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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/19/12 -- Vol. 31, No. 16, Whole Number 1724
Table of Contents
Wednesday's Children (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
True statement: Most people my age were born on a Wednesday. Think about it. [-mrl]
Leeper for the Defense: Tarantula and Duck-and-Cover Messages (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The singer Harry Belafonte was a great fighter against bigotry for most of his career. Unfortunately he also contributed to some bigotry against tarantula spiders. In his famous song "Day-O", also called "The Banana Boat Song", he has the lyric:
A beautiful bunch o' ripe banana (Daylight come and me wan' go home) Hide the deadly black tarantula (Daylight come and me wan' go home)
This song warned the world about the deadly danger of this scary spider. And in fact a tarantula bite might actually be deadly ... to a mouse. If I can trust my search on the web, no human has ever been killed by a tarantula bite. It is painful, of course. It can hurt as badly as a wasp sting for several days. Now, bunches of bananas do occasionally hide the Brazilian Wandering Spider, also known as the Banana Spider. This is even more ugly and more dangerous than a tarantula spider and in theory its bite can kill a human. But again there are no records of this spider actually killing anyone. And the banana spider is sometimes incorrectly called a "tarantula." However, calling it the "banana spider" would have wrecked the meter of the song. He could have gotten away with:
A beautiful bunch o' ripe banana (Daylight come and me wan' go home) Hide the deadly Wandrin' spider (Daylight come and me wan' go home)
But then the record would have had to come with an explanation. Even then people hearing the song on the juke box would have come back and asked "the what spider????" People knew what a tarantula was. In fact, "The Banana Boat Song" was released in 1956, the year before Jack Arnold's film TARANTULA about a giant tarantula spider had been released. So the public knew what a tarantula was in 1956, but they probably would not have thought in terms of it being deadly until Belafonte told them. (Of course Jack Arnold had told people that the fifty-foot variety could be deadly, but in general there just were no tarantulas that big to suffer from the misinformation. It is like whipping up prejudice against zombies.) Belafonte libeled the timid and usually placid tarantula spider. I would say that counts as an injustice.
I recently heard a podcast where people were laughing at the old public service messages and school drills that told children that when they saw a bright flash they should "duck and cover." How could the government think people were so stupid as to put their faith into so simple a strategy when under nuclear attack? This was supposed to protect children from the nasty effects of a nuclear explosion. Good luck!
Many people look back today and think how gullible people must have been to think that ducking and pulling a jacket over your head would protect you from a nuclear explosion. It is a pretty funny idea, right? Well, maybe, but it also happens to be sound advice. If you are far enough away from the blast a lot of the danger will not be immediate so in a way you are lucky. If you are near enough to the blast you will die in a fraction of a second and I suppose in another way you will be lucky. But there is a certain distance that falls between the two where being covered up really is a good idea. There would be a lot of flying building materials and glass shards.
Very quickly when Japan surrendered in World War II after having been the victim of two nuclear attacks, Americans rushed to the two stricken cities to find out who was killed and who survived. Of the people who survived an attack, what was it that saved them? The conclusion was the obvious that the more exposure you had to the deadly results of the detonation, the worse off you were. You want to minimize your exposed surface area and put what you can between you and the now unfriendly outside world. In other words, you want to duck and cover.
It may be less true today because there would be a much greater radius of what I would delicately call "instant lethality." Nuclear weapons are a lot more powerful than they were at the end of World War II. But there still should be a Goldilocks region where the best immediate survival strategy would be to duck and cover. Whether you could maintain the presence of mind to think of the best strategy and the will to override you curiosity to see what is happening is another matter.
I find that tarantula spiders and the United States Government are not guilty. And that probably is not all that they have in common. [-mrl]
FRANKENWEENIE (film review by Mark R. Leper):
CAPSULE: Tim Burton returns to his roots making a feature-length version of one of the two short films that made him famous. Filling the film with references to classic horror and sci-fi films he tell the story of teenage Victor Frankenstein who brought his dog back to life as a cute and likeable patchwork monstrosity. The story is pleasant enough in a macabre sort of way, but it is much more coherent in the parts updated from the original. The new material takes a while to get going. And in some ways the use of animation instead of the original live action takes away from the fun of the film. Burton only occasionally improves on what was in the 1984 version. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Thirty years ago a Tim Burton in his mid-twenties made two short films for Disney Studios. The first was "Vincent", an animated story of a boy who like Burton himself idolized Vincent Price and his horror movies. The second of the films was "Frankenweenie", a mostly live-action film of the boy who lost the dog he loved, but was inspired by science class to bring the dog back to life. The film was a winning send-up of horror films in general and of the James Whale's Frankenstein films for Universal. Now Burton has expanded his 27-minute short into an 87-minute all-animated film. To do this he has essentially added a second concurrent story that somehow is not quite as congenial.
The plot is simple. Teenager Victor Frankenstein loves his dog Sparky more than anything else in the world. He is heart-broken when the dog is hit by a car and dies. Then in science class sees his teacher get a dead frog to kick its legs by shocking it with electricity and Victor decides to use electricity to bring Sparky back to life. In the new film several of Victor's classmates decide they want to win the science fair and when the secret of Victor's experiment leaks out they all get involved making monsters of their own for the fair.
One has the feeling in the B story that Burton is trying to stretch his work, even if only to a minimally feature-length film. When we get some monsters toward the end they do not seem like they are good ideas for monsters and they are not properly motivated in the story. The A story is really not a lot changed from the original film except for being animated. That does not always work in the film's favor. When we see in each film Sparky transformed into a prehistoric creature for a film Victor is making, it is much cuter in the original with a live dog. As long a Sparky is already animated adding the additional features is just not as endearing.
Another problem with the animated version is common to much of Burton's animation. One can always recognize Tim Burton's and production designer Rick Heinrich's style of animation. Normal people have big, wide eyes with little black dot irises, small pinched noses and mouths, and triangular tight faces. The most expressive features are the eyebrows and maybe a small smile or frown. That is all well and good, but somehow it short-circuits the expression of emotion. The soul of drama is the actors' emoting, and as cute as Burton's characters are, they have bland faces that do not express emotion well. The science teacher and a boy with a Peter Lorre voice diverge from the style. But the science teacher has even less emotion in his face and the boy has a constant wide grin, even when he is unhappy. The animation can overcome this problem, but it is a definite handicap.
The film has a pleasant choral score by Tim Burton's regular composer, Danny Elfman.
Undeniably Burton's first telling of the story has a great deal of charm coming both from the clever film references and from the presence of a live dog to help tell the story. The new version adds an okay second plot and a trainload of horror film references. It even adds a little political content advocating the importance of science--real science, not the reanimating corpse kind. We lose the charm of the live dog. (Any live dog. Bears would be nice too. But a cat who communicates the way this one does should not have made it past the first draft, Tim.) I rate FRANKENWEENIE a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1142977/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/frankenweenie_2012/
ARGO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Set during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, ARGO tells a strange but true footnote to that history. Six United States citizens whom the Iranian revolutionary government wants dead have escaped from the United States embassy to the protection of the house of the Canadian ambassador. Now the CIA is charged with extracting them from Iran against very high odds. One operative devises a cockeyed plan to remove them by passing them off as filmmakers scouting locations for a science fiction movie. This is the best film of the year so far. Ben Affleck directs and stars. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
The year is 1979 and the Iranian Revolution has just climaxed in the storming of the United States embassy by furious rioters. Six of the staff escape to the house of the Canadian ambassador which secretly offers them sanctuary. Now it is the responsibility of the Central Intelligence Agency to somehow get them out of the country past heavily guarded borders and airports. The leadership at the CIA is suggesting a really bad idea to remove the staff members. Operative Tony Mendez (played by a non-Hispanic-looking Ben Affleck) thinks all the ideas for extraction are bad ideas.
Mendez chooses what he thinks is "the best bad idea." It is a doozy. He wants to pass the Americans off as filmmakers scouting locations in Iran to film a science fiction movie to be called ARGO. A script has to be found and artwork created that will be good enough to convince the Iranian officials that there really is a legitimate film being produced. Mendez recruits for help John Chambers (John Goodman), the man who really did create the makeup for the original "Planet of the Apes" films. Also he gets real producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as the fake producer of the film.
Mendez intends to go to Iran, posing as a filmmaker, and meet with the six fugitives. Then after a day or so of intensive coaching and pretended scouting, the seven Americans will board a plane and fly out of Iran. At least that is the plan. This story is all based in truth. In the closing credits once can see how very similar the actors look to the real people. Only the non-Hispanic- looking Affleck looks significantly different.
I consider a good story or a good actor one that takes the viewer through a gamut of emotions without making them seem forced. Affleck directing himself in this film manages to do both. The script is balanced with spectacle in the first act and an extended suspense sequence in the last act, a real nail-biter. And by "extended" I mean not just a longer chase like you might have in a James Bond film. The dangers faced by the seven escapees are many and varied and probably not at all exaggerated. And any one of them would prove fatal for the seven fugitives at the hands of the Iranians.
It is hard to make a history film that is both believable and exciting. ARGO is one of those rare films that feed the appetites of both the Friday night action film crowd and the art house audience. And it is just as hard to believe that the actor who in 2003 made PAYCHECK and the laughable DAREDEVIL directed a film with the sophistication of ARGO only nine years later. ARGO proves that not only does he really know how to direct himself, he can be good directing a whole film cast. My clue that he was a different Ben Affleck should have been his craftsmanship directing the under- rated crime film GONE BABY GONE (2007).
Director Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio try to give a balanced view of the issues of the film. Rather than just show the rage of the Iranian people against the United States and Europe, they include a brief informative explanation of just why there was so much hatred. And their account does not look very favorably on the United States. In a screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was pointed out that though the film dramatized cooperation between the US and Canadian officials, it really did not fully credit the Canadians for the risks they took for the Americans, a shortcoming partially corrected in the general theatrical release.
The film repeatedly contrasts the world of the Iranian Revolution and the La-La world of the West and especially Hollywood. One goes from the gritty and dangerous world of the rioting Iranians to the fatuous world of Hollywood filmmaking. Here Affleck may go a little overboard. Chambers would not be working on a picture as silly and inane as the Minotaur film we see being made. Such bad films are (luckily) a real rarity. To claim Chambers would work on such a film does not speak well for the accuracy of the rest of the account. But still the contrasts of life in the two countries are striking. In the margins we see nice vignettes of globalization creeping into Iran like a woman wearing the traditional Chador biting a drumstick Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick.
Incidentally, the script that was actually used was not really called ARGO. It was to be a purported screen version of Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT. See the link below for the ARGO connection to LORD OF LIGHT below.
This is a film that runs the gamut from grim to absurd. It has serious political commentary and over-the-top satire. I rate ARGO a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. Jeff Nathanson wrote and directed a similar film, THE LAST SHOT (2004), also based on a true incident, in which an FBI agent went under cover as a film director and became overly involved with the ersatz film he was supposedly making.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1024648/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/argo_2012/
The LORD OF LIGHT connection to ARGO: http://tinyurl.com/void-lordoflight
This is a long article in "Slate" detailing the differences between the history and the movie at http://tinyurl.com/void-argo-slate. [-ecl]
THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F. Hamilton (copyright 2008 Peter F. Hamilton, 2009 Tantor; 25 hours 15 minutes; narrated by John Lee) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
Peter F. Hamilton picks up right where he left off at the end of THE DREAMING VOID in the follow-up novel and second book in the trilogy, THE TEMPORAL VOID. The Void is undergoing expansion due to the Second Dreamer's rejection of the Skylord. Justine, one of the holdover characters from the original Commonwealth Saga, has
decided to enter the Void in an effort to negotiate with the Skylord to try and stop the Void's expansion. Meanwhile, the Dreamers are continuing their pilgrimage to enter the Void. Paula Myo discovers an even greater threat to life in the Commonwealth. Araminta, a descendant of Melanie from the Commonwealth Saga, has everyone looking for her because she has discovered that she is the Second Dreamer.
And that's really just part of the story. Most of THE TEMPORAL VOID takes place within the Void itself, as we continue to follow the story of Edeard as told through the dreams of Inigo, the First Dreamer. As an aside, we finally do spend some time with Inigo in this novel, although what role he as to play in the resolution to all of this remains to be seen. Anyway, Edeard, that little country bumpkin, has taken Makkathran by storm. He aims to rid Makkathran of the gangs, thus making it a better and safer place to live, a place devoid of the criminal element. With each successive dream, Edeard gains more popularity, more power within the city, a bigger following, and more and larger headaches as the novel progresses. People love Edeard because of the ideal he represents; yet, he is feared by some because he is extremely powerful with regard to the mental and telekinetic skills that people who live in the Void have. He attracts more powerful enemies and more difficult roadblocks along his path of cleaning up Makkathran. Edeard also can communicate with the city itself, which allows him to ask it to do things for him. It is this ability that gives Edearda decisive advantage in his battle against the criminal element of Makkathran. Edeard, in my mind, is a messiah figure, destined for a major fall that is already alluded to in the novel.
The big reveal in the novel, however, is the nature of the Void and the cause of its expansion. Edeard plays a key role in that too, *really* putting him in the messiah position, although no one actually knows it--at least not yet. We do know that there is one dream that Inigo did not share with the people of the Commonwealth; that dream presumably contains the biggest reveal of all, and we'll see that in the final volume of the trilogy, THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID.
There's a lot going on here, and that certainly isn't unusual given that this is a Peter F. Hamilton novel. It's big, full of big ideas, grand in scope, complex, and compelling. As I've said in other reviews of Hamilton's works, it's Space Opera of the traditional kind. And yet, the characters are well drawn and developed. Hamilton gives the reader reason to like his character, to get involved with his characters, and care about what happens to his characters.
A majority of the book is spent in Makkathran in the Void following Edeard. While I enjoyed that aspect of it, I'm terribly interested in what's going on back in the Commonwealth, in "normal" space. Presumably the final book will take us back there, and eventually link both locations in a grand climax to the story.
Again, John Lee does an absolutely terrific job reading this book. I can't envision anyone else reading Hamilton's books. He has the right voice and cadence for this work.
All in all, yet again another terrific novel from Peter F. Hamilton. I highly recommend it. [-jak]
SINGULARITY RISING by James D. Miller (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Most books about the Singularity are written by SF writers (who attempt to tell an exciting story) or computer scientists (who focus on how it might or might not occur). SINGULARITY RISING is written by James D. Miller, an associate professor of economics at Smith College. As can be seen from a brief look at his resume, which can be found at http://sophia.smith.edu/~jdmiller/resume.pdf, Dr. Miller, Esq. (he has a Stanford law degree as well as an economics Ph.D. from the University of Chicago), seems quite an accomplished fellow, if a bit more publicity hungry than most academics.
Miller spends only a modest amount of time defending the idea of the Singularity, and then allocates most of his time applying economic reasoning tools like the "Prisoner's Dilemma" to the Singularity. The first section of the book is titled "Rise of the Robots" and discusses the basics of the Singularity (see Vinge's original article here if you haven't read it: http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html) followed by a dissertation on "friendly" AIs and how military/economic competitiveness might lead to a so-called "AI explosion." The "AI Explosion" postulates that a computer becomes first humanly intelligent, and then rapidly bootstraps itself to hyper- intelligence. Such a hyper-AI might be "friendly" to humans, or if "unfriendly" it might embark on projects like the conversion of the entire mass of Earth into its core compute stack.
Miller makes the excellent point that we don't need to create hyper-intelligent AIs to create a Singularity. All we need to do is create large number of AIs (or actual people) as intelligent and as creative as Jon von Neumann. If anything, Miller does not do justice to the vast range and depth of Von Neumann's abilities. There can be little doubt that if each corporation could deploy 1000 Von Neumann equivalents in their R&D and planning departments that in short order the world would be turned upside down. Since the prospect of creating a Von Neumann level brain via drugs, genetic engineering, or emulation seems reasonable, given that we are duplicating a brain that actually existed, not inventing anything. This becomes the core argument that, absent nuclear war, we ARE going to have a Singularity of intelligence, and probably only a short time in the future, say 40 years. You may be skeptical on this, so I adduce one piece of evidence to send a shiver down your spine--the 10/12/2012 [today!] Wall Street Journal has a large article about how Google is sweeping the statehouses of the country, getting laws passed to allow the usage of driverless cars.
The second part of the book, titled "We Become Smarter, Even Without AI," is a fascinating tour of cutting-edge technology related to raising IQ. The author's hands-on experimentation with most of the leading candidates and a revealing discussion of his extensive usage of Adderall enlivens the chapter on "Cognitive- Enhancing Drugs." If you have the slightest interest in these topics, this section of the book is worth the price tag all by itself. Miller makes the section an entertaining read by providing numerous fascinating thought experiments, and some longer scenarios that are basically short SF stories. This is explosive stuff, with a lot of food for thought.
The third part of the book, titled "Economic Implications" is the best and most practical discussion of what the Singularity might really feel like I've seen yet. Of particular interest is Miller's deconstruction of Singularity scenarios into four main possibilities:
- Intelligence Explosion, which I have described above.
- Kurzwellian Merger, in which we, via cyborgian extensions, become the post-human hyper-intelligences, rather like the "Mechs" in Bruce Sterling's SCHISMATRIX universe. This has the advantage that there is substantial continuity of motivation as we transition into the Singularity. We may still destroy the world fighting each other--but let's not kid ourselves--we can *already* destroy the world fighting each other!
- Ricardian Comparative Advantage, in which hyper-AIs find it useful economically to trade with humans even though for any given task the AIs are much more productive than humans. This leads to a commonality of interests between AIs and humans. This scenario is based on well-established economic theory, and explains why there is trade between, for example, Europe and Africa.
- Emulations, in which the Singularity mainly comes about via the creation of a human-level AI emulation, that is then copied millions of times to perform various tasks, without the creation of any hyper-intelligences.
In the last three scenarios, property rights are preserved, at least as much as they have been in the 20th century, anyway, and there is some prospect that humans will not simply be erased by indifferent hyper-AIs. Other scenarios may be possible, but these four are a useful framework to discuss the Singularity and how it might affect our lives. There seems to be quite a conflict in Singularity circles between the advocates of the Intelligence Explosion and the advocates of Emulations. Miller gives both sides a fair hearing, but on further thought, I think the Intelligence Explosion scenario is not very likely. It is similar in many ways to the idea of taking our nuclear weapons, putting them under computer control, and burying the computer under a mountain. Many SF books and films have dealt with this tale, but it is a fundamentally stupid idea, and no group in the real world has come close to implementing it. In the same fashion, even those most desperate to gain an edge are not likely to give a hyper-AI enough freedom to grow without limits and absorb the Earth.
Since Ricardian Comparative Advantage requires hyper-AIs running loose, this is also an unlikely scenario, although it does suggest how different regions with widely varying average IQs might still interact economically without impoverishing the lower IQ side.
The two most probable scenarios appear to be the Kurzwellian Merger and emulations. The main fear with emulations is that the emulations will put flesh humans out of work en masse. Whether this will actually happen depends on how much hardware and power it takes to run a human-level emulation for a year. As long as the number is more than $100K in current dollars, emulations will not cause mass unemployment. However, as it drops they might, at least for purely symbolic jobs. Miller does not consider that added cost of robot bodies, which has a huge influence on the economic impact of emulations. As long as human-level robots cost $100K, including the hardware to run the emulation, there will not be mass unemployment. You might spend $300K for a robot nuclear engineer to work in a radioactive area, but you would never spend $300K for a robot hair dresser when you can hire a human for $30K. Of course, purely symbolic jobs like newspaper reporter, etc. will probably be mostly replaced by cheap emulations.
There are clearly a lot of questions here that need to be answered, but most of them will become highly salient long before the Singularity per se. We are already deep into the growth of unemployment due to more powerful technology. We can expect this unemployment to only grow over the next 40 years as we near the Singularity, absent some major change in policy. My favorite solution to unemployment has been the concept of an "inefficient sector"--a tax subsidized part of the economy that is required to not use the best technology but to be an employer of last resort. I've always like recycling for this role, but home building or energy would do as well. To completely soak up all the workers that are going to be laid off in the coming decades, we probably need at least three inefficient sectors anyway. Taxes must be modified so that all companies using the latest technology and laying off workers subsidize the inefficient sector. I think a VAT combined with a zero corporate tax would do the trick here in the USA.
Miller does not spend enough time separating the actual zero- marginal cost of anything that can potentially be done completely on a computer with the speculative zero-marginal cost of items fabricated on speculative nano-assemblers. If I had to bet (and I pretty much have to), the Singularity will come a long time before real working Drexlerian nano-assemblers that will make fabricated goods with zero marginal cost become available. In fact, it may never be possible to fabricate goods with zero marginal cost. I am not suggesting that the full application of computers, robots, and AI to manufacturing, including 3D printing, will not vastly increase our productivity. However, a "vast increase" is not the same as zero marginal cost! Thus, I anticipate a fairly long transition in which the Singularity of Intelligence puts most if not all human knowledge workers onto the unemployment line, but leaves wide swaths of blue-collar jobs relatively untouched. I further predict that with the rise of AI-assisted robotic production, creativity will become more valued than IQ in employees.
Sadly, we may already know what the inefficient sector for the last-resort continued employment of symbolic workers will be-- government!
SINGULARITY RISING is an important book that some will find disturbing, but everyone will find interesting. Highly recommended, especially to SF fans. [-dls]
Ozymandias and Science Fiction (letter of comment by Sam Long):
In response to Mark's comments on Ozymandias in the 10/12/12 issue of the MT VOID, Sam Long writes:
After Shelley, originally ca 1975 by SL
I met a traveler: 'twas an antique fan, Who said: "Two vast and drumless mimeos Stand in the slanshack. Near them, on a stand, Half torn, a tattered fanzine lies, whose brown And wrinkled page's words of cold disdain Tell that the faned well that passion knew Which yet survives, stamped on the lifeless page, The hand that crankéd, and the paper fed.
And on the colophon these words appear: 'My Name is Ozyfandias, Faan of Faans. Look on My Work, Ye Neos, and Despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal shack, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away!"
On the other hand, this item may reduce the sense of futility of Ozyfandias:
Abou ben Glicksohn After Browning; originally ca. 1975 by SL[(*) A reference to the "Faan" awards of the early & mid 1970s.]
Abou ben Glicksohn (may his zine appear!) Awoke one night from a deep dream of bheer, And saw, upon the cab'net for his files, Making it rich and like a prozine's slushpiles, A bheercan standing on a mimeo*. Exceeding fanac made his mind work slow, And to the presence in his room he said, "What doest thou?" The vision raised its head, And with a look that bloodshot was but keen, Answered, "I write those down who pub great zines." "And am I one?" said Glicksohn. "Nay, not so," Replied the bheercan. Glicksohn spoke more low, But cheerily still, and said, "I pray thee then, Write me as one who pubs his fellow fen." The bheercan wrote and vanished. The next night It came again with a great wakening light And showed the names whom love of Ghu had blest, And lo! Bill Bowers'** name led all the rest!
[(**) Other faned names may be placed here, such as, e.g., "Dick Lynch's" or "Dave Langford's", [or even "Mark Leeper's"], as long as they scan. Likewise, the names of Bowers and Glicksohn can be Interchanged, thus: "Abou Bill Bowers", "and lo! Mike Glicksohn's name led all the rest", etc.]
Alas, both Glicksohn and Bowers have gone to the Great Slanshack in the Sky. [-sl]
In response to Mark's comments on science fiction, Sam writes:
How "true" the science in science fiction may be does not necessarily affect the quality of the story. Both Fermat's Last Theorem and the Four-Color Problem have been solved, but that doesn't make the stories about them, based on their supposed insolubility, in Clifton Fadiman's anthologies FANTASIA MATHEMATICA and THE MATHEMATICAL MAGPIE any less entertaining and good as stories. Numerous other examples can be adduced ... but not by me here. But it certainly helps if the story's science is thought to be reasonably "true" when the story was written. One of Heinlein's stories from the late 1940s has spaceship pilots navigating their craft through hyperspace using printed navigational tables ... the way navigation was done then, in the era before modern computers and electronics. (When the tables are destroyed, the hero, a young spaceman with total recall who has memorized them is able to pilot the spaceship home.) It was, and is, a good story. Heinlein moved with the times: his later stories included very advanced, even sentient, computers.
This effect is true in other genres too: Sherlock Holmes remains popular even though he didn't have modern forensic technology available to him. [-sl]
The Heinlein story is STARMAN JONES. [-ecl]
Historical Fiction (letter of comment by Lee Beaumont):
Lee Beaumont writes:
I thought you might enjoy this historical fiction piece I wrote. See: http://theycallmelee.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-hearing.html>.
If MTVOID publishes historical fiction in addition to science fiction, I would be very pleased to have you link to this. [-lrb]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
As I have mentioned elsewhere I have been listening to the excellent "History of Rome" podcast (which can be found at http://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com), and it has inspired me to read Edward Gibbon's THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (ISBN 978-0-140-43764-5 for an abridged version, 978-0-307-70076-6 for an unabridged). (It is actually a partial re-read, since I had read the first volume a while ago, and I also read an abridgement of the whole work at one point.) Almost immediately, I read the following: "The vanquished nations, blended into one great people, resigned the hope, nay even the wish, of resuming their independence, and scarcely considered their own existence as distinct from the existence of Rome." I am sure this would have come as a big surprise to Boudica.
Gibbon was a product of his times, and as such, much of what he says seems wildly prejudiced or even bigoted to us. For example, speaking of women he says, "Female courage, however it may be raised by fanaticism, or confirmed by habit, can be only a faint and imperfect imitation of the manly valour that distinguishes the age or country in which it may be found." Well, again, Boudica might disagree.
Or when he disparages the inferiority of the German "barbarians", he writes, "[The Germans] were persuaded that, by some ridiculous arts of divination, they could discover the will of the superior beings, and that human sacrifices were the most precious and acceptable offerings to their altars. ... The same ignorance which renders barbarians incapable of conceiving or embracing the useful restraints of laws exposes them named and unarmed to the blind terrors of superstition." Then a few pages later, he writes of the Romans, "... such was the public consternation, when the barbarians were hourly expected at the gates of Rome, that, by a decree of the Senate, the Sybylline books were consulted. Even the emperor himself, from a motive either of religion or of policy, recommended the salutary measure, chided the tardiness of the senate, and offered to supply whatever expense, whatever animals, whatever captives of any nation, the gods should require. Notwithstanding this liberal offer, it does not appear that any human victims expiated with their blood the sins of the Roman people." The final "excuse"--that there were no human sacrifices in this case--does not change the fact that everyone seemed to be willing to go along with them if the divination called for them. But the Romans are noble and the barbarians are superstitious and ignorant.
And one final example of what I think is a representative sample of Gibbon's writing style in a single sentence:
"If it were possible to rely on the partial testimony of an injudicious writer, we might ascribe the abdication of Diocletian to the menaces of Galerius, and relate the particulars of a *private* conversation between the two princes, in which the former discovered as much pusillanimity as the latter displayed ingratitude and arrogance."
Were this assigned for high school (or even college) reading today, there would have to be footnotes defining "injudicious", "ascribe", "abdication", "particulars", and "pusillanimity", not to mention giving additional time to parse the meaning of this rather complex sentence (by no means Gibbon's most, however). I doubt anyone is diagramming sentences any more, but samples from Gibbon would be excellent final exam questions!
Now we turn to an entirely different style of writing. In the first sentence of THE KALAHARI TYPING SCHOOL FOR MEN by Alexander McCall Smith (ISBN 978-0-375-42217-1), Mma Ramotswe is "looking up at the high sky of Botswana, so empty that the blue is almost white." This reminded me of another curiosity about colors. Apparently a linguist had heard that blue was the last primary color to be distinguished in any language, so he decided to try an experiment when his daughter was born. He and his wife agreed to teach her all the colors except blue. After she had learned red, yellow, white, and so on, he waited for a clear day, then asked her what color the sky was. She looked at it for a few seconds and then said that it was white. (After this, she then learned blue very quickly, by the way.)
"'Franz Kafka' by Jorge Luis Borges" by Alvin Greenberg is a fairly obscure story, reprinted in BEST SF: 1970 edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss (no ISBN), but originally published in "New American Review" (August 1970), not exactly a well-known source of science fiction. Without going into an analysis of the whole story, I want to comment on one sentence in it: "In the modern literature class I teach--used to teach!--my students persist in saying that Gregor Samsa has turned into a grasshopper though Kafka very plainly wjbels him a dung beetle." As far as I can tell, the basic premise of the sentence is false. The first instance of naming what Gregor Samsa has become is "Ungeziefer", a word translated as "vermin". "Dung beetle" is "Mistkafer", which is used only by the cleaning woman in a sort of semi-affectionate direct address to Samsa--"Come here, you old dung beetle!"--which no more makes him a dung beetle than calling your wife "Honey" makes her an insect product.
But you may think I made a typo in that sentence. What did I mean by "wjbels"? You might as well ask what Greenberg meant, because that's what he wrote (unless Harrison and Aldiss are terrible proofreaders). My personal opinion is that Greenberg is having us on, and threw this in to confuse us, or perhaps to show that one can have something at the same time mysterious and yet completely comprehensible. We may have never seen the word before (indeed, it is not a word at all) but we know exactly what it means.
This is exactly the sort of deception that Borges engaged in, of course. Fake encyclopedia entries, fictitious heresies, imaginary countries--all are techniques in Borges's fiction, so it is only fitting they are the tools of his admirers.
Kate Pott asked why I was annotating MOBY DICK when there were so many annotations out there already. Well, when I started, I was just re-reading it, but I decided I wanted to look up references and words that were not clear. What were hypos? Which Cato did Melville mean? Where are Corlears Hook, Coenties Slip, and Whitehall? Who are the Van Renssalaers, the Randolphs, and the Hardicanutes? What are spiles?
Of course, I had underestimated the scope of Melville's vocabulary, references, and allusions. Ishmael says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." To some extent it is also Melville speaking of his own education, but I find it hard to believe that your average whaleship could have educated Melville as much as he clearly was, and much of his education--or at least learning-- probably occurred on land.
But I figure when I am done I will have a better understanding of MOBY DICK, and a great reference when I go back to re-read it in the future. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Justice while she winks at crimes, Stumbles on innocence sometimes. --Samuel ButlerTweet
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