MT VOID 11/09/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 19, Whole Number 1466

MT VOID 11/09/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 19, Whole Number 1466

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/09/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 19, Whole Number 1466

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, La Honcha Bonita: 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

No Backward Time Travel (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

We keep hearing in discussions of physics that backward time travel may be possible. Then we hear that it is not possible. I do not know which to believe. But from my point of view I am strongly hoping that we find some good reason that it is impossible. It is a really frightening concept that backward time travel might be possible in the near future. Why? Well let us take an extreme case. Suppose a way to travel backward in time was discovered and would easily come to fruition in the next ten years. It is inevitable. Well, we grew up with no time travelers around. Nobody stepped forward and said that he was a time traveler. At least nobody sane did. So that means that civilization never gets to the point where we have backward time travel. So that means civilization has less than ten years left. Now that would be a scary thought. [-mrl]

Green Sky at Morning, Humans Take Warning (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

When I was a teenager I read science fiction with its stories like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. In those days it was not quite respectable to read science fiction. But I thought we really did live in a world where some of these things really could happen and by the time I became an adult some of this science fiction would have become reality and science fiction would be more respectable. I suppose both have happened but they are not as tightly bound together as I would have thought. Nobody respects the old science fiction because of its accuracy. Nobody has come back to me to say I was right about that science fiction. Yes, we now accept that when worlds collide it is really, really bad. And it maybe can happen. In fact, when a world collides with a piece of stone very much smaller than another world would be, that can still be a catastrophe. In fact, it can be an extinction level event.

The real monsters of the past were not the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were small and puny. The real monsters of the past were the great extinctions. And the great extinctions are not dead. They still hang over us.

With celestial collisions we might be headed for an extinction level event, but the smart money doesn't bet that way. There are two reasons for this. One is that the smart money knows that if there is an extinction level event it won't be around to collect. That observation is not very comforting. What is a little more comforting is that celestial collisions are random events that are no more likely to occur now than they were a millenium ago. And we got through the last millenium all right. But there are other extinction events that do not need a collision to create. With these smaller changes in the environment can lead non- linearly to very big watersheds that can cause extinction. If we are going to live to see a major extinction happen--and we will only see the early parts--it will be this sort of extinction we will see.

The great extinctions of the past are the subject of UNDER A GREEN SKY by Peter D. Ward. Ward is primarily a professor of biology and earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. The subject that fascinates Ward is the great extinctions of the past. He has specialized in the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event--the one that supposedly killed off the dinosaurs. And much of his book is about his work there. As interesting at that part is, it is really just a long prolog to the important parts of his book. His real subject is the Permian-Triassic extinction event 251 million years ago. In this event 96% of all known marine species died off. The surface had it slightly better with only 70% of all vertebrate species going extinct. And there is no evidence that this, the greatest of the extinction, was caused by a meteor impact. In fact, Ward finds chemical evidence that what killed so many species off (and turned the sky a light shade of green) was a super-abundance of hydrogen sulfide gas.

What causes so much hydrogen sulfide gas to be created? Well, the fossil record says that it was anoxic bacteria in deep water. These are bacteria that, as the name implies, do not need oxygen. They grow when there is less oxygen in the deep oceans, beating out the oxygen-needing bacteria. They get their energy converting sulfur to hydrogen sulfide. It is produced on the ocean floor and rises to the surface in huge, foul-smelling, poisonous bubbles of yellow gas. This was what Ward thinks caused the great extinction at the end of the Permian Age.

Why is there less oxygen in the deep oceans? Where do the deep oceans get their oxygen? Well, the waters of the ocean flow in a cycle powered by the heat of the sun. What is deep water in the more temperate regions is really toward the top in arctic regions and that is where it gets oxygenated. Life on Earth is very dependent on that cycle. Interrupting that cycle probably does not cause the quick freeze that the film THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW suggested. (No, we are not just talking about the Permian- Triassic extinction here.) It takes longer than a few days and the results are not as optimistic (?) as that film painted them. But the film did get one thing right. Global warming for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere definitely has a big impact on that cycle of water and can easily redirect it.

Let us get down to some numbers. The change is not linearly proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. You hit a point where the flow is disrupted and the deep ocean gets most of its water from someplace else where there is less oxygenation. It is a watershed event--no pun intended. You reach a point where change starts coming very quickly. Carbon dioxide content is measured in PPM (or parts per million). Ward believes that a watershed point is estimated at 450 PPM. That is when you start seeing really major changes in the environment. OK it is not that simple, but that is where Ward concludes the effect really starts kicking in. Right now the level is at 360 PPM. That means we have a margin of 90 PPM. That does not mean we will not have other very bad things happening at even these levels. It is suggesting that redirecting the cycle of water will not happen to a great degree until that point.

The watershed point does seem to depend on other factors also. There have been times in our planet's past when carbon dioxide was much higher without causing an extinction, but the mass extinctions that do not involve impacts have occurred at times of accelerated growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The source could be volcanic. That level of 450 PPM is not the absolute level or even the rate of growth, but they seem to be correlated to times that the rate of increase is itself increasing.

As the world industrializes and automobilizes and who knows what else-izes, the carbon dioxide levels rise about 2 PPM each year. But the industrialization is increasing as places like India and particularly China get into the act, it is expected to rise about 4 PPM per year. Remember we have a margin between us and the cliff of maybe 90 PPM and we lose from that margin maybe 2 PPM a year. It probably will not hit the environment like the hydrogen sulfide extinction. That may be up around 1000 PPM, but 450 is enough to make major changes in the balance of bacteria on the ocean floor. This is a much more immediate threat than a celestial collision.

Ward's book goes into possible alternate futures where it is different levels. I will not go into that here. Right now these predictions may seem a little science fictional. That is mostly because they are quite frightening. But we are doing little but some international wrangling as to who should be cutting back. That is only natural because nobody wants to be the one to make the sacrifice. Unfortunately, doing the natural may no longer be working in unnatural times.

There is an exchange from my favorite science fiction film, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT:

Professor Bernard Quatermass: The will to survive is an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out our own world was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?

Dr. Mathew Roney: Nothing, just go on squabbling like usual.

That may be the most prophetic observation of all. [-mrl]

What Is Wrong with Halloween (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Halloween has changed since I was young. For all its commercialization even back then, Halloween used to be a local, contained phenomenon. Young kids went out for an hour or so after dark, on their own street and that was that. And there was not all this paranoia about homemade treats and apples.

Now it starts as soon as the kids get home from school (3PM) and goes until around 9PM, when the six-foot-three high school seniors (whose idea of costume is face paint) show up. Most of this is during daylight, even more so this year because we were still on Daylight Saving Time.

So for six hours one cannot really do anything that does not allow constant interruptions. Forget trying to read or watch a movie, but also forget taking a shower, washing dishes, or anything else requiring a continuous stretch of time. Plus one has to buy enough candy just in case, and then ends up with enough to last the rest of the year. (Or one returns it after Halloween--the size of the return stack of bags of candy at Costco on November 1 is truly amazing.)

Not to mention that costumes used to be home-made--throw a sheet over your kid, cut a couple of eye holes in it, and bingo! she's a ghost. Or put on a white blouse and a toy stethoscope and he's a doctor. But now if anyone puts on a costume, it is probably entirely store-bought.

And worst of all none of these kids even know who Bela Lugosi was.

I cannot solve all these problems, but I have one suggestion. Townships (and schools) should publicize the notion that a porch light on means the house is receiving trick-or-treaters, and no porch light means that they are not. So someone could hand out candy from 4PM to 5PM, and then turn out the light and sit down to dinner without interruptions. I figure the chances of this happening are about zero.

Oh, and make the schools show the original DRACULA as part of their holiday celebrations. [-ecl]

[Actually I remember my junior high school had a dance with a side room that showed movies. I remember an abridged version of THE MUMMY with Boris Karloff. I thought it was great. I had seen the film before, but it was a hard film to find in those days. Other kids teased me because I wanted to watch the films and not dance. Eventually I did get interested in girls (well, a girl) and she learned to like THE MUMMY as much as I do. -mrl]

SANDWORMS OF DUNE by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (copyright 2007, Tor, $27.95, 494pp, ISBN 10: 0-765-31293-X, ISBN 13: 978-0-765-31293-8) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

It could have been so much more, but in the end it was enough.

That was my first thought as I finished the concluding volume in the original "Dune" series, started by Frank Herbert back in 1965 with DUNE, one of the all time classic SF novels. This final novel, SANDWORMS OF DUNE, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, neatly wraps up the original storyline started by the elder Herbert all those years ago. And while it's not totally satisfying, it gets the job done.

SANDWORMS OF DUNE starts off where the previous novel, Hunters of Dune, left off. The no-ship Ithaca, with its Bene Gesserit passengers as well as yet another ghola of Duncan Idaho, is still on the run from the mysterious Ancient Enemy, which we now know to be the thinking machine fleet, headed by our old friends Omnious the evermind and Erasmus the shape shifting robot. They were revealed to be the old couple at the end of CHAPTERHOUSE: DUNE, Frank's last entry in the series before he passed away. The other interesting passengers on the no-ship are all the gholas that the Sisterhood have resurrected from the nullentropy tube that the last Tleilaxu Master, Scytale, has with him. They are the gholas of Dune heroes of the past: Paul, Jessica, Alia, Leto II, Wellington Yueh, Liet-Kynes, and Stilgar, to name more than a few. The Sisterhood has its reasons for resurrecting these gholas, as it believes they have a part to play in Kralizec, the Battle at the end of the Universe that will change all things. When these gholas have their memories returned, as Duncan Idaho's ghola did back in DUNE MESSIAH as the character Hayt, they will be pieces in a complex game that will bring about a significant change in the structure of the galaxy.

Who else? We have Baron Vladimir Harkonnen--haunted by the personality of Alia, in a satisfying parallel to Dune Messiah and Children of Dune where the Baron haunted the Abomination that was Alia, another ghola of Paul Atreides that the Baron is training in the Harkonnen ways, and renamed Paolo. Omnious believe Paolo to potentially be the ultimate Kwisatz Haderach, but Omnious also knows that there is one other out there in the universe that can also be the ultimate Kwisatz Haderach. He believes that person is on the no-ship Ithaca, so he is attempting to get the Ithaca to Synchrony, the home of the thinking machines, to have an epic showdown between the two. The goal is to control the ultimate Kwisatz Haderach, and thus be able to rule the galaxy over humanity.

We have Murbella, the former Honored Matre and now leader of the Honored Matre/Bene Gesserit group that is trying to defend Chapterhouse and, ultimately, the entire Old Empire, against the return of the thinking machines. She enlists the aid of the Ixians to build her warships and Obliterators to throw against the thinking machines.

And just what about those new Face Dancers--the ones that can so perfectly mimic a human being that there appears to be no way to detect them?

The climax of the novel, of course, is the final conflict between man and thinking machine. In reality, the resolution is not one that I'd expected, so I'll give the novel points for that one. After that conflict, the novel spends some time tying up loose ends, and in the end it all fits together. It also makes a fairly decent effort at incorporating all the themes that made the original DUNE so fascinating --political intrigue, conspiracies, ecology, etc.

The downside? For starters, there is way too much mention of the Kwisatz Haderach. By my count, there are as many of four of them running around the novel. To me, the Kwisatz Haderach was a much more mysterious entity than is presented here. The whole wandering of the Jewish people storyline ended way too abruptly, and without much fanfare. And while this novel rightly keeps its focus on humanity in the struggle against the thinking machines, Omnious plays a bit part throughout the whole thing--he seems more like a doddering old disapproving man who shows a lot of bluster with facial expressions and verbal blowups than the head of the thinking machine society that is on its way back to destroy humanity.

In the end, I think what I will say is that if this is the way Frank had intended it to end, well, I guess it's okay. I think I can be satisfied with it. In that regard, it is a decent enough novel.

The only thing that really bothers me is the potential for Herbert and Anderson to permanently set up shop in the Dune universe and just never leave. Yes, I know that the "Heroes of Dune" series is currently being written (PAUL OF DUNE, JESSICA OF DUNE, and IRULAN OF DUNE, if you're keeping score at home), but there are a couple of seemingly throwaway lines near the end of this novel that have the potential to lead to more books in the series. Brian and Kevin have done what they set out to do ten books ago--finish the "Dune" saga. It was nice revisiting the universe, but it's time to put it to bed. [-jak]

AMERICAN GANGSTER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: At first the film AMERICAN GANGSTER seems like an exciting crime film actually based on true events. Look again and it is several familiar crime film plots woven together into a story that is not a lot like the article on which it was based. Denzel Washington is magnetic, though Russell Crowe does not quite keep pace. This is an entertaining gangster film, though little more. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a pretty good gangster film supposedly based on true events. This film chronicles the career of Frank Lucas, once the heroin baron of Harlem. It is an enjoyable film to watch and even to see how it resonates with some fictional and very familiar gangster films. I came out of the film fairly positive on it until I found the article on which it is based, "The Return of Superfly", which appeared in "New York" magazine in August 7, 2000 (see link below). I found most of what was on the screen was not actually in the article. It is still possible that events might have happened as occurred, but given director Ridley Scott's record of historical inaccuracy, I strongly suspect that is not the case. In fact much of the resonance with familiar crime films was probably intentional. Stephen Zaillian, who wrote SCHINDLER'S LIST, had gone downhill a little.

AMERICAN GANGSTER tells of the rise and the fall of gangster and drug baron Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington). His career and his relationship to his family could have been borrowed from the film SCARFACE (actually either version of SCARFACE). He eventually runs afoul of a special handpicked law enforcement team, chosen to be incorruptible and (dare I say it?) untouchable. That team is run by the hard-nosed cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a totally honest cop who equally hates gangsters and cops on the take. Add a little GOODFELLAS, FRENCH CONNECTION, and even some CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and you have AMERICAN GANGSTER.

In New York City organized crime Italian-Americans mostly run the shop. Frank Lucas is just a driver for gangster Bumpy Johnson. Bumpy trusts his driver and philosophizes on how to be successful and make real money in the drug business. He might not have been so open had he known how closely Frank was listening. Bumpy dies of natural causes and Frank decides to put Bumpy's strategy to the test. He discovers that even Bumpy probably did not know how right he was. Frank quickly finds out that with Bumpy's wisdom he is making lots of money and holding on to it. And he has ambitions to make even more.

Meanwhile Richie, a pugnacious cop proves he is incredibly honest, catches the right eye, and is invited to form a special unit to combat drug dealing in New Jersey. He does not live the fancy life that Frank does, but he is doing what he wants to be doing. But he does use his chance to put together a really good team to go after the drug trade. AMERICAN GANGSTER tells both stories. And with a running time of 157 minutes it has time to develop each.

Ridley Scott knows how to direct an entertaining film. Nobody questions that. He has been doing that for about thirty years now. However, it is a mistake to assume that his films like GLADIATOR and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN bear more than a passing resemblance to actual history. Similarly it would be a mistake to assume that AMERICAN GANGSTER gets its facts right about gangland history. Some facts he gets right and some he gets wrong.

We have heard a lot in films about anti-heroes, heroes with serious flaws. In a lot of ways Frank is something we do not see as much outside of Damon Runyon stories. He is an anti-villain. He is a drug dealer, enslaving some people and killing other with his product. But he has his own code of ethics. In a curious way he cherishes his customers, trying to ensure that they really get the best deal possible on heroin. He protects the integrity of his brand name. He is very free with unselfish and intelligent advice to others on how to succeed and what are the pitfalls of gangster life. He got an education from Bumpy Johnson and he feels obliged to pass on the benefit of his learning. In his own way he is a good-guy-bad-guy. Even with Denzel Washington playing a criminal, he is still playing a straight arrow.

There is more to enjoy than to admire in the filmcraft of AMERICAN GANGSTER. This is an entertaining compilation of retread touches from good gangster films. I give it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

Article in "New York" magazine that inspired the film:


Things vs. Experiences (letters of comment by Lax Madapaty and Charles S. Harris):

In the 11/02/07 issue of the MT VOID, Mark said in his comments on travel, "Things break. Things get obsolete and have to be replaced. ... Experience lasts the rest of your life."

Lax Madapaty responds, "Not just things, experiences can break down too - memory loss, Alzheimer's and old age ailments... :-) I like things *and* experiences." [-lm]

And Charles Harris writes, "However, as time goes on, the expected total return on experience--over the rest of your life--dwindles, and you begin to anticipate breaking or becoming obsolete yourself before most of your things." [-csh]

And Mark replies, "I think that is alien to my--well, to my experience. Just about twenty-five years ago we went to China rather than buying a nicer car or a better hi-fi system. We saw a view of China that is no longer possible to see. I have a much better appreciation of cultures today and how alien they can be and how similar they can be. I have much more of a context I can put China and the world into. It changed my political philosophy irrevocably. Conceivably I have forgotten some of that trip, though there a trip log helps, but much of that trip I still carry with me. There have been several times when I was in a debate with someone else that I wished they could actually have seen what I have seen rather than assuming they understand the situation without having been there. From a distance China like Alpha Centauri can do very little to change your theories of what it is like. You can only see how it fits into expectations you already have. You have to be there to see where your expectations were fundamentally wrong." [-mrl]

Acanthus Century Plant (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):

In response to Mark's comments on the acanthus century plant in the 11/02/07 issue of the MT VOID, Mike Glyer writes:

Mark probably already knows about these plant references:

I don't know if the "acanthus century plant" was intentionally fictionalized or a scientific blooper. But I wanted to point out that within the past few years it made the news here in Los Angeles when the corpse flower at the Huntington Gardens bloomed-- and that was touted as a "once in a century" event. Which isn't accurate, but perhaps a comparable news story from way back when the movie script was written is the ultimate source of a reference conflating the two ideas. [-mg]

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

THE COMPANY OF THE DEAD by David Kowalski (ISBN-13 978-1-405-03804-1, ISBN-10 1-405-03804-7) starts out very promising, with a time traveler going back to the Titanic to try to save it. What happens, and what happens because of that, occupies the first hundred pages or so. By that point, we know what the protagonists are trying to do, but then the book goes in circles for the next several hundred pages, only really resuming the plot at the very end of the book. This middle section does not advance the plot, or give us more interesting background. Instead, it is standard espionage/stealth operations stuff. This book would have been much better at half its 750- page length.

THE GREAT IMPERSONATION by E. Phillips Oppenheim (ISBN-13 978-1-6042-4284-3, ISBN-10 1-6042-4284-1) is considered a classic spy thriller. Everard Dominey (and Englishman) and Leopold von Ragastein (a German) were friends at Eton and Oxford who look almost like identical twins. Later (in 1913) they meet in the African jungle, Dominey almost dead after being deserted by his bearers, and just after von Ragastein has been told to return to England and assume an English identity as a cover for espionage and fifth column activity. Though the writing is good, it is alas all too predictable. Of interest only to those who study the history of the spy novel.

Our science fiction discussion group read THE SPACE MERCHANTS by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (ISBN-13 978-0-575-07528-3, ISBN-10 0-575-07528-7) for October. Though written over a half a century ago, much of Pohl and Kornbluth projected is distressingly true today (particularly the aspects of big corporations' control of government). The book does not appear dated, except perhaps in the relations between the sexes, and even there it does have a woman doctor, written when this was not a commonplace. I can even offer as evidence the agreement of a high schooler in our group that the book still read well and understandably as a science fiction book, even though written so long ago.

The original publication of THE SPACE MERCHANTS was as GRAVY PLANET serialized in three parts in GALAXY magazine in 1952. This included a couple of chapters at the end set on Venus, which seemed to me out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel, and were dropped when the book was published. Also, the Conservationists were called "Connies" in the serialization, but "Consies" in the novel, which perhaps make the parallel to "Commies" a tiny bit more subtle and also makes more sense in terms of how these nicknames are formed.

THE MERCHANTS' WAR by Frederik Pohl (ISBN-13 978-0-312-90240-7, ISBN-10 0-312-90240-9) is a 1984 sequel to THE SPACE MERCHANTS by Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (and not to be confused with the fourth book of the Charles Stross series). This takes place initially on Venus, a world populated (at the end of THE SPACE MERCHANTS) by "Consies" and hence extremely negative towards advertising in any form. Consider the lengths to which Venerians will go to avoid the sin of advertising, as evidenced by this sign at Russian Hills:

"If for any reason you do not want to bring your own refreshments while visiting Russian Hills, some items like hamburgers, hot dogs and soy sandwiches are available in the Venera Lounge. They're inspected by the Planetary Health Service, but the quality is mediocre. Beer and other drinks can also be purchased, at about twice the cost of the same things in town."

Compare this to what one finds in James Morrow's 1990 novella CITY OF TRUTH (ISBN-13 978-0-156-18042-9, ISBN-10 0-156-18042-1):


Whether there is a direct influence, or just two independent instances of taking "truth in advertising" to its logical conclusion, I cannot say.

THE SPACE MERCHANTS and THE MERCHANTS' WAR were also issued in an omnibus volume by the Science Fiction Book Club called "VENUS, INC." [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           It has become appallingly obvious that our 
           technology has exceeded our humanity.
                                          -- Albert Einstein 

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