MT VOID 03/13/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 37, Whole Number 1536

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/13/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 37, Whole Number 1536

Table of Contents

      El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: 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

Star Trek Fragrances (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Just what the world needed. Somebody is actually going to produce a "Star Trek" line of perfume and cologne. The three fragrances are Tiberius ("Boldly Go"), Red Shirt ("Because Tomorrow May Never Come"), and Ponn Farr ("Drive Him Wild"). They will be available starting in April at department and retail stores, and at online retailers.>


Economics of the Film Industry (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I have been reading about the business of the film industry. Apparently the plan is that even if the economy sours the price of a movie ticket will not come down. The next big thing will be to have more films in 3D, the same strategy they tried in the 1950s. But if that does not work ... they are getting prepared so that with the movie they will give you a free gravy boat ... made in China, of course.

[I should explain for those who do not get it, it really was Depression-era strategy movie theaters to give out free dinnerware with movie tickets. Jean Shepherd writes about a riot at a movie theater when they gave out gravy boats too often. -mrl]

Fifty Years of Dolls (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

It is the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Barbie Doll. A doll is more than a piece of plastic. It is a reflection of the way the child looks at herself and of those dreams that are going to be encouraged and nourished. It is a representation of the ideal. In the case of Barbie for most of the fifty years that ideal has been to been the "Malibu Barbie" sort of thing. Barbie represents someone with material values. Barbie is someone who consumes and gets the best in life, living for the present. For most of those fifty years the only virtue that Barbie has possessed was physical beauty. For some of the more serious minded there was probably "Astronaut Barbie" or "School Teacher Barbie". When the toymakers decided to have this ideal of young womanhood tell the world that "math class is hard," parents protested and had that version discontinued. But if you think that that set of virtues is unwholesome, take a look at what violent characteristics we put into dolls for boys (called "action figures") have. A doll probably cannot give someone an attitude that person does not already possess, but it can feed attitudes that are present and in their infancy in a child. Looking at dolls one would think we want boys to be violent weapons in war or on the gridiron and girls to be dull and material. Perhaps we do. [-mrl]

DOPPELGÄNGER and Silliness (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

There is an old (well now it's old: from 1969) British science fiction movie called DOPPELGÄNGER. At the time it was filmed the makers assumed that that name would mean nothing to most Yanks so for audiences on this side of the pond it was called JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN. A doppelgänger is a thing from German folklore. It is an identical double to its victim and it is or our plane to replace its original. You might remember a "Twilight Zone" episode, "Mirror Image," with Vera Miles in a bus station being haunted by an identical double who wanted to replace her. That was a doppelgänger. In a sense you could rename INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS as DOPPELGÄNGERS FROM OUTER SPACE. There are no doppelgängers in DOPPELGÄNGER.

In a sense, JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN really is a more accurate title. It is just not very exciting on a marquee. How would you like to make a journey to the far side of the sun? To you it may be exciting, I suppose. I should not be so presumptuous. But to tell you the truth it is a trip I have made every six months since I was born. The first time it was exciting, but by now the thrill has worn off.

Anyway, JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN was a film produced and written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson who specialized in making TV series with wooden actors like SUPERCAR and THUNDERBIRDS. The Andersons made this film with wooden actors like Roy Thinnes and Ian Hendry.

The idea of DOPPELGÄNGER was that a ninth planet (they thought it was a tenth planet, of course) was discovered going around the sun in Earth's exact orbit just on the far side of sun so we never see it. It is always hiding on the far side of the sun in perfect synchronization. It is the sort of thing you see in a cartoon or a Marx Brothers movie. Only it isn't just one person or mouse but a whole dang planet. It is not just a twin planet. It is exactly like Earth with all the same people saying the same things. Apparently the idea is that a space probe got to look at the other planet sitting on the far side and smirking at how clever it is. But it is kind of an intriguing idea, is it not? Well, forget it. We would see perturbations in Mars's orbit if there were such a thing. But it seemed feasible, so you sort of want to forget you know that the idea doesn't work.

So once the planet is discovered the European Space Exploration Council decides to send astronauts to explore the other planet. This being 1969 of course the Europeans send an American, Colonel Glenn Ross (played by Roy Thinnes). There was also a good Englishman going, but he just barely survives the alien landing and is packed off to a hospital. The American has a marriage on the rocks at home and it could be because he is apparently the world's densest astronaut. But I am getting ahead of myself. (Oh, also because it was 1969 there is a quick half-hearted spy subplot that does not effect much, but it brought in the James Bond fans.)

Actually, Ross was a Solarnaut as they called him (there was even an ad that said smugly the Solarnauts salute the American astronauts who had recently done their level best just to land on the Moon). Here the Solarnauts had made it to different planet. But, surprise, they had not. Ross finds that he has landed back on Earth and cannot figure out how that happened. After all Hasslein curves would explain it, but those were locked up in the PLANET OF THE APES franchise and 20th Century Fox would not let them out.

Ross is back where he took off from with the space agency asking him all sort of questions about how did he get back. It is a complete mystery to Ross who somehow fails to notice things like his car now has the steering wheel on the other side.

It takes Ross a long time to notice his car is backwards and his shirts are harder to button because the right side is over the left. After an excruciating long time he realizes that he is not Earth at all but on a sort of counter-Earth that is exactly like his home planet, but everything is reversed left to right. So he did get to the new planet after all. He war really on a mirror image of our own planet with all the same people saying all the same things at the same time.

Here again the plot does not bear close scrutiny. Suppose someone on our Earth says (as they did in the movie THE WAR OF THE WORLDS), "Mars is at its nearest point right now." We would have to assume that the mirror image of the person who said that is on the other Earth saying, "Mars is at its nearest point right now." They cannot both be right. So just like before Mars gets in the way of accepting the story. Also his own Earth must think that he had returned but in fact got the mirror image person who left his second planet when he left his first.

Well, that is the premise. Now I have discussed all the silly stuff in this film. Oddly enough, there are some interesting scientific and mathematical ideas that come out of the film. Next week I will talk about the more interesting ideas that come from the film. [-mrl]

Rush Limbaugh and Failure (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Rush Limbaugh says that he hopes Obama's plan fails. People have defended this by saying that Limbaugh does not want to see the United States become a socialist country, does not want to see the liberals take over.

But that is not what he is saying. Limbaugh is not so much calling for the defeat of Obama's proposals in Congress. Rather, he seems to have conceded that they will pass. What he appears to be calling for is their failure, along with continued financial disaster for millions of average people.

Why would he do that? Apparently, because it is more important to him to be proved right than for financial recovery to take place. It is better, apparently, to hope for the misery of millions that to admit his own possible error.

Consider a parallel situation: An aircraft loses its engines and is hurtling towards the city below it. A religious person prays that God will save it, and an atheist responds by saying, "I hope it crashes." The atheist may *expect* that it will crash, but to *hope* it crashes is clearly putting a confirmation of his own beliefs ahead of the lives of those on the plane and below it.

At the risk of bringing about the invocation of Godwin's Law, I am reminded of Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg's comment on her visit to Auschwitz: "As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place." [-ecl]

[ -mrl]

WATCHMEN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: After years of its fans waiting, Alan Moore's mammoth graphic novel WATCHMEN has come to the screen. This is a film of violence, sex, breaking glass, and spattering blood--dark both literally and figuratively. Zach Snyder (director of "300") gives us a more-than-ample 163 minutes in this gaudy, ugly world. If you are looking for a highly digitally enhanced, noisy, explosion, hot-grease-in-the-face, fighting, meat-cleaver sort of film with plenty of people being thrown through plate glass windows in slow motion this could be one of the biggees of the year for you. Rating: -1 (-4 to +4) or 3/10

I expect this to be one of my unpopular reviews. Your mileage may well vary on WATCHMEN. Roger Ebert gave it four stars, his highest rating. I have friends who were really looking forward to this film. I read the graphic novel years ago and it did not stick with me. I saw the film minutes ago and it did not stick with me much either. Much of that is by choice. This is a cold, ugly, violent film. The characters are more than one-dimensional, but I hesitate to say they made it half way to two-dimensional. Besides the bizarre problems that the plot hands them, their personal problems are melodramatic and cliched.

The original comic book of the story was twelve issues long and set in an alternate 1985, though it was released in 1986 and 1987. The Watchmen are a team of superheroes centered on Dr. Manhattan (played in the movie by Billy Crudup), the only one of their number who actually has super powers. And his powers are almost god-like due to his having received a lethal dose of strange radiation. Other heroes seem more Batman-like with natural, if exaggerated, skills. They are the Comedian, Nite-Owl II, Rorschach, and Silk Spectre II. Actually, the film begins with the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being murdered. The other Watchmen to varying degrees think about their relationship to the dead less-than-super not-really-hero and try to find his killer. All this is told against a backdrop of rapidly escalating Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somewhere in there manipulating events is Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Speaking of Richard Nixon let me add an aside here. Having Nixon as a character might have been an interesting touch in the comic book. As bad as I found watching the film, it always got worse when the storyline visited Nixon. Robert Wisden plays the ex-President in what looks like a satirical Halloween mask. It features a big Cyrano nose. Seeing Nixon played this way is a lot like hearing a song you never liked in the first place sung so off-key as to send chills down your spine. The design of the superhero costumes may have come from the comic but look just horrid on the screen. Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) comes off the best looking like a parody of Batman. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) looks like a middle-aged cigar chomping version of Robin the Boy Wonder. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) looks to be dressed in vinyl in a style you generally see only in the wrong part of town. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) wears a mask with black Rorschach-test-like symmetric black splotches that constantly move around and re-form themselves. It quickly becomes a major distraction. Dr. Manhattan is big and can grow to giant proportions while he gives off a Messianic-looking blue glow. He actually has too different costumes. One is no more than a revealing thong. That is the one he wears for serious occasions. Later in the film he seems to decide that is overdressed and just lets it all hang out. This film earns it R-rating and then some. (Side note: A family in the row ahead of us would let their four- ish son watch scenes that graphically show someone having hot oil thrown in his face or getting a meat cleaver embedded several inches into his head, but covered their son's eyes when characters were nude and having sex.) Zack Snyder's world of 1985 is dark and rainy portrayed with a subdued color pallet. It is deeply oppressive, which is probably precisely the idea. Something creative and original could have been expected from the Tyler Bates musical score given the pretensions of the film. If it was there, I missed it. Mostly what I heard was unimaginative "texture" music with dull chords and no attempt at any melody. Where they use source music it generally is badly chosen. A sex scene (in a flying thingee without wings, no less) to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"??? Feh!

The adapted screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse is trying to delve into what being a superhero is really all about. They give us some standard mother-daughter tensions, an obnoxious man whom you know not to like because he smokes a cigar, and lots of violent fights. A world-threatening plot is uncovered that might have graced a lesser James Bond film, but with a few tweaks for superheroes. Like THE RETURN OF THE KING the film seems to have multiple endings, in one of which Night Owl II tells us nothing ever ends, which for me was precisely the message I did not want at that moment.

This was a big disappointment. Watching it I found very quickly my wristwatch becoming my closest companion. With a film featuring with all this violence and with superheroes the last thing you would expect is a film so dreary and tedious. WATCHMEN is overlong, painful to watch, and occasionally pretentious. It is intended to give us insights into the experience of being a superhero. So far nobody has stepped forward to endorse the accuracy of those insights. I rate WATCHMEN a -1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 3/10. Reportedly Alan Moore has not allowed his name to appear on the film. I know I wouldn't want my name on it.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


CITY AT THE END OF TIME by Greg Bear (copyright 2008, Ballantine Books, $27.00, 476pp, ISBN 978-0-345-44839-2) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

I wrote the following to start off my review of Robert Metzger's CUSP: "Quite frankly, I don't know what I just finished reading. It is either one of the more brilliant hard SF novels in recent memory, or a muddled mess--I'm not sure which."

The same statement (mostly) applies to Greg Bear's latest SF novel, CITY AT THE END OF TIME. I say "mostly" because it isn't hard SF, per se--but it does have a lot of big ideas, has huge scope, and covers a topic that has fascinated both SF readers and writers for decades: the destruction of the universe at the end of time. And I don't think it's a muddled mess, either. But it's not the easiest book in the world to read.

The story takes place in two places: current-day Seattle; and the Kalpa, the city referred to in the title of the novel, billions and billions of years into the future. In the future time, the universe is decaying. All that is left is the Kalpa, protected by "reality generators" that are staving off the onslaught of Chaos-- the end of the universe. There is a diagram of the Kalpa and the surrounding area at the front of the book; I found it somewhat useful to refer to it now and again as I was trying to follow what the characters were doing. In present-day Seattle, Ginny, and Jack are loners, drifters, and they dream. But they don't dream like the rest of us do. When they dream, they dream forward in time, into the minds of Tiadba and Jebrassy, two inhabitants of the Kalpa. Tiadba, and Jebrassy are genetically engineered beings, designed to have qualities of long ago lost humanity (you can bet that messes up everyone on both sides). Ginny and Jack are "fate- shifters"--which means they can skip across what Bear calls the "fifth dimension", which I guess means they can skip across various realities/universes, to inhabit alternate versions of themselves. There's also a guy called Daniel, who I can't figure out how he fits into the story. Ginny, Jack, and Daniel have artifacts called "sum-runners", which for most of the book are mysterious artifacts that defy explanation.

Back in the Kalpa, Tiadba and Jebrassy are recruited for a journey into Chaos, outside the reality generators and into the realm of the Typhon, the malevolent creature that is bringing the universe to an end. They are looking for the False City of Nataraja, where they may find the key to saving the universe. Outside the reality generators, things are a mess, and nothing is as it seems (as you might guess). The party bring along books that are found in a vast Library, which hold information that is to help them in their mission.

Back in Seattle, Jack, Ginny, Daniel, and their sum-runners are on a date with destiny as well. The three of them are being searched out by the minions of the Chalk Princess--and this is not a good thing. At the same time, they are being driven by the sum-runners to be together, for, as we find out, the sum-runners must be together for their purpose to be fulfilled. They are hunted by a nefarious character named Glaucous, who I must admit was a pretty good bad guy. His opponent is Bidewell, who lives in a warehouse containing thousands of books, none of which are as they should be. You see, the books are changing, rearranging words, changing languages, even going blank. It is by these clues that Bidewell determines that the end is approaching.

Eventually, of course, the two story lines merge, at the end of all things, and this is where all is revealed, and the fate of the universe is decided.

As you can tell by that summary, there is a LOT going on in this book. It is a book of epic proportion and scale, with big ideas that are sometimes difficult to get your head around. These are not hard SF ideas, as I said earlier--but it's really hard to describe what kind of the ideas they are. I suppose that's the point, given that the topic is the end of the universe. The book is not written in a straightforward narrative style, either. With the complex and abstract ideas come an abstract style that is not for every one. And if you're looking for modern day SF character development, this book isn't for you either; this book is about big ideas and swirling descriptions and settings.

I, for one, enjoyed this book immensely. This book seems to be polarizing fandom. I met a fellow at Capricon recently while I was in the process of reading this book who couldn't believe at all that I liked this book. He liked Egan's INCANDESCENCE (and we all know what I thought of that). So, this one may not be for you, but if you like big ideas with big scope, dig in. [-jak]

DEEP STORM by Lincoln Child (book review by Tom Russell):

What I liked about this book, in addition to its being a "hard" science fiction tale, and in addition to a couple of surprises along the way, is the mathematical puzzle challenging the scientists in the story.

Most of the action in DEEP STORM takes place on an oil rig in the North Atlantic, and within a secret US government laboratory at the bottom of the sea below the oil rig. (If a novel has a secret lab it must be "hard" science fiction?) A covert scientific/military effort is underway. The novel starts when some of the scientists and military personnel are stricken with odd physical and neurological ailments. The project might be in jeopardy. Another scientist is brought in to help. Some personnel are unhappy to have a new "expert" on the scene. They may be trying to trip up the newcomer out of professional jealousy, or are they "sick," or are they saboteurs? Lab equipment problems are mounting; the sickness--is it sickness?--is spreading. An enigmatic signal emanating from below the Earth's crust might be the cause?

On second thought, is archeology science? The lab at the bottom of the oil rig was initially doing geology, but then was taken over by the military to dig into the Earth's mantle in search of something mysterious. Digging in the ground for ancient artifacts, old bones or whatever--is that "science?" So perhaps DEEP STORM is a fantasy?

Some novels have "filler" material such as flashbacks to characters' childhoods, included ostensibly to explain the characters' motivations. Or perhaps that "filler" material is there not just to expand the story to book length, but to mislead the reader's expectations as to whether the characters are good guys or bad guys? Or to introduce something which may or may not be relevant to the story--an added plot puzzle. In DEEP STORM there are a few shadowy characters, including one (mad?) scientist(?) with an Einstein haircut who may or may not exist and may or may not be trying to help our hero. Fun. But no extraneous "filler" stuff. Except possibly the secret message...

In all, a light, quick, fun read. Could be made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, or a very long comic book. Another book by Lincoln Child, THE RELIC, co-authored with Douglas Preston, was made into a movie. I didn't see it... [-tr]

SKILLS LIKE THIS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: SKILLS LIKE THIS is a quirky comedy from first-time director Monty Miranda based on a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Spencer Berger who also stars in the film. Berger is surprisingly strong as both a comic writer and actor. This is not a great comedy, but it is quite accomplished for a film by newcomers. Spencer Berger in particular shows real potential. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Max Solomon (played by Spencer Berger) is a playwright who has pinned his hopes for success on his play "The Onion Dance." It is having its premiere just before Max's 25th birthday. Max's whole future is tied up in his accomplishment of this play. Unfortunately, this magnum opus comes off as a pretentious pile of platitudes that puts most of the audience to sleep. The most extreme audience reaction is from Max's grandfather who has a heart attack. In depression, Max decides he wants to change his life. Over lunch Max is sharing his problems with his two best friends, Dave and Tommy. Dave (Gabriel Tigerman) is success-driven but becoming a non-entity in the company where he works, and Tommy (Brian D. Phelan) is deliciously warped out of reality. As they share their discontent the conversation drifts to robbing banks.

With nothing to lose Max decides on the spur of the moment to cross the street and rob the town bank. So as not to hurt anyone he points the gun at his own head threatening to kill himself if the bank teller does not give him the money. (This is reminiscent of Cleavon Little's threat in BLAZING SADDLES.) Curiously it works. Can robbery really be so easy? Max tries more crime and finally finds it is something he does well. With the exception of Dave, Max's friends are thrilled to know a real criminal. By chance his path crosses with that of Lucy (Kerry Knuppe) the very teller who handed him the cash. From this shaky start begins a relationship with her. Lucy wants to reform Max, but Max does not want to return to being the nobody that he was just a day or so before. Each of the four major characters Max, Dave, Tommy, and Lucy have decided that they are at the end of their tether in their lives and each looks for a change. In a matter of three days each will be very different from what they started as.

Berger plays a character whose writing career is ending, but Berger himself is probably going to be sticking around. It would be easy to believe that SKILLS LIKE THIS is the start of a notable career. Berger's gags for the film are funny, particularly those for Tommy, whose job-hunt and bizarre behavior lead to a string of disastrous job-interviews. Berger is lucky in that he has a comic face and a manner to match it. Someone once told me that Woody Allen could read the phonebook and it would be funny just because of the way Allen looks and talks. Berger similarly has a face and a method of delivery that invites the viewer into his comedy.

There are some problems with the script. Max makes a rather incompetent thief. And one has to believe that the police in this town are far more incompetent than he is. The story is contrived for him to be very lucky. It is something of a stretch to believe much of what happens. Also toward the end the various flows of the film stop and crystallize into sugar. It is for a purpose, but it really does not work.

Made on a smallish budget, SKILLS LIKE THIS has a lot to offer, reminding us of the adage that the cheapest way to improve a film is with solid writing. It has been picking up prizes at film festivals and gets a wider release March 20, 2009 in New York and April 3 in Los Angeles. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Evolution (letter of comment by Ken Howard):

In response to Mark's comment on Project Steve in the 03/06/09 issue of the MT VOID, Ken Howard writes:

While entertaining as usual, I found your article about Project Steve to be disappointing. You failed to address an important point about the ongoing Evolution vs. Creationism debate. Opponents of Creationism have ceded a key point before the discussion began, and you followed suit.

Asking people if they believe in evolution completely misses the point. The question demonstrates that the questioner does not understand science. Scientific inquiry is based on hypotheses and evidence. All hypotheses can be challenged. In fact, much important scientific advancement has come from people challenging hypotheses and designing tests of them. Hypotheses sometimes are disproved, and sometimes gather further support from these tests. However, no hypothesis is ever beyond such challenges.

Belief, contrarily, sets one or more ideas beyond question. Any amount of conflicting evidence is ignored. No true scientist believes in evolution. Instead, scientists recognize that evolution is the theory that best fits all available evidence. Like any scientific theory, it can and should be challenged regularly, but only by new evidence.

PS: My comment about not believing in evolution is exaggeration. We, as humans, all end up believing the hypotheses that stand many tests, but it is still a belief that we can and will desert if evidence forces us. [-kh]

Mark replies:

Belief in a particular scientific theory is among other things a form of surrender. I would really love to disprove relativity. If I could show it is actually false my name would be remembered for a good long time. Albert Einstein showed that Newton was wrong and is greatly revered. Sadly, I have no means to disprove relativity so I accept and believe in it. That is more or less how I see science working. No theory is permanent and people are always looking pull down accepted theories when new data comes along. One such accepted theory has been that a particle is in one place at one time. That theory is clean and intuitive. Most of us never even knew we were assuming it or that it even was an "it" to assume. There is new evidence that that understanding is not true. A single particle, it appears, can be two places at once. The reaction by scientists is not "NO WAY!" but more "Really? That's fascinating." And the people who are making a good case for bi- locality are not ostracized. They are something akin to heroes. If the evidence is good people are willing to change their beliefs. That is how science works.

The reason people believe in evolution is not because their textbook said it was true and they just accepted it. As you well know there have been people trying to un-convince people of evolution using fair means and foul. Evolution has withstood constant attack. In spite of great efforts to make it appear otherwise, most scientists feel it explains the facts much better than any alternative explanation and hence they believe it--for the time being. But people and particularly scientists are fickle. If an explanation that seems to better fit the facts comes along they will lose their belief in evolution. The theory of evolution, with a little variation, is king-of-the-mountain of origin theories because it has convincingly bested all competing theories. This being the case the proportion of competent scientists who believe in evolution is definitely relevant. I think your argument is tantamount to saying that a belief that is so easily toppled is not really a belief. That is just a semantic argument and a question of definitions. Maybe by your definition I don't believe the science of aerodynamics, but I am still willing to lay it on the line and risk my life by putting my body on an airplane. I think that constitutes belief. [-mrl] ===================================================================

The Histriones (letter of comment by Bill Higgins):

In response to Evelyn's comments on the possible existence of the Histriones (a heretical sect mentioned by Borges in his story "The Theologians"), in the 03/06/09 issue of the MT VOID, Bill Higgins writes:

Googling indicates that the first hit on "histriones + heresy" is Borges's collection LABYRINTHS.

The second is *MT Void* volume 27, number 36.

Congratulations. You're now an authority. [-wh]

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

Kudos to Tor--ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY: CONJECTURES ON THE FACTUAL FOUNDATIONS OF SEVERAL ANCIENT LEGENDS by Avram Davidson (ISBN-13 978-0-765-30760-6, ISBN-10 0-765-30760-X) is a beautifully produced book. It has an index. The fore edges are trimmed, which makes it easy to flip through the pages when looking for something. And the best part is that you can tell what chapter you are in, not from page headings, but because at the top outside corner of each righthand page there is a two-inch by two-inch George Barr pen-and- ink drawing of the topic. For Sinbad, there is a dhow, for extinct birds the moa, and so on.

But what of the writing?

"That true things may be written in a book cannot make true all things written in books. Nor, to take the tally and turn it over, does one lie or a hundred lies prove King David right when he said in his sorrow, 'All men are liars.'"

Clearly Davidson is crafting his sentences. He could just say, "Just because some things in books are true does not mean everything in books is true. And one lie does not make everything a lie." But he says it so much more elegantly. Whether this is an attempt to emulate the flowery language of his sources--the 1001 Nights, Le Morte d'Arthur, and so on--or just because he wants to paint with words, I cannot say. But how much more memorable it is.

THE BOOK OF THE UNKNOWN: TALES OF THE THIRTY-SIX by Jonathon Keats (ISBN-13 978-0-8129-7897-1, ISBN-10 0-8129-7897-8) is a collection of twelve stories about purported "lamed wufniks" (as I described in my review of Leopoldo Lugones's "Metamusic" in the 02/06/09 issue, in Jewish mystical tradition the thirty-six righteous men whose purpose is to justify the world to God). It also has a fictitious author's foreword and editor's afterword, trying to present these as true stories discovered in an ancient genizah. Unlike with some novels, however, it is fairly obvious that the entire book is fiction.

[A "genizah" is a storeroom for worn-out or damaged holy books. That unintentionally makes it a storehouse for what might otherwise be forgotten knowledge. -mrl]

Keats's purpose seems to be to show that saints may be the most unlikely people: a thief, a gambler, a whore, even a murderer. Yet when you finish each story, it makes perfect sense that such a person could be a saint. My one problem is that while most of the stories take place in villages that could be in our world, some stories seem to take place in a fairy-tale land. To me at least, they seem too distant from our world to be portraying the lamed wufniks that protect our world. Although the whole notion of the saints has an element of the fantastical, it seems like it should have more connection with our world if the purpose is to uphold our world.

That said, the stories stand well on their own as fables even without a specific connection to the lamed wufniks. Read them as stories of unlikely saints in whatever world and you'll see what I mean.

THE EXPLOSIONIST by Jenny Davidson (ISBN-13 978-0-06-123975-5, ISBN-10 0-06-123975-5) is a young adult alternate history set in Scotland in the early 20th century in a world where Wellington lost and Napoleon was victorious at Waterloo. Europe is divided between the Hanseatic League and everyone else. Spiritualism is a real science, and terrorism is a problem. The last part is where the parallels to our world become a little less subtle (though still more subtle than some other alternate histories I have read recently). The big problem is that the book is very open-ended--I am sure there is a sequel coming down the line if this is successful.

What is interesting is that this--like a lot of young adult novels--is written as well as many "adult" novels, yet priced at about two-thirds the cost ($17.99 versus $24.95). On the one hand, one wishes the author would be paid comparably whether the novel is young adult or not. On the other hand, I suppose the assumption is that young adults have less discretionary income. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Be wise with speed; a fool at forty 
           is a fool indeed.
                                          -- Edward Young

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