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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/26/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 9, Whole Number 1297
Table of Contents
Where Would I Be Without It? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was watching telly in London and they had a news story of a rape case that was solved something like sixteen years after the incident using new methods of investigation. The victim had a pronouncement on the case that for me generated a lot of thought. I cannot improve upon it so I will just repeat it. "Thank God for DNA!" [-mrl]
Forbidden Power (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Arts and Letters Daily http://www.aldaily.com/ called my attention to an article by Chris Mooney in the American Prospect. The article "The Monster That Wouldn't Die: Why Hollywood never seems to get tired of the Frankenstein myth" can be found at http://www.prospect.org/web/printfriendly-view.ww?id=10078.
In the article, Mooney says that he gets very tired of the film industry repeatedly doing versions of the Frankenstein myth in films. Here he means not just films with the Frankenstein monster. He is looking at the broader meaning of the myth. He is looking at all science fiction films in which a mad scientist or a whole scientific community overstep the bounds to knowledge that God has put in placed in His Wisdom. They invent a new life form or drill a hole though the crust of the Earth or clone a dinosaur. In a sense these are all Frankenstein myths reframed.
As a direct result there is Divine Retribution. God somehow seems to find it necessary to punish not just the perpetrators of this blasphemy, but also their entire community and frequently the whole dang world. God apparently feels that everybody has sinned because they allowed this blasphemy to occur. This is a very scary interpretation of religion because it essentially says there is nobody innocent when one person oversteps the bounds placed by God. Those who would appear to be uninvolved are guilty of negligently allowing this impiety to occur in the same world that they share. The moral is that it then behooves everybody to police the world to be sure that God's laws are obeyed. Everyone has a responsibility to be a vigilante for God or will suffer the consequences. I hopefully do not have to remind the reader that that belief is very much in today's headlines.
This myth of the person who brings disaster by trying to achieve more than God allows goes back to Faust and the Sorcerer's Apprentice and the golem and the Tower of Babel and perhaps even to the Garden of Eden story. The belief is that there are things that a human was not meant to know. And if someone finding them out or otherwise breaking God's laws we are all in big trouble.
I personally cannot believe in knowledge that is actually prohibited by God. The Bible claims that are actions that are forbidden, but I know of no place where it says that there is information that is God's top secret knowledge, and we are forbidden to know it. The closest we get is eating of the Tree of Knowledge, whatever that means. And the Bible seems to have it be literal a tree and not metaphorical. The sin of Babel seems to be vanity.
In fact, I would like to think that if there is a God that He would want us to use our minds and to discover all that we can about the world. Just as an artist would want the people who see his work to understand and appreciate what they are seeing in his paintings, so too the more we understand the universe the more any God that I could respect would respect us.
However, religion throughout history has always been the ally of people opposed to change. At least opposed to intellectual change. The Church was never against knowledge of the universe. Even before Galileo's time the Pope had his own astronomers. (At the last Worldcon I heard an astronomer from the Vatican Observatory. I hadnít known it existed, but it goes back beyond Galileo's time.) But when Galileo suggested that the universe did not behave as it had been thought to through the previous history, then Galileo was in trouble with the Church. God apparently wanted us to have knowledge but was opposed to changing the interpretation of that knowledge. There is a very natural fear of change universally. People do not like the unexpected. They project this prejudice onto their god. God is believed to be opposed to all scientific change. I find that very hard to accept.
We see the religious fear of change in current politics. This was not a new argument with stem cell research. Ministers in the Americas blamed the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake on God's wrath over the invention of the lightning rod. This was seen as a device that turned aside His righteous lightning. There were strong religious protests over the introduction of vaccination to fight disease for very similar reasons. Disease was supposedly God's tool to use as He saw fit. It was considered by many to be wrong to resist diseases in this way. And again if A was vaccinating B, C was against it because he was afraid that he--C--would be punished. That argument is actually still with us. There are religious protests against doing AIDS research by religious people who believe that AIDS is God's vengeance against homosexuals and hence curing AIDS is against God's Will..
Hanns Heinz Ewers's novel ALRAUNE is about a beautiful woman who at the same time is a soulless monster intentionally bringing ruin and destruction to all who know her. And how did she become a soulless monster? Her birth was the result of an artificial insemination, and hence it broke God's laws. This story was done as a film no less than four times, once as recently as 1952.
I think today we recognize that artificial insemination is no more playing God than is vaccination or putting up a lightning rod. That is not what we mean by playing God. Though I am not sure there is a common definition as to what playing God is. I do not think it is something that can be done in a science laboratory. Playing God was motioning left or right with a riding crop to new arrivals at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. And there was nothing very scientific about that.
So do I have no fears for this brave new world of scientific knowledge? Well, not for the knowledge itself, but the empowerment the knowledge brings scares me a great deal. This is an age of empowerment when individuals or small groups can achieve a lot more than even governments could even two decades ago. Private enterprise is now putting rockets into space and selling passenger space for tourism. SpaceShipOne shows that individuals with a little capital can go into space. That feels pretty good until I start thinking of SpaceShipOne and El Qaeda in the same thought. Suddenly I am not so sure I want so much empowerment. Certainly I do not like universal distribution of empowerment. Universal empowerment was what the Krell of FORBIDDEN PLANET provided their people. It turned out to be a fatal mistake. And we are approaching a time when individuals or small groups will be able to wage nuclear or chemical or biological war. I do not know if we were meant to have such power or not meant to, but I do fear for when it happens. [-mrl]
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, copyright 2005, 652pp, $29.99, ISBN 0-439-78454-9) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
[SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers. Another warning will appear right before the spoiler, but you may want to skip it entirely if you don't want to risk it. -ecl]
So, when I reviewed the audio book of HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, I said something like, "It's too late to stop reading HP now". Hounded by my daughter mercilessly the evening of July 15th to allow her to go to the midnight release party of HALF-BLOOD PRINCE when she had to be up very early the next day for a softball game (the Scrooge-like answer from both my wife and myself was, "No--you'll get the book after your game tomorrow"), I knew that I would eventually get around to reading this one as well. We did indeed pick up our copy at about 11:45 on Saturday morning, and by 7:30 that night my daughter had finished reading it. By 5:30 the next day my son had finished reading it. By Monday night my wife had finished reading it. Not to be outdone, I gave in and started reading it on the train to work on Tuesday.
And promptly took about a week to finish it off. I suppose that's what happens when you don't drop everything else and read the book from start to finish in one or two sittings.
But you know, I can see the appeal of this one. Rowling has gotten it right this time, I think. The story is fast-paced, there is no padding to speak of (it's actually shorter than the previous two books in the series), and Rowling had made every one and every thing in it interesting to say the least. And, for the first time, the reader can see some of the method behind Rowling's madness, if you will, as she begins to tie things from all the previous books together in this one, and set the up the final, probably apocalyptic confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.
It is year six for the gang of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry has been named captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, but that's about all the happy stuff there is. At the end of PHOENIX, we know that Voldemort and his Death Eaters are about, killing people and generally terrorizing the Wizard population. The book actually starts out in the office of the Prime Minister of England, and recounts his meeting with the new head of the Ministry of Magic, as Fudge has been relieved of duty after the fiasco of the events of PHOENIX. It turns out that every Prime Minister gets to meet the head of the Ministry of Magic, and there is no need to worry about secrecy. After all, if you were Prime Minister would *you* tell someone about Wizards and all that sort of goings on? I thought not. Anyway, Hogwarts is under heavy security. Everything is checked going in and out of the school. In fact, the parallels between world events after 9/11 and what's going on at Hogwarts are eerie. Anyhow, Dumbledore decides to take Harry under his wing and give him private lessons. These lessons are really an excuse for Dumbledore to fill Harry in on all things Voldemort.
Here is where the novel sets itself apart from the earlier entries in the series. Voldemort is no longer some faceless enemy--we get his background fleshed out. We now know who he is and what motivates him. This really becomes a key for both Harry and the reader--we are given reasons to truly dislike or hate him. In fact, Rowling does an outstanding job in continuing to flesh out her characters. They are getting older, and acting more like teenagers or young adults than young students. They have real feelings and emotions, as evidenced by Ron's relationship with Lavender, Harry's with Ginny, and Bill Weasley with Fleur. This is yet another theme that runs through the novel - the fact that love is more powerful than any magic, whether that be a romantic kind of love, or the love that nurtures close friendships, or the love parents and children have for each other.
Of course, the big story is that a major character is killed off. SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read the novel and don't want it spoiled, skip ahead to the END SPOILER. Otherwise, carry on reading. The death of Dumbledore is disappointing in more ways than one. First of all, the actual act of the murder of Dumbledore by Snape seemed disappointing and not quite right to me. Certainly, Rowling makes the reader pity Draco Malfoy, as he is supposed to be the one to kill Dumbledore but can't bring himself to do it, so Snape does because of the Unbreakable Vow he makes early on in the novel. However, I expected something more spectacular than what Rowling gave us. Furthermore, it is cheapened by the unbelievable fact that Dumbledore trusted Snape to the bitter end. I found it too difficult to be upset that Dumbledore was killed because of the simple fact that he was actually stupid enough to trust Snape. However, I'll have to say that Dumbledore's funeral scene is one of the best funeral scene's I've ever read, from the singing of the Mermaids to the pure emotion on the faces of everyone to the excruciating decision that Harry has to make. It was very well done.
So, all in all a pretty fine effort from Rowling. There is one novel to go and a lot to cover. Stay tuned. If it's as good as this one, it will be terrific. [-jak]
What I Read on Summer Vacation (book reviews by Dale L. Skran Jr.):
As I have just returned from a restful vacation in Scotland where I was able to catch up on my reading, I decided to produce a "batch review" covering just those books that I read "while on summer vacation," started reading during the vacation, or finished just before leaving--okay--I am stretching this a bit to include a particular book.
THE SNOW by Adam Roberts
This is a J. G. Ballard-type disaster novel, where the end comes, not via heat, rain, or wind, but SNOW. I am only up to page 75 but it has that distinctly British pessimism and stiff upper lip.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE by J.K. Rowling
Another page-turner from Rowling, this is a decent sixth book full of major revelations about he who must not be named and big plot events I will not mention. It follows the standard Potter formulation, but for the first time reveals a lot about Voldemort's past. It also follows the series pattern of bigger and splashier action scenes at the end. This one features Dumbledore and Harry fighting a lake full of zombies. Thankfully, it is not a dark and mean as the fifth book. A lot of plot threads are tied up, and the stage is set for the final battle between Voldemort and Harry in the seventh and hopefully final book in the series.
CENTURY RAIN by Alastair Reynolds
I actually finished this book just before I left for the convention, but Jo read it during the convention, and we got Reynolds to autograph it, so I thought it ought to be included. I have read and liked all of Reynold's previous books, but they tend to be overly complex and somewhat creepy. CENTURY RAIN has a much simpler plot structure and less creepiness.
It is the future. The Earth has been destroyed in a nano-tech catastrophe, and the human race lives off-earth. There are two main political groups--the slashers [from slash dot] and the threshers [from threshold]. The slashers have fully embraced technology, in spite of the disaster on Earth, while the threshers believe in holding back from more advanced nanotech in an attempt to prevent future disasters.
The threshers have discovered a portal to what appears to be a different time located in a cave inside Phobos. If you travel through the portal, you show up in Paris in 1959. But is it really Paris, and is it really the past? The threshers are using the tunnel to collect books and such from the past that were destroyed in the nanochaust. As they study the books it becomes clear that this is an alternate Earth in which WWII ran a different course, avoiding the massive loss of life we experienced, but also missing out on the tremendous push to technology that the war gave.
One thread of the novel follows a Parisian detective investigating a murder, while another thread follows a thresher agent sent to investigate the same murder. At this point, we are just setting the stage. Wonder follows wonder, as the fantastic truth about what is really going on comes out, concluding in the kind of epic space battle that Reynolds specializes in. I plan on nominating this novel for the Hugo. Reynolds, a professional astronomer, now retired to write fiction full-time, has contributed a well-executed and original novel, which can only build his reputation.
RAVENOR by Dan Abnett
This is the first book in a new series by Dan Abnett, best known for the "Ghaunt's Ghosts" series and also the "Inquisitor Eisenhorn" series, all set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I managed to seek him out at the con and collect his autograph on this book, and discovered that he is well known as a comic writer, having most recently been scripting the Legion of Super Heroes, which I had in fact been reading.
Unfortunately, the "Ravenor" series, chronicling the adventures of a grand inquisitor confined to a life-support system, is simply not as engaging as his other work, in large part because Ravenor is more off-stage and less compelling that Ghaunt or Eisenhorn. These dark, violence soaked books are not for everyone, and if you find the premise interesting, I suggest taking a look his other works. I will say that I find most game- based fiction to be dreck, but for some reason the "Warhammer 40,000" books, especially the space opera ones, seem to rise above the usual run of game fiction.
OLYMPOS by Dan Simmons
OLYMPOS is the sequel to the earlier ILIUM, and has a complex premise. First, there is a post-Singularity earth, populated by a few million Eoli who spend their time having sex and watching an elaborate live-action drama of the Iliad. The post-humans are all dead, or perhaps gone, but the world is littered with their artifacts, including such grand conceptions as the Atlantic Rift, a force-field path that allows a person to cross the Atlantic on foot. But it turns out that they are not just watching a TV drama--on an alternate Earth the Iliad is being re-enacted with real gods. It gets stranger from there, and includes the last literate man, the Wandering Jew, Odysseus, Caliban, and monsters from other dimensions.
I have just realized that I don't have the stomach for trying to summarize the plot of this elaborate book. It combines high adventure with literature and more than a bit of violence into something that is hard to describe but is interesting to read. If anything, I liked the second book more than the first. It is about men and women trying to re-discover what it means to be human in a world of gods and monsters, and about what happens to you if you answer the question "Do you want to be a god?" with a yes. And to some extent it is a cautionary tale about what the Singularity might really mean--a world stranger--and more horrible--than we can imagine!
ENGINE CITY by Ken Macleod
Ken Macleod attempts to complete his somewhat turgid and overwritten "Engines of Light" series. Although vaguely set in a post-Singularity universe, it always seems to be more about the politics of today than anything else. Although I really like some of Ken's earlier books, I feel like he is losing steam. The one book by Macleod I can strongly recommend is THE CASSINI DIVISION.
ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross
We are all deeply in debt to Vernor Vinge for pointing out that something like the Singularity might occur, and that much of SF was pure nonsense since it ignored the likelihood of such a thing. Various writers have taken up this challenge, and here a strong new writer tries to tell the story of a particular, rather dysfunctional, family as it evolves through the singularity.
There is a bit of a trick behind the story which I will not reveal, which once put on stage, makes the whole plot seem more likely. Suffice to say, the major characters are never quite in charge of things as they think. Stross has a really neat new idea about what happens to intelligence as it evolves, and why we see the Fermi paradox. I think his idea is original, and a real contribution. He also does a good job of conveying the fast-pace of modern business and how it may evolve as we get more and more connected. Stross has also figured out a way to write a post- singularity story about recognizably human characters while treating the Singularity in a realistic fashion--his approach is much more plausible than the "slow zone" gimmick Vinge has been using.
Stross is the weakest in portraying the sex lives of his characters. Stross has given Manfred a major kink, I think mainly to illustrate how people might use advanced technology to un-kink themselves, but it just doesn't work. Manfred's wife/ex- wife the IRS agent seems wholly unbelievable as well--just a caricature. The couple is so extreme that it really detracts from the rest of the book, which is excellent. Another flaw in the book is that the character of Manfred is derived in some part from an "Analog" story called "Owe Me" in that he never gets paid and collects favors which he uses to pay for things.
Due graphic sex scenes of an unusual nature, this is clearly not a book for kids, but Stross has written a great novel of ideas, and presented a vivid picture of a family changing as it passes though the singularity. [-dls]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In his introduction, H. R. F. Keating says that his CRIME & MYSTERY: THE 100 BEST BOOKS (ISBN 0-88184-441-1) would be better titled "One Hundred Very Good Crime and Mystery Books, Taking into Account that No Author Should be Represented by More Than Three Titles (So As To Be Fair to Others) and Allowing for a Little Personal Idiosyncracy in Naming One or Two Whom the Majority of Other Commentators Might Not Have Chosen Very Readily". (And as the publisher notes, modesty forbade Keating from including any of his own stories.) At any rate, Keating gives us a two-page essay on each work: why it is included, what its flaws are, which other works by the same author are considered on a par (or perhaps even better), and so on. He rarely gives spoilers, but when he does, he warns the reader first. Keating starts with Edgar Allan Poe in 1845 and ends with a 1986 P. D. James novel. Since this book was published in 1987, that makes it as up-to-date as it could be, but obviously provides no guidance for the last two decades. Still, for those wanting to sample the classic mysteries, this book is the perfect companion.
Pat and Fred Cody's CODY'S BOOKS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A BERKELEY BOOKSTORE 1956-1977 (ISBN 0-8118-0140-3) is at times more about Berkeley in that turbulent time than about the bookstore itself. People looking for tips on how to start and operate a bookstore will find some information here, but even that is of more interest historically than practically. When Cody's started as a paperback bookstore, distribution, marketing, and just about every other aspect of book-selling was very different than it is now. (And by paperback bookstore, they seem to have meant primarily trade paperbacks, not mass market.) So far as I can tell, in fact, the store was kept afloat for many years only by the wildly successful European art calendars, in a time when there was not an American calendar industry other than those given away by service stations and such. This book probably has its greatest appeal as a history of those times in Berkeley from someone "on the front lines", so to speak. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: God MADE us such that we would eat of that fruit, God would have been ashamed of us if we hadn't done it. God would never have bothered to make a man and a woman to live out their days dreaming in a garden. -- Russell Hoban, PILGERMANN
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