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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/24/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 43, Whole Number 1542
Table of Contents
Award Nominees Online (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
All of the Nebula Award nominees in the category of short story are available in portable mp3 format from the Starship Sofa web site. Here is a shortcut to get there:
They are not being made available in readable text form because, I mean, like who really reads any more? Having it read to you is like totally 21st-century. I mean, like why read any more when you can listen to them on your telephone/camera/internet-browser/GPS/ garage-door-opener. I mean, like mp3 format is like so totally awesome.
[The foregoing was the result of an uncontrollable urge and was not intended as an editorial statement.]
This year if you are voting on the Hugos it seems that most of what you need to get is available free online, assuming you have a Worldcon identification number. You people who have access know who you are. I could give you my ID, but then I would have to kill one of us and I don't want it to be me. [-mrl]
Story for the AAAS Telethon (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There are those who think that science is soulless and not very spiritual. Not so.
When I feel down I like to think that the fuel of stars is hydrogen. Stars get their energy from fusing hydrogen into helium. When a star runs out of hydrogen to fuse it flames out. You would think it was all over for the star. But when the star runs out of hydrogen it becomes inert and then it collapses in on itself. That is when it can become a black hole, the strongest and most powerful force in the universe.
Our whole galaxy is whirling around a black hole that is slowly pulling the whole galaxy in and absorbing it. So the center of our galaxy is a star that probably would not have been all that notable until it ran out of fuel. Then instead of becoming nothing it became the center of our whole darn galaxy and everything else revolves around it. It is really the most important object of our entire galaxy, and at one point it was just one more failure as a star.
I think we can all take inspiration from that. [-mrl]
Age and the Sense of Wonder (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
On April 21 the science fiction website io9.com ran an essay by Charlie Jane Anders entitled "Is 'Sense Of Wonder' Just A Code For Returning To Childhood?"
Of course Sense of Wonder and how it seems to be missing from a lot of modern science fiction is one of my pet hobbyhorses. In fact Anders has the good taste to quote one of my editorials.
I believe Anders is saying that an appeal to the Sense of Wonder is actually an appeal to immaturity. She is, I believe, assuming that Sense of Wonder is really a quality of young people that some of us mature beyond. It is an enthusiasm of youth that later we get past. My experience with science is that Sense of Wonder is not highly correlated with youth, and perhaps is negatively correlated with youth. When I teach, I try to get kids to see that there is something exciting in science and in mathematics. Far too many of them are interested in who is dating whom and with popular music. It is really hard to find teens who get excited about what the Large Hadron Collider will find or about what black holes are like. Today, perhaps ironically, it is easier to find adults who can get excited about ideas in mathematics and in science than it is to find such teenagers. My experience of going to really good science museums is that the adults usually seem more interested than the kids are. That is especially true if there are no hands-on gimmicks and the presentation appeals more to the mind. If I go to science panels at a convention and look around the room the proportion of young people is noticeably less than that for the convention as a whole.
So why do we associate Sense of Wonder with youth? First, attempts to capture the interest of the immature have to be showy and as a result get noticed. To get younger people involved in ideas it frequently requires sensationalized visual images. The History Channel is showing a very good series on new information about prehistoric life. Do they call it "Advances in Paleontology" or "Dinosaurs and Statistics"? No. They call it "Jurassic Fight Club". And the scientific content takes about equal rank with animations showing dinosaurs fighting in animations that sometimes illustrate the scientific points, but more often are sensationalist. That is because it is aiming at the less mature viewer. That is science aimed at a teen market, but I admit I enjoy both the science and the animation.
On the other hand, if "Scientific American" has a jaw-dropping article about cosmology, it rarely is obvious from the illustration on the front cover. The TED talks recently had a piece on how single-celled bacteria actually communicate and coordinate their behavior. The implications of that are amazing.
See it at http://tinyurl.com/Bassler-TED.
Just because the TED talks are low-key and do not aim at youth does not mean that they do not appeal to the Sense of Wonder.
Another reason is that most people who had a Sense of Wonder first discovered it in their teens and probably felt its pull the strongest then. A lot of urges are stronger in our youth when we had the time to indulge in them. There may also be a political correctness in showing admiration for the young, saying, "Boy aren't our kids smart?"
None of this is to insult youth, but to discredit this myth that Sense of Wonder is only a youthful enthusiasm. I think the correlation of curiosity and Sense of Wonder is not really to youth, it is to intelligence. It is the most intelligent people who are the most curious. And when they find something of interest they have the greatest capacity for wonder. Anders says, "There's something a bit unsettling about older people asking to be talked to like teenagers." Perhaps, but I find nothing unsettling about anybody asking to be talked to like someone intelligent. [-mrl]
Crystal Spheres (letter of comment by Greg Schmidt):
In response to Mark's comments on old films with new ideas in the 03/28/08 issue of the MT VOID, Greg Schmidt writes:
I just read your article titled "Old Films with New Ideas" in your newsletter 03/28/08. In it, you state, "As far as I know, nobody but your humble servant has ever noticed that Brin's 'Crystal Spheres' and his 'Uplift' are both re-uses of ideas from much older stories, pieces from dramatic science fiction."
I too, seem to remember older stories using the "barrier around the earth" idea. As a kid I read ANALOG, ISAAC ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and the big anthology collections in the library, so perhaps that's where I remember these stories from. Do you remember specifically which stories or authors dealt with barriers around the earth, or earth being "excluded" from the galactic community? [-gs]
Mark replies, "I don't remember stories before 'Crystal Spheres' that mention it, other than the film. But I was not a book reader of the magazines when they came out. Maybe some of our other readers will remember." [-mrl]
Evelyn adds, "Boy, do I feel old, when someone says they read ISAAC ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE as a kid!" [-ecl]
Hyperbolas and Parabolas (letter of comment by Pete Rubinstein):
In response to Evelyn's comments on SWIFTLY in the 04/17/09 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Rubinstein writes:
[You say,] "Roberts also makes several annoying errors. He writes, "Each patch of dirt was delineated from clear glass by a hyperbolic line running from bottom left to top right, as, Bates thought, x equals y squared." (page 2) First of all, x equals y squared is parabolic, not hyperbolic. Second, it is parabolic in the wrong direction (bulging up rather than down). And third, there is a bottom half of the parabola that Bates (or Roberts) completely ignores."
Doesn't this bulge to left, not up or down? Although, I suppose you could rotate the axes to make it fit the description. [-pr]
Evelyn replies, "Well, I think of the standard parabola (y equals x squared) and the standard hyperbola as both bulging down and rightward in the top right quadrant, though admittedly the downward bulge predominates for the parabola." [-ecl]
You could do it with a parabola. y=x^2 on [0,1].
I wanted to see if I could find a hyperbolic segment through (0,0) and (1,1). I really did a translation on y=-1/(4x). I came up with this:
It is y=x*((2S-2)x-2S+3)/(1+4x-4x^2). [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
With A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, I discovered Rhys Hughes. Unfortunately, much of his work is available only in expensive limited editions. ("All the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions," as Helene Hanff says. Though she goes on to add, "[Or] in Barnes & Noble's grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies," but trust me, even if Barnes & Noble did still sell used books, one would not be finding grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies of Rhys Hughes's works!)
So far the only other books of his I have been able to find cheaply are JOURNEYS BEYOND ADVICE (stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft) and NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD (a story cycle set in Wales). (One had slightly bumped corners; the other was an ex-library copy, but in pristine condition other than two very neatly placed stickers.) But luckily, about two dozen of his stories are available on-line, so I figure I will comment on some of those as well.
As I noted in my review of A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY ( http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/infamy.htm), that book was a pastiche/homage to Jorge Luis Borges's A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY. Borgesian influences can be seen in many of Hughes's other stories as well.
For example, Borges has written about mazes, and so does Hughes. "The City that Was Itself" is about "Itselfia, the city that evokes only itself. ... Every street, however long or short, has the same name. Likewise every square, park, building." Describing the consequences of this results in a story full of philosophical concepts. But also as with Borges, the concepts *are* the story-- the characters and plot are almost non-existent.
The stories in NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD are full of word play. In "Anton Arctic" the situation itself is in some sense the pun (this will make more sense after you read the story), but there is still some word play going on: "When he arrived in Edinburgh he walked unknown streets with a measured step. Not even the greatest detective in Scotland Yard, an organisation that specialises in Scottish measurements, hence its name, has been able to determine where exactly his measured step took him." The story (also available at http://ookami.co.uk/html/anton_arctic.html) begins, "Ordinary geographers believe that our planet has only two poles, the North and South, and they prefer to ignore the East, West, Front and Back poles. But Anton Arctic went to the other extreme and maintained the existence of a seventh pole, namely the Scottish."
"God in a Basement Flat" ( http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/godbase/) is a more serious work, in that the focus is on the philosophy behind the story rather than the cleverness in telling it. It is the sort of theological/eschatological story that one might expect of an author such as James Morrow.
"The Don Entrerrosca Trilogy" comprises "The Lute and the Lamp" ( http://annatambour.net/RhysHughes1.htm), "The Toes of the Sun" ( http://annatambour.net/RhysHughes2.htm), and "The Promised Labyrinth" ( http://annatambour.net/RhysHughes3.htm). Don Entrerrosca attempts to serenade Senorita Eber Marcela Soler, fails, causes to sun to go out, and tries to find a horse that will allow him to end his difficulties. The most interesting is the third story, in which he tries to find a horse so fast that he can be everywhere simultaneously. He tries famous horses (such as Bucephalus), fictional horses (such as Rocinante), and even carousel horses (if he stacks the carousels high enough, he reasons, the top one will be rotating faster than the speed of light). Eventually he finds a solution which, while not scientifically rigorous, is aesthetically pleasing enough that most readers will forgive him.
"The Expanding Woman" ( http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/exwom/) is set in a future where Klingon has just become the official European language--and Hughes actually gives a rational reason for its triumph over Esperanto. (I suppose all natural languages are ruled out as being preferential to one group or other.) The eponymous character seems to be a creature half of science fiction, half of horror, and never completely explained.
"The Folded Page" ( http://www.magicalrealism.co.uk/isue1/folded_page.php) is based on the fact that the maximum number of times you can fold a single sheet of paper in half is eight. Why this is, and what happened when a king tried to fold a sheet more than that, are the core of this story--though of course Hughes adds a twist to it as well.
Some of Hughes's pieces are almost too short to analyze, such as "The Hungover Ruba'iyat" ( http://www.fables.org/summer01/hungover.html).
"The Impregnable Fortress" ( http://www.ookami.co.uk/html/the_impregnable_fortress.html) has Hughes's typical word play, but in a more controlled and constrained fashion than some other stories.
In "The Metaphorical Marriage" ( http://www.ookami.co.uk/html/the_metaphorical_marriage.html), Hughes has gone a bit overboard in his word play (in my opinion), and ended up with something reminiscent of "Wordplay" by Rockne S. O'Bannon (an episode of the 1980s "New Twilight Zone" series).
Not all the stories are gems. With "The Minotaur in Pamplona" ( http://www.magicalrealism.co.uk/view.php?story=80&issue=10), the title pretty much says it all, and the story is mere elaboration.
And "On the Deck" ( http://www.magicalrealism.co.uk/view.php?story=80&issue=10) leads up to a rather startling last line, but other than that does not seem to have much purpose.
NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD by Rhys Hughes (ISBN-13 978-1-894815-11-6, ISBN-10 1-894815-11-4) is a 2002 collection in three parts. "Martyr to Music" has three stories, "Taller Stories" has twenty- two, and "The Long Chin of the Law" has nine.
The stories in "The Long Chin of the Law" are all told by Titian Grundy, Prefect of Police. They are full of talking plaques, illegal noses, Elk-Assassins, and so on. And as always, word play, such as "Well, Titian, here's a sherry affair, because a rum business would be darker." The stories in "Martyr to Music" are told by Disability Bill, a musician in the band Disability Bill & the Cussmothers. The stories in "Taller Stories" have no obvious connecting thread, but Hughes's professed plan--to write a thousand stories which form a connected set--means that the reader occasionally runs across a character in one story that has appeared in a previous one. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: In addition to cotton goods we exported tuberculosis and syphilis, but for them there was no charge. -- Bertrand Russell