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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/21/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 34
Table of Contents
The Obstinacy of Nature (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Look, I like Nature. You like Nature. We all like Nature. But, so what is it with Nature? Everywhere you look you see signs saying we have to preserve and pamper nature. Nature is supposed to be our friend. Let me tell you if your farm was washed away by a flood you wouldn't think nature was so nice. Nature is just plain mean and often sadistic, but in addition it is obstinate. You keep hearing stories like the Tundra Aardvark, which we would like to keep around, is inevitably going to go extinct. The population is now below a thousand Tundra Aardvarks and that is certain death for a species. You know what they say, there is just not enough genetic diversity to keep a population alive or it will die out. Your grandchildren may never see a Tundra Aardvark. And the next story you read is that California is going to have 1.3 zillion dollars damage from the Nairobi Fruit Midge because one or two Nairobi Fruit Midges hitched a ride into California on a plum. What is the story on their genetic diversity? Why don't Nairobi Fruit Midges need 1000 to survive? In the world of nature (also known as "outside") apparently one is too much and a thousand isn't enough.
Library Remembrance (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
My high school librarian used to refer to me as the man who ruined her life. That is one of many memories that came back to me reading Robert Silverberg's editorial in the March, 2003 issue of "Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine." Silverberg is reminiscing about what libraries have meant to him in the past. He writes about his memories of the New York Public Library and the Columbia University Library. He also discusses fictional libraries, the greatest of which is the one that appears in Jorge Luis Borges's story "The Library of Babel." As far as I can tell, geometrically, Borges bases the structure on a bee's honeycomb. We have an infinite, non-repeating library (!) made of hexagonal rooms stretch in all directions, including up and down. (I think that if Rod Serling had written the story he would have put a bibliophile in the library and then have the lights go out or somehow contrive to make his character unable to take advantage of an inexhaustible selection of books.) Silverberg also talks about the mystic library in "The Shadow Out of Time," by H. P. Lovecraft. Somehow there is something about a huge mystical library that makes it quietly exciting in the way that dragons and unicorns are not.
The truth is that, like Silverberg, I am a library fetishist myself, so I know what he is talking about. I myself live in a library, or rather a house that I have made into a library. I have something like 17,000 books in my house that are cataloged and Evelyn tells me the total figure with non-cataloged items is probably more like 21,000. Yet when I read a poll from out local public library I estimated that I go to the public library about 100 times a year. That is somewhat making up for lost time. When I lived in a town in Michigan and the public library for that town was open just ten hours a week: weekdays from 3 PM to 5 PM. I think the assumption in the 1970s was that books were fine for kids until they were old enough to drive. Then they should be out driving Detroit cars or snowmobiles.
With all this access I have to books and the amount I have, you would think that I would be well read in science fiction. The sad fact is that I am not. I read a broad range of books, but rare is the field I can say I have read that much in. If I look at the most recent books in my input queue I see a book on the British horror film, one on creative thinking, an Ed McBain mystery, a collection of Napoleanic sea battle stories, a novel about Wyatt Earp, a philosophic look at calculus, a survey of philosophy, and a travel book about Oklahoma--and they are all waiting while I read a book on the intelligence of ravens. And those are the books in the den. The biggest part of my queue is in the bedroom. It is the problem with the modern male. I have no feeling of responsibility to commit to a relationship with a genre like science fiction.
I guess that brings me to my story. When I got to Longmeadow High School the first thing that I wanted to check out was the library. I actually went to the library several times in the first week or two. One day, coming to English class, we were told that today we would see the library and learn how to use it. (Oh, boy. Like this I really need.) We all marched over to the school library. Miss Baird, the librarian, a very nice and very intelligent woman who walked with a crutch--I am sorry now that I did not get to know here better--started telling us about what the library had to offer. She told us a little about the library and its procedures.
Then she wanted to try a guessing game to keep us interested. "There is a book here called A HOG ON ICE. What do you think that book might be about?" My hand shot up and it was the only hand that went up. I said, "it's a book about popular expressions people use." "What's your name?" "Mark Leeper." "You know, Mark. I have been asking that question to freshmen for twenty years, and you are the first one who has ever gotten it right." One of the other boys whispered to me "How did you know that?" Well, I had seen the book on the shelf of the library and had opened it, read a little bit, and put it back. I told him and he said in a loud voice, "That's not fair. He's seen the book." She said, "I thought he might have. You know, Mark, you have me stymied. I have seen you come into the library several times. Usually when someone does that I can tell what he is interested in just by where he goes to look for books. But you never go to the same place twice. You have been all over this library and you seem to just pick where you are going to go at random." I agreed that that probably was true. I still am impressed that she noticed. After that she referred to me as the man who ruined her life. And it is true even today that when I go to a bookstore or library I don't know, I just look at shelves I have chosen at random.
Oh, another story about the same librarian. These were the days that I read about classic science fiction and horror films in "Famous Monsters of Filmland" and "Spacemen" magazines. I knew that the editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, claimed that a German silent film METROPOLIS, directed by Fritz Lang, was the best science fiction film ever made. But in those days it was very hard to be able to see obscure films, so my mouth watered to see this film. In the meantime, Ace Books published the novel METROPOLIS by Thea Von Harbou (who I later found out was Lang's wife). We were supposed to do a book report and bring in the book we were going read to get it approved by our English teacher. They rarely approved science fiction or fantasy, but I figured it was worth a try.
Miss Wanager looked at the book and said that she did not think that Ace Books published very good books. I would have to find another book from a better publisher. After school I dropped into the library, it may have even been to look for another book report book, I don't remember. Anyway, the librarian whose life I had ruined saw METROPOLIS in my hand and she told me that she was impressed to see me reading something by Thea Von Harbou. Today I guess I really do not have a lot of respect for the novel. It really is not all that well written, though probably as well as some books that Miss Wanager would have accepted. Nor do I greatly respect Thea Von Harbou who chose Nazi Germany over fleeing with her husband. But if our librarian knew of Von Harbou, she must have been somebody of merit. It didn't change a thing, but at least it reaffirmed that there were people out there who respected science fiction. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I'm re-reading Robert A. Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND for our library's science fiction book discussion group. At the time (for me, 1969 or so), it seemed great. Now, I must admit, it seems awful. All of the things about Heinlein's writing that grate on one's nerves are there, as well as his (apparent) ignorance of genetics and planetology. For example, on page 177 (of the 1961 Avon edition), Jubal Harshaw (a fairly obvious autobiographical character) says, "Most do-gooding reminds me of treating hemophilia--the only real cure for hemophilia is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death...before they breed more hemophiliacs." But hemophilia is a recessive trait, so unless you kill off the hemophiliacs siblings (and first cousins, etc.) as well, you haven't decreased the quantity of the trait in the gene pool. (You have kept it from increasing, I suppose.) And on page 89, he describes the solar system as having four planets of any noticeable size, but then goes on the describe Earth and Mars as if they are two of these four. Maybe that's just bad writing, but I note that the "original uncut version" recently published says it's *three* of the planets, not four, which is even more wrong. (This is on page 118 of the Ace edition; the previous item is page 231 of the new edition.) As far as the longer version, I think I'd rather see a shorter version, with Harshaw eliminated entirely. (Mark observes, correctly I think, that when Heinlein wrote this, he no doubt intended that Harshaw be the focus, not Smith. However, his readers had other ideas.) Since I'm only half done, I may have further comments next week. [-ecl]
And did you notice...? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
William Gibson's ideas are discussed several places this week. The following citations are among them. MIT Technical Review at http://tinyurl.com/5hp6 looks at communities connected not by location or friendship but by cyberspace. It compares these communities in real life to those in science fiction. At Wired Magazine's site http://tinyurl.com/5hpn, no less a writer than Rudy Rucker looks at William Gibson's new novel PATTERN RECOGNITION, Gibson's first novel set in the present and looking at computer culture.
A friend of mine lamented the days of the Cold War when there was competition to see which economic system could put people into space. When the Cold War ended so did the Space Race. Perhaps the space race is back on with our competitors being Japan and China. See http://tinyurl.com/5np1. Now the question is, are we going to compete with them. China thinks it can put a man on the moon by 2010. I am not sure we could.
For years after the Challenger accident, I felt it was foolish for our country to suddenly decide to hold up the space program while we tried to tremendously lower the risk. I thought that there was a point of diminishing returns on trying to make things safer and among the returns that were diminished was the new knowledge about space. I felt that the shuttle should be made reasonably safe and then prospective astronauts should know the risks and themselves decide if they wanted to go. I sort of thought I was a voice in the wilderness on this one, but apparently other people felt the same frustration. The most common editorial opinion I am seeing after the Columbia accident is saying just was I was saying after the Challenger. Among them Homer Hickam gives his insight on what it is like working at NASA and his tribute to the Columbia at http://tinyurl.com/5kbe. If you are not sure who Hickam is, Hickam's autobiography was ROCKET BOYS made into the much recommended film OCTOBER SKY.
The Toronto Star talks about an idea that I first saw expressed in science fiction but which seems to be more an more of a real-world possibility, the space elevator--here they call it a "ladder." A summary of the idea and its history is at http://tinyurl.com/5lqp.
James Randi, who went from being a stage magician to using his talents to debunk spiritualists, fortune-tellers, pseudo-scientists, and other charletons has compiled a fairly amusing guide to his subject that can be used like an encyclopedia. Want a quick, short biography of John Dee or an explanation of phrenology written by someone who is not going to try to convince you it is real? This skeptics' guide may be of some value. Find it at http://tinyurl.com/5plq. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: America is a large friendly dog in a small room. Every time it wags its tail it knocks over a chair. -- Arnold Toynbee
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