MT VOID 03/14/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 37, Whole Number 1484

MT VOID 03/14/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 37, Whole Number 1484

@@@@@ @   @ @@@@@    @     @ @@@@@@@   @       @  @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@
  @   @   @ @        @ @ @ @    @       @     @   @   @   @   @  @
  @   @@@@@ @@@@     @  @  @    @        @   @    @   @   @   @   @
  @   @   @ @        @     @    @         @ @     @   @   @   @  @
  @   @   @ @@@@@    @     @    @          @      @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@

Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/14/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 37, Whole Number 1484

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

BSFA Nominees Available as Podcasts:

All five short stories that have been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Short Story will be available as free podcasts at These are:


Placebos (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

An article in the current "Science News" is about placebos. Used to combat depression, they are as effective as all but the strongest anti-depressants. My question is, haven't placebos been fairly thoroughly discredited in animal tests? [-mrl]

[Before I get a lot of people responding, that *was* a joke. -mrl]

Science Fiction as a Literature of Discontent (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Back when I was in college at the University of Massachusetts I was a member of the science fiction club. At the same time the school had a university-wide art magazine called "Spectrum", paid for as part of our tuition. It had poetry and fiction and experimental art. One day an issue came out and it had a piece of art with the title "A Meeting of the Science Fiction Club". It was just a picture of some bizarre-looking people. I doubt that the artist had ever been to the real club. He was just trying his style at drawing people who looked just a little off kilter. I don't know if we were insulted. Maybe we were a little amused. But we had to admit that the artist really had a point. The people in the club did look just a bit strange. They were not strange in the way Spectrum portrayed them; they were just a little odd-looking. One of the regular attendees was called "Turtle Man" behind is back because he walked with the gait of a turtle walking on his hind legs as portrayed in animated cartoons. We definitely did have our share of slightly bizarre people. In fact, the people in most science fiction clubs look just a little stranger than most of the rest of the population.

And that has remained true. If you go to a science fiction convention and stand around in the lobby of the hotel where it is held you can pick out with fair accuracy the people who are just coincidentally staying at the hotel at the same time and those who are going to the convention. The "beautiful" people are just there by chance. The people who look a little strange or unkempt or who dress differently or who have a weight problem or a peculiar posture are probably there for the convention. They are bright people, but they look odd. (I am sorry if I am being overly frank. Maybe I should call fans "non-conformist".)

Now why is this? Well, one explanation is that science fiction fans are just not so anxious to fit in. They do things their own way. And perhaps the beautiful people do not need the support fans get from the science fiction community. They are sufficiently popular socially. They do not need science fiction for a social life or escape. They are busy dating and skiing and laying tennis and going out drinking. Cliques and campus Greek organizations seem to be glad enough to welcome the pretty people. Now what I am making here really are wild generalizations. There are people in science fiction fandom who are extremely attractive. But the largest proportion is just a bit different.

So what happens? The attractive people may find it easier to succeed without being intellectual. The people who are less like the factory standard tend to compensate or to become unhappy. Many become intellectuals. Some become neurotic. And these are people who may gravitate to science fiction. I think of science fiction as being a literature of discontent or even rebellion. People in science fiction frequently are not completely happy with the here and now. They look forward to when the future will take away the status quo.

I remember in my "Classics Illustrated" comic of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS that the cover of the comic was a late 19th century battlefield that was dominated by a gleaming, futuristic Martian war machine staring down a piece of artillery. It is a very memorable image. Here the past loses to the future. One exciting moment in the comic showed the obsolete battleship Thunder Child firing its rickety guns at a war machine and in the next frame the war machine unharmed turns its heat ray on the dreadnought and obliterates it. Again the past loses to the future and it is no contest. These were just the images that Wells' readers enjoyed. They were seeing the status quo being eliminated. And that is exciting for science fiction fans. And we are still getting big destructive scenes in films like ARMAGEDDON and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW in which the world we know is no match for science-based threats.

Who do these images appeal to? It is not someone who loves the status quo and is accepted in it. These sorts of plots appeal to the people who have less of an investment in the current order. They are people who would welcome its end or at least are willing to contemplate it.

Time travel also provides an escape. Forward time travel directly replaces the current world with a new world. It is like travel to another world where different rules prevail. Presumably we already know the past for backward time travel. But backward time travel allows us to go back in time with technical knowledge our world. Thus while King Arthur's Court does not give Hank a crack at a wholly new world, he can apply his knowledge to the 19th century to modernize Camelot. It is the time travel itself that is vanquishing the natural world.

Science fiction appeals to people who have less of an investment in the status quo and who want to trade in this reality for another one, a better one. Science fiction literature allows the reader to do that for the hour he is reading. That may be the secret of its popularity. [-mrl]

iPods and MP3 Players (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Mark just got a new iPod. It has eight gigabytes of memory and a video screen. I hate it.

I have an El Cheapo MP3 player with 128 megabytes. I love it.

Why this disparity, you may ask? (Or maybe not, but I'll tell you anyway.)

Mark's iPod has a silver back and a glass screen designed by the CSI folks for ease in collecting fingerprints. My MP3 player (which I've nicknamed 'Mippps' [sic]) is plastic and doesn't show any prints.

Mark's iPod has a rechargeable battery that can only be recharged through the USB port on the PC--on the PC, mind you, and not on any USB hub you may have attached, so currently we have to unplug one of the external drives to charge it. You can also buy an AC charger, though those seem to be fairly specialized and you have to be sure to get the right one. And they cost about $20. Mippps takes one AAA battery.

Mark's iPod requires special software to download files to it. Mippps has special software but you can just copy MP3 files to it as if it were an ordinary external drive.

Mark's iPod has a long manual--online, so if you want to carry it around, you have to print out an unwieldy stack of paper. Mippps has a very small manual.

Partly this is because Mark's iPod has tons of features which are next to impossible to figure out or navigate through. (It is incredibly easy to overshoot a menu item with the click wheel.) Mippps doesn't have as many options, so it has a more limited interface, but it is easy to operate. (It also has one option Mark's iPod doesn't--it can act as a voice recorder.)

Oh, and Mippps comes with a ring to attach a lanyard to. Mark's iPod requires a special case. [-ecl]

FRANKENSTEIN: A CULTURAL HISTORY by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (book review by Mark R. Leeper):

My first thought on seeing Susan Tyler Hitchcock's FRANKENSTEIN: A CULTURAL HISTORY was that it was very much a redoing of book I had read previously. It is essentially a repeat of Donald F. Glut's 1973 book THE FRANKENSTEIN LEGEND. Both books look at the history of the theme and characters created by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley from the novel up to each book's present day. Each starts with a short history of Mary Shelley and her circle of friends. But of course when the Hitchcock book gets beyond 1973 it is able to cover material that Glut was not. Hitchcock's style is a little more formal, or as formal as is possible with this subject matter. She has thirty pages of detailed footnotes at the back of the book and fourteen pages of bibliography. Glut is content with a page or so of footnotes after each chapter, but a much smaller total volume. Interestingly Hitchcock includes in the bibliography a book of essays about Frankenstein edited by Glut, but I see no reference to his book written with so similar an intent.

Of course, the story of the writing of FRANKENSTEIN has been told many times and has even been the subject of multiple films. A distinguished group of friends including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Mary Shelley on a night in Geneva in 1816 gave each other the challenge to write a ghost story. (One wonders if Mary, the neophyte of the crowd, is not now better remembered than her friends are. How many works can the average person name by Percy or Lord Byron?) Mary wrote what is now considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, FRANKENSTEIN. (Incidentally, while FRANKENSTEIN is surely a mainstay of fantastic literature, I believe it does not really qualify as science fiction. In the novel Victor Frankenstein after study of science, natural philosophy, alchemy, and magic one day realizes he knows how to make a man. The novel never makes explicit which of these disciplines he used nor what his method was. The films made it concrete by suggesting that he animated a patched together human using electricity. But for all the description directly from the book he might have just made a large homunculus or even a golem.)

More interesting at least to me is that is was not cinema that created all the blood and thunder versions of the Frankenstein monster. Within a decade after the novel was published and proved to be a literary sensation there were five different stage adaptations with varying degrees of graphic horror. June 19, 1823, saw a stage version called "Presumption" by William Brinsley Peake. This play told the story of novel but made some changes including adding a strange assistant for Victor Frankenstein, named Fritz. So when Dwight Frye played Fritz in the 1931 Boris Karloff film version, Fritz had been around almost as long as Victor had, though he did not appear in the novel. Hitchcock reports that Mary Shelley took great pleasure in the over-the-top stage productions of her novel. So perhaps the extremes of the film series might have met with her approval. Causing confusion for later generations, in 1831 Mary Shelley republished the novel under her name (the original version had been anonymous) making a number of changes, including making Elizabeth no longer a blood relation of Victor's.

Hitchcock continues through Universal Frankenstein films. What she says has not much is new to a real horror fan. Mostly what she writes is just a reminder of some aspects of the first two films. Here coverage of other Frankenstein films is spotty. The themes and characters of Frankenstein have arisen so many times that not all can get the same attention. But some occurrences are more important than others are and one would expect that Hitchcock would cover both series, Universal and Hammer Films, in some detail. In fact she probably has too much breadth and not enough depth in some places to her cultural history. For both the Universal Pictures and the Hammer Films series her coverage of the first film or two in the series is reasonable, but she has very little coverage of subsequent films in the series.

In addition, on page 211 she claims that Hammer's Dr. Frankenstein lives in London and makes occasional trips to the countryside. In fact the setting of the Hammer Frankenstein Films is always someplace Germanic. It is puzzling how she could have made such an error if the films were for her more than a distant memory.

Relatively important films are pushed aside so that she can cover the whimsical fact that genetically modified foods are derisively called "frankenfoods". This could have been given just a quick note. Most people who would read a cultural history of the Frankenstein story are probably more interested in the film versions than in political cartoons that have alluded to the story. Not all allusions to Frankenstein from popular culture are as interesting as other allusions.

But there is a description of some of the minor films, in some cases giving them too much attention, like the execrable FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER. And there are some paragraphs on some of the Frankenstein-themed comic book series as well as the famous "Classics Illustrated" adaptation of the novel, a fond memory from my youth. The book is fun, particularly the early portions. Hitchock's book brings back some happy memories like staying up late on a Saturday night to see the monster square off against the Wolf Man. And reading it brings back recollections of reading "Famous Monsters of Filmland". The book is an enjoyable read, but on the whole I would a preferred an update of Glut's book. [-mrl]

BLASPHEMY by Douglas Preston (book review by Tom Russell):

From front flap of the book: "The world's biggest supercollider, hidden deep in an Arizona mountain, will reveal what happened at the very moment of creation: the Big Bang itself. ... Or is it ... an attempt to disprove Genesis? ..."

You probably won't find this book in the science fiction section of your library, but it is the kind of science fiction I prefer: one in which the author's "Acknowledgments" page lists known scientists.

One challenge in writing "hard" science fiction must be to make the science part credible to readers who are familiar with the subject area, but not daunting to others. Another is the author can't start out "Once upon a time" or "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away." The hard science fiction story starts out in an imaginary laboratory somewhere: Dr. Frankenstein's castle, say, or at an imagined near-future $40B supercollider facility.

I didn't care for the title Preston chose, but don't have any other criticisms for this fast, fun-reading science fiction novel. Well, except the supercollider would probably cost more than $40B.... And have a few more scientists running the facility.... But that's all part of the "fiction" in BLASPHEMY. Recommended. Along the way you'll read about time before the Big Bang, Navaho religion, Turing's test for intelligent life, and the ultimate purpose of mankind's existence. [-tr]

THE BANK JOB (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: When the high political powers in Britain, wanting a piece of "evidence" to disappear, arrange for a bank robbery to take place, the result is complex chaos. Jason Statham plays Terry Leather, a family man going through a bad patch who takes what appears to be a great opportunity to rob a bank. The robbery opens a legal and political Pandora's Box. This film is full of action and actual suspense. The wit of the story is not always obvious when watching the film, but does come out in retrospect. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

I never thought of myself as an aficionado of bank heist films. For one thing there are not all that many. DOG DAY AFTERNOON, like most of its predecessors in the subgenre, is enjoyable but not a film I have much enthusiasm for. But the last two bank heists I have seen were Spike Lee's THE INSIDE MAN and Roger Donaldson's THE BANK JOB. These are, in fact, surprisingly enjoyable films. Yet for movies so similar they are just about opposites. Neither is overtly a comedy, but in fact one is a comedy of order, the other a comedy of chaos. THE INSIDE MAN features a robbery plan that is incredibly well planned out. One sees it with the pleasure of seeing a complex but perfectly designed machine. Watching THE BANK JOB on the other hand is like watching someone carefully open a can not knowing that it is filled with tightly packed springy snakes. In THE BANK JOB the robbers themselves do not even know the real reasons why they are robbing the bank. (That is not a spoiler, by the way. It is clear from the first scenes that there is much more going on than meets the eye.)

THE BANK JOB is based on a true story. Actually there is not much known about the real Walkie-Talkie Robbery to base a film on. In 1971 robbers broke into a bank tunneling under two or three buildings to get to the bank. They stayed in contact with their lookout via walkie-talkies. But unknown to them an amateur radio hobbyist was intercepting their communication and was tipping off the police. The newspapers covered the story as very big news. This was more money stolen than in Britain's famous Great Train Robbery, after all. But shortly after the robbery all news suddenly stopped as the matter was apparently hushed up. There have been conspiracy theories about what really happened and now THE BANK JOB brings one explanation to the screen.

Using this spare known details of the story as a skeleton writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais flesh out a complex story. The story involves about eight levels of people from the Royal Family down to a seedy pornographer played by the always welcome David Suchet--best known as television's Hercule Poirot. Jason Statham is Terry Leather, a family man and car dealer down on his luck. When his old girlfriend Martine tips him off to a bank that would be temporarily vulnerable to rob, Leather sees this one bank job as the way out of his problems. Martine is play by Saffron Burrows who is attractive and whose acting talents seem just sufficient to the role. Stealing the contents of safety deposit boxes is relatively safe, Leather figures, because nobody wants to report what they lost to the police. This is not entirely true. People who cannot go to the police to recover their losses may be even more dangerous.

Frequently in films with bank robbers they are portrayed as teams that are either klutzes or geniuses. Unlike the robbers in THE INSIDE MAN, the gang in THE BANK JOB have believable levels of skill and luck. They are reasonably proficient but make mistakes and at times things just go wrong for them. That gives the film an air of credibility. With the writers and directors we are in good hand and there is an amazing degree of experience brought to bear on the making of this film. Writers Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement have been a writing team for more than forty years and twenty-seven films plus television. They worked together on the screenplays for films as different as NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, FLUSHED AWAY, and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. They know what they are doing. Director Roger Donaldson had directed such diverse films as THE BOUNTY, COCKTAIL, SPECIES, DANTE'S PEAK, THIRTEEN DAYS, and THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN.

This is as enjoyable and intelligent heist film as we have seen since THE INSIDE MAN and then for a good like time before. I rate THE BANK JOB a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

The British newspaper The Daily Mail discusses how close the film is to reality at . Be warned that some of the information could be considered movie spoiler to those unfamiliar with the case.

Film Credits:


Hobbits (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

Taras Wolansky sends us the following:

Hobbits May Be Human After All

ScienceDaily (Mar. 6, 2008) — RMIT University researchers have joined the worldwide debate over the hobbit-like fossils found on the Indonesian island of Flores, with a controversial new theory suggesting their primitive features are the result of a medical condition.

Dr Peter Obendorf and Dr Ben Kefford, from the School of Applied Sciences, worked with the University of Western Australia’s Emeritus Professor Charles Oxnard on a paper just published in the British journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The small human-like fossils were said to represent a primitive species completely new to science when they were discovered in 2004.

But Dr Obendorf said comparisons of the fossils with modern bones suggested that they were actually human, with their small stature and distinctive features the result of a condition related to severe iodine deficiency.

“Dwarf cretinism can cause features very similar to those of the Flores hobbits,” the Senior Lecturer said. ...


Jane Austen's Economics (letter of comment by Victoria Fineberg):

In response to Evelyn's review of THE ANNOTATED PRIDE & PREJUDICE in the 03/07/08 issue of the MT VOID, Victoria Fineberg writes:

FYI, Barry Barnitz keeps a blog "Literary Musings" at

Among other things he has links to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE on YouTube (6 x 6 = 36 of 9-minute segments) and three articles on the economics of Austen's novels:


Electronic Hoaxes (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Mark's comments on electronic hoaxes in the 03/07/08 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

I must confess, I'm also one of those pedantic wet blankets who constantly tries to put down all the fun hoaxes circulating around the Internet. Indeed, I think some people have taken me off their distribution lists for such material! It is, after all, embarrassing to the senders to be told they were suckered.

Mark is mixing different kinds of hoaxes, though. For example, the story about George Bush having an IQ of 95 started out as a put-on: if you went on reading the original email, you discovered that the (fictitious) Lovenstein Institute that had supposedly researched Presidential IQ's consisted of an unmarried couple living in a trailer. But those details were dropped, possibly with malicious intent, as the email was forwarded, until the story was able to take in, for example, G. B. Trudeau--who, admittedly, was eager to be taken in. (In reality, someone with an IQ of 95 is lucky to finish high school, forget about Yale and Harvard. Bush actually scored in the 120's; a little better than John Kerry, it seems []. Which may help explain 2004.)

In the Nineties, the net was filled with Clinton conspiracies (a few of them actually true). In the Oughts, it's the grotesquely misnamed "Truthers", who insist 9/11 was Mossad or the CIA or the Bilderbergers or somebody, so long as it wasn't the people who repeatedly took credit for the attacks. Rosie O'Donnell is probably the most famous Truther. Now we discover she is joined by Best Actress Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, who also disbelieves in the 1969-72 Moon landings. [-tw]

[It is true that there are hoaxes with different intent. Some are for political gain and some just for the apparent joy of with little effort starting a large misinformation campaign. As for Cotillard, we live with the assumption that celebrities have some better knowledge than the rest of us. People like Tom Cruise and Cotillard unintentionally do a lot to discredit that idea. I think it may be tha it is not so much that we consider them smart as it is that we recognize their faces and somehow subconsiously we think of them as our friends. -mrl]

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

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Linda See (ISBN-13 978-0-812-96806-4, ISBN-10 0-812-96806-9) is yet another book that is provided with discussion questions at the back (in the trade paperback edition, anyway). It is a story told in the first person of a Chinese girl (and later woman) in the 1850s (based on the occurrence of the Taiping Rebellion as a plot element). The narrator, Lily, is joined with another girl as "old sames", a bond in some ways closer than marriage. The book follows their relationship over the years and all the changes in their lives. Not surprisingly, a lot of the book is devoted to how badly women were treated in traditional Chinese society.

There is also a lot of discussion of nu shu, an actual written Chinese language that was a secret women's language. And oddly, it was this aspect that annoyed me the most. First, See has her character say that "many nu shu characters are only italicized versions of men's characters." This is like having Julius Caesar say something was as red as a tomato. Just as Caesar never saw a tomato, the narrator of this book never saw an italic letter, or would know what the word "italicized" means.

And second, the attitude of many of the women in the book that I think we are meant to admire is anti-intellectual and anti- rational:

"Snow Flower and I had often asked how Yuziu's mother and sisters had been able to read the secret code.... Perhaps a sympathetic eunuch slipped out a letter from Yuxiu that explained everything. Or perhaps her sisters didn't know what the note said, and tossed it aside, and in its skewed state they saw and interpreted the italicized characters. ... But these are the kinds of particulars that men should care about. ... What we should carry away from Yuxiu's life is that she found a way to share what was happening beneath her happy surface life and that the gift has been passed down through countless generations to us."

One can argue that the narrator was a product of her times and all that, but I still find this attitude of "facts don't matter; what matters is how we feel about them" is a bad one to encourage. There is far too much of this today (in my opinion). Everything is subjective. What matters (we are told) is how we feel about things.

And unfortunately, this sort of thing seems to suffuse the books frequently chosen for book discussion groups. Our science fiction group avoids this, because this is not a theme that goes well with science fiction. And our general group's selections are broad enough that only a small percent are this sort of modern fiction. One hates to generalize on the basis of gender, but I will observe that the vast majority of book discussion groups are all-female, and these books seem aimed at that audience. For example, they have female narrators, female protagonists, and so on. If you did get one of these groups to do classic nineteenth century British fiction, they would choose MIDDLEMARCH over DANIEL DERONDA.

[One wonders if there exists anything equivalent to italicization in an idiogram language? -mrl]

WHO WAS THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK? AND OTHER HISTORICAL MYSTERIES by Hugh Ross Williamson (ISBN-13 978-0-141-39097-0, ISBN-10 0- 141-39097-2) also begins with a somewhat anti-rational notion: that we can never really know history. At least Williamson does not go as far as some, and claim that there is no such thing as true history; he merely says we can never know everything that really happened, or understand it. This is particularly true of history according to the "Great Man" theory, he notes--since that theory assumes events are shaped by extraordinary individuals, there are no generalizations that one can make (e.g., "a decrease in the real value of money will bring about a revolution").

It is worth noting that the historical mysteries that Williamson discusses are almost all British, and often fairly obscure, at least to Americans. If you don't know who Perkin Warbeck purportedly was, his actual identity will be less than fascinating. And at least one--who murdered the Princes in the Tower?--has been discussed in great length elsewhere, not least of which is Josephine Tey's novel, THE DAUGHTER OF TIME.

[As a matter of synchronicity with my book review earlier in this issue, in 1830 Mary Shelley wrote a historical fiction novel THE FORTUNES OF PERKIN WARBECK, A ROMANCE, based on the life of the notorious imposter. -mrl]

HA'PENNY by Jo Walton (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1853-4, ISBN-10 0-7653-1853-9) is good, but it suffers from being the middle novel of a trilogy. It takes place after the events of her earlier novel FARTHING: Britain has signed a peace with Hitler, but not everyone thinks it is a good thing, and the British government has adopted increasingly fascist tactics to combat "terrorism". Many reviewers have said that the parallels between the Britain of HA'PENNY and the Britain (and United States) of today are not heavy-handed, but I am not sure I would agree. In addition, the book consists of alternating points of view, one of the actress Viola Larkin (told in the first person) and the other of Police Inspector Carmichael (told in the third person). This results in a somewhat choppy flow, with the times seeming not always to be in sync. It also seems as if a lot of the action is happening off-stage--not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that you are being told what happened instead of "seeing" it yourself.

I really liked the first novel in the series, but I found this one a let-down. It is possible them when the third (HALF A CROWN) comes out in August, they will all form a unified whole.

(Oh, the titles are basically puns. The first book, FARTHING, is named after the estate where the peace was drawn up, and the second, HA'PENNY, is a reference to the ha'penny seats in the theater. It would not surprise me if HALF A CROWN follows this trend.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Any intelligent fool can make things bigger 
           and more complex....  It takes a touch of genius--
           and a lot of courage to move in the opposite 
                                          -- Albert Einstein

Go to my home page