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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/21/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 30, Whole Number 1633
Table of Contents
One-Sided Congratulations (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In Italy we saw a tapestry that we were told was a testament to the "solidarity between Man and God." Evelyn did not know why I thought that was a funny concept. I guess I find humor in that where nobody else would. Somehow it strikes me as funny. It reminds me of Emo Philips's boast, "I'm a really great lover ... I'll bet." [-mrl]
Detroit and New Jersey (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Coming from the Detroit area to rural New Jersey in 1977 was an improvement in almost every way but one. Evelyn and I have a taste for exotic cuisine and in the late 1970s there was very little of that in New Jersey.
Henry Ford had made Detroit a great restaurant town. That was not intentional, of course. Ford had brought in laborers from all over the world and then gave them miserably poor salaries. The streets of Detroit offered a cacophony of different languages from working men who had to eat but could not pay a lot. You could get Polish or Greek or Chinese or Soul Food at workingmen's prices.
New Jersey, on the other hand, had the phone company putting up technical labs in the middle of what had been farm land. The prices were higher than Detroit's since engineers out-earned Detroit auto workers. In the late 1970s there was very little in the way of exotic food. There may have been the occasional Chinese restaurant in Matawan near us. It was about a forty-minute drive to get to the nearest Indian restaurant.
What was common in the area was diners. I used to say that a diner is a restaurant with a huge collection of dishes they almost know how to make. They would do things like make a Chicken Parmigiana but substituting a pile of sliced deli chicken for the chicken filet.
Flash forward to 2010 and Matawan has gotten a lot better. It is considered to be the dining center of the area. I will not go into all the cuisines now available. I guess fairly nearby we have Chinese, Japanese (including a sushi buffet), Korean, Thai, Polish, and Middle Eastern as well as the ever-present Italian. We have a good upper-class Mexican restaurant called Aby's. This is Mexican food, but it is made with attention to sauces including Mole and a Chipotle Cream sauce.
But the Mexican Restaurants I like are the ones aimed at the Mexican day-laborers. The food is cheap. The songs being played on the juke box are in Spanish. Evelyn was surprised that a chicken tamale had chicken bones. Most of the dishes on the menu I have never seen before, and frequently they are poorly translated into English. At one I ordered Tlayuda. I had no idea what it was when I ordered it, but that only added to the excitement. It seemed to be meat and sauce on a large fried tortilla. I suppose it is roughly similar to pizza. The woman who ran the place told me I was the first customer ever to order Tlayuda. It was good and when the couple at the next table saw it they placed the restaurant's second Tlayuda order.
Actually in many types of restaurants I frequently order dishes with no idea what I will get. Occasionally staff will try to talk me out of ordering the dish, but they have never succeeded and I have never complained.
Perhaps when I said we had Chinese I should have made the point that we have a Chinese seafood house and a Chinese dumpling shop. These are types of restaurant that are not uncommon in Chinatowns, but they are rarely found outside. The dumpling shop is called Shanghai Bun and Sushi. They have been around for decades now and to the best of my knowledge have never served sushi. That was probably a plan that fell through, but they never changed their sign. The woman who serves the customers gives every sign of hating her work, but the food she brings is very good.
What they do offer is a dish called Steamed Pork Buns or Soup Dumplings. They are not dumplings in soup or dumplings that one would put in soups. They are dumplings with meat in wrappers, but also in the wrapper is soup sealed inside the dumpling. The dumpling is about an inch and a half in diameter. It is served in a bamboo steamer. Each dumpling looks like a little purse. To eat it you carefully roll the dumpling onto a Chinese spoon. Then you pierce the dumpling with the tip of a chopstick and the soup leaks out and fills the spoon. You add a drop of soy sauce and roll the dumpling into your mouth, sipping up the soup to cover the dumpling. You suck on the dumpling and the last of the soup covers your tongue. Only then do you bite into the dumpling and soup together and then, of course, you swallow. It is an experience unique.
[This article appeared previously in the fanzine Argentus. -mrl]
Great Man vs. Tide of History (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I was watching the "American Experience" episode about Ulysses S. Grant, and was struck by a quote from someone who had been at West Point with Grant. Grant's record there was considerably less than stellar, leading this classmate to say (many years later), "No one could be more surprised than I at Grant's amazing success."
Now, in history there are two competing theories: the Tide of History, and the Great Man. The Tide of History Theory is often described as the Marxist approach, and was expressed by Robert A. Heinlein (of all people!) as "when it is time to railroad, you railroad." That is (to take a more familiar example than railroads), if the Wright Brothers had not built an airplane, someone else would have very shortly thereafter.
The Great Man Theory (promoted by Thomas Carlyle) is that key events in history are driven by exceptional individuals, and if they were not present, history would take a very different course. Had there been no Julius Caesar, this theory claims, world history would be very different. No one else would have subdued Gaul for Rome, or brought about the political situation that resulted in the rise of Augustus and the Roman Empire.
What struck me is that to some extent they may be connected.
Consider the Civil War--without Lincoln as President and Grant as general, would the Union have survived? Or World War II--without Churchill and King George VI, could Britain have survived?
But what was Lincoln? One much-circulated mini-biography says in part:
There is not much there to hint at what Lincoln would become as President.
Grant started his military career with his name incorrectly listed on the West Point roster. (Or did he take someone else's slot?) He graduated 21st out of 39. Though moderately successful in the Mexican War, after the war he lost money in all his attempted business ventures, and started drinking when he was transferred to Fort Vancouver. Eventually, he resigned. He tried farming, and failed. He tried business, and failed. He ended up as a clerk in his father's leather goods shop. When the Civil War broke out, he had to try to enlist several times before the Army would even take him back. Truly one can understand his friend saying, "No one could be more surprised than I at Grant's amazing success."
Churchill began with a speech impediment. He was successful as a journalist during the Boer War (back when journalism was print rather than radio or television). But during his time as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, he was responsible for the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, and was forced to resign. After World War I, he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929, and generated more controversy by returning Britain to the gold standard, and considered by most to be washed up in politics. When he became Prime Minister in 1940, I suspect many thought he would be barely understood over the radio, let alone instill Britain with the fighting spirit needed to lead it to victory.
King George VI had a severe stammer, and the current film THE KING'S SPEECH covers this. While no one really wanted to keep King Edward IV on the throne, everyone was terrified that the King's stammer would make him, and the Royal Family, and Britain at best ineffectual, and at worst a laughingstock. Yet when the time came, he too managed to pull it together and rise to the occasion.
So while Carlyle can say that a Great Man is needed, he does not address the possibility that the Tide of History will create that Great Man. [-ecl]
[Perhaps it takes the fires of misfortune and failure to forge a man of real strength. -mrl]
It's the End of the World as We Know It! (film/book reviews of FLOOD, ARK, and 2012 by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Recently I watched the DVD version of 2012 (2009), and also just finished reading FLOOD by Stephen Baxter (2008), now out in a ROC paperback, and ARK, also by Baxter (2010), available in hardback from ROC. I plan on nominating ARK for the Hugo this time around, and I recommend both books. All three tales are related in that they concern the destruction of the Earth by an immense flood and associated disasters, and the subsequent struggle of a few humans to survive. They are the modern inheritors of the mantle of Wylie's well known WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and the lessor known EXIT EARTH by Martin Caiden.
As background, you should know that I have long been a fan of 'end of the world' SF, but have taken a particular dislike to propagandistic tales like LEVEL 7 and ON THE BEACH. I have no problem with the destruction of the world, or with every human dying, as long as the author sticks to real science, and as long as the full range of human response to the disaster is shown. I am pleased to report that all three of these recent efforts pass the human response bar, and Baxter's books pass the science bar as well.
In 2012, a spectacular movie designed to take advantage of popular fears associated with ancient Mayan predictions of the end of the world in 2012, starts with terrible science. In some unfathomable way, neutrinos from the sun change into something else and start to boil the earth from the inside out. The two main characters are a scientist involved in the discovery of the oncoming disaster who becomes a leader in the effort to save some remnant of the human race, and a minor writer (Jackson Curtis, played by John Cusack) who by accident discovers that [a] the world is ending and [b] someone is building an ark of some sort.
The scientist, Adrian Helmsley, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I first noticed in the role of an invincible assassin in SERENTITY. He is fun to watch and brings a kind of strange earnest intensity to his roles that make him both striking and oddly believable. Helmsley ends up working for the White House Chief of Staff, Carl Anheuser, played by Oliver Platt channeling Dick Cheney, and in this role becomes part of a secret project to build a series of gigantic submarine arks on a high plateau in China to which key personnel and everyone who has kicked in $1 billion Euros will retire when the end comes.
Jackson Curtis is a writer going on a camping trip to try to reconnect with his children following a divorce. I am a big fan of Cusack, and his understated reactions provide an appropriate counterpoint to the big-screen destruction going on all around him. I won't make any effort to recount the unlikely path by which Cusack brings his family to the arks in China, or how he finally gets on an ark, or how he finally survives the flood, except to say that he is the one of a few out of 6 BILLION that survive, and almost by definition any such people will have great skills, powerful determination, and fabulous luck. Nothing that happens to Curtis is physically impossible, so it's best just to enjoy the ride.
In the best Hollywood tradition, a moral tale is told, with various not so good characters meeting horrible fates, as the survivors traveling to China gradually narrow to just Cusack's family. At the final moment, Helmsley and Anheuser come into an ethical conflict that results in the 'right' decision. On a deeper level, it is obvious that although Anheuser may not be a nice guy, his program of assassinations to keep the arks secret was almost certainly necessary to allow anyone to survive, and his sale of tickets to raise money to pay for the secret ark program may also have been equally necessary.
The end result is a beautiful movie that is not always well thought out and that at times seems overly elaborated in search of an amazing vista, but still ends as a celebration of the human spirit- -good and bad. Some give in to fate, but others do not--and this is their story.
Everything that is good in 2012 is much better in FLOOD and ARK, and the two books have none of the flaws of the movie. FLOOD/ARK is hard SF at its best, with real science used everywhere, and one assumption/idea per book. In FLOOD the idea is that gigantic underground seas exist and erupt into the oceans, causing a Noachian flood. Although clearly unproven, Baxter provides reference to the papers on which this idea is based. In ARK the idea is the Alcubierre warp drive, also buttressed by references to the scientific papers by Alcubierre.
I have seen some reviews on the web that find this too big a stretch, but it is the single assumption in the entire book [well, maybe there are two--the other being that you can mine Jupiter for anti-matter]. I refer the reader to FRONTIERS OF PROPULSION SCIENCE - PROGRESS IN ASTRONAUTICS AND AERONAUTICS VOLUME 227 by Millis and Davis, with an introduction by Burt Rutan and published by the AIAA. It is the single best and most up-to-date work available on the state-of-the art in warp drives and faster that light travel, and along with a lot of other ideas it covers the Alcubierrie warp drive. It is at least plausible that if the best minds in the world faced a do-or-die deadline and had nothing-- literally nothing - else to do--they might make one idea from the 736 pages of the Millis/Davis book work!
ARK stands alone as a story, but it is worthwhile to read FLOOD first. FLOOD tells the story the actual flooding of the Earth, and the final fate of Ark 3--a replica of the Queen Elizabeth, which by odd coincidence I toured last summer. ARK follows Ark 1 on its journey to the stars, and in the end brings the reader back to Earth where you learn the answer to the question--what was Ark 2 anyway? These are big books [480 pages and 530 pages] with lots of characters that span generations.
These are also grim books--and are in some large part an exploration of what humans will do to survive. The full range of human response to certain death is on display--courage, venality, murder, greed, love, and hope--and a few people struggle on against impossible odds to allow some tiny bit of the glory that was Earth to survive. The books can also be viewed as an illustrated series of lectures on what might be involved in surviving any kind of major disaster, and in how fragile the Earth actually is.
There is an awful lot of good stuff in ARK, including a space academy story of super-smart kids being trained for life on a generation ship, engineers building an Orion ship, the final battle to defend ground control against an ever growing mob of refugees, the voyage of Ark 1 to Earth II, and on to Earth III, and the three captains of Ark 1--Kelly Kenzie, Wilson Argent, and Holle Groundwater. As is the case in real life, a lot goes right, and a lot goes wrong. The characters are tested beyond any reasonable limit, and then pushed further, as they slowly realize the sacrifices that survival will entail.
Baxter is known for big-scope space based SF, and ARK gets you there eventually, including some very interesting speculation on the answer to the Fermi paradox. But there is really one message in both books--the characters in the books would have been--and the readers will be--a whole lot better off if they focused on getting off the Earth a little bit earlier and less on thinking that humanity has a long-term future on one planet.
In the northern part of New Jersey there is a park called Pyramid Mountain. On the trails around the mountain there is a massive stone block the size of a small truck called tripod rock. Tripod rock rests on three smaller rocks, and a child can stand underneath it. Evidence of aliens? No--glaciers dropped the big rock on the little rocks in the last ice age--when New Jersey was covered with an ice sheet a mile thick. That was about 15,000 years ago. Odds are--sooner or later--New Jersey will again be covered with ice a mile thick. In that world, 95% of the current human population will be dead. Thinking that humans can live on the Earth in some kind of long-term stability is a type of group insanity currently being perpetuated by deep green environmentalists. From this perspective global warming, if real, is just a blip, unless, of course, it speeds up the timetable for the Earth becoming incapable of sustaining a large scale human presence.
By creating a giant flood that rises exponentially, Baxter has compressed time to tell a story over a humanly understandable interval. The real story--whether flood or freeze--will take longer, but the tale is not going to end any differently. So read FLOOD and ARK, and start thinking about what you can do to help humanity move into space. None of us are going to make it, so we are really in the same position as most of Baxter's characters. But us personally making it has never been the point ... ad astra per aspera.
2012 is rated PG-13, and is too intense for young children. FLOOD and ARK contain numerous violent and sexual elements that make them appropriate only for older teens and up. However, I note that the violence and sex in FLOOD/ARK are not in any way gratuitous, and are not over-emphasized. Keep in mind that most of the people you meet in both books die at some point. [-dls]
Raymond Burr and Other Stars (letter of comment by Sam Long):
In response to the MT VOID in general, Sam Long writes:
I was watching a Biography Channel story about Raymond Burr the other evening, and it occurred to me: Could Perry Mason successfully defend a person whom Ironside had apprehended? Then it occurred to me that this is the sort of thought-provoking and/or paradoxical question that you often start MT VOID with. Hence this e-mail.
And it occurred to me too that, a propos of monsters stomping about and the legal and other problems of such (i.e., the "superheroes and the law" items in the last two or three issues of MT VOID), Burr gained a certain amount of fame as an actor in the American version of GODZILLA, as the Biography channel noted. A lot of modern--and now aging--actors who went on to great fame in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, started their careers in bit parts in monster and SF/sci-fi movies in the 1950s. ["SF" movies are those like FORBIDDEN PLANET, and "sci-fi" movies are those like TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE. "Sci-fi" movies have a very high cheesiness factor.] Other examples of such actors: Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, etc. I'm sure, film enthusiast that you are, you could name many more. [-sl]
As for having conflicting roles across films, Burr is a piker to people like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson who started their careers playing public enemy sorts of criminals. Later when the public became concerned that we were glamorizing crime they were cast as heroic crime fighters.
Yes, it is true that science_fiction/horror/fantasy tends to be the breeding ground not just for actors but people on both sides of the camera. One producer/director who is especially known for this is, of course, Roger Corman. He would make cheap films for companies like American International Pictures. He paid tiny wages so could only get new people starting out in the film business who could not get work elsewhere. His best-known films are mostly science fiction/horror/fantasy. The neophytes would not get rich, but they would get experience on their resumes. Today a substantial number of the most successful filmmakers were people who got their start working for Corman.
Yes, the puzzle I posed for Will Shortz and NPR was a difficult one. I doubt if I would have been able to get it. I, of course, got the answer by the back door. It is easier to make the observation and pose the question than it is to answer it. I submitted the question in May of 2009 and had forgotten that I had even posed it. I got the answer by finding a copy of my old mail to Shortz.
Thanks for writing. [-mrl]
Time-Scanning Characters (letter of comment by Jerry Ryan):
In response to the comments on time-spanning characters in the 01/14/11 issue of the MT VOID, Jerry Ryan asks, "Didn't the last novel in Brin's 'Uplift' series take us to the End Of The Universe??"
Myth (letter of comment by Frank Leisti):
In response to Mark's comments on myth in the 01/14/11 issue of the MT VOID, Frank Leisti writes:
You have a wonderful way to illustrate the consequences of a myth, however, you need to get to the myth beyond the myth.
Some wonderful person had the idea to make a lot of money the easy way. He/she spread rumors about the myth of Charon (note spelling, your version had the wrong myth.) So, now people placed coins on their dead relative's eyes prior to burials. Now, all this person had to do was after the funerals, dig up the gravesites and collect the money. They were able to spend it amongst the living. [-fl]
The Odyssey and the Argosy (letters of comment by Kip Williams, David Goldfarb, and Tim Illingworth):
In response to Evelyn's comments about THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY in the 01/14/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Speaking of Graves, and lost books of the Odyssey, have you read MY SHIPMATE HERCULES? It's a first-person retelling of the Odyssey, with the mythical characters of the book generally (I'm hedging here for reasons of imperfect recall) replaced with the versions that Graves, in his view of mythology, believes they stood in for. As I recall, centaurs were extraordinary horsemen, rather than horse-men.
I read it right through, which is more than I've ever managed to do with the original--or what stands in for the original today: the version that was written down after I-don't-know-how-long of being repeated by people with imperfect (but amazing) memories, etc. I still mean to read it, of course. [-kw]
David Goldfarb responds:
Based solely on the title, I wonder if you're thinking about the voyage of the Argo rather than the Odyssey. (Odysseus was a generation later than Hercules--sons and grandsons of Hercules fought in the Trojan War, but Hercules was already dead.)
Tim Illingworth adds:
Seems to be. http://tinyurl.com/void-shipmate [-ti]
Kip Williams replies:
Argosy? Could be. Been a while. I remember enjoying it. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When I tell people that MOBY DICK by Herman Melville (ISBN 978-0- 140-62062-7) is full of humor, they look at me like I'm crazy, so I will just have to give some examples. (All page references are to the "Penguin Popular Classics" edition.)
"Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick--grow quarrelsome--don't sleep of nights--do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;--no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for going as cook,--though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board--yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;--though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids." (page 23)
"He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington's head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (page 65)
(I have a dozen more, but that would make this column much longer than most people want, so if you're interested, go to http://leepers.us/evelyn/moby_wit.htm.)
But people also say that Melville practically writes a textbook on whales, without mentioning what he gets wrong. Or, to be fair, what we know is wrong based on another 150 years of study.
For example, Melville writes: "Furthermore, as his windpipe solely opens into the tube of his spouting canal, and as that long canal-- like the grand Erie Canal--is furnished with a sort of locks (that open and shut) for the downward retention of air or the upward exclusion of water, therefore the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!" (page 357)
But of course, whales do speak, or sing.
And later, Melville says: "Though so short a period ago--not a good lifetime--the census of the buffalo in Illinois exceeded the census of men now in London, and though at the present day not one horn or hoof of them remains in all that region; and though the cause of this wondrous extermination was the spear of man; yet the far different nature of the whale-hunt peremptorily forbids so inglorious an end to the Leviathan. Forty men in one ship hunting the Sperm Whales for forty-eight months think they have done extremely well, and thank God, if at last they carry home the oil of forty fish. Whereas, in the days of the old Canadian and Indian hunters and trappers of the West, when the far west (in whose sunset suns still rise) was a wilderness and a virgin, the same number of moccasined men, for the same number of months, mounted on horse instead of sailing in ships, would have slain not forty, but forty thousand and more buffaloes; a fact that, if need were, could be statistically stated." (page 437)
Here, Melville seems to believe that whaling would never get any more efficient than it was in 1851, or that more ships would go out each year.
There's also an example of mixed metaphor, or at least confused anatomy: "... when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang." (page 463)
And what sort of compasses does the Pequod have?: "Standing behind him Starbuck looked, and lo! the two compasses pointed East, and the Pequod was as infallibly going West." (page 485)
And apropros of nothing, when I was re-reading MOBY DICK, it was in a somewhat beat-up "Penguin Popular Classics" edition that sold for 2 in 1994 and has a notation that it was made from 100% recycled newsprint and 50% recycled coverboard (which I take to mean the pages are 100% recycled materials, the cover 50%). It seems to be the equivalent of our "Dover Thrift Editions", though because it is mass-market size rather than trade paperback size one is not confronted with as intimidating a block of text as with the Dover editions. The combination of the recycled materials and the fact that it was already a bit dog-eared made it a very comfortable book to read. The covers could be flexed without having a crease cracked in them, the binding was loose enough that you could open the book sufficiently to deal with the narrow margins, and there is enough space between lines that the text doesn't look all crammed together. All in all, a very comfortable book. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes. --Winston Churchill
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