MT VOID 08/06/04 (Vol. 22, Number 6)

MT VOID 08/06/04 (Vol. 22, Number 6)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/06/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 6

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at Latest issue always at 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

Our Own Equivalent (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

We were listening to a play "Uncommon Women and Others" set in Mount Holyoke, the women's college. They were poking fun at dorm freshmen being assigned a Secret Elf, an upper-class-person who left candy and set up dates anonymously for the incoming freshman. I told Evelyn that in a male dorm we did not have secret anythings. Then I had to retract my words. Yes, in a guys' dorm you frequently have The Secret Vomiter. [-mrl]

Previews of Upcoming Films (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Just as the World Science Fiction Conventions have a presentation of upcoming films of possible interest to attendees, the science fiction convention Westercon this year had a program of trailers for forthcoming films. The trailers seemed to be better accepted by the audience than they have been at recent Worldcons. The presentation was a little more polished and the films seemed of a little higher quality. (Please note this article is written on the road and is based on just what I saw on the screen and remember. I have not been able to fact-check.)

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE has been remade. Jonathan Demme recycles one of America's greatest political thrillers. The new cast is good. Denzel Washington is in the Frank Sinatra role. Liev Schreiber, a very good actor who somehow is not becoming a household name, will play the Laurence Harvey part. That is certainly the tougher of the two roles. Meryl Streep will be in the role of the mother, formerly played by Angela Lansbury. But the question everybody is asking is why remake such a fine film? What can Denzel Washington bring to this role that Sinatra did not? I am not a big fan of Sinatra but Frankenheimer got a very nicely disturbed performance from him that is deeper than the CRIMSON-TIDE-earnestness that Washington usually plays. Demme is a good director, and there is some question why he would choose to remake a classic film and one that was so good to start with. [Postscript: the film turns out to be what I call a saddlepoint. It is better than just about anything else playing and not nearly as good as the original.]

We have gotten a lot of serial-killer films. And among serial- killer films a lot of them seem to involve innocents who have some sort of psychic link to the killer. I seem to remember that after THE EYES OF LAURA MARS opened the field there were a bunch with this plot made for cable. SUSPECT ZERO is one more that retreads this plot. Ben Kingsley plays the nasty after showing in SEXY BEAST that the little guys can be scary. But it is hard to think of SUSPECT ZERO as anything special. [Postscript: I believe the plot turns out to be a psyhic serial killer serial killing serial killers.]

This first thing I thought when I saw the trailer for CELLULAR was that it is obviously a Larry Cohen story. A New Yorker article said Cohen returns to the idea of an innocent bystander connected to dastardly happenings by a telephone link. PHONE BOOTH was a recent example of his storytelling. In CELLULAR a kidnap victim, Kim Bassinger, somehow is connected to a young male innocent bystander via a cellular phone and it is up to said bystander to save her. PHONE BOOTH had little beyond the premise and did little that was impressive. I hope this is better.

The Japanese have their own traditions of ghost and demon stories. Frequently they do little short punchy ghost stories. (Aside: There is a traditional ceremony in Japan of telling 100 ghost stories at night by the light of 100 candles. After each story a candle is blown out. By the end the group is in total darkness and is just about ready to freak out. These guys KNOW how to throw a party. But then I am a ghost story fan.) Last year I saw at a film festival a Japanese film that had not so much a single plot as a collection of related stores. It had some very startling and non-traditional images of ghostly happenings. I thought THE GRUDGE was quite effective even without much plot. It is tough to scare me with a film, but this certainly had me tense. It is only a few months old, but it has already been remade. THE GRUDGE (American version) was filmed in Japan and stars Sarah Michelle Gellar of BUFFY fame, no stranger to facing the dead. Don't expect a lot of plot, but if it is like the original it should have jaded horror fans grabbing for the arms of their seats. Again I ask, why bother to remake a good film? Are subtitles THAT scary? (Another aside: if you like original scary films, don't look to Carpenter and Romero. Better stuff is coming from Japan.)

RESIDENT EVIL: THE APOCALYPSE is a sequel based, I believe, on a video game. Somehow the trailer does not look like it would be based on a video game. It seems to be about some sort of process to restore beauty. Something goes terribly wrong and it is creating zombies or something. It turns from a horror film to an action film. Here's hoping it is more original. Do I sound jaded?

YU-GI-OH! is Japanese anime. The trailer claims "Monsters you have never seen will be more powerful than ever." I guess if you have never seen them you can't know that they will be more powerful than ever. It must be based on the TV series. It has something to do with ancient Egypt, I think. I don't think I will find it interesting, but I probably would have loved it as a kid.

CAT WOMAN stars Halle Barry and is based on the Batman villain, I believe. It looks like another comic book superhero story. A superhero in a cat suit is just the sort of role an Oscar-winning actress would long for. [Post script: it is already in the theaters by now and most accounts are negative. The IMDB gives it 2.7/10]

If one popular series of children's books makes a successful film series, why not try another? That is the idea behind LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Jim Carrey plays Count Orloff and several other roles in makeups that make him unrecognizable. If they were serious about making this a series they would make it a Lemony Snicket movie and not a Jim Carrey movie. It looks like a nicely crafted comedy with little series potential.

The trailer for SEED OF CHUCKY was a teaser and did not say much about the film. The audience said something about the film. It wasn't a very friendly response. Do you think this series has run its course?

I ROBOT [already released] is a summer action film inspired by the Isaac Asimov stories. Actually it is a non-Asimov story forced to have something to do with the Asimov. It is set in a world where every sixth person is a machine. Will Smith stars. You can bet you will hear the three laws of robotics, that the robots' three highest priorities are to act in humans' best interest, to be obedient, and to protect themselves. [You do hear it.] How much else can possibly be in the spirit of the Asimov stories remains to be seen, but I am skeptical. [I had good reason to be.] It looks like a standard sci-fi action film that has bad robots and which quotes the Asimov laws of robotics. [On target.]

ALEXANDER THE GREAT had a teaser reminding people who Alexander was, but did not say much more. The teaser was narrated by Anthony Hopkins. With the failure of KING ARTHUR, I suspect the producers of this film are having some sleepless nights.

Somewhere in Borneo young scientific explorers are looking for a Fountain of Youth and instead run into ANACONDAS through the magic of CGI. If you want snake films they seem to find a new one to run on the sci-fi channel every 27 minutes. I think two weeks after this film is released they will have BOA VS. ANACONDA.

Part of what made ALIEN good was that it was about a creature that had nothing to do with Earth. It was just out in space. However now we are told Alien has been on Earth all along in a pyramid deep under the Antarctic. Predator is there also. Fox owns both Alien and Predator monsters, which are somewhat similar monsters. Already there have been novels and comic books having them fight each other. Now they have gone the whole way and made a film: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. Luckily they didn't own Chucky or it would be ALIEN VS. PREDATOR VS. CHUCKY. Monster matches have never made very good films since Frankenstein met the Wolf Man and didn't hit it off.

There was an uninformative teaser for THE SPONGBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW was originally due out June 25. Visually it looks super, particularly for those nine of us who appreciated THE ROCKETEER. It is set in the world of the future as seen from the 1930s. In the era of the Depression people looked for optimism inspired by recently completed engineering marvels like the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. Fiction fantasized about giant robots and strange flying machines in the future and Depression-era kids ate it up. This film plays off that feel and sense of wonder and I am willing to go with it. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow star in an adventure set in that sort of future. Potentially I could like this film a lot or it could go clunk.

POLAR EXPRESS is a Santa Claus Christmas fantasy taking its visual style from some very nice children's book covers. Tom Hanks does multiple voices. The visual style looks good, but I have reservations about the candy-flavored story.

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE [already out] is a comedy about and aimed at college stoner kids. The director previously did HEY DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? [I have not seen it, but there are good words about this film.]

CONSTANTINE is another horror film having something to do with the devil. For those who think we need another horror film having something to do with the devil and a supernatural detective who has been to hell and back. The source is the HELLBLAZER comic book.

THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING is another horror film having something to do with the devil. This is a film about what went before the events of the 1973 film. Don't trust me on EXORCIST films. I actually thought there was some good stuff in the second film.

Julianne Moore has a son who disappears and nobody but her remembers him. Photos that previously showed him no longer include him. Is it mass amnesia, someone fooling with the time stream, or what? Didn't they use this idea on the Twilight Zone episode "And When the Sky Was Opened" with returning astronauts disappearing? This film is called THE FORGOTTEN.

THE INCREDIBLES has a short teaser about what appears to be an over-the-hill super-hero, the father of a whole family of super-heroes. He apparently is called back into superservice. It is Pixar so it probably will be good.

On very little evidence, I am most looking forward to SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. And I can recommend the original THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE for those who don't mind black and white. Also the original THE GRUDGE for those who don't mind subtitles. [-mrl]

Letter of Comment (by Joseph T. Major):

Andrew Roberts's WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN is in the tradition of Sir J. C. Squires's IF, OR: HISTORY REWRITTEN in one important way: the contributors are prominent historians. Anne Somerset has written several books about the Tudors and Stuarts. Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of STALIN: AT THE COURT OF THE RED TSAR. Antonia Fraser is known for her work on the seventeenth century, writing about Cromwell and his era. Conrad (Lord) Black has just come out with a *huge* biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. And so on.

Each historian, in short, wrote a "counterfactual" appropriate to his or her field of expertise.

As for Frum, what was that story, I believe it was by Kornbluth (either alone or with Pohl), about a political engineer who likes to read history and is reading a history of the Second Mexican War where the U.S. Army had to obey all sorts of orders about not damaging significant historical sites and so on while the Mexican President told his generals to win the war? And the engineer snorts that people do funny things, all the while ignoring increasingly urgent calls about a leak . . . . [-jtm] [I have no idea--anyone out there know? -ecl]

CODE 46 (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

[This review ran in the 30 January 2004 issue of the MT VOID as one of the Toronto International Film Festival reviews, but since it is opening this week--in limited release--we thought we would re-run it.]

Rating: 0 (-4 to +4)

CODE 46 is a very odd piece of science fiction. It is a film with some very nice material that tries some interesting ideas, but it fails to capture the viewer. Its flaws outweigh its virtues. It is an extrapolation of the global community twenty years into the future. The world is very different and the differences are often not explained. Giant cities now seem to have the status that countries do today. Global warming has turned most of the rest of the world into a desert. (Much was filmed in Dubai, which stands in for Shanghai.) Rather than simply carrying identification people need to identify themselves with their insurance identification document, called a "papelle." Without a papelle you are exiled to the desert. William (Tim Robbins) comes to Shanghai looking for someone smuggling papelles out of a security building. To aid in his investigation he has infected himself with an empathy virus that allows him to know everything about a person if they will just tell him one thing about themselves. (Oddly, some people are very surprised he has this power, though it seems to be common knowledge other places in the society. It is one more detail not well explained.) With his power it does not take him long to track down Maria (Samantha Morton) who is his smuggler, but he is not sure he wants to turn her in. They are attracted to each other. But soon they find that their lives are connected by more than just their attraction.

The story telling is just not very involving, unfortunately. The plot just does not go anywhere. The viewer is kept interested in the background of this world but there is little development of the foreground. The plot resolution seems to come out of left field just when the writer gets tired of writing. Director Michael Winterbottom captures a style reminiscent of both BLADERUNNER and GATTACA, but those films had more interesting characters and action. This film is static and uninvolving. [-mrl]

MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement (copyright 1953, Street and Smith, reprint 1978 by Gregg Press, ISBN 0-8398-2426-2, 256pp) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

This book, like FAHRENHEIT 451 last time, is a book that "I really ought to read sometime because it's one of the classics." Well, now that I've read it, I have mixed feelings about it.

You see, MISSION OF GRAVITY contains everything that everyone said was wrong with science fiction--the worst of which was lack of characterization. This book just plain old doesn't have any. It has long stretches of scientific lecture to explain what was happening and why. And in fact, of course, that was how the genre started--using science to explain things in the context of a story. However, I felt like I was constantly being lectured to. It's also an adventure story, the kind that turned us on to SF back when we were twelve (see my review of CHILDHOOD'S END). Literature, which the modern SF aspires to be, doesn't do any of that stuff. It has mounds and mounds of characterization-- probably more pages of characterization in one book than there are pages in this one. It meanders and wanders through plots and various viewpoints and all that. This story goes straight from start to finish, and only has a narrative viewpoint. "Literary" SF also spends almost no time on scientific explanation--the science, such as it is in today's SF novels, is usually a backdrop for the story being told in some 700 pages.

Basically, MISSION OF GRAVITY is the very definition of hard SF. Those writers today who aspire to be hard SF writers should look at this and look at what they're doing and discover that the two aren't the same.

Before I go more into that discussion, a small summary of the story is in order. Earthmen have landed a rocket on the planet Mesklin for the purpose of studying its gravitational field and effect to see if they can take away any knowledge to be put to good use back on earth. For some reason, the rocket won't take off again. The Earthmen enlist the aid of native Mesklinites, little critters who are suitably built to live in the high and weird gravity of Mesklin, which I guess kind of looks like a very elongated spheroid of some sort. The story is very simply the telling of the various adventures the Earthmen and Mesklinites have getting to the rocket. The story in and of itself is not special, the adventures are fairly standard, and the writing is straightforward. We're dropped into the story after the alliance has been formed, and we leave it not long after we get to the rocket. So what is it that is so intriguing about the novel that makes it one of the "classics" in the field?

I don't know. I honestly don't. But I guess if everybody read it when they were twelve, and are now the elder statesmen of the field, then I guess maybe that's it. Kind of like remembering that CHILDHOOD'S END was better than it really is. I guess you have to take the era in which it was written into consideration.

Anyway, back to the prior discussion about "modern" vs. "classic" SF. I think that MISSION OF GRAVITY is an example of the extreme end of the classic hard SF story. It is workmanlike, straightforward, adventure storytelling at its finest. Modern SF, in its extreme form, has been known to be meandering and padded. I'm not saying that modern SF is bad, and that stories like MISSION OF GRAVITY are what should be aspired to. I would love to see a middle ground between the two. MISSION OF GRAVITY would not sell today, in my opinion, even if it were updated to remove things like slide rules and regular photographic equipment. But I think it could, if it were updated with some more depth of character. Modern SF tries too hard to be literary, at the expense of the story itself--the same story which is the strength of novels like MISSION OF GRAVITY. Characterization is necessary, useful, and gets the reader involved. However, the amount of characterization seen in today's SF has a tendency to go way overboard. I really don't care what the protagonist had for breakfast, and that he/she, or in some cases, it, was molested by a parent as a child which molded his/her/its actions for the story.

At the risk of running on forever, I'll also say that too much back story kills the main story, not to mention too many trees. A little more back story about the mission to Mesklin would have been nice. A little more about how the Earthmen met the Mesklinites would have been good. But notice that I said "a little." A lot of today's SF seems to think that the background is almost as important as the main plot. Indeed, too much background detracts from the plot and muddles the story.

Okay, I guess enough is enough. I've rambled on about this long enough, but reading MISSION OF GRAVITY brought it out of me. I liked the book for what it was, but it wasn't special.

As I write this, I have less than 48 hours to read two more retro- Hugo nominees as well as one more of the regular Hugo novellas. It isn't going to happen. I'll try to get in MORE THAN HUMAN before the deadline passes and review that.

Until next time. [-jak]

DREAMER OF DUNE by Brian Herbert (copyright 2003, TOR Books, ISBN 0-765-30646-8, 576pp, $27.95, hardcover) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

Up until now, I've only read one biography in my life, that being the biography of J. R. R. Tolkien that I had to read for my Tolkien class at Purdue more than twenty years ago. I don't remember a thing about it. I normally don't read biographies because I find them uninteresting. I was planning on making an exception in the case of DREAMER OF DUNE, not because it's a Hugo nominee this year, but because I was interested in reading about Frank Herbert. The book was languishing on my to read stack until the Hugo nominees came in, but now I had the motivation to read and review it.

I discovered that Frank Herbert was a very colorful, complicated, and unconventional man. I suppose that's not too unusual for someone whose living is made by being creative. I learned all the kinds of things you expect to learn from reading someone's biography: he was married three times, with children from his first two marriages. I learned that he was a newspaper man, had money troubles until his dying day (more about that later), made grandiose plans for his life that he just couldn't keep, had homes in both Hawaii and Washington state, and died of a pulmonary embolism.

I also learned some things about his character. He was tough and intolerant of children because they made noise while he was trying to write. He had a very difficult relationship with Brian because of this. He, and the rest of his family it seems, were secretly unhappy with and not very supportive of his gay son Bruce. This came out in Brian's writing such that it seems that to this day Brian is unsupportive of him, although I can't be sure of that. Frank was also very dependent on his second wife, Beverly, so much so that he couldn't live without her, even though he remarried after she died, to Theresa Shackleford.

I also learned many other things about the man and his work. I had confirmed what I thought I already knew, that he continued to write Dune novels not only because he loved the "Dune" universe but because he had enormous debts to pay, some related to his construction projects, but most because of Beverly's heavy medical bills.

I think you get the point. This seems to have been a typical biography in the sense that the author tells the story of the subject's life in chronological fashion, and that the reader learns all sorts of facts from it.

It was still a difficult read.

Brian's writing style is very jarring, at least here. He seems to have transcribed notes that he jotted down in his journal without much thought to organization and coherence. He brings up things that seem to have no relevance to the part of the story that he is trying to tell, as if they belong there because that it where they happened in Frank's life chronologically. Sentences are very short and choppy, and there doesn't really seem to be much flow to it. There is the occasional incomplete sentence. *That* led me to wonder what his editor was doing when he read the book.

Then there are the things that I would have liked to have known more about that he doesn't go into. Frank's first wife divorced him, and we never find out why. We know that she hounded him for support money, due her as part of the divorce decree, but after a while Brian never said even something simple like, "Dad finally finished support payments to his first wife". My mind still boggles at the idea that Frank was so much in debt, even with the huge advances and royalties he was getting for his work once Dune took off--just what the heck was he spending his riches on, besides medical bills for Beverly? Just one more--Brian mentions a surgery that Frank had wherein it was revealed that Frank had cancer that had spread to several parts of his body. The surgery had surprised Brian--it was unscheduled. He said that he wondered what it was about. Yet, he never followed up and told us--he *must* have found out at some point.

The most touching, moving, and flowing parts of the book deal with Beverly's health struggles, her subsequent death, and Frank's subsequent health problems and eventual quick, surprising death. Here, however, I think we are treated to a different Brian Herbert, a more emotional and insightful side. I think part of it was that it had somewhat turned into an autobiography at that point, as the story was more about Brian and his emotions and less about Frank and Beverly.

I can't see this book being a Hugo nominee. It definitely is of interest to fans of Frank Herbert and people in the SF field. However, I find it very poorly written. I just can't recommend it. [-jak]

THE NOTEBOOK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is a lush but cliched love story, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Don't expect any surprises in this by-the-numbers, rich-girl-poor-boy love story. The photography is lush but the main plot line of the rich girl and the country boy is just too familiar and cliched. The viewer seems to know what will happen long before the characters do. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

In a nursing home an elderly man lovingly reads a story to a woman suffering from senile dementia. They are played by James Garner and Gena Rowlands. The story he is reading is of two young star-crossed lovers. Allie (played by Rachel McAdams) is the daughter of a wealthy upper class family with social standing. Noah (Ryan Gosling) is handsome and likable, but he works at a sawmill. With dash and daring, and some acrobatics on a ferris wheel, Noah wins over Allie. But Allie's mother is dead set against having her daughter marry a man with such limited prospects.

The film really tells two love stories. One about young love and one about two people near the end of their lives. The film spends most of its time in the story about the young lovers. That is probably how Nicholas Sparks's novel is written, but it is a mistake. The film has nothing new or original to say about young love. It is just a reiteration that the path to true love never runs smoothly. This is a well-trodden path and the story does not wander from it for long. The love of the two older people is where most of the interest of the film lies simply because stories of elderly love are much less common and the people feel more real. It also helps that Garner and Rowlands are both fine actors. But even in that part of the story it runs on autopilot and has no surprises.

If I were doctoring this screenplay, I might have shown more of the town and how World War II brought the changes that it inevitably did. We are given two quick scenes of World War II to see how it changed Noah. But they keep these scenes soft and though there is a death it is bloodless. The rest of the film is visualized as a sentimental Hallmark card in a setting that is virtually timeless and unchanging. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse gives us some nice bird photography and keeps the story of the young lovers filtered with earth tones and dramatic red skies. Scenes of the older lovers are decorated in colder blues and grays.

Noah and Allie are young and reasonably attractive as a couple, but not particularly engaging. Sam Shepherd plays Noah's father. The film seems compelled to show us that though he be poor and white in the South, some of his best friends are blacks, just so it is clear that though some people in the South are racist at this time, he is not. That seems a little artificial. Joan Allen plays Allie's very formal mother. She seems to do well, but it is not her first roles as a strong-willed woman. On the other hand, David Thornton as her husband seems much more weak-kneed and like a little boy behind a big moustache.

This film tries hard to create a mood, but does it more with camerawork than with writing. The script by Jeremy Leven is unambitious. I rate THE NOTEBOOK a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]

THE THIRD SOCIETY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This film is really a calling-card from J. A. Steel who writes, directs, stars, and even edits the film. She writes a character composed of parts of Batman, the Destroyer, and Dirty Harry. A woman is kidnapped as part of an extravagant robbery plan and her sister, a legendary cop, goes into action. The result is a film in which a lot of things almost work to make a cliched action film. I see it as a rough draft for a better action film, hopefully to come. Rating: -1 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

"Now justice has a name . . . and a .45." And the name is . . . Jones(????).

A newcomer to the film industry, J. A. Steel writes, directs, edits, and stars in THE THIRD SOCIETY. Orson Welles could have worn all those hats with style. That set of tasks is just a little too demanding for her fledgling talents. A better director might have gotten a better performance from Steel. A better actor would have given the Steel a better performance. But director Steel was not talented enough to get a good performance from actor Steel. A better script would have given both actor and director more to work with. This script gives Jones little more personality than a chess piece has.

What is good about Steel? She has an unconventional look for this kind of role specifically because she is not a babe. She looks hardened like a formidable fighting machine, a valkyrie. I cannot judge her martial arts grace. To me she moves more like a Marine than like a cat. But I know that if there really was such a thing as a Charlie's Angel, she would look like Steel and not like Cameron Diaz.

Cassandra Alexandra Reynolds was hardened by the murder of her parents and lives for revenge. The government had her declared dead and gave her and her sister a new identity as Cassandra Alexandra Jones. Now she works for the Los Angeles Police Department. Somehow just about everybody in the film seems to know her origin so I guess the secret of her identity has not been kept secret. Also her sister seems to have taken the name Jones also. The script is just not very clear on the background. In this story Cameron's sister is kidnapped and forced to make a billion-dollar funds transfer. (I think a figure of ten million would have worked better. A billion-dollar transaction would get a lot of attention.)

Technical support had problems. At times the sound was uneven and the picture was over-exposed. Some scenes look like car ads. One shower scene is almost too many. This film has two and that seems like too many.

J. A. Steel's film is watchable, but I cannot be a lot more positive than that. That is more than I can say for the very early films of David Cronenberg or Peter Greenaway. They got better and perhaps so will Steel. I hope in times to come that she will get better and this film will be an embarrassing first film for her. I rate THE THIRD SOCIETY a -1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 3/10. I haven't a clue what the title refers to. Hint to the viewer: look for lots of goofy stuff in the credits. [-mrl]

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

First, a correction: I said last week that Sam Moskowitz wrote "Microcosmic God". That is incorrect (as several people pointed out); Theodore Sturgeon wrote it, and Moskowitz anthologized it in a book called MICROCOSMIC GOD. (I almost made a similar mistake with the Christopher Anvil story "Mind Partner", which was anthologized by H. L. Gold in a book titled MIND PARTNER AND 8 OTHER NOVELETS FROM GALAXY, but caught that in time. The Moskowitz doesn't even use "and Others" or anything like that.)

Second, I wrote about Anderson's introduction to "Sam Hall" (in THE BEST OF POUL ANDERSON) in which he explains how the McCarthy era wasn't really that bad and the only people complaining were very vocal in their complaints that they couldn't complain and they were probably Commie liberals anyway. Someone asked for a more exact citation, and since I had to type it in anyway, I will include it here. Anderson talks about traveling around Europe on a bicycle and then returning to the United States:

"Returning, I found the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Now this wasn't quite the horror that academic folklore maintains. While no doubt a few innocent people did get harmed, the fact is that others had been the dangerous agents of an implacable enemy; and in any event, as a shrewd observer remarked, the period consisted mainly of intellectuals screaming from the rooftops that they were afraid to speak above a whisper. Actual suppression, when it occurred, was almost always the result of private unofficial hysteria. Still, it didn't take great imagination to see the trend continuing until we really got a dictatorship."

(THE BEST OF POUL ANDERSON, Pocket Books, August 1976, ISBN 0-671- 83140-2, pages 79-80. The ISFDB gives the ISBN for the first printing as 0-671-80671-8; mine is the second printing and has a higher price, so apparently they changed the ISBN for that.)

But now onto some new books (so you can try to find new mistakes. :-)

Stephen Baxter's COALESCENT (ISBN 0-345-45785-4) is about a centuries-old secret society hidden in Rome. Wow, you're thinking, there's an idea that hasn't been used in, oh, the last five minutes. But in the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins, Baxter has come up with something very different than your standard, run-of-the-mill secret society. I liked the concepts behind it, but there are two major problems, one stylistic and one technical. The stylistic one is that most of the book, particularly the parts set in fifth century Britain, feel like giant info-dumps. The technical one is that the evolutionary changes seem to occur much more rapidly than they possibly could--particularly given one of the society's rules, "Sisters matter more than daughters." The implementation of this rule would mean that there would be fewer generations in a given time span (perhaps two a century rather than four), and hence the time for the evolutionary changes is effectively cut in half (it would require twice as long for the same number of generations). In fact, the whole idea behind the rules "sisters are more important than daughters" is to *preserve* genes, while the result Baxter describes seems to be massive genetic change. Ultimately, I think the situation Baxter describes is like the old brain teaser: A king tries to increase the percentage of girls in the kingdom by saying women may keep having children until they have a boy and then they must stop. At first glance, this sounds like it would work, but when you map it out, it will have no effect on the male-female ratio. Similarly, an emphasis on sisters rather than daughters will have no effect either. (There is some hand-waving about all this being because of pheromones rather than innate genetic effects, but I found that unconvincing.)

There was also a lot of extraneous material--strange events in the Kuiper Belt and a couple of chapters at the end centuries later which seem completely disjoint from the rest of the events of the novel--but since this is the first book of "Destiny's Children" it may all get tied up later. I guess I would give this a conditional recommendation--Baxter is generally very readable, and the society and its history are intriguing enough to make it worthwhile.

Katy Podagrosi's EYE OF THE STORM: CHANUTE CLOSES is such a small- press book that I don't expect anyone to be interested, but I will comment that it is a good history of one of the base closings in the 1990s, and lays out just how badly the United States government handled it. The book may be a bit over-board in lauding how well the town handled it all and how it recovered and how it is thriving (the author was the mayor at the time), but its recounting of the inaccurate information on which the closing was based (e.g., the committee was told that the base hospital had only twenty beds, when it had 350) resonated for me with current discussions of just how accurate the information is upon which Congress is basing its decisions these days.

Kathryn and Ross Petras's UNUSUALLY STUPID AMERICANS (ISBN 0-8129- 7082-9) is a collection of the sorts of stories one finds these days at the Obscure News Store ( Categories in the book include "How to Lose an Election" (e.g., "Urinate in a voter's yard"), "Top Food-Related Crimes" (e.g., "Selling Counterfeit Veal"), "Heart-Warming Examples of the IRS in Action" (e.g., "IRS Tries to Dig Up Dead Taxpayer's Body"), and many others. I do dispute one entry though: the Petrases find the New Mexico Official State Motto ("Red or green?") stupid--I find it charming. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           A fanatic is a person who can't change 
           his mind and won't change the subject.
                                          --Winston Churchill

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