Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.


You might think that the story of the Titanic wouldn't need yet another book, but Wyn Craig Wade's THE TITANIC: THE END OF A DREAM spends very little time on the disaster itself, and focuses on the aftermath, and particularly the aftermath. He spends most of the book on the hearings held regarding what had happened, but puts it in the context of the time, looking at the differing British and American perspectives, and covering the major changes in maritime law and policy that came about because of the sinking. Maybe all this is not as romantic as "The Heart of the Ocean," but it's definitely more interesting historically.

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

We have been watching TITANIC and the various extras on the DVD, and this led me to read more about some of the controversies, and about some of the real people. There are two things I want to comment on.

One was the claim in one of the DVD extras that while in first class, women and children were more likely to get on the lifeboats without their husbands or fathers, in second- and third-class people were traveling as families moving to a new home and were more likely to insist on staying together. And in fact, the statistics seem to bear this out. According to Wyn Craig Wade's THE TITANIC: END OF A DREAM (ISBN-13 978-0-140-16691-X, ISBN-10 0-140-16691-2), the casualty percentages are as follows:

            Women/Children  Men    Total
First            6%         69%     40%
Second          19%         90%     56%
Third           53%         86%     75%
Crew            13%         78%     76%

While the first class passengers clearly had the best of the deal (a man in first class had a better chance of surviving that a woman in third class, "women and children first" notwithstanding), the difference in survival percentages for men in second and third class was not statistically significant, while that of the women and children was.

The other thing is what happened to Second Officer Charles Lightoller. During Dunkirk, when he was 66 years old, the Royal Navy requested the use of his yacht for the evacuation. He insisted on sailing it there himself (with the assistance of one of his sons and two crew members). In spite of the fact that the yacht had never held more than twenty-one people before, Lightoller loaded 130 soldiers on it and managed to dodge German shelling and get them safely back to England. I cannot prove it, of course, but I am sure in my own mind that when he was loading the yacht at Dunkirk, he remembered all the half-filled lifeboats of Titanic, and how many people died because of that, and loaded as many men as he possibly could.

To order The Titanic: End of a Dream from, click here.

THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/06/2007]

Our discussion group last month read THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker (ISBN-10 0-671-72779-6, ISBN-13 978-0-671-72779-6). Enough has been said about this by others, so I will just note that this time through I caught a reference I had not noticed before: one person is described as attending Wilberforce College. It was only with this year's celebration of the bicentennial of the passage of Wilberforce's British anti-slavery bill that I heard that Wilberforce was what is now called "a traditionally black college".

To order The Color Purple from, click here.

THE FOUR JUST MEN by Edgar Wallace:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/20/2006]

THE FOUR JUST MEN by Edgar Wallace (ISBN 0-486-24642-6) is another attempt at a larger mystery, though in this case the focus is on a single crime planned by a group engaged in righting wrongs around the world: The Four Just Men. Far more interesting than what the murder plans are, though, is the whole issue of vigilante justice. (One could see "The Four Just Men" as a team of super-heroes whose powers are intelligence and guile.) Wallace does not spend much time on this, though. (This was his first novel and released without its final chapter, and the gimmick of a prize to the readers who could figure out the ending. The Dover edition includes the conclusion from a later edition.)

To order The Four Just Men from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/16/2007]

Edgar Wallace is considered a major mystery writer, but Martin Gardner has said that THE GREEN ARCHER by Edgar Wallace (no ISBN) is really his only novel that could be considered a classic. So I read it, and I am not sure I would agree that this is a classic. It is okay, but does not compare (in my mind) with contemporaneous authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Dame Agatha Christie. (Okay, so Christie was slightly later.) I then tried his short stories in THE MURDER BOOK OF J. G. REEDER (ISBN-10 1-417-91483-1, ISBN-13 978-1-417-91483-8), which again are just okay. It is far too evident in many of them that Wallace came up with a very elaborate crime, and then had the detective figure it out without much evidence--or at least evidence that the reader is given. Reeder seems practically omniscient--then you discover that he had gotten some critical pieces of information that the reader was not told about until the end, or that he knew some arcane and unlikely piece of chemistry, making for a very unsatisfactory story. (In fairness, I guess that not every detective story has to be a "puzzle story" in which the reader has all the clues, but frankly I think most aficionados expect it.)

To order The Green Archer from, click here.

To order The Murder Book of J. G. Reeder from, click here.

KING KONG by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/16/2005]

In preparation for this small independent film that was coming out soon from some New Zealand director, I read KING KONG by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper (ISBN 1-887-42491-1). This was (I believe) a novelization written at the time of the 1933 film and as such it is fairly close to that film. There are differences, though. Some make little sense (in the book the ship is the Wanderer; in the movie it is the Venture). Others were either toned down for the movie, or "embellished" for the book, and many of these were racial elements. In the book, for example, Kong is destroying the native village, but Denham does not want to use the gas bombs yet, because "the huts might stop the drift of the gas cloud." He doesn't seem to worry too much about the natives. And there are several passages such as: "The last pin had fallen from her hair and it foamed down her back in a bright cascade made more bright by its contrast with Kong's black snarl of fur. One sleeve of her dress had been torn, so that her right shoulder was bare. The soft, white rondure made another, more startling contrast with her captor's sooty bulk."

Wallace's science is a bit shaky as well. Describing a Triceratops, Denham calls it "[just] another of Nature's mistakes, Jack. Something like a dinosaur. But with their forelegs more fully developed." (Oh, he also spells it "Tricerotops" and calls an individual animal a "Tricerotop".) 1) A Triceratops is a dinosaur, and 2) any species that survives seven million years is not exactly "one of Nature's mistakes."

The book is interesting only as an adjunct to the movie. I suspect that Edgar Wallace has written better, just as Isaac Asimov wrote many better books than his novelization of FANTASTIC VOYAGE.

To order King Kong from, click here.

BEN-HUR by Lew Wallace:

A question asked on rec.arts.movies.past-films led me to read Lew Wallace's BEN-HUR. The question was about the chariot race and its outcome. The answer is, "No, in the novel Masala doesn't die." What's more interesting, though, is that in the novel it is Ben-Hur, not Masala, who uses the spiked chariot wheels. The book is nowhere near as long as people seem to think--at 561 pages in my edition, it's certainly shorter than Tom Clancy's doorstops--but it is written in a nineteenth century flowery style that makes for slower going. There is also a love triangle (or perhaps even a quadrangle) involving Gaspar's daughter and a lot more about a planned uprising of the Jews against the Romans. If you can cope with the language, it is worth reading if only to compare what Wallace wrote with what Hollywood did with it.

To order Ben-Hur from, click here.

BAD PRESS by Laura Ward:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/13/2006]

BAD PRESS by Laura Ward (ISBN 0-7641-5539-3) is a collection of quotes from bad reviews--that is, reviews that are negative about their subjects, not reviews that are badly written. It is similar to Bill Henderson's ROTTEN REVIEWS and Andre Bernard's ROTTEN REJECTIONS, though much longer, and includes not only books, but also media, music, and food and drink. (However, art is not covered. Maybe Ward decided that there are far too many negative reviews of art--especially modern art--to choose just a few.) I have come to two conclusions.

The first conclusion is that people wrote much better negative reviews in the past. Compare, for example, one review from early last century to one late last century. Katherine Mansfield said in 1917, "E. M. Forester never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea." Now compare that with this quip by Anne K. Mellor from 1990: "[FRANKENSTEIN] is a book about what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman." (I realize that one could claim I had selected these quotes specifically to prove my point, but I really do find the vast majority of the older entries to be far better constructed and more eloquent than the newer ones.)

My second conclusion is that Dorothy Parker is the master (mistress?) of this form. Indeed, of all of the quotations in this book, the only ones familiar to most people will be hers, Oscar Wilde's, and Mark Twain's. (Actually, for Twain, Ward includes Twain's own introduction to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which could hardly be considered a bad review.) I think there was a desire to make a longer book with more reviews, some of them reviews of works with which the average modern reader might be familiar. He has reviews of recent movies rather than older books, for example. As a result the overall quality of the reviews is lower than it might otherwise have been. But there are still enough good bad reviews to make it worthwhile.

On the other hand, the book does omit several of my favorites. It does not include Newton Minow's 1961 comment on television in general: "But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you-- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

Nor does it quote Rod Serling on television: "It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper."

(Since the book does include David Frost's statement, "Television is an invention that permits you the be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home," Ward seems to have decided to include reviews of an entire medium, not just individual works.)

And it omits that most famous review of a review by Max Reger: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me." (This insult is so famous that it has been used by others and attributed to still more, but I think Reger gets the credit for originating it.)

To order Bad Press from, click here.

GORGON by Peter D. Ward:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]

Peter D. Ward's GORGON: THE MONSTERS THAT RULED THE PLANET BEFORE DINOSAURS AND HOW THEY DIED IN THE GREATEST CATASTROPHE IN EARTH'S HISTORY (ISBN 0-14-303471-5) is definitely in the running for longest title. Ward writes about his experiences in researching the Permian/Triassic (P/T) boundary and the cause(s) of the Permian extinction, the biggest mass extinction on earth. I gather that the cause(s) are still a subject for debate, but what there can be no debate about after reading this book is how unpleasant paleontology can be. Ward describes days of heat stroke, poisonous snakes, ticks carrying deadly Lhasa fever, civil unrest, and crime rates that meant no one ever went out after dark. That anyone stays in this profession is surprising. (Then again, Mark reminded me that Garrison Keillor talked about how we know so much more about the natural history of the Bahamas than of Antarctica because the scientists would much rather do research in the Bahamas than in Antarctica.) It's a fascinating book, even if you end up thinking that Ward must have a streak of masochism in himself.

To order Gorgon from, click here.

MOCKYMEN by Ian Watson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/12/2004]

Ian Watson's MOCKYMEN has gotten a lot of good reviews. I found the first part (about ancient Nordic rituals) enthralling when it appeared in INTERZONE, but I found the rest of the story, dealing with aliens who give us mind-altering drugs in exchange for the use of the eventually used-up bodies as receptacles for their disembodied minds, a bit too much of a change of direction. The whole mix of fantasy, horror, and science fiction seemed a bit much, even though I could appreciate Watson's skill.

To order Mockymen from, click here.

"The Things" by Peter Watts:

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

"The Things" by Peter Watts (in CLARKESWORLD 01/10) is one of the few nominated stories I had read before the nominations were announced. It does require a bit of background knowledge on the part of the reader, and it is also a familiar story form. Unfortunately, I cannot say much more about it without saying too much.



[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/25/2005]

I have in the past talked about how expensive McFarland books are for the general reader. (For example, the CHRISTOPHER LEE FILMOGRAPHY by Tom Johnson and Mark A. Miller costs $55.) But McFarland has a program to print some of their older titles, often in omnibus editions, at much more reasonable prices. So, for example, Bill Warren's classic work on Fifties science fiction films, KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES, cost $35 for each of the two volumes in 1982. Now they are available as a single volume for just $40, which after you consider inflation makes it even more of a bargain.

Two such omnibus volumes are Tom Weaver's DOUBLE FEATURE CREATURE ATTACK [containing ATTACK OF THE MONSTER MOVIE MAKERS (1994) and THEY FOUGHT IN THE CREATURE FEATURES (1995)) (ISBN 0-786-41366-2), and RETURN OF THE B SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR HEROES (containing INTERVIEWS WITH B SCIENCE FICTION AND HORROR MOVIEMAKERS (1988) and SCIENCE FICTION STARS AND HORROR HEROES (1991)) (ISBN 0-786-40755-7). Weaver has been called "The King of the Interviewers" and these articles are collected over his many years of interviewing actors, directors, producers, and other filmmakers connected with classic science fiction and horror films. These are all pretty much "grab-bag" collections rather than by theme, so if you are interested in people who worked in Roger Corman films, for example, you will find them spread over all the volumes. On the other hand, if you are a fan of classic (and not-so-classic) science fiction and horror films and the people behind them, these are for you.

One theme running through many of the interviews, by the way, is that of the actor who wants to be taken seriously and who thinks of a particular role in a science fiction film as just another job to pay the rent, and then discovers twenty or forty years later that that role is what they are most remembered for. Most are pleased that they are remembered, but the pleasure is often tinged with sorrow for lost opportunities if that casting led to them being consider "only" a science fiction actor (or in the case of Eugene Lourie, a "dinosaur director"). Boris Karloff always talked about how grateful he was to the Monster for making his career, but he had made eighty films before that without "hitting it big". For an actor to be typecast before he feels he has had a chance is a different situation. In any case, some of the actors do make appearances at conventions and such, but few are actually science fiction fans. I find it interesting that Jane Wyatt seems to be much more in demand by "Star Trek" fans for appearances and autographs than Joseph Pevney. Who, you're probably asking is Joseph Pevney? He wrote the episode, "Journey to Babel", in which Wyatt appeared.

To order Double Feature Creature Attack from, click here.

To order Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/10/2014]

While in THE EERIE SILENCE Paul Davies attempts to put bounds on the various terms in Drake's equation, in IF THE UNIVERSE IS TEEMING WITH ALIENS... WHERE IS EVERYBODY? FIFTY SOLUTIONS TO THE FERMI PARADOX AND THE PROBLEM OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE Stephen Webb (ISBN 978-0-387-95501-8) looks at the fifty most popular/likely/frequently given answers to the paradox. For example, number 16 is "they are signaling but we do not know how to listen," number 23 is "they have no desire to communicate," and number 39 is "the galaxy is a dangerous place."

Davies discusses each one, and usually ends up dismissing it. For example, "they have no desire to communicate" is only the answer if all the extraterrestrial races have the same psychology and none desires to communicate.

However, Webb's solution takes all this into account, but [spoiler!] comes up with the depressing result that there are no other intelligences out there. And he does this with the Sieve of Eratosthenes! (Well, it's really just an elaboration of Drake's equation.) Basically, he starts with 10^12 planets in the galaxy. In one solution he discusses a "galactic habitable zone"; assume only 20% of the stars are in this zone. We're down to 2x10^10 planets. Then look at just the stars like our sun; this drops the number again. Pare it down more by taking into account cosmic disasters, no life developing, no intelligence developing, no technology developing, no language developing, etc., and Webb thinks we are down to about one: Earth.

Even if you do not agree with his conclusion, however, his enumeration and discussion of so many of the possible answers is well worth reading. (He also quotes a lot of science fiction authors.)

To order If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens... from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/15/2006]

As it is described on Amazon, in SHAKESPEARE WITHOUT TEARS by Margaret Webster (ISBN 0-486-41097-8) "...a prominent producer-director of Shakespeare's plays writes with wit and verve about the Elizabethan theater and subsequent modifications in theatrical practice, differences between actors and audiences in Shakespeare's day and ours." The book is fifty years old, and does not therefore address any of the recent (or even not-so-recent) innovative stagings of Shakespeare. Yet Webster's observations about the plays and how producers, directors, actors, and set designers approach them are still pertinent.

For example, Webster addresses the question of Shylock: how did Shakespeare intend him to be interpreted, and how do various ages (re-)interpret him? She notes (on page 120), "For instance, the 1st Quarto of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is subtitled with 'the extreame crueltie of Shylock the Jewe towards the sayd Merchant in cutting a just pound of his flesh, and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests.' The Jew was evidently represented as the villain of the piece and not as its tragic hero." She later (page 193) writes, "Sir Henry Irving played Shylock for all the pathos of the despised and downtrodden Jew, with the dragging, broken exit from the Trial scene which is so enormously effective. and so great a distortion of Shakespeare's intention."

Webster also feels that KING LEAR, while great on paper, is virtually unplayable. As she says (page 221): "The magic of the theater is a duality. It can evoke and sustain illusion or it can be as revealing as a microscope or an X-ray photograph, searching and merciless. The bedrock substance of an acted play is the basic stuff of its human characters. If you overload them with more than they can contain, if you overload the actors with more than flesh and blood can convey, then you overload, in turn, the capacity of an audience to absorb or ultimately to believe."

And there is even a science fiction reference. On page 290, Webster says, "There is a German play in which Goethe, reincarnating himself as a college student about to take an examination on Goethe, fails hopelessly to answer the questions put to him. Either he does not remember at all incidents, or his replies run directly counter to the textbooks of accepted criticism." This is, of course, the same plot as Isaac Asimov's "The Immortal Bard" from 1953, which post-dates the first edition of Webster's book (1942--mine is a revised edition from 1955, and I do not know if the reference to the play about Goethe was in the first edition). I do know that Asimov wrote a massive book about Shakespeare's plays, so he was probably familiar with the Webster book. The play, by the way, is actually a very short playlet titled "Goethe" by Egon Friedell and Alfred Polgar. (Since Friedell is also the author of THE RETURN OF THE TIME MACHINE, a sequel to the Wells novel, it would not surprise me to discover that Asimov was familiar with the play as well.)

Some of Webster's observations have a much wider application than just producing Shakespeare: "The difficulty is not that nobody remembers anything, but that everybody remembers, with wholehearted conviction, totally different and conflicting things." (page 120)

One of my favorite exercises is noting anachronisms in Shakespeare. So when Webster quotes from CYMBELINE ("Golden lads and girls all must, Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust."), I find myself thinking, "Did they have chimney sweepers in Cymbeline's time [1st century Britain]?" (I am not alone in this exercise, of course. Chapter 3 of Phyllis Rackin's STAGES OF HISTORY: SHAKESPEARE'S ENGLISH CHRONICLES has been recommended as specifically addressing anachronisms in the histories, such as a character named "Pistol" before the invention of pistols.)

To order Shakespeare Without Tears from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/03/2013]

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker (ISBN 978-0-062-11083-1) sounded promising, but like a lot of "mainstream fantasy" did not have enough to hold my interest. It is about a golem, but not about The Golem. In addition, Wecker violates some of the rules about golems, such as the one that says that golems are mute.

To order The Golem and the Jinni from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/16/2015]

THE WORLD WITHOUT US by Alan Weisman (ISBN 978-0-312-42790-0) is a 2007 book which may be the source for the 2008 television special (and subsequent series) LIFE AFTER PEOPLE. (Other television specials along the same vein are AFTERMATH: POPULATION ZERO and THE FUTURE IS WILD.) But while LIFE AFTER PEOPLE takes a macro look at the future--what will happen to buildings, animals, roads, etc.--THE WORLD WITHOUT US takes not just a micro view, but a molecular one--what happens to the heavy metals, the PCBs, the PBDEs, the PAHs, and so on. And while LIFE AFTER PEOPLE takes what could be called an optimistic view, with Manhattan (for example) returning to a pastoral primordial landscape, THE WORLD WITHOUT US is far more pessimistic, questioning whether the remaining life forms can survive all the poisons we have left that will not disappear in five, ten, or even a hundred years.

Weisman makes some interesting observations. For example, writing of a project to restore a small part of Manhattan to its pre-Columbian state, he says that it is "re-creating the island as the Dutch found it--not some primordial Manhattan forest no human had set foot on, because there wasn't one. 'Because before the Lenni Lenape arrived,' explains [Eric] Sanderson, 'nothing was here except for a mile-thick slab of ice.'"

He also observes that the old rules about what defines a species do not seem valid, because red-tailed monkeys and blue monkeys are interbreeding in Gombe and, "although the two species have different numbers of chromosomes, at least some of the offspring of these liaisons--whether between blue males and red-tailed females or vice versa--are fertile."

Weisman notes, "Wrangel Island's mammoths lived on, a dwarf species that lasted 7,000 years longer than mammoths on any continent. They were still alive 4,000 years ago, when Egyptian pharaohs ruled." Which means, among other things, that the movie 10,000 B.C. may not have been quite as crazy as it first appears (except that 10,000 B.C. should really be more like 2,000 B.C.).

Arthur Demarest said, "[Mayan] society had evolved too many elites, all demanding exotic baubles." Weisman continues, "He describes a culture wobbling under the weight of an excess of nobles, all needing quetzel feathers, jade, obsidian, fine chert, custom polychrome, fancy corbeled roofs, and animal furs. Nobility is expensive, nonproductive, and parasitic, siphoning away too much of society's energy to satisfy its frivolous cravings." Substitute "Ancien Regime French" for "Mayan" and "velvet clothing, elaborate wigs, jewels, fancy food, and gold" for "quetzel feathers, jade, obsidian, fine chert, custom polychrome, and fancy corbeled roofs" (no change to the "animal furs," however!), and you have a statement just as true. And I'm sure if you substituted "21st Century American" for "Mayan" you could figure out what to substitute for the consumer goods.

Regarding Ebola, R. Thomas Ksiazek of the CDC said, "Hygiene is the key. Even if someone tried to introduce Ebola intentionally, though you might get a few secondary cases in families and hospital staff, with sufficient precautions it would die out rapidly." This may have sounded reasonable in 2007, and it might still be true, but the "sufficient precautions" is the sticking point: they turned out to be far more difficult to enforce than people had realized or imagined.

Reading WORLD WITHOUT US inspired me to re-watch the television special LIFE WITHOUT PEOPLE. As I remembered, it dealt with macro issues more than the micro issues that Alan Weisman covers. It starts with power systems: coal-powered power plants will stop first from lack of fuel, then nuclear plants will go into a "hibernate" mode because no one will be drawing the electricity they generate, and even wind generators will die from mechanical failure. What they say will last the longest is Hoover Dam; they say it will last a couple of years, but then later someone says the invasive quagga mussel will clog the cooling ducts in Hoover Dam, the water will stop flowing through the plant, and the Colorado River below will dry up. However, Lake Mead will rise until it spills over the dam.

(Of course, all this was before the drought set in and Lake Mead fell so far that now the concern may be that it will fall below the intake pipes. See pictures from at .)

Tunnels under cities will flood in 36 hours (at least in New York City). With the power gone, food will rot. Rats and mice are actually very dependent on our food, so after they finish off everything that does not rot, there will be a big die-off with the survivors changing over to a diet based on nature. (The same is true of sea gulls, which have become dependent on human land fills.) Cockroaches will do fine for food, but the cold may be a problem in non-tropical areas.

Dogs will also have a massive die-off. Obviously, pets that are trapped within houses will die, but the larger dogs will be able to break out through a window or something. Even if small dogs get out, their chances of survival against predators is slim. And many breeds of dogs have been bred with characteristics that are unhealthy (such as greyhounds and the various short-faced or short-legged breeds). Cats will do much better, having not become as dependent on humans as dogs, and also not have a wide variety of unhealthy characteristics.

Within six months there would be predators roaming the cities. (Heck, in New Jersey we get bears in the suburbs already.) Wolves (possibly interbreeding with dogs), coyotes, and even bears will spread, particularly without highways full of cars splitting up their habitats. Zoo animals are the great unknown--it would depend on whether they got out or not.

Plants will encroach everywhere (and not just invasive species). Lightning strikes will start fires that will burn until they burn themselves out naturally. (Gas leaks in cities were not even discussed.)

There was a long section on Chernobyl/Pripyat, which they describe as happening twenty years earlier. In fact, by now it is almost thirty years ago (April 26, 1986). The conclusion of Chernobyl is that the lack of humans overcomes the radiation. In this LIFE AFTER PEOPLE is more optimistic that WORLD WITHOUT US, which emphasizes the mutations and low survival rates of offspring in the region.

By twenty-five years, many of the cities protected by flood gates and dikes have been at least partially submerged. The windows in the skyscrapers are starting to break and fall, and the lightning rods corrode. Building interiors become habitats for plants and animals.

Eventually salts will destroy stone buildings and non-concrete dams will fail. After about fifty years, bridges and other steel structures dependent on cables will start to fail. After seventy-five years cars will have rusted into unrecognizable piles.

Cellulose acetate film and paper will be destroyed by humidity (or mold encouraged by humidity).

Eventually, the roofs under the cities (and the streets they support) will collapse.

After about 150 years the oceans will have recovered and be full of fish. There is mention of how much we have polluted the oceans, but no real explanation of where all the plastic, Styrofoam, heavy metals, and long-lasting chemicals have gone. At least the remaining sea gulls will have something to eat.

In two hundred years, steel structures such as the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, steel bridges, etc. will collapse. Buildings such as the Empire State will start to lean as the ground under them subsides, then collapse. They say that the period between one hundred and three hundred years after the event would be the "Era of the Great Collapses".

In five hundred years, concrete will have failed. After a thousand years, cities will have vanished. In ten thousand years, all that will remain will be sections of the Great Wall, the Great Pyramid, Hoover Dam (which will be the "Last of the Great Collapses"), and what is mostly likely to last for thousands if not millions of years: Mount Rushmore (and the Crazy Horse Monument as well, I assume).

To order The World Without Us from, click here.

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS by Bernard Werber (translated by Margaret Rocques) (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-09613-3, 1998 (1991), 256pp, hardback):

Almost everyone who describes this says it's like Watership Down, except with ants instead of rabbits. Yes, it starts out that way (though with far more central and developed human characters as well), but it goes somewhere that Watership Down doesn't.

In the near future, Jonathan Edwards inherits his uncle's apartment, with the instruction, "Above all, never go down into the cellar." It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or even an entomologist) to figure out that going down into the basement is precisely what the human characters will do.

The book's strength is in its depiction of an alien lifeform: ants. One can argue that Werber's ants have more consciousness and intelligence that is possible given their brain mass, but then the same could be said of the rabbits in Watership Down. If one is willing to suspend disbelief, the mental processes and motivations of the various ants--and there are several different varieties--are fascinating. Werber apparently spent years researching ants, and it has paid off in his description of ant life. He has the external appearance (actions, etc.) of the ant colonies down pat. His extrapolation of the motivations is, as I have said, unlikely, but as a theory they have the advantage of fitting and explaining all the facts.

The human characters are not as interesting or believable. Like the characters in so many horror movies, they are all attracted by the forbidden cellar, and head down there, with very few precautions or even (apparently) concerns.

This was a best-seller in Europe, and while it almost definitely won't achieve that status here, it is worth reading if you are interested in reading works from an alien point of view.

To order Empire of the Ants from, click here.

ANARCHAOS by Donald Westlake:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/16/2005]

Donald Westlake is known primarily as a crime writer, tending toward the farcical. He has also written a series of humorous science fiction stories, published in "Playboy" and available at (I reviewed these in the 01/16/04 issue of the MT VOID.) However, ANARCHAOS (ISBN 0-7278-6096-8) is anything but humorous. (It was actually written in 1967, under the pseudonym Curt Clark.) Rolf Malone, the protagonist of the novel (one hesitates to call him a hero), goes to a planet to find out what happened to his brother. This eponymous planet is politically an anarchy, and driven in large part by corporate greed. Malone begins his stay there by murdering the taxi driver he hires and stealing his taxi. This behavior is perfectly legal (or at least not illegal). This novel is political science fiction, and somewhat more realistic than a lot of that genre, though I am still not convinced that such a total anarchy would survive. Then again, I suspect it is not all that different from the West before the Army and the lawmen moved in.

To order Anarchaos from, click here.

"Starship Hopeful" stories by Donald Westlake:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/16/2004]

I also read Donald Westlake's science fiction, five short stories published in "Playboy" between 1981 and 1988. These are about the voyages of the Starship Hopeful, which sets out in 11,406 after the Master Imperial Computer discovered that 500 years earlier, a clerical error had erased from the computer's memory more than 1000 colonies. Its mission is to find these lost colonies. Each one has apparently become an exaggeration of its initial settlers, so one is given over to gamblers, another to an acting company, and so on.

These stories are available at

BORN TO KVETCH by Michael Wex:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/27/2006]

BORN TO KVETCH by Michael Wex (ISBN 0-312-30741-1), a book about the Yiddish language, turned out to be too academic for me, with (for example) a lot of time spent tracing the origin of the term "bove-mayse/bube-mayse". But there is no index, which means if you want to go back and look this up, there's no good way to do it! Probably I would have enjoyed this more if I knew more than a "bissel yiddish."

To order Born to Kvetch from, click here.


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

Leslie What's THE SWEET AND SOUR TONGUE (ISBN 1-58715-158-8) is a collection of fourteen stories, one original and the rest reprinted from sources ranging from well-known magazines to hard-to-find anthologies. All are Jewish fantasy, either in the sense of being based in Jewish legend and theology (such as "Those Who Know") or because the main characters are Jewish (such as "The Man I Loved Was an Elf"). Even in the latter, though, the Jewishness is a major part of the story. Obviously, this limits the market somewhat, but that is probably why it was published by Wildside Press instead of (say) Tor Books. For those unfamiliar with Wildside Press, it is a small print-on-demand press. It is not a "subsidy publisher" or "vanity press". Its books are of professional quality, both in content and in physical production. My only objection is that the charming cover art is uncredited. I recommend this collection to people with an interest in Jewish fantasy. (Leslie What also has a story in the current issue of "Strange Horizons" at .)

To order The Sweet and Sour Tongue from, click here.

ARCANUM by Thomas Wheeler:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/07/2005]

ARCANUM by Thomas Wheeler (ISBN 0-553-38199-7) is a mystery where the sleuths are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, Marie Laveau (the Second), and Harry Houdini. This is a bit of overkill, especially when Wheeler adds William Randolph Hearst into the mix. Also, Wheeler's research could have been better. The story is set in 1919, yet one character "poured himself a generous Jim Beam." While the bourbon was around then, it was still called something like "Old Jake Beam's Sour Mash"--it did not adopt the name "Jim Beam" until the 1940s. Lovecraft is supposedly living at 1414 Delancey Street--there is no such number. Tarrytown is described as "only forty minutes outside Manhattan." The actual trip the characters make is from Bellevue at 29th Street, which would be about twenty-eight miles--forty minutes today maybe (without traffic), but not in 1919 by horse-drawn carriage. And, in a minor slip, Doyle sets fire to a spider's web--which I believe are not flammable. The language also has some jarring words (e.g. a reference to a "meet-and-greet") that shatters the period feel.

To order Arcanum from, click here.

THE LIFE AND GROWTH OF LANGUAGE by William Dwight Whitney:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/17/2017]

THE LIFE AND GROWTH OF LANGUAGE by William Dwight Whitney (ISBN 0-486-23866-0) is a classic work, first published in 1876, so it is not surprising that much of what he says is now considered outdated and parochial.

It does not take long (on page 2, actually) for Whitney to say, "Man is the sole possessor of language," dismissing all forms of communication in other animals as so inferior and different that they cannot be called language. He also claims that in regards to color, some languages are "so much less elaborate and complete, that their acquisition gives the eye and mind a very inferior training in distinguishing colors." Did he consider that since English makes fewer distinctions than Russian, English speakers are inferior to Russian ones?

In general, Whitney exhibits an unapologetic belief in his (our) cultural superiority. For example, he says, "Certainly, the exceptionally gifted Polynesian or African who should learn a European language--English, French, German--would find himself prepared for labor in departments of mental action which had before been inaccessible to him, and would realize how his powers had been balked of their best action by the possession of only the inferior instrument." That he might have an "inferior instrument" for certain mental actions apparently does not occur to Whitney. Later, in talking about the Ugrian family of languages, he writes, "The Finns and Hungarians are the only cultivated peoples of the branch," apparently dismissing the Estonians, Livonians, and Lapps. And when he mentions another branch, the Samoyed, he says of the people who speak it, "It has no culture, nor no importance of any kind."

Whitney spends a lot of time explaining the various sounds that form the basis of languages, but concentrates only on the ones in the more Western languages. He does mention the various clocks in passing later on, but treats tones as something that hardly counts. But again, he feels that we have "the best of all possible languages" (to paraphrase Voltaire) and says, "A system like our own, which contains about forty-four distinctly characterized sounds, is hardly excelled in richness, among tongues ancient or modern."

Whitney also claims that Chinese has only about 1500 words. It seems as though he was counting characters as words, but even so that is a very low estimate. (The figures I found were between 3000 and 4000 characters.) But we don't say that English has only 26 words, or even that languages that use a syllabary have only as many words as the syllabary has syllables. Even in English, we count a lot of compound words as words in their own right, especially those constructed from Greek or Latin roots, e.g., "telegraph" or "neo-conservative".

One observation Whitney makes that I do not recall having seen before is about the "statistics" of borrowing or adopting words from other languages. Nouns and adjectives are the most commonly borrowed, verbs less so, particles even less, and prefixes, suffixes, and especially inflections, declensions, and conjugation hardly at all.

Whitney predated Sapir and Whorf, but touches on their theories when he writes, "There is always and everywhere an antecedency of the conception to the expression. In common phrase, we first have our idea, and then get a name for it."

I have no idea whether Whitney's spelling of the Spanish word for woman as "muger" (rather than the correct "mujer") is a typo, or an attempt at phonetic spelling.(though he seems generally not to do this unless he specifically indicates it).

To order The Life and Growth of Language from, click here.


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

Elie Wiesel's WISE MEN AND THEIR TALES (ISBN 0-8052-4173-6) also has a thread of cynicism, or at least a way of looking at the "heroes" of the Bible and finding them less than perfect. For that matter, God does not get off scot-free either. For example, in the story of Sodom, Wiesel concludes that everyone--Abraham, Lot, Lot's wife, and even God--do wrong. Only Lot's two daughters appear to be blameless. And why do we revere Sarah when she treated Hagar and Ishmael so badly? Why does Aaron get a pass even though he built the Golden Calf when so many others were killed? Wiesel searches the Torah, the Talmud, and other midrashic sources in an attempt to explain these and many more cases. Or rather, he attempts to tell us how the rabbis and scholars explained them. He points out, though, that sometimes these explanations seem to be have made up just to justify what the Torah said, and there is no basis for them. And he doesn't always accept them as sufficient justification. You'll have to make your own decisions.

To order Wise Men and Their Tales from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/19/2014]

SIEGE OF KHARTOUM by John Wilcox (ISBN 978-0-7553-4560-1) is the sixth in the "Simon Fonthill" series. And that is a bit of a problem, because when you start it you can be pretty sure that Fonthill will survive--and absolutely sure that Gordon will not. (If he did, this would be alternate history, and there would be some indication of this on the cover.) So no matter how dire the straits, it is hard to worry about Fonthill too much. This is true of many novels, of course, but they are if not in a series, there is at least a chance the hero will suffer some irreversible set-up, and in any case, you usually cannot be sure of how his mission will turn out.

Yes, the latter is also true of films such as KHARTOUM, but the goal there is to illuminate the events. Here, Fonthill spends hardly any time in Khartoum, and his time among the Mahdists is distant from any sort of strategy or philosophy.

With all that, it is a reasonable adventure novel, but of the pulp magazine variety, with a set of stock characters: the wise-cracking, hot-tempered Welsh batman, the loyal Arab servant, the spunky kid adopted along the way, the liberated fiancee who follows her beloved through his adventures. It also had a superfluous villain in the form of a British officer who wants to get revenge on the hero. (You would think with the Mahdi and his forty thousand troops, one would not need to add one more villain.) In short, this is fine for escapist reading, but not much more.

To order Siege of Khartoum from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/15/2019]

And just for completeness' sake, let me say that THE JEWEL AND HER LAPIDARY by Fran Wilde (ISBN 978-0-7653-8983-1) is another Tor novella (actually, it's really a novelette) that is not my cup of tea.

To order The Jewel and Her Lapidary from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/28/2005]

This month's book for our library discussion group was Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (ISBN 0-486-27807-7). (I'll add that this is the general group, not the science fiction one, since it could be either.) One observation I (and others) had was this seemed to be over-stuffed with aphorisms and epigraphs (even to the extent of duplicating some from other Wilde works).

Someone also asked how Alan Campbell got rid of Hallward's body. The "smell of nitric acid" gave the answer, which led us to a discussion of disposing of bodies. One of the earliest stories along these lines was Melville D, Post's "The Corpus Delecti", written in 1896. In that, the murderer uses sulphuric acid to destroy the evidence of his crime, and the judge is compelled to acquit him because at the time, the law required either a body or an eye-witness. This is the most famous of Post's "Randolph Mason" stories--Mason is an unscrupulous lawyer who uses such technicalities to get his guilty clients acquitted. According to the jacket copy on the 1973 Oswald Train edition of the collection THE STRANGE SCHEMES OF RANDOLPH MASON, it made such an impression that the laws in many states were changed to prevent just such a miscarriage of justice. (The Train edition has no ISBN; a later one has ISBN 0-899-68200-6.)

To order The Picture of Dorian Gray from, click here.

To order The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/23/2003]

Last week our library book discussion group did Laura Ingalls Wilder's THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. I never read this while I was growing up, and I suppose it's difficult to judge it as a children's book when I'm first reading it now, but it seemed as though it was full of all the virtues of its time (1930s, when it was written) but not of today. Children were supposedly to always obey their parents and not even think about disobeying (even though one can clearly construct a scenario when releasing the dog would have been the right thing to do), and never disturb their parents when they are busy, and so on. This does not even address the rather negative portrayal of the Indians (even though this is not absolutely universal), but I will note that there is a very positive black character, the doctor, and this was probably fairly unusual at that time. On the other hand, children might find the descriptions of how one builds a house or makes a chair interesting, and I suppose that if a child today didn't find the children in the book too "goody two-shoes", he (or more likely she) might enjoy the book.

To order The Little House of the Prairie from, click here.


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

Simon Winchester does a lot of research and is usually fairly reliable but in THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Simon Winchester (ISBN-13 978-0-06-093180-9), he makes a basic error. He is writing about the 18th century view of the age of the earth and how William Smith changed that, and observes that Smith was born March 23, 1769, which he says was 5772 years, four months, and sixteen days since Bishop Ussher's origin date of October 23, 4004 B.C. Actually it's 5771 years, etc. (though Winchester does adjust for the Julian-to-Gregorian shift). Winchester has forgotten that there is no Year Zero in our calendar. (Maybe as penance he should write his next book about calendars and Dennis the Short.)

To order The Map That Changed the World from, click here.


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

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester (read by David Case) (ISBN-13 978-0-7366-5160-8, ISBN-10 0-7366-5160-8) is about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and its greatest volunteer, but also about the history of dictionaries, the American Civil War, and a variety of other digressions. The professor is James Murray, the editor of the project. The madman is Dr. W. C. Minor, who contributed thousands of quotations for the project--while confined in Broadmoor Asylum for having committed a murder while insane.

There are a few unexpected lessons to be learned. While Murray satrted the project, he estimated it would take two years to produce the first volume; it took twenty. All his other estimates were equally off. But the fact is, if anyone had realized how long the project would take, they never would have undertaken it.

And Murray also helped, merely by thinking about the process. The editor had volunteers reading from a list of books, sending in quotations for whatever words they thought worthwhile. Copying the quotations in a standard format took a long time, and often words were skipped that would have been useful. Murray took a two-step approach. He indexed each book in a booklet, jotting down all the words that might be of use, along with the page number, and did this in such a way that it was in alphabetical order. When he had a few of these, he wrote Murray, explaining his method, and asking what words Murray could use quotations for right away. Then he needed merely to look them up and copy those quotations. This meant he was not wasting his time copying quotations for words that would not be worked on for years, while Murray struggled with other words than he could help out with.

I recommended this for anyone who is interested in either the English language, or managing large projects.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/05/2009]

I wrote a few weeks ago about THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, but there were a couple of things I forgot to mention. First, this was an early example of distributed processing, with people all over the world doing the same task with different books, and then a team bringing together the results. Also, the decision to make the Dictionary descriptive rather than prescriptive was crucial. In general, English-language dictionaries are descriptive, while French-language dictionaries are prescriptive.

To order The Professor and the Madman from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2003]

I recommend to everyone the article "A Medley of Mysteries: A Number of Dogs That Didn't Bark" by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff (from "The Modern Researcher"), reprinted in THE HISTORIAN AS DETECTIVE (edited by Robin W. Winks). Its discussion of how to judge the truth of what one reads, and how to investigate statements further, is one that people could benefit from. It would prevent believing in spurious speeches purported to be from "Julius Caesar" that don't even scan like Shakespeare. Or that Seabiscuit got more press coverage than either Roosevelt or Hitler. Or that a billion people watched the Oscars one year. Or that Senator Tom Daschle doesn't know which hand to put over his heart to salute the flag. These are all claims we have seen in recent months.

Or consider the following story recounted in an article about Hal Clement in the Readercon Program Book: Clement was a bombardier during World War II. The article says that at the Heidelberg World Science Fiction Convention, someone asked him if he had ever been to Heidelberg before. Clement supposedly responded, "No, but I've been within a few miles of here" (meaning up above the city in a B-24). The main problem with this story, according to Clement, is that he wasn't at the Heidelberg Worldcon, as a check of the membership list would show.

I also referred last week to an essay that said (in passing) that Sabbatai Zevi and his followers feared the end of the world in A. D. 1000. As I noted, this is wrong on three counts: 1) Zevi lived in the 17th century. 2) He and his followers were Jewish and didn't care about A. D. 1000. 3) Pretty much no one else cared about A. D. 1000 either; the notion that there was any sort of widespread belief that it signaled the end of the world first surfaced about six hundred years later.

Barzun and Graff also recommend a perpetual calendar, which will tell you that a statement that talks about "Saturday night, December 31, 1959," is just flat-out wrong. (Luckily, I have Mark for this--he can do this sort of calculation in his head and tell me when fake newspaper dates in movies get it wrong as well.)

Barzun and Graff state at one point, "No interesting or important question, though, can be settled without detailed knowledge, solid judgment, lively imagination, and the ability to think straight." And as Hal Clement said in his Guest of honor interview at Readercon, a lot of his stories came because, as he put it, "I had already developed the notion that whenever I heard the words 'of course', I should immediately be suspicious."

To order The Historian as Detective from, click here.

GOLDEN STATE by Ben H. Winters:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/22/2019]

There is a new novel, GOLDEN STATE by Ben H. Winters (ISBN 978-0-316-50541-3), which Winters describes as: "GOLDEN STATE is a mystery novel about the dissolution of objective reality, set in a place that is like California but not exactly California; a place where lying is against the law; a place where the maintenance of mutually understood and accepted reality is the paramount objective of political and civil life."

Winters is a "mainstream" writer, so he may not be familiar with similar science fiction works, e.g. CITY OF TRUTH by James Morrow, or even the film THE INVENTION OF LYING. But I certainly thought of these when I heard of GOLDEN STATE.

For what it's worth, in ancient Persia lying was considered among the most serious crimes. Herodotus writes, "They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies."

To order Golden State from, click here.

"Mimic" by Donald A. Wollheim:

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

"Mimic", by Martin Pearson (Donald A. Wollheim): (Astonishing Stories, December 1942): This is a story that does not show its age at all. While it is definitely science fiction, the science being biology and specifically evolution, it is primarily a horror story, and it could very well be that horror stories are more timeless. Obviously, a story can be so full of outmoded stereotypes and such that the underlying theme cannot save it, but this story could be set today. In fact, it was made into a film in 1997, 55 years after it was written, without much change. (Ironically, the main change was in the science, and it probably was not necessary.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/04/2015]

I read THE SECRET OF THE NINTH PLANET by Donald A. Wollheim (no ISBN) in honor of the New Horizons fly-by on July 14, 2015. There is a secret on Pluto, all right, but most of the novel consists of the main characters traveling to all the other planets (or their moons) in a sort of "Grand Tour" of the solar system. It has the usual structure of a juvenile of the time--a teenage boy who somehow manages to get included in some adventure. There are actually two subsets: the youth is included because he is traveling as part of his family and accidentally gets sucked in, or the youth somehow gets included in an expedition as an adult (albeit more like a cadet than a full-fledged member). In this case it is more the latter: while on an archaeological expedition to the Andes with his father young Burl Denning accidentally acquires the power to shut down the newly discovered "sun-stealers" that are somehow sucking up the energy from the sun that is reaching Earth, and threatens to bring on a new ice age. It turns out there are such machines on many bodies in the solar system, and Burl's power means he has to go along on the expedition to shut them down. Adventures ensue, and Burl is always at the center of them. Ironically, not much time is spent on Pluto, simply because they have to visit everywhere else.

To order The Secret of the Ninth Planet from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/04/2015]

THE SECRET OF SATURN'S RINGS by Donald A. Wollheim (no ISBN), another book in the same series, is both a period piece and very contemporary, For example, the first sentence in the introduction says that only one planet in the solar system has rings. Actually, four do: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

The second sentence in the actual book says, "It was high school graduation day, a day when the boys in [Bruce Rhodes's] class came in for the last time, held their final assembly, received their diplomas and were given their entrance listings for college." Apparently girls don't go to high school in the future. (Even private schools are rarely all-male, and when they are, they are called prep schools or academies--"high school" tends to imply co-ed.) Bruce does have a mother, who says all of nine sentences to him before disappearing from the plot, which for the remaining 148 pages is resolutely all-male.

On the other hand, the events in the plot are triggered by Bruce's father's discovery that the deep-core mining being planned for the moon by Terraluna Corporation will result in the moon being blown apart. "Some bits of this lunar bombshell would hit the Earth, causing great damage. Most of these pieces would continue to fly along the moon's orbit and form a ring. But the effect would be just as terrible as if they had struck our world. With the release of the moon's pull, the tides would cease and the waters of the world equalize. This will flood great parts of the world's surface, wipe out hundreds of cities and drown millions. Great quakes will probably destroy the rest as the Earth6s bulk is released from the strain of its satellite and readjusts itself. I would say that probably nine-tenths of humanity would die; certainly civilization would be totally destroyed!"

Now, while this is a bit more drastic (and quicker) than the current global climate change predictions (and admittedly based on hand-waving science), the predictions for coastal cities is eerily familiar. And in the universe of the book, we must accept the science as part of our "willing suspension of disbelief." So when Dr. Rhodes tells Terraluna this, what is their reaction? "They refused to accept my figures, plain as they were. ... People are sometimes blinded by their own selfishness... Terraluna wants to get at that treasure at the moon's heart. Its directors are not interested in how they get it, they want only the results. When I presented my studies of what would happen, they could not bring themselves to believe it. They called it wild, imaginary, just the product of an old man's frightened mind. They had some of their scientists, men of my own staff actually, go over the figures. These men sought only for their own advancement, ... they felt they could take a chance with Earth's welfare. So these men made light of my findings, said they were extreme, ridiculed the possibility involved, and denied the discovery." After this, Terraluna fires Rhodes, spreads all sorts of lies and rumors to discredit him, and makes all sorts of legal (and extra-legal) attempts to prevent him from collecting data that might support his theory.

But while the aspects of "period piece versus contemporary story" are interesting, the actual book is not. There will be a little bit of action, then a lot of expository lump, then a little bit of action, then a lot of expository lump, and so on. And the action relies incredibly heavily on coincidence--Bruce always just happens to be looking at the absolutely right spot in the sky to see what he needs to foil the villains and move the plot along.

To order The Secret of Saturn's Rings from, click here.

"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" by Alyssa Wong:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2017]

"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers", by Alyssa Wong (, March 2016)+: It may be time to admit that science fiction has passed me by. I mean, I understood the general plot (serial apocalypses), but the writing style just left me confused and uninterested.

"You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2017]

"You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016): This is the other "American Southwest" story, and it is basically a zombie story. It is good, but it did not seem to "flow" from its setting the way "The Tomato Thief" did.

ORLANDO by Virginia Woolf:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/30/2009]

Anyone familiar with the plot of ORLANDO by Virginia Woolf (ISBN-13 978-1-853-26239-5, ISBN-10 1-853-26239-0) knows that it plays with gender: Orlando is born male, but one day wakes up to discover that he has turned into a woman. But it also plays with time, and with space.

For example, early on Woolf writes, "It [the hill Orlando is on] was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath, and on clear days thirty, or forty perhaps, if the weather was very fine." Seeing forty counties from a hill would be impressive indeed, as according to what read when I looked it up, there were only thirty-nine in all of Britain. But even assuming that this is a rounding error or something, one clearly cannot see thirty-nine counties unless the hill extends into the stratosphere. And Woolf continues, "To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowden [sic] herself showed mountainous among the clouds." Snowdon to London is about 180 miles. Snowdon is 3560 feet high, so an observer at the top with perfect visibility could see 72 miles (assuming the Earth is a perfect sphere 8000 miles in diameter, thus giving an arccosine of 0.999854, implying an arc of 1 degree 5 minutes). Therefore, the furthest from Snowden anyone could see it would be 72 miles, but that is less than half the distance to London, and London is not 3560 feet above the plain.

Woolf also intermingles space and time. On page 112 she is talking about Orlando's house (an structure in space), which has 365 bedrooms and 52 staircases (clearly references to days and weeks of the year).

Orlando is described as being thirty in the time of Charles II (1660-1685), but was alive during Elizabeth I's reign (ended 1603) and writing during or shortly after Marlowe and Shakespeare.

Indeed, the trance which resulted in the gender change started on Friday, May 4, almost definitely in the reign of Charles II, which theoretically has to be either 1666, 1677, or 1683. (page 133) I say "theoretically", because Woolf later says that June 16, 1712, was a Tuesday (page 195) when it was actually a Monday. It is conceivable that Orlando remained ambassador through a change of monarch and even through the Glorious Revolution, adding 1688 and 1694 to the list, but this just makes Orlando even older.

From the ship returning to England, the Captain claims to see Addison, Dryden, and Pope dining together. (page 167) Their lifetimes did actually all overlap between 1688 and 1700, but in 1700, Pope was still only twelve. (Woolf even points this out in a footnote, in case the reader doesn't realize it.) For that matter, this return has to be after 1702 since William III is already dead (page 165), so Dryden was also dead as well.

And the name "Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch" is wrong--it would be "Romanova", not "Romanovitch".

Woolf's punctuation is eccentric at times. Frequently when she has a subordinate clause, she leaves off the second comma. For example, "At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck that she realized, with a start the penalties and privileges of her position." (page 153) Or, "Nothing, however, can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one...." (page 173)

But Woolf is able to laugh at literary styles: she writes, "Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher's face and the butcher's a poet; who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the masthead ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer 'Yes'; if we are truthful we say 'No'; Nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, ..." (page 78) At 197 words and 16 commas (plus three semi-colons, two dashes, and a colon), it's a sentence worthy of Jose Saramago.

The core of the novel, though, seems to be when Woolf writes of Orlando, "She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. 'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected; 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline." (page 156) This incorporates several ideas. Woolf is suggesting that what people think of as the womanly attributes are merely learned behaviors. (One can argue that basing this notion on a person who was born a man and has been a woman for only a short time is not entirely convincing.) But more importantly, Orlando (Woolf) recognizes that a culture that treats people unequally may seem good to those on top, but if there is any chance of a change in status, these people might wish for a more fair (i.e. equal) society. (This is actually a philosophical theory proposed in the 20th century--justice is what you would arrange for a society if you were responsible for setting it up before you knew what your position would be in it. Maybe it's just me, but I see echoes of Jorge Luis Borges's "Babylonian Lottery" in this.)

This is one of the few novels that has an index. (In fact, I can think of no others.) It's true that all that is indexed are the various people Orlando meets or refers to, and I'm sure the intent is to make this seem more a real biography. In this sense, I suppose it is an early example of trying to make a fictional story appear real--though frankly there are enough impossibilities in it to make a careful reader question it early on. Ironically, the main impossibility when Woolf wrote it was the notion that Orlando could be transformed from a man into a woman--and that is no longer impossible at all. But seeing Snowdon and London simultaneously from the ground ... no, that is still impossible.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/14/2013]

THE CIVIL WAR BOOKSHELF: 50 MUST-READS ABOUT THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES by Robert Wooster (ISBN 978-0-8065-2692-0) is a reasonable listing and critique of a basic bookshelf on the Civil War, I get the impression that he chose fifty books because with the amount he wanted to write on each, that made the right length book. Ten might make more sense as a beginner's list; a hundred is a traditional number for a comprehensive list, but would make the book too long. But fifty books are really more than the beginner would read.

One finds interesting parallels throughout these works. Shelby Foote had a contract with Random House to write a short history of the Civil War. He ended up a trilogy of 1,500,000 words that took twenty years to write. Douglas Southall Freeman was commissioned by Charles Scribner's Sons to write a 70,000-word biography of Robert E. Lee, which Freeman assumed would take a couple of years. It took him twenty years and ended up as a tetrology. One starts to see a pattern here.

One also sees repetition in titles: LINCOLN AND HIS GENERALS and JEFFERSON DAVIS AND HIS GENERALS, not to mention LEE'S LIEUTENANTS (which is, of course, about generals).

I do feel that Wooster's need to rank-order them seems unnecessary. I also think his rule about no multi-volume works--which leads him to list only one volume of Shelby Foote's masterwork, for example--is overly strict.

And there are occasional slips. In reviewing Bruce Catton's A STILLNESS AT APPOMATTOX Wooster writes about "Maj. Gen. Governor Kemble Warren"; in reviewing Michael Shaara's THE KILLER ANGELS he writes about "Gouverneur K. Warren". These are the same person. More annoying, he consistently misspells Mary Chesnut's name as "Mary Chestnut". It is possible that the transition from one publisher to another during the final phases of publication meant that proofreading fell through the cracks, since it seems incredible that Wooster would make these mistakes.

Overall, this is a worthy overview of the most important works on the Civil War for the layman (with the caveats noted).

To order The Civil War Bookshelf from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2003]

Simon Worrall's THE POET AND THE MURDERER starts in Amherst, Massachusetts (where I went to school at the University of Massachusetts). Daniel Lombardo, as curator of the Jones Library (the Amherst public library), buys a previously undiscovered Emily Dickinson poem at an auction at Sotheby's. Then he starts to have doubts as to its authenticity, and the story it flashes back to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, in a strange twist that ends up incriminating a man who had forged Mormon Church documents and eventually murdered two people to cover up his crimes.

These aren't "spoilers"--this is all true.

The story is, of course, fascinating. (If it doesn't seem fascinating to you already, well, you could probably skip this book.) My quibbles are that I'm not sure I completely trust Worrall's research and statements. For example, Worrall describes where Lombardo lived as "West Hampton." There's a Westhampton in the Amherst area, but no "West Hampton." And it's not Interstate 95 that one takes to Amherst, but Interstate 91. Also, his statements about the Mormon Church seem to indicate an anti-Mormon bias that might have affected his approach. So when he comes down very negatively on Sotheby's, I have to wonder if there may not be another side to the story. Still, with that caveat, I would recommend this book to all those who like books about books.

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ISLANDIA by Austin Tappan Wright:

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

ISLANDIA by Austin Tappan Wright (Farrar & Rinehart): This unavailable either from my library system or used at a reasonable price, and it is over 1000 pages long. You're on your own. (A few years ago, I noted that all the Retro Novel finalists combined were still shorter than any one of the current Novel finalists. That is not true this year.)

To order Islandia from, click here.

ENGLISH GOTHIC: A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA by Jonathan Rigby (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000, 272pp, L17.95)
NIGHTWALKERS: GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES: THE MODERN ERA by Bruce Lanier Wright (Taylor, 1995, 171pp, $17.95)
BRIGHT DARKNESS: THE LOST ART OF THE SUPERNATURAL FILM by Jeremy Dyson (Cassell, 1997, 282pp, price unknown):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/06/2003]

Last year I read Jonathan Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC: A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000, 272pp, L17.95). Then a couple of weeks ago, I read NIGHTWALKERS: GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES: THE MODERN ERA by Bruce Lanier Wright (Taylor, 1995, 171pp, $17.95). And when Mark saw me enjoying that, he said I should also read Jeremy Dyson's BRIGHT DARKNESS: THE LOST ART OF THE SUPERNATURAL FILM (Cassell, 1997, 282pp, price unknown).

The first point worth noting is that only one of these are British, which is surprising when one considers that when one talks about "Gothic horror films" or "supernatural horror films," often the studio name that first comes to mind is Hammer Films. Ironically, Dyson doesn't cover the Hammer era at all, but instead concentrates on the Universal/RKO era of the 1930s and 1940s. Wright, on the other hand, focuses on the Hammer period from 1957 to 1976 but covers American and Continental horror films as well as British, while Rigby takes an approach orthogonal to both and covers a century's worth of films, all English.

All three have one thing in common--they concentrate on the "horror film" rather than the "terror film." Their goal is not to write about slasher films, or stalker films, or psycho films, but about "supernatural" horror--horror that is based on something beyond the world we know. (Wright makes the distinction at the end between Gothic and Grand Guignol styles, saying the latter emphasizes our physical existence in this world, while the former postulates a structure of good and evil in which we move.)

On to specifics. Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC is a very thorough coverage of its topics, with particular value for the pre-Hammer era which tends to be ignored or skimmed over in works of this kind. Rigby does not cover every film in detail, but at least references and puts in context the films for which he doesn't give detailed plot synopses and analyses.

Wright's NIGHTWALKERS is much less thorough, even for the period it covers, though he spends a bit more time on the films he does cover in depth. And Dyson covers even fewer films, but each again in yet more depth, with entire chapters devoted to "King Kong" and "Cat People", for example.

The real problem with all of these, of course, is that after you have finished reading about a film, you'll want to pull out the DVD (or videotape) and watch it again. After reading about what Wright called "the Cornish horrors" ("The Reptile" and "Plague of the Zombies"), for example, I suggested to Mark that this would make a good Sunday afternoon double feature. Luckily, he agreed, and since it just happened to be Sunday afternoon, that was one problem solved. :-)

All three books are somewhat difficult to find in stores, though on-line booksellers have made it relatively easy on-line. If you are going to get only one of the three, ENGLISH GOTHIC is probably the best choice. BRIGHT DARKNESS is the most academic, with NIGHTWALKERS being the most "pop culture" of the three, though hardly a fluff coffee table book.

To order English Gothic from, click here.

To order Nightwalkers from, click here.

To order Bright Darkness from, click here.

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