MT VOID 04/09/04 (Vol. 22, Number 41)

MT VOID 04/09/04 (Vol. 22, Number 41)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/09/04 -- Vol. 22, 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. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Weeding Books (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

I recently had a exchange with Mark about weeding out books that went thusly:

Mark: "We need to get rid of some of the old science books, but we should keep major supporting works."

Me: "What exactly do you mean by 'major supporting works'?"

Mark: "The large books that we have at the ends of the shelves to hold the other ones in place."

Take a Moment to Appreciate Our Sci-Fi World (article pointer):

Andrew kantor has an interesting article on this topic in USA TODAY online at . One sample: "Remember watching the OJ Simpson car chase as it was beamed live from the helicopters above? Ray Bradbury was there already in his classic Fahrenheit 451. Although it's known more for its theme of book burning, 451 featured a scene in which Montag--the hero-- watches the police helicopters chasing him on television. And this was published in 1954." [-ecl]

Michael Crichton and PREY (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

At one time I did not have a lot of respect for the writer Michael Crichton. It was because of his disclaimer with the book TERMINAL MAN. The book involved a man with a certain type of epilepsy that made him a walking time bomb of sudden violence. Apparently Crichton wrote the whole book and then found out that the premise was not really true. A writer cannot afford to throw away a book he has written so he put a disclaimer at the end saying that the premise was not necessarily true and sufferers of this type of epilepsy were not necessarily dangerous. My complaint was that the disclaimer was tucked away where it might not be seen and probably should have been in a more obvious place considering the prejudice the public already has against epileptics.

These days, however, I am considerably more sanguine toward Crichton. If anything he is not getting the respect he deserves. I would guess hat he is one of the most successful science fiction writers, even if he is not usually associated with the science fiction community. He writes in the present while so many technical science fiction writers write in a nearly incomprehensible future. (Several readers in our local discussion group gave up on Vernor Vinge's FIRE UPON THE DEEP because they did not understand the world of that book.) I think Crichton is a writer who takes the science that is happening now and turns that into stories. He does a lot of research and he explains it reasonably well. That is one of the important functions of science fiction. It takes current science and extrapolates what it might lead to. But very few writers do that any more.

The book I am currently reading, PREY, has five pages of technical bibliography so clearly Crichton is sweating the details. Is the science Crichton writes good science? I have read a review of PREY by no less an expert than Freeman Dyson. [The review is available at] It is something of a tribute to Crichton that he has such a distinguished reviewer. Dyson's scientific complaints--I will mention some later--are relatively few, implying that Crichton got things about 90% right. That is a pretty good standard. I certainly didn't find the problems with the premise. Then I am reading the story more as a student than as an expert.

I should say something about Crichton's writing style. He does not drag things out too long, the way most modern science fiction novelists do. The book is 500 pages long, but they are large print pages. That is probably a publisher's questionable decision to make the book seem longer. The book goes very fast. Crichton writes in a nice easy prose. The reader generally knows what is going on. Most readers will even follow the science of what is happening, though that is not really necessary to enjoy the storytelling. His writing style is quite cinematic. This may be why so many of his books get made into films. The translation to a screenplay is already half done in the original novel. As with JURASSIC PARK, something like three-quarters of the story takes place in the space of a few hours. That is not true of all of his books, but it does increase the immediacy of the action.

If one looks at chemistry and physics at a deep enough level the two studies tend to converge. PREY looks at the fact that the same thing is true of the intertwined subjects of biology, computer science, and nanotechnology. PREY involves the very tiny realm where these three fields converge. It is a FRANKENSTEIN for the 21st century (with a little bit of DRACULA thrown in late in the story). Nano-robots have been created and accidentally into the atmosphere. There they behave like a swarm of insects, but they evolve and reproduce faster and share a hive intelligence. They are much tinier than insects and they look more like a mist as they swarm through the Nevada desert.

Dyson points out that as such small individuals, they could not derive their energy from the sun, as Crichton would have it, because the individuals do not have enough of a cross-section to collect enough sunlight. Further they could not be so mobile in the air since at their tiny size, the air is very thick and viscous. Dyson suggests that the speed an organism can achieve in air is proportional to its body length.

I do not think that PREY has much potential as a film since a monster that looks like a mist, while easy to create on film, is not visually very interesting. In fact, the special effects needed to film this story have been around since the 1940s and generally it is cutting-edge effects that sell tickets. Also, the behavior of the swarms of nano-bots is too similar to killer bees and too many films on that subject have been done already.

But the book is entertaining and can be read at a high level or it can be studied for the scientific content. You will not read much about this book in LOCUS, but it is a decent to good piece of science fiction. [-mrl]

HAUNTING AT HOME PLATE by David Patneaude (book review by Joe Karpierz):

A lot of firsts these last few reviews - first short story collection review, first review of a Spider Robinson book (odd that it took so long, since I got interested in reviewing books by reading Spider Robinson's book reviews in GALAXY magazine a gazillion years ago when I was young), and now, a book for children.

I decided to do this one because a) it had a "fantastic" theme to it, b) it was about baseball, c) some readers of my reviews may have children and want to get recommendations for good books for their kids, and d) my son gave it to me for my birthday last week. So bear with me here - the first time for everything principle applies (and besides, I'm typing with a cat on my lap - *you* try it).

I'm a sucker for baseball stories. I've loved the game since I was a kid, and have managed to hold on to that love no matter how today's major leaguers try to mess with the game I knew. It also helps that my daughter plays softball, and that while my son no longer plays organized ball, he still likes to go out there and play catch now and again. And of course, there have been a number of terrific SF/fantasy baseball stories and novels over the years - BRITTLE INNINGS comes to mind immediately. And the topic of baseball in sf always makes for a decent panel at conventions - Torcon 3 this past year included.

Darn cat.

The story starts out in 1946, when a kid by the name of Andy Kirk falls from a tree branch and is killed while watching his brother play ball (finally got rid of that cat). Flash to the present day, where a Little League (apparently) team loses its manager, coach and best player because the manager acts like so many over intense, idiotic parents these days in telling his son, Gannon, to pitch at batters. Mr. Conger, Gannon's dad, typifies what is wrong with youth sports these days - parents who act like they're three years old. Anyway, our protagonist, Nelson, volunteers his cousin Mike (well, Michelle, but you can't tell a bunch of boy baseball players that they're going to be coached by a girl until the last minute) who is an experienced softball player. This is after no other parent would volunteer to do the coaching.

Well, as you might expect, the team blossoms once it gets out from under the oppressive style of Mr. Conger. The weird, thing, though, is that messages start appearing at home plate, scrawled in the dirt. Some of them are signed with the initials A.K. Mike relates creepy stories of Andy Kirk, weird things happening at the park, etc. The writings at home plate are usually related to things that would make the Dodgers, Nelson's team, a much better team. Most of them involve teamwork (a couple of Dodgers fight like cats and dogs, and some of the writings deal with that), and some of the writings deal with that), and some involve hints to Mike as to which position some of the players should play. Eventually, of course, the good guys win the championship by following the writings and beating the Expos, the team that Gannon went to. The story does end on the obligatory creepy note the reader is left wondering whether the entity writing the notes is some real live human being, or really is Andy Kirk.

We can all remember stories we heard as a kid about this or that being haunted, this or that weird thing happening after this or that happened - you know, typical urban legend stuff. I remember several from my elementary and high school days. Here, Patneaude uses these stories to effectively get his point across - the point that teamwork and good sportsmanship should be the aim of any sporting endeavor.

It looks as if this book is targetted to the Little League age kids, given the subject matter - 9 through 12. It's hard for me to tell, though, since my kids go through stuff like this like a hot knife through butter (really, I won't brag at all that my 9-year-old son has tested out to be reading at the high school senior level, or that my daughter was asked to take the SAT exams at age 11 for an Illinois talent search and scored 950 - I'll refrain from doing that), but I don't think you can go wrong if you use the 9 through 12 age as a guide. It's a good book - make sure your kids (and you) read it. [-jak]

GOOD BYE, LENIN! (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Contrary to the title, this film is about one small room in East Germany that has returned to the culture of Communist rule. It is one man's attempt to protect his mother from the shock of finding out that communism fell in the eight months that she was comatose. While the film has many serious moments the plot itself is more appropriate to a farce than to a semi-serious comedy-drama. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Years ago when her husband defected to the West--and presumably into the arms of another woman--Christiane (played by Katrin Sass) threw herself whole-heartedly into patriotism for her country, the German Democratic Republic. All her sexual energy was diverted into public spirit. As a teacher she taught the virtues of Communism to her young students. In 1989 when she saw her son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) demonstrating against communism in a demonstration that may be violently suppressed she has a heart attack. She falls into a coma for eight months and is unconscious while the old government dies, the Berlin Wall is toppled, and the two Germanys are re-united. Also her daughter and later her son fall in love. Then Christiane regains consciousness. It may be too much of a shock to her to realize her beloved German Democratic Republic is no more. She will be confined to her bed. Alex decides to pull an elaborate ruse to make his mother believe that the East of Germany is still under the control of Communism.

The task turns out to be more complex than Alex expected. He has to recruit a friend and to film news stories for his mother's TV. For East German brands that his mother liked, but that went away with Communism, he must find old jars and refill them. The script's biggest problem is in the complexity of the ruse. In a farce the viewer is willing to suspend a great deal of disbelief and ignore large logic holes. However GOOD BYE, LENIN! is not a farce and has some serious drama. Much of the story is about Alex's relationship with the father who defected leaving his family behind. GOOD BYE, LENIN! might better be described as a comedy-drama with some serious emotional interplay. Somehow that seems to require a more logical world and the viewer needs to believe the premise of the story. Much of the ruse is possible only because of the contrivance that Alex's job selling satellite television allows him to play his fictional news programs for his mother. And he has the talent to write and photograph these programs. (That is not as easy as it sounds. If you doubt me, try writing a news story that could pass for an authentic piece of network news.) He also is able to quickly improvise explanations when his mother notices inconsistencies in this fantasy world he has created.

The film never completely explains Christiane's apparent passion for the German Democratic Republic. The story works only if we believe the shock of the political change is sufficient to kill Christiane. Certainly her children have long since eagerly grasped the changes and newfound freedoms of the succeeding order. Her son sells satellite TV and her daughter works at a Burger King and has brought home a West German boyfriend. Of course there must have been some patriots in East Germany, but it seems the majority did not believe very strongly in the socialist political system. Alex himself was inspired to believe in his country years before when an East German became a cosmonaut, but he does not have much disappointment in the political change. Among other things, this film seems to be a paean to capitalism and the changes it brought. So many of the Germans seem to have embraced the new system and East Germany filled with the vibrant colors of capitalism, even if they are the colors of advertisements.

The plot of GOOD BYE, LENIN! has holes, but the film itself is by turns light and amusing and then dramatic and even affecting. But somehow it just is not greatly believable. I rate it +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]

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

In celebration of Passover, I just re-read the book of Exodus, and have a question, an observation, and what I think is a radical theory.

The question: Exodus 4:24-26 says, "And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision." There are way too many "he"s without clear antecedents here--what exactly is going on?

The observation: All those people opposed to same-sex marriage on the "slippery slope" argument that it could lead to incest don't seem to comment on Moses's parentage as related in Exodus 6:20 ("And Amram took him Jochebed his father's sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses: and the years of the life of Amram were an hundred and thirty and seven years."). And while this is before the explicit prohibition at Sinai, so was Lot and his daughters, which they do consider wrong.

And finally, the radical theory: The general consensus seems to be that the "Ten Commandments" engraved on the tablets are those given in Exodus 20:3-17. But those first ten there are followed by a bunch of others. And later in Exodus 34:1 we read, "And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest." And then in Exodus 34:10- 11 we get, "And he said, Behold, I make a covenant.... Observe thou that which I command thee this day...." And finally in Exodus 34:17-27 we get the following (my divisions, and my numbering added in brackets):

[1] Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

[2] The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.

[3] All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male. ...

[4] Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.

[5] And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.

[6] Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel....

[7] Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven;

[8] neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.

[9] The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God.

[10] Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

And then Exodus 34:27 concludes with "And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel."

Now, *that* strikes me as clearly stating that *these* are the "Ten Commandments" engraved on the tablets, rather than the earlier ones. Comments?

(I also wish those politicians who always want to point to the various commandments would engrave *this* one in their offices: "And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous" (Exodus 23:8).) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           A wise man gets more use from his enemies 
           than a fool from his friends.
                                          -- Baltasar Gracian

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