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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/01/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 31, Whole Number 1478
Table of Contents
What Atlas Knew (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We were brought up with the myth that Columbus was trying to prove that the Earth was round in a time that we knew it to be flat. Okay, here's what I want to know. The well-known image of Atlas goes back to ancient Greece. He's the Titan who held apart the earth and the sky. Sometimes he is depicted with the sky on his shoulders, sometimes it is the Earth. But whatever is on his shoulders is a sphere, never a pancake. So somebody must have thought things were spheres. [-mrl]
Tata's New Car and the Road Not Taken (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There were recently headlines that the South Asian industry giant Tata will be selling the Tata Nano, a car that in India will cost about one lakh. Sidenote: What is a "lakh?" That is a word that is mostly used only in India, unfortunately. It would be convenient to use here here. It is one tenth of a million. In this case it is one tenth of a million rupees. That is currently about $2500. That is about what I paid for my first Toyota, but there has been a lot of inflation since then. Company Chairman Ratan Tata announced the Tata Nano gets 50 miles per gallon, and meets European emissions standards.
That sounds very good for India. I am sure Tata will sell lots (or lakhs) of these cars and do very well. Most of the press has been very positive toward Tata and what they are doing for their country. Sadly, I frequently see the downside of good news. I just wish Tata had better answers about environmental issues like CO2 emissions. To say that the car meets current European emissions standards is an evasion and not very reassuring. People have been fighting to make those standards stricter for years. Those standards assumed a certain number of cars on the road. More cars would probably have meant stricter standards. A very cheap CO2 emitter could put a lot more cars on the road and CO2 in the air. It is like the cheap, fuel-efficient Chinese motorbikes that were really contributing heavily to Vietnam's environmental pollution crisis when we were there in 2001. Tata comes off only marginally more forward-thinking than the American automobile industry, which is to say marginally better than a disaster. See http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/223/.
I had been hoping that by the time the masses of China and India get cars, by then they could have electric cars. They could pioneer the electric car and dominate the market that the Detroit auto makers chose to ignore. It now looks like that is not going to happen. I cannot believe that with the development Tata put into their cars they could not go for an electric car. That is a proven technology.
Maybe the infrastructure of India would not support that much use of electricity. But electric cars are essentially powered by the gravity of falling water. They are much cleaner. Instead Tata went for pumping more oil out of the ground and burning it into the air to power what could be a very large number of cars.
I suspect that part of Tata's decision to go with petroleum burning cars is that it is easier to get petroleum to remote places than it is to get electricity there. Petroleum is relatively portable. So was the infrastructure probably was part of the Tata choice. But I think that is not as much a concern as Tata is assuming. Perhaps it is easier to roll out a petroleum infrastructure, but in the long run it is limiting. Also the decision to go with petroleum will be a big boost to Middle Eastern interests and will give them more power over India. This is not very good for India. It is giving power to their political enemies.
India does not have an electrical infrastructure, but I don't remember it as being a gas-station-on-every-corner sort of place either. The presence of popular automobiles will define what infrastructure is going to get put in place to support them. And demand is what will determine the infrastructure that will be. When the Ford Model T was marketed most roads were dirt roads that got wet in the rain and impassable by the new cars. Once the cars were available the roads came to be paved and we built a highway system. Infrastructure did get built and it followed demand. That was not a lucky coincidence. The people with money to afford cars had the political influence to get the roads they needed. If the people with political clout wanted an electric infrastructure, it would probably be built. And those are the people who would.
The electrical infrastructure would be much more versatile and probably better for the environment than petroleum one would be. India would have proved itself to be more forward-looking than the West. But now that is not the way it is going to go. Going for electricity would have been more intelligent and India would not have to compete with China and the West for petroleum. With electricity India would have gotten their power from their many rivers and their system of dams.
Next week in a related article I will talk about what I see are the implications of that decision for India, the world, and (surprising) especially for Israel. [-mrl]
Science Fiction For People Who Don't Like Science Fiction(comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
If you are a science fiction fan, you have almost definitely had the experience of telling some you read science fiction and having them say, "Oh, I don't like science fiction," or, "I've never read any science fiction that I've liked."
When I hear people say this, I am reminded of a relative who often said she did not like science fiction movies. Then one time (quite a while ago) she mentioned having seen COCOON and liking it. So I said, "See, there is a science fiction movie you like." "COCOON isn't science fiction," she emphatically stated. "Let's see ... aliens come from outer space and give us immortality, and you say that is not science fiction?" Well, okay, she had to concede that it was.
So when someone recently said they never liked any science fiction, I asked if she had ever read FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON (by Daniel Keyes). Yes, she had and she had liked it, and she acknowledged that it was indeed science fiction.
Which got me to thinking: what science fiction would you recommend for people who say they do not like science fiction?
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, obviously. And 1984 (by George Orwell). A recent radio program mentioned that CRYPTONOMICON (by Neal Stephenson) would be a good gift for those who like World War II thrillers. My book discussion group, even those who dislike science fiction, liked THE EYRE AFFAIR (by Jasper Fforde), and accepted THE WOMAN AND THE APE (Peter Hoeg). And I would not hesitate to recommend THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION (by Michael Chabon), especially to Jewish readers.
So what would *you* recommend for people who think they do not like science fiction? [-ecl]
CLOVERFIELD, Political Films, and THE INNOCENTS ABROAD(letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's review of CLOVERFIELD in the 01/25/08 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes, "I liked the concept behind CLOVERFIELD: the "worm's eye" view of a giant monster attack on New York. The concept reminded me of the classic graphic novel, MARVELS, in which ordinary folk witness--and suffer from--superhero battles over their heads. But I thought the execution was lousy. When the film started with a DoD file number, I figured the story would be told through miscellaneous home videos, cell phones, news footage, security cams, military gun cams, etc. But then it implausibly (though cheaply) told the entire story through a single camera. As the 'New York Times" reviewer humorously noted, you almost have to believe the guy with the camera goes on shooting even as monsters bite off pieces!" [-tw]
Regarding his letter of comment on political films in the same issue, Taras writes, "Freudian slip? I had merely suggested that among "last year's crop of political films ... the more anti- American a film, the worse it did, at least in the U.S." Which Mark interpreted as "conservative-themed films do better at the box office than liberal ones." An interesting hypothesis in itself, though one I hesitate to put forward without more data." [-tw]
Mark replies, "I don't know how Freudian the slip would have been, but I may have over-interpreted what you were saying about film." [-mrl]
And on Evelyn's review of Mark Twain's THE INNOCENTS ABROAD, Taras writes, "If you ever get the chance, see the wonderful 1983 made-for-TV adaptation, with Craig Wasson (as Twain), Brooke Adams, and David Ogden Stiers." [-tw]
Mark replies, "I remember the PBS 'Innocents Abroad' fondly. I tried to get a copy of it on video, but it seems unavailable. I have seen recently the PBS film of Twain's 'The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg' which is quite enjoyable. It is available from NetFlix. It is even on their free 'Instant Viewing' list." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY by Isaac Asimov (FOUNDATION, ISBN-13 978-0-553-29335-7, ISBN-10 0-553-29335-4; FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE, ISBN-13 978-0-553-29337-1, ISBN-10 0-553-29337-0; SECOND FOUNDATION, ISBN-13 978-0-553-29336-4, ISBN-10 0-553-29336-2) was our January science fiction discussion book. This has been discussed endlessly, but I will make a few observations. First, everyone seems to be smoking. When there is one character who doesn't smoke, a big deal is made of it. There are still newspapers with sports and comics pages, and one paragraph describes how tens of millions of them are being printed each day. All the names are European--and western and northern European at that--with an occasional Latin or Egyptian one in the Empire. There are no names that might have been Japanese, or Indian, or African. And everyone in a position of power or authority is male. (Asimov tried to fix that in FOUNDATION'S EDGE, written much later, by making some of the minor female characters more important than they appeared in the first three books.)
Scientifically, everyone is stuck in the 1950s. Asimov refers to "that kindergarten toy, the logarithmic Slide Rule" ["The Conspirators"]. It is not clear that in even just another fifty years anyone will know what a slide rule is, much less consider it a toy. (Oddly, in "The Psychohistorians", Seldon has a calculator--we seem to have regressed rather than progress through the series.) Computers seem strangely absent (though ships have them), and even such basic (to us) items such as video recorders and personal electronic equipment are practically unknown. People carry briefcases with sheaves of paper in them.
Two questions I have not seen before: Where does Trantor get its oxygen if all but 100 square miles are covered with buildings ["The Psychohistorians"]? And where does it get its soil when it reverts to agriculture ["On Trantor"]?
Another problem is psycho-history itself. Psycho-history "reached mathematical maturity with one man, Hari Seldon, and died with him, for no man since has been capable of manipulating its intricacies." ["The Dead Hand"] So nobody really has any proof that it works, and no falsifiability. Or rather, the whole episode with the Mule *does* falsify the theory--clearly Hari Seldon's predictions failed when the Mule came along. In fact, even when Seldon's Plan does work, it often works because of chance occurrences--a derelict spaceship is found, or some such. On the one hand, Seldon claims one can only predict in the macro sense, but it seems clear that a lot of the changes we see are driven by micro events.
For that matter, after a while people keep saying that they will know they have reached a Seldon Crisis when their actions are completely determined--when they have no options left. And they refuse to take any action until they do reach a Seldon Crisis. So the question arises, why should anyone do anything? Well, obviously Joe Average--or Joh Avron, to pick a more Asimovian name--has to go to work, plow his field, or whatever. But the politicians get into a mindset where they have determined that the correct action is either no action, or whatever action is inevitable.
And as Joseph Patrouch points out, Asimov often conceals key plot points or produces a deus ex machina to solve each short story's situation. "Oh, I just happened to be taping that room--and I also just happened to decide to flood the room with undetectable ultra-violet light--and the suspect just happened to turn his hand a certain way so that we got a split-second glimpse of his tattoo."
It is a sign of differing standards of prose that Asimov could use a word like the French "ci-devant" without Campbell telling him to change it--I suspect that it would no longer appear in this sort of fiction.
When asked in what order people should read the "Foundation" series (since some later novels were prequels), the response is often, "Read the Trilogy. Then stop." I would modify that to, "Read the Trilogy. Then read PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS by Donald Kingsbury." [ISBN-13 978-0-765-34195-2, ISBN-10 0-765-34195-6] Kingsbury takes the whole premise of the "Foundation" series-- psychohistory--and shows it as a stultifying tyranny. (He was not the first; Patrouch saw psychohistory, or at least Seldon's implementation of it, as leading to just this end.)
In writing a pastiche, Kingsbury has picked up on a lot of different Asimovian touches. His character names all sound like those used by Asimov in the "Foundation" series (Eron Osa, Jars Hanis, Hahukum Konn). And his historical timeline has obvious references (the Nacreome Revolt is the Anacreon Revolt, Faraway is Terminus, Lakgan is Kalgan, and Cloun-the-Stubborn is Magnifico the Mule). He has a humorous take-off on the Three Laws of Robotics ("Robot's Ritual Rundown"), and the Heart's Well Antiquarian Bookstore (Kingsbury's editor at Tor was David Hartwell).
And these are only some of the obvious ones. How about "Ojaisun- the-Adroit, ... prior to his execution for depraved malthanatostomy"? (If I tell you that "malthan" is Russian (derogatory) slang for a black man, does that help?) This is a book that cries out for annotations.
There do seem to be some inconsistencies. On the one hand, people know about Homo erectus from Java, and Catholics and the Bible, and the caves of Lascaux; on the other, there are references to "Alfred the White Head of the North" and to "Neel Halmstrun" as the first man to walk on another planet. (The explanation that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the first man to walk on Mars may be named Neel Halmstrun is too far- fetched to accept.)
And while Asimov uses words like "ci-divant", Kingsbury occasionally throws in a word like "cockamamie" or "kvetch".
And there is far too much about the history of measurement. This is ironic, because on page 403, one character tells another, "The brilliance of the Founder was his ability to strip away irrelevant detail. ... Here's one that you are reluctant to edit because it is very insightful; it will tell you how trading organizations form and evolve but at the same time will tell you more than you need to know to follow the evolution of length-and- weight standards. I love it, but you have to take it out. Nothing bloats a psychohistorical prediction to unmanageable size more than the cute variable that has a minor role to play." 'Nuff said.
(Another response to Asimov's "Foundation" series was Michael Flynn's IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, which I reviewed in 01/03/92 issue of the MT VOID). Both PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS and IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND won the Libertarian "Prometheus Award" for science fiction.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. -- Lloyd Alexander
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