MT VOID 10/07/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 15, Whole Number 1303

MT VOID 10/07/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 15, Whole Number 1303

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/07/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 15, Whole Number 1303

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

Top 50 SF Television Shows (correction):

Last week's MT VOID said, "The A&E Network has listed ... their picks as the top fifty science fiction television shows of all time." It was's list, not the A&E Network. (The confusion was caused by the fact it was in the "A&E" section of

London Travelogue Available (better site pointer):

My log of our recent trip to London is now available at, which should not have the bandwidth blocking problems that my geocities site has. [-ecl]

Intelligent Design (site pointer):

For another take on intelligent design, see

Robert A. Heinlein (site pointer):

There is an essay on Heinlein and feminism in the New York Times, at This requires registration now, and may disappear after 10/12/05 (or may not--I can't figure out which disappear and which don't). [-ecl]

Your Horoscope (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

(Due to economy concerns we cannot provide complete horoscopes. Your cooperation is appreciated.)

Sagattarius: Switch to a sign that is a little easier to spell, please. I am not going to be doing any more horoscopes for this sign, so you might as well switch. How's this? From now on you are all Leos. I give you special permission to be Leos. Domini, Domini, Domini. You're all Leos. OK?

Everyone else: If your sign has more than six letters, maybe you should switch also. [-mrl]

My Take on "Firefly" (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

A man sits on a sand dune. There appears to be nobody around for many miles of desert in any direction. That may be a good thing because the man is stark naked. There is no sign of his clothing anywhere. The man is apparently reflecting on the events that brought him here. "That went well." You immediately find yourself wondering what has happened and where he would have been and in what state if things had not gone so well. This is the beginning of an episode of the TV series "Firefly".

I didn't watch "Firefly" when it was originally broadcast. When it was first on I did watch the first broadcast episode, and it just did not appeal to me. It was sort of a western set in space. These western-in-space things used to be called "space operas" from the term "horse opera." Since then the term "space opera" has become more respectable while westerns set in space have not. I knew by this time that it was another series created by Joss Whedon. Whedon had created and was the moving force behind "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer". That show had a big cult following that did not include me. I had watched the rebroadcast first three seasons of Buffy and felt that was all of my time that "Buffy" had deserved. I had warmed to the series, but only a little. Hearing that the current episodes involved Buffy-bots did not encourage me.

So I let the series "Firefly" go without my watching it. Occasionally on the next few weeks--and it was only a few weeks-- people would say that they actually liked the series. But these were some of the same people who waxed enthusiastic on "Buffy". Also by then I had missed a lot of "Firefly". I really do not have too much time for weekly television shows in my schedule. It could not have been too many weeks after that that I heard that the series had been cancelled and was to be taken off television. At the time it did not bother me at all.

Almost immediately there sprang up write-in campaigns to save the series. Again I saw this as a disinterested third party. But it was curious that there were so many people who really liked the bland space western that I thought I saw in the first episode. A little while later I heard that the entire series was on DVD. Okay, if I could borrow it from someone I might go back and watch the series. And indeed a good friend had the entire series and would lend it to me. (These days you do not risk a lot by missing a TV series. The good ones seem to all show up on DVD. (I am waiting avidly for the "Meet the Press, Season 57, Collector's Edition" with the WMD Easter Egg.))

I cannot say I ever was a strong fan of "Firefly" even when I had seen the whole series, but I have to admit I was wrong and it would have been worth watching. I saw an episode I liked and then another one. The characters were a mixed bag, but that worked well. That was much of the point. Certainly it was a reaction to the early days of "Star Trek" when everybody worked so well as a team on the Enterprise. There was a little needling, even in "Star Trek" but on the whole everybody liked and respected everybody else on the Enterprise. The same was true in "Star Trek: The Next Generation", but in addition everybody was the very best at their profession. The doctor was one of the top medical researchers in the Federation. The kid turned out to be a genius comparable to Mozart. It was all a little too wonderful for my taste.

By contrast, the crew and passengers of the Serenity in "Firefly" really were much more like people I would see at work. There was a lot of distrust and occasionally betrayals. This was not the spic-and-span universe of "Star Trek"'s Federation. In fact the central enemy on "Firefly" was the Alliance, an axis not a lot different from "Star Trek"'s Federation. This was a future without "Star Trek"'s rubbery-faced aliens. Everybody was a descendent of old Terra. Also in "Firefly" people got hurt. People may have even gotten killed, if I remember right. They were facing an enemy that could crush them. The Enterprise rarely found an enemy they could not stomp. If they did find such a species, the Enterprise would find a way to stomp them (mercifully) six episodes later. The Enterprise never knew a no-win situation. In "Firefly" there were at least some compromises that had to be made.

How do I feel about "Firefly"? I don't love it. I think it is better than "Star Trek". (Well, maybe "Star Trek" got better the last season. Like a light bulb, "Star Trek" was its brightest just before it blinked out.) The writing of "Firefly" was often likeable and I admit chuckling at dialog. Now that we find out what it really was all about with the release of SERENITY, I feel quite positive toward the series as a whole. There were some good ideas that just did not come out in the series until the film capped it. The friends who told me I should be watching it were probably right. [-mrl]

Bell Labs and Science Fiction (quote from Fred Pohl story):

Fred Pohl's latest story, "Generations" (Asimov's, Sep 2005), has a mention of Bell Labs:

"Since so many American facilities got merged or shut down entirely due to the War not a lot was happening in theoretical physics. ... This seemed to piss my father off even more than it did Ron. 'You're too young to remember,' he'd tell me, 'but I was around when places like Fermilab and Stanford and Bell Labs were turning up new stuff every day. You don't know about Bell Labs, do you? They invented the transistor there, and Claude Shannon developed his information theories, and Rudi Kampfner invented the traveling-wave tube and God knows what all else. It wasn't the Arabs that did the Labs in, either. It was just corporate greed.'"

[Pohl lived in Red Bank, NJ, for a long time, so he is familiar with the Labs from way back.] [-ecl]

Horoscopes (letter of comment by

As it is clear that economic considerations require a cutback in your budget for astrological natal horology, I have taken the liberty of sending in not just my sign, but my horoscope as well.

Aries: Everything you wanted will happen. Today is a good day for thanking people for their contributions to your welfare. Consider other's needs before you do what's right.

All other signs: donating your time, energy and money to an Aries will make him happy. Take joy in the happiness of others.


Math Innumeracy (pointer by Charles S. Harris):

Charles S. Harris writes that has the following shaving tip:

"As long as I'm departing from the usual this week, here's a tip the razor blade companies don't want you to know about. If you shave with a blade - any blade - rinse it in cold water while you're shaving, then in rubbing alcohol before you set it to dry. That will prevent mineral crystals from forming on the edge as quickly, and will increase the life of your blade a couple hundredfold. I routinely get fifteen to twenty shaves from an ordinary blade."

Charlie comments, "So without the special treatment, he normally gets less than 0.1 shave per blade?" [-csh]

Mark notes, "Sometimes it seems that 10,000% of the population does not understand even simple math."

Harry Potter Site (letter of comment by Donald Blosser):

Donald Blosser wrote asking for clarification: "The Harry Potter web-site keeps coming up server not found. I tried a couple variations but still get "not found". Is there an extra character or two or missing characters in the URL?"

We probably should have explained more clearly. To construct the real URL, start with the phony URL , take out the string "{NAME}", put in its place the appropriate character's name, and try to go to that site. If you have not substituted the proper character's name the site will not exist. If you think the character is Bozo, try . If there is no web site there the character is not Bozo. [-mrl]

[I have also seen the syntax "[Deceased Character]". -ecl]

WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Nick Park's animated comic duo is back, this time in a feature-length satire of Terence Fisher's CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and several other films. The previous Wallace & Gromit adventures have been shorter and more dependent on cuteness. The script this time is really better than the animation and the result is genuinely funny. This is an animated film, but it aims to please the whole family and its aim is good. Adults will appreciate the humor perhaps more than the kids, and especially the references to old horror films. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

As most readers will be aware, Wallace and Gromit are the Claymation stars of a series of films made by British Nick Park of Aardman Animation Productions. Wallace is the creator of absurd inventions--many with a Rube Goldberg accent--and a lover of cheese--especially if it is Wensleydale. Gromit, his ever- patient dog, is the real brains of the operation. Wallace talks but says little that is not inane. Being a dog, Gromit cannot talk in words, but he is constantly saving Wallace from destruction and his eyes and their prominent eyebrows perform the function of a Greek Chorus for the stories. As always you can tell Nick Park's animation style. His characters look like a dentist has stuffed cotton wadding in their cheeks.

Wallace seems to be in a different profession in every tale. This time around Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and Gromit (who has or needs no voice) are in the vegetable garden security business calling themselves Anti-Pesto. Of course there are some people around who are willing to kill the rabbits and other garden pests, but Anti-Pesto promises to protect gardens without harming the sweet little creatures who prey on them. They are particularly in demand as their town's Giant Vegetable Competition (is that Giant Vegetable-Competition Giant-Vegetable Competition?) is coming up and the rivalry is cutthroat. Leading the competition is Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter). Wallace fancies Lady Tottington, but has competition in the suave and cultivated but dangerous Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes). Then a new factor is added. There is some sort of super-beast that is preying on gardens. Wallace and Gromit must solve the mystery of the terrible were-rabbit.

This is a better script than the dynamic duo's shorter adventures. Those depended to a greater degree on the novelty of the characters and their cuteness. This film has more references to other films and a greater density of jokes. There are probably more jokes here than even in CHICKEN RUN, Nick Park's other feature film. Perhaps the charm of Wallace and Gromit was starting to wear thin. It is unlikely it would not have supported a feature almost as long as all the previous adventures put together. But this script is a lot funnier than those of previous outings and it should breathe new life into the characters. (It was even a little disconcerting for me to hear the audience laughing and to realize I missed it because I was looking in the wrong part of the screen. This is a film that will bear repeated viewing. Of course, I saw some jokes I think other people missed.)

It should be noted that this is the first Wallace & Gromit adventure that is not directed solely by Nick Park. Primary direction credit goes to Steve Box who has been an animator on previous adventures. For this feature-length film he has first billing (and his first billing) as director. Also, Park's writing partner on the last two Wallace & Gromit films and this film has been Bob Baker. However, this time around he also has Steve Box and Mark Burton doing the writing.

WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT is a good afternoon's fun. Given their international popularity already, I expect it to be popular all over the world. I rate it +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. It is of minor interest to note that Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace, was also in the original THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. [-mrl]

SERENITY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: TV's series "Firefly"--cult and cancelled--comes to the screen not as a glorified episode of the series but as a finish to the series and that ties up the loose ends. While the film may be a little terse and telegraphic for people who were not fans of the series, those familiar with the series will be quite please that there were some interesting ideas behind the fun adventures. It was a pleasure to see what was really happening and also to return to the characters of the series. But objectively I cannot recommend the film for people who were not already fans. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

In the fourth season of "Babylon 5" J. Michael Straczynski was told his show would be cancelled at the end of that season. He had expected and planned for five seasons and had a lot more story to tell. All he could do was speed up the storytelling to complete his tale. Then ironically he got a fifth season from another network and could not do much with it. My guess is that the inspiration for SERENITY was that Joss Whedon also had a background story he wanted to tell for the science fiction series "Firefly". That series was cancelled with the major questions left unanswered. The film SERENITY actually ties up all the loose ends left from the television series "Firefly". It tells us what would have happened with the story.

SERENITY is an aptly named film even if the story it tells is anything but serene. The film is about the attempted serene utopia that the Alliance, a federation of planets, wanted to found. Explained here clearly for the first time we hear about the plans of the Alliance to end strife. We are told how in the outlands that were the setting of the original TV series not everybody wanted to be utopianized by the Alliance. They had their own idea of what is serene. The film continues the story of the very mixed bag of characters who populated the original series. The series centers around a rogue space-freighter the Serenity commanded, if that's the word, by Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion looking just a little older and grimmer than he was in the series).

The plot initially is not a lot different from what might have been an episode. An agent of the Alliance (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a bizarre assassin who kills with a sword, wants to track down River (Summer Glau) who is on Serenity as a semi- welcome passenger. River knows something that the Alliance does not want leaked. She also has powers that make a danger to the Alliance. But unlike a series entry, the reason the Alliance wants her will be revealed. What her powers are will be revealed. What she knows will be revealed. SERENITY will cap off the television series and make it a complete story.

SERENITY is written and directed by Joss Whedon who created the original "Firefly" (not to mention something called "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") and wrote much of the series. The popularity of that series can be attributed in large part to the witty dialog (quite present in the film version) and the really off-beat comedic situations (mostly missing from the film probably due to pressure of time). As in the series the cinematography is intentionally just a bit off-kilter. That gives the film a feeling more of realism and immediacy. The entire film seems to be on imperfect films stock. Most of the film looks just a bit washed out. I do not know if this is generally true, but the dialog is often indistinctly recorded. That is a pity because usually Whedon's dialog is a lot of fun. Also the plot is complex and much is carried by the dialog. This is supposed to be a rock 'em sock 'em space swashbuckler so there is a lot of loud shooting and a lot of spaceships fighting in close proximity. Wow.

Speaking for myself I was of three minds about SERENITY:

On balance I rate SERENITY a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]

NBT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is an often hilarious and painfully on-target mockumentary about people who are pulled into special interest cults like "Star Trek" or, in this case, frozen entree fandom. How these interests interlock has never been treated in film and at least this first time the result is a gem of a film. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

I was a science fiction fan from about the age of six and when I got to college I discovered science fiction fandom. There were people who got together to discuss science fiction. There were conventions for people who had the interest. Some people were fanatical on the subject. There was a great deal of politics in the fandom having little to do with science fiction itself. In addition there were interlocking fandoms. People who had the time and capacity to be drawn into one such fandom would be drawn into others--and to be just as fanatical in others. There is fantasy fandom. There are rabid fans of "Star Trek". (Some of the members very seriously believe that the series gave us an openness of thought that allowed us to survive the Cold War. They literally believe that "Star Trek" saved the world.) Another fandom is for "Star Wars". Then there is one for comic books. Another one is for Japanese animation. There is a related fandom for games and particularly war gaming. Old time radio is the subject of another. There is the Society for Creative Anachronism that studies history and frequently reenacts events and styles. They segue into historical reenactors. My wife is active in a separate fandom for alternate history, stories of how history might have taken different turns if various small details of history had happened differently.

Some films have treated these individual subcultures: films like TREKKIES, and George Romero's best film, KNIGHTRIDERS. Now a new pseudo-documentary or mockumentary looks at strange interlocking subcultures. NBT starts by investigating frozen entree fandom. These are people who collect and cherish frozen TV dinners much like comic book fans collect comics. A mint condition TV dinner is NBT--never been thawed. There is not such fandom that I have ever heard of in reality, but I suspect this film might spawn one.

Fans of TV dinners, apparently, have special heroes among the package designers. They wait avidly for Swanson to release TV dinners with new side dishes. They hold conventions to allow the fans to meet the people behind the selection in your grocer's frozen food section.

From there the documentary moves out into inter-linked subcultures, many of the religious right. There is a hilarious if somewhat off-color look at the work of people at a sexual abstinence hotline. An extended segment on the religious right co-opting a hard rock band is further from my experience and I could only appreciate the segment as whimsical. But when the film described how a frozen food fan had furnished his apartment to accommodate his collection of frozen TV dinners, a friend laughed hard with recognition and embarrassment. Her apartment which is floor to ceiling books (and even has stored books in her oven) is no less ridiculous.

NBT is a little uneven with most of the big laughs in the first half of the film. This may have just seemed that way to me because the groups we see at the beginning are more similar to my own experience. But the film never drops below being a lot of fun. It also captures an aspect of the American people that many know exists and few have ever looked at on film. Certainly the multiplicity of interlocking weird subcultures is something I have never seen treated in cinema before. In fact perhaps even the filmmakers do not know how accurate an assessment it really is. It may be that rare film that is better than the filmmakers realize.

Certainly for people who know special interest groups like "Star Trek" fandom this is a highly recommended comedy, even if they find it a little painful. This is a small film that may not be seen by many people. Perhaps the release can get financial support from Swanson. I give NBT a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]

NAPOLA: ELITE FUR DEN FUHRER (BEFORE THE FALL) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Hitler's National Political Academies (NAPOLA) are little remembered by history. NAPOLA: ELITE FUR DEN FUHRER is the story of the experiences of one young man recruited for a Napola. The film shows us how normally decent people can be attracted to and seduced into an evil system. While the background of the story is fascinating and enlightening, the foreground story could be more complex and original. The plot is a good story whose arc is a little overly familiar. Still the production values are high and the story is compelling. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Dennis Gansel and Maggie Peren resurrect a nearly overlooked chapter of history with NAPOLA: ELITE FUR DEN FUHRER. Adolf Hitler selected out his enemies for special and barbaric treatment as is well known. Not nearly as well covered in the history books is how he treated those he considered to his elite youth. This goes beyond the Brown Shirts and the Hitler Youth. There was a small and privileged few, mostly in their late teens, who were trained physically and mentally to be ideal soldiers and rulers. These were to be youth without conscience or pity. Their cardinal virtues were to be loyalty and unquestioning obedience. These hand-chosen relative few (by the end of the war there were 15,000 of them) were trained in the National Political Schools. They were trained to be Hitler's viceroys in conquered lands and to lead the military. Life in the Napolas looked good from the outside, but inside they had vicious and highly competitive societies not unlike those of ancient Sparta.

The setting is Berlin in the late summer 1942. Max Riemelt plays Friedrich Weimer, a promising boxer at age seventeen. A teacher from a Napola sees Friedrich fight and offers him a position at his academy. Friedrich is flattered by the invitation and would like very much to go to the Napola where there are niceties like real showers.

Against his father's objections--and by forging his father's signature on a permission slip--Weimer enrolls at the Napola. His expenses are all paid by the state so he does not need his father's support. Almost immediately he finds himself bullied by upperclassmen and by the faculty. He expects no help and no sympathy from anyone. As in the ring his only defense is what he himself can make. We see the boys being indoctrinated into Nazi ideology, and they are willing participants in the process. They are happy to accept the suggestions of whom they should hate and happily bully anyone who gets out of line. The boys are taught no pity and to trust their killer instinct.

Friedrich befriends Albrecht, a Nazi official. While Friedrich rebelled against his father in favor of the State, Albrecht rebels against his father and the State. He is a sensitive boy who has serious reservations about the barbarity of Nazism. The stories are parallel but mirror images and they work to a tragic and not unexpected destiny.

What eventually happened to the real Napola students? With the Third Reich falling, they were sent in to fight. Many of them were still teenagers. They became just so much cannon fodder. Half were killed. This film tells us what happened before that bad end. Some good World War II history films are coming from Germany. While this one is not in the class of DAS BOOT or DOWNFALL it is a major history film and one about history rarely remembered.

The background and historical context of the story is what makes this film worth seeing. I cannot down-rate it much for the somewhat predictable and familiar plot. It is a good film worth seeing with that one reservation. I rate NAPOLA: ELITE FUR DEN FUHRER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. A similar story of two boys caught up in the gears of totalitarianism is the current THE GREAT WATER. In that film the characters are more complex and of greater interest. [-mrl]

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Not much subtlety here. When their parents separate two troubled boys are caught between them. Writer-director Noah Baumbach leaves no doubt which parent is really at fault. Bernard is self-absorbed, intolerant, and pompous. The boys believe him that the divorce is all the mother's fault until they see how well their father's selfish philosophy works in their own lives. While the film is billed as a comedy and a drama, this story of a childish father spoiling the lives of his family is not a laughing matter. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

The setting is Brooklyn in the mid-1980s. We are looking at the marriage of two Ph.D. literary writers. In the first scene of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, we see Bernard Berkman (played by Jeff Daniels) playing tennis with his family. He is a bad sport and ends the game by lobbing a ball directly into his wife Joan (Laura Linney). As viewers we take an immediate dislike to him, but it takes most of the film for his two sons to come around to our opinion. In scene after scene Bernard is irritating in a variety of different ways. He tells the boys, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), that the divorce was caused by their mother (Laura Linney) and her sexual affairs. Bernard considers himself a great author, though it could be hardly proven by his recent literary output.

Meanwhile Joan's writing career is turning successful in spite of Bernard's belittling of her writing. Son Walt leans toward siding with his father and picks up many of his father's attitudes. The younger Frank is leaning more toward still needing his mother's nurturing, but is swayed by his father and his brother. He is a very troubled person and it is becoming obsessed with his body's newfound ability to masturbate. (Owen Kline in the role, incidentally, is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates.)

Bernard gets a dilapidated house and his sons live with him half the time as part of the divorce settlement. Soon also living with them is Lili (Anna Paquin), one of Bernard's students. As Walt emulates his father's self-absorption the boys find their father may not be a good role model. Soon they have a better appreciation for the trials that their mother must have experienced.

As writer and director Noah Baumbach has a good cast to work with, but why they wanted to do this one-dimensional story is difficult to tell. His visual style is unpolished and reminiscent of European films. Baumbach was the co-author of the screenplay for Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Perhaps he is trying here to emulate Anderson's off-center style. But Baumbach's script is far more judgmental than are most of Anderson's films. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS comes to mind and there the family is troubled, but the fault seems more evenly distributed.

I have found several people who did like this film, but it just did not work for me. A little more subtlety in the script might have been called for. I give THE SQUID AND THE WHALE a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]

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

Regarding my comment in the 09/23/05 issue of the MT VOID about too many "definitional annotations" in THE ANNOTATED HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Fred Lerner suggests, "Perhaps this edition was produced (at least in part) for use by students of American literature in universities overseas, where some help with colloquial English might be useful?" Perhaps, but at $40 it doesn't seem very likely--most textbooks are less beautifully produced than this illustrated volume.

THE FRIAR AND THE CIPHER: ROGER BACON AND THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY OF THE MOST UNUSUAL MANUSCRIPT IN THE WORLD by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (ISBN 0-7679-1473-2) is of the same ilk as their earlier OUT OF THE FLAMES--the story of a book (or here, a manuscript) and the people who affected its creation and survival. In this case, it is the Voynich Manuscript, which Mark wrote about in the 03/18/05 issue of the MT VOID. The Goldstone's book centers primarily around the theory that Roger Bacon wrote the manuscript in code, but along the way they discuss the history of universities, the theology of the Catholic Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, the scientific method, Albertus Magnus, Dr. John Dee, Rudolph II, cryptography, and Francis Bacon (no relation). (How they missed including Rabbi Loew is a mystery, to me since he was active in Prague at the same time as Rudolph II and Dee.) As with all the Goldstone's books, this is a book highly recommended for book-lovers.

SCIENCE FRICTION: WHERE THE KNOWN MEETS THE UNKNOWN by Michael Shermer (ISBN 0-8050-7708-1) is a sampler of various aspects of science (and the public perception of science), history (ditto), and other topics. The chapters of most specific interest to science fiction fans, though, might be "What If?" and "The Hero on the Edge of Forever". Both are about counterfactuals and alternate histories, and both discuss what Shermer calls "contingencies" and "necessities". These are pretty much parallels for "The Great Man" and "The Tide of History" theories. The former was championed by Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, "Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the history of the great men who have worked here. Worship of a hero is transcendent admiration of a great man." The latter was supported by Friedrich Engels, "That a certain particular man, and no other, emerges at a definite time in a given country is naturally a pure chance, but even if we eliminate him there is always a need for a substitute, and the substitute . . . is sure to be found." Like so many dichotomies, the truth probably lies between the two, which Shermer calls "the model of contingent-necessity: In the development of any historical sequence the role of contingencies in the construction of necessities is accentuated in the early stages and attenuated in the later." Shermer then applies these ideas to the Neanderthals, the development of agriculture, Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder", and "The City on the Edge of Forever" (Gene Roddenberry's, Harlan Ellison's, or a combination of the two?).

ARCANUM by Thomas Wheeler is a mystery where the sleuths are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, Marie Laveau (the Second), and Harry Houdini. This is a bit of overkill, especially when Wheeler adds William Randolph Hearst into the mix. Also, Wheeler's research could have been better. The story is set in 1919, yet one character "poured himself a generous Jim Beam." While the bourbon was around then, it was still called something like "Old Jake Beam's Sour Mash"--it did not adopt the name "Jim Beam" until the 1940s. Lovecraft is supposedly living at 1414 Delancey Street--there is no such number. Tarrytown is described as "only forty minutes outside Manhattan." The actual trip the characters make is from Bellevue at 29th Street, which would be about twenty-eight miles--forty minutes today maybe (without traffic), but not in 1919 by horse-drawn carriage. And, in a minor slip, Doyle sets fire to a spider's web--which I believe are not flammable. The language also has some jarring words (e.g. a reference to a "meet-and-greet") that shatters the period feel. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           No matter what side of the argument you 
           are on, you always find people on your 
           side that you wish were on the other.
                                          -- Jascha Heifetz

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