MT VOID 04/11/03 (Vol. 21, Number 41)

MT VOID 04/11/03 (Vol. 21, Number 41)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/11/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 41

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Time and Money (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

The claim is frequently made that time is money. In some senses they are the exact opposite as we are reminded this time of year. If you have paid too much on your income taxes the government will give you money. If you pay not enough they can give you ten to fifteen years. [-mrl]

Half-Price Books Through Discover Card:

Discover (credit card) apparently has changed how they issue their rebates, and you can now get certificates for their "partners". However, you get *double* the value of the rebate if you take a certificate, so if you redeem $20 in rebates, you get a $40 certificate for the partner you specify.

Borders is one of their partners.

I requested a certificate with part of our rebate, and what arrived was a basic Borders gift card, not identified (as far as I can tell) any differently than one you would get as a birthday gift. Apparently the certificates expire after a year, but since one can request them in $40 minimums--based on $20 rebates--I don't think anyone here would have problems spending them in a year. :-) [-ecl]

Salem, Massachusetts, Endorses Belief in Witches (Again) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Evelyn and I were recently in Salem, Massachusetts, sightseeing. What the town of Salem is most famous for is the fact that it was the location of the famous Salem Witch Trials. The town must get a lot of its tourism due to its notorious place in history. I note that if I just enter the phrase "witch trials" into the Google search engine, of the first 22 entries found, 21 have the name Salem in the title. One might think that Salem, Massachusetts, was the center of witch-burning incidents. I have heard it actually said (in an animated "Star Trek" episode) that it was the center of all witch-hunts. In fact, that is simply untrue. The Salem witch-hunt was extremely light compared to witch-hunts that took place in Europe before, during, and even after the Salem trials. The Salem trials are as famous as they are because they took place in the New World. It may be the only major witch-hunting incident that took place in the New World, and certainly nobody was ever burned as a witch in the New World with the sanction of the authorities. That is entirely an Old World phenomenon. Exaggerating the importance of the Salem trials compared to European trials is a bit of a double standard.

However, if there is a double standard, it is probably one that the town of Salem is grateful for. Interest in the trials has made the town famous and it probably given the town its biggest industry. There are nice little museums dedicated to horror and the macabre. Salem has a nice Visitors Center where they show the visitor all the activities in the area. The center also has an auditorium with a film program telling the visitor the history of their little town. Apparently they have themselves set up in style for visitors.

The film in the auditorium really concentrates on the whole history in the town with nice photography of foliage and fishing fleets and that sort of thing. But they do have a few minutes in which they tell the basics about the witch trials in which innocent women were executed on the charge of practicing witchcraft. This they properly characterize as being a bad thing that the town is much ashamed of. They also say that it is a lesson "in intolerance."

I found myself asking if it really was a lesson in intolerance. A lesson in intolerance certainly would fit well in an era when we are trying to remove intolerance and bigotry from our society. And the more we try to remove the more the world seems to be sinking back into it. I can wholeheartedly endorse any lesson in religious or racial intolerance. Certainly hatred of some kind was involved in the trials. And the hatred led to violence. But the question is that if the Salem incident is one of intolerance, what kind of intolerance are they talking about? What was the target of the intolerance? What people were not being tolerated? To say they were being intolerant of witches leads one to ask of what witches were they being intolerant? Assuming a worldview that believes in witches--that is, people using supernatural powers for evil, not to be confused with Wiccans--are you supposed to be tolerant of them? I don't know of anybody who would argue that if there were real witches you should be tolerant of such a group of people. If you do not want evil sorceresses around I can accept that as a form of intolerance. However, since such people almost certainly do not exist, the whole point is academic.

If, like me, one does not believe in witchcraft, what sort of intolerance are we talking about? It seems to be intolerance of people who are non-witches but who they think are. That is not intolerance, it is paranoia.

I can see that it is popular to have a tolerance lesson sprinkled here and there at the visitor center. But by attributing the cause of the witch-hunt to intolerance rather than to paranoia, the town of Salem seems to be endorsing the belief that these people really were witches who were just being unfairly discriminated against. [-mrl]

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is a love-triangle comedy-drama set in the Scottish Midlands. The always-watchable Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans play men hoping to win the affections of the same woman. One uses force and the other must cope. As the villain of the piece and the more interesting actor, most attention is on Carlyle. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)

The idea to use the tropes of the Italian Spaghetti Westerns like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST for a comedy set in the midlands of Scotland is an audacious one. Unfortunately, the payoff is not as great as it should have been. Don't trust me on this film because a lot of what was being said was in a much thicker Scottish accent than my America-bred ear was attuned to.

Shane Meadows co-wrote and directed this story of a romantic triangle. Somehow it has more of the feel of a TV-movie than a theatrical film. Two men are in love with Shirley (Shirley Henderson). One is the good-hearted garage owner Dek (Rhys Ifans). The other is a smalltime hood named Jimmy (Robert Carlyle). Jimmy is the father of Shirley's twelve-year-old daughter. When he decides he wants to start acting as a father he is ready and happy to knock out the competition.

John Lunn has attempted to give the score an Italian Western sound but is only semi-successful. The style is little more than situation comedy and while there are whimsical things that happen in the course of the film the film is really mostly just a time-filler than a film with solid human insights. It is hard to get really enthusiastic about a family whose main leisure time activity is watching bad television, as we are shown on multiple occasions. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

THE BOOK LOVER by James Baldwin and "Lifetime" Reading Lists (book review and comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

I like to have a supply of "small" books on hand. These are usually older books, collections of essays or one long essay, printed a hundred years ago or so, that will fit in a pocket easily and are convenient for traveling or just carrying around. There are usually a few, on topics of literature or science, to be found for a dollar or so, at most used book stores. Admittedly, my reviewing them might seem useless, because the chances of you being able to find the same one are pretty slim. But my comments on THE BOOK LOVER by James Baldwin (not the author of FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN) are more general than a review.

Though Baldwin touches on the value of reading, the love of books, etc., his main purpose is to provide a lists (or lists) of books worthy of being read, being collected in one's library, etc. In this he predates Clifton Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan", Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon", and innumerable other books. And reading Baldwin, one can see all too well why these later attempts, those diverting enough, are doomed to ultimate oblivion.

Baldwin wrote THE BOOK LOVER in 1884. (My edition is from 1897.) He can therefore be forgiven for not including works written after 1880 or so. So Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (coincidentally also published in 1884) is not on the list, and Twain is represented only by THE INNOCENTS ABROAD. (At least he made the list with that.)

Baldwin has a basic list of seventy or so books for every teacher and scholar. On this list are George Herbert's poetry and John Keble's THE CHRISTIAN YEAR, but not Walt Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS. (Indeed, Whitman is not mentioned at all, even in the extended lists.) He chooses Charles Dickens's DOMBEY AND SON over his GREAT EXPECTATIONS or A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and includes such classics as CORINNE by Madame de Stahl, HYPATIA and ALTON LOCKE by Charles Kingsley, James Fenimore Cooper's "Leather-Stocking Tales", and Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novels. Since then, Twain has pretty much demolished Cooper, and Bulwer-Lytton is known more for giving his name to a bad prose competition than for writing books worthy of being in a "core" list.

When one leaves the area of what might be generally categorized as literature, Baldwin's lists are even more dated and obsolete. Greek history has Herodotus, but no Thucydides. Roman history has Bulwer-Lytton's THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, but no Suetonius. For the period of the American Revolution, he has room for Cooper's novels, but no Thomas Paine or THE FEDERALIST PAPERS. Though he quotes Benjamin Franklin at length earlier, Franklin's AUTOBIOGRAPHY is not on the list either.

(I sent the list for the Roman Republic and early Empire to a friend who is somewhat of an expert on that era. Of the several histories listed, he recognized only one, which he hadn't read. He agreed with the choices of Livy and Plutarch, and added Polybius, who Baldwin had also ignored. On the whole, he seemed unimpressed with the list.)

Political economy has no mention of Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels. Science appears only as "natural history" and omits Charles Darwin. For geography, there is no Richard Francis Burton, though John Hanning Speke, Henry M. Stanley, and David Livingstone are all represented. (Later, Baldwin gives us the list of books Stanley took with him on his expedition. It includes Darwin. Stanley relates how he started with 180 pounds of books, but as the expedition progressed, and illness, desertion, and hunger necessitated lightening their load, he was forced to discard books until finally he was left with only the Bible, Shakespeare, Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus", Norie's Navigation, and the Nautical Almanac for 1877.)

Needless to say, the readings in religion are almost entirely Christian, and when they do include other religions, are often works written or selected by Christian authors.

Now, one must accept that Baldwin was writing in his time and for his time, and that classics, particularly those of the sciences (in which here I include history), will change. So let's look briefly at Clifton Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan"--or at least the version I have, written in 1960.

On the whole, it seems to have held up well, although Fadiman felt even then that he needed to justify the inclusion of John Bunyan's PILGRIM'S PROGRESS. Is D. H. Lawrence's SONS AND LOVERS really so core these days? Or Sigrid Undset's KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER? Yes, she won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, but if one examines the list of Nobel prize winners up to that time, one discovers that only Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw seem to have stood the test of time.

Alfred North Whitehead's SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD has probably been superseded by other, more contemporary books. THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION by Will and Ariel Durant would probably still make the cut, because of the lack of any serious contender. (In 1960, it was still only by Will Durant, and was only six of its final eleven volumes. The projected volume 7, "The Age of Reason" ended up as volumes 7 through 10: "The Age of Reason Begins", "The Age of Louis XIV", "The Age of Voltaire", and "Rousseau and Revolution". And you thought this sort of thing happened only in epic fantasy series!)

So Fadiman holds up better, but then again, his list is only forty years old, not a hundred and twenty.

And this is precisely why reading this sort of book from decades ago serves as a cautionary tale regarding all the "hundred best," "world's classics," and other such compilations we see today. Harold Bloom may have the right idea--he limits his canon specifically to Western literature, and he makes his list so long that he is unlikely to have any major omissions. What he probably does have--in addition to a list so long as to be fairly useless in choosing core reading--are many books which will fall out of favor in another fifty or a hundred years.

As I said, these lists are interesting, and have some value in the short term. But they shouldn't be considered as set in stone, and labeling such a list as a "Lifetime Reading Plan" is probably only valid for shorter lifetimes than most of us want to contemplate. [-ecl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Elsewhere in this issue I discuss lists of "the hundred best books", "a basic scholar's library", and so on. And having discussed all their problems there, I will now mention two books that I read because I found them on just such a list.

A while ago, I read James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock's FANTASY--THE 100 BEST BOOKS. (The title is a bit of a misnomer--it is limited to books originally written in English, so no Homer, or Dante, or Goethe.) Some of the books didn't sound all that interesting. Others I started but gave up on after a few pages. (These included Harold Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO, William Beckford's VATHEK, and William Hope Hodgson's THE NIGHT LAND, though I may give the last another try.) And some were actually readable, if not necessarily great.

One of these was Thorne Smith's TURNABOUT, in which a squabbling couple finds their bodies swapped one night by Mr. Ram, an Egyptian statuette who is tired of each claiming they could do a better job in the other's place. This book (written during Prohibition) is full of cocktail parties, wife swapping, and other such goings-on, with a strange sort of earnest raciness in a very refined style. It could have been turned into a good film--and may have been, since there was a 1940 film made from it. Unlike the films based on Smith's "Topper" stories, however, it has not shown up anywhere for years, so it may not be that good. (I realize there have been a lot of other movies with similar plots. I suspect Smith may have been the first to write it, since of the sixty-two "sex-change" movies listed in the IMDB, TURNABOUT is the earliest.) In any case, as words on a page, it seems stilted. A lot of the humor will be dated--most of the women's clothing styles the husband has to contend with as a woman have been abandoned by women in the interim. (And very sensibly too, in my opinion.) Nevertheless, TURNABOUT is at least moderately enjoyable, and certainly more refined than a movie--or a book--on the topic would be nowadays. Miss Manners would probably approve.

The other novel from Cawthorn and Moorcock's list was Marjorie Bowen's BLACK MAGIC. This is an historical romance involving black magic and the Anti-Christ. (I suppose it's sort of alternate history, because it has a Pope Michael II following a Pope Sylvester, and there was no such succession in our history, and indeed, all the Sylvesters seem to be much earlier than the time period of the novel.) One problem seems to be that Bowen has a major revelation towards the end that should be obvious to readers in the first fifty pages or so. My guess is that readers of the time (Bowen wrote BLACK MAGIC in 1909) might have been less familiar with such tricks. Or maybe it's not supposed to be a surprise. Even given all that, however, it holds up well.

I suppose I should note that both these books are out of print. TURNABOUT is reasonably available used, but BLACK MAGIC is harder to find. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The danger is not that a particular class is 
           unfit to govern.  Every class is unfit to 
                                          -- Lord Acton

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