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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/07/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 32
Table of Contents
Earth is Flat (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I wanted to share this delightful piece. I read an article referring to a humorous story by Rodyard Kipling. One does not think of Kipling that much as a humorist. Actually the story itself is very hard to find. I would say there are two things that make the story worth finding. One is the title, "The Village that Voted the Earth Was Flat." The other is the hymn in the story. As relevant today as when it was written, we still have religions trying to dictate what can and cannot be considered scientific fact.
The following is a hymn, so read it slowly and if possible make up a melody.
Hear the truth our tongues are telling! Spread the light from shore to shore! God hath given Man a dwelling, Flat and flat forevermore! When the primal dark retreated, When the deeps were undesigned, He with rule and level meted Habitation for Mankind! Hear the truth our tongues are telling! Spread the light from shore to shore! Oh, be faithful! Oh, be truthful! Earth is flat forevermore!
(C), 1917, Rudyard Joseph Kipling
Acceptable Risk (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
People have been talking about the shuttle accident. A shuttle has failed in flight and seven astronauts have been killed. It had been seventeen years since that last happened. People, especially science fiction fans, can recognize what a terrible tragedy this is. Right? Well, I have to say my reaction is a little unusual. What is that reaction? It's unfortunate. That's all? How can I be so callous? Isn't this a tragedy? Well, it's no more a tragedy than if the astronauts had died in a traffic accident. Isn't it a much bigger tragedy because people have died for space exploration? Isn't that a lot worse than dying in a traffic accident? No it is actually less tragic. They died for a worthwhile and important cause. They died for something they believed in. And more will die for space exploration in our lifetimes hopefully. Hopefully? Yes. Because if nobody else dies for space exploration we are cheating humanity. We are just not trying hard enough to get off this planet and into space. I firmly believe that moving into space is really important to the future of my species. We are going to penetrate space and become a space-faring race or we are going to stagnate and pass on. Getting into space is going to be expensive. Exploration always is. But if we are not paying that price, we are shirking our responsibilities.
Right now my entire species is totally dependent on the well- being of Planet Earth for its continued existence. That's just fine. I expect my home planet is going to be here supporting them for a good long time. There were all kinds of threats from weapons of mass destruction, even just over the past year. And that is okay. I think we are going to get by these problems and be all right. And we will probably be okay in the next big crisis, whatever it is. But if we start to think on scales of a hundred years, we may not so well off this time next century. If we start thinking in terms of three hundred years, this planet may not be so large and safe. We are going to need more resources. We are going to need to be able to survive if anything happens to this home planet. Frankly, it is a long, long road ahead to get to the point where we are sure that humanity is safe in the face of threats like we are seeing this year alone. What has to happen is that we have to become a space-faring race. If we want to assure the continuance of the species, we have to spread in space sufficiently that our home planet is not absolutely necessary for our survival. That is going to take a long, long time. And it is going to be expensive in lives.
Exploration is dangerous. Ferdinand Magellan was the first person to lead an expedition around the world. He didn't actually make it around himself. He died in the Philippines. People could have decided at that time that exploration was too dangerous and it had to stop until it was made safer. That would have been a big mistake. Living was considered more dangerous then and life was not so dear that it had to be protected at the cost of discovery.
When the Challenger exploded, people were really upset about it. There were national inquiries. It was more than thirty-nine months before the next shuttle mission to space took off. And that was really the biggest misfortune of the Challenger disaster. The United States lost about three years from the effort to get humanity into space. It also lost seven brave people. I don't mean to be unfeeling about that loss and what it means to their families and what it means to the country. But roughly seven million people now die yearly worldwide as victims of tobacco- related disease. 70,000 people die from air pollution in the United States alone each year. 40,000 die in US traffic accidents. Seven people have died as a result of the last fourteen years of United States space exploration.
I was already about halfway into this editorial when I saw the Locus site with Gary Westfahl's argument http://tinyurl.com/59x9 to put off space exploration until we are more ready. I think he could not be more wrong. Westfahl says, "Someday, it would be nice to have some humans living in space, to keep the species alive should Earth be rendered uninhabitable, but it will be decades, if not centuries, before people in orbit or on other planets can be genuinely self-sufficient." That is true. But it will not be accomplished by waiting for the emergency and then figuring how to survive in space. Nobody knows how much preparation it will take or when that emergency might occur.
Westfahl says that science fiction has made space exploration seem safe and simple. He gives examples of what he calls "cozy dramas of science fiction's space adventures" like SPACE COWBOYS. Actually, I can think of few science fiction films that portray pioneering spaceflight that do not portray it as being highlydangerous. From FRAU IM MUND to MISSION TO MARS, it is hard to find examples in which it does not prove (or nearly prove) fatal to someone.
Westfahl says, "Given the technology we have today, space travel is just too darn difficult. We've been stretching our capacities to the limit, and we've been doing our damnedest, but America has still launched over 150 space missions and has watched three of them end in catastrophic failure. A 2% failure rate just isn't acceptable; would trains or jets be in use today if there was a 2% chance that every trip would end in disaster?" First, I am aware of only two launched missions that ended in catastrophic failure. Apollo I ended in failure in the development phase. Apollo XIII was not a catastrophic failure, though admittedly neither was it a total success. Trains and jets are not experimental exploratory craft so, of course, they have a better safety record.
Westfahl says that space exploration is not necessary at the moment because there is no immediate need for space resources. But how much exploration of our planet waited until it was nice and safe or until there was an immediate need for what would be found? And unlike the exploration of previous centuries space exploration can be done without any question of harm to any people indigenous to the places explored. The only people who are endangered or harmed understand and accept the risks.
That brings us to the issue of acceptable risk. Part of what we lost on February 1 was, I am certain, seven of the world's best- informed authorities on the subject of the risks of flying the space shuttle. They knew extremely well the probability of danger on their flight. Seven of the world's best experts believed enough in the value of the mission that they bet their lives on it. They went not because science fiction movies or NASA convinced them it was safe. They went because they felt the cause of exploration was worth taking what they considered an acceptable risk. It may not be for me to say, or for Westphal, but I think they were right. [-mrl]
The Stars Our Destination (letter of comment by Joe Karpierz):
I was also fond of The Stars Our Destination, and have many of the same memories that Bill has. Unfortunately, the move to Evanston killed it for me and my wife. We live in the far western suburbs of Chicago, and don't get to the city much. However, when TSOD was located on Belmont Avenue (and Clark Street before it), it was within walking distance of Wrigley Field. Being an avid Cubs fan who attends half a dozen games a year, I always went there after a game. Additionally, my wife had clients in that part of the city, so she always went there after seeing her clients. The move to Evanston made it impractical to go there. Still, we're sad to see it go.
I have one outstanding memory of going there. I made a special trip one Saturday for some reason. It was September 1996. I was still driving my Trans Am then, which was 11 years old and had 165,000 miles on it. I walked from the parking lot to the store with Algis Budrys, talking sf. After I came out of the store, there was antifreeze under my car - my radiator had sprung a leak. I bought a new car two days later, and the day after that, the company I work for, Lucent Technologies, was spun off from AT&T.
I'll *always* remember TSOD. [-jak]
LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS, AND PROSPERITY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In the Vancouver Chinese community, a twelve-year-old girl discovers Taoist magic and how to make it work. She tries using enchantments on friends and acquaintances, but never gets quite the effect she had hoped for. Mina Shum has made better films in the past, but here she just did not have very much to say. The film has some moments, but mostly it does not click. It might make a nice children's film on cable. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
Director Mina Shum previously made DOUBLE HAPPINESS. That was the story of an unemployed actress and was probably based on real experience. It had ideas that she probably wanted to express. Somehow it is hard to believe that LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS, AND PROSPERITY was really a story that anyone had much of a burning desire to tell. After studying traditional Chinese magic, a Canadian Chinese girl tries to use it, but finds it goes awry. The idea goes back to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and was pretty much mined out by the time Shakespeare used it in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In this case the girl's magic touches the lives of her single mother (Sarah Oh), whom we know should be married. The little girl tries to make a match for her mother using a love potion, but the wrong person gets the love potion.
Another plot line tells the story of an elderly watchman who has lost his job and needs work as much for his self-respect as for the money. And a third line tells of a butcher who has decided unilaterally that his son will also become a butcher. Each of the sub-stories involves the magic in some tangential way. Each, however, is handled in cliched style, and none goes anywhere that is a particularly interesting place to be. The stories are simply hackneyed. Of some note is the fact that the female psychic was played by Colin Foo, a man.
With this film Mina Shum is keeping her hand in as a director, but is rather marking time. She will need to find better material for her next film. I rate LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS, AND PROSPERITY a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. It gets that high mostly for a few good performances. [-mrl]
DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY by Lois McMaster Bujold (ISBN 0-7434-3533-8, copyright 2002, Baen Books, SFBC edition, 307pp) (book review by Joe Karpierz)
I give up. For years I've been complaining about Bujold writing nothing but Miles Vorkosigan books when she's writing SF. I've complained that she's limiting herself, or that she doesn't seem to be able to come up with any other kinds of ideas.
I give up.
Why? I guess I've decided that reading a Miles Vorkosigan novel is light and fluffy enough that it's like getting together with an old friend for awhile to talk about nothing important or particular. You just get together and blow off a few hours while forgetting about your troubles. When reading a Miles book, I can get away from the super serious (and thus completely boring and uninteresting) world that much of the currently acceptable SF has become. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if I wanted to read "literatoor", I'd read that stuff that everyone says is literatoor. With apologies to all those who've tried to bring SF out of the ghetto, and apparently succeeded to some degree, I don't want my SF to be literatoor. I want it to be fun and adventurous, with the occasional *deep thought* to make me think. Literatoor is boring--SF shouldn't be.
Okay, down off the soapbox. Diplomatic Immunity is fun--pure and simple. It doesn't pretend to be anything else, and doesn't try. It's also not a major entry in the Vorkosigan saga, but that's okay. Who cares, as long as you're having fun.
Miles and Ekaterin, married in the last book, are on their way home from their honeymoon, eager to get back to their replicators which have their first two children in them, a boy and a girl. They don't have much time left, because the children are due to be born soon. Well, as you might guess, things aren't that easy. Apparently, there's a diplomatic problem developing in Quaddiespace. Long time reader of the Mile saga will remember the Quaddies from the novel Falling Free. Quaddies are the genetically engineered humans who have four arms and no legs. What appears, at first, to be a simple case of one man disappearing and another deserting turns out to be much more complicated than that, involving bioweapons, the Cetagandan haut ladies, a ba servitor, Miles' old friend Bel Thorne, and a host of other very complicated issues.
The only thing missing from this story is the humor. Oh, there are some funny lines, but there aren't any gutbusting laughs in this one. There is one very superb line, however. Miles notes, while talking to Bel, that "we're history". Yes, I suppose they are. The Vorkosigan clan, and all the Vor relatives, have been through a lot, shaping that particular universe. Miles and his exploits are legendary, even his guise as Admiral Naismith (which even comes into play here). However, this one really doesn't add to the Miles mystique. It's just another story in his life, but that's okay. I suppose every thing in a person's life can't change history.
In any case, it's fluff, but it's fun. I recommend it. [-jak]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I'm currently embarked on one of those projects one can undertake only when retired--I'm reading Edward Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. I've gotten as far as Severus Alexander, and a sorry lot they are. Which is, of course, Gibbon's point.
And why am I reading Gibbons? Because I read Daniel J. Boorstin's HIDDEN HISTORY, and he praised Gibbon, along with explaining why Americans have a sense of community not found in Europe, and why the Adams family went into rapid decline after its early prominence.
I finished Harry Harrison's "Stars & Stripes" trilogy (STARS & STRIPES FOREVER, STARS & STRIPES IN PERIL, and STARS & STRIPES TRIUMPHANT). The premise is that an actual event at the start of the American Civil War triggered a genuine rift with England, who then sided with the Confederacy, although their attempts to aid the Confederacy backfired. I have two complaints about the trilogy. One, the whole progression of events seems a bit simplistic, and rather biased in its politics. And two, if one were to remove the parts that served to remind readers of events in previous volumes, and to tighten up the writing, this could easily be one book instead of a trilogy for which readers had to wait two years and pay three times as much for the whole thing. This may be a sad side effect of all of Harry Turtledove's alternate history series--publishers and authors now feel that all alternate histories should be series.
If you have any friends who are doctors, you should point them towards George Chappell's THROUGH THE ALIMENTARY CANAL WITH GUN AND CAMERA, an older novel (or possibly novella) of a tour of the human body written in the style of late 19th century travelogues.
Carl Hiaasen's KICK ASS is a collection of his columns about South Florida politics, and if we had all read this in early 2000, we would have just sawed the whole state off and let it float out to sea before the election--or at least not been surprised at how badly the whole thing was run there. The best line, though, is in regard to the story of how a lot of expensive homes fell apart during Hurricane Andrew, while the inexpensive homes built by Habitat for Humanity didn't lose so much as a shingle. When asked about this, Habitat for Humanity leader and former President Jimmy Carter said, "Well, we use nails in ours." (Apparently the expensive homes were merely stapled together. True.) [-ecl]
And did you notice...? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
For more there today's editorial there are discussions about the value and future of space exploration in the New York Times at http://tinyurl.com/5bdf and http://tinyurl.com/5bd8. Nanotechnology fears also get a turn at http://tinyurl.com/5bdi.
All things die eventually and it may well be that the "Star Trek" franchise is reaching the end of its popularity. Hard to believe. The article from the Australian "Courier-Mail" at http://tinyurl.com/56wp gives a quick thumbnail history of "Star Trek" and talks about its flagging popularity (and the horrible error of having that wretched theme song for the current series). Of course, this isn't the first time that "Star Trek" has died for lack of ratings.
An interesting variation on the Scopes Trial is brewing in Texas. A science teacher has a stated policy that he will not write letters of recommendation for students who do not believe in evolution. On one hand he probably has no right to impel people actually to believe evolution, only to know about it. On the other hand a recommendation is a personal thing. It is not like the school issuing a diploma. He has not contracted to recommend everyone who fulfills a set of fairly determined requirements. The law cannot impel someone to make a recommendation. See the cbsnews.com story at http://tinyurl.com/59cz.
Prolific science book writer Clifford Pickover is moving into the science fiction field, sort of following in the footsteps of writers like Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan. Actually, I am surprised I hear as little about him as I do. He seems to generate science books at an Asimovian rate. I like the fact that he does not avoid mathematics the way many science writers do and in fact it seems quite central to his thinking. Do you readers, those who know of him, think he is a positive force or a pop fad? You can read about him in a Westchester Journal-News article at http://tinyurl.com/5bbg. His home page is at http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/pickover/home.htm. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: If you can't take a little bloody nose, maybe you had better go back home and crawl under your bed. It's not safe out here [in space]. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid. --Q (John de Lancie) from the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Q Who?"
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