MT VOID 04/23/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 43, Whole Number 1594

MT VOID 04/23/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 43, Whole Number 1594


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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/23/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 43, Whole Number 1594

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, mleeper@optonline.net R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, eleeper@optonline.net Back issues at http://leepers.us/mtvoid/ All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to mtvoid-subscribe@yahoogroups.com To unsubscribe, send mail to mtvoid-unsubscribe@yahoogroups.com

Counter-Offer (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

It was being said that there was an anonymous note found in a high place in government saying "Put thirty billion pounds in a paper bag and leave it at the Icelandic Embassy, and we will turn the Eyjafjallajokull volcano off."

It has come to my attention that several of the news services got together to make a counter-offer. "We will give you five million Euros if you will just rename the volcano to something easily pronounceable." [-mrl]


THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I recently got a piece of mail from Fred Lerner asking me what I thought of the classic Hitchcock THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS and of the 2008 BBC adaptation of the same novel which more recently ran on "Masterpiece Theater". I thought this was a good opportunity to do a retrospective of the film adaptations to film.

First, some background. The book itself was written by John Buchan. Who was Buchan? He actually was--get this: Lord Tweedsmuir--a Scottish politician who in 1935 was to become Governor General of Canada. Some twenty years earlier he was ill with a duodenal ulcer and had to take to his bed. Out of sheer boredom he decided to write an imaginative adventure story, very much of the sort that Ian Fleming would years later write. It was not high and literary, but just some exciting fun. The novel he wrote was THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS. This was the first of five novels he would writer about the resourceful Richard Hannay. In later books Hannay would be a secret agent, but in the first novel he is just a civilian who has lived for a while in Southern Africa and is returning home to England. Then a stranger asks him for help. The stranger turns out to be an eccentric master-spy who is trying to stop the assassination of the Greek Premier. The spy is murdered shortly thereafter and Hannay quickly becomes the prime suspect in the investigation. He tries to flee to Scotland but is tracked there. Hannay must try to evade the police and at the same time foil the assassination. He falls into one dangerous situation after another, but has the wits to find ways to save himself every single time. One set piece intrinsic to the story is Hannay impersonating a politician and having to do an impromptu speech for some unknown political party. In the book he had some time to prepare the speech, but I think the film versions all make it impromptu.

There gave been four film adaptations of the book. Frankly, none of the film versions follows the book with any fidelity. So which is the best?

Well, the Gold Standard for the THIRTY-NINE STEPS is, of course, the 1935 version directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat. Sadly, I am not on Gold Standard. Frankly, I thought all of the comedy nearly spoiled the thriller aspect. Hitchcock seemed more intent on making a romantic comedy than a nail-biting thriller. Hannay is handcuffed to a woman who had tried to turn him in to the police. They had escaped but have to run across country with all the complications that the handcuffs cause. Along the way the woman realizes that Hannay is not just innocent, but a man with a desperate mission. I have to say that overall the changes that Hitchcock made to the story made this just an okay adventure story. The Thirty-Nine Steps itself turns out to be an organization of spies.

It has been years since the 1959 version has been available anywhere I could see it. I remember a lot of touches were borrowed from Hitchcock and not Buchan. It was just a sort of lackluster attempt to reuse the story as Hitchcock had made it. Redundant remakes have been around for a while. It is a pity because I like Kenneth More, but not as Hannay. I am not sure I see him as a man of action. He nearly always plays "nice guy" roles like James Stewart did or Morgan Freeman does. I don't exactly remember, but they probably again had the Thirty-Nine Steps be the organization of spies. This version has probably become unobtainable with time.

My personal favorite version of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS was made in 1978 with Robert Powell as Hannay. It is not a whole lot more faithful than any other version, but it worked as an action film. It shows the influence of Hitchcock's action films. The finale has Hannay hanging desperately onto the hands of Big Ben. Hitchcock liked to have finales with heroes hanging off of famous landmarks. Of course it cold also be borrowing from Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST! Whether it was intended so at first or not, the film turned out to be a pilot for a short TV series called "Hannay" with Powell in the title role. It took smaller liberties with the plot, but I thought it gave a lot of fun in return. The Thirty-Nine Steps are in the tower leading up to Big Ben.

I once showed friends the 1978 version on a double feature with NORTH BY NORTHWEST. I had not intended it this way, but they had a lot of elements in common. NORTH BY NORTHWEST came off as almost a remake of some version of Buchan story. Hitchcock reused a lot of the elements in that film, THE SABOTEUR, and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

Now to the BBC version. Again, it had the basic story right when viewed from a distance. If you get close up, there was not a lot of the original. For that matter it is also a lot like the Hitchcock. Rupert Penry-Jones was Richard Hannay who again gets tied in with a woman. She at first thinks Hannay is a killer and then is won over. The assassination attempt is to be made against not the Greek Premier but the Archduke Ferdinand. This is actually a poor touch. At the time Buchan wrote the novel it is unlikely he would have even been aware that there was an Archduke Ferdinand. Also the fact that we all know that the Archduke was assassinated makes the effort to save him a little pointless. Although there is an "I told you so" in there, since a lot more than anyone realized did hang on the life of the Archduke. This was just okay as a version. Actually, for my money it was probably a little better than the Hitchcock. But Hitchcock got there first at a time when getting there was a lot harder to do. Another plus is that the Thirty-Nine Steps was a walkway down to wear spies were picked up by boat. It was handled a little differently from Buchan's way, but somebody knew what the 39 steps really were in the book.

For my taste the best of the adaptations is the Robert Powell, then comes Hitchcock's version with Robert Donat. The BBC comes next. And the least pleasing was the Kenneth More. Still, it might be nice to see the BBC do an adaptation of GREENMANTLE, the second Richard Hannay novel. [-mrl]


CITY ISLAND (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This comedy-drama is a real joy. In an Italian-American family living on an island off the Bronx, everyone has a secret or two that he keeps from the others. These secrets and the misunderstandings they cause become a major force in the family. Writer/director Raymond De Felitta has an uncommon talent for creating simple but compelling characters. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

A few years ago I took a film that I had recorded off cable and watched it in three parts while I was on an exercycle. I found myself with the rare experience of looking forward to my next exercise session so I could see more of the film. After the third session and final session I got off the exercycle and immediately ordered the DVD expressly to share the movie with other people. The film was TWO FAMILY HOUSE, written and directed by Raymond De Felitta. CITY ISLAND is also written and directed by De Felitta. De Felitta has a penchant for creating flawed but likable characters that the viewer cares about. I find myself at the beginning of most sequences in the film just feeling it is good that I am going to see more of these characters. Few writers have that knack.

Living in the City Island, an island near the Bronx, the Rizzo family outwardly seems to function fairly normally with a few minor tensions. Perhaps that is part of the point of this film. But in fact it is a house of secrets. "Corrections officer"--everyone thinks "prison guard" when they hear that--Vince Rizzo (played by Andy Garcia) is fascinated by Marlon Brando. Those nights when he tells his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) he is playing poker he is really taking acting lessons to be like Brando. Joyce is sure he is not playing poker and draws her own conclusions. Vince's daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Garcia's actual daughter) left college when her scholarship was revoked and is working as a pole dancer. Teenage Vinnie, Jr. (Ezra Miller), is obsessed with feeding fat women, especially neighbors. These secrets could have gone on, but Vincent has one more secret. Years ago, before he knew Joyce he had a fling and fathered a child whom he abandoned. Now one of the new inmates at the prison is almost certainly his son. Only Vincent knows, but he arranges for the boy Tony (Steven Strait) to be released into his custody for a month. This will affect all the secrets.

Andy Garcia is not usually a comic actor. Here he seems a little older and wiser than we would expect. He also is not as buff as he used to be. Along for the ride are Alan Arkin (who seems to be making a later career of off-beat comedies) and Emily Mortimer as Vince's partner in acting class and later his confidant.

The characters are a major draw to this film, but in the end this films feels a little much like the build-up to a Big Scene, very likely the first scene written. As good as that scene is, it is also contrived and the film feels a bit much like it is all in service to creating that scene. Because TWO FAMILY HOUSE was based on a true story it may have needed less contrivance.

De Felitta returns to some of his themes from TWO FAMILY HOUSE. Vince, like the main character of his previous film, knows what he wants and holds on when others tell him it is unrealistic. With another returning theme the long-time residents of City Island, the cliquish end of Bronx, look down on newcomers. They call the newcomers "mussel-suckers." The families that go back for generations are the "clam-diggers." The Rizzo family are proud to be clam-diggers.

De Felitta makes rewarding comedies with real people. I rate this film a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. I wonder if the inspiration for the policeman who wants to become an actor came from Danny Aiello.

Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1174730/

What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/city_island/

[-mrl]


THE GHOST WRITER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: A minor author is hired to ghostwrite an autobiography for a former British Prime Minister. But he finds he is uncovering information some people may not want dug up. Roman Polanski directs a dark political thriller from a script by Robert Harris based on his own novel. After a slow and deliberate start Polanski pulls up the pace and pulls us into the action. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Ewan McGregor plays a character identified only as "The Ghost". That makes him sound dramatic, but he is anything but. This anonymous man is a failing writer who has some minimal talent. He is hired for what will probably be the biggest job of his life, if he keeps it a secret. Former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan) is writing his memoirs against a publishing deadline. Actually, he had a ghostwriter doing the real writing. But in the opening sequence a previous ghostwriter mysteriously disappears from a ferry, a probable suicide. Now Lang needs a new ghostwriter and The Ghost is chosen for the well-paid confidential job, if he can bring the book together in four weeks. The problem is that the dead man put no more structure on the book than Adam Lang did--very little--and the new ghost might have to write nearly from scratch.

Complicating matters Lang lives in virtual exile on an American island much like Martha's Vineyard. The Ghost goes there to work with Lang. But he is so hamstrung by the rules of the former P.M.'s house that he is making little progress. He controlled by Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his secretary and possible mistress Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). And there is a further complication. Almost immediately after The Ghost's arrival the world court accuses Lang of war crimes in rendering terrorism suspects to the CIA. Every step forward he moves on the book he takes two steps back. More and more The Ghost finds reasons to suspect that he is not getting the whole story on Lang and on the death of his predecessor, and that may be just the beginning.

There are some very complex relationships in Lang's house. Some are explained to The Ghost and some slowly become inferred. Even the setting seems oppressive. The island seems perpetually cloaked in oppressive gray mist or rain giving the entire surroundings a clammy feel. Polanski obviously could not film in Martha's Vineyard, so he used an island off Germany as a stand-in. Somehow the island just does not have the feel of being in the United States Eastern seaboard.

The film is well cast with actors like Olivia Williams of AN EDUCATION and THE POSTMAN. Williams can be counted on for an intelligent performance. Of course Tom Wilkinson is good in a smallish, but strong role. And it is a pleasure to see Eli Wallach still acting at age 94.

Very clearly this film takes aim at the special relationship between British and US Intelligence. Lang strongly resembles Tony Blair, not just physically but also politically. We see analogs of Condeleeza Rice and of Haliburton. But there are certainly secrets in Lang's life that powerful people might not want released. For Roman Polanski this may have been a special project. Lang is a famous person who for legal reasons cannot return to his home much like Polanski. And by placing the CIA in a negative light Polanski can thumb his nose at the United States Government, which in the real world is trying to extradite Polanski to the United States.

With all the problems in Polanski's life (perhaps not undeserved) he can still turn out a gripping film. Reportedly he did some editing at home while under house arrest. I rate his THE GHOST WRITER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1139328/

What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/10012063-ghost_writer/

[-mrl]


FINAL GIFTS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Basically a filmed two-person stage play, this minimalist production tells of two women who have seen some of the worst of the 20th century and who meet after death and discuss atrocities to which they had been witness. Juanita was a guerilla fighter and leader in the civil war in El Salvador. Adina had been a doctor caring for the children of the Warsaw Ghetto. FINAL GIFTS is a powerful play with a simple message: we must stop the violence and mayhem and particularly protect the children. Neil Selden writes and directs as well as co-produces with his wife, Lee Selden. This is their first film. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10. The rating is based on style, not intent.

Somewhere in the afterlife two women meet in a black room. One wants to talk and the other wants to sit in silence. In spite of their different backgrounds, each fought for the innocent victims of atrocities of two different wars. Juanita Gomez (played by Columbian-born Ana Mercedes Torres) is exuberant and outgoing. She had been a rebel leader in Salvador's Civil War. Adina (presumably Adina B. Szwajger, played by Mary Tahmin) is withdrawn and sits in silence. Adina had been a doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto at the time that the Nazis liquidated it. Each had been witness to terrible atrocities conducted by the military in the name of defense. As they talk they delve into who they really are and how their experiences--some positive, some nightmarish--have made them what they are.

Juanita talks of how she lost her family and her village to the death squads employed by the government. She talks in detail about what she had seen and blames the United States, who under President Reagan supported the repressive Salvador government. After the death of her village she made herself a soldier and educated herself in history and politics as well as how to be a guerilla fighter. She had two daughters of her own. But mostly she remembers the pain she had to live through and what it was like to kill and what it was like to lose loved ones.

Adina was (or tried to be) a pediatrician in the ghetto. Daily she saw children murdered for little more than sport. She talks of the emotionally scarred children. Just as scarred herself and haunted by terrible memories, Adina is disappointed that even after death she still cannot escape her memories. The attempted genocide had so twisted morality that one had at times to pick an unthinkable evil to avoid a worse one. One experience traumatized beyond all others that she withstood. Adina holds back and does not want to talk about it, though for me at least it was obvious what she hiding since part of the same incident had been dramatized in a previous well-known film.

Selden gets a feeling of disembodied spirits speaking by dressing his actors in the same black as the background. The set is minimalist, just a table with some children's toys. A film like this works or fails to work by how well the viewer is pulled into and is carried by the performances. For almost all the film, the acting is good and the viewer is going through the right emotions. Perhaps the final part of the film tries a little too hard to make its point. Just at the very end the script asks a little too much of the actors. As Adina and Juanita clutch each other saying they must work for a better world the film the spell breaks just for a moment and seems affected. Luckily, the closing credits are only seconds away. A Clifford Odets might have been able to make the scene work, but Selden is asking a bit much from both the actors and the viewer. The message is right but the expression seems exaggerated.

This is a strong and moving and important film from two people who are trying to get out an important message. I think filmmaking is just one of many routes these remarkable people are using to get out their important message. The imperfections are in style and not intent. I rate this film +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

This film is currently playing at film festivals and is available for sale over the Internet.

I am pleased to say the Seldens have pledged that 10% of the profits from this film will be donated to the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. Few organizations could do as much good with the donation.

Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1341722/

The film is available at: . http://www.filmbaby.com/films/3739.

More information about Seldens and their work is at http://www.wayhavenproductions.com/

[-mrl]


Brigadoon (letter of comment by Tim Yao):

In response to Mark's and Evelyn's comments on Brigadoon in the 04/16/10 issue of the MT VOID, Tim Yao writes:

("Brigadoon is not the place for people who want to hold onto the past, it is really for people who want to embrace the future. This is not a place of stability; it is a place that I think is going to have some real excitement as the world jets forward with time- travel-like speeds.")

Ha! I hadn't thought of Brigadoon in that way, but I think you are right. The poor folks of Brigadoon are about to experience the effects of global warming in an accelerated way.

To be fair to the story, the little village was supposed to be quite isolated geographically, so perhaps they won't get that many visitors from outside.

("If *everyone* left Brigadoon, would that circumvent the curse (that if anyone left, when the people remaining went to sleep, the town would vanish permanently)?")

I think it would mitigate the effects of the curse on the people; but imagine those poor souls stuck in the modern world without their homes or any real money or skills of value. ("How are the people in Brigadoon going to feed themselves? Even if they can cultivate crops, is the size of the village big enough to support the entire population? And if they come back the same day every hundred years, it better be in the summer or they have no chance of growing anything.")

I imagined their day-of-the-year advancing normally for them across the hundred years jump, so from their perspective the weather would change seasonally. For such an isolated village, they should be self-sustaining. A bigger worry in my mind would be the genetic diversity within their small population.

("And the ending is a complete cheat!")

Well, since STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (a.k.a. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) (1946, starring David Niven) is one of my favorite movies, I have to side with the author's conceit that love can conquer all and create miracles that overwrite existing rules (while you wouldn't want every story ending that way, once in a while it is nice to see a happy ending :-) ). [-ty]

Mark replies:

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH is one of those odd fantasies that I try to get people to search out. It is just a tad anti-United-States, however. The Yanks had just recently helped rescue Britain from a tight spot when it was made and they got Canadian Raymond Massey to play a disagreeable archetype of an American. [-mrl]


HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (letter of comment by Morris M. Keesan):

In response to Mark's review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON in the 04/16/10 issue of the MT VOID, Morris Keesan writes, "It's somewhat unfair to knock HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON for similarity to AVATAR, when their target audience is mostly unlikely to have seen AVATAR, with its PG-13 rating. When I saw HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (at a free sneak preview), pretty much the entire audience was kids under 13 and their parents. My only real complaint about the film was the total illogic of Vikings speaking with bad fake Scottish accents (so much so that I didn't even notice, until the credits, that one of the actors is an actual Scot)." [-mmk]

Mark replies, "I am not knocking HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON for similarity to AVATAR. I said that there was probably no cross- pollination. It is just that the plot has been done *many* times before. I compared it to AVATAR just because it is likely to be fresh in the reader's mind. Putting it in the +2 range is being fairly positive about it." [-mrl]


Brigadoon, Finian's Rainbow, Mathematical Science Fiction, and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (letter of comment by Sam Long):

In response to Mark's comments in the 04/16/10 issue of the MT VOID, Sam Long writes:

Strange things happen in fairy tales like Brigadoon. Sure, it doesn't make good sense, but it's still an enjoyable movie. Consider the logical holes in many operas. Or Greek tragedies. Bean stalks grow tall, but not to the sky. Glass slippers would be excessively uncomfortable. But to return to Scotland, I have to say, I've wondered myself about the spell--is it a blessing or a curse?--on Brigadoon, and the logical problems with the story, so you're not alone. (I've seen only the film, not the stage play.)

But you mentioned Finnian's Rainbow, which is also, you might say, a fairy tale, and which I've also seen only the film, not the play. I did some checking up: there is no village called Glocca Morra in Ireland, though there is supposedly a Glockamara, pronounced the same, near Mitchelstown in Co. Cork. Apparently Glocca Morra isn't even good Irish; but then it was made up out of the whole cloth by the lyricist. The song, however, has been translated into Irish; see . There's no village called Innisfree (as in THE QUIET MAN) either. The village of Cong, Co. Mayo, did duty for it in the film--and gets considerable tourist traffic as a result. There is an Inishfree (Inis Fraoigh) island in Donegal, well to the north, and not otherwise connected to the movie. Anyway, as a meteorologist I can tell you whether it was a dark and stormy night, but I can't tell you how things were in Glocca Morra.

Mathematical SF: there's a fair amount of it about. Back in the early '60s, Clifton Fadiman edited two collections, Fantasia Mathematica and The Mathematical Magpie (they were reprinted a decade or so ago), which are delightful, even though the premises on which some of the stories were built have been disproved. For example, the 4-color problem, and Fermat's Last Theorem have been solved, the one by mathematicians at the University of Illinois (they had a special postal cancellation made up saying "Four Colors Suffice" to celebrate the success), and the other by an acquaintance of my ex-wife. Back in the '70s she was a secretary at the Oxford University's Faculty of Theology. The Regius Professor of Theology at that time was the Rev Dr Wiles, who was, by virtue of that position, the senior professor at the senior university in England. Dr Wiles' son--a teenager at the time my ex met him through his father--went on to be a mathematician, and it was the son who proved the Fermat theorem. (I met the Rev Dr Wiles once, but not the son.)

Of course, finance is in its way a branch of mathematics, and I've wondered from time to time whether there's any financial science fiction about. I can think of two examples. One is a story called "John Jones's Dollar", by H.S. Keeler (1927) which is available on the Net () and in one of the Fadiman anthologies, in which a man deposits a dollar in a bank, to be given, along with accumulated interest, to his descendant forty generations hence--which, in the story, turns out to be about 1,000 years from now. When the 39th-generation descendent dies without issue, compound interest has grown the dollar to be greater than the entire value of the solar system; and it all escheats to the government! The other is a chapter or two in Heinlein's TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, in which Lazarus Long (no kin) explains (Heinlein's version of) the philosophy and practice of banking on the frontier planet where he lived at the time. And while we're on the subject of mathematics,

    There once was a young man of Trinity
    Tried to take the square root of infinity.
        He was seized with the fidgets
        While counting the digits,
    Dropped science and took up divinity.

Your description of the film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON brings to my mind one of Gordy Dickson's stories, "The Dragon and the George" (1976), a very chuckleworthy tale. It's available on line too.

Keep those MT Voids coming! [-sl]

Mark replies:

The problem with "Brigadoon" is that it actually tells you the rules. Then at the ending, to make the end work, they simply break their own rule. And rules are much more important in fantasy than the real world. If anything can happen then there is no reason to wonder what can happen next. In this play the main character has made the irrevocable choice to return to the real world and never see Brigadoon again. That is dramatic. The author to says then that if what you have is true love, of course you can come back. That cheats the audience of the drama.

And I second your commendation of FANTASIA MATHEMATICA and THE MATHEMATICAL MAGPIE. Two books that I greatly enjoyed when I was growing up.

There was one financial science fiction film. You never hear about it in spite of the fact that it would have real resonance in the current financial crisis. It is Alan J. Pakula's ROLLOVER (1981). I don't think it sold very well.

Thanks for writing.

Evelyn adds:

Wikipedia reveals, "In a television interview late in his life, [E. Y.] Harburg revealed that the name 'Glocca Morra' was made up by composer [Burton] Lane...."

When we were in Ireland in 2001, we sailed on Lough Gill, which contained the Isle of Innisfree, so they seem to have adopted that spelling at some point. Possibly the Irish spelling reform in 1957 made some changes. In addition, Yeats spelled what was then Inisfree as "Innisfree" and that probably had an effect:

    "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
    Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes 
        dropping slow,
    Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket 
        sings;
    There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet's wings.
    I will arise and go now, for always night and day
    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
    While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
    I hear it in the deep heart's core."
             --"The Lake Isle of Innisfree," William Butler Yeats

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

Selected essays from THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2001 (ISBN-13 978-0-06-093648-8) was this month's topic in our general book discussion group. Why this book? Well, it was the only volume of the series that had more than one copy in our library system. And why just selections? Because at 330 pages, the book was longer than our usual limit. In addition, by choosing articles that were also available on-line it made it easier for people to read them.

The first question that occurs to me is, "Why were these essays chosen for this volume?" What makes them the best? The best- written from a literary aspect? The most ground-breaking in terms of science? The most effective in terms of informing, or influencing, the public? What? It turns out that Timothy Ferris addresses this in his introduction, saying, "[We] elected to concentrate on science *writing*--on the best writing out there, regardless of its subject."

Certainly Natalie Angier's "In Mandrill Society, Life Is a Girl Thing" is written with a definite eye towards style, such as saying when describing the mandrill:

	its lozenge-shaped muzzle 
	of red and blue 
	more like what you 
	would expect on a bird 
	than on the furred.
Except of course, that it appears as a simple sentence, not a poem. And Angier ends by asking, "Can mandrills find safety in numbers should human hunters come to call? Don't bet a buffalo nickel on it."

(Why does mandrill society--with hundreds of females in the group, but males only during breeding season--sound like the society in Sheri Tepper's THE GATE TO WOMEN'S COUNTRY?)

On the other hand, James Schwartz's "Death of an Altruist" (a brief biography of George Price, sociobiologist, atheist turned fundamentalist, and extreme altruist) seems more like a first draft, in the sense that it jumps around in time in a way that makes it more difficult to follow. (For example, the word "meanwhile" appears four times in this fairly short article.) And while it covers the facts of Price's "tumultuous story" (as Schwartz calls it), it does not do much to analyze the reasons behind it and one leaves not understanding Price any better than one started.

John Archibald Wheeler's "How Come the Quantum?" is more Wheeler's musings on quantum theory than a coherent essay written for the layperson. For example, at some point he switches from a discussion of quanta to something which sounds like the double-slit experiment and the particle-wave dichotomy. (If it weren't, then this would just reinforce my feeling that Wheeler is not writing very clearly, but others in the discussion agreed that this was what he meant.)

Another article was Stephen S. Hall's "The Recycled Generation", about creating stem cells from cow embryos and human DNA. According to one of the scientists interviewed, this would result in all sorts of therapeutic processes in about ten years. However, this was in 2001 and it all seems to have fizzled by now.

John Terborgh's "In the Company of Humans" is about why some animals like to hang around humans, but the reasons seemed pretty obvious. And the last three--Ernst Mayr's "Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought", Richard Preston's "The Genome Warrior", and Malcolm Gladwell's "John Rock's Error"--just did not seem all that well-written.

Some of this is undoubtedly a function of where the piece was originally published. Angier was writing for the "New York Times", while Schwartz was writing for "Lingua Franca". And several of us seemed less than thrilled with the "New Yorker" style of writing, as in the Preston and the Gladwell. [-ecl]



                                          Mark Leeper
                                          mleeper@optonline.net


Quote of the Week:

           To save a man from the consequences of his folly 
           is to breed a nation of fools.
                                          -- Herbert Spencer

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