MT VOID 05/02/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 44, Whole Number 1804

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/02/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 44, Whole Number 1804

Table of Contents

      Co-Editor: Mark Leeper, Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent or posted will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Free SF Classics and Adaptations Thereof:

Open Culture has links to SFF Audio's selection of free audios and PDFs of hundreds of stories by such authors as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Dick at

"Sci-Fi Radio" was a 1989-1990 anthology of magazine short story adaptations, and is available at

It is similar to "Mindwebs", which ran from 1976 to 1983 on WHA in Wisconsin and is available at

The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction:

THE ATLANTIC has and article titled "The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction" at

New Book (coments by Mark R. Leeper):

A few years ago I mentioned in the notice my book WHEN GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE YOU CAN'T STAND. Publish that has been held up, but in the meantime I have a new magnum opus. My new book is DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF AND I'LL TELL YOU WHAT THE SMALL STUFF IS. [-mrl]

I Ate A Tarantula (And Other Creepy Crawlies) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Reading up on Cambodia for our recent trip to there (and to Vietnam) I saw references to a place called "Spiderville." That is certainly not a name in Cambodian. Did some visitor have a bad experience there and give the place a warning nickname? And how bad could a spider attack be on a tourist to nickname a whole town on it. Little did I realize that far from being insulted by the name, Spiderville is proud of the nickname and wants the town to be associated with spiders--not just any spiders but the king of horror movie spiders, the tarantula.

You remember the film TARANTULA. This was where Leo G. Carroll was breeding a giant tarantula AS A FOOD SOURCE. He was growing other giant animals too, but the title animal was a spider food source.

Well, as it happens there are places in the world where tarantula spiders are part of the diet. Tarantulas are bred for food. And the best known of such places is Skuan in Cambodia. That is a little town in Cambodia which has been nicknamed "Spiderville."

Regular in their diet are tarantula, caterpillar, cricket, and cockroach. Apparently they can breed tarantulas for food and there is a fair amount of meat on that little furry body. They grow underground and when the spider is ready (well, the spider would not say he is ready) they pop them into a fryer and season them and eat them. It also has become a cottage industry selling fried little critters to tourists. I don't know what proportion of those sold actually get eaten.

Now normally I don't want to eat a cracker if I know an ant has walked on it. But I don't mind eating honey which has been in a bee's mouth. Human tastes do not obey logic. Humans are highly selective but inconsistent. And it should be remembered that lobster is a very close relative to spiders and is considered a delicacy.

Armed with that knowledge I decided while in Spiderville to eat (some of) a tarantula and some other small critters as prepared for visitors.

For one dollar American in Spiderville Evelyn and I got one really big fried spider, some caterpillar, some cricket, and some cockroaches, all uniformly fried. They are there in black shiny mounds looking like they were made from lacquerware.

So what was it like to eat a tarantula? As with many actions that sound sensationalist, the actual action is a lot less memorable than one would expect. I took a leg--for people who like the drumstick this beastie comes with eight--and bit down on it progressively squeezing the meat toward the open end. You squeeze out the meat like you squeeze a tube of toothpaste. The leg is crunchy and a little bit spicy, both due more to the preparation technique than to the meat itself. The meat can only be a little filament. I only felt the meat between my teeth on maybe two or three of the bites. There is not much to eat on a spider after all. There is the tail end like a lobster but you do not want to eat anything near the abdomen. The Lonely Planet guide to spider eating in Cambodia says the big bulb is full of a vile brown fluid that you really must avoid. I restricted myself to eating only legs. Meh.

Of the other animals the caterpillars were the most tasty. They seemed to have an innate sweetness and were slightly juicy. Crickets did not have a lot of flavor except for the frying. My wife tried a cockroach, but found the shell had a sharp edge to protect it. The defense did nothing to help the cockroach any more; it was already dead.

One reason I ate these thing in spite of the idea being naturally repugnant is that with fish reserves running out we need new renewable sources of protein. A very practical solution would be to go after land arthropods. But most people have an aversion to them. I have just such an aversion. I cannot say I overcame my aversion, but for a little while I could ignore it and that was a step in the right direction. [-mrl]

[Coincidentally, the Time Literary Supplement just ran a review of THE INSECT COOKBOOK; the review if available at

THE QUIET ONES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: The latest release from the new Hammer Films is an obscure horror thriller about a psychiatrist's strange experiment to prove that what appears to be paranormal activity is actually a naturally occurring brain function. The film has some engaging new ideas but suffers from some old ones like that the soul of a horror film is sudden loud noises. Actor Jared Harris has the potential to be the new Hammer's Cushing and Lee. The film is directed by John Pogue and written by four writers (not a good sign), one of which is Pogue. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

Hammer Films, for those who don't know, was a British production company famous for their horror films in the 1960s and 1970s and has since been revived. Certainly one of the best films of the old Hammer was QUATERMASS AND THE PIT in which a scientist explores a scientific explanation for what are usually considered to be supernatural and paranormal phenomena. Hammer's new film THE QUIET ONES returns to this theme of looking for science at the root of the supernatural.

In a story set something like forty years ago Oxford psychology professor Joseph Coupland (played by Jared Harris, son of Richard Harris and already well-known from "Mad Men") believes that mental illness can be cured and at the same time supernatural phenomena can be explained rationally. Coupland plans an experiment to liberate a mentally ill patient Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) from telekinetic forces in her head. He believes the previously assumed powers can be removed from Jane, curing her illness in the process, if he can rev up those supernatural powers.

When Oxford finds out Coupland is doing these weird experiments he is banished. Not to be thwarted, Coupland finds a suitably creepy old house for his work and continues with a small team of student assistants including a cameraman, Brian (Sam Claflin), to record the work. As Brian compiles a cinematic record of the proceedings he becomes more and more leery of the extreme abuses of apparently willing test subject Jane.

This film has a concept that could make for a very effective horror film, in different ways reminiscent of THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE HAUNTING, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Sadly the execution becomes badly muddled. Frequently it is not well explained why people are doing what they are doing. Any horror director can rather easily get an audience to jump by having a long quiet section ending in a sudden, loud, sharp bang. But it is a cheap effect, not really what real horror is about. Real horror is chilling, not sudden and done for a physical reaction. Another easy shot is to use a hand- held camera with a lot of shaking. This reaches more for the viewer's stomach than for his mind. Here director John Pogue uses video to simulate a 16mm camera with from the film's 1970s setting, but it is the modern effect of a handheld. Pogue excessively overuses both effects. The darkness of the photography and the frequent bangs and bashes make this film less than totally pleasant to watch, but to Pogue's credit the story pulls the viewer along.

Most of the older Hammer films generally did not waste time establishing that the threat was real. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, for example, does not slowly establish that Satanism is valid; it pulls the viewer right into the fight against the Devil. THE WITCHES a few years earlier does start from a point of view of skepticism, but it is an exception. Much of the best of the old Hammer films start assuming the supernatural element had been established: Frankenstein, vampires, and the Devil, were all real from the beginnings of their films. THE QUIET ONES starts with a skeptical point of view. Coupland does not believe in the paranormal, just as Quatermass was a skeptic until the paranormal fits his scientific model. Of course Coupland finds more than he bargained for.

Discussion on the Internet of this film is saying that the new Hammer films are just not of the style of the older ones. True, but they have a style of their own. I have seen the three major new Hammer films so far: LET ME IN, THE WOMAN IN BLACK, and now THE QUIET ONES. Each seem to have the subdued feel of a dismal day punctuated by sharp shocks. That is not a bad canvas on which to paint a scary picture. They don't have the blood and the breasts that were a hallmark of later old Hammer, and that omission is all to the good. It still is too early to tell if the new Hammer will be a major force in horror films. But Hammer is already doing far better than the slice, dice, zombies, and sadism films that currently are typical of most horror film. If THE QUIET ONES is not a classic, at least it fails gracefully and the genre is better for its effort. I rate THE QUIET ONES a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Two Views of Free-Space Settlements: ELYSIUM and THE 100 (film and TV reviews by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):

Last year Hollywood 'gifted' SF fans with perhaps the best visualization of a possible free-space future space settlements to date in the film ELYSIUM. This was followed this year with a new CW television show, THE 100, which although focused on Earth-bound action, has many scenes placed in a free-space settlement. These efforts, perhaps the first to attempt to portray large numbers of humans living in free-space settlements could not be more different.

A brief historical introduction is required. In the early days of space exploration, humans were often envisioned as living in domed cities or underground bases throughout the solar system. Although such settlements are certainly possible, they have a variety of shortcomings, including less than one G of gravity. In the 1976 book THE HIGH FRONTIER by Gerard K. O'Neill, a vision of free-space settlements built from lunar and asteroidal materials was developed. However, until recently such free-space habitats have been limited to written fiction, anime, or video games.

The habitat in ELYSIUM appears to be a very large torus, so large that the top is open to space and centrifugal force holds the atmosphere in place, rather like in Niven's RINGWORLD. Designed in large part by the legendary Syd Mead, ELYSIUM is a wonder to behold, although possibly either too large (or not large enough) to be realistic. Also, ELYSIUM seems to hover in space relatively close to the Earth, but not at any of the L-points, which is not that likely. In any case, realism and science are not that important to the makers of ELYSIUM, who by their own admission are trying to re-tell the tale of modern-day class warfare.

The impoverished proles that inhabit the Earth represent the lower classes of modern Western society, and the super-rich inhabitants of ELYSIUM represent the top 1% of the top 1% of that same society. In this vision, the rich live lives of ease and cancer-free luxury in orbit, while the average folk are forced to slave in massive factories building humanoid robots. This vision makes very little sense--with so much slave labor, why are they building highly capable humanoid robots? It appears that since the proles are untrustworthy, the inhabitants of Elysium prefer robot servants. But why don't robots build the robots? The answer appears to be not economic logic but that this is just another way of showing the evil of the upper classes. However, logic is not the point here, and neither is the plot, which features Matt Damon as a radiation- poisoned but cybernetically enhanced Max Da Costa, a former car thief turned factory worker, who seeks salvation in the med-bays of ELYSIUM. He is opposed by the Elysian Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who provides a cartoon-like performance as she manages an utterly unbelievable set of ELYSIUM defenses.

Because ELYSIUM is not intended to make much sense as a story, economically, as a future history, or even on a human level, it's not worth spending my time writing about it, or your time in watching it. It reminds me a great deal of the 1959 novel LEVEL 7 by Mordecai Roshwald, which is mainly written as a propaganda piece to show that NUCLEAR WAR IS BAD. LEVEL 7 has a certain emotional heft, and is professionally written, but is basically nonsense on every level. The same is true of ELYSIUM.

You might not expect much from THE 100, since it comes from the CW, which specializes in any show that can be populated by large numbers of hot young people fighting and having sex. However, the CW has developed a strong affinity for fantasy and SF, and a number of the best SF shows running currently, including ARROW, THE ORIGINALS, and VAMPIRE DIARIES appear there. THE 100 combines TUNNEL IN THE SKY, LOST, LORD OF THE FLIES, and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE into one big swirling mass of teenage SF action and romance.

Set 97 years in the future after a world-destroying nuclear war, the back story is that the residents of twelve space stations then existing banded together to build a single massive settlement they call "The Ark." The Ark appears to consist of a number of crude Von Braun ring space stations tied together with a large amount of repurposed equipment to create in industrial looking facility. To allow for the expansion of our current one space station to twelve, this might set the nuclear war anywhere from 50 to 100 years in our future.

Unfortunately, the Ark is breaking down, and the leadership decides to send 100 young criminals back to Earth to see if humans can survive on the surface. This scenario is about 1000x more plausible than that of ELYSIUM. The inhabitants of the space station are a mix of blue-collar sorts and highly trained professionals, but far from leading a life of ease, are under constant pressure to maintain the equipment, which is failing. This is hardly surprising since there is no reason to suppose that the original twelve stations were designed to be self-sufficient space settlements. The entire scenario of THE 100 is the justification of space settlement as a means to human survival in a nutshell.

There is some silliness in THE 100, and much of the plot revolves around the decision to equip each prisoner with a bracelet that allows the Ark to monitor only the vital signs of the folks on the ground, but does not provide any means of communication to the Ark. There is a scene in which a giant water snake grabs someone in its mouth but they escape with only minor injuries. Some of the changes that have occurred on the Earth (acid storms!) seem dubious as well, but on the whole these problems don't detract that much from the story. I don't plan to spend any time relating the various plot points, except to say that things unfold pretty much as you would expect for any situation with 100 teenagers isolated from adult supervision.

There are also continuing plot threads on the Ark itself as those who remain struggle to survive. The crew of the Ark (with the exception of one character who is pretty obviously the bad guy) is on the whole a noble and self-sacrificing lot who are faced with some very difficult choices. THE 100 does not flinch from the harsh reality of what may be needed to survive.

I'm not sure I strongly recommend THE 100. I don't know where it's going, and it may be going somewhere stupid. ORPHAN BLACK and CONTINUUM are much better SF shows, and both are running right now. However, THE 100 is fun to watch, and I have an interest in how the space technology is portrayed. And it is 1000x better than the empty-headed and manipulative propaganda of ELYSIUM.

ELYSIUM: Rated 0 on the -4 to +4 scale, but not recommended unless you are an SF completist or you just want to admire the Syd Mead art design. Too violent for kids and too stupid for adults. It is particularly silly as a tale of military action. The defenses of Elysium appear to have been planned by a twelve-year old whose military background consisted of Saturday morning cartoon shows.

THE 100: If it sounds interesting to you, watch it. As a tale of survival, THE 100 is too dark for kids, but okay for teens and up. [-dls]

THE MADONNA AND THE STARSHIP by James Morrow (copyright 2014, Tachyon Publications, $14.95, 179pp, ISBN 978-1-61696-159-6) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

When I reviewed Peter Watts' short story collection BEYOND THE RIFT, I mentioned that the one and only work of his that I had read was the Hugo-nominated BLINDSIGHT, and that I decided to reread my review of that novel in preparation for the review of the collection.

I will start *this* review by saying the one and only work by James Morrow that I have ever read was his Hugo-nominated novel TOWING JEHOVAH. That novel was nominated in 1994, and thus was published in 1993. I do remember reading that book and not caring for it very much. I went hunting for my review of TOWING JEHOVAH, but couldn't find one. It's possible I wasn't even doing reviews back then. But I do remember thinking that I probably won't ever read anything by James Morrow again.

I really should stop doing that.

Kurt Jastrow is a science fiction writer of short stories that have been published in the magazine Andromeda. But like so many other things in life, that source of incoming mostly dried up. So, Jastrow turned his talents to the blossoming medium of television. As we open our story in the New York City of 1953, Jastrow is writing a thrice-weekly children's television show entitled "Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers". After each episode, he himself plays a scientist/inventor who, along with his young sidekick, explains some of the science in the episode by performing an experiment.

Well, don't you know that aliens are watching. One day, out of the blue--as it were--blue alien lobsters appear on the television screen in the studio to announce to him that the "people" of their planet want to give him an award for his show. It seems that they are impressed with his logical and rational approach to the stories in his show. They are, to coin a term, "logical positivists". So, could he please be ready in a few days when they will appear with his award?

And so they did, and that's where the problems began. The Qualimosans, as they called themselves, wandered by another studio in which a rehearsal was taking place for a religious program broadcast by the same network--NBC--called "Not by Bread Alone" that was to be broadcast on Sunday morning. The aliens heard enough of the rehearsal to be extremely upset about it, as in their eyes the show was supporting superstitious ideas. In fact, they called it "televised irrationality". In fact, to show their displeasure, they say they will harness the signal broadcast through the televisions to kill the two million viewers of the show (not bad ratings, according to one character in the novel) on Sunday morning if the show does indeed broadcast the irrational ideas they think it will.

Thus Jastrow and the writer for "Not by Bread Alone", Connie Osborne--on whom Jastrow has something of a crush, maybe even more, I suppose--must race against time to save two million viewers by rewriting the original episode "Sitting Shivah for Jesus", and instead presenting the episode--you guessed it--"The Madonna and the Starship".

Let me tell you folks, this novel is a real hoot. It harkens back to those "golden days of science fiction", where it wasn't about characterization and literary merit, but good old fashioned invading aliens--in this case blue lobsters (I wanted to make reference to space squids, but I really couldn't figure out a good way to do it)--and unrealistic weapons (really, a death ray through a television??). This book was *fun*.

Morrow has made a living satirizing organized religion, and this book joins the club in that regard. It is funny and irreverent, of course, but it is also spot-on in a lot of its views on both sides of the fence. I laughed at its situations as well as its one liners--would *you* ever ask an alien blue lobster if it wanted to go out for seafood?--but at the same time nodded to myself as I recognized many of the things Morrow was poking at. The resolution to the problem--never mind the wacky stuff Osborne and Jastrow go through to get there--is a surprise, one which I appreciated.

And I really did like both Jastrow, Osborne, and the rest of the cast of characters, even the aliens. They were well written and engaging. I found myself rooting for Kurt and Connie as the novel went on, and I certainly was hoping they'd find a way to save two million human beings.

This book was a lot of fun to read, and it's been a lot of fun to describe to people when they ask me, "What *are* you reading?" when they see the Madonna, the Starship, and the blue lobsters on the cover. Twenty years ago I may not have thought I would ever again read anything by Morrow, but I'm glad I read this. [-jak]

Hugo Thoughts (letters of comment by Andy Leighton, Alan Woodford, and David Goldfarb):

In response to Evelyn's comments on the Hugo Awards in the 04/25/14 issue of the MT VOID, Andy Leighton writes:

[The on-line campaign] is the real controversy. Partly because it was an organised campaign (with suggested nominations) rather than just the "oh here's what I have got which is eligible" post that most authors do. But also because of the political beliefs (some of them rather odious) of some of those people who are part of the campaign, and who have been nominated.

None of this will be new (although the titles of the works were) to those who follow certain blogs (scalzi) or who consume other online sources of information (twitter, and even The Guardian).

I think it may be a year where "No Award" finishes ahead of some of the nominees. [-al]

Alan Woodford adds:

There was quite a bit of discussion of that at Eastercon, particularly for the Retros.... [-aw]

David Goldfarb writes:

I assume that the three [novel authors you have heard of] are Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson, Charles Stross, and Mira Grant?

For myself, I'd heard of Larry Correia from mentions on some blogs. Ann Leckie and ANCILLARY JUSTICE are new to me, although if the book lives up to what people are now saying about it, it will probably be my first-place vote.

I was willing to read the existing "Song of Ice and Fire" (four tomes of a thousand pages each) in order to judge A FEAST FOR CROWS, but I'm drawing the line at ["Wheel of Time'].

Some people have suggested reading online summaries of the first thirteen volumes and then just reading A MEMORY OF LIGHT. I'm atleast considering that.

[Re formats:] In the past, Tor (unlike most other publishers) has made their nominees available in multiple formats, including both MOBI and EPUB. What I've heard doesn't make it sound like this will be different.

Haven't read ["Wakulla Springs"] yet, but if a related work such as APOLLO 13 can get nominated in Best DP, then why not one in Best Novella? Ultimately it's up to the nominators and voters to decide whatthey think is eligible.

Consider that last year was Doctor Who's 50th anniversary year, and that this year's convention is taking place in the UK. I'd think it only to be expected that "Doctor Who" would have more representation than normal. [-dg]

Andy Leighton replies:

[ANCILLARY JUSTICE] is very good indeed. Also nominated for the Nebula, the PKD Award, and the Clarke and shared the BSFA win.

Not sure [reading online summaries of the first thirteen volumes and then just reading A MEMORY OF LIGHT] is the best thing to do as it might not give you an accurate impression of the series. The difference in authorship might make a difference. So maybe a sampling approach might be better. I have even heard "Wheel of Time" fans say the series does sort of bog down in the middle and become too slow-moving but you just have to stick with it.

Personally I think the nomination makes a bit of a mockery of the award. But I do appreciate Sanderson's comments on his blog.

Also to be fair of the dramatic presentation noms only two are for episodes of ["Doctor Who"] (fewer than recent years). [-al]

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

Well, my spring book sale report is longer than last year's, but shorter than previously. Last year I broke my hip the day before the grand opening of the new Cranbury Bookworm, the week before the Bryn Mawr book sale, and two weeks before the East Brunswick Friends of the Library book sale, so I missed all those, *and* the $5-a-box Cranbury Bookworm close-out sale and the "we-have-to-get- the-books-out" Cranbury Bookworm give-away day. This year, I had no problems, but Mark had a severe sciatica attack a week before the Bryn Mawr sale, and while he was able to get around the house, he decided spending two hours walking around a book sale was definitely out. However, I went with a friend, and did find a fair amount (including half a dozen books on math for Mark).

I also found something I had been seeking for a long time: an unabridged edition of Edward Gibbon's THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, at a reasonable price, and preferably in a reasonable size. Well, I found a three-volume Modern Library edition from the 1950s with no dust jackets for $6 for the set. Usually the full work is at least $15, so I was pretty pleased. Yes, I can get it free on-line, but who wants to read something 3000 pages long on a computer?

I also found a shorter and more focused work, Sallust's "Jurgurthine War" and "The Conspiracy of Catiline", and a historical novel of the Roman Empire, JUSTINIAN by H. N. Turteltaub. Turteltaub is the pen name that Harry Turtledove uses for his historical fiction, and since he has his Ph.D. in Byzantine history, I am assuming this novel is fairly faithful to history. In addition I got two "overlay" books, "Pompeii-Herculaneum" and "Rome Past and Present". These are apparently very popular for Roman (and Greek?) archaeological sites. They consist of pictures of the ruins as they currently are, and then an acetate overlay which adds details that show what it looked like when it was new. I already had "Rome Then and Now", which is *not* "Rome Past and Present" (different authors, for one thing). These seem like the sort of book kids would love--at least back when kids loved books.

Benedict Anderson's IMAGINED COMMUNITIES is about what creates a sense of community, nationhood, solidarity, and so on. Alas, it was someone's textbook and has all sorts of underlining and circlings in it. (At least it is not full of yellow highlighting!)

There were three "travel" books, though not in the traditional sense. BAGHDAD WITHOUT A MAP is journalist's Ton Horowitz's account of his travels through the Middle East, and A PASSAGE TO ENGLAND is Narad C. Chaudhuri's story of his first visit to England from India at the age of 58. Bruce Chatwin's WHAT AM I DOING HERE? by Bruce Chatwin is the closest to traditional travel writing.

And another dozen or so miscellaneous books rounded out the haul.

Mark and I also went to the Cranbury Book Worm a couple of weeks earlier, and while (as I have said) it is a mere shadow of its former self, it is a bigger shadow than it was when it first opened. However, we still get only a few books when we visit, partly due to its smaller size, and partly to an effort to buy fewer books (the Bryn Mawr book sale notwithstanding). We did find a couple of interesting items, though. There was THERE'S MORE TO NEW JERSEY THAN THE SOPRANOS by Marc Mappen, a series of stories from New Jersey's history (and pre-history). Many of the chapters are debunking oft-repeated myths. For example, almost the whole story of Molly Pitcher seems to have been made up, although there probably was a woman bringing water to the troops. Even more, the story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson eating a tomato on the State House steps to prove it was not poisonous is completely bogus: plenty of cookbooks before the date cited contained recipes with tomatoes.

The other book of interest was THE GOLEM by Joachim Neugroschel. Neugroschel is probably best known as the editor of YENNE VELT: THE GREAT WORKS OF JEWISH FANTASY & THE OCCULT, a massive collection of Jewish folklore and legend. ("Yenne velt" means "the other world".) THE GOLEM includes a new translation of H. Leivick's play, as well as several golem stories.

I recently read (or skimmed) THE POSSESSED; ADVENTURES WITH RUSSIAN BOOKS AND THE PEOPLE WHO READ THEM by Elif Batuman (ISBN 978-0-374- 53218-5), which turned out to be less about Russian books and more about a graduate student's adventures in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Stanford. While she was studying Uzbek language and literature, she discovered the bizarre history of the Uzbek language. In 1921 the Soviets codified one of the regional dialects as Uzbek; in 1926 they replaced the Arabic alphabet in use with a Latin alphabet. During Stalin's time they eliminated "vowel harmony" (never explained in this book), and replaced the Latin alphabet with a Cyrillic alphabet. In 1995, the Soviets passed a bill saying that within ten years the Cyrillic alphabet would be replaced by a (new) Latin one. The same chaos reigned in the definition of Uzbek literature. As Batuman said, she felt like "a character in a Borges story, studying a literature invented by a secret cabal of academicians." Later she wrote:

"It was all just like a Borges story--except that Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges, the different peculiar languages yield up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import: the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon have no nouns, a circumstance that immediately turns out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes; the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel's-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying. By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something lone and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek has a hundred different words for crying?"


                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
                                          --Albert Einstein

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