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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/20/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 34
Table of Contents
Las Vegas (final comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Okay, I am almost done talking about why in spite of myself I really do like going to Las Vegas.
People here are crazy to gamble. Both meanings of that sentence are true. The guy who would never give his spare change to a homeless man on the street will happily feed it into a machine with a long handle and with rolling tumblers in the hopes of that big payoff. It is a pity we cannot put that behavior to more constructive use. If every day we picked at random one person who gave a dollar or more to a homeless person and gave that contributor one million dollars, we could call it something like the Big Skid Row Sweepstakes, soon nobody would be poor and homeless. Of course this is starting to sound like putting the homeless into the numbers racket.
When I get to Las Vegas my first stop in town is usually Fremont Street. It isn't that it is the best place in town, but I usually arrive hungry and this is where I know I can get a good deal on lunch. Each time we come we stop first at the Golden Gate. This whole area is a relic of the Old Las Vegas. The casinos are small and dark and there is no show beyond pre-recorded music. The Golden Gate has a very good shrimp cocktail. It is an ice cream sundae glass filled with good shrimp. I mean not mushy shrimp but al dente. The cocktail costs one dollar and everyone acknowledges that it is the best deal on a shrimp cocktail in Las Vegas. Because most places would not have it subsidized by gamblers it may even be the best deal in a shrimp cocktail in the United States. I have chili and a soda. Evelyn has a glass of Chablis. (I guess I am just a chili-and-soda sort of guy and she is a Chablis sort of woman.) We each get a shrimp cocktail and one more for us to share. That comes to $8.51 and it is large enough to tide us over until dinner. And the food is good. But you have to pay them back by walking past slot machines to get it. They have a light show called the Fremont Experience, but to me cheap shrimp is the Fremont Experience. Before we eat we should fold our hands and give thanks to the suckers at the gaming tables who are keeping my lunch inexpensive.
Neil Gaiman in his novel AMERICAN GODS suggests people come to Las Vegas intentionally to lose. They may brag about the times they win, but they cherish the memory of the times they lose. Personally I think he is wrong. I think that they play wanting to win, but when they lose they somehow think it doesn't count. It is what was expected and is quickly forgotten. It is the wins that are remembered. People are willing to pay big for a few times having the thrill of winning. People want those few seconds of fame when people see them standing in front of a machine making that metallic thunk-thunk-thunk and having flashing lights and gongs. It feeds the human need for both success and fame. When you lose you are just one more person on the floor waiting for success and fame. That is my view of it as a non-gambler.
Some time this trip I intend to get one of the $7.95 Prime Rib dinners I see advertised on the road. I know what you're thinking. What kind of a Prime Rib dinner can you get for $7.95? The answer is a darn good one. Okay, so the price is really more than $7.95. In addition, you have to walk past slot machines to get to it. It's hard to believe how good the house take must be to pay for all the stuff I am getting cheap. More reason not to gamble. Just about any time of day you can find a cheap meal in a casino. Hey, they don't want to risk losing a gambler going somewhere else to eat. He might not come back. Any casino you find is anxious to keep you under their roof and will do what they can to keep you happy there. In fact they want you to get a good meal almost instantly on your arrival at the restaurant so you can turn around quickly and go back out there and gamble. That makes "buffet" the Official Town Dish.
The other nice thing about Las Vegas is the dress code. It's kinda casual. James Bond wears a tuxedo to gamble, but he is in glamorous Monte Carlo or some such place. Most people don't get fancied up in Las Vegas. I think that you could come in wearing your pajamas and bathrobe as long as you are carrying a wallet.
But that is how it is in Las Vegas. The people who run this place are used to big risks and big rewards. They shrug off my abuses. It is a town where investors are like sharks. They move forward or they die. This oasis of frenetic activity and change sits in the middle of the silent impassive desert. When your plane lands you see this time-lapse ant colony in one direction and in the other you see the empty desert of sand and rock. You can do all sort of things with a desert. But there are not many cultures that would have thought to build an entertainment center on such a huge scale. Others have tried to follow the example, and I am thinking of Atlantic City in my own native New Jersey, and they have not had the same imagination and they have failed to catch the spirit. Perhaps it is the majesty of the desert that get people to think big. Deserts give birth to religions and to colossal statues, and Las Vegas may be some of both.
Read this article as one piece at http://www.geocities.com/markleeper/vegas_2003.htm. [-mrl]
1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE by Mary Gentle (Gollancz, ISBN 0-575-07251-2, 2003, L12.99) (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I happened to get a copy of Mary Gentle's 1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE, even though it hasn't been published in the United States yet. Reading it, I've come to two conclusions: 1) It will be on my Hugo lists this year, and 2) I definitely get the impression that British readers are more knowledgeable than readers here.
For example, the very first chapter begins with the date "27 January year of Our Lord 1608 Julian calender (6 February 1609 by the Gregorian that is to come). This is almost definitely going to confuse all but historical scholars, at least in this country, so here's the explanation.
There are two factors here, the aforementioned Julian versus Gregorian calendars mentioned, and another difference which I will call the New Years problem.
The first is easy. The Julian calendar (attributed to Julius Caesar) was getting out of step with the equinoxes. So Pope Gregory XIII came up with a new calendar in 1582 which corrected this. But because everything was already out of sync by ten days, its adoption required the dropping of ten days. Hence October 4, 1582, was followed by October 15, 1582. This took effect in all the countries that paid any attention to Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which included France but not England. England (or by that point, Great Britain) didn't switch until 1752. (Russia didn't switch until after the Revolution in 1918.) So in 1608, when it was January 27 in England under the old Julian calendar, it was February 6 in France under the new Gregorian calendar.
But Gregory mandated another change which is not usually thought of as part of the Gregorian calendar (though I suppose that technically it is). Until 1582, the calendar year started at the vernal equinox, March 21. For some reason, Gregory also dictated a change in that, from March 21 to January 1. (Well, it does at least make sense that the year change should occur on a month change as well.) So the January 1 preceding the change was January 1, 1581, and the one following it was January 1, 1583. Again, this took effect in France, but not in England, where the January following October 1582 was still called January 1582.
So January 27, 1608, in England was February 6, 1609, in France.
And all this is on page 1.
[When he read this, Mark asked, "So was there a February 29, 1607, but no February 29, 1604, in the Julian calendar?" I'm not sure--does anyone know?]
Actually, the reader may be confused even before then by the "Translator's Foreword." Weyman is real in our history, but the particular book mentioned is not (so far as I can tell), nor are the various film references (though it's clear where they came from).
As you might guess from all this, 1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE is impeccably researched (just as Gentle's previous BOOK OF ASH: A SECRET HISTORY was). The plot is full of conspiracies, political intrigue, disguises, and enough people using Giordano Bruno's teaching to calculate the future to populate the entire Second Foundation. (Think of this as ancient psychohistory.) And as she also did in THE BOOK OF ASH, Gentle examines gender roles without resorting to stereotypes. The ending is satisfactory without being pat, and the structure indicates that this is a stand-alone novel. (I only mention that because it is becoming increasingly rare these days.) To tell any more would involve giving away some of the twists and turns.
Let me sum up by repeating that it's going to be on my Hugo list this year. 'Nuff said. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Much of what I read this week were middle books of alternate history series as part of my responsibilities as a judge for the Sidewise Awards. The main thing I can report is that they do not stand on their own. The first was Joan Aiken's MIDWINTER NIGHTINGALE, the tenth of her young adult "Wolves of Willoughby Chase" series, set in a world in which the Stuarts won the Jacobite Wars and werewolves are real. (I don't think there is a cause-and-effect relationship here. :-) ) It seemed like the sort of book that children who had been reading all the others would like, but I can't say for sure.
Orson Scott Card's THE CRYSTAL CITY is the sixth of his "Alvin the Maker" series. The premise of this series is that the Aztecs defeated the Spaniards and the Puritans remained in power in Britain. It does an even worse job of standing alone, since apparently the first three chapters were removed to become the novella "The Yazoo Queen" in Robert Silverberg's anthology LEGENDS II. The result is that there are not just references to previous books which manage to be explained enough for new readers, but references to things in the first three (now missing) chapters that *aren't* explained. This will be particularly annoying to readers who buy all seven books (there's one more to come), and then discover that they still don't have a whole coherent story.
And I read Robert J. Sawyer's HUMANS, the middle book of his "H" trilogy. (Well, what else would you call a series with books HOMINIDS, HUMANS, and HYBRIDS?) As usual, it seems to have every idea that occurred to Sawyer during its writing, although most of them are connected to the plot. (It seems obvious that Sawyer read Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter's TIME'S EYE at least has the advantage of being the first in a trilogy. But the premise seems so artificial that I cannot work up much enthusiasm for it. The premise is that something (from "out there") has patched together a new Earth by taking wedges from various time periods of the old one. (The question of what has happened to the area/volume occupied by these wedges on the original Earth--or Earths, depending on your point of view--is pretty much ignored.) So we have a peace-keeping force from 21st century Afghanistan ending up only a few miles from an 1890s British frontier station on the Northwest frontier of India, along with the crew of a 1980s Soviet space capsule that happened to be orbiting over a wedge that was selected in its time frame. And they all end up tangled up with Alexander and Genghis Khan, who just happened to be in the wedges selected from *their* respective time periods. And perhaps in response to such series as Stirling's "Nantucket Trilogy" and Eric Flint's "1632" series, Clarke and Baxter recognize that their 20th and 21st century castaways cannot build an industrial society in a couple of weeks. Indeed, the best they can do is to use their knowledge of the historical "surprise" tactics of Alexander and Genghis Khan to come up with ways to counter them. But as I said, the whole premise seems so contrived that even I had a hard time suspending my disbelief.
And completely off-topic: why is it that the last three movies I watched all had the hymn "Gather by the River" in them? It's not as if "Angels in America", "Elmer Gantry", and "Stagecoach" have all that much in common other than the hymn. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Nothing overshadows truth so completely as authority. -- Alberti
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