MT VOID 06/11/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 50, Whole Number 1601

MT VOID 06/11/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 50, Whole Number 1601

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/11/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 50, Whole Number 1601

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at 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 To unsubscribe, send mail to

R.U.R. Performance in a Podcast (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

One of the most influential pieces of science fiction drama is Karel Capek's 1921 play "R.U.R." (Rossum's Universal Robots). The play invented the word "robot." The plot concerns a factory that creates androids to do labor for its customers.

The Radio Drama Revival site has for its June 4 podcast a full- length (about an hour) radio production of "R.U.R." If you are interested in the history of dramatic science fiction, it is worth hearing. Find it at


Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ):

July 6 (Tue): THE ILLUSIONIST (2006) and "Eisenheim the 
	Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser, film at 5:30PM, 
	discussion of film and story after film
July 8 (Thu): RICHARD III by William Shakespeare, Middletown (NJ) 
	Public Library, 1995 film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and 
	book after film (and, yes, it is science fiction!)
July 22 (Thu): THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest, Old Bridge (NJ) 
	Public Library, 7PM
	Adams, 2005 film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book 
	after film

Roger Ebert Remembers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Many of you may know that Roger Ebert is probably the best known film critic in the country. What you may not know is he started out as a big science fiction fan. In his journal he reminisces about his fandom and includes a nice collection of cover art from the science fiction magazines he enjoyed. It is well worth taking a look.


Political Fallout (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was watching the original GODZILLA in a whole new light. Godzilla attacks Tokyo. The Diet was discussing what to do about this monster. The right wing Tea Ceremony Party stands up and reiterates the following points.

Meanwhile the insurance companies are refusing to pay off on claims coming from Tokyo since the survival into the present of dinosaurs in the area is obviously a pre-existing condition. [-mrl]

VulCON Spock Days Galaxyfest (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

VulCON Spock Days Galaxyfest will be held June 11-13 in Vulcan, Alberta. We visited Vulcan a couple of years ago, on our trip to the Canadian Rockies, and at that time I wrote:

Our main event of the day--such as it was--was the town of Vulcan. We started at Tourism and Trek Office, in a building that looked like a spaceship (though not a starship). This town had been around for decades with this name, but in the mid-1990s they were looking for a way to improve their economy. Someone came up with the idea of tying in to the whole "Star Trek" phenomenon, and it worked. (Hey, we went there.) The main Trek features in the town are a replica of a starship on a pedestal by the highway (with welcome plaques in Vulcan and Klingon), a mural of the farmland with a shuttle and a starship in it and another mural of the five "Doctors of 'Star Trek'". But there are other touches. All the directional signs feature the "Star Trek" logo shape--and Roswell-shaped aliens, indicating either that Paramount put its foot down on using their make-up designs for commercial use, or that the people who designed them did not know the difference. (I assume that the murals fall under some sort of "fair use" doctrine, since they are non-commercial.)

But there are a lot of other "non-official" touches. The bookstore had a regular named, but also called itself a "Bajoran Bookstore." The library had a starship with glasses reading a book painted on the outside wall. There was the Enterprise Family Restaurant. And so on.

Details of the convention can be found at

Pictures from our visit may be found at


Einstein's Equation (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

One of my students (actually two students at different times) were asking just what exactly does the famous equation e=mc^2 really mean? I tried to put together what I knew about the equation and explain it in high school student terms. That is not easy to do. I figured if I could write an explanation out here I could just use it as a reference. Also there would be enough intelligent readers to correct my inaccuracies. It is very easy to find explanations of the famous equation by Googling, the words proof e=mc2. The problem is that the explanations you get are pretty tough for high school students to follow. I know they are difficult for me to follow. So the challenge here is not proving the equation or finding out how it works, but in trying to explain it simply.

Well, on one level the equation has a sort of materialistic meaning. Matter is just made up of energy in a very concentrated form. They are two forms of the same thing. It is sort of like how ice and water are the same thing, but one has crystallized. Matter is just a solid form of energy. When one breaks apart an atom, some of the weight disappears. The whole weighs more than the sum of he parts. But energy is released. Matter has converted to energy. It may not be a whole lot of energy, but if you can get the pieces of matter to hit and split apart more atoms you get a lot of atoms being broken and a very large amount of energy being released. If you get a chain reaction like this going, a lot of energy is released compared to the amount of matter that has to go away. That is a nuclear reaction.

Now for something not entirely different: suppose that you have a simple clock. It is two parallel mirrors with a photon bouncing between them. A photon can move only at the speed of light. So if the two mirrors are a fixed distance apart then a certain number of bounces is one second. Now you give an identical clock to a truck driver and he mounts it on the top of his truck. The truck drives past you. The photon is not just moving up and down; the truck is moving it forward. That means to you it looks like it is going up and down diagonals. That could mean it is just covering more distance, but it cannot do that. It is a photon and photons travel at the speed of light (at least in a vacuum). What you will actually see is that the photon will appear to slow down. Everything on the truck will appear to be moving a little slower except for the photon which will have this zig-zag up-and-down path. But the truck driver does not see time changing for him, he will see it changing for you and it will seem to him that time slows down for you.

Now as the truck driver goes by he pulls out a gun and shoots it at you. You pull out an identical gun and shoot it at him. You each hit the other. You would think his bullet would hit with less force because it also has slowed down. But from his point of view it is your bullet that is slower and will have less impact. You cannot both be right. In fact, you are both wrong. It will seem like the bullet is going slower, but it will still have the same impact. The two bullets will each strike with the same momentum. Momentum is mass times speed. If the speed decreases something has to compensate so that the momentum does not. Momentum is speed times mass. The only thing that can increase is the mass. The bullet that hits you must have increased mass. His bullet has more mass than yours from your point of view. Your bullet has more mass than his from his point of view. Your bullet has more energy; his has more mass. Each has the same momentum. From this it may be computed that his greater mass is the energy his is lacking divided by the speed of light squared. M=E/c^2. That is the real Einstein equation. The familiar one equation is what you get if you cross- multiply.

Hopefully that explains it (at least to myself). That is probably no clearer than other explanations available, but it was worth a try. [-mrl]

SPLICE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Two biologists, each with psychological problems, specializing in DNA splicing become de facto parents to the partially human creature they create in their laboratory. Vincenzo Natali directs and co-authors, but the film sadly lacks the fresh originality of his previous films. The science is more hysteria than believable. Natali's film about DNA-splitting seems disappointingly recombinant. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Vincenzo Natali's chief claim to fame still seems to be his creative 1997 film CUBE about people in a huge cube filled with cubic rooms inside and a set of rules for going from one chamber to the next. At the Toronto International Film Festival I have seen two other clever films he has created, but they seem to be unknown to most of the world of film fans. I can see why his NOTHING seems almost unknown. It is a very clever novelty film that makes some telling philosophical points but seems mostly aimed at the cult film circuit. On the other hand Natali made CYPHER. I still consider this to be the best Philip K. Dick film not really based on Philip K. Dick. If I wanted to get someone to read Dick, I would show him CYPHER. Natali really captured the feel of Dick's technologically advanced paranoia. That said, even with a bigger budget SPLICE just does not seem to have the inventiveness of his previous films. I see bits of ALIEN, EMBRYO, and SPECIES in SPLICE. There is definitely some Cronenberg biological horror there also. Oh, and did I forget to say FRANKENSTEIN?

This is the sort of Frankenstein story you get with an infusion of technical jargon about DNA splicing. The creature's origins sound a whole lot more believable than stealing corpses, but the result is no less absurd. Clive Nicoli (played by Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are two bio-engineers whose job it is to split and reconnect DNA strands and see what creatures grow from these hybrids. The things they get are strange-looking and unpredictable. They make them in pairs and then name them for famous couples like Romeo and Juliet. Most recently they have created living beasties they call Fred and Ginger, but from their shape could be called Rye and Pumpernickel. Clive and Elsa have been given one hard and fast rule. They are not allowed to use human DNA. So on one level what we have is a morality tale because you know darn will what they are going to do and you know darn well how happy they will be with the outcome. Their new creature is Dren. That is "nerd" spelled backwards. Dren seems cute and vulnerable ... at first.

The film is anxious to get Dren's childhood out of the way to get to teenager-parent sorts of problems--problems with which the target audience can most empathize. Rather than flashing forward in time, we find that Dren matures something like 18 human years in just a few days. By a freak of DNA she is at first surprisingly normal after developing so far so fast. Of course, here DNA- chimera body has all sorts of special body parts taken from different animals, but she is mostly human. She has special wings that are too small to convince the viewer she really could fly and too big to believe they can tuck away undetectably into her body. She is a rebellious virtual-teenager and her parents do not know what to do with her. Her special weapons and powers do not help. Many of the problems Clive and Elsa have with have with Dren are problems that real-world parents have with their children without benefit of DNA splicing. While Dren turns into a human, Elsa turns into her mother. I do not know what the mix of DNA in Dren is but it is clearly the human that dominates. And when the human does dominate, it is French actress Delphine Chanéac who does the dominating.

While the images seem a little dim, Tetsuo Nagata's photography has some arresting images that trip a slight natural revulsion to some things biological. The film may be better to look at than think about. (Nagata's work can also be seen in the current MICMACS.) Somewhat distracting is Adrien Brody's and Sarah Polley's endless gallery of T-shirts.

Vincenzo Natali has shown more originality in the past than he is showing in the present. A Frankenstein film does not have to be pieced together from other bodies of work. SPLICE gets a disappointing +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


[Apparently in response to this film, the Ohio Senate has passed a bill outlawing "human-animal hybrids" (see details at and elsewhere). Arizona had already passed such a bill last month (). -ecl]

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi (copyright 2009, Night Shade Books, $24.95 trade hardcover, 361pp, ISBN 978-1-59780-157-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

THE WINDUP GIRL is Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, a sequel of sorts to his short stories "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man". It is winning all sorts of awards these days, including the Nebula. If you're involved in the field at all, you know this already. It's like that, if you haven't read it already, you're planning on it and will be soon. It seems like everybody's talking about it. Unless I miss my guess, it's going to win the Hugo this year.

But it won't have my number one vote. But let's worry about that later.

The setting of the story is 22nd century Thailand. The world is a mess. Traditional sources of energy have been depleted. Bioterrorism has run rampant. Gene-modified foodstocks gone terribly wrong have devastated entire countries. The world's water levels are rising, and Bangkok is surrounded by walls and levees that are in place to keep the water out and let the residents survive, although it is a dirt-poor city. Manually-wound springs are the top source of energy. Genetically engineered creatures populate the town, including megadonts (critters that are essentially genetically engineered elephants) and cheshires, that are, you guessed it, genetically engineered cats that are the result of a father's generosity toward his daughter and their friends on her birthday.

Like I said, the place is a mess.

The key to power is a secret seedbank somewhere in Thailand that has the last natural specimens of plant life--natural food, not genetically engineered. Discovering the secret location of that seedbank is the assignment of one Anderson Lake, a representative of one of the big agricultural mega-corporations of the world. His cover is running a factory for those energy springs I mentioned before. He encounters Emiko.

Ah yes, our windup girl. Emiko is a Japanese-designed, genetically-modified human-like creature, whose sole purpose in life is to seek a master and obey him. She had a master back in Japan, but was summarily dumped into Thailand after her usefulness had run out. She is illegal in Thailand, and is horrendously abused and exploited by a pimp named Raleigh, who has essentially made her a slave and display object in his establishment. Emiko, of course, wants to escape to a rumored place where only New People (another name for her kind) live.

The other item(s) to keep track of here are the Trade Ministry and Environment Ministry. As you might guess, they are at odds with each other. The Environment Ministry concerns itself with trying to stay ahead of the genetic mutations that can kill the population. A lot of these come from outside the country. The Trade Ministry, of course, is trying to bolster trade with the outside world, and thus bring in items that could potentially be dangerous to the population.

There's a good-sized cast of characters, a bunch of political intrigue, and some secrets to the windup girl that end up taking the story in a direction that while I wasn't expecting it, I should have seen it coming. The book is terrifically written in a literary style that would make your high school English teacher proud.

So, what's the problem?

This book is pretty boring (remember folks, this is my opinion, which I know that a lot of people out there disagree with). I couldn't bring myself to care about any of the characters--for the most part, they're all greedy and corrupt. The setting is bleak, and the story is depressing. I couldn't bring myself to care about it.

Okay, back to that earlier thought about not voting it number one. Remember how I said your high school English teacher would be proud of it? That's because of an increasingly alarming trend of trying to turn science fiction into "acceptable literature". I know, I know, we want our SF to be well written, and have good characterization, plot, and action. But most of all, reading SF should be fun. We all got into this genre because of the stuff that we read as kids--you know, the stuff where the future was bright, and while the worlds the authors were exploring may have had their problems, the stories we were told made us believe that we should be optimistic for the future. An increasingly large number of Hugo-nominated novels these days attempt to be literary. Form, style, and structure are taking the place of a well-told story that contains characters that we care about, a plot that makes sense (why doesn't Thailand just release the contents of the seed bank out into the public so that maybe real food can be grown again, and why did we have those cheshires at all, anyway?), and is *fun to read*.

THE WINDUP GIRL may be a well-written story, but it is boring, depressing, and a chore to read. I don't want a novel to club me over the head with ecological, genetic, and bioterrorism themes. I don't want to be preached to about "important issues" (the inside front flap talks about the novel addressing "important issues"). My leisure reading is for fun, and this wasn't it.

The problem is that the same 400-500 people that nominate for the Hugos every year are trying to turn the genre into literature (and of course the charge is led by Locus and other magazines), but that's not what the majority of SF readers want. I'm sure it's not what I want.

THE WINDUP GIRL is a pretty good novel--it just isn't good science fiction. [-jak]

THE MINI (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: THE MINI is an amiable if not always funny comedy made by a crew of new-comers behind and in front of the camera. There approach is scattershot gags with weird characters, film allusions, and funny incidents like an accidental bank robbery. The film takes some patience, but the comic style does eventually kick in. Vulgarity is kept to a minimum and intentionally sexual humor never rears its head. It will be interesting to see writer/director Ron Beck's next film. Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

The cliché in the old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films was that a bunch of inexperienced people get together and say, "Hey, let's put on a show!" The show, of course, comes out as well as MGM studios could make it. So what happens when a bunch of newcomers really do put on a show? That was more or less a case with the cast and crew of THE MINI, a 2007 comedy written and directed by first-timer Ron Beck and a crew of other first-timers who get together and make a film. They have a lot of their act together, but it takes some time for THE MINI to get its comic rhythm going. Watching the film I asked myself several times why it wasn't going over better than it was. There were several gags that should have been funny, but there was something missing in the timing. Eventually I found myself going with the action. Not every gag is funny, but then the same could be said of the film AIRPLANE! Making a few allowances this is a very good-natured little comedy.

THE MINI has a somewhat familiar story line. We have the likable loser who can become a winner if he wins the big game (in this case a mini-marathon race). The 30-something failure has found himself in a dead end job selling futons in a mall bedding store. Everybody knows that where the action is is selling... mattresses. Everybody knows that where the action is is selling... MATTRESSES. (Still no laughs?) Well, that is what is going on with the humor. You can tell where the jokes are, but somehow the delivery does not always work the first time through. Eventually humor does start kicking in with enough jokes that they can spare the ones that don't work.

Fran Molon (played by Larry Dahlke) is our futon salesman who wants to move up to selling mattresses. The guy selling mattresses currently is Rick (Chris Stack), a creep who is clearly the favorite of the manager Stan (Darrell Francis), an even bigger creep. Rick and Stan constantly belittle Fran, and in a moment of levity Stan claims that if Fran can win the mall's mini-marathon race, Fran can sell mattresses. Fran is the kind of guy who has never won anything, but he decides to try for the big race. A lot of the film is following the loser through life as other people take advantage of him while he prepares for the big race. Fran bounces off of his buddy Dale (Jeff Stockberger) and his new cute girlfriend Carmen (Angie Craft). There is some chemistry in the comic relationship between Fran and Dale.

There are mock-tragic stories of Fran's and Dale's youth; there is a frustrating run-in with an auto-repair shop; there is a sequence borrowed from a certain martial arts film; there are bizarre characters; there is some dating awkwardness. Whatever seemed like it might work got thrown into the stew pot.

This is a low-budget film--reportedly it cost only $25,000--made to show off the comic ability of a small group of actors. It shows promise, but it feels like it aimed for AIRPLANE! and instead gave us a weak NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. I expect that Beck will do more films and they will be more on-target.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Wavicles and Alternate Pasts (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein):

In response to Mark's comments on whether a wavicle should really be a parve in the 06/04/10 issue of the MT VOID Peter Rubinstein writes, "Are you sure that's Kosher?"

And in response to Evelyn's comments on "April March" in the same issue, Peter writes, "With respect to alternate pasts, Leo Frankowski alluded to that effect in his 'Cross Time Engineer' novels. His protagonist apparently created ripples changing history backwards as well as forwards. But the concept was not explored to any great extent." [-pr]

Oceanic Disasters (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):

In response to Mark's comments on the Deepwater disaster in the 06/04/10 issue of the MT VOID, Mike Glyer writes:

You're on target with your comments about the latest lesson.

[Always nice to hear. -mrl]

Clive Cussler has been writing novels about saving the world from oceanic disasters for years, so I have grown conditioned to the idea they require a spectacular cause (like massive injections of toxic waste beneath the Sahara)--when merely breaking a necessary pipe in an oil rig can have consequences on the same scale. [-mg]

Mark replies, "I was unaware of the Cussler novels being on the same sort of subject matter. I wonder if he has considered a scenario like we have." [-mrl]

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

THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles Finney (ISBN-13 978-0-8032-6907-1) was the book chosen for the Middletown book-and-film group this month, and I ended up with a bunch of brief comments:

[Warning, the following comments contain some spoilers. It is like revealing the jokes in a comedy ahead of time. And THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO is a book you do not want spoiled. It is one of my favorite fantasy books. -mrl]

The circus comes to Abalone, Arizona. The abalone is an ocean creature, not one of the desert, and it seems unlikely that someone would name a town in Arizona after them.

The proofreader is Mr. Etaoin; E, T, A, O, I, and N are the most common letters in English, in order.

The college boys are members of Sigma Omicron Beta--in other words, they are S.O.B.s.

The soldier is traveling by train in "sidedoor pullmans", i.e., freight cars.

One good touch is that the unicorn explicitly does *not* have a horse's tail. All too often, artists depict unicorns as being just horses with a horn stuck on them.

Slick calls his friend Paul "Oom Powl", which is Dutch for "Uncle Paul", which in turn is a play on the idea of a Dutch uncle--though admittedly Paul does not play that role.

The question of whether it is a Russian or a bear is carried on far too long.

Most of the fantastic creatures in THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO are drawn from actual mythology, legend, or literature, but the Hound of the Hedges appears to be entirely Finney's creation. (One is reminded of Jorge Luis Borges's UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, in which the stories are generally based on fact, but with a tweak here and a twist there.)

Of the satyr, Dr. Lao says, "They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger." The phrase "to become strange gods" is from Deuteronomy 32:16, and "strange gods" retains that allusion.

Finney likes to use alliteration: "Then the midway was desolate, save for its wreath of dust, as the people all disappeared beneath the canvas. And the ringing of the bronze gong diminuendoed and died."

At times, though, Finney gets so involved in his literary references that he forgets his characters' natures. For example, I doubt that one of the quarantine inspectors would really know who Pierrot and Columbine were.

Lao's switching back and forth between pidgin English and full (even florid) English reminds me of the story of the man sitting next to a Chinese (or perhaps Japanese) gentleman at a fancy dinner many years ago. Wanting to make conversation, the man asked, "Likee dinner?" The Chinese gentleman just smiled. After the meal, the host announced the speaker, and the Chinese gentleman got up and gave a speech in perfect English. He then returned to his seat, turned to the man, and asked, "Likee speech?" (A similar incident is portrayed in the film THE WIND AND THE LION.)

The book THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO is *much* better than the movie (7 FACES OF DR. LAO).

In his review of CRO-MAGNON: HOW THE ICE AGE GAVE BIRTH TO THE FIRST MODERN HUMANS by Brian Fagan (ISBN-13 978-1-596-915824), A. C. Grayling writes, "An equally significant discovery, made this year by Svante Paabo's team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is that between one and four per cent of modern human DNA is Neanderthal. Modern Africans share no DNA with Neanderthals." There is a great irony here, I think, that the people most associated with the fear of "miscegenation" (the mixing of what we currently term races) are themselves the descendents of the results of the mixing of two groups even more distant from each other than races (though not so far distant as separate species). If one applied the "one-drop" rule to those segregationists of the Jim Crow era, they might not even qualify for citizenship. And one wonders where a Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon mix might fall in the Aryan "racial purity" laws.

THE POWER OF BABEL: A NATURAL HISTORY OF LANGUAGE by John H. McWhorter (ISBN-13 978-0-7167-4473-3), written in 2001, could be considered the companion book to his Teaching Company course, "The Story of Human Language." I started reading it, but found that it duplicated the course almost completely. Ironically, when McWhorter talks about how change is inevitable, he says, "It has gotten to the point that saying I don't have a 'cell' lends me, I suspect, the air of a sequestered holdout that we sense in people who do not have VCRs." Now, only a few years later, *lots* of people do not have VCRs--they have become "old technology".

It you don't have access to the Teaching Company, I recommend this book, but the course is much better. For one thing, when McWhorter is talking about how words change, vowels shift, and consonants drift, *hearing* the comparisons is so much more meaningful than just seeing them written phonetically. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Ignoramus, n.  A person unacquainted with certain 
           kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having 
           certain other kinds that you know nothing about.
                                          -- Ambrose Bierce, 1890

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