MT VOID 08/17/01 (Vol. 20, Number 7)

MT VOID 08/17/01 (Vol. 20, Number 7)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
  • Vol. 20, No. 7

  • Table of Contents

    Big Cheese: Mark Leeper, Little Cheese: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

    Mathematical Science Fiction:

    Last week I talked about mathematics and why it has such an appeal. This was not what I had planned to run this week, but it this week's article goes well with that one. I am preparing for a related panel at this year's Worldcon. When I found out I was going to be on a panel discussing mathematical science fiction I had that moment of panic. I have loved mathematics since I was an early teen, and science fiction since I was about six, but I have no special knowledge about the convergence of the two. As long as I have to think out the subject, I might as well share my thought with the VOID readers.

    Mathematics is a subject that most science fiction avoids, or when it does use it gets it wrong. For example, I was always a little galled when comic books and now film make the chronic mistake of using the word "dimension" when what they mean is "parallel universe." It is only a small rearrangement of the universe as we know it to say there is another universe parallel to ours. I am not even sure what it would mean to say there is another dimension with a different set of people living in it.

    As I grew up I savored TV science fiction that dealt with mathematical ideas more for their rarity than their quality. TWILIGHT ZONE had one episode, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's "Little Girl Lost," in which a little girl had rolled over in bed and fallen into an intersecting (hence not quite parallel) universe. Two OUTER LIMITS episodes dealt with intersecting universes, "The Borderland" and "The Production and Decay of Strange Particles."

    I know of five anthologies of mathematical stories. These are all anthologies of stories about mathematics, and containing science fiction stories. I do not guarantee every story is science fiction.

    1953--SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES IN DIMENSION, edited by Groff Conklin. Any 1950s collection of science fiction edited by Groff Conklin is going to be a great book to read. Add to it mathematical subject matter and you have a real find. Unfortunately it is mostly time travel and/or alternate universe stories. It could have more diversity.

    1958--FANTASIA MATHEMATICA, edited by Clifton Fadiman. This is a mix of science fiction, poetry, and essays on a mathematical theme.and is *the classic* anthology of mathematical science fiction. Nobody talks about mathematical science fiction without mentioning it. Seen today the stories may be a little simplistic, but everything is fun. Fadiman gives everything a playful approach.

    1962--THE MATHEMATICAL MAGPIE, edited by Clifton Fadiman. Fadiman followed up his classic anthology with a second joyous helping. Again it is mostly stories (many of which are science fiction) with essays and poetry mixed in. It is just slightly less of a classic than FANTASIA MATHEMATICA.

    1987--THE MATHENAUTS, edited by Rudy Rucker. Rucker gets a good six sentences into the book before mentioning the two Fadiman anthologies. His book is all science fiction stories. Basically it is a collection of the best mathematics science fiction stories from the intervening quarter century. It is not as playful as the Fadiman books, but it has the goods.

    1999--IMAGINARY NUMBERS, edited by William Frucht. This is apparently much closer to the spirit of the Fadiman anthologies with a collection of stories, poems, and essays.

    While I am listing related books with mathematical science fiction, I should point out that there is a classic fiction work of science fiction with several authors following up on it. In 1884 Edwin A. Abbott published FLATLAND: A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS. This rather unique book envisioned a two-dimensional world encountering our world of three dimensions. In the process it tells by analogy what it would be like for us to become aware of a world of four dimensions. There have been several follow-up stories by other authors. Three of book length have been SPHERELAND (1965) by Dionys Burger, PLANIVERSE (1984) by A. K. Dewdney, and FLATTERLAND (2001) by Ian Stewart. Rudy Rucker's anthology MATHENAUTS contains his own short story "Message Found in a Copy of FLATLAND."

    In addition to the above, among the most popular mathematical science fiction works I know of are:


    THE OTHERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

    CAPSULE: This is a ghost story with surprises, atmosphere, and authentic gooseflesh. Nicole Kidman stars as an over-protective, neurotic mother in a house that must be kept dark to protect the children. The Channel Islands make for a perfect dismal setting for a suspenseful well-written ghost story. The film was written, directed, and even scored by Chilean-born Alejandro Amenabar. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4). This review written with intent avoiding spoilers; in general it is recommended that the viewer avoid reading too much about the film before seeing it.

    It is difficult to think of something new to do with a ghost story. Just creating atmosphere is really not enough. Once the ghosts start throwing things around and doing physical damage, as they did in POLTERGEIST, a ghost story no longer is a ghost story as much as it is a monster movie. On the other hand just leaving around clues that something from beyond is around, maybe the sound of a woman crying or bloody footprints on the carpet, very quickly becomes tiresome. Even some of the best ghost stories diversify. They function as a ghost story and something else. Frequently it is a ghost story and a simple murder mystery as was done with THE UNINVITED, THE CHANGELING, and THE LADY IN WHITE. WHAT LIES BENEATH was a ghost story that turned into a murder mystery that turned into a stalker movie. (And none of them was very good.) Some of the best just mix character portraits with ghost story. THE INNOCENTS and the original THE HAUNTING do that nicely. Into the latter category comes THE OTHERS. This is a very good ghost story with some very tricky things going on. Watching it I think I must have come up with about eight different theories to explain what I was seeing. In the end I gave myself about one-third credit for having solved part of the puzzle.

    It is late 1945 and Grace (played by Nicole Kidman) lives on one of the Channel Islands that the Germans occupied during the war that so recently ended. On this island good weather is just a thick gray cloud cover, but sometimes the fog is so thick it seeps into the house and seemingly into Grace's soul. Grace lives in a brooding mansion with her two children, both allergic to light. The Germans cut off the electricity and, partially for the sake of the children, Grace never restored it.

    To protect the children from light, Grace has very strict rules about keeping all but very faint light out of rooms. This is a house that has befriended the darkness and shuns the light. These inflexible rules have to be explained in detail to the newly arrived hired help. The old hired help just disappeared one day not long ago. Adding to the mystery is that one of the children has been hearing a crying boy at night. That is just the set-up for this story written as well as directed and musically scored by Alejandro Amenabar. And the story he has created is tightly written. Amenabar leaves a lot of details to be explained in this puzzle of a script and every mystery is explained by the denouement.

    This is a film that in large part is built around the Kidman performance. From the beginning she plays it as an authoritarian with many idiosyncratic rules of how to run her house. Meanwhile she traumatizes her children with her matter-of-fact, hellfire- and-brimstone religious interpretations. Amenabar has her made up to look very much the way Alfred Hitchcock would have made up Grace Kelly, whom she even seems to resemble in this film.

    This is a film sculpted from darkness. Interior shots are nearly almost always half-dark, obscuring part of the picture. The lighting frequently gives the effect of being solely from candles. Exteriors are little brighter with figures receding into the thick fog. The visuals and the story line remain half- hidden and enigmatic to the viewer. The characters are uniformly dressed in dark colors or in black.

    THE OTHERS is a stylistically well-controlled and effective ghost story. It relies on mood rather than special effects and succeeds admirably. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                              Mark Leeper
    Quote of the Week:
    	Randomness scares people. Religion is a way to explain
                                              --Fran Lebowitz

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