MT VOID 06/11/99 (Vol. 17, Number 50)

MT VOID 06/11/99 (Vol. 17, Number 50)

@@@@@ @   @ @@@@@    @     @ @@@@@@@   @       @  @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@
  @   @   @ @        @ @ @ @    @       @     @   @   @   @   @  @
  @   @@@@@ @@@@     @  @  @    @        @   @    @   @   @   @   @
  @   @   @ @        @     @    @         @ @     @   @   @   @  @
  @   @   @ @@@@@    @     @    @          @      @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@

Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 06/11/99 -- Vol. 17, No. 50

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.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


There seems to be a real backlash against the new STAR WARS movie as being over-hyped and a disappointment to many people. I guess I just do not understand that attitude. First of all, if it was over-hyped, I did not see that hype coming from or being controlled by Lucasfilm. It seems to me the advertising campaign for the film was really very low-key. Up until about a month before the film was released, about the only ad I saw was boy on a desertscape. Not even the words of the title. The trailers contained scenes from the film (which people were dying to see) but that did little more than show those scenes. If this is hyping the film, there are a lot of films that are far more hyped. It may be that there was some real hyping by Lucasfilm someplace, but if so I am unaware of it. There definitely was some excitement over the release of the film and some hyping, but NONE of what I saw was under Lucasfilm's control.

Somehow I do not get really excited about upcoming films. My attitude toward THE PHANTOM MENACE was that it was going to be an enjoyable two hours, and not much more. I would like to think that that attitude left me more objective to evaluate what I was seeing. And what I did see was a film that I think on any objective scale is fairly marvelous. I made the statement that it probably showed the greatest visual imagination of any film ever made. That statement has been criticised, but not by anybody who has offered any serious contenders. So I stand by that evaluation. I have heard people complain that the plot was too simple for the film to get a high evaluation. Actually the film has two plots going on at the same time. One is a simple children's film plot, one is a fairly sophisticated plot involving a political chess game. I think that keeps the film engaging for all levels of audience, which was exactly what the film should be doing, but which is very hard to do for most screenwriters. I think that the people who are disappointed deluded themselves. Lucas did what Lucas does. And he did it in fine style. I stand by my high rating for THE PHANTOM MENACE. [-mrl]


Back when I was growing up and living in Western Massachusetts my family would occasionally spend a weekend in Manhattan. We would go to museums and maybe a play. I remember going to the American Museum of Natural History. And we were pretty much like any American family going to the American Museum of Natural History. That means our first stop would be the fourth floor and the two rooms known as the Hall of D*I*N*O*S*A*U*R*S. What? Did you think we went to the museum to see some stupid stuffed leopard? No, baby. Dinosaurs come first, then whatever else there was time for. The dinosaurs are what everyone wants to see. I mean let's face it, your admission covers the dinosaurs and everything else comes free. Really it is the American Museum of Dinosaurs. Everything else is sideshow. We would go through and I would in my most scholarly way try to identify the fossils on the wall for my father. And my father would pretend not to notice that I was cheating by running ahead and reading the labels. One hall had the Brontosaurus and the Stegosaurus skeleton; the other hall had the Tyrannosaurus. And between them was that great painting of the pterodactyls on the cliff.

Years later when I moved to New Jersey, I went back to the museum and found the halls pretty much just as I had left them. Then came the day of great disillusion. SCIENCE NEWS ran an article saying that there was really no such thing as a Brontosaurus. What was called a Brontosaurus was really an Apatosaurus with a Camarasaurus head. Apatosauri had longer more graceful heads. What is more, dinosaurs did not drag their tails on the ground. When I was a kid dinosaurs were always shown dragging those heavy tails on the ground. Then on day someone asked what should have been an obvious question. We have lots of fossils of dinosaur footprints. So where are all the tail tracks in those fossils? It was one of those simple questions that rocked paleontology. Of course, dinosaurs had been portrayed wrongly since the very beginning. It was bad news for museums whose dinosaur skeletons were nice and stable supported by two legs and a tail. Balancing them on two legs alone was not nearly so easy. I know about this problem. One of my hobbies is origami. You have any idea how tough it is to get a paper dinosaur to stand on two feet without a tail on the group to support it? But I had to do it with my origami and I expected the museum to do the same. So I waited for the American Museum to saw off the head of the Brontosaurus and replace it. And they were supposed to get the tails off the ground also. And they were supposed to call it by the right name. Years passed and the museum kept what they must have known was an outdated view of a dinosaur. They were spreading what they knew to be misinformation. Nothing irritates me so much in what should be an educational institution. You would be surprised how many museums and national parks have souvenir shops selling things labeled like .79 cents. It is not 79 cents or $.79, but .79 cents.

So I had a snit against the American Museum of Natural History. And I wrote a nasty editorial at one point complaining. Then came IDY. That is International Dinosaur Year. Except it was not called that. It was called 1993, the year JURASSIC PARK was released. I think every museum in the world that did not have a dinosaur exhibit legally had to get one somewhere or be shut down. Well, that is only slightly an exaggeration. But when we were travelling a little later we saw museums all over the country that had dinosaur exhibits that never would have thought of it before. History museums would put in a pre-history section with dinosaurs. In Texas we saw two different museums of Science and History. It is an odd combination but the science is more general science. Yet both museums had as you entered their dinosaur exhibits. What is the point of going to a museum if you are not going to see dinosaurs? And that was four years after JURASSIC PARK.

Anyway, I decided to give the American Museum of Natural History another try in that, the most dinosaur-ish of years. I paid my admission and guess what? The dinosaur hall was closed for renovation. How could they accept patrons' money and then tell them they could not see the dinosaurs? But in my heart of hearts I also thought that they may at least be getting the facts right.

They spent what seemed like years. And then even after they opened it took me a while to come and look. I will discuss what I found next week. Meanwhile Evelyn will discuss cladistics, the concept around which the new museum is based. [-mrl]


Some comments on cladistics by Evelyn C. Leeper:

My Background: I have taken only two formal biology courses: high school biology in 1965, and genetics in 1969. I have, however, read a fair amount on the topic outside of school, so I am not a rank beginner.

Description: Cladistics attempts to classify living organism based on the notion of shared derived characteristics, or descent from a common ancestor. Its major premise is that at various points, a single "species" bifurcated when one member developed a characteristic significantly different from the others and passed that characteristic on to all its descendents. For example, out of the millions of vertebrates swimming around, one developed a watertight egg and passed this characteristic on to its descendents, while the others did not. So it and its descendents form a "clade." Later on, a member of this group developed another "advanced" characteristic, splitting it into two separate clades, and so on.


1. This whole notion is firmly based on evolution in a way the Linnaen system never was. This isn't surprising, as Linnaeus predated Darwin by quite a bit. Linnaeus's classification was based (so far as I can speculate) on the idea that God created an orderly universe, with animals having some relationship to each other. But the Linnaen system had its flaws. For example, its definition of "species" seemed to be "animals that can interbreed with each other and produce fertile offspring." Unfortunately, time has shown that there are instances where it is possible for A to interbreed with B, and B with C, but not A with C. So there were problems. However, cladistics doesn't solve them all.

2. Cladistics does lead to some startling conclusions. For example, the terms "reptile," "ape," and "zebra" are, if not meaningless, then merely colloquial. All those things we call reptiles, for example, are part of the same clade as birds, and do not form a clade of their own. Setwise, this can be expressed as {crocodiles, {saurischia, ornithiscia}}, where birds are a subclade of ornithischia.

Similarly (at least in the cladogram used in the American Museum of Natural History and in Stephen Jay Gould's essay "What, If Anything, Is a Zebra?" in HEN'S TEETH AN HORSE'S TOES) chimpanzees and gorillas form a clade based on certain chromosomal traits they share but other primates do not. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans form a larger clade. Chimpanzees, gorillas, humans, and orangutans form a still larger clade. But chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans alone do not form a clade. In set notation, this is something like {orangutans, {humans, {chimpanzees, gorillas}}. There is no single set that contains only chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. (Admittedly, this is much dispute about the precise cladogram for primates.)

And similarly for zebras, as Stephen Jay Gould explains the same essay. The Burchell and Grevy zebras form a clade, but the mountain zebra does not join with them to form another clade, but rather with the horse. Then these two clades join to form a larger clade: {{mountain zebra, horse}, {Burchell zebra, Grevy zebra}}. However, the cladogram for zebras and horses is even more unsure than the primate one; see the essay for details.

3. On the cladogram as it currently exists, our closest non-primate relative is ... the bat. This is certainly not intuitive!

4. One problem is that currently only bony characteristics are/can be used for distinguishing the clades of extinct animals. Why is obvious--that's what we have to look at. But, for example, we know that crocodiles (the nearest relatives to the dinosaurs that are not themselves dinosaurs) are cold-blooded. We know that birds, which are the most recent clade of the dinosaurs, are warm- blooded. It is reasonable to assume that somewhere in between, a dinosaur was born that was warm-blooded and that passed this characteristic on. But we have no way of knowing when, or which dinosaurs are on which "side" of this split. and since we seem to have an unbroken chain of bifurcations based on bony parts, one wonders where we would shoehorn this in if we did know.

(Living animals are divided according to other characteristics as well--for example, whether the stomach has three sections or four.)

5. One result of this is that mammals are distinguished, not by bearing live young (always a problem when we talked about the platypus and such), or having hair, or producing milk, but by the fact that we have three bones in the inner ear. This is certainly not an intuitive defintion!

6. Cladistics has a problem when it comes to parallel evolution (or convergent evolution). The major difficulty is in deciding what a "shared derived characteristic" is. Cladists (is that the term?) have decided that four limbs are a shared derived characteristic, for example, even in animals that no longer (?) have them (e.g., snakes). Grasping hands are not a shared derived characteristic at a high level--dinosaurs and mammals both developed them, but not from a single common ancestor who was distinguished from all his relatives only by grasping hands. Stripes on the zebra would be another characteristic that one might think would be a shared derived characteristic, but in fact, two different clades within the "horses" appear to have developed them independently. (For that matter, so did the tiger.) Actually, whichever of several characteristics you could use in constructing the zebra/horse clades, you find that it appears to have also developed independently in another part of the cladogram.

7. Cladistics has another problem, which is in some sense the mirror-image of the parallel evolution problem. If a single individual develops a characteristic--say, three bones in the inner ear--not all his offspring will necessarily have that characteristic. And even of those that do, not all of *their* descendents will necessarily have that characteristic. This makes the descriptions of clades as "all descendents of an ancestor with a new trait" extremely questionable. If mammal Jane was the first to have a placenta, but of her three offspring Tom, Dick, and Harry, only Harry had one, and of his offspring Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo, only Chico and Zeppo had one, how do you draw the clade of placental mammals? Jane is the common ancestor of Chico and Zeppo with the shared derived characteristic, but including all her descendents in the clade is not correct.

What this seems to mean is that while the Linnaean system had problems in that it often associated animals which were actually distant from an evolutionary standpoint, the cladistic system has problems in its assumption that change occurs "instantaneously" and irrevocably. [-ecl]

DARWINIA by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 1998, HC, $22.95, ISBN 0-312-86038-2, 320pp) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):


DARWINIA is subtitled "A Novel of a Very Different Twentieth Century". That, combined with the cover art, led me to be a little skeptical about this novel. Boy, was I wrong.

DARWINIA starts out in 1912, when the Miracle, for lack of a better word, causes all of civilized Europe to disappear, replacing it with a continent that is completely primitive and natural. No one knows where Europe went, or how it happened. We follow one Guilford Law, 14 at the time of the Miracle, now an adult, as he is a photographer on an expedition to explore Darwinia, as the new/old continent is called. He leaves his wife and daughter behind in the new London, and sets off for the continent with a band of explorers. At this point, the novel looks as if it's going into the straight adventure narrative about exploring a new land and finding something wonderful and interesting. I was preparing to be bored.

Like I said, was I wrong. I like my tales to have a bit of Cosmic Stuff in them. Something that is so huge and big that it stretches the mind and imagination, sometimes to their limits.

Anyway, I was preparing to be bored--then I got hit right between the eyes with Cosmic Stuff. As you might have guessed, things were not as they appeared. Turns out that our Guilford Law is *not* the real Guilford Law. He's a recreation of the real thing, part of a vast archive put together by Cosmic Entities in an effort to preserve all the knowledge and the happenings of the universe against the heat death that will inevitably come. Our Guilford Law's earth is an earth that was recreated so that any of the Entities wishing to study earth may do so.

Problem is, there's a war on. There are the folks who built the Archives, then the bad guys who are trying to infiltrate and destroy them. The Miracle turns out to be the result of a not completely successful attempt by the bad guys to destroy the duplicate earth. Thus, the recorded history is changed, and, well, all our characters turn out not to be what they should be. Denizens of the duplicate earth are drafted into the war on BOTH sides, and we meet characters on both.

This novel certainly doesn't chronicle all of the war; it wasn't meant to. Nor do I think that this is the first in a series of novels about this war. Wilson creates a vivid and compelling setting and characters about a little piece of the war. And like the best of science fiction, the story is about the characters, not the surrounding trappings. This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend, and in my mind a contender for this year's Hugo. [-jak]

NOTTING HILL (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, two actors who tread the line between over-abundant charm and the cloying saccharine star in a princess-commoner love story from England. Can the most popular actress in the world find happiness with a handsome but modest bookstore owner with Hugh Grant's callow good looks? The film has a few nice sparks of wit but never really catches on fire. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), high 0 (-4 to +4).

The plot of NOTTING HILL is simple enough. William Thacker (played by Hugh Grant) is the handsome owner of a small and failing travel bookstore. He had a marriage that failed. And now he lives with a self-absorbed troglodyte of a housemate named Spike (Rhys Ifans). Spike is rude, stupid, and completely impossible to live with. Into William's shop one day comes Anne Scott (Julia Roberts). Scott is sort of a combination of Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Thompson, and, yes, even Julia Roberts. Her face is plastered on double-decker busses all over London. After the requisite shaky start, Anne and William begin to date and go through some predictable comedic situations. What happens when a luckless bachelor comes to dinner at a friend's house with his date of the evening, one of the world's most glamorous movie stars? (There is a somewhat similar and considerably funnier sequence in MY FAVORITE YEAR.) What happens when a man thinking that he is going on a date finds that it really is a press publicity junket for a film and for some reason he pretends he is there to interview the star? The latter sequence goes on much longer than need be and eventually outstays its welcome.

I have liked my share of romantic comedies, but NOTTING HILL just never really catches on for me. Perhaps the two leads seem just too charming and empty. Hugh Grant's boyish stuttering as he finds almost the right words is growing tiresome. And Julia Roberts has such a wide infectious smile from back molar to shining back molar. I wonder if she needed surgery to stretch that grin. Their dialog ranges from serious to cute to attempted cute. The film could have had a perceptive look contrasting how the super-famous and the unknown see the world differently, but NOTTING HILL rarely rises to that occasion. Much of the humorous dialog seems borrowed from "Seinfeld" with Spike standing in for Kramer. ("I once saw Ringo Starr. Or it might have been Topol." "But they don't look even remotely alike." "Well, he was standing too far away.") There are certainly places the film just does not ring true. The giant film that actress Anne Scott is currently starring in appears to be on the level of GALAXINA, a film that would be unlikely to have a big $15,000,000 star. The script is by Richard Curtis who has mostly written scripts for Rowan Atkinson playing either Blackadder or Bean. Curtis did write FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and now has returned to Hugh Grant territory. But FOUR WEDDINGS had muxh more human drama mixed in with the comedy.

Director Roger Michell is probably best known for PURSUASION. Here he seems to be depending a bit much on the star power of his two major actors. Too frequently he allows the camera to lovingly just take in Julia Roberts while she just stands with a wide smile. He is apparently hoping that her magic and allure will just effortlessly win over the audience. Even Roberts does not look that good. Just a little cuter is Hugh Grant as he boyishly stammers and says the unexpected while he tries too hard to express himself. But really as is often the case, many of the background characters are of greater interest than those in the foreground. William's circle of friends are more interesting characters with a more real set of problems than the principals. (How frequently are major characters in American films bound to wheelchairs?) The film has one sequence in which William visits Anne on a production set and just to see the circus that is required to make a film makes this the most interesting sequence in the film.

NOTTING HILL tries to return to the territory of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, but never manages to capture the same romantic spark. I would give it a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   HO 1K-644 732-817-5619