keagan Poulter took a bulletsmash in the face and could not be regaliated. Agent Will Champion's moniker fibbed everafter his failure. Robert Strunk sunk. In Marlyebone's twentieth year, his Scourge Sally Parkman, a Woman Crownagent, grabbed his pirate fleet, and yawled it against the waves of Portuguese Cove, ane Marlyebone scuppered overhill byland toward his homecove Restitution, flittering."

This dialect is characterized by many compound words, and I suppose Marche got tired of creating them, because after the first few pieces, they go away, alas.

To order Shining at the Bottom of the Sea from, click here.

AMAZONIA by James Marcus:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/10/2004]

James Marcus's AMAZONIA (ISBN 1-56584-870-5) is the story of the author's five years (from 1996 to 2001) as an editor at It is okay to breeze through, but does not have any real surprises or revelations. People who have been following the phenomena in general will probably already know about's various policies and acquisitions, and others won't learn much from this. For example, Marcus talks about the disastrous acquisition of, but doesn't explain why it was so bad compared to other apparently similar decisions that went well. There were interesting tidbits--the Millennium Poem, for one. And even though I knew the all about "Project Shift" and one of its unintended side-effects, it was interesting to see an even bigger picture. (Project Shift was the concept of removing shipping charges for all orders of two or more items. When this happened, "'The Book of Hope' began its meteoric ascent. This slender Biblical tract clearly had much to recommend it.... Most shoppers, however were attracted to its 99-cent price tag. Droves of them tossed it in the shopping cart a second, more expensive item and made their shipping charges disappear: a miracle on a par with the loaves and fishes. We also did a surprisingly brisk business with Dover Classics, which sold for a dollar each." I used this ploy at least once, and various shoppers' web sites suggested it as well, so it is not surprising that it actually impacted's bottom line. Apparently, came close to eliminating every item under five dollars from their catalog to solve this problem, until wiser heads prevailed and they dropped the "two-item-free-shipping" offer. (I believe now it is free shipping for items over a certain dollar amount.)

To order Amazonia from (!), click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/21/2008]

ACQUIRING GENOMES: A THEORY OF THE ORIGINS OF SPECIES by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (ISBN-13 978-0-465-04391-X, ISBN-10 0-465-04391-7) has a interesting theory (speciation happens by the acquisition of genes from symbiotic organisms), but made statements that I thought at odds with current definitions. For example, the authors say, "Groups of organisms, again like people or corn plants or chickens, considered to be all descended from the same ancestors ("clade") are classified as members of the same species. Such organisms are called 'monophyletic' because they are descended from 'a single common ancestor.'" But as I understand it clades are nested, e.g., all primates form a clade which itself exists within the clade of all mammals. Clearly this crosses species boundaries (or makes the term "species" meaningless.)

And "... viruses are not alive and indeed they are even, in principle, too small to be units of life. They lack the means of producing their genes and proteins." One can deduce from this that viruses are not alive if producing their genes and proteins is the definition of life (and if it is true that viruses cannot do so). But my suspicion is that this is probably not the only accepted definition of "life" and other, equally valid, definitions may imply that viruses are alive.

I have to say that the authors show more desire for intellectual honesty than most. Rather than attempt to hide contrary views, they include a foreword by Ernst Mayr that contradicts or denies them on several key points (e.g., symbiogenesis as an instance of speciation, the validity of the principle of acquired characteristics). Mayr says, "Given the authors' dedication to their special field, it is not surprising that they sometimes arrive at interpretations others of us find arguable. Let the reads ignore those that are clearly in conflict with the finding of modern biology. Let him concentrate instead on the authors' brilliant new interpretations and be thankful that they have called our attention to worlds of life that ... are consistently by most biologists."

To order Acquiring Genomes from, click here.

LOS HOMBRES LOBO EN EL CINE by Carlos Diaz Maroto:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/17/2014]

I found a copy of LOS HOMBRES LOBO EN EL CINE by Carlos Diaz Maroto (ISBN 978-84-95537-83-4) in Nashville, Tennessee, of all places. Published in Madrid, its coverage of the werewolf film concentrates primarily on English-language films, probably because they form the bulk of the well-known werewolf films.

It is divided into five parts. The first ("Introduction") covers the mythology of werewolves, and werewolves in literature. The second (Chapter I) is a series of short essays about the key films in the genre. Chapter II covers the rest of the werewolf films with only a paragraph or two for each, divided into "Silent Howls". "Howls Are Heard", "Anglo-Saxon Howls", "Werewolves South of the Rio Grande", and so on. Chapter III covers other shape-changer movies (e.g., ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, CAT PEOPLE, THE FLY). Then there is a filmography of werewolf and other shape-changer films, and then a bibliography.

Most of what is in this book is known to fans of the genre. But every once in a while Maroto comes up with a surprise. For example, in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, the beggar at the beginning was originally intended to be more wolf-like in appearance, but the British censor said, "He must not have fangs. He can have fangs, or relations with the girl, but not both." (Censors seem to have had it in for werewolf films; the Spanish censor seemed to object to anything in a werewolf film that would connect it to Spain: names, locations, descriptions.)

Of course, the main drawback for this book is that it is in Spanish. Still, the reading level is probably similar to that of a newspaper rather than an esoteric literary novel. For example, after listing all the classic films done by the creative team behind THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF, Maroto says, "El film que nos ocupa, por el contrario, es un absoluto desastre." You don't need much Spanish to figure that one out. And some of the Spanish neologisms are wonderful: the two friends in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON are described as arriving in a "pueblecito de innegable tono hammeriano" ("a village of undeniably Hammeresque tone").

On the other hand, occasionally one finds a word not recognizable by context and not even in the typical paperback Spanish-English dictionaries. For example, when Maroto talks about "el tono gamberro-yanqui" in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, I had to pull out my 1500-page doorstop of a dictionary (Spanish only) from the Real Academia Española to find that "gamberro" means "libertino, disoluto". Those I could translate without a dictionary, and then Maroto's additional reference to Landis's NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE made more sense as well.

To order Los hombres lobo en el cine from, click here.

ALL THE WONDERS WE SEEK by Félix Martí-Ibáñez:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/15/2009]

ALL THE WONDERS WE SEEK: THIRTEEN TALES OF SURPRISE AND PRODIGY by Félix Martí-Ibáñez (no isbn) was first published in 1960, but two of the stories appeared in WEIRD TALES in the early 1950s. Before I comment on the stories, let me point out that Martí-Ibáñez is yet another doctor who writes speculative fiction, though his writings tend more towards fantasy. More current examples are Michael Crichton (definitely science fiction) and F. Paul Wilson (horror). But Martí-Ibáñez's model is more from the mainstream, since his dedication reads, "To William Somerset Maugham, greatest modern example of the physician as homme de lettres, whose friendship has been throughout the years an evergreen source of joy, inspiration, and enlightenment."

Another general observation is that although Martí-Ibáñez was born and raised in Spain, and later moved to the United States, his stories are all set in Latin America. One might say they are magical realism (see last week's column), but in any case, Martí-Ibáñez apparently felt that the atmosphere needed for his stories was neither Iberian nor North American. (Not until such writers as Mark Helprin and Neil Gaiman did this sort of writing with North American settings gain a wide audience.) One perhaps sees the inspiration of Maugham here, since Maugham set many of his stories in hot jungle climates.

But Martí-Ibáñez is very even-handed about his settings. Every story is set in a different country (or in some cases, two), meaning that of the seventeen continental Latin American countries or territories, he covers all but Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay, as well as having one story set in Cuba. (Belize, Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana cannot really be included in Latin America in this context.) And there is no duplication of countries, leading one to think that this was intentional.

"The Sleeping Bell", for example, takes place in the Colombian jungle. We know this because in the very first paragraph he writes, "when one is traveling on foot in the Colombian jungle...." Indeed, he is very explicit in every story about where the events take place. Unlike some authors whose descriptions are either vague or contradictory, Martí-Ibáñez is quite clear in his locations. And like many of his other stories, this one is rooted in the events of the Spanish conquest--in this case the story of a pagan statue and a church bell.

"The Star Hunt" (which takes place in Ecuador) uses another recurring theme: the desire to escape from "the commonplace and hopeless." The main character goes out one morning on an errand and finds himself drawn into a series of extraordinary adventures far beyond his normal banal existence.

"A Tomb in Malacor" is one of the WEIRD TALES stories and takes place between Managua (Nicaragua) and Guatemala City (Guatemala). It has a real "Twilight Zone" feel to it, but definitely pre-dates the series, so it is possible that this is one of the stories that inspired Rod Serling.

"Niña Sol" is set in high-altitude Peru, "The Seekers of Dreams" in "Maitecas, close to the steaming Paraguayan jungle" (what an evocative description!), "The Buried Paradise" in La Paz (Bolivia), and "Amigo Heliotropo" in Honduras and El Salvador.

The inspiration for "Between Two Dreams" may very well be the story of Zhuang Zhou (a.k.a. Chuang Tzu), who fell asleep one day and dreamt he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he wondered whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. I find Martí-Ibáñez's choice of Costa Rica a little unusual for a tale of a conquistador, although I suppose if Central America was good enough for "stout Cortez", .... Okay, that's a literary reference--I know Cortez was not in Central America. (This is the other WEIRD TALES story.)

"The Song Without Words" (set in Argentina) has a definite Pied Piper sub-text (or maybe not even so "sub") as well as having the popular fantasy plot device of the circus. Even when the circus is not literally magical, the whole philosophy of a circus is magic--something beyond our daily existence.

"The Threshold of the Door", set in Caracas (Venezuela), is a story that with a couple of additional phrases could have appeared in Clifton Fadiman's FANTASIA MATHEMATICA. "Stand sideways on the threshold and walk sideways toward the frame. ... if you walk straight toward the frame without fear, I promise you that you shall enter the poetic world whole and safe. You know why? Because in our world doors are horizontal instead of vertical. Our doors, when open, cross yours. That is why you can't enter the poetic world through the opening of your doors. You must stand sideways on your threshold and walk straight into the side beam. You will then enter the invisible door of our world." Even as it is, without any descriptions of the fourth (spatial) dimension, it seems inspired by Edwin A. Abbott's FLATLAND ("Upward, not northward!").

"Havana: 60 Longitude West, 70 Latitude South" is not a typo, even though Havana is actually 82.33 Longitude West, 23 Latitude North. (The title actually has degree symbols, but I cannot do them in ASCII.) Let's just say that this brings plate tectonics to a whole new level.

"Senhor Zumbeira's Leg" (set in Brazil) is a story that could easily have come almost directly from the Arabian Nights. Not that it is a secret--it is clear that that is what Martí-Ibáñez intended. Is it just accidental that the only story based on a story cycle from "the mysterious East" is set in the only non-Spanish-language country in Latin America--or is it that Martí-Ibáñez chose Brazil as the most foreign to himself as a native of Spain?

"Riquiqui, I Love You!" (set in Chile) was listed in the table of contents as "Riquiqui, I Lov Youe!", which actually sounded more mysterious. Alas, this title was a typo, and while the story was fine, the misprint seemed so redolent with atmosphere that I was at least a little disappointed.

Martí-Ibáñez has written a lot of other books. Most seem to be histories of medicine. He has at least one other collection of stories (WALTZ), a historical novel, a humorous novel, and a travel book. I suppose it is good that he can write in many fields, but it does mean that we have not gotten as much speculative fiction/fantasy/magical realism from him as we might otherwise have gotten.

To order All the Wonders We Seek from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/10/2003]

Another example of stealth science fiction is THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY by Zachary Mason (ISBN 978-0-374-19215-0). It is subtitled on the cover "A NOVEL", but it is not. It consists of 44 vignettes of alternative events in the life of Odysseus, events which are often mutually exclusive. For example, in "Penelope's Elegy" Odysseus returns home to find Penelope dead, while in "A Sad Revelation" she has remarried, and in "A Night in the Woods" a third scenario unfolds. The stories, or vignettes (the longest is still under 3000 words), do form a unified whole--not a novel, but a series of meditations on the subject of Odysseus. Mason goes back to the original meaning of "Odyssey" as being the story of Odysseus, and some vignettes occur outside the ten-year period covered in Homer's "Odyssey".

This raises an interesting question in terms of Hugo nominations. The definition for Best Novel calls for "a science fiction or fantasy story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more." It makes little sense to nominate the individual pieces as short stories, but the book as a whole seems ineligible.

My one complaint about THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY is that Mason (or his editors) felt it necessary to footnote several of the references to the original ODYSSEY. For example, a comment Odysseus makes about not killing the Cyclops because he and his men would then be trapped is footnoted with an explanation of how the Cyclops had them in his cave with a massive boulder that only the Cyclops could move blocking the door. I find it hard to believe that the people reading this book would be unfamiliar with the ODYSSEY.

To order The Lost Books of the Odyssey from, click here.

HAND OF GLORY by Sophie Masson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/10/2003]

I just read Sophie Masson's HAND OF GLORY, an alternate history set in Australia. There aren't many of these (for starters, known history there goes back a lot shorter time than in Europe, for example), but this didn't seem to do much with the "alternate" aspect.

Hand of Glory is not available in the US; you might try

AN OXFORD TRAGEDY by J. C. Masterman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/09/2007]

AN OXFORD TRAGEDY by J. C. Masterman (ISBN-10 0-486-24165-3, ISBN-13 978-0-486-24165-4) is another classic Dover mystery, notable for its academic setting. There is an entire sub-genre of "bibliomysteries" which take place in bookstores, libraries, and academic settings, and this falls in that category. (See for an extensive list.) This is not especially noteworthy as a mystery, but I still applaud Dover for having brought what seems to be an entire generation of mysteries into print.

To order An Oxford Tragedy from, click here.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (I AM LEGEND) by Richard Matheson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/24/2011]

The science fiction book-and-movie discussion group chose Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND and the film THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. The film is not bad, but has quite a few goofs and sloppy moments. For example, Morgan says he has had eleven kills in three years, but he is making dozens of stakes, and he asks, "How many more will I have to make?" Morgan seems to be drinking three-year-old coffee, finding huge amounts of fresh garlic, and not having any problems with sides of beef that have been hanging in a meat locker for three years. Even with an uninterrupted power supply--which is very unlikely--they would be pretty rank. And the tires on the cars he looks at would be flat.

An example of sloppiness is when Morgan meets the woman, there are two trucks are moving along a road in the distance. Also, the handle on the armory door is on a different side when seen from the outside and the inside. (That is, on either side, if you are facing the door, the handle is on your left no matter whether you are inside or outside the room.)

She says she has been hiding and not eating, but apparently does get to a hair stylist. (It turns out she is lying, but even so, her hair is too well styled for the situation.)

I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/21/2007]

I re-read I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson (ISBN-13 978-0-765-35715-1, ISBN-10 0-765-35715-1) after seeing the movie. I have to agree with Mark--the movie that is most faithful to the book is the 1964 version, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. In fact, the current film credits not just Richard Matheson but also the screenwriters of the 1971 film, THE OMEGA MAN, for the story. So not surprisingly, the current film resembles that in many ways. Of the current film, I will say that it is probably worth seeing the movie for the production and set design, but not for the action sequences or make-up. One note: the 1954 Fawcett edition of I AM LEGEND is 160 pages long; the 1995 Tor edition (reprinted in October 2007) is over three hundred pages long. This is not just larger print and wider margins--the Tor edition also includes ten additional short stories, hence is actually a collection. Normally one would expect a title such as I AM LEGEND AND OTHER STORIES, but I guess they felt that just I AM LEGEND was stronger.

To order I Am Legend from, click here.

THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/29/2008]

THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham (ISBN-13 978-0-099-50739-0, ISBN-10 0-099-50739-0) was this month's selection for the "original" book discussion group. Mark and I had seen the movie a while ago, and Mark suggested the book for the group. The screenwriter changed a lot; more specifically, he added a lot. There is no aqueduct-building in the book, and no insurrection or civil war. (The ending is also significantly different.) I think the reason for this (besides wanting to add action sequences) was that the book was told entirely from the main character Kitty's point of view, and that was considered undesirable for the movie. First of all, it would mean that the lead actress would be in every scene, which is hard work. And second, this in turn would make the film "a woman's film", at least to the backers, meaning that it would not attract a wide enough audience. So the screenwriter added scenes of Walter Fane in the lab, scenes of Walter Fane in the hospital, scenes of Walter Fane by the river, and so on. Of Kitty's feelings about the nuns and their life and emotions--the main focus of the book--very little is left.

They also moved the location of the British "colony" from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, for reasons I can't figure out. (Maugham himself had to change it from Hong Kong to the fictional Tching-Yen when the book first came out for legal reasons.)

The notions of marriage in THE PAINTED VEIL seem very similar to Jane Austen's: Kitty is pressured to marry by her mother because, as she ask, "How long can you expect your father to support you?" Also, her younger sister gets engaged and Kitty feels she must marry, or be "shamed" by her continued spinsterhood. This is expressed more explicitly in the novel, which gives more of Kitty's history, rather than just the few days before her wedding.

To order The Painted Veil from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/03/2010]

TWILIGHT AT THE WORLD OF TOMORROW: GENIUS, MADNESS, MURDER, AND THE 1939 WORLD'S FAIR ON THE BRINK OF WAR by James Mauro (ISBN 0-345-51214-6) covers a lot of material that other World's Fair historians seem to have overlooked. For example, considering the amount of material written about the 1939 New York World's Fair, I was surprised to discover that there was a terrorist bomb planted in the British Pavilion on July 4, 1940, that exploded when it was discovered and removed, killing two policemen. You would think that all the various articles, books, plays, and so on might have mentioned it.

Mauro spends most of the book, in fact, talking about things other people haven't covered much. Other people write about all the "World of Tomorrow" science and technology exhibits, but Mauro spends more time talking about the various countries' pavilions. There was no Germany pavilion, for example, and the Austria and Czechoslovakia pavilions had the dubious distinction of being country pavilions without a country by the time they opened. And the staff of those pavilions, as well as of the Poland pavilion, apparently ended up as refugees when the fair closed in 1940, as they had no desire to return to their homelands.

Mauro also talks about the financial aspects a lot. Between escalating costs and disappointing attendance, the Fair lost money. (Actually, this seems to be true of most World's Fairs.) The profits were supposed to go into developing Flushing Meadows into a park after the Fair; that never happened. Oh, and about the Trylon and Perisphere: people often ask why they were torn down. The answer is simple: There was a war on and they and most of the rest of the iron on the site (20,000 tons total, with 4000 tons from the Tryon and Perisphere alone) went for the war effort.

To order Twilight at the World of Tomorrow from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2014]

And while we're mentioning errors, let me note one in VIDEOHOUND'S WAR MOVIES by Mike Mayo (ISBN 978-1-57859-089-6). In his description of the film THE LIGHTHORSEMEN, Mayo writes, "The Light Horse is "mounted infantry" as opposed to cavalry, though the details of that distinction--beyond the troopers' use of rifles and bayonets--are not too important." This is 180 degrees off--in the climactic scene, the distinction is critical.

To order Videohound's War Movies from, click here.


GREEK FIRE, POISON ARROWS & SCORPION BOMBS: BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WARFARE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD by Adrienne Mayor (ISBN 978-1-585-67608-8) documents the common usage over the centuries of what we think of as modern "weapons of mass destruction." While its enumeration of the numerous ancient accounts of such warfare (and the citation of modern instances that have particular parallels to them) shows how common they were, Mayor seems to think that her readers will be surprised by these ancient instances. Yet once she mentions poisoned arrows, or catapulting dead animals into besieged cities, the reader will immediately realize that, yes, there has been such warfare through the centuries. So unless you are interested in the specific recipes for arrow poison various people used, or what disease a particular general tried to spread, this book will have little new to offer besides a long list of examples.

To order Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/02/2004]

Paul McAuley's THE INVISIBLE COUNTRY was another collection of short fiction by a British writer, although I was more familiar with McAuley because of his alternate history, PASQUALE'S ANGEL, which won the Sidewise Award in the first year those awards were presented. Both PASQUALE'S ANGEL and THE INVISIBLE COUNTRY are recommended--I am glad to see collections being published, since I think that too often short fiction gets ignored as soon as the magazine or book it appeared in is pulled from the racks.

To order The Invisible Country from, click here.

PASQUALE'S ANGEL by Paul J. McAuley (AvoNova, ISBN 0-380-77820-3, 1997 (1995c), 374pp, paperback):

This is the second "alternate Leonardo" I read in quick succession (Jack Dann's Memory Cathedral being the first, though this actually predates the Dann by about a year). In this, however, Leonardo is not one of the major characters on-stage. He does appear but mostly he is talked about as the "Great Engineer" in the tower. So far as I can determine, he got that way because Savonarola's revolution of 1498 succeeded and Leonardo turned from concentrating on art to concentrating on invention. The result is a Florence well into the Industrial Age in Leonardo's lifetime.

Let me start out by saying that I enjoyed this book and that I recommend it. I want to say that up front, because my comments might lead you to think I had a negative opinion of Pasquale's Angel, and that's not true.

One of my complaints has to do with the premise: I doubt the Industrial Revolution could have proceeded this fast this early. In twenty years, Florence seems to have gotten to the technological level we achieved around 1900--considerably more than twenty years after the Industrial Revolution started.

Another problem is that Pasquale's Angel starts with a "locked-room" (or rather "locked-tower") mystery whose solution, alas, should be obvious to most of the readers who would be attracted to this book.

Given that McAuley wanted a murder mystery, I wish he had designed one less derivative. He does a good job of describing his characters and making them come alive. (Of course, most of his characters were alive, at least in some form.) His use of the politics and conspiracies of the time is the most interesting aspect of the novel, and more emphasis on that, with less on detailing more technical advances than seem likely or are necessary, would have made me happier. But as they say, your mileage may vary, and even with my reservations, I still strongly recommend Pasquale's Angel.

To order Pasquale's Angel from, click here.

THE ROWAN by Anne McCaffrey:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/11/2006]

THE ROWAN by Anne McCaffrey (ISBN 0-441-73576-2) was chosen for our science fiction group for July. Someone described it as a "good quick summer read," which I suppose it is. However, that is in part because it seems to be aimed at a teenage (or perhaps slightly older) audience, and more specifically at teenage girls. It is basically the coming of age and romance of a girl/woman called (annoyingly) "the Rowan", after her home planet. Why not just "Rowan"? Who knows? Anne McCaffrey has a lot of fans, but her writing does not work for me.

To order The Rowan from, click here.

BLACK BIBLE CHRONICLES: FROM GENESIS TO THE PROMISED LAND interpreted by P. K. McCary (African American Family Press, ISBN 1-56977-0000-X, 1993, 190pp, ):

Perhaps best described as "the Torah for homeboys," this is the first of a series of books translating (or "interpreting," to use McCary's term) the "Bible" into urban language. This volume covers the five books of Moses ("Genesis", "Exodus", "Leviticus", "Numbers", and "Deuteronomy"); a second volume has already been published covering the four gospels (called "Rappin' with Jesus"). But as a Jew I was understandably more interested in this volume.

This translation omits large sections of these books, particularly the genealogies (the "begats"). Since the footnotes reference this translation back to the chapters in the complete version, I don't consider this a big fault. More problematic is McCary's somewhat loose translation. The use of the term "church" to refer to the Temple may not be too unreasonable (though it points out the Christian focus of this translation, rather than a Judaic or Islamic one), but the translation of "Sabbath" into "Sunday" in several spots is irksome and deceptive. And, for example, the translation of Leviticus 18:21 as "he can't put her children on the altar to be burned 'cuz that'll cause the ultimate in punishment" may not be an accurate rendering of what the original says: the King James translation is "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord," and Maimonides says this refers to passing an old practice of passing a newborn child through the smoke of a fire as a pagan rite ("The Guide for the Perplexed", Part 3, Chapter 37). On the other hand, "Don't mess with someone else's ol' man or ol' lady" is probably a better rendering of the intent than "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (The latter seems to lead to all sorts of hair-splitting over the precise definition of adultery.)

I notice, by the way, that while most of the Laws in "Leviticus" are retained, the prohibitions against homosexual behavior between men seem to have vanished. Not only does McCary include all the other sexual prohibitions ("And the Almighty didn't want folks peeping on people they had no business seeing naked"; "It was especially uncool to get down with any animals"; "The Almighty didn't want kissin' cousins getting hitched, and brothers weren't to sleep with their mothers or any wife of your dad's, whether she's your mother or not. Granddaughters, daughters, and half sisters are out of the question for doing the wild thing, just as your aunt or your sister-in-law"), but even the clothing ones ("Mix matching clothes, like wool and linen, isn't just a fashion downer, it ain't happening here"). One can only conclude that political correctness is at least partially responsible for this omission.

"Black Bible Chronicles" is certainly an unusual translation, and one that is surprisingly engaging. It manages to bring a life and a directness to the story that traditional translations don't. Whether it will reach its intended audience is not clear, but it could well find a favorable reception with an audience looking at it as a literary work rather than an inspirational one.

To order Black Bible Chronicles from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/23/2010]

GLOBISH: HOW THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE BECAME THE WORLD'S LANGUAGE by Robert McCrum (ISBN 978-0-393-06255-7) attempts to explain why English is "the world's universal language". There is a very favorable blurb on the back by Malcolm Gladwell (author of THE TIPPING POINT), but John McWhorter's review in THE NEW REPUBLIC (, "Is English Special Because It's 'Globish'?") does a fairly thorough job of discrediting McCrum's theories.

Briefly, McCrum seems to believe that it is something inherent in English that makes it suitable as a universal language rather than just the fact of English and American culture being so pervasive (English through the 17th to early 20th centuries, followed by American). He says, "Language ... is intrinsically neutral, but it is no contradiction to claim that English ... is unique." He then spends most of the book recounting the history of English, and England, and the United States--it's not clear that one needs dozen pages about slavery to explain why so many Chinese speak English today. McWhorter's review also points out many errors in fact as well.

But McWhorter is most critical of McCrum's underlying reasoning. McCrum attributes the popularity of English to its "being light on conjugation suffixes ... and not having gender." But as McWhorter notes, Russian has the opposite of these characteristics and other complexities as well, yet is (or was) spoken by a vast number of people as a second language. The reason is simple--Russia was the superpower in Communist world just as the United States was in the West. (The effect of the British Commonwealth in spreading English should not be completely ignored either, obviously.)

McWhorter points out that McCrum also assumes that simplicity causes universality, while (according to McWhorter) it is actually the other way around.

To order Globish from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2014]

YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL AND OTHER ENCOURAGEMENTS by David McCullough, Jr. (ISBN 978-0-06-225734-5) grew out of a graduation speech given by McCullough (son of the famous author). A lot of what McCullough says addresses this attitude of "I'm special and deserve special treatment." Closely related is, "We should never let any child ever fail at anything, or get a bad grade, or suffer any consequences for mistakes." The result is that often the first time a child (now an adult) encounters negative consequences or even criticism is in college (if they are lucky), or when they hit the real world after college.

In Poland, in South Korea, in Finland, or indeed in almost any other country, students have to excel to get into college. Here they merely have to show up for classes in high school (or maybe not even that). It is not surprising that so many of them drop out of college after a year or so. In other countries, there are vocational schools and other paths for the non-college-bound.

But it is worse than that. High school graduates in other countries have a knowledge of math, of reasoning, of how to analyze problems, of how to organize their thoughts and communicate them. All too often, high school graduates here have none of these. Industries looking for factory workers say that high school graduates are not trained enough in even these skills for the jobs that are now available.

To order You Are Not Special from, click here.

"The Ashbazu Effect by John McDaid:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/12/2005]

John McDaid, "The Ashbazu Effect" (REVISIONS, ed. by Julie Czerneda and Isaac Szpindel, ISBN 0-7564-0240-9): This assumes that the idea of embossing whole pages at a time onto clay tablets has been discovered in Sumeria, and shows the next stage. As seems to be very popular, within the story someone talks about alternate histories ("fiction-that-continues-a-line"), including of course our own timeline. This gets extra credit for a more interesting setting and divergence point than one normally finds. (I commented on the entire collection in the 10/01/04 issue of the MT VOID; click here for that review.)

To order ReVisions from, click here.

OMEGA by Jack McDevitt:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2003]

Jack McDevitt's OMEGA is apparently the third book in a series preceded by CHINDI and DEEPSIX, though there is no indication anywhere on the dust jacket or facing the title page. It stands moderately well on its own, but I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to be getting more out of some of the references than I was. The premise of clouds that travel through the galaxy destroying all signs of civilization was intriguing, but the geometry was all wrong. That is, it was claimed that they looked for right angles, which don't appear in nature, but there are in fact crystal forms that have right angles. In addition, an artifact called a "hedgehog" was described as having a lot of right angles, but the description made it sound more like something with spikes that were more like tall pyramids stuck on the central piece, and as such would have a lot of obtuse and acute angles, but few right angles.

To order Omega from, click here.

BRASYL by Ian McDonald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/25/2008]

BRASYL by Ian McDonald (ISBN-13 978-1-591-02543-6, ISBN-10 1-591-02543-5) is a Hugo nominee, but it has a major strike against it--the book comes with a six-page glossary (and a suggested reading list, and a playlist of songs). It also has a long description of a soccer game (which I can't follow). The only one of the three threads it follows that I could understand was the one taking place in 1732. Maybe if I studied the glossary first.... Or maybe not. I really wanted to like this one, but it didn't happen. (In fairness, I will add that I gave up around page 60.)

To order Brasyl from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/09/2010]

CYBERABAD DAYS by Ian McDonald (ISBN-13 978-1-59102-699-0) is a collection of short stories (well, probably closer to novelettes) set in the world of McDonald's RIVER OF GODS, the India of 2047. India has split in several warring states. What is interesting is how McDonald has managed to address so many current issues: "Sanjeev and Robotwallah" is about combat by telepresence (not unlike the film SLEEP DEALER), class and ethnic differences in "Kyle Meets the River", genetic engineering in "The Dust Assassin", gender imbalance in "An Eligible Boy", and so on. All of these are played out in the Indianized world of the future. For example, McDonald doesn't write about "A.I.", he writes about "aeai" (just as people in India have names like "Vijay"). And people watch "tivi". McDonald manages to capture the feeling of India. He lives in Belfast; either he travels a lot or he spends his days watching Bollywood movies.

To order Cyberabad Days from, click here.

"The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/12/2006]

"The Little Goddess" by Ian McDonald (ASIMOV'S Jun 2005) is set on the near-future Indian subcontinent. India has splintered into several nations, all jockeying for position and power. The narrator begins as a goddess, chosen after a series of spiritual tests, but this is a position that will end after a few years, not with her death, but with puberty. She then finds herself trying to become a normal person again, but having been a goddess creates certain drawbacks. I really enjoyed this, both for the story, and for the milieu. (In general, I recommend McDonald's work. I have not had a chance yet to read his Hugo-nominated novel from 2004, RIVER OF GODS, but I am looking forward to it.)

"The Tear" by Ian McDonald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2009]

"The Tear" by Ian McDonald (GALACTIC EMPIRES): I read this last, because it was not made available as part of the electronic Hugo packet until version 2.0. It has all the faults of Rosenbaum & Doctorow's "True Names" with none of the virtues. One problem with reading something electronically (for me, anyway) is that it is harder to skip through it and sample bits--not that a story should be read that way, but it can encourage one to stick with something because it seems to get better.

"Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/25/2010]

"Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald (CYBERABAD DAYS) was the one new story in the collection CYBERABAD DAYS, and frankly, the least engaging. In fact, I had started it, given up, and was about to return the book to the library when the Hugo nominations were announced. So I went back and read it, but still could not managed to get enthused about it.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/24/2012]

In CASTRO'S BOMB by Robert Conroy (Kindle only, ASIN B005ORV3IM), the politics and military aspects are done reasonably well (at least as far as I can tell), but Conroy really needs to have only male characters. Regarding female characters, one of two things seem to be the case: 1) Conroy has no idea how to write female characters, or 2) Conroy knows how to write female characters, but figures his audience is all male and consists of people who do not want well-written female characters.

So far as I can tell, the female characters are entirely defined by sex (including rape), fear of pregnancy, menstruation, emotions, what they are wearing, and how they look. They plead for their husbands, or spend time searching their bombed-out apartments for jewelry. The only real exception to this seems to be the Cuban women who stop the tank column, and even they are more into passive resistance. (One might speculate on the differing portrayals of Anglo and Russian women versus those of Hispanic women, but I am not going to go there.)

(This problem, by the way, also appears in his earlier books, HIMMLER'S WAR and 1942, and possibly others that I do not recall.)

Conroy also depends a lot on infodumps, even to the extent of explaining the origin of the military response "Nuts!" But in non-military matters, he makes mistakes (which should have been caught by his editor, assuming Kindle books have editors). For example, there is his use of the term "Hobson's choice" in the sense of Scylla and Charybdis, when it really means no choice at all. ("Any color as long as it's black" would be a classic example.) And it is not a case of the error being the character's rather than the author's--the speaker (Kennedy) was classically educated and would know what "Hobson's choice" means.

To order Castro's Bomb from, click here.

"Romanitas" Trilogy by Sophia McDougall:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/24/2012]

Sophia McDougall has finished her "Romanitas" trilogy. As a Sidewise Award judge, I was sent copies of all three books when they came out, but either the publisher did not want to provide a nicely matched set, or the books were published without concern for having a nicely matched set. ROMANITAS (ISBN 978-0-75286-894-3) is in the British "C format" (the size of a hardback but with a soft cover, 6"x9.25"), ROME BURNING (ISBN 978-0-7528-7930-7) is in the "A format" (US mass market size, 4.5"x7"), and SAVAGE CITY (ISBN 978-0-575-09638-7) is in the "B format" (somewhere between the two, 5"x7.75"). This is not the most mis-matched set I own, though--that "honor" goes to the Jasper Fforde "Thursday Next" series, with volumes in Viking hardcover, Viking UK C format, NEL B format, and two Penguin US trade paperbacks. But the fact that the heights of the "Romanitas" books vary so much makes them very difficult to shelve (or box) together.

To order Romanitas from, click here.

To order Rome Burning from, click here.

To order Savage City from, click here.

FILM CRAZY by Patrick McGilligan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2006]

FILM CRAZY by Patrick McGilligan (ISBN 0-312-28038-6) is presented as a collection of interviews with famous directors and writers. However, for a few of the people, there is no interview, but just an article by McGilligan about the subject, with some quotations. (The entry for Reagan is an article rather than an interview, and was written early in his political career.) As articles in a magazine they would be interesting, but they make for a rather lightweight book.

To order Film Crazy from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/07/2014]

I had hoped for better things from THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SCIENCE FICTION: FROM THE TWILIGHT ZONE TO THE FINAL FRONTIER by Gabriel McKee (ISBN 978-0-664-22901-6). I was hoping for an in-depth analysis of science fiction works that dealt with the themes of Gospels (e.g., A CASE OF CONSCIENCE) or future Christianity (e.g., A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ). Instead, McKee darts from work to work, choosing such a motley assortment of works that most readers will be unfamiliar with a large proportion of them, and spending only a page (or even just a paragraph) on most of them. Sometimes his choices are just peculiar: he covers Arthur C. Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God" even though that is rooted in Buddhism rather than Christianity, but omits Clarke's classic story, "The Star".

He also makes sweeping statements, such as, "The purpose of this creation [science fiction] is to change our world. By creating altered universes, science-fiction authors hold up a mirror to our time, sometimes amplifying its best aspects, sometimes warning us of its worst. In all cases, the goal of science fiction is to use its imaginary worlds to create a real world of the future that is better than our present." The idea that science fiction has a single goal (other than perhaps to entertain) is misguided at best. Every once in a while, someone decides science fiction is not doing enough to make a better future and comes up with a project to change this; the latest is HIEROGLYPH, an anthology edited by Neal Stephenson. But this is a subset of science fiction; it is large, it contains multitudes.

He also makes some basic logic errors. On page 1, for example, he says "Space, [Han] Solo argues, conceals no spiritual secrets, no answers to eternal questions, and no gods. But STAR WARS and its sequels are an epic refutation of this statement. Powers beyond our everyday understanding do exist, and there is mystery and wonder to be found in the vast reaches of the universe." No, STAR WARS is not a refutation of anything--it is a story, written by a human being. (Similarly, the claim by someone in STARSHIP TROOPERS that their system of flogging et al is good because it works is not applicable to the real world. This ties in with the discussion of "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse" a few weeks ago.) Is "The Nine Billion Names of God" a refutation of the Christian view of the universe?

To order The Gospel According to Science Fiction from, click here.

"Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2011]

"Eight Miles", Sean McMullen (in ANALOG 09/10) is a steampunk-meets-Edgar-Rice-Burroughs story. It's okay, but nothing special, and not what I would consider Hugo material,

"The Precedent" by Sean McMullen:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/10/2010]

"The Precedent" by Sean McMullen (F&SF, Jul/Aug 2010) is a rather over-the-top story about climate change. Set in 2035, it is all about "climate crime", where basically everyone born before the turn of the millenium ends up on trial for such specific crimes as denial, squandering, greed, and gluttony. McMullen does think up all sorts of apropos Dantesque punishments, and indeed there are explicit references to Dante in the story. I suppose if one takes it as a parable one might accept it, but it still has a somewhat weak ending. I will say, though, that it is memorable.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/01/2007]

I was reading the foreword to FILM FLAM: ESSAYS ON HOLLYWOOD by Larry McMurtry (ISBN-10 0-743-21624-5, ISBN-13 978-0-743-21624-1), but was taken aback when I read, "As the ante for each picture goes up the old fever of excitement gives way to the constant low-grade fever of dread. What if we spend $30 million and it flops?" Just how old was this book?! It turns out it is from 1987, those halcyon days when $30 million was a lot of money in Hollywood. (SPIDER-MAN 3 just cost $250 million.) These essays reflect McMurtry's experience both as an author whose novels have been filmed, and as a screen-writer. His filmed novels include HORSEMAN, PASS BY (filmed as HUD); THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, and perhaps his best known novel, LONESOME DOVE. McMurtry takes a refreshingly practical approach to the business of screen-writing--and, yes, to him it is a business. In the essay "The Fun of It All" he says that far too many screen-writers have an inflated sense of their own importance, and need to gain some perspective. (Among other points, he notes that "if writers play limited roles in Hollywood, they also bear limited responsibilities. They don't have to foot the bill when a picture gets made; and nobody's going to blame them if a picture flops.") This attitude puts him at the far end of the spectrum from, say, Harlan Ellison. McMurtry is in favor of treating screen-writing as a craft, working with deadlines, being open to input from others and changes to the script, and not insisting on being on set through the entire shoot.

Of having one's novels turned into movies, he writes, "When Hollywood entered my life I was sitting in a tiny room in Fort Worth eating meatloaf. The phone rang, and I was informed that some people I had never heard of had just bought the movie rights to my first novel. Three nights later I was sitting in the best restaurant in Fort Worth, eating my first chateaubriand--a steak so thick that in most parts of Texas it would have been called a roast--and discussing title changes with a gentleman from Paramount. At the time it never crossed my mind to wonder whether the movie would turn out to be better than the book; what I knew for a certainty was that the steak was better than the meatloaf." (page 36) (Stephen King tells a similar story about hearing about the sale of the movie rights to CARRIE.)

But what about the notion that a bad movie hurts the author of the source book? Regarding RAGTIME, McMurtry says, "In my view it is preeminently silly for Doctorow to give a damn about what happens to RAGTIME as a film. His work is done, and his tale now belongs, most properly, to its readers, not to him. The film De Laurentiis may eventually make of it is another problem, but it is clearly De Laurentiis's problem, no Doctorow's." (page 71) McMurtry's implication throughout all this, never stated, and perhaps just my conclusion, is that if the author is going to care that much about what a film made from the book will be like, he should not sell the rights. (Returning to Steven King, however, it is generally agreed that the best films made from his works are those he had the least involvement with, and conversely.)

(The title of this book, FILM FLAM, is a (perhaps unintentional) example of how books and movies are different. No one would use this phrase in a movie, because it is virtually unpronounceable.)

To order Film Flam from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/01/2007]

Larry McMurtry is best known for LONESOME DOVE--indeed, for most people, that is his only work they could name (but see the review of FILM FLAM below for a list of others). However, he has also written a fair amount of non-fiction, mostly in the form of essays. These have been collected into several, one of which is SACAGAWEA'S NICKNAME (ISBN-10 1-590-17099-7, ISBN-13 978-1-590-17099-1). This includes twelve essays from "The New York Review of Books", covering such diverse aspects of the West as Buffalo Bill, the Zuni tribe, John Wesley Powell, and Angie Debo, as well as (obviously) Sacagawea. McMurtry places his own view of the West between the triumphalists and the revisionists. (I would summarize these as "manifest destiny" and "noble savage", but that is my shorthand, not McMurtry's, and even I will admit that both are more complex than that.) McMurtry has been involved in the popularization of "the West", yet he still retains the ability to look at how that popularization has done a disservice to both the West and those who are perceiving it.

To order Sacagawea's Nickname from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/05/2012]

MOBY-DICK: ISHMAEL'S MIGHTY BOOK by Kerry McSweeney (ISBN 0-8057-8002-5) makes a useful distinction between what McSweeney calls "Ishmael the character" and "Ishmael the narrator." Ishmael the narrator is the one who talks about all the cetology, all the books written by explorers, and in general all the stuff that Ishmael the character would have no reason to have knowledge of before or during the journey of the Pequod. However, it is Ishmael the character who writes the passages that foreshadow the end of the book, because writing the book after all the events in it have happened, he would obviously know those.

This distinction has probably been made by other critics, but I thought this way of identifying the two aspects of the "first person" in the book is better than the usual "Ishmael vs. Melville" distinction, since calling a first person voice "Melville" is awkward and illogical.

To order Moby Dick: Ishmael's Mighty Book from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/11/2010]

THE POWER OF BABEL: A NATURAL HISTORY OF LANGUAGE by John H. McWhorter (ISBN-13 978-0-7167-4473-3), written in 2001, could be considered the companion book to his Teaching Company course, "The Story of Human Language." I started reading it, but found that it duplicated the course almost completely. Ironically, when McWhorter talks about how change is inevitable, he says, "It has gotten to the point that saying I don't have a 'cell' lends me, I suspect, the air of a sequestered holdout that we sense in people who do not have VCRs." Now, only a few years later, lots of people do not have VCRs--they have become "old technology".

It you don't have access to the Teaching Company, I recommend this book, but the course is much better. For one thing, when McWhorter is talking about how words change, vowels shift, and consonants drift, hearing the comparisons is so much more meaningful than just seeing them written phonetically.

To order The Power of Babel from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2017]

In TALKING BACK, TALKING BLACK: TRUTHS ABOUT AMERICA'S LINGUA FRANCA by John McWhorter (ISBN 978-1-9426-5820-7), McWhorter lays out what I think is a convincing argument that Black English (which has some formal name in linguistics such as "African-American Vernacular English") is not just English spoken badly, but a genuine dialect or language in the same sense that Yiddish is not just German spoken badly, but is a separate dialect or language. (The difference between a dialect and a language is that "a language is a dialect with an army.")

To order Talking Back, Talking Black from, click here.

DEADLINES PAST by Walter Mears:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/13/2004]

Walter M. Mears's DEADLINES PAST is the reminiscence of Mears's forty years covering American Presidential campaigns and elections. I suppose I found it particularly interesting because these elections are precisely the ones I remember (I was ten years old in 1960). But certainly his descriptions of some of the older campaigns and how they differ from the current ones would be of interest even if you don't remember them. The "informality" of the earlier campaigns, done on buses with no security staff (or often any staff) to speak of contrasts sharply with the structure of today's campaigns. And this period is also that of the rise of television as a major force. Mears had to rely on his memory for what wasn't archived in his columns, however. He explains in his introduction that he didn't think it was important to keep his notebooks, but strongly encourages young reporters not to make the same mistake. (This may be an unnecessary warning: I was under the impression that the notebooks serve as primary documentation for the facts of a story, and the newspaper or magazine would probably insist that they be kept for several years any way.)

To order Deadlines Past from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/03/2015]

I have been reading more of the BFI booklets on film, and have come to the conclusion that the first one I read (CAT PEOPLE by Kim Newman, reviewed in the 10/10/14 issue of the MT VOID) may be the best, at least for my purposes. Certainly the last two had some surprising errors.

In THE SEVEN SAMURAI by Joan Mellen (ISBN 978-0-85170-915-X), the author writes, "The coins which Katsushiro rains down upon the rice grains are an application of Eisenstein's synaesthesia, the substitution for the whole." No, that's synecdoche; synaesthesia is "the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body." (Frankly, I do not think either term describes what is happening; it is more than the coins make explicit the high value of the few grains of rice to the hungry villagers.)

To order The Saeven Samurai from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/15/2009]

I recently listened to the audio book of THE ELEPHANT AND THE TIGER: THE RISE OF INDIA AND CHINA, AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR ALL OF US by Robyn Meredith (read by Laural Merlington) (ISBN-13 978-1-4001-0485-7, ISBN-10 1-4001-0485-8). I have two sets of comments, one on the actual book, and one on the audiobook experience.

The book is about the rise of India and China as economic super-powers. Or rather, it is about the return, since Meredith claims that both countries had been super-powers for most of the last thousand years, and their "decline" in the 20th century was just a blip. The chapters seem to alternate between China and India, and the two seem very much like the hare and the tortoise, with China leaping ahead rapidly, while India is taking a slower path which may yet make it the ultimate leader. Both countries have achieved massive gains in part because they insisted companies set up research and development facilities (along with factories) in the country. (Mexico, by comparison, seems content to accept factories with no higher-level facilities to provide white-collar opportunities.)

In the discussions of why India has been able to get millions of service jobs (e.g., call centers), the widespread knowledge of English was given as a major factor. It has been said that the two good things England did for India were to build the railroads and to wipe out the Thuggee. Perhaps one needs to add a third: to introduce English.

Meredith claims that some jobs cannot be off-shored, and gives as an example personal services like plastic surgery. But this is wrong--people are more than willing to travel to India, or Thailand, or the Philippines, to get major surgery done for a fraction of what it would cost in the United States.

As for the audiobook experience, I have to say that long lists and statistics don't work well in audiobooks. For example, a list of the major United States companies served by an Indian call center would be fine in a print book, but listening to the narrator reading off dozens of company names is boring, and uninformative. These seem to be filler in any case, along with such things as a long description of how flax is made into linen.

And Meredith loves the word "tectonic".

To order The Elephant and the Tiger from, click here.

THE MARTIAN WAR by Gabriel Mesta:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/17/2006]

THE MARTIAN WAR by Gabriel Mesta (ISBN 0-7434-639-9) is an expansion of "Scientific Romance" and "Canals in the Sand" by Kevin J. Anderson (who for some reason has adopted the penname "Gabriel Mesta" for this book). This is actually two inter-leaved stories, each of which could have stood on its own (though since the two together are only 256 pages, each would have been a bit skimpy). One story has Percival Lowell and Dr. Moreau providing a signal in the Sahara to bring a Martian spaceship there, and their subsequent adventures with the invaders. The other has H. G. Wells, T. H. Huxley, and almost all the remaining characters from the books of the real H. G. Wells traveling to the moon and then to Mars to battle the Martians. In addition to all these characters, Mesta re-uses themes and phrases, making the book as much a game of "spot that reference" as a story in itself. On the whole, this is a fairly lightweight entry in the field of pastiches of Wells. (Though not labeled as such, I suspect this is intended as a "young adult" novel.)

To order The Martian War from, click here.

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MONSTERS by Roy Milano:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/08/2006]

MONSTERS, credited as by Universal Studios, but with text by Roy Milano (ISBN 0-345-48685-4) is a coffee-table book apparently designed to go with Universal Studio's "Legacy" packs. [Universal has released (almost) all of their series monster movie films from the 1930s and 1940s, calling these releases Legacy packs. This book could almost have been an extra feature given out if one bought multiple Legacy packs.--mrl] The book breaks out "The Bride of Frankenstein" from "Frankenstein", but otherwise has a one-to-one match of chapters with the Legacy packs. If you have the packs, there is not much reason to buy this; if you do not have the packs, you should spend your money on those instead. The book is mostly atmospheric publicity stills of the monsters, with brief essays on each film by people like Sara Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Jr. But most of these people were interviewed for the documentaries included with the movies, so there is not much new here.

To order Monsters from, click here.

SELECTED MODERN ENGLISH ESSAYS edited by Humphrey Milford:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/03/2003]

While I was standing in line at Toronto, I was reading SELECTED MODERN ENGLISH ESSAYS edited by Humphrey Milford for the Oxford University Press in 1925. This is not because I am necessarily especially enamored of modern English essays (which aren't so modern any more), but because the book is small and light enough to be easily carried around in a pocket, while having enough content to last a while. Not all the essays were good, or even readable, but two stood out. One was Gilbert Norwood's "Too Many Books" in which he writes, "Week in, week out, a roaring torrent of novels, essays, plays, poems, books of travel, devotion, and philosophy, flows through the land--all good, all 'provocative of thought' or else 'in the best tradition of British humour'; and that is the mischief of it. And they are so huge. Look at 'The Forsyte Saga,' confessedly in itself a small library of fiction; 'The Challenge of Sirius' is four short novels stitched together; consider 'The Golden Bough,' how it grows." If one replaces "The Forsyte Saga" with "The Wheel of Time", "The Challenge of Sirius" with "The Book of Ash", and "The Golden Bough" with "Discworld", nothing else need be done to make it as true today as then, or to note that it was as true then as today. Norwood's modest proposal includes prohibiting t he writing of all novels for ten years, and even after that time prohibiting "those treating the following topics: (a the Great War, (b) girls dressed in salad and living beside lagoons, (c) imaginary kingdoms with regents called Black Boris, (d) any type of 'lure.'" Other aspects of his proposal are equally amusing.

The other essay was J. C. Squire's "On Destroying Books" (available at SquireDestroyBooks.htm [no carriage return in URL] or Triggered by a report that a request for books to be sent to the troops during the Great War resulted in not only the usual novels and magazines, but also "magazines twenty years old, guides to the Lake District, Bradshaws, and back numbers of 'Whitaker's Almanack," Squire theorizes that these were because people didn't know how else to get rid of these old books, and describes his attempts to dispose of some "books of inferior minor verse." Certainly I can identify with the problem.

To order Selected Modern English Essays from, click here.

UTILITARIANISM by John Stuart Mill:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/24/2015]

UTILITARIANISM by John Stuart Mill (ISBN 978-0-486-45422-1) is (in my opinion) one of the basic texts of the collection of philosophies often lumped together as "socialism". (Mill and Jeremy Bentham, among others, suggest that the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number" is a rational basis for morality. There are limitations to this principle; in science fiction, the most famous one is "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas".)

Mill had this to say about what we would probably now think of as non-discrimination: "Impartiality, in short, as an obligation of justice, can be said to mean, being exclusively influenced by the considerations which it is supposed ought to influence the particular case in hand; and resisting the solicitation of any motives which prompt to conduct differently from what those considerations would dictate." Mill is, of course, speaking of the governmental treatment of people, though it might reasonably be extended to include personal interactions. While Mill might have balked at requiring impartially from individuals, it seems obvious that he believed that it was the moral thing to do.

Regarding punishment, Mill said that to punish someone as an example to others is the "acknowledged injustice of singling out an individual, and making him a sacrifice, without his consent, for the benefit of others." However, to punish someone for their own benefit is the "admitted injustice of forcing one person to conform to another's notions of what constitutes his good." And to punish some whose character, education, and surroundings have made him a criminal is the injustice of "punish[ing] any one for what he cannot help." I do not think Mill was claiming that criminals should incur no punishment, but he did recognize that there were serious moral objections to just about any rationale for punishment.

Mill thought, "It is reckoned justice, not injustice, that a dealer should charge to all customers the same price for the same article, not a price varying according to their means of payment. This doctrine, as applied to taxation, finds no advocates, because it conflicts strongly with men's feelings of humanity and perceptions of social expediency; but the principle of justice which it invokes is as true and as binding as those which can be appealed to against it." Even the flat tax that people do endorse is not a single fixed value paid by everyone regardless of wealth or condition. The reason one does not (cannot?) apply the "same-price-for-all" to taxation is that (almost) everything else is "optional"--if you cannot pay the price, you do not buy a new coat, or go to Olive Garden for dinner, or get an Xbox. However, people have no way to opt out of taxation. (If they did, then it would not be "same-price-for-all".)

"The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny." The obvious example here is slavery. What is notable is that he is not saying anything about things which are stigmatized becoming acceptable, which is what many conservatives decry. If anything, he is claiming we are becoming more moral, rather than less. (Interestingly, Mill was an early advocate of what we now call animal rights; when asked what we do now that will horrify our descendents, I always answer, "How we treat animals.")

To order Utilitarianism from, click here.

THE RIVER OF DOUBT by Candice Millard:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/01/2009]

And speaking of large projects, THE RIVER OF DOUBT by Candice Millard (read by Richard Ferrone) (ISBN-13 978-0-7393-2303-8, ISBN-10 0-7393-2303-2; book ISBN-13 978-0-7679-1373-7, ISBN-10 0-7679-1373-6) is about yet another example of why accurate planning is important. After losing his bid for the Presidency in 1912, Roosevelt went to South America, supposedly to travel down a reasonably well-known river. The person organizing the expedition selected most of the principals without really thinking it through. For example, he chose as the quartermaster on the jungle trip a man whose only experience in exploration was an Arctic polar expedition--and a failed one at that!

And then when the expedition got to South America, they somehow decided to change their plan from a relatively safe river to the River of Doubt, a completely unknown river in a region supposedly inhabited by hostile tribes. To some extent, this decision was of the magnitude of the Donner party's decision to take the short cut.

I have already reviewed Roosevelt's account, THROUGH THE BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS, of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition to map what was then called the "River of Doubt" (Rio da Duvida), was renamed Rio Roosevelt, and then later renamed Rio Teodoro. As I noted, "his descriptions of the land, the animals, and the plants are first-rate, but he does somewhat gloss over some of the hardships of the expedition, in specific the illnesses. I suppose perhaps it was considered 'unmanly' to complain of malaria, blood poisoning, and so on, but the result is a slightly incomplete picture of the expedition." Millard corrects these omissions, talking at length about Roosevelt's injuries and illnesses, including that he was so incapacitated at one point that he told the others to leave him behind with a vial of morphine he always carried on expeditions for just such a situation. (They didn't.)

This book is a good read on its own, but is even better when read in conjunction with THROUGH THE BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS>. My review can be found at>.

To order The River of Doubt from, click here.


MURDER IN BAKER STREET edited by Martin H. Greenberg:

Not all the mysteries I read are old, but most seem to be set in an earlier time. For example, I follow the various Sherlock Holmes pastiches. The first in Larry Millett's "Holmes in Minnesota" series, SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE RED DEMON, was actually the third of the series I had read. (The other two were SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE ICE PALACE MURDERS and SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE RUNE STONE MYSTERY, and a fourth SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE SECRET ALLIANCE is now out and "in process" at my local library.) It was passable, though a tad too "modern" in terms of attitudes for me. Martin H. Greenberg's MURDER IN BAKER STREET is another original anthology of stories of varying quality, but certainly worth a read for Holmes fans.

To order Sherlock Holmes & the Red Demon from, click here.

To order Murder in Baker Street from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2006]

EXPLORERS OF THE NEW CENTURY by Magnus Mills (ISBN 0-15-603078-0) starts out as a straightforward exploration story, with two competing teams trying to reach the AFP ("Agreed Furthest Point"). The two groups land their ships on a desolate shore, unload their mules and their supplies, and start out. Some events seem almost pastiches of the Shackleton and other polar expeditions. (For example, Shackleton's ship was the Endurance; one in the book was the Perseverance.) However, as the groups progress, the similarities are fewer and various anomalies start to appear. (Actually, the changes are fairly predictable, assuming one does expect the book to eventually make its own way.) Even so, it is also a nicely compact story (at 184 pages), and I would recommend it.

To order Explorers of the New Century from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/03/2007]

It is difficult to recommend CRAFTING THE VERY SHORT STORY edited by Mark Mills (ISBN-10 0-130-86762-4, ISBN-13 978-0-130-86762-9), given that it is priced as a textbook, at $50.20. (Only a textbook would have such an oddball price!) But it does have a few items worth noting. In addition to Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", it has useful essays by LeGuin on "Sentence Length and Complex Syntax" and "Points of View". And Naguib Mahfouz's "Half a Day" may be magical realism, or it may be fantasy, or it may be something else entirely. One might argue, however, that the inclusion of the story of the Prodigal Son (credited to "Luke" rather than "Saint Luke") is superfluous. I found the book at a used bookstore that normally charged half cover price, but they charged me less than a quarter of it. If you find it cheap enough, it is an interesting collection, interspersed with essays by the authors and others.

To order Crafting the Very Short Story from, click here.

THE MOLECULAR CAFE from Mir Publications:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2003]

There is also a late 1960s anthology of translated Russian science fiction, THE MOLECULAR CAFE, which seems a little more accessible than a lot of translated Russian science fiction. It still seems very different than English-language science fiction--I don't know if it's the translating, or whether the basic assumptions about story and structure are different.

To order The Molecular Cafe from, click here.

CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/22/2013]

A few months ago we saw CLOUD ATLAS and I was intrigued by the language used in the most future of the segments. So I checked CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell (ISBN 978-0-8129-9471-1) and read just that section, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After". Mitchell postulates a particular path for the English language over the next few centuries. (It is not clear when this section takes place, but clearly at least several hundred years, since the Somni-Korean sequence comes between us and it.) Mitchell has no "Great Vowel Shifts", no major consonant drifts, but rather a set of elisions and omissions:

Whether a linguist would find this particular set of changes likely, I do not know, but they seem that way to me. This section should be added to any list of books using "future English".

To order Cloud Atlas from, click here.

THE DRUNKARD'S WALK by Leonard Mlodinow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/29/2010]

I listened to THE DRUNKARD'S WALK by Leonard Mlodinow (read by Sean Pratt) (ISBN-13 978-1-4361-6421-4), which is a history of probability and statistics, interspersed with current real-life examples. While admittedly some of the examples might have been easier to follow on the written page rather than in an audiobook, even the audiobook was quite understandable.

First Mlodinow looks at the physiology of randomness. Given a roulette wheel that comes up 75% black and 25% red at random, the optimum strategy is to always bet on black. But many people will try to come up with a pattern that will let them bet 75% black, and 25% red, and win more than 75% of the time. In particular, if one isolates brain function, the right brain will always guess the more frequent color, and the left brain will look for a pattern.

Mlodinow describes how the ancient Greeks threw animal heel bones instead of dice. They could come up four ways (with probabilities 40%, 40%, 10%, and 10%). The best throw of four bones was the "Venus cast", in which all the bones came up different. This was particularly interesting, because only a few days before, I had heard how the Mongols threw animal heel bones and thought the best throw of four dice was the one where they were all different. This is either synchronicity, or one of the authors had their information a little off.

When Mlodinow said he was going to talk about the "probability problem that has stumped the most people," I immediately knew what he was talking about--the infamous "Monty Hall" problem. For those who have been living on Planet Zark and are unfamiliar with this, here it is briefly: There are three doors. Two have goats behind them; one has a car. You pick a door. Monty Hall opens one of the other two doors, revealing a goat. You are now given the option of taking what is behind the door you first picked, or switching to the remaining closed door. Should you switch?

Mlodinow's explanation is actually clear than others I have heard. There are two scenarios. In one, the door you have picked has the car. The probability of this is 1/3, and switching is always bad. In the other, the door you have picked has a goat. The probability of this is 2/3, and switching is always good, because the remaining closed door will always have the car. So overall, switching is good 2/3 of the time (when you started with a bad door).

He also talks about Benford's Law, which predicts the sorts of digits one will find in certain types of random numbers, and is the basis of forensic accounting (e.g., how it is established that the Irnaian election results were rigged).

I did not always agree with Mlodinow's conclusions. While in general his observations about Hollywood were correct (supporting William Goldman's observation that in Hollywood, "No one knows anything"), when he said, "In spite of his or her swagger, no executive is worth that $25 million contract," I found myself thinking, "except maybe Irving Thalberg."

To order The Drunkard's Walk from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/27/2010]

SURVIVAL OF THE SICKEST by Dr. Sharon Moalem with Jonathan Prince (ISBN 978-0-06-088965-4) is only partly about what the title says. The first few chapters do, indeed, explain why diabetes and other diseases are actually beneficial in a survival sense. But later chapters drift away from that topic into discussions of epigenetics and other subjects. This is not to say that these are not fascinating, but the title seems poorly chosen.

To order Survival of the Sickest from, click here.

"Finisterra by David Moles:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2008]

"Finisterra" by David Moles (F&SF Dec) was another story that I just could not get into. I understand that for all the stories I say that about--or at least all the Hugo nominees--there are many people who disagree with me, but I have to call 'em as I see 'em.

BOOK ROW by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2005]

Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador's BOOK ROW (ISBN 0-7867-1305-4) is described as "an anecdotal and pictorial history of the antiquarian book trade." Anecdotal, yes, but not really pictorial--except for the end papers and eight center pages there are no pictures. And as the title suggests, this is more specifically about the bookstores and booksellers of Fourth Avenue in New York than the broader subject of antiquarian book selling in general.

Mondlin and Meador focus on the personalities (and practices) of the booksellers, with fewer stories about particular books or events than I would have liked. But there are a few. One bookseller had a woman come from a Rolls-Royce, looking for a copy of Jared Smith's ARITHMETIC. It was an old book, and she knew it was a "trillion-to-one chance", but it was a book her father had written. The dealer went back and pulled out a leather-bound copy from 1860. But even more astonishing, it was her original book, with an inscription from her father!

Not all the stories are as heart-warming, at least to the authors. One is of two partners who are called to a hotel by the manager who wants to sell them a room full of books left by a tenant. All he wants is $75 (just to get rid of the books), but the partners spend so long looking at the marvelous treasures there that when they went to leave the manager said that the hotel's attorney had told him to wait and contact the heirs of the tenant first. The deal fell through and a year later the heirs sold just forty of the books at auction for $60,000. One gets the feeling that the authors sympathize with the distress of the partners, but I would say that they should have known that the hotel owner should contact the heirs. (In THE NINTH GATE, we have less sympathy for the people who are cheated by Depp because they seem greedy. In this real case, the heirs were not even aware of the books.)

Of all the booksellers described, the ones of most interest to me were Haskell and Ann Gruberger. They ran the Social Science Book Store, which for many years was a mail-order business only. In 1967 they opened a retail shop on Fourth Avenue, only to be faced with rising rents. A pair of events in 1969 (an offer to take over their space from one person, and an offer from McGill University to buy their stock) led them to close that store. But that did not leave the book-selling business. They moved to Northampton, and opened The Old Book Store, which they described as a "Supermarket of Old and New Books with Something for Everyone". And The Old Book Store is where Mark and I spent may happy hours (and many dollars, though the prices were quite reasonable) while we were in college in Amherst. And we still do--The Old Book Store is still there, in the basement of the building where it opened almost forty years ago.

To order Book Row from, click here.

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/01/2009]

Our discussion group read THE LAST CHINESE CHEF by Nicole Mones (ISBN-13 978-0-547-05373-8, ISBN-10 0-547-05373-8), with the plot about a woman who is investigating a claim about her deceased husband and meets a Chinese American who is the son and grandson of great Chinese chefs and is going to compete in a cooking contest. I found the long discussions of the philosophy and practice of Chinese food far more interesting than the mystery or romance plot, so for the benefit of those who want to read only those parts, they are on pages 26-28, 34-54, 63-69, 76-80, 95-99, 122-136, 148-150, 152-155, 165-170, 183-195, and 228-242.

To order The Last Chinese Chef from, click here.

LETTERS BACK TO ANCIENT CHINA by Herbert Rosendorfer (translated by Michael Mitchell):
PERSIAN LETTERS by Montesquieu:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/22/2006]

In 1998, I read LETTERS BACK TO ANCIENT CHINA by Herbert Rosendorfer (translated by Michael Mitchell) (ISBN 1-873982-97-6). This consisted of a series of letters written to Dji-gu by Kao-tai, a Chinese mandarin from the tenth century who finds himself in twentieth century Munich. (Dji-gu is still in the tenth century.) At the time I did not realize it, but now I realize that this was probably a pastiche/homage to Montesquieu's PERSIAN LETTERS (1721, translated by C. J. Betts, 1973) (ISBN 0-14-044281-2). (As often happens, I encountered the copy before the original, so could not entirely appreciate it. For example, I saw KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE before ENTER THE DRAGON.) PERSIAN LETTERS is a classic of literature and philosophy, and its form is a series of letters written between two Persian travelers to Europe (particularly Paris) and various people back in Ispahan. By using the reactions of outsiders to European society, Montesquieu was able to show its foibles more clearly. In this sense one might almost claim him as a forerunner of science fiction, which also uses the alien (either in space or time) to hold up a mirror to ourselves.

In Letter 85, for example, Uzbek writes that a plan to force all the Armenians in Persia to convert or leave was wisely abandoned, adding, "To have proscribed the Armenians would have meant wiping out in a single day all the businessmen and almost all the skilled workers in the kingdom, . . . and that in sending his most highly skilled subjects away to the Mongol and other Indian kings he would have felt as if he were presenting them with half his territory." This, of course, is just what Spain did in 1492, to her detriment and the advancement of Holland and other countries.

I will also note that the cover illustration of the Penguin edition from J. E. Liotard's "Turkish Woman and Her Slave". In this painting, there is a sink with a "mixer faucet" on it. Liotard lived in the 18th century, so these must have existed then, yet as recently as the 1980s, they seemed rare in Britain. And when we asked about why they were rare, we were told that people did not think the technology had really been worked out yet!

To order Letters Back to Ancient China from, click here.

To order Persian Letters from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2014]

WILD ONES: A SOMETIMES DISMAYING, WEIRDLY REASSURING STORY ABOUT LOOKING AT PEOPLE LOOKING AT ANIMALS IN AMERICA by Jon Mooallem (ISBN 978-1-59420-442-5) is a look at conservation efforts for three species. Most of the book consists of three sections, titled "Bears", "Butterflies", and "Birds", which cover (respectively) polar bears, Lange's metalmark butterflies, and whooping cranes.

The main idea that Mooallem is trying to convey seems to be that conservationists are spending so much time avoiding failure that they have no time to figure out what success would look like. Failure is easy to define--the extinction of a species.

Well, actually, it is not so easy to define, because defining a species is not easy. There are butterflies that appear identical to Lange's metalmark butterflies, and might reasonably be considered the same species--but have siblings that appear different. On the other hand, there are butterflies that look "incredibly different" from the Lange's metalmark butterflies, so might reasonably be considered a different species--but have almost identical DNA. Does the existence of the former mean that the Lange's metalmark butterflies is not as close to extinction as was thought? Does the existence of the latter mean that the Lange's metalmark butterflies is not as close to extinction as was thought? Or do these other butterflies not count at all?

And the polar bears Mooallem writes about are interbreeding with grizzly bears moving north due to a warming Arctic, creating a new species. Apparently the big question is the naming of this new species. Possibilities are grolar bear, pizzly bear, nanulak, and aknuk. Supposedly, when creating portmanteau names, the name of the male parent comes first, so the first two would both be used if English is the base, and the second two if Inuit is chosen. Of course, this runs into the same problem that hyphenating names at marriage works find for the first generation, but really falls apart down the line. What is the offspring of a pizzly and a grolar called? (I think the problem is that in general the offspring of two different species are sterile--indeed, that is one way to define a species--but in this case Mooallem seems to beat least implying that the offspring are not sterile.)

Anyway, assuming we can identify a species, we agree that extinction is the failure of the conservation efforts. But what is success? Is having a population in zoos or other domesticated situations, even if there is no population in the wild, success? Many would say no, but by this definition cows (Bos primigenius), pigs (Sus scrofa), sheep (Ovis aires), and other domesticated animals would not be successes in conservation.

But how wild is wild? The whooping cranes are bred using artificial methods, trained by volunteers who never speak and are dressed in white suits to disguise that they are human, and taught how to migrate by being trained to follow ultra-lights. The whooping cranes travel from refuge to refuge, being artificially isolated from all human contact. At the end of all this, Mooallem has to ask whether this is really a "successful" conservation effort.

The other concept Mooallem discusses is the "shifting baseline." There are two aspects to this. The first is typified by Jerry Powell's 1983 study of insect species on the Antioch Duns. In 1933, 376 species of insect had been catalogued on the Dunes. In 1983, 243 of those species were gone. But the total number of insect species catalogued in 1983 on the Dunes was greater than the number of species catalogued in 1933! Why? Powell eventually realized that it was because entomologists were cataloguing smaller and smaller insects. (For example, the mesh in their nets had gotten finer and finer.) As Mooallem said, "The biodiversity of the dunes hadn't expanded. But people's perception of it had."

The other aspect is that we only know what we know. We have no good idea of what has been lost overall, only what has been lost in our lifetime. One interviewee's daughter thinks the area around their cabin is pristine and unspoiled, but the interviewee mourns the facts that there are no owls hooting at night the way there were when he was young.

Mooallem gives statistics on bald eagles. In 1973, there were 417 nesting pairs in the lower forty-eight states. In 2007, there were 10,000. That sounds like a marvelous recovery. But the estimate for 1782 is 50,000, and for 1492 even higher. Compared to those numbers, 2007 is still a huge decrease. (And Josh Donlan claims that the real baseline should be 12,000 years ago--when humans arrived and the Pleistocene extinction began. By that measure, nothing we do is going to look good.)

Donlan has a plan for a "Pleistocene Rewilding": re-introducing camels, cheetahs, elephants, lions, and other animals hunted to extinction in North America. This is unlikely to come to fruition. On the other hand, the series "Life After People" looks at what would have to the fauna (and flora) of North America if people just disappeared tomorrow.

To order Wild Ones from, click here.

THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon (Ballantine, 2003, ISBN 0-345-44755-7, 340pp):

Everyone is comparing this to FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, and in a way that seems to miss the whole point. In FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, the memorable parts are those in which Charley is less intelligent, and in reading how he interprets what is going on around him while we realize that he is wrong. But the whole point of THE SPEED OF DARK is that our autistic main character is not mentally slow but "differently abled." That phrase usually means "less abled," but Lou Arrendale is indeed differently abled, in that while he has difficulty with new situations and changes to his routine, he can also see patterns where others cannot and (we eventually discover) can learn as much neurology in a week as most medical students take a semester or more to do.

Of course, one similarity to FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON is that its science is entirely medical and psychological, which will lead some people to ask, "But what makes it science fiction?" It is, of course, science fiction in that the medical techniques which have allowed the curing of autism in all those who were born after Arrendale--and even the early training which has allowed him to function in society--do not exist at the present time.

Now, a book that just followed Arrendale around and saw the world from his point of view would be interesting enough. But because such an internal, interior sort of novel is not what science fiction publishers want (or perhaps what Moon wanted to write, of course). So there is a complication: Arrendale and his fellow autistic co-workers are given a choice by their new boss of "choosing" to take part in a medical experiment that will (probably) cure their autism. Of course, it has only been tested on chimpanzees and even that not observed very long.

This plot does raise some more interesting questions about identity, and so I would agree that this enhances and develops the character.

But then Moon adds yet another subplot involving a series of attacks which so far as I could tell does not add to the story. Yes, it provides another situations for Arrendale to assimilate and understand, but it seems like just a bit much.

Still, the book survives this addition because Moon does such a good job of putting us inside Arrendale's head. Part of this may be because Moon has an autistic son, and so is familiar with the manifestations in a way that most authors are not. She also has a degree in biology and considered going to medical school, so her background here is quite substantial.

But background is not enough, and Moon does the main job--writing an engaging and involving story--with real skill. I was unimpressed with her Hugo-nominated REMNANT POPULATION, but THE SPEED OF DARK is definitely Hugo-worthy material. [-ecl]

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2006]

The regular book group this month read THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon (ISBN 1-400-03271-7); the science fiction group read THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon (ISBN 0-345-48139-9). I have already commented on both of these (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon in the 04/23/04 issue of the MT VOID and THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon in the 03/28/03 issue), but I have to add that on second reading, the Haddon stands up much better than the Moon. One problem is that Moon's autistic characters have undergone a science-fictional treatment, "early intervention", which made them basically less "autistic" and more "normal". (Yes, I realize that the terms "autistic" and "normal" are both politically incorrect and medically inaccurate. But I am trying to keep this column short.) This treatment makes the story easier, but less interesting. Haddon's character is more authentic, which ultimately makes him more interesting. (I will note that other people thought the Moon was more interesting than the Haddon.) One thing everybody agreed on was that many of the symptoms displayed by the autistic characters in both books were characteristics of a lot of (presumably) non-autistic people that they knew. A lot of the discussion time, in fact, was spent discussing just what autism is and how one arrives at that diagnosis.

To order The Speed of Dark from, click here.

"The Mystery of the Texas Twister" by Michael Moorcock:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2004]

I recently read two novellas, L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Heloise Archive" and Michael Moorcock's "The Mystery of the Texas Twister", for the Sidewise Award. Both, alas, fell victim to political/social agendas.

Moorcock's "The Mystery of the Texas Twister" is part of his Moorcock's "Multiverse". (A previous one featuring the same characters was "Sir Seaton Begg, Metatemporal Detective", which appeared in Michael Chabon's MCSWEENEY'S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES. The first story in which Sir Seaton appeared was THE WAR HOUND AND THE WORLD'S PAIN.) This might have been better had Moorcock not decided to use it as a way to attack current American politics and political figures. (I am getting really tired of authors creating names of characters by spoonerizing the real names of the characters they are satirizing. Harry Turtledove did it in his novel IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES with "Kurt Haldweim", and Moorcock does it here with "Wolfy Paulowitz".) This novella appeared as part of issue one of the new "Argosy" magazine (which has a UPC of 0-74470-57968-7, but no ISBN I could find).

Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page. Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2013 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2003]

Lyda Morehouse has a series of religious-based science fiction/fantasy. Currently there are three, ARCHANGEL PROTOCOL, FALLEN HOST, and MESSIAH NODE. They are supposedly specifically respectively Christian-oriented, Muslim-oriented, and Jewish -oriented, which makes me wonder what the fourth (last?) volume will be. I say supposedly because I read only the first one and part of the second before giving up--it just didn't seem to be progressing very much. They are, as I noted, both science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy, because there are angels and God and all sorts of other religious beings. Science fiction, because there are advanced computers and networking and futuristic bombs (including one that has turned the entire Bronx into glass). And there are also elements of the hard-boiled detective story. I found the premises and milieu interesting, but feel it would have been better if paced a bit faster.

To order Archangel Protocol from, click here.

To order Fallen Host from, click here.

To order Messiah Node from, click here.

69 A.D.: THE YEAR OF FOUR EMPERORS by Gwyn Morgan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/18/2013]

69 A.D.: THE YEAR OF FOUR EMPERORS by Gwyn Morgan (ISBN 978-0-19-512468-5) is a popularized, but fairly thorough, analysis of the tumultuous "Year of Four Emperors" (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian). While that sounds dramatic, after one realizes that there was a "Year of Five Emperors" (A.D. 193: Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Septimus Severus) and a "Year of Six Emperors" (A.D. 238: Maximinus Thrax, Gordian I, Gordian II, Pupienus, Balbinus, and Gordian III), it sounds a bit like a mere practice run.

However, the argument can be made that the four emperors of 69 were somewhat more substantial than the five of 193 and the six of 238. When you have two emperors that ruled (jointly) for only twenty days, and another two (again jointly) for 99 days, it's hard to take them entirely seriously.

My one "complaint" about 69 A.D. is that it is too "Latinized". While Morgan does give the current English name for all the places on first mention, he refers to them afterwards only by their Latin (Roman) names, and when one pops up after a long interval, I cannot always remember where it is.

I do like that Morgan discusses his sources (there are basically only four: Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius), and attempts to sort out which are probably accurate on various points and which are not. In particular, Morgan spends an entire appendix discussing each of the sources in detail, and attempting to reconstruct the original source from which they may have drawn.

69 A.D. is probably best read by someone who is only lightly familiar with the period, since to a great extent it covers familiar ground. But as a follow-up for people who have watched I, CLAUDIUS, it will certainly suffice.

To order 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2003]

For people who like books about books and bookshops, Christopher Morley wrote two classics: PARNASSUS ON WHEELS and THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP. The first is the story of a traveling book salesman, and the spinster who decides to buy his wagon (and his business). The second [slight spoiler here] is about the same characters after they have bought a bookshop in Brooklyn. The stories take place in the early twentieth century. While both are paeans to books, the first is also full of lavish descriptions of the Connecticut countryside, and the second is a mystery-thriller. THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP also references another one of those "little" books of the sort I mentioned last week, with the bookshop owner saying, "I get ten times more satisfaction in selling a copy of Newton's 'The Amenities of Book-Collecting' than I do in selling a copy of--well, Tarzan; but it's poor business to impose your own private tastes on your customers." This was apparently a well-known book at the time--my edition is a Modern Library edition.

(Oh, I have one quibble/question about THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP. At one point a character is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, is set upon by ruffians, almost tipped into the water, and then flags down a passing vehicles. When we walked across, the pedestrian walkway was well above--and inaccessible from--the motorway, and was above the center of the motorway, which would mean that if you went over the railing, you would land on the motorway, not in the river. Was this the case in 1920?) The Morley books are both available on-line through Project Gutenberg.

To order Parnassus on Wheels from, click here.

To order The Haunted Bookshop from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/27/2013]

I have never seen the "Rumpole" television series, and though I may have read one or two of the stories, I am hardly familiar with them. So when I saw A RUMPOLE CHRISTMAS by John Mortimer (ISBN 978-0-14-311791-9) on bag day at our local Friends of the Library book sale, I threw it into the bag. (Well, actually I packed it neatly in order to maximize the number of books I could fit into the bag.) I don't know if Mortimer writes a Christmas story every year; these span the period between 1997 and 2006. While they all have a Christmas theme, they are not of the cloying "Christmas spirit" sort (well, most of them aren't anyway), and there are definitely characters not redeemed by the joy of the season. I doubt I will seek out all the volumes of Rumpole, but they do have a certain charm, and the "mysteries" are often non-standard sorts--not just "who killed Lady Whatsis in the parlor?" or "Why is my butler acting so strange?"

To order A Rumpole Christmas from, click here.

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS by Walter Mosley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/28/2005]

Just to provide "equal time" for all the quotes demonstrating anti-Semitism in early 20th century mysteries, I'll include this from DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS by Walter Mosley (ISBN 0-393-02854-2): The narrator is remembering his time in the Army and the liberation of one of the death camps, and says, "That was why so many Jews back then understood the American Negro; in Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years."

To order Devil in a Blue Dress from, click here.

THE STONE READER by Dow Mossman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/28/2004]

And one non-book: I watched THE STONE READER, a documentary about the filmmaker's search for Dow Mossman, the author of THE STONES OF SUMMER. Mark Moskowitz had tried to read the book in the 1970s and hated it, but when he came across his copy recently he found that to the contrary he now thought it was superb. He realized that Mossman hadn't ever written anything else and had disappeared from view. So he embarked on a quest to find Mossman and discover why this is so. The first part of the film is not specifically about THE STONES OF SUMMER, and books that matter to their readers in general--books like CATCH-22 and HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON and CALL IT SLEEP and many others. Moskowitz travels around, talking to people involved in publishing, teaching, or just plain reading, all the time looking for hints to what happened to Mossman. And this is the only movie I can remember that has, following the song credits, book credits--and more books were listed than I ever saw songs listed. Highly recommended for all lovers of books. (No, I won't tell you what happens.)

To order the movie The Stone Reader from, click here.

To order the book The Stones of Summer from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/06/2016]

POSTCARDS FROM STANLAND: JOURNEYS IN CENTRAL ASIA by David H. Mould (ISBN 978-0-8214-2177-2) starts by addressing the fact that while (most) Americans have no difficulty distinguishing among Iceland, Ireland, Finland, Holland, and Poland, they are totally confused by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Part of this may be the contradictions inherent in these countries. Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world (by land area), but with a population equal to that of Burkina Faso or Malawi. The Tajik language, unlike the other four, is in the Persian family of languages rather than Turkic, though it is further from present-day Iran than either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. The Kazakh language has gone from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin to the Cyrillic and will supposedly return to the Latin. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan use the Latin alphabet, but Kyrgyzstan uses the Cyrillic. Tajikistan uses Cyrillic, but there are factions for both the Latin and Arabic alphabets as well. Because of all this, names and places are often transliterated, and not always consistently.

In addition, the ethnic make-ups of the five "Stans" had been completely jumbled up by the Russians, with their forced emigrations, forced immigrations, and famines (planned and unplanned), not to mention strategically placed borders. (Samarkand and Bukhara, for example, were ethnically Tajik cities which the Soviets located in Uzbekistan.)

However, it is a bit disingenuous of Mould to complain about most Americans lack of knowledge of the five Central Asian republics when he titles his book POSTCARDS FROM STANLAND: JOURNEYS IN CENTRAL ASIA, but spends hardly any time on three of them (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), mentioning them really only in passing. On the one hand, he is writing about the places that he has experience with, but on the other, implying his book covers all the republics is a bit deceptive.

To order Postcards from Stanland from, click here.

THE REVISIONISTS by Thomas Mullen:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/30/2012]

THE REVISIONISTS by Thomas Mullen (ISBN 978-0-316-17672-9) seems like a response to all those "Time Police" stories where it is taken as a given that the "present" that they are trying to save is worth saving. A few weeks ago I reviewed THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov, which ultimately did not take this position, but most of its followers have (in part because it makes it a lot easier to write a series if you are effectively pressing a reset button at the end of each story). But in THE REVISIONISTS, the time police have come back to our Washington, D.C., to safeguard the events leading to the "Conflagration" that destroyed our civilization and almost all historical records, and hence allowed the creation of their "Perfect Present.

Or so it seems. But this "Perfect Present" is clearly a Stalinist dystopia where knowledge of history is forbidden except in the broadest terms, and even thinking about the past is prohibited. (For example, we discover that when someone dies, a squad comes in and removes all traces of their existence: pictures, belongings, clothing, even their smell.) And there seem to be far more "hags" (historical agitators) than seems reasonable.

One reviewer has criticized Mullen's history--for example, the statement that the atomic bomb was used on Japan only because Americans felt that the Japanese were subhuman. That statement is made, but by Zed, the time policeman from the future who has a very sketchy idea of any history not directly related to his mission. Zed is clearly confused about other aspects of 20th and early 21st century history, so why should this be any different?

To order The Revisionists from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/02/2005]

David Mura is a third-generation Japanese-American and his TURNING JAPANESE: MEMOIRS OF A SANSEI (ISBN 0-385-42344-6) is the story of his one-year sabbatical in Japan where he discovers that he is more Japanese than he thought he was. (He was born and raised in Minnesota, where his parents lived after they left their internment camp.) This book is very similar to Victoria Abbott Riccardi's UNTANGLING MY CHOPSTICKS (which I reviewed in the 12/03/04 issue of the MT VOID) in its story of an American trying to live in Japanese culture rather than make a brief visit. In both cases, though, the author has gone to Japan with a specific educational/artistic agenda and in both cases, the books spend a lot of time discussing classes, teachers, and meetings with others in that field. TURNING JAPANESE also spends time discussing the strain that Japan put on Mura's relationship with his Euro-American spouse. (Shifra Horn's SHALOM, JAPAN, reviewed in the 12/31/04 issue of the MT VOID, is a much "purer" look at Japan.) Choose Mura's book if you're interested in someone discovering his "roots" (or some of them), Mura or Riccardi for a discussion of Japanese art and the philosophy thereof, or Horn's book for more about Japan itself.

To order Turning Japanese from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/01/2011]

BEOWULF ON THE BEACH: WHAT TO LOVE AND WHAT TO SKIP IN LITERATURE'S 50 GREATEST HITS by Jack Murnighan (ISBN 978-0-307-40957-7) includes for each book such helpful sections as "What People Don't Know (But Should)", "What's Sexy", "Quirky Fact", and "What to Skip". (The latter reduces Marcel Proust's REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST by fifty percent, leaving only about 1200 pages.) There are a lot of books of this sort, going back at least to Clifton Fadiman's LIFETIME READING PLAN. These days, there are two sorts: the sort that emphasize the intellectual side (e.g., Harold Bloom's THE WESTERN CANON or David Denby's GREAT BOOKS), and the sort that portray the classics of literature as great beach reads. As you might guess from the title, Murnighan's book falls in the latter category. (I have the impression that most of these books with a number in the title fall into the latter category. One doesn't find "The 50 Greatest Books" or "100 Books to Give You a College Education", but you do find books like "The 50 Greatest Novels about Love" or "Two Dozen Novels to Help You Find Your Inner Serenity".) As with most books of this sort, many of Murnighan's book choices are obvious, some are unsurprising, and others are very much based on his personal opinion rather than any consensus.

Murnighan talks about the humor in MOBY DICK, and points out a bit I missed: "Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the fore-castle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle." The "Pythagorean maxim" here is not the Pythagorean Theorem, but his dietary rule: Do not eat beans. Think about it.

However, although Murnighan talks about "What People Don't Know (But Should)" about the various classics, he also makes one mistake himself: he says that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day. They died on the same date (April 23, 1616), but this was not the same day, because Spain had already switched to the Gregorian calendar, but England had not.

To order Beowulf on the Beach from, click here.

A YEAR AT THE MOVIES by Kevin Murphy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2006]

A book that "jumped the queue" for me was A YEAR AT THE MOVIES by Kevin Murphy (ISBN 0-06-093786-6). Murphy set himself a goal of watching a movie in a public presentation every day. This allowed him to count films on airplanes, which was necessary because he was flying to Cannes, Australia, Canada, and other exotic places to find the world's smallest cinema, a cinema built out of ice, etc. His chapters (one per week) are not so much about the movies--though he does include some comments on some of them--but on various aspects of movie-going. Why are theaters so poorly designed? Why do the audiences have the attention span of goldfish? Can you survive entirely on movie concession stand food? (And conversely, how much food can you sneak into a theater at any one time?) Since Kevin Murphy was one of the hecklers from "Mystery Science Theater 3000", he may be as much to blame for noisy audiences as anyone, but his points are in general well-taken. Murphy makes no startling new discoveries, but he does summarize what we know about the joys and pitfalls of movie-going.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/17/2004]

Max Murray's THE VOICE OF THE CORPSE (ISBN 0-486-24905-0) is yet another Dover mystery from the first part of the last century, and is full of blackmail and hidden secrets, perhaps to excess. I suppose it is possible that everyone has such things to hide, but that one person could ferret them all out strains credulity a bit.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/18/2005]

Daniel Myers's THE SECOND FAVORITE SON (ISBN 1-877-27044-X) is an alternate history based on the South winning the American Civil War (though it starts well before that, during the Revolutionary War). Though Myers was born in Chicago, he has lived abroad a lot, most recently in New Zealand. That may be why the extrapolation doesn't work: the resulting society seems just like what we had before the Civil Rights movement. I might accept that in a world that would have been very different with both a United States and a Confederate States of America there might be communists, WWI, and a Depression. However, Myers also has interstates (in our timeline conceived of by Eisenhower for military purposes), Toyotas, and California as being known for its gay population (as well as the word "gay" used in this way). (Without a civil rights movement, would there have been a gay rights movement? Also, white as a wedding dress color became common only when Queen Victoria wore it, so the comments about it during the Revolutionary War era are just plain wrong. I'm not sure why the author decided to make this an alternate history rather than a straight contemporary mystery, but that aspect does not work very well.

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