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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/05/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 23, Whole Number 1522
Table of Contents
United States Civics Quiz:
"Are you more knowledgeable than the average citizen? The average score for all 2,508 Americans taking the following test was 49%; college educators scored 55%."
Tuxedo (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am an informal sort of guy and I recently went to a formal affair. It was "black tie". Those words "black tie" strike fear into a simple dresser such as myself. I generally feel I am dressed to the nines if my shirt tail is successfully tucked in. For this affair I decided to rent a tuxedo. You know I was amazed how good I looked in a tuxedo. Put a Tommy Gun in my hands and I would have looked great on "The Untouchables". I was so pleased that when I returned the jacket and the shirt, the pants and the vest I wanted to show my appreciation so I gave them the underwear as a tip. [-mrl]
Ganging Up (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the film CONTACT Ellie Arroway is rejected from a possible space flight because she was an atheist. As the character Palmer Joss says, "Our job was to select someone to speak for everybody. And I just couldn't in good conscience vote for a person who doesn't believe in God. Someone who honestly thinks the other ninety-five percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion." Now does the character believe that a neo-Pagan would be speaking for everybody?
I strongly doubt the 95% figure. In the US 12% of the population are avowed atheists. But whoever wrote the line really sees the world as a collection of agreeing believers against a small number of atheists. I can tell you that among this purported 95% almost everybody thinks most of the other 95% are suffering from the same sort of delusion. I guess all atheists are atheist in much the same way. People who are religious are religious in some very different and incompatible ways.
Similarly I was listening on the radio to an interview with Muslim professor Vali R. Nasr from Tufts and he talked about how more people are becoming religious and that secularism is being rejected and is in decline. Secularism is the belief that certain activities, particularly the running of the government, should be divorced from religious consideration and should be considered by other forms of reason. It is the basis of our separation of Church and State. Nasr says that secularism is "sick." His claim was that people are rejecting secularism not just in the Middle East but also in the United States. He says, "We have a crisis of secularism." If so I think we are in serious trouble.
Frankly, I had thought things were going in the other direction. It is interesting that Nasr thinks in terms of the secular and the non-secular as if they were two different homogenous, peaceful, and tolerant camps. And one camp seems to have religious Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Neo-Pagans, Baha'i believers, Zoroastrians, and even believers in Baal and Moloch if there are still any. All those are in one camp. In this camp Nasr sees everyone united in belief in a deity against people who do not believe in a deity. It is like in October there were a lot of people in both political parties who did not like Bush and his policies, but that did not mean that they agreed on who should replace him and what should be the policies of the replacement. If the atheists went away that certainly does not mean that everybody would agree about religion. If anything we would still be having the religious wars we see in the Middle East today.
The best figures I can find say that 19% of Americans are to some degree secular while 12% are actually atheist. I think if it came down to the question of whether religion and government should remain separate I think it would be a much higher percentage of Americans would say they should remain separate. But even if secularism were declining the people who reject it have a very mixed bag of beliefs. If I were a non-secular Presbyterian I would not take the knowledge that there are also non-secular Hindus to be very strong evidence that the secular people are wrong. I am saying this with a certain sympathy for atheists even though I am not one myself. (I actively believe that the universe does not provide the tools that correctly support any conclusion as to whether there is a God. I suppose that makes me just a zealous agnostic.)
If Nasr could convince me that secularism is on the decline and most people really reject it, I would point out to him that the majority of the world believes that his Islam is not the correct path. This is just like the fact that the majority of the world believes that Judaism is not the correct path. The majority of the world believes that Christianity is not the correct path. The majority of the world believes that Buddhism is not the correct path.
But I do observe that secularism, increasing or declining, does seem to work. The countries that are the most secular seem also to be the most peaceful. The countries that are the most avidly religious are also the countries that have the most car bombs. [-mrl]
GOOD OMENS by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (copyright 1990, Harper Torch, $7.99, 412pp, ISBN-10: 0-06-085398-0, ISBN-13: 978-0-06-085398-3) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I was attending a panel at Windycon 35 a couple of weekends ago which had as panelists, among others, Rich Horton, who reviews for LOCUS, and Steven Silver, book reviewer for SFSite.com and Hugo nominee for Best Fan Writer the last few years. As I remember, the topic was award lists, but the discussion got around to Terry Pratchett, as in "there are a lot of people that don't 'get' Terry Pratchett.
I've never read any Terry Pratchett before GOOD OMENS, and now that I've read it I think you can add me to that list. And since I already don't 'get' Neil Gaiman (see my review of AMERICAN GODS back from back in 2002), that pretty much meant that I don't get what all the hoopla is over GOOD OMENS, a collaboration between the two. Like AMERICAN GODS before it, I had GOOD OMENS on my to-read stack because of the recommendation of a fannish friend whom I've known for twenty-five years and whose opinions I respect.
Once again (see that six-year old book review), I'm going to have to have a talk with that guy.
Oh, it's not a bad book, just an uninteresting one. Clive Barker had this to say about it: "The Apocalypse has never been funnier." Maybe because the Apocalypse isn't *supposed* to be funny, but that's another topic. This version of the apocalypse hardly made me laugh at all, but I guess that a) what one person finds funny isn't always found funny by someone else, and b) it just goes to show that writing funny SF/fantasy fiction is harder than you might think.
So, anyway. We've got a Aziraphale, and angel, and Crowley, a demon, as our two main characters. They're sort of trying to prevent the apocalypse in one way or another when the antichrist shows up on the planet. Said antichrist is planted with a human family at the time of another child's birth, thus setting him up to cause all the necessary mayhem later on in his life. Like when he's eleven, and the world is supposed to end on a Saturday at dinner time.
There's sort of a subtitle to the book: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. We meet Anathema Device, a Professional Descendent of Agnes Nutter. Like everyone who has descended from Nutter, Anathema has lived her life studying and making sure she follows Agnes' prophecies. This, in fact, is one of the more interesting thoughts in the book. You see, Agnes could see the future because she visited there and wrote it down, but she really didn't know what she was seeing in all cases so her prophecies are sometimes cryptic (well, that's how prophecies are supposed to be anyway, right?). So, if Agnes went to the future and saw this stuff, then it *must* be true, and therefore the characters *must* follow the prophecies (chicken or egg, anyone?). So, when the prophecies say that Anathema and Witchfinder Newton Pulsifer (she's a witch, and he's found her. alright) only have sex one time at a specific time just before all Hell breaks loose (literally), and Newt says "we can do it again", when Anathema says "not now, the prophecies say only once", or words to that effect, you see how this can actually be amusing and interesting at the same time. Okay, maybe not.
Just to make sure the list of characters is complete, we have the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine, and Pollution--it seems that Pestilence retired when humanity started to get good at controlling diseases. We have Satan, Beelebub, God, and metatron, the Voice of God, a few other demons, etc. The whole cast converges on the lower Tadfield Air Force base for the climax, and since I don't want to spoil what happens for the four of you who probably haven't read it yet, let's just say I let out one of my two loudest guffaws at during that scene. The other was at a scene involving Anathema and Newt--see if you can figure it out and no, it wasn't the sex prophecy scene.
So, in the end, I just shrugged my shoulders, realized that the book wasn't as bad as BRASYL by Ian MacDonald, and decided that I wouldn't have missed anything if I hadn't read it. This book may make you laugh, but for the most part I yawned.
So yes, I know I said I was going to read all the newly published books I picked up at Worldcon, but I sidetracked here. Well, there are three more that I've bought since then, and I don't know for sure which I'll read next. Oh yes, I also do remember that I'm still supposed to read STARSHIP TROOPERS. I'll get there--someday soon, I hope. [-jak]
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The title describes Poppy, a London grade school teacher whose irrepressibly positive attitude is stronger than cast iron. That is it. There is very little plot to HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. We just watch Poppy live her life and watch her keeping her sunny side up against high odds. With lesser acting or direction Poppy could have ended up seeming like a candidate for Sesame Street or perhaps professional care. But Poppy has more depth than that, and she easily gets the viewer on her side. Director Mike Leigh counterbalances his last film, VERA DRAKE, with one that is lighter and more pleasant. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There is not a lot happening in Mike Leigh's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. Or perhaps there is more than meets the eye. We follow around Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), who has an absolutely unalterably positive attitude and a perpetual smile on her face. We keep waiting for something really nasty to happen to Poppy to wipe that smile off her face. After all, this is a film by Mike Leigh, who made the tragic VERA DRAKE. Poppy bounces off of three different difficult people. First there is the class bully in the third or fourth grade class that Poppy teaches. Second there is Poppy's flamenco teacher (played by Karina Fernandez) for whom the soul of the flamenco dance is rage and selfishness. The first step of flamenco is to stamp your feet while thinking, "MY SPACE! (Stamp. Stamp.) MY SPACE!"
Darkest of all the dark people in Poppy's life is Steve (played by comedian Eddie Marsan), Poppy's new driving instructor. At age thirty Poppy is learning to drive. Steve is rage in human form as he browbeats his students and shouts commands. He has named the three rear-view mirrors after fallen angels and shouts the names of the angels when he wants Poppy to check the mirrors. Poppy takes all this in her superhuman stride. The film is not so much a story as a study of Poppy as she goes through her life and interacts with difficult people, rarely losing her smile or her radiance. On the other hand Poppy's life includes her flat-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), a bright spot in Poppy's relationships. When they get together each seems to be like catnip for the other. These may be some of the only sequences that go awry under Leigh's direction. Poppy and Zoe find each other a lot funnier than we find either of them. They seem to go into drugged-line paroxysms of laughter.
Mike Leigh seems to have had a great time writing about this woman who uses her sunny attitude as armor against life and more surprisingly finds that it works for her. Sally Hawkins could be a lot like the British equivalent of Anne Hathaway. It takes a certain amount of charm to keep a character like Poppy from grating on the audience and Hawkins has a light enough touch. Steve Marsan is nothing but grating, but that is the idea. In his own way he is as good at what he does as Hawkins is at doing the opposite.
Underneath it all is the question of just how much ones attitude shapes ones circumstances. More than once Poppy takes risks that the rest of us would not. In a more noir film Poppy's behavior might seem to be foolish. But on balance she seems to come through okay. I rate HAPPY-GO-LUCKY a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The accents make some of the dialog difficult to follow for some of us Yanks.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1045670/
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our two discussion groups meet jointly in November because the science fiction group usually meets on the fourth Thursday of the month. So we try to pick a science fiction book that has appeal to non-science fiction fans as well. In previous years we have chosen THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde, BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore, THE WOMAN AND THE APE by Peter Hoeg, KING AND JOKER by Peter Dickinson; this year we chose FATHERLAND by Robert Harris. One thing you may notice about this list is that all except the Hoeg are alternate histories. This ties in with my panel at this year's Philcon, "Are Alternate Histories Really Science Fiction?" It seems to be true that one reaction people have to the books we have chosen is "Is this really science fiction?" After all, there are no rockets, robots, or rivets.
The answer to "Are alternate histories really science fiction?" seems to be yes, though the explanation varies. Take your pick of:
Regarding FATHERLAND, reading it led people to do further research on the "White Rose" student anti-Nazi movement and Sophie Scholl (about whom there was a biopic last year), and to a discussion of Nazi architecture, both that which was built and that which was merely in the planning stages. (In FATHERLAND, these plans have come to fruition.) We had a brief digression about the Berlin Wall, and I was startled to realize that there was one group member who not only did not remember the Wall going up--she hadn't been born yet when the Wall came down! (The first item on the Beloit College "Mindset List for the Class of 2100" is "What Berlin Wall?" it also notes that for "most of the ... members of the Class of 2011, ... Alvin Ailey, Andrei Sakharov, Huey Newton, Emperor Hirohito, Ted Bundy, Abbie Hoffman, and Don the Beachcomber have always been dead."
A few additional items from that list:
9. Nelson Mandela has always been free and a force in South Africa. 10. Pete Rose has never played baseball. 16. Women have always been police chiefs in major cities. 18. The NBA season has always gone on and on and on and on. 34. They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as "The Joker." 42. Women's studies majors have always been offered on campus. 64. Chavez has nothing to do with iceberg lettuce and everything to do with oil. 66. The World Wide Web has always been an online tool. 68. Burma has always been Myanmar. 69. Dilbert has always been ridiculing cubicle culture.
I will dispute #4, though ("They never 'rolled down' a car window.") since I got a new rental car last month that had windows that rolled down.
And, as a segue to the next book, I will cite #17: "They were born the year Harvard Law Review editor Barack Obama announced he might run for office some day."
So why, you may ask, am I reading LA AUDACIA DE LA ESPERANZA de Barack Obama (translated by Claudia Casanova and Juan Eloy Roca) (ISBN-13 978-0-307-38711-0, ISBN-10 0-307-38711-9) instead of THE AUDACITY OF HOPE by Barack Obama (ISBN-13 978-0-307-45587-1, ISBN-10 0-307-45587-4)? Well, the primary reason (no election pun intended) is that the former was on the shelf in my library while the latter is at the end of a long waiting list. But there is also a secondary benefit, which I will discuss at the end of my comments.
Actually, I am probably not going to comment too much on the content, but on the translation. I found it interesting that there were a few "Translator's Note"s designed to explain certain arcane American features, such as "Father Knows Best" and "Poor Richard's Almanac". (Interestingly, there was apparently no need to explain "The Dick Van Dyke Show".)
The secondary benefit I mentioned is that I cannot read Spanish as fast as English. (Timing myself on a page or so in English gives me a reading speed of about 470 words per minute, in Spanish, about 110 words per minute. Both texts were by Obama, so style, word choice, etc., were as parallel as I could get them for the test.) This means that anything I read in Spanish I have to read slowly and more carefully than if it were in English.
It also gives me a new perspective on functional or marginal illiteracy. I cannot remember a time when I did not read and did not enjoy reading. It's easy enough to decide to read a book when I know I can do it in under four hours--faster if I skim parts--but harder to commit to ten hours or more. And this is a fairly straightforward book; a literary novel could easily take much longer. So when we hear that people no longer read books, we need to take into account that the quality of education is such that for many, reading is a laborious process, and has always been one. If every book I had ever read took this much effort, would I have developed a love of reading?
As regular readers of this column know, I am a big fan of Jorge Luis Borges. Recently I listened to a reading (in English) of his story "The Gospel According to Mark" (from DOCTOR BRODIE'S REPORT, written between 1970 and 1972). And something clicked, and I said, "I've read this before." An on-line query turned up the answer: this is basically the same story as Harry Harrison's "The Streets of Ashkelon". And lest you think that Harrison may have borrowed from Borges, Harrison published "The Streets of Ashkelon" in 1962.
So did Borges read the Harrison story? Well, "The Streets of Ashkelon" first appeared in Brian W. Aldiss's original anthology NEW WORLDS and has been anthologized over three dozen times (in fourteen languages), including a half dozen before the writing of "The Gospel According to Mark". It is possible that Borges read it in English (a Spanish translation did not appear until 1987). It is also possible that the idea is one that could easily occur independently to two different authors.
The Borges is available on-line at http://www.mrtheilacker.com/gospel_mark_borges.doc or http://anagrammatically.com/2008/03/09/borges-gospel-according-to-mark (the latter being bilingual). The Harrison is not available on-line. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement. -- JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO
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