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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/23/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 47, Whole Number 1494
Table of Contents
Summer Science Reading (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In time for a summer with more opportunity to read, time IO9 has composed a list of twenty influential science books that may just have more interesting ideas than the science fiction you are reading. Some I have read, some I have not, and some I have not but am aware of the ideas and probably should read. Well, perhaps all I really should read. A lot of the ideas have been reflected in MT VOID articles. Certainly the article is worth checking out. It is at http://tinyurl.com/6pwdv5. [-mrl]
Commentary (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was just traveling and when I do that, my main news source is CNN. However, I am starting to wonder if it is worth the effort. CNN is actually a very poor source for news. And what is bothering me now is that their commentators and hosts commenting on each other's work. They make comments like "Great story, Michelle." This is a way to take time that is supposed to be content time and instead are turning it into an advertisement for themselves. They could make the argument that this really is sincere comment. But somehow they never get around to saying "You know, Michelle, you could have sweated the details a little more on that one" or "some of your language was just a bit awkward." [-mrl]
A Cold Look at "The Cold Equations" (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the best-remembered and often-discussed science fiction stories is "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin from the August, 1954 issue of ASTOUNDING STORIES. In itself it is a poignant little short story that simply presents a lamentable and unromantic fact. As Scotty would later say in STAR TREK: "Och, ya canno' change the laws o' physics." And that fact has been frustrating science fiction fans ever since 1954.
In the Godwin story a ship is sent into space on a mission of mercy. It has to deliver some serum that is desperately needed to save some lives. If the ship does not reach its destination people will die. So a rocket jockey is sent to deliver the serum. His rocket is stripped down to its essentials. Any more weight and it will crash. But early in the flight the pilot finds that something is wrong. His instruments tell him that there is something un-accounted for on the spaceship. It turns out to be an eighteen-year-old girl. She has stowed away on the ship for a chance to see her brother. But she did not know that the exacting laws of physics would not let this stripped-down ship get to its destination with her mass on board. That mass has to be removed. After earnest searching for some solution to the problem that will let her live nothing can be found. She has to go to her death. The physics did not allow for any way to rescue her. She has to be released into the vacuum of space.
Apparently even the author wanted to put a happy ending on the story. The hard-nosed editor John Campbell insisted that only a realistic and fatalistic ending would do. The 1950 film DESTINATION MOON has a similar situation, but there the writer gave the first astronauts an out. What if there is no out?
The efforts to save our unfortunate teenage stowaway have gone on for more than half a century. Almost immediately readers wrote in to the magazine with suggestions how to save her. There were all sorts of workarounds that were suggested. Maybe pieces of the ship's structure could be removed to save the weight. That sort of thing. Someone else suggested that the mathematics and the physics was actually not correct and there would have been a way to save her. Many of the suggestions have a ring of desperation. People want to save that one life.
Deborah Wassell wrote a commenting story called "The Cool Equations." Here a way is found to work around the laws of physics. So did Donald Saker in "The Cold Solution." I heard a radio production of the story where they changed the young woman in question to an older one trying to reach her husband. This was apparently used to lessen the poignancy. I suspect the idea was that the marriage had been consummated so somehow it seemed like she was not missing so much.
There was a Sci-Fi Channel adaptation of the story where after all the poignancy it is discovered that the tightness of the situation is somehow the plot of a big, greedy corporation, and things are set up so the girl lives and the corporation is punished for its greed instead. You can definitely see where the filmmakers' prejudices lie. (I have not watched Sci-Fi Channel's since then, but I am told second-hand that their movies have gotten even worse. Is that really conceivable?)
Well, perhaps the physics of the story was faulty. Godwin might not have been sufficiently adept scientifically to execute his premise. Maybe the ship would have been engineered with more of a margin for error, but it is clear what Godwin's and Campbell's premise was intended to be. There is a dilemma when the lesser of two evils is to send a nearly innocent young woman to her death. Whether Godwin's physics was right or not is really beside the point. Any revisionism on the story is really an attempt to dodge the idea of the story. Finding ways to save the hapless teenager is really an evasion of the premise and a quibble rather than a clever solution. The truth is that life is hard and bad things happen. The writers of STAR TREK who refuse to accept that no-win situations actually exist are in denial.
The whole idea behind the Kobayashi Maru subplot of STAR TREK II is that Kirk can always find a way to win in any no-win situation. He just needs some good (or bad) writers to get him around no-win situations. It is an idea that cheapened the series in exactly the way that John Campbell refused to let Tom Godwin cheapen ASTOUNDING with a happy ending where it did not belong.
The response that the story has gotten may be more revealing than was intended. I think there is a certain degree of crypto-sexism in the reaction to the story. Before, during, and after 1954, men have been dying in science fiction stories. I cannot think of any man who has died in a story who has gotten anywhere near the same sympathetic reaction the teen gets in this story. The fact that the person in question is female and young (and presumably in a 1954 story an eighteen-year-old would be a virgin) is what makes the story so poignant for readers. And I wonder how many readers of the story pictured a less attractive eighteen-year-old. There are not too many, I would guess. Few readers even care that the situation was of her own making in a setting where she presumably should have known better. How much reaction would there have been if the stowaway had been a 44-year-old male? We like to pretend that we have egalitarian values in our society, but this too is denial. If a seven-year-old blond girl is kidnapped it is a national news story. If it were a 37-year-old Hispanic male nobody would care. [-mrl]
IRON MAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A weapons manufacturer decides that the making of weapons is immoral, so turns himself into a weapon to combat bad weapons users. If you can get past the irony (or hypocrisy) of the central concept Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Marvel Comic is reasonably entertaining and uses its digital effects energetically. Robert Downey, Jr.--definitely not a Christopher Reeve type--plays the arms tycoon who builds a suit to give him super powers. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Spoiler warning: there are minor plot spoilers below. One spoiler is saved for the end of the review.
The first big blockbuster of the 2008 summer is IRON MAN. At a high level the story is fine as a Marvel Comic Book on the wide screen. Most of the lower level details should have been given more thought. Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is sort of a modern-day Howard Hughes, part playboy, part genius engineer. He is a fabulously wealthy second-generation arms manufacturer. Tony Stark has a sort of popular celebrity status in much the way that arms manufacturers usually do not have in our universe. In Afghanistan he is promoting his company's new missile system--powerful enough nearly to nearly kill himself when he launches it (so who will he get to launch it?).
Shortly after he is captured by enemy meanies who want him to recreate his missile using as building parts the spare parts they have assembled in a cave. It must be a really well-equipped cave to rival what a major industrialist can do in the United States. They will watch him via cameras because it is higher-tech than putting one of their own people in the room with him. Then he builds an armored power-suit instead of a missile. Luckily his captors are not watching him closely enough to notice the difference. With his suit he has superpowers and he emerges as what will become Iron Man.
All superheroes need an Achilles Heel, even Achilles. Stark's weakness is that as part of the capture he ended up with metal shrapnel in his blood stream. If they reach his heart he will die. He is being kept alive only by a strong electromagnet embedded in a port in his chest, one with lights on it so he can find his keys in the dark. He will die if he is without his magnet for any longer than the six minutes or so the film shows he can go without it. Meantime the shrapnel caught in this tug of war is apparently scraping out his arteries. How he is avoiding stroke is anybody's guess. With his power suit he is able to get out of his Afghan scrape, but his plan to vacate the arms business puts him into direct conflict with his father's old partner Obadiah Stane. (Wouldn't Charles Dickens have loved that name.) Stane is played by Jeff Bridges with a startling new look, a shaved head with a moustache and beard making it obvious he is sinister. Stark's main support comes from his counter- feminist factotum, Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of Pepper Potts, perhaps a step down even from her Polly Perkins in SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW.
The script by a large team of contributors raises and then ignores some moral issues. One is the question of whether one can bring an end to weapons by creating newer and more powerful weapons. Even in the film this strategy is less than totally effective, though we are expected to agree with Stark's beliefs. Stark does not kill for any motive but self-defense. But he hands a villain over to Afghan peasants who will likely not share his scruples. This is apparently his version of the United States policy of rendition.
Jon Favreau is an actor of the Ben Affleck and Vince Vaughn generation. Without the good looks of a Vaughn or am Affleck he is now behind the camera directing, and probably making better contributions there. Previously he directed MADE, ELF, and ZATHURA. In this film he directs but also has the tiny role as Tony Stark's chauffeur Hogan. Downey is pleasant to watch for his tongue in cheek characterization. He behaves like someone trying desperately to seem unflappable while he really is not, like he is watching events out of the corners of his eyes. Terrence Howard is around as Stark's friend and liaison to the military, but he does not have much opportunity to act. Notable is Shaun Toub of THE KITE RUNNER and TV's "Lost" as a fellow captive who becomes Stark's friend. Also in a tiny role is Stan Lee, the creator of Iron Man, who traditionally shows up someplace to get his face on the screen in many films based on Marvel Comics. Samuel L. Jackson plays another familiar Stan Lee character in a scene that is saved as a special reward for those who are loyal enough to sit through the credits.
This is a sort of a turn-your-mind-off comic book on the screen. It is clearly popular, but not one of the best few superhero films. I would rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0371746/
Toward the end our Iron Man fights someone in a power-suit nearly twice as high as his is. It is supposedly his design, but just made bigger. But Stark's suit fits around him like a glove. His legs fit into the legs of the suit and his head fits into the helmet. Make a suit twice as large as its operator is and it would have to operate a very different way. The operator's legs could not reach to the legs of the suit so the legs would have to be fully robotic rather than just power-assists. Stark can kick his real left leg forward, but in the double suit that leg would be only at the level of the suit's belly. The double-sized suit really could not be based on Stark's suit. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We recently visited Arches National Park in Utah. Edward Abbey is the author of many novels and non-fiction books set in and about the West. At one of the book sales a couple of months before the trip, I picked up his book DESERT SOLITAIRE: A SEASON IN THE WILDERNESS (ISBN-13 978-0-671-69588-0, ISBN-10 0-671-69588-6), a collection of essays about his time as a Park ranger in Arches National Park. If this is true, I think the Park ought to have gone after him for dereliction of duty, since he seems to have spent a lot of time helping a near-by rancher herd cattle, rafting down the Colorado, and doing a lot of other things having nothing to do with the National Park Service. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that although he calls it *a* season, the book actually covers a couple of years or more.
Anyway, the most pertinent chapter would be "Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks". In this chapter, Abbey complains that the National Parks are effectively being destroyed in the attempt to make them more "accessible". Now, Abbey worked in Arches in the 1950s, and wrote the book in 1967, so by "accessible" he does not means wheelchair ramps and such, but paved roads and plumbing.
Abbey's suggestion was to close the Parks to all motor vehicle traffic (except for shuttle buses and other vehicles owned and operated by the National Park Service). All visitors would have to leave their cars outside the entrance. They would be issued a bicycle (or horse) for use inside the park. Their tents, bedrolls, etc., would be transported by shuttle bus to the campgrounds. (He even accepts that those "too elderly or too sickly to mount a bicycle" might be allowed to ride the shuttle buses.)
Something like this has been done in the bigger Parks (e.g., Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon). Cars are allowed in the Park, but they are barred from the most scenic parts, and people wanting to see those parts must walk, bicycle--or ride shuttle buses. This is not quite what Abbey suggested--he did not want shuttle buses running constantly up and down the roads every seven minutes. But it is vastly better than bumper-to-bumper cars and RVs.
Abbey then suggested no new roads be built in National Parks. This follows fairly directly from the first suggestion--if cars are not coming, why build roads? And rangers should be spending more time outside, guiding people on hikes, helping them with camping (in tents, since no vehicles are allowed in the Parks), and so on. All this--ranger service, bicycles, horses--should be free to the public. Abbey claims that by not building new roads or spending money to maintain the old ones--let them revert to unpaved roads again if necessary, but lack of traffic will probably lower the maintenance cost a lot--the Parks would have more than enough money to finance his proposals.
The major obstacle that he sees to this is that "Industrial Tourism"--motels, restaurants, tour companies, road-building contractors, etc.--are going to fight this tooth and nail. Well, maybe, although as I said, Abbey's suggestions have been implemented somewhat.
The real problem (as I see it) is that there is a feedback loop. Abbey bemoans the changes in Arches that the paved road brought. Tourists have to camp in the campgrounds rather than wherever they want, and must bring charcoal or their own wood for fires-- there is not enough dead wood around for the numbers of campers that now arrive. But these changes were made because of the numbers of tourists. Are there lots of tourists because the paved road was put in, or was the paved road put in because there were so many tourists that an unpaved road could not support that many people? In the 1950s, it took a long time and a lot of effort to get even as close as the entrance of Arches. Now one can fly to Salt Lake City or Denver, rent a car (or even 4-wheel-drive vehicle) and be there in a day or two. (Admittedly, this may change with global warming and/or the increase in gas prices.) So if thousands of people show up at the entrance, the question is, what can the Park do? One option is to limit the number of people who can enter the Park on a given day. This, understandably, they are reluctant to do. The other is to figure out how to support this many people. The easiest way has been to build better roads, create campgrounds, open a Visitors Center to provide an orientation, and so on. Oh, and the campgrounds need plumbing, because the sort of backcountry camping where one digs a latrine fails spectacularly long before one reaches the numbers of tourists the Parks are currently getting. However, at some point even those changes doesn't work, and the Parks have switched to shuttle buses in the more congested areas.
A reasonable approach for the future is to consider before building a road whether this road is going to be a real solution or something that will be equally congested in ten years. If the latter, put in a dirt road for non-motorized traffic (and possibly Park buses) rather than a much more expensive paved road.
On the other hand, Abbey does make a logical error in his argument. He describes the people who visit the bottom of the Grand Canyon and other remote places in the mountains, or raft down rivers, as being "not consist[ing] solely of people young and athletic but also of old folks, fat folks, pale-faced office clerks who don't know a rucksack from a haversack, and even children." Yes, and Theodore Roosevelt was a weakling before he headed west. The point is that just because *some* old folks can climb Mt. Whitney, and some fat folks can raft down the Colorado, and some children can horse-back through the Smokies, does not mean that most, or even many, can. The existence of a few professional basketball players under six feet tall does not mean that the profession is as open to shorter people as it is to tall ones.
The irony is that he has an entire chapter about "The Dead Man at Grandview Point". In it, he describes the search for him: "Learning from the relative--a nephew--that the missing man is about sixty years old, an amateur photographer who liked to walk, and had never been in the Southwest before, we assume first of all that the object of the search is dead...." So much for Abbey's argument that anyone can explore the wilds of America on their own.
Abbey makes other logical errors. He says, for example, "To refute the solipsist or metaphysical idealist all that you have to do is take him out and throw a rock at his head; if he ducks he's a liar." This sounds reasonable, but in fact this does not refute the solipsist at all, because if the solipsist is right, he is merely a figment of *your* imagination, and there is no one to refute. All you have proved is that if solipsism is correct, you can create an imaginary person that does not believe in it. And similarly for metaphysical idealists, because though they believe that the external world exists, they also believe that it is still filtered through their own senses and mind.
Well, that last part had little to do with Arches (unless you are a solipsist, in which case, you have imagined the entire Park). The book itself had an interesting journey, having been bought originally in the bookshop at Capital Reef National Park, traveled to New Jersey, traveled *back* to Utah, and then back to New Jersey. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power. -- George Bernard Shaw
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