MT VOID 10/31/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 18, Whole Number 1517

MT VOID 10/31/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 18, Whole Number 1517

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/31/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 18, Whole Number 1517

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

Thumbs Down (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I think we need to get rid of opposable thumbs. Look at all the damage they have caused. They are what have given us the ability to forge tools. Then they are the first thing to get hurt when we use those tools. But also what is the point of having opposable thumbs if we do not exercise our right to oppose them? [-mrl]

Why Science Fiction Needs a Little Magic (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Evelyn was reading the book BEYOND STAR TREK by Lawrence M. Krauss. Krauss is the author of THE PHYSICS OF STAR TREK, in which he looks at the science of "Star Trek" from the point of view of a physicist. He is not just a physicist. As one web page says "Lawrence Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, US, where his research focuses on the interface between particle physics and cosmology." So he should know what he is talking about. Perhaps this book is not so much Beyond Star Trek as beside it. In this book he looks at the physics of STAR WARS, "The X-Files", and more to the point, INDEPENDENCE DAY. It was his first chapter that Evelyn commented on. There is where he talks about INDEPENDENCE DAY. He begins by describing the scene of a spacecraft hovering 5000 feet off the ground over a major city, a disk fifteen miles in diameter. From there it serves as a base from which to send out hostile ships, not unlike an aircraft carrier.

He notes that telemetry said that the mother ship was one-quarter of the mass of the moon. Krauss then points out smugly that a ship of that mass in geostationary orbit would be a lot more deadly just being there than as a flying aircraft carrier. He says that the real geostationary orbit would have to be at one-tenth the distance to the moon. (He does not point out that this already contradicts the assumption that the craft is less than a mile off the ground.) So to compare the pull from this craft one gets a mass factor or 1/4 that of moon. It also gets another factor for its proximity. The force of gravity drops off as the square of the distance. Being 1/10 the distance from the moon the factor for proximity is 1/(1/10)^2 or 100. Multiply the two together and you get a pull of 25 times the pull of the moon. Its mere presence would cause huge and deadly tides more destructive than the fighting ships it sends out.

While I do not have Dr. Krauss's credentials, I am less than happy with his analysis. While I cannot believe that it is me saying this, you can be too close to the science and the mathematics to really understand what is going on. I think Dr. Krauss was correct in stating, even if he did not especially note it, that the altitude of the spacecraft was wrong for a geostationary orbit. What he did not mention was that the location was also wrong. These craft are hovering over cities like New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, and Oklahoma City. What immediately struck me as odd was Krauss's assumption that the ship was in geostationary orbit. These cities lack what I shall call for want of a better term 'equatoriality'. Geostationary orbits can be only over the equator. Dr. Krauss seems to have missed the significance of them getting both the location and the altitude wrong. That rules out geostationary orbit. Dr. Krauss does not recognize that the alien craft could be sitting there motionless only if it were somehow nullifying gravity. "Ah, but you cannot nullify gravity," I hear Dr. Krauss protesting. True, but you cannot fly between stars either currently. The whole story falls apart if you assume that our current laws of physics bind the aliens. Like faster than light travel, it might or may not be possible at some time in the future. And if spacecraft could nullify gravity, they probably would not create the disastrous tidal forces that Dr. Krauss predicts.

But INDEPENDENCE DAY is not science fiction; it is sci-fi. It is not grounded in physics and certainly not contemporary physics. Like fantasy it is grounded in imagination. Dr. Krauss makes a lot of assumptions about what we see in INDEPENDENCE DAY being based on real current science. But there is more than enough evidence in the film that the aliens are tapping into some sort of super- science that is beyond us. And it is not at all clear that it is any less accurate. In the July 8, 2005, issue of the MT VOID I commented on how really absurd the technology of the film THE INVISIBLE BOY (1957) seemed when I was learning about computers in the 1970s. What was this ridiculousness about a huge computer with nearly all the knowledge of the world? What kind of a computer can you just ask questions in English and it will tell you the answer? How can one computer "enslave" another by just getting connected to it? How likely is it that a person can connect to a computer and just take it over? In the 1970s I was pretty smug about my knowledge of what a computer is and what it can do. There was just too much that said that the computer science in that movie was absurd. So my answer to Lawrence Krauss is that he says some interesting things in his book, but I am not ready to accept that huge ships might not be able to nullify gravity and hover above cities.

This is all the upside of Clarke's Third Law that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That allows a little latitude to put some magic in sci-fi stories.

My comments on THE INVISIBLE BOY are at:

At the time I wrote it I knew the computer science had proved to be accurate, but I knew that the invisibility part was, of course, pure fantasy. It is physically impossible to make a person invisible. That was part of the magic of the story. That was in 2005. And now three years later *that* is becoming possible. [-mrl]

INCANDESCENCE by Greg Egan (copyright 2008, Night Shade Books, $24.95, 248 pp, ISBN 978-1-59780-128-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

I picked up a bunch of books at Denvention this year, and thought I'd jump right into them with the shortest of the bunch, INCANDESCENCE by Greg Egan. I've not read much Egan--mostly short stories. I do have one or two other novels of his on one of my various to-read stacks in the house, but this one was in front of me on a daily basis, so I started reading it, eagerly anticipating what the inside front flap called "a masterpiece of Hard SF".

What I got was a 248-page infodump. If this were the first thing by Greg Egan that I'd ever read, I'd probably never pick up anything else he's written.

We've got two conglomerations of beings: the Amalgam and the Aloof. The Amalgam is made up of, well, amalgamated of, I guess, various human and non-human races throughout the galaxy. Well, *almost* throughout the galaxy. They are not allowed into the bulge, the center of the galaxy where the Aloof live. The Aloof avoid all contact with others; they discourage it. They're, well, aloof.

One day, Rakesh is hanging around with his friends. He is bemoaning the fact that there is nothing new to discover; it's all been seen, all been done, and there's nothing left to do or learn. Along comes Lahl, who offers him a chance to go into the bulge, the territory of the Aloof, to search for a lost race. Lahl may very well be one of the Aloof herself, or she may be a traveler that was able to penetrate the Aloof network. In any case, she was able to do some small amount of investigation on her own in the bulge before she left, and is passing on the information to Rakesh in hopes that he can find the lost race.

Speaking of the lost race, we have Roi, a worker of the Aloof. We're never actually told that Roi is part of the Aloof, or that any of the creatures that she associates with are Aloof. I guess I just assumed it. Roi and her people are workers, providing goods that are needed by all. Each person (and person is not the right word, but I'm having trouble coming up with something better right now) is part of a work crew, and these creatures (there--I'm doing it again) can be recruited away from one crew to another. There is no time for anything other than work--if there is knowledge of science and technology, it's lost in time. One day she meets Zak, a much older member of her race, who talks about strange knowledge and ideas, and his talk interests her. Zak is trying to learn some of the physical properties of the Splinter, the world on which Zak and Roi live. Roi becomes interested, leaves her work crew, and joins Zak in trying to discover the secrets of nature.

Rakesh and his companion get to the bulge and begin the investigative work that will lead them to the lost race. Along the way they put all the pieces together of what happened and how the lost race came to be where it's at.

Roi and Zak recruit new members to their "knowledge" work crew (my term), and begin to discover the secrets of the physical universe, not unlike what our own scientists do today.

And, even though we know that Roi and Zak are members of the lost race, and that Rakesh meets and encounters members of the lost race, a real annoying thing happens: Roi and Zak never actually meeting Rakesh. In fact, there are many annoying things about this book, in my opinion.

The infodump is one of them. Egan apparently wanted to write a book where the characters were discovering physical and natural laws in a totally different way than we humans did. In other words, are there other ways that the laws of nature can be arrived at other than the way we did it? And while that's all well and good, the fact that a very large amount of Roi's story is told as that discovery path--all the science and experiments that go with it. It was dull--I was bored. I also ended up skimming a lot because I stopped caring about the alternate science when I realized I was going to have to keep referring back to a map of the Splinter just to figure out what Egan was talking about. Even the Rakesh story got dull, as Egan went into great detail talking about the series of scientific clues that led them to the Splinter and Roi's race.

Another annoying thing is that Egan dangles some extremely interesting ideas in front of us but never fleshes them out. The concept of the Aloof is interesting in and of itself, but I would have liked to learn more about them, why they hid from the outside galaxy, etc. The idea that what I call the curiosity gene is only sometimes active would be fascinating to discover in more detail. The list goes on and on. Oh, yeah--this book suffers from the classic case of characters that aren't developed, have no background, and in general aren't very interesting. In short, again, I was bored.

I guess I want my cake and to be able to eat it, too. I constantly complain about books being too long, but when I come across a short one I want more stuff in it, thus making it longer. Well, this book could have been roughly the same length and still address all the issues I've brought up simply by reducing the amount of infodump and spending more time on story and plot. I love science in my science fiction--but I don't like to be lectured. This book is less a novel and more a physics lecture. So much more could have been done with it, but wasn't. [-jak]

RELIGULOUS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Humorist Bill Maher's look at the irrationality that is the basis of most religions may not have a lot that people will find new and surprising, but at least Mr. Maher's arguments against religious irrationality seem to be on the side of the angels. I did not find the film laugh-out-loud funny, but there is undeniable wit behind it all. This is a film that is funny and disquieting. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

I remember seeing the film CONTACT. Jodie Foster was playing Dr. Eleanor Arroway. In the plot she admits that she is an atheist. Voices in the audience actually booed her. Had she said she was a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, a Mormon, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Scientologist, I don't think the audience would have been bothered at all. But the truth is that there really is a lot of hatred in the United States for people who have openly rejected a religious view of the universe. People would prefer someone with almost any religious view to someone with none. Someone who looks at the world rationally is a sort of a threat to people who believe that they actually drink the blood of a man dead two millennia, or that there is a deep cosmic significance to the color of hairs in a calf's tail or that the words of God were found on gold plates buried in the ground. I mean who really cares if someone who believes in drinking urine finds what you believe is silly? But if it is someone who seems to be rational comes to different conclusions, to many people that constitutes a threat.

In RELIGULOUS, Bill Maher sets out to document the diversity and some of what certainly seems insanity in many Western religions. His approach is a little scattershot, but never dull. I have to say that in spite of superficial similarities to Michael Moore documentaries, I have much more respect for Maher's approach. He does not rely on Moore's attention-getting stunts, but just uses cool and logical argument. I would say that for me certainly he has a good deal more credibility. On the other hand finding irrationality and folly in other people's religious belief is not the most difficult or ambitious of goals. But so many films present a religious point of view, from Pat O'Brien playing the wonderful all-knowing priest to James Cagney, to Ben-Hur finding peace in a world of sin. A good film with the opposing point of view has been long overdue. Maher travels to the Vatican, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, and across the United States to places like a shack turned into a church for truckers. He interviews religious zealots and counters their arguments and more importantly asks good questions. (One not quite fair tactic is to counter arguments being made in titles at the bottom of the screen rather than directly to the interviewee's face.)

Maher's thesis is that there is a neurological basis for religious belief and that it is an extremely dangerous misfortune to people that they developed the means to destroy themselves before curing themselves of these neurological delusions. Larry Charles who directed the tremendously self-indulgent BORAT, here is far more restrained. The humor that comes from serious thought lasts longer than humor from embarrassing people with nude wrestling matches.

Voltaire said, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Bill Maher is saying much the same thing. RELIGULOUS is a thoughtful and intelligent pleasure. I rate RELIGULOUS a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:


HOW ABOUT YOU (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: There is room for a simple, feel-good story in the holiday season and HOW ABOUT YOU fills the bill nicely. This Irish film has a ne'er-do-well misfit left in charge of a residence home over Christmas with four cantankerous oldsters. A good ensemble cast brings this adaptation of a Maeve Binchy short story to its amiable if predictable end. Anthony Byrne directs a delightful Irish comedy-drama that takes a bittersweet look at aging and dying. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Ellie (played by Hayley Atwell) has made a bit of a mess-up of her personal and professional life. She is now trying to lend a reluctant helping hand to her equally reluctant sister Kate (Orla Brady). Kate runs The Woodlands, a residence home for the elderly. It is going about as well as anything ever goes for Ellie. A collection of difficult residents seems to dislike Ellie just about as much as she hates them. This hostile, belligerent, group, dubbed "the Hardcore", includes once-popular actress (Vanessa Redgrave), a retired High Court judge (Joss Ackland), and two sisters (Imelda Staunton and Brenda Fricker). Ellie forms one friendship, not with one of the hardcore but with cancer-plagued Alice (Joan O'Hara), who is the one positive resident. Each has been something of a free spirit and Ellie would like to give Alice some hashish to ease her pain.

When Kate must go away on family business she is forced to leave Ellie illegally running The Woodlands with its four hardcore cases over the December holidays. After a shaky start the five people who cannot get along with each other prove they might have an unexpected chemistry.

In other hands this story could have been cloying, but the veteran cast gives a strong performance. Director Anthony Byrne has a really good cast to work with and they give him really engaging performances. One probably could not find a better set of actors for this story than Redgrave, Ackland, Staunton, and Fricker. Perhaps they change a little too quickly in Jean Pasley's script (which rather than a hundred minutes could have been two hours without overstaying its welcome), but they bring real humanity to their characters. And they are characters rather than caricatures. They seem childlike in both the better and worse senses of that word. Joss Ackland is particularly enjoyable in the one major male role in the film. Ackland is one of the great solid British actors, rarely a lead, but a very strong supporting actor.

A little gimmicky in the writing are the repeated placements of either the song or its title in the script. Since thematically the song seems to have little to do with the storyline, its use is a bit excessive.

The story is reminiscent of other films including a good dose of Henry Cass's THE LAST HOLIDAY (1950) and more recent films on the subject of eldercare like THE SAVAGES and AWAY FROM HER.

The films stands as a reminder for the holiday season that good acting can transform a simple story into a moving experience with a broad range of emotions. I would rate HOW ABOUT YOU a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. After you see the film, just try to get the song "How About You" out of your head. The film is dedicated to Joan O'Hara who played the likable dying Alice and who herself died not long after the film completed.

Film Credits:


Sagittarius Galaxy (letter of comment by Tim McDaniel):

In response to Mark's comments on the Sagittarius Galaxy in the 10/24/08 issue of the MT VOID, Tim McDaniel writes, " says that it's the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum. Several replies indicate that the latest article is rubbish, as are many of the global warming claims he makes in it. I haven't the time to investigate further." [-tmd]

Mark responds, "Well, my article of last issue was somewhat tongue- in-cheek. It appears that there is still some controversy about the assertion that we actually came from the Sagittarius Galaxy. There seems to be nobody really incontrovertible on either side of the controversy. I would be sorry to find out that we are merely from the Milky Way after all, but I will cancel my plans and bear up." [-mrl]

MT VOID, Politics, THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, HIGH NOON, Clint Eastwood, and UNFORGIVEN (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to the 10/24/08 issu of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes, "I congratulate you on the inspired daffiness of the October 24th issue! I don't know if anyone is publishing a 'best fan writing of the year' any more, but if they are ..."

Taras continues:

In a more serious vein, Mark's political observations in the 10/10/08 issue were on target (even if a remark addressed to me was unfair, about which more later). I also get annoyed at the constant piling up of anecdotes intended to prove liberal bias in the media. While such stories are useful in highlighting journalistic malpractice or incompetence in a particular case, to prove overall bias you need statistics, dammit!

And speaking of statistics, here's a story published by MSNBC last year:

" identified 144 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 17 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties."

Comes out to 86.8% Democratic.

It's a pretty funny article. Some of the journalists identified act like cockroaches when the lights come on: many news organizations ban such contributions, precisely to maintain the pretense of even-handedness.

You may also want to take a look at Orson Scott Card's essay on both media bias and the current financial crisis:

Which brings us back to where you were unfair. When I wrote that "Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac ... have been described as piggy banks for Democratic special interest groups", I was merely referring to the fact, not in dispute, that the bad loans they wrote went mostly to heavily Democratic groups: low-income voters and minorities. Having read more about it, I find it was worse than I thought. To head off stricter regulation by the Republican Congress in 2005, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac poured money into the districts of powerful Congressmen and Senators. Effective politically, but disastrous economically.

Now a few comments on old movies discussed in MT VOID, that I've been saving.

THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) [08/22/08 issue]: When I saw this pre-Code melodrama, years ago, the thing that struck me most was the film's acceptance of love between an Asian man and a white woman. Though at the last moment the love remains unconsummated, due to the aforementioned "bitter tea".

Barbara Stanwyck's missionary convinces warlord Gen. Yen to spare the life of a betrayer. Which leads to a greater betrayal, and eventually Yen's suicide. The film makes the point that, sometimes, Western norms are not viable in non-Western countries. Similarly, not long ago people argued that Saddam Hussein, for all he was a monster and mass-murderer by our standards, should be left in power (or even restored to power) because he was the best Iraq could do.

HIGH NOON (1952) [07/18/08 issue]: This film is somewhat overrateded, due to its allegorical significance as an argument against the anti-communist blacklisting of the moment. Liberals in Hollywood may well have been sitting on their hands but, historically, Westerners were all too willing to interrupt their boring lives and join posses. The scenes in THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972), in which the townsfolk joyously gallivant across the countryside hanging the wrong people ring truer to me. For example, the real-life Montana vigilantes of 1863 pursued the fleeing criminals 600 miles.

Clint Eastwood [07/18/08 issue] is a sly old fox, where pressing Hollywood's hot buttons is concerned. Thus, his two Oscar-winning films, MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2005) and UNFORGIVEN (1992). The former offended quadriplegics for portraying them as better off dead, but Hollywood liked its pro-euthanasia position. The latter effaced the morality of the traditional Western in favor of a kind of nihilism: "We all got it coming, kid." "Pretentious piffle!" was my reaction.

One bit of unrealism that garnered praise from Siskel and Ebert but annoyed me was substituting a black actor in a role written for a white one. This worked brilliantly with Louis Gossett, Jr. in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982), but that was a) in a military context (where rank is more important than race) and b) in modern times. A hundred years earlier in the West, however, it's hard to believe people would react the same to a whipping regardless of the race of the victim. [-tw]

[Thank you for the positive comments. I will say that it has been suggested that the passive voice is misused in political discussion because it avoids attribution. And there I just used it. But I will attribute it. This is a pet peeve of staunch conservative John Leo in his essay entitled "Opinions were Expressed" in his book INCORRECT THOUGHTS. I was perhaps unfair to you. But I thought you were making a serious accusation when you said, "Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac ... have been described as piggy banks for Democratic special interest groups." -mrl]

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

Jorge Luis Borges once said, "Hoy trato de escribir del modo más sencillo posible. Un español me decia la semana pasada que no aprovecho la riqueza de la lengua española. Le dije que no quería aprovechar ninguna riqueza, que soy un hombre modesto y quiero expresarme de un modo lúcido e inteligible. Yo creo que esa idea de escribir con muchas palabras es un error y fué el error de Lugones: tratar de escribir con todo el diccionario. No creo que todo el diccionario sea apto para el manejo literario. Vamos a tomar por ejemplo tres palabras; azulado, azulino y azuloso. Creo que azulado puede usarse para escribir porque pertenece a nuestro lenguaje oral. Azulino y azuloso, en cambio, son palabras que estan en el diccionario y que no están en ninguna boca. Entonces es mejor no usar azulino y azuloso, estorbos para el lector y pequeñas sorpresas que dan le presentar el escritor." (Now I try to write as simply as possible. Last week a Spaniard said to me that I did not make good use of the richness of the Spanish language. I said to him that I did not want to make good use of any richness-- that I am a modest man and I want to express myself in a lucid and intelligible manner. I believe that this idea of using a lot of words in writing is a mistake and that this was Lugones's mistake: to try to write with the entire dictionary. I do not believe that the entire dictionary is fit for literary treatment. We can take (for example) three words: "azulado", "azulino" and "azuloso", [all meaning "bluish"]. I believe that "azulado" can be used in writing because it is in our oral usage. "Azulino" and "azuloso". on the other hand, are words that are in the dictionary, but not in our mouths. Thus it is better not to use "azulino" or "azuloso", stumbling blocks to the reader and small surprises that the writer gives.") [pages 155-156, BORGES ANTE EL ESPEJO]

I mention this because our science fiction group just finished reading three H. P. Lovecraft stories ("The Colour Out of Space", "The Shadow Out of Time", and "At the Mountains of Madness"), and Lovecraft obviously felt differently about words. The following is a list of words appearing in one three-page descriptive passage (about 1200 words): groinings, well-nigh, colossal, hieroglyphs, curvilinear, chiselled, masonry, megalithic, convex-topped/convex- bottomed, pedestals, luminous, inexplicable, vitreous, latticed, octagonal, Cyclopean, titanic, parapet, frontage, prodigious, dilapidation, basalt/basaltic, apertures, aeons, aura, omnipresent, monoliths, predominated, ghastly, fungoid/fungi, pallor, spectral, calamites, cycads, coniferous, bespeaking, horticultural, topiary, lepidodendra, sigillaria, frondage, mottled, vexed, anomalous. Add to this Lovecraft's predilection for choosing British spelling ("colour", "shewing", "modelled"), and it is clear he is writing under different rules than Borges.

[If Borges meant, "Tengo gusto de escribir simplemente y claramente," why didn't he just say that? -mrl]

In case you are wondering how Lovecraft put these words together, how is this for a description: "a half-plastic denizen of the hollow interior of an unknown trans-Plutonian planet eighteen million years in the future." Indeed, "The Shadow Out of Time" is almost Stapledonian in its scope.

We picked those three stories, by the way, because they appeared in "Amazing" and "Astounding" rather than "Weird Tales". To some extent, this was more a function of who had space and/or could read Lovecraft's writing, as these are probably not noticeably more science fictional than other Lovecraft stories.

[Actually I thought what Lovecraft did with these stories is take the horror images he created and gave them a sci-fi (not science fiction) explanation. -mrl]

I found REX LIBRIS: I, LIBRARIAN by James Turner (ISBN-13 978-1-59362-062-2, ISBN-10 1-59362-062-4) intriguing, but impossible to read due to the tiny font size. At about half the height of the letters in the hardback I was reading, this made the letters only about a quarter the size. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them. 
                                          -- Albert Einstein

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