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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/07/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 36, Whole Number 1796
Table of Contents
The eleven-minute film "Mr. Hublot" is sort of futuristic and at the same time steam-punky. The film won the Academy Award for the Best Animated Short Film. It is on YouTube at:
Back Issues of STARLOG Magazine Now Available On-Line:
Power (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Stan Lee has been quoted as saying "with great power comes great responsibility." That is probably a true statement, but it is a bad way of thinking. It leaves too many people off the hook. I would say with *any* power comes great responsibility.
By the way Stan Lee does not know where he got it, but it is an old sentiment. Luke 12:48 says "From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." William Lamb claimed it was a cliche "that the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility."
And somehow I think that much is entrusted to and little is asked of Congress. Well maybe it is asked, but it is not returned. [-mrl]
How to Sell the "Science in the Capital" Series (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I think Kim Stanley Robinson and Bantam are missing a bet by not re-issuing the "Science in the Capital" series (FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN, FIFTY DEGREES BELOW, and SIXTY DAYS AND COUNTING) in shiny black covers with silver-gray lettering and a picture of a face mask on them. [-ecl]
Provincial Numbers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I recently wrote a column about how ego-crushingly big the universe is. Our lifetimes are really short when we talk about the length of time it would take just to get to the very next star over. And that is just the nearest star outside our solar system. If you go to the size of universe it is "mind-bogglingly big," as they say in A HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. Just to realize how big the universe is crushes ones ego. Could there be anything so big it makes the universe small by comparison? There sure is. Number is bigger. And nobody comprehends number. Not really.
"What is he on about?" I hear you asking. The Human Race cannot comprehend how big the concept of number is. A number line is infinitely long in both directions and the human race can only consider those tiny numbers that are packed really tight around zero. Get a little distance away from zero and there are numbers too large to have ever been thought of. Nobody has ever had the time to just think about numbers that are this big. And yet these numbers are small too.
Here, take the largest number you have ever thought of. No, take the largest number the human species has ever thought of. I mean it is something bigger than taking a billion to the power of the number of particles in our universe. You probably think that is a really big number. Right? Wrong. Put two to that power and you will get a number so much bigger that make it look negligibly tiny by comparison. Not just tiny, it will be miniscule. Take that largest number that a human has ever conceived and put two to that power. We have just conceived of a number so big that that biggest number ever previously conceived is negligibly small by comparison. Congratulations. You might want to tell Guinness. You have created a new largest number for the human race. Hold it. Let me take your number and put a factorial sign after it. Now I have a much bigger number than yours. Ah, well. Fame is fleeting. Forget that call to Guinness.
Compared to what numbers are really out there we have only conceived of the smallest numbers. The ones that pack themselves all crowded around zero.
Question: Well, how big is the average positive integer? Let's take that largest number mankind has ever thought of until you just did. Call it K. You think it was large? It is just of average size for the integers in the interval from 0 to 2K. It is below average for the numbers from 0 to 4k. There are a whole lot more and bigger integers further out on the number line. In the interval from 0 to 2^(2K) it is a really tiny number and much smaller than average. If we say that the average integer has any finite size we immediately can show that is absurd. The average size of a positive integer is infinite. But we cannot conceive of any numbers but those glommed up close to zero. No human has ever used what is really a large number. Or even considered it.
We sort of know some integers. I know what two is. Two is the number of ears I have. Perhaps we even understand some rational numbers, some fractions. If I have a candy bar and I give half to you I have half as much as I had before. I can sort of picture a half.
But we don't even really know any irrational numbers. Not really. We know they exist, but we cannot really know them other than by what they do. What is the square root of two really? Well I am fairly sure there is a number out there that if I multiply it by itself I will get two. That is root two. That is not knowing it like I knew the number of ears I have. I have a sort of article of faith that that positive number is out there somewhere that if we multiply it by itself we get two. We can sort of picture the relation between the length of a side of a square and a diagonal. That is about as close as we can get to understanding the square root of two.
Now there are so many rational numbers out there we say they are infinite. But we can put all the rational numbers in a list. Or at least we can create a rule for where numbers will go on the list and can be assured every rational number can be on the list someplace. It is an infinitely long list, but every rational number is in there some place.
But there are so many irrational numbers out there that we cannot put them in a list so that every one has a place in the list. We need a higher order of infinity to say how many there are. But now here's the thing. We have only countably infinite possible ways to refer to an irrational number. The vast majority of numbers out there we cannot possibly describe. There are some irrational numbers out there we can completely describe with a finite string of letters. Pi is sort of like that. I mean we know pi is 3.14159... We could say
pi = 3 + 1/10 + 4/100 + 1/1000 + ...
But the problem comes with the "..." We quickly run out of numerators and do not know how to finish the expression. Indeed we can never finish the expression that way.
Actually there is way to express pi uniquely with a finite number of characters. Pi is:
4*(1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 - 1/11 + ...)
I don't need a whole lot of imagination to know what to do with the "..."
So pi really is cooperative after a fashion. We really could list all the numbers we can uniquely express with a finite number of characters. And we just showed that pi would be on that list.
The vast majority of numbers have no names and no ways to be expressed with a finite number of characters. We just deal with the easiest 0% of numbers we can describe. We deal with the super-super-super-miniscule set of numbers that pack in around zero and are really, really, really easy to express. There are a lot of great things about being an astronomer or a mathematician. But you need a strong ego. If you step back and really look at our place in all this it really kicks your ego in the slats. [-mrl]
TRANSCENDENTAL by James Gunn (copyright 2013, Tor, ISBN 978- 0-7653-3501-2, e-book ISBN 978-1-4668-2081-4) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
James Gunn is quite the standout in science fiction. He's a SFWA Grand Master, a Hugo Award winner, and is a past president of SFWA, among other things (this information from the "About the Author" at the end of the book). And yet, I'd never read anything written by Gunn up until now. I'd heard some good things about this book, and a few things that piqued my curiosity. Since the Hugo nominating period is open, I thought I'd pick up this 2013 book and give it a try, with the idea of nominating it if I thought it was worthy of it. We'll get back to that.
Riley, our protagonist, for want of a better term, is at a spaceport waiting to take a space elevator up to a ship to travel on a mission to find the Transcendental Machine, device that will transform anyone who enters it. The ship is the Geoffrey, a vessel that is in poor shape and that has a ragtag, sloppy crew. Riley knows the captain from past adventures in the military. It seems there was a war in the not too distant past that started when humans first ventured into intergalactic space, thus upsetting the balance of nature, as the existing Galactics don't like change, and certainly not due to those upstart humans. This is a trope we've seen numerous times in the past, and are likely to see again any number of times in the future. In any event, Riley is just one of a variety of species on the elevator heading for the ship. There is only one other human--other than the ship's crew--involved in this mission, the mysterious woman named Asha.
Riley, and apparently all the rest of the passengers, have a "pedia", a computer-like device, implanted in them, which allows them to communicate and, presumably (given the name) know things. Riley's pedia is a bit nasty. It was implanted in him by a mysterious agency which wants him to find out everything he can about the Transcendental Machine, and while he's at it, kill The Prophet, who may or may not be on board the Geoffrey and who is the leader of a cult who is spreading the word about this machine. The Galactics really don't want this machine around. It will upset the balance of power and change things, and that just won't do.
The story, then, is about journeys. On the surface, it is about the journey to find the Transcendental Machine in some distant part of the galaxy. Below the surface, however, it is a story about the journey to discover oneself amidst the chaos that is the galactic culture. Like Hyperion (and of course the ultimate source before that, The Canterbury Tales), each passenger tells its tale (because it is not easy to determine whether some of these things are male or female, and just what do you make of a coffin shaped alien anyway?) and how it came to be here. In the end, it turns out that each of them have an agenda that has been given to them to follow, and it basically comes down to killing The Prophet and stopping the pilgrimage, for that is what it truly is, from getting to the machine.
So, which is more important, the journey or what is at the end of it? Clearly, I think, Gunn is telling us that the journey is what is important, because we get a devil of a surprise at the end. And that, above all things, is what disappointed me about this book.
To be sure, this book is old school, written by one of the Grand Masters of the field who knows all about old school. It's very starkly written--there is no flowery prose, no complex character development (even with each character telling its story), no complicated plotline to untangle at the end. And, something that is even more different from books today, not everything is explained. There are many things left unsaid, many things left unexplained. I'm really okay with that--after all, I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is one of the great stories of all time without having to explain everything. I know folks are not used to not having everything laid out for them. But that's not what this story is about. And that's fine. But the ending shook me up pretty badly in that I felt it was something of a cheat. I wanted more than that. It seemed we were heading for something monumental, but we didn't get it. And I was disappointed.
My initial reaction was that this was an awful book, based on the ending alone. That is, of course, blatantly unfair. However, to get back to that bit about a Hugo nomination. I don't know. I'm going to have to think about it for a while. My current feeling is that even if it gets nominated it won't have much of a chance of winning. Your mileage may vary. [-jak]
Correction (a Little Late) (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein):
In response to Mark's TCM picks for March in the 02/28/14 issue of the MT VOID, Peter Rubinstein writes:
Actually, around here, "the Mercenary" is being shown at 12:30 AM on Friday March 7, rather than 10:30 PM. Possibly a typo? [-pr]
Looks like it might have been. It's always worthwhile to re-check the times, as TCM often reschedules things. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE APES OF WRATH edited by Richard Klaw (ISBN 978-1-61696-085-8) is an anthology of fiction and non-fiction about apes. Unlike a lot of theme anthologies, this is not a collection of new stories specifically written for it (which leads to variable quality), or just fiction. Rather, it includes stories from as early as the 19th century (Gustave Flaubert and Edgar Allan Poe), through early 20th century (Franz Kafka, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Clark Ashton Smith), up until the present (with the Scott Cupp story being the only written specifically for the anthology). Along the way are some well-known and not-so-well-known stories, including a couple of Nebula-award-nominated stories. Also included as essays about apes in literature and apes in the cinema, with a special essay on actors who acted in gorilla suits.
One rarely sees this sort of anthology any more. Whether themed or unthemed, most anthologies these days seem to consist of all-new stories, or of stories from just the previous year. There are a few that cover a long period of time, but they tend to be of the "Significant Sense of Wonder Stories", or something similarly vague. I do not know why one does not see more like this--maybe because by this point most topics have too many stories to pick from. I mean, it would be hard to put out an anthology of time travel stories, because ironically there are too many to choose from, and hence too many that are worthy. But with a narrower focus, Klaw has come up with a reasonable assortment.
Something I read made me decide to read LITTLE BIG MAN by Thomas Berger (ISBN 978-0-385-29829-2). I have seen the movie, of course, but had never read the book. It is clearly Berger's best-known work, since the back blurb of the 1989 "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition" listing Berger's works lists only works much less well-known than this. Such is the effect of Hollywood.
The description of life in the West during the second half of the 19th century are well-researched and reasonably accurate. However, Berger does "shrink" the West, or at least rely on a lot of coincidences, to have the protagonist not only repeatedly run into people from his past, but also meet just about everyone well-known in the West: Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Armstrong Custer, among others. (I am reminded of alternate history novels, where we keep running into characters who are the analogues of famous people from our world. But in the alternate history novels, it is clearly the author's choice to include these people, while in LITTLE BIG MAN, the conceit is that the protagonist is actually meeting all these people.)
Undoubtedly some will say that Berger is too politically correct in praising the Indians and criticizing the white people, but in fact both sides come in for a lot of criticism and only some faint praise. Berger seems to take a somewhat relativistic view, that each side is doing right based on their perceptions of the universe. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The girl was beheaded, chopped into pieces and placed in a trunk but was not interfered with. --Newspaper ReportTweet
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