MT VOID 06/05/98 (Vol. 16, Number 49)

MT VOID 06/05/98 (Vol. 16, Number 49)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 06/05/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 49

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-447-3652 for details. The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.

MT Chair/Librarian:
       Mark Leeper   MT 3E-433  732-957-5619
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  732-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  732-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
       Rob Mitchell  MT 2E-537  732-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  732-957-2070
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: In honor of our Australian members, a new web site dedicated to that most Australian of foods, vegemite. (To the rest of us, it is quintessentially alien, and less appetizing than spoo.) [-ecl]

Solitaire: Evelyn and I both carry pocket computers. And on the computers we each have loaded an insidious little program to play solitaire. Now, I am not a big fan of computer games. If I am going to spend time fooling with something, I usually try and fool around with math so I feel I have accomplished something rather than just having played a game. But I have taken to playing Klondyke if I have just a few minutes. By the way, "solitaire" is not really the name of the game. A solitaire is any card game has one player. The most famous solitaire card game is Klondyke. In Klondyke you start with seven stacks of cards. The stack that is N from the left starts with N cards--all but the top face down. Most PCs come with the same game, but on a palmtop you have to load it. And on a PC and palmtop, the game is apparently is the same game you play with cards. Well there is one difference in the rules. When you play with cards it is legal to take only part a column of cards and move, say a black six from one red seven to the other, assuming the other is the bottom of its column. Computer implementations never seem to allow you to do that. But with that one rule difference the two games are apparently the same.

But are they the same? Is it the same playing a card game on the computer as it is playing with real cards? I made one of those observations at one point that completely changes the game, yet does not change the game. If I were writing the program I could say I assign a face value to each of the 52 potential cards and play the game just like a card game. But I might find it more efficient to just to create an array of 52 possible card values in some shuffled order. When a new card first becomes VISIBLE I pull the next face value off of the array and assign it to that card. Then just track only the cards that are face up. You cannot do that with physical cards.

Now, on one hand if the programmer did that, it is purely an implementation issue. The player would never know the difference. The strategy should remain the same. Fine. On the other hand, it really changes everything. It could be that in playing, the next new card you see will be the six of hearts no matter what you do. What you do may determine where the six of hearts will show up but no matter what you do, that next new card the game shows you will be the six of hearts. If the program has fated it that you have to uncover seven more cards before you get the ace of hearts that you need so desperately, then that is just the way it has to be. And you would never know the difference. You just have to uncover those cards, never knowing that whatever you do the card will not be that particular ace you needed.

But this goes beyond the whole issue of how best to play the game (and goes around it entirely, since from the player's point of view it is the identical game). One comes to issues of the nature of the universe. Is what happens fated or does it change it with our actions? Do we really have some control in our destinies, or figuratively is that next new card we see always going to be the six of hearts no matter what we do? Is it all fated? Is what is going to happen to us already written in some divinity's vast computer array, or do we make our own fate by the choices we make? Actually, nobody knows. You play the same game either way. You turn over the same card with the same expectation. On the particle level, there does not seem to be a lot of room for chance. We have to deal with things as if they were chance, but is that just because there are limits to what we measure. Does God play dice with the universe or do we?

I suppose you could couch the question in the words of physics. Each card that is still face down is like Schroedinger's cat. It could be any card you have not seen yet and it may not be assigned. When you turn over the card "the wave form collapses"--I have never known what those words really mean--and you find out what card was face down. It may not have been determined until you turned over the card. These are the basic questions of the universe.

I suppose with the game on my computer the answer is there. If I dug into the workings of the program I could find out if the program runs by chance or fate. Am I determining the next card I see by my actions? Too bad that in the universe we never know. Or is it too bad? [-mrl]

FOREVER PEACE by Joe Haldeman (Ace Science Fiction, 1997, 326 pp, HC, Science Fiction Book Club Edition, ISBN 0-441-00406-7) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):

I've always contended that Joe Haldeman's best work is done when he draws on his experience as a Viet Nam veteran when he writes his stories. His first three novels, THE FOREVER WAR, MINDBRIDGE, and ALL MY SINS REMEMBERED are among the best novels that I have ever read, and they all drew upon those wartime experiences. I've read a few other Haldeman novels since then, but none that were as good as those three, and they didn't seem to draw on those wartime experiences. In FOREVER PEACE, Haldeman goes back to familiar territory and turns out a mostly terrific novel.

THE FOREVER WAR came out in 1975, and won the Hugo Award in 1976. In FOREVER PEACE, Haldeman says: "This book is not a continuation of my 1975 novel THE FOREVER WAR. From the author's point of view it is a kind of sequel, though, examining some of that novel's problems from an angle that didn't exist twenty years ago." I'm not going to claim to remember much about a novel that was published 23 years ago now, and one that I read when it first came out in paperback. I will say that nothing in this book rung a bell (and having said that, I'm sure that if something *should* have rung a bell, you'll let me know, won't you?). However, it is certainly a good novel, and only a little disappointing in the end.

It is the year 2043, and a war is being fought using a techology called a "soldierboy", which are robotic devices run by remote control from many miles away. There are 10 such soldiers in a platoonlike group, and when all are "jacked in", everyone "becomes" everyone else, and knows what they're thinking, feeling, etc. They are truly a unit. The trick is that a platoon can only be jacked for a period of time something less than a couple of weeks. Then they must "unjack" to recover, and go back to their "normal" jobs. After all, being a soldier in 2043 is a part time job, and there is certainly not as much risk in being a soldier as there is today.

Enter the Jupiter Project, where a group of scientists are trying to duplicate conditions that occurred in the instant just after the Diaspora (that's Big Bang to you and me). As the name suggests, the experiment is being carried out near the planet Jupiter.

Our two main protagonists are Julian, a soldier who jacks in to his soldierboy as a platoon leader, and Amelia, Julian's lover, who is working on the Jupiter Project. Amelia and Julian discover, while aiding yet another scientist, Peter, that the Jupiter Project will destroy the universe. Granted, a pretty grim and extreme result, but one that seems to work for the novel. Another discovery, made by yet another scientist who researches soldierboys while in the employ of the government, is that the reason that soldiers can only be jacked in for short periods of time is that they become pacifists. More specifically, they are no longer capable of violence except in the case of self defense. These two facts set up what happens in the rest of the novel.

While it may seem that I have given away a good portion of the plotline to this novel, and I may very well have, I don't think the point of the novel is really these two secrets. The whole point of the novel is warfare and its effects on society and the people who fight the wars. Haldeman has a lot of experiences to draw on, and he communicates those experiences quite effectively. For example, we see the effect that killing one lone child has on Julian - how much he despises what he has done, even though he has very little choice. And while still in the depression over that, we see the effects that catching Amelia with Peter in a passionate act has on him. There are others, but I think you get the point.

I think this is a very well written novel, and one that showed lots of promise all the way up until the end. Maybe it's because I'm used to everything being dragged out and explained in detail, I don't know. But I felt that the ending was quite unsatifactory. I needed more resolution to the conflicts that were set up than was told about here. But maybe that wasn't Haldeman's point, I don't know. To tell any more would *really* being giving away plot points, and I think I've done enough of that for one book.

FOREVER PEACE is a decent novel, and one that's worth a read. It just may leave you wanting for more. [-jak]

JACK FAUST by Michael Swanwick (Avon Books, 1997, 337 pp, HC, a Science Fiction Book Club edition, ISBN 0-380-97444-4) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):

I've mostly read Michael Swanwick's shorter fiction as published in ASIMOV'S and ANALOG. This is my first venture into one of his novels. And despite being skeptical of the premise, I found JACK FAUST to be a pleasant surprise.

The premise of the book is that our main character, Johannes Faust, lives in a time before technology as we know it. Faust is a scholar, however, striving to learn everything that he can, devouring learned works as if they were sweets, attempting to find out all that he can about the world around him. The novel opens with Faust burning all his books, because he feels that none of them contain enough truth to be worth saving. Some of his own empirical observations contradict what is written in accepted scholarly texts by folks like Aristotle and Ptolemy. So what good are they? He has even found things in the Bible that are inconsistent (you must remember that these are the days in which the word of God reigns above all). He decides that the only way to learn the truth is to call upon forces that actually know the answers.

He should have been aware of the adage "be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.

As you might guess, this novel is a retelling of the Faust story with a twist. What Faust makes contact with is an alien race bent on destroying humanity. Faust makes a bargain with Mephistopheles (the name is cleverly encoded in modern scientific symbols and formulae): he sells out the human race in exchange for the secrets of science and technology that he has been desiring. Mephistopheles tells him that if he give him the knowledge he so desperately seeks, the human race will eventually destroy itself with that knowledge. Faust argues that the human race is resilient enough to avoid that fate; that it will use the knowledge for good, and *not* destroy itself. And so it begins.

Faust's downfall is his attempt to win the heart of the woman Margarete Reinhardt. Of course, this whole scheme is pushed along by the bad guy. Faust attempts to give her power and influence in an age where women aren't allowed to have power and influence. And this action does have dire consequences.

The attraction in this tale is the telling of the alternate history of the development of science and technology, and the effect that development has on society in general. To me, the whole thing was quite fascinating. Consider the following quote, which, after I thought about it a minute or two, is true today: "...society has itself become a machine by which the needs of the production regulate the conditions of life." Think about it, and tell me that it isn't true in today's society.

Again, as with FOREVER PEACE, I found the ending a tad unsatisfactory, but not as much as that novel. There is much more that could be said here, but unlike FOREVER PEACE, it doesn't cry out to me to be said. In fact, you might describe the ending as quite chilling.

JACK FAUST was a surprisingly good book, much better than I had originally thought it would be, given the premise. It has certainly thrown my Hugo voting into a tizzy. But that's good. An unexpectedly good novel now and again is good for the soul. I heartily recommend it. [-jak]

THE SPANISH PRISONER (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: David Mamet returns writing and directing another of his clever thrillers in the vein of HOUSE OF GAMES. Unfortunately, this one has logic failing in several crucial places. The viewer left with several how-did- they-knows and but-that-wouldn't-work-becauses. There are some nice superficial surprises, but the script should have been tighter. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 15 positive, 1 negative, 2 mixed

In David Mamet's THE SPANISH PRISONER, Campbell Scott stars as mathematical genius Joe Ross who has developed some unspecified industrial process that will allow whatever company has it to rule some very lucrative market. He is presenting his process and his estimate of its probable value at a special meeting with his company's executives. The setting for this meeting is a luxurious Caribbean island. As part of his reward he is told to enjoy the resources of the island for a couple of days at his company's expense. While there he strikes up a friendship with Susan Ricci (played by Rebecca Pidgeon), a company secretary who shared his plane to the island. Photographing her he also accidentally photographs Jimmy Dell (played by Steve Martin), a well-to-do man of mystery. Dell has the odd talent of being irritating one moment and ingratiating the next. Jimmy asks Joe to deliver a package to his sister on his return and the twisty plot is off and rolling.

This is a fun film, one that ties up the viewer in many mysteries of who is doing what to whom. Just what is going on is different depending on who really is Joe's friend and who is only pretending to be. This could be a clever story with a little rewriting to the script, but it is not a script whose plot bears too close scrutiny. There are holes and there are some very unlikely assumptions on the part of the plotters in this film. If one does not absolutely insist on a plot credibility of story, the film is a reasonably tangled puzzle.

Scott and Pidgeon are sufficient in the main roles, but neither has a lot of screen charisma. As is often the case, the interesting characters in a Mamet film are in the peripheral roles. Steve Martin is a surprisingly good actor given that he started his career as a counter-culture stand-up comedian and his film career as the star of the dim-witted THE JERK. He has long since proven that he can do much better than that. Here he has the suavity of a Cary Grant and tremendous personal magnetism. He is magnetic even when he says things like "Always do business as if the person you're doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he's not, you can be pleasantly surprised." The rest of the cast is just fine. It is particularly good to see Ricky Jay, sleight-of-hand artist and sometime actor. He is extremely natural on the screen and is almost the trademark of a David Mamet film. Speaking of Mamet trademarks, with David Mamet directing there is nearly always a few scenes in which the actors deliver their lines in a total deadpan in an extremely affected style. I am not sure why Mamet does this, but you can almost always find a few such scenes.

While none of the plot twists should be entirely unexpected for the viewer, this is as much a game as a film to see and to pick apart. I would give it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale, and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

THE HORSE WHISPERER (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Robert Redford directs himself as a Montana horse lover who solves emotional problems between horses and their owners. Kristin Scott Thomas is a New York mother of a girl who had a tragic accident on a horse. In calling on Redford to cure her daughter and her horse, Thomas finds herself drawn to Redford and to the Montana life style. The film is a little too obvious, though polished and often well observed. The film should play well with a BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY sort of audience. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 15 positive, 4 negative, 3 mixed

At one point in THE HORSE WHISPERER magazine editor Annie MacLean (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) looks at a proposed cover and says something like "The photo is perfect, the cropping is perfect, and the layout is perfect. It's dull. Do it over." Don't get me wrong. THE HORSE WHISPERER is a good film and not dull, but that quote comes pretty close to pointing to the film's biggest weakness. The story is just a bit straightforward and obvious. There are no surprises to anyone who sees the trailer and makes all the obvious extrapolations. Richard LaGravenese who wrote the screenplay for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY co-wrote the screenplay here also and it shows. Robert Redford co-produced and directed as well as taking the top-billed role of Tom Booker.

Annie MacLean is an editor on a high-profile magazine. She has what she thinks is a happy marriage to lawyer Robert MacLean (Sam Neill) and a daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson) just 13. And Grace has a horse, Pilgrim. One icy day Grace is riding with a friend and their horses slip on a slippery hill. In a nightmarish scene they role and slide right into the path of an oncoming truck. The friend and her horse are killed outright. Pilgrim is injured about as badly as a horse can be without it being fatal. Grace loses a leg. Distraught over her daughter in the hospital, Annie refuses to that the irreversible step of letting the veterinarian put down the suffering Pilgrim. Weeks later the result is a daughter and a horse, both of whom have lost the will to live. The maimed horse is wild and the daughter just simpers and resents her mother's cool detachment. Grace retreats into the surrogate life of television watching. The pressure of bottling up her emotions makes Annie even more pushy and intolerant.

Annie decides that what is needed is to have acknowledged horse expert Tom Booker bring her daughter and Pilgrim back together. When Booker refuses to come to New York to look a the horse, over Grace's and Robert's objection Annie buys a trailer and drives across country to Montana with Grace and Pilgrim with the goal of getting Booker to reunite Grace and Pilgrim. It is a long siege and Annie gets to know Booker's family and the people of the sparse Montana range. Naturally Redford's character is a real man with a natural no-nonsense view of life that spreads oil on all troubled waters. Tom is a man who always knows the right thing to say and makes it look easy. Annie had hoped for a dual healing experience of curing Grace and Pilgrim, but she herself changes as much as either of them and becomes a fuller person.

In the wrong hands Nicholas Evans's novel could be a maudlin and over-romantic opus, but Redford is, in fact, more talented as a director than he is as an actor. If anything the film is too polished. THE HORSE WHISPERER may be a little heavy on the perfect landscape shots. This is as good a place as any to note that coming from Touchstone/Disney the photography will probably also show to its best advantage. More than any other studio, Disney tries to release prints on high-quality film stock. A print may collect scratches after it is out of Disney's hands, but there will be very few blotches flashed on the screen because Disney Studios did not cut corners on quality. The score by Thomas Newman uses instruments appropriate to the Montana setting.

The casting is as polished as the photography with some very respectable names. Perhaps Redford himself may be getting a little old to be playing romantic leads at 61 and his age is starting to show in his face. Kristin Scott Thomas, best known for THE ENGLISH PATIENT, is an attractive and intelligent actress. Sam Neill is another good actor who in this film has too small a role. Rounding out the cast are Diane Wiest and Chris Cooper. Overall this film does not do much that is not predictable from the earliest parts of the film, but it tells its romantic story well. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   MT 3E-433 732-957-5619

Quote of the Week:

     The decline in American pride, patriotism, and piety
     can be directly attributed to the extensive reading
     of so-called "science fiction" by our young people.
     This poisonous rot about creatures not of God's making,
     societies of "aliens" without a good Christian among
     them, and raw sex between unhuman beings with three
     heads and God  alone knows what sort of reproductive
     apparatus keeps our young people from realizing the
     true will of God.
      -- Rev. Jerry Falwell, "Reader's Digest" (Aug 85, pg 152-157)