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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/03/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 18, Whole Number 1359
Table of Contents
Correction to the Correction to THE DEPARTED:
The correction last week (regarding the ordering, or lack thereof, of the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list, was from Dan *Cox*, not Dan Kimmel. [-ecl]
Nigel Kneale, RIP (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the great lights of British dramatic science fiction has died. Nigel Kneale, who wrote the Quatermass plays died this last week at the age of 84. I hope to have a fuller obituary in next week's issue. [-mrl]
The Universe in Six Words:
Do you feel you would like to read more science fiction stories, but just cannot fit them into your busy schedule? WIRED MAGAZINE has asked popular science fiction/horror/fantasy authors to write them some very short stories. The stories are to have six words. How much story can you put into six words?
"Carbon dating does not improve your social life."
Doesn't Anybody Read the Words Any More??? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, when things were going well for the Democrats in the upcoming election John Kerry has made what he says was "a joke" and it has caused a real uproar. It seems to be making national news. It is being said that Kerry has insulted the intelligence of the people serving in Iraq. Now Kerry has apologized for the comment as "a joke that went wrong." The Drudge Report leads off today (November 2) with a picture that shows some troop in Iraq holding up a banner reading "Halp Us Jon Carry We R Stuck (c and k printed backward) in Irak."
I guess I had heard about the uproar before I actually read the comment he had made and my reaction was that he had said something really stupid. I was angry with Kerry for insulting the troops in Iraq. Let me make this clear. I am not a fan of John Kerry under the best of circumstances. I think he says a lot of dumb things. In the 2004 I thought he was the second worst candidate from a major political party and there were moments when he was the worst. Also I was worried about what effect this comment might have on the upcoming election. But I resolved to find out what exactly Kerry had said and to try to figure out why he would say such a stupid thing.
Well, it did not take long to find it. The quote I read was "if ... you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." As I sat reading it I felt a certain familiarity on the comment and I also got a sick feeling in my stomach. But it was not revulsion for Kerry. I had the sinking feeling that the whole world was dumbing down with everyone delegating to someone else his or her ability to think.
First of all, his comment was not very original. I was at the University of Massachusetts during the Vietnam War. There was an active draft at that time. It was general knowledge that if you flunked out you would have one of two fates. You either had to go home and explain to Mommy and Daddy or you went to military. Women went home; men went to Vietnam. (Okay, that is another issue for another day.) It was an acknowledged fact that for males the deal was that if you studied hard and you did your homework and you made an effort to be smart, you could do well. If you didn't, you get stuck in Vietnam. Everybody knew it. Everybody said it. I am sure John Kerry said it then. That was the period of his student activism and that had to be where activist John Kerry picked up this joke. Except it was not so much a joke as an accepted fact of life. And it certainly was not intended as an insult to the people who went to fight. There certainly were some people who were sent to Vietnam as a result of flunking out, but I don't think anybody considered acknowledging that a reflection on the American soldier.
Of course we do not have an active draft now. We do have people flunking out of school ending up in Iraq because the economy is such that they probably cannot find any better alternatives. For some, particularly the poor, there is a de facto draft even now. So look again at what John Kerry said. "If ... you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." I do not know who exactly his audience is, but there is some truth in the comment. Certainly for the people who would not have very good job prospects that is probably a true statement. We have to accept that not doing well in school will decrease the breadth of a person's career prospects or else why would he bother to work hard in the first place?
But what shocks me is that everybody seems to be accepting that this observation demeans the men fighting in Iraq. Certainly a lot of people are reading that other people are jumping to that conclusion and so are doing so themselves. Everybody seems to be interpreting the statement as saying that the men fighting in Iraq are a bunch of school failures. In fact, his statement says nothing at all about the people in Iraq who are not school failures. With today's lax grading and much diminished failure rates, it probably does apply to any more than a small handful of those serving.
So if the statement was not so bad, why is John Kerry apologizing for it? Surely he must know if it was an insult or not? Well public opinion may not really determine the real meaning of a sentence, but it does determine the success of careers of politicians. If the general public is determined to be chuckleheads, the most expedient thing for a politician to do is to humor them. And right now is one of those times.
What frightens me is that as a people we are losing the ability to read a sentence and think about what it says. To find out how other people are reacting and to react the same way is a lot easier and definitely a lot safer. Comments take on whole new meanings because some society decides on a false meaning they should protest. People are letting the mass decide what things mean and if they should take offense. If the Pope cites a historical fact you have people murdered because other people do not want that fact cited. Whether the fact is genuine or not does not matter any more. It is convenient rallying point to generate outrage. And we have this same thing in this country. If John Kerry notes that failing in school increases ones chances of ending up serving in Iraq he suffers a group-think censure from people who cannot be bothered to look at the words and decide if what he said is really insulting and if it is really true.
So I am going to be brave here and take the unpopular side. OK, get ready to release your firestorm on me. I RESPECT OUR FIGHTING MEN AND WOMEN, BUT I ALSO BELIEVE THAT DOING POORLY IN SCHOOL MAY INCREASE THE PROBABILITY THAT A STUDENT WILL END UP IN IRAQ. I also believe it may increase the probability that you will be more willing to be told what a sentence says and less willing to think. People like that are the real failures and there are a lot of them out there around the world. [-mrl]
THE FAMILY TRADE by Charles Stross (copyright 2004, Tor, $6.99, 308 pp, ISBN 0-765-34821-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
THE FAMILY TRADE is something different from Charles Stross. The other three Stross books that I've reviewed here (SINGULARITY SKY, IRON SUNRISE, and ACCELERANDO) all have that frenetic, dense prose characterized by a lot of computer jargon and have a cyberpunk feel to them. THE FAMILY TRADE does not.
In fact, TRADE's style is much more accessible, easy to read, and, well, fun. It's not that I don't like those other three books. To the contrary, if you've read my reviews you know how much I actually like them. But this is a departure, and it shows that Stross has more stylistic range than we might have given him credit for in the past.
TRADE's protagonist is one Miriam Beckstein, a journalist for a high tech magazine. Miriam and her friend Paulette find indisputable evidence of a money-laundering scheme. Like any responsible reporter, she takes the story to her editor, who promptly fires her on the spot--and she gets death threats to boot.
Miriam was not raised by her birth mother, who died when Miriam was still an infant. Instead, she was raised by a foster family who adopted her. The day of her dismissal, her adoptive mother, who is in ill health, gives her some of her birth mother's personal effects, which include a locket which contains a knot- work pattern. Of course, she stares at it--and is immediately taken to a parallel Earth--where she finds out that her real family is in charge of things.
The parallel Earth is strange, to say the least. The royalty ride on horseback and in carriages, and the police force ride around carrying automatic weapons and swords. They currently deal in drugs, and hop to and from our side doing business deals in order to make money. They have a sort of medieval structure to society, with royalty and all sorts of strange alliances. And Miriam just showed up and came into a whole lot of money.
And a whole lot of trouble.
You see, Miriam upsets the delicate balance of things in the Clan. People want her dead, because by her very presence she is altering the state of power and riches. She also falls in love, is the object of a few assassination attempts, and wants to change how things are done.
Yes, if you haven't gotten there yourself, this story of alternate reality does invoke memories of Zelazny's "Amber" books. The main difference is that The Merchant Princes, as the series is called--yes, it's a series--is not really fantasy, although it's billed as such, whereas "Amber" was, in my mind, definitely fantasy.
This is a good book, but it's definitely incomplete. Stross has just gotten started with the tales of Miriam, and it has the potential to go on for a good dozen books or so, although I hope he doesn't take it that far. My recommendation is to read this book--and then keep going with it. [-jak]
DNA Topology (letter of comment by Craig E. McMurray):
In response to Mark's update on DNA topology in the 10/27/06 issue of the MT VOID, Craig E. McMurray writes:
I "hate" it each time you bring up the DNA topology concern, because it bothers me, too. Being an electrical engineer, the biochemistry of this is way over my head, as well.
The last time you did this, I did some research and found that not everyone believes that the double helix is the proper form of DNA. There is the "side-by-side" (SBS) model that some have proposed, which resolves the "unwinding" problem. As a starting place look at the last section of http://tinyurl.com/yx2h6m [in Wikipedia].
The easiest way to visualize a SBS configuration is to take the handset cord of your telephone, fold it back on itself and then kind of "scrunch" the coils together. (I know the description is inadequate.) If you do this right, you'll see that the two coils fit together quite nicely, look sort of like a double helix, and also separate quite nicely, without any unwinding.
The SBS model might not be correct, but it helps me sleep better at night and it might help you, too. [-cem]
Admittedly my first reaction is that the Side-by-Side configuration does not work. I think to myself that if you started with one helical strand and then built a parallel strand with ladder rungs and the second strand built on them, surely the first strand would pull the second strand around it and you end up with the classic double-helix. You are back with the problem you started with.
But, hold on. Maybe that is sloppy thinking that pictures the second strand wound around the first. Perhaps it is my failure of imagination.
Now I picture a large metal spring two inches in diameter. Obviously it is a helix. Now I start welding onto it a bunch of metal sticks. Each stick is one foot in length. Each stick I weld on horizontally and parallel to all the others, each pointing due east. The endpoints of the sticks trace out a new helix the same size and shape as the old was, one foot east of the first. I weld the resulting spring on. Further if we now shrink the rungs uniformly the two springs neatly come together without colliding because there is only one point on the first spring at a giving height, and a corresponding one on the second spring at that same height. These are points that potentially could have been connected by a rung. If all the rungs are parallel to each other rather than merely skew that model does work. So you can have a double helix with the two helices not wound around each other. At least topologically that works for me.
That is a much better and more likely model. [-mrl]
You definitely have the right picture, but it's no longer a double helix. It is instead something "similar" to a double helix. In a double helix, each coil has the same central axis. As you can see from your description, each coil in a SBS configuration has its own axis, which are parallel, but are offset from one and other by the length of the "rung". As you shorten the rungs, the axes do approach one and other, but never become coincident. [-cem]
I guess it is a semantic question of what we mean by doubling a helix. As the rungs get small in my model you definitely have a helical structure. We can call mine a "two-ply" helix or perhaps a "TV-ghost" helix. :-) [-mrl]
Various Topics (and Another Artwork Pointer) (letter of comment by John Purcell):
John Purcell writes in response to the 10/27/06 issue of the MT VOID:
Mark, I just want to thank you for that link to the cover art of URANIA, that long-running science fiction magazine from Italy. You weren't kidding; some of the artwork is really nice, and simply skimming through the site is a lot of fun, recognizing names of authors on the covers. A very cool site. Thanks again!
[Again, it's at http://www.mondourania.com/urania/uraniaelencopagine.htm.]
[HOLD THE PRESSES! Holy Cow! You liked that? As I am writing this comment I just found VISCO. VISCO is a site called the Visual Index of Science Fiction Cover Art. (Well, who could pronounce it if they called it VISFCA?) They say on their site, "You may think that the objective of the Visco project just a tiny bit ambitious. Its ultimate aim is no less than to collect and make available over the Internet a cover image of every science fiction, fantasy, weird and horror magazine ever published in the English language." They already seem to have have complete runs of most of the majors like ASTOUNDING/ANALOG, F&SF, going all the way down to many of the minors. Take a gander at http://www.sfcovers.net/ and drill down a few levels. I haven't had time to investigate and explore, but this looks like a *major* site. -mrl]]
There really isn't much else I feel qualified to comment on in your ish, but your review of THE PRESTIGE solidifies my intent to see that film. It sounds like a very intelligent film, which is almost a rarity nowadays for something coming out of Hollywood. So this is a highly recommended flick: a 9 out of 10. Good deal.
Another film coming out (December 15th) that my son and I are looking forward to seeing is ERAGON. I saw the commercial spot first, ran and told Daniel, whose eyes brightened, and he asked," When?" "December 15th," I told him. "We're there," was the determined response. See, Dan has read that book (he's eleven years old) and he enjoyed it a great deal. I had heard along the grapevine awhile ago that it was in film production, and now here it comes much sooner than I expected. The promos look promising. We'll have to see how it the whole thing plays out.
Well, I'm going to have another cup of coffee and do some school work before heading down to TAMU's Chemistry department's Open House today with Daniel. He gets 100-bonus points for his science class at school if he attends; we went last year, and it was a bit of fun for a couple hours. Lots of explosions, experiments, and fun with science. [-jp]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
1491: NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS by Charles C. Mann (ISBN 1-400-03205-9) sounded promising, but is written in such a dry style, and structured so poorly, that I could not finish it. (By poorly structured, I mean that Mann does not follow any of the rules about having a first and last sentence that help summarize whatever comes between.) In addition, Mann has decided to follow new spellings for names in indigenous languages. So, for example, he uses "Inka" rather than "Inca", "Atawallpa" rather than "Atahualpa" and "Qosqo" rather than "Cuzco". This makes everything difficult to follow, but even worse, he does not cross-reference these in the index, so if you look up "Cuzco", there is no entry for it *or* pointer to "Qosqo". (I have no idea why someone decided that "Inca" was incorrect and should be "Inka" instead; it is not as though they are pronounced differently.)
Our science fiction discussion book this month was A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 1-400-09690-1). My first observation is that in 1977, Dick felt it necessary to explain that a 7-11 grocery store was part of a chain in California. He also predicted plastic houses by 1994. (He was somewhat more on target with security guards checking for what is basically identity theft.) But I must admit I gave up after a hundred pages, because it seemed basically unreadable.
FEELING VERY STRANGE: THE SLIPSTREAM ANTHOLOGY edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (ISBN 1-892391-35-X) appears to be for slipstream what MIRRORSHADES edited by Bruce Sterling was for cyberpunk or BLACK WATER edited by Alberto Manguel was for magical realism: the foundational anthology. And you know an anthology is good when you find yourself looking forward to reading even the pieces you have read before. In this case, these are such classics as Ted Chiang's "Hell Is the Absence of God", Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes'", and Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter". The earliest story is from 1972, though most date between 1987 and the present. (The term "slipstream" was coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989.)
In the introduction, Kelly and Kessel attempt to define "slipstream", and in the process list some "precursors" of slipstream (my comments in parentheses):
They then say, "The ideal version of this anthology would include such precursors." Well, you can always create a virtual by seeking these out as well. (Judith Merril must have had a slipstream sensibility--she anthologized four of these in her various "best-of" anthologies.) [-ecl]
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