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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/09/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 11, Whole Number 1299
Table of Contents
Your Horoscope (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
(Due to economy concerns we cannot provide complete horoscopes. Your cooperation is appreciated.)
Taurus: This would be a good time to review your investments. Trust your friends. That is what makes them your friends.
Everyone else: Turn off your cell phone in theaters. Don't be a putz. [-mrl]
The LA Theatre Works (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A while back I wrote several columns about drama to be found on the Internet. I found a really good online drama site, though this is not strictly speaking radio drama. When I was in Los Angeles on family business going to bed one night I heard on the radio the LA Theatre Works's production of Arthur Miller's THE RIDE DOWN MT. MORGAN. It was Miller and the play starred Brian Cox, who is an exceptionally good actor I have liked in other things. I had paid to see this play on Broadway. As I was listening they said the play would be available at their web site for one week. That was all I needed to hear. It turns out every week they have a two-hour (with trimmings before and after) play. Most are major (as in Broadway or off-Broadway) plays and they have actors like Annette Benning, Ed Begley Jr., and Ed Asner. After seven days they give you only the first fifteen minutes of the play and put the current play up in full. But it is probably the best site for downloadable drama on the web:
Everything I Ever Needed To Know about Being in the Time Patrol I Learned from Cheating at Solitaire (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about a group of time policemen called the Time Patrol. They go back in time and change history or protect history from being changed. I have had a chance to actually experiment with going back in time and seeing how well I can make things right. It comes from an unexpected source.
I carry a palmtop computer in my pocket and use it probably every waking hour in the day. Perhaps it is every half-hour. Most of the applications are fairly practical, but I also have a few games. One of these games is Klondike. This is and electronic version of what is probably the best-known card solitaire game. In fact, most people just call the game "solitaire." There are seven stacks of cards, and four collection stacks, one for each suit, etc.
The palmtop version of the game has a feature that just recently I have taken more notice of. It has a backspace key with which the user can back the game up one step. Using it is probably "cheating" by the standard rules. But since the game makes a few moves automatically that anyone in his right mind would make, they probably wanted to still give the player a chance to back those moves out. So the players are given the capability to back up a step. In fact hitting the backspace key repeatedly backs the game up as far as the user wants. He can go all the way back to the beginning of the game.
It occurred to me, that this game could be used as a sort of laboratory for examining the sort of assumptions made by science fiction authors in time travel stories. Poul Andersen wrote his stores about an organization of agents who go back in time and try to influence events based on their knowledge of the future. If we think of the game as a metaphor for a period of history one has the capability to back up the clock, make a different decision based on knowledge of what is to come, and see how the game plays out. If we do not like that one we can go further back and change it again.
I won't say I have discovered anything very astounding about time patrolling, playing this game. Mostly I just have confirmations of things that most science fiction writers have assumed. What have I learned follows.
I suppose none of this is really surprising, but it is always interesting to see examples of it and to see that it is true. Now I am ready for the Time Patrol. Where do I sign up? [-mrl]
Asterisks in the Name of Decency Are No Defense! (letter of comment by Charles S. Harris):
In response to Mark's article in the 08/19/05 issue of the MT VOID, Charles S. Harris says, "Amazon.com lists and pictures this book with its *full* title. On a related note, Amazon.com lists my erstwhile scientific collaborator Naomi Weisstein's CD ["Papa, Don't Lay That . . ."] with its full title . . . but the accompanying photo of its cover is the version with 4 asterisks! B&N features the uncensored (though barely visible) cover. Music Outfitter has a photo of the unexpurgated cover, but the crucial word is *hyphenated* in their text . . . and totally *vowelless* in their URL! . . . Interestingly, Amazon.com takes the opposite stance on Oliver James' (reprehensible) book, 'They F You Up': unexpurgated cover photo, 3 asterisks in the listing (whereas Amazon.co.uk has asterisks in both)." [-csh]
[We have dropped the URLs because they may cause either nanny filters or spam filters to decide this is filterable. You can search on the titles yourself. -ecl]
KEANE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review originally ran in the 01/21/05 issue of the MT VOID, but is being re-run since the film is opening this week.]
CAPSULE: A manic-depressive searches for his kidnapped daughter in and around New York's Port Authority. The film is much more realistic than entertaining. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
The subject is mental illness in this film written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan. The film is set mostly in and around New York City's Port Authority building. William Keane (played by Damian Lewis of BAND OF BROTHERS) may or may not have been normal a few months ago when he lost his daughter, but he certainly is not now. His daughter was kidnapped several months earlier from the Port Authority building. Now he is fixated on finding her again. He searches the area over and over accosting strangers and asking if they have seen his daughter. In very long takes we see him stopping strangers, talking to himself, walking in traffic and in tunnels, and playing detective in his mind looking for his lost seven-year-old daughter. He seems to have become a familiar hazard to navigation in the area.
When he is not searching he is making a pest of himself haunting bars causing trouble. In one scene he goes to a prostitute and in just a matter of a few minutes himself persona non grata with her. He is the prisoner of his mania. Finally he starts to break out of this routine when he meets a young woman from the same cheap hotel where he stays. She has a daughter just about the age of the daughter he has lost. The anguish he feels for his daughter becomes a mania to help them.
Through much of the film not much happens and plot complications are slow in coming. Instead we are given long takes showing Keane behaving as a schizophrenic. His voice-overs put us in the mind of a manic-depressive and show us how he would be thinking. This is someone we have seen and most of us never look inside. But the film shows us his thought patterns in ways we have not seen before. The portrait is strong and very downbeat. It is a story rather than just a portrait of the illness, but it is too slow to be much of a story. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last month our science fiction discussion group read Jorge Luis Borges's LABYRINTHS: SELECTED STORIES AND OTHER WRITINGS (ISBN 0-811-20012-4). As I described it to the group, "The fiction in this is included in COLLECTED FICTIONS (ISBN 0-140-28680-2), a 1998 collection of all Borges's fiction. Several of the stories come from an earlier collection, FICCIONES (ISBN 0-802-13030-5). Many (all?) of the essays and parables are in SELECTED NON- FICTIONS (ISBN 0-140-29011-7). All this is almost as convoluted as one of Borges's stories!"
But it gets better. LABYRINTHS, FICCIONES, and COLLECTED FICTIONS all have different translators for the corresponding stories. For copyright reasons, the translations used in FICCIONES in 1962 could not be used for LABYRINTHS two years later. And COLLECTED FICTIONS is an attempt by Borges's estate (i.e., widow) to produce a consistent new packaging of all his work. So (for example), "Death and the Compass" is translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES (ISBN 0-142-43788-3), Andrew Kerrigan in FICCIONES, Donald A. Yates in LABYRINTHS, and Andrew Hurley in COLLECTED FICTIONS.
(Oh, and THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES is not the same collection of stories as the Spanish collection of Borges's work titled EL ALEPH.)
And just so you can see how translations can vary, here is the first line from "Death and the Compass", first in the original Spanish, and then in each translation:
Original Spanish: "De los muchoes problemas que ejercitaron la temeraria perspicacia de Lonnrot, ninguno tan extrano--tan rigurosamente extrano, diremos--como la periodica serie de hechos de sangre que culminaron en la quinta de Triste-le-Roy, entre el interminable olor de los eucaliptos."
Norman Thomas di Giovanni: "Of the many problems ever to tax Erik Lonnot's rash mind, none was so strange--so methodically strange, let us say--as the intermittent series of murders which came to a culmination amid the incessant odor of eucalyptus trees at the villa Triste-Le-Roy."
Andrew Kerrigan: "Of the many problems which exercised the daring perspicacity of Lonnrot none was so strange--so harshly strange, we may say--as the staggered series of bloody acts which culminated at the villa of Triste-le-Roy, amid the boundless odor of the eucalypti.
Donald A. Yates: "Of the many problems which exercised the reckless discernment of Lonnrot, none was so strange--so rigorously strange, shall we say--as the periodic series of bloody events which culminated at the villa of Triste-Le-Roy, amid the ceaseless aroma of the eucalypti."
Andrew Hurley: "Of the many problems on which Lonnrot's reckless perspicacity was exercised, none was so strange--so rigorously strange, one might say--as the periodic series of bloody deeds that culminated at the Villa Triste-Le-Roy, amid the perpetual fragrance of the eucalyptus."
(For what it's worth, I do think that Hurley's is the best, at least for this sentence.)
And if you think this column is long so far, remember I have not even gotten to the stories. Luckily for you I am going to limit my comments primarily to "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"), because "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" itself, though only twenty pages long, easily generates an entire column of comments on its own. It is so full of minutiae and detail--almost every sentence is worth noting or commenting on.
Uqbar is a fictional country, Tlon a fictional planet, and Orbis Tertius . . . well, it is not clear what Orbis Tertius is.
Uqbar is almost a practice run here, with Borges describing an article about it which appeared only in a some copies of pirated edition of the 1902 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" called the "Anglo- American Cyclopaedia". Uqbar is terrestrial, even if one is unable to determine its exact location.
Tlon is much more developed, with a mysterious "First Encyclopedia of Tlon" as the source of information. "Orbis Tertius" is stamped on a couple of pages of the one volume Borges has seen. Whether it is a location, a publisher, a bookseller, or something else is never explained, not why the title puts Urqar in the middle, when it has nothing to do with either of the other two.
Borges's description of the encyclopedia volume having 1001 pages evokes the 1001 nights of Arabian legend. And when he says that he had a description of "an unknown planet [Tlon] with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sound of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, . . ., its algebra and its fire," this reminds one of the Chinese categorization system in Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" (found in OTHER INQUISITIONS).
Part of what makes this story evoke others is that it is a story about world-building and shared worlds. Borges says it would take many people who were experts in their fields and also willing to "[submit] that inventiveness to a strict, systematic plan." Ask any organizer of a shared-world anthology (for a new world, not a pre-existing one) how easy that is!
Tlon has a language that is entirely verbs and adverbs (no nouns) (e.g., "upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling"), and another that is only adjectives (e.g., "airy-clear over dark- round"). One wonders if the author of the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Darmok" had read this. In that episode, there is a race that speaks entirely in analogies, similes, and metaphors. Borges is somewhat more convincing--he does not have the Tlonians developing a high technology with their languages.
Almost every sentence makes one want to stop and think. He talks about the Tlonians' notion of what is an object: "There are objects made up of two sense elements, one visual, and the other auditory--the color of a sunrise and the distant call of a bird." Or "The metaphysicians of Tlon are not looking for truth, or even an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement." One reads those and gets a frisson, a real sense of wonder.
The poems "made up of one enormous word." Some might say this reminds them of German, but I though of the sentences in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", which are written as a single whole entity rather than a sequence of component words.
If you want a philosophy of time, Borges gives you a half dozen such philosophies on a single page. Each of those could be elaborated into an entire culture. (There's an idea--an anthology of stories all inspired by Borges. I freely give this idea to any editor who wants it, because I would love to read such an anthology!)
(We have now reached just the halfway point of the story!)
The arithmetical system of Tlon "states that the operation of counting modifies quantities and changes them from indefinites into definites." The former reminds one of the common conception (or perhaps misconception is more accurate) of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: that observation modifies the objects observed. (Though this is not what Heisenberg said, it is indeed quite often true, particularly with sentient objects.) The latter sound like an expression of the Schroedinger's Cat experiment, where the wave form does not collapse until an observer peeks into the box. It is actually a better example in some ways, since one objection to Schroedinger's Cat is that the cat is already an observer. So the non-sentience of numbers weakens the first part of the description and strengthens the latter.
"Thus was discovered the unfitness of witnesses who were aware of the experimental nature of the search...." Well, anyone who has studied clinical trials that use single- and double-blind experiments knows that this is true.
Borges's description of the various stages of "hronir" ("copies" of a sort) starts with the notion that copies get less and less accurate, but then assumes other changes, to the extent that "[hronirs] of the eleventh degree have a purity of form which the originals do not possess," making them perhaps a version of Platonic forms.
Encyclopedias have often had revisions in subsequent editions. However, Borges's description of the revisions in "First Encyclopedia of Tlon" being "in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world" calls to my mind the idea that when a science fiction author makes mistakes in science in a book or story, and it is pointed out, he usually wants to fix this. (For example, the first edition--but not later ones--of Larry Niven's RINGWORLD has the Earth rotating in the wrong direction!)
And finally, Borges postulates, "Contact with Tlon and the ways of Tlon have disintegrated this world. . . . Now the conjectural 'primitive language' of Tlon has found its way into the schools. Now, the teaching of its harmonious history, full of stirring episodes, has obliterated the history which dominated my childhood." This brings up two parallels to me. First, that of becoming so immersed in a fictional world that it starts to seem real. Whether the Society of Creative Anachronism qualifies here is not clear, but two more inarguable examples would be the Sherlockian who maintain that Holmes and Watson were real and that Doyle was merely Watson's literary agent, and the Trekkies/Trekkers who spend time learning Klingon and translating Shakespeare into it. (And then claiming that that is the original!) And the other parallel would be to the idea that what is taught in the schools as history changes over time. People talk about this in regard to political correctness these days, but it is much older than that. Some of it is "the victors write the history books" and some is an attempt to change the society itself. Borges's references to Communism and Fascism make clear, I think, just what sort of revisionism he is talking about here.
This wealth of allusions and ideas is all the more astonishing when one realizes that "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" was Borges's second work of fiction, published in May 1940 (with a postscript added in 1947). (His first was "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote", published a year earlier.)
"Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" is shorter and has less density of ideas, though as biographer James Woodall noted, in it Borges "carries out a razor-sharp act of literary deconstruction long before any 1960s toiling campus critic promoted the cause for actual academic use."
These were followed in 1941 by "The Circular Ruins", "The Library of Babel" (arguably Borges's most famous story) and "The Babylonian Lottery". The latter is clearly commenting on the arbitrariness and irrationality of the political systems that Borge was seeing at the time (especially given its reference to Kakfa ["its sacred privy called Qaphqa"]). But when I read it now, the image it brings to my mind is that of the transition scene in the film DARK CITY, where the poor become rich, and the rich lose their status. Could this be a reference to Borges?
One more comment: The most common recurring reference in Borges's work is to mirrors. They are mentioned in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "The Library of Babel", "Funes the Memorious", "Death and the Compass", "The Theologians", "Story of the Warrior and the Captive", "Emma Zunz", "Averroes' Search", and "A New Refutation of Time". (And I may not have caught them all.)
The most notable and important stories in LABYRINTHS are "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "The Garden of Forking Paths" (a spy story), "The Lottery in Babylon" (a Kafka-esque society), "The Library of Babel" (an infinite library), and "Death and the Compass" (a detective story). While these form the core reading of Borges's fiction, the other eighteen stories, ten essays, and eight parables are well worth reading as well. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: You don't have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone. -- John Ciardi
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