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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/11/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 2, Whole Number 1814
Table of Contents
More Than Ice Cream Melts Away (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We stopped at a Baskin-Robbins for ice cream and they had jammed it together with a Dunkin Donuts. This meant they had a choice of 18 flavors. Evelyn told the girl behind the counter that she thought that there were supposed to be 31 flavors. The girl said she didn't know. There just wasn't room for more flavors. Then it hit me. "Evelyn, your most recent memories of Baskin-Robbins were probably from before she was born." [-mrl]
The Tenth Man Exists (Well, sort of.) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was watching the film WORLD WAR Z. This film was rather a surprise to me when I first saw it. Frankly, I was not expecting it to be very much. It is, of course, another horror film where the dead are coming back to life en mass and attacking the living. This is a horror idea that has been around since THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)--from nearly fifty years ago. With many cheap horror films on this concept that have been made I was not expecting there was much new thought behind another one. The idea of zombies has been mined out. Luckily I was wrong. WORLD WAR Z was a better film than I could have expected it to be. It takes look at an international response to an epidemic of zombie attacks.
One of the plot points is that the country best prepared to fight off the attack turned out to be Israel. While most countries were first hearing about zombie attacks and laughing at them Israel was very industriously preparing counter measures. No other country was taking zombie war reports seriously, so why was Israel? Brad Pitt plays a United Nations investigator who goes to Israel to find out.
Well, it turns out Israel knew to be alarmed at the reports of zombie attack because they officially have a policy of critical thinking. The film mentions three times that Jews suffered disasters because they did not see what was coming. Once it was the Holocaust, once the Munich Massacre, and once the Yom Kippur War. After the latter if nine people looked at a suggested threat and dismiss it, it is the responsibility of the tenth man to disagree and behave as if the threat is a real one. This way any rumor will be taken seriously by someone even if it is at first only by the tenth man. Now a team of ten people investigate any threat. If the first nine people all say the fear is absurd, the tenth man has the responsibility to take the threat seriously and investigate.
Initially this sounds like a good idea. No possibility can be overlooked. But it does not take very long to start seeing problems that this system gives rise to. Suppose the group of ten looks at the possibility of invasion by radioactive wombats. Obviously one member of the council will have the responsibility to assume the country is under such an attack. 10% of the council will be dedicated to doing all he can to try to prove there are radioactive wombats invading. The council would die a death of a thousand cuts, each member out there countering some supposed threat. Let us face it, the world has no shortage of crackpot theories and even less of a shortage of crackpot theorists.
Now what happens to the tenth man when he has to advocate an idea he really does not believe in? This is not the only place where society tells someone to advocate a point of view he does not believe in. I am certain that there are plenty of Public Defenders assigned to cases they do not believe in. I suppose that is not a lot different from a tenth man policy. A Public Defender must defend a stranger from the very system that employs the public defender.
Well, Israel probably is not so formal about it, but actually, however, it turns out there is a similar policy that Israel has implemented. This is reported in "Lessons from Israel's Intelligence Reforms," a report by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution from October 2007:
"The devil's advocate office ensures that AMAN's (Israel's intelligence directorate) intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think. The office regularly criticizes products coming from the analysis and production divisions, and writes opinion papers that counter these departments' assessments. The staff in the devil's advocate office is made up of extremely experienced and talented officers who are known to have a creative, 'outside the box' way of thinking. Perhaps as important, they are highly regarded by the analysts. As such, strong consideration is given to their conclusions and their memos go directly to the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, as well as to all major decision makers. The devil's advocate office also proactively combats group think and conventional wisdom by writing papers that examine the possibility of a radical and negative change occurring within the security environment. This is done even when the defense establishment does not think that such a development is likely, precisely to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios."
"While the devil's advocate office is an institutional level safeguard against group think, there is also an individual-level safeguard. The analysts themselves are given venues for expressing alternate opinions. Any analyst can author a 'different opinion' memo in which he or she can critique the conclusions of his or her department. Senior officers do not criticize analysts who choose to write such memos."
That is kind of a nifty idea. And I had to hear about it in a zombie movie. You never know. [-mrl]
DREAMS AND SHADOWS by C. Robert Cargill (copyright 2013, Harper Voyager, $24.99 hardcover, 433pp., ISBN 978-0-06-219042-0) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Gwendolyn Karpierz):
I could start with the disclaimer that I love Celtic and faerie mythology, but it's more that it's ingrained into my very being. Is there a time when I didn't know what a kelpie was? Was there a point at which I learned the difference between seelie and unseelie? No. I could hazard a guess as to which book first introduced me to those terms, but really, it feels like I've always known these things.
(Not to worry, though--if /you/ don't know any of those things, your lack of knowledge will hurt you neither in reading this review nor this novel.)
C. Robert Cargill's DREAMS AND SHADOWS has it all: the Wild Hunt, seelie and unseelie, changelings, the Tithe, redcaps and nixies and Sidhe. It has a few things that aren't as well-known, too--Leanan Sidhe and Bogarts and Bendith Y Mamau (the last of which even /I/ hadn't heard of). And then it has a few things you wouldn't have ever expected. Djinn. Coyote (you know, /the/ Coyote. Not just coyotes). Fallen angels. None of these things seem forced, though. There is simply a seamless blending of mythologies that truly make this interesting.
DREAMS AND SHADOWS begins with the arrival of a changeling child (Knocks), and shortly expands to follow several other children: the boy the changeling replaced (Ewan), his crush (Mallaidh), and Colby Stevens, who meets a djinn (Yashar) who just wants to be remembered. The main problem with this first half of the book is that reading from the point-of-view of children is really not my favorite thing.
Furthermore, this beginning is peppered with extracts from books by "Dr. Thaddeus Ray" (identity to become somewhat-but-not-really important later) that explain certain aspects of the world, notes of backstory, etc. What these essentially translate to are multi-page info dumps that, for the most part, become /entirely useless/, because nearly everything explained in them is reiterated in the story. Why not just tell us how magic ("dreamstuff") works in the book, instead of categorically explaining it as if it were written by a Ph.D. in BORING? I mean I had to reread the section on dreamstuff three times, and I still only absorbed half of it--but considering how crucial to the functioning of the world it becomes, I probably should have retained more of it. Fortunately, these sections are usually only two or three pages long.
Even more fortunately, there was a point where I turned a page and saw a beautiful thing: BOOK TWO.
In Book One, everyone is a child with a vaguely irritating narration style. In Book Two, everyone has grown older and developed gorgeously. Even the side characters are amazing. I love Bill the Shadow, and Scraps, and Bertrand. I /adore/ the utter bro-ness that has fostered between Colby and Yashar, it is absolutely the best thing about this book. They both have such a difficult, despairing path to walk--together--and the way they interact over it is fantastic. Mallaidh and Knocks play out their roles with something more standardized and not unsurprising, but Ewan overcomes that by making a transition that I never would have expected. The fairy he must become is a bold choice, I think, and it's /so cool/ to me that Cargill branches out like that.
And, luckily, by Book Two, we're past most of the need for explaining, so the excerpts from Dr. Ray dwindle to almost none and stop interrupting the fabulous flow of the second half of this book. DREAMS AND SHADOWS started out alright, but ended up excelling. There is a second book (QUEEN OF THE DARK THINGS), which I will certainly be reading. And Cargill does a rare thing--he doesn't end the first book with any sort of cliffhanger. Nothing is left so untied that you couldn't stop here. DREAMS AND SHADOWS is self-contained, a novel unto itself. It doesn't demand you read the next one in order to achieve the fullest experience.
Instead, it makes you /want/ to read the next one, just to see what other wonders await. [-gmk]
LAWRENCE IN ARABIA, Lowell Thomas, Churchill, and ARROWSMITH (letter of comment by John Hertz):
In response to Evelyn's comments on LAWRENCE IN ARABIA in the 04/11/14 issue of the MT VOID, John Hertz writes:
In VOID 1801--imagine how much I must love these numbers reminiscent of the English Regency--E noting S. Anderson's LAWRENCE IN ARABIA (2013) seems to take away that it shows how all involved were a bunch of lying liars. Of course that may be true, we're on Earth. A perspective you might want is GOOD EVENING EVERYBODY (1976), the first half of Lowell Thomas' autobiography.
In his day (1892-1981) LT's name was a household word. He seems to have invented the travelogue. After touring the world narrating WITH ALLENBY IN PALESTINE AND LAWRENCE IN ARABIA to four million people, he published a book WITH LAWRENCE IN ARABIA (1924); he went on with a pioneering and long-successful career as a newsman, mainly in radio, over four decades, with five dozen books. He made Lawrence famous.
LT is said to have reached twenty-five million listeners. Today GOOD EVENING EVERYBODY has three customer reviewers at Amazon.com, where it is 1,176,427 in sales, and people know Lawrence, if at all, through the 1962 film, acclaimed as an artwork and painful to everyone acquainted with the man.
If I had to recommend one book about World War I, in the centenary year of the war's wretched beginning, that would be Churchill's memoir THE WORLD CRISIS, in his own 1931 one-volume abridgement. He was in it, he had to do it over again twenty-five years later, he was a great writer, and he was a marvel of magnanimity.
Sturgeon said, "Science fiction is knowledge fiction." He also, as E quotes in VOID 1805, said it's "a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific contents." E correctly notes that ARROWSMITH (S. Lewis, 1925) is often made a counter-example. But she seems to accept that. Are you so sure ARROWSMITH is not science fiction? [-jh]
When I was growing up one of the few books in the house was Lowell Thomas's PAGEANT OF LIFE, apparently actually autographed by him. The result was that to me, Lowell Thomas is literally a household name. (Lest you think we were not a book-reading family, we all had library cards, at both the Air Force base library and the public library wherever we lived, but we were not a book-*buying* family.)
Yes, Churchill had to do it over again twenty-five years later, but note that that was *after* he had written THE WORLD CRISIS and abridged it.
As for ARROWSMITH, the plot summary indicates that it could be considered science fiction if plagues in fictional countries are science fiction, but then one would have to include pretty much all Ruritanian fiction as science fiction (or fantasy). ARROWSMITH is on my "to-read" list, so I may have a better idea after I read it. [-ecl]
Doctor Who (letters of comment by Paul Dormer and Tim Bateman):
In response to Tim Bateman's comment in the 06/27/14 issue of the MT VOID that "Doctor Who" episode "The Curse of Fenric" takes place on "a small island (off the coast of Scotland, IIRR)", Paul Dormer writes:
Northumbrian coast, according to Wikipedia, which is not in Scotland. The vicar was played by Nicholas Parson, ninety last year and still going. He was the voice of sheriff Tex Tucker in the early Gerry Anderson fantasy western series "Four Feather Falls" (of which I have fond memories,but I was about six when it was broadcast) and about twenty years ago I saw him as the narrator in the first London run of Sondheim's "Into the Woods." [-pd]
Geography was never my strong suit. I had not realised that that was Nicholas Parsons playing the Parson. I suppose it made a change from playing "Mornington Crescent." [-tmb]
In response to Paul's geographic comment, Jette Goldie writes:
"disputed territory" :-)
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
BLINDNESS by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa) (ISBN 978-0-15-600775-7) was chosen as the discussion book for both the science fiction group and the science fiction book-and-movie group. (These are in two different libraries, but at this point have almost identical memberships, so the former will probably cover the book and the latter the film and the transition process.) The premise is that there is a sudden plague of blindness. How it starts is never explained; it is contagious, but how is also never explained. Saramago also treats his unnamed and unlocated city as isolated--there is no indication of whether the plague exists outside the city, but also no indication of help or even curiosity from outside. (There is mention of an airplane crashing when both pilots when blind during a landing, so theoretically the plague could have spread to the rest of the world, but this is never examined or mentioned.)
Saramago asks, "What do names matter?" and says, "Names are of no importance here." But he still occasionally has to identify characters, and so he is reduced to descriptors such as "the doctor's wife" or "the boy with the squint." But this is at least one of the origins of names, at least of family names: "John Taylor" was originally a tailor, "Tom Hunter" was a hunter, and so on. Just because "Doctor", "Doctorswife", and "Squint" are not capitalized does not mean they are not names. (All this is reminiscent of my discussion about names in ANTHEM by Ayn Rand in the 06/13/14 issue of the MT VOID.)
Saramago is limited by this lack of names. He starts with a half-dozen major characters: Patient 0, Doctor, Doctor's Wife, Thief, Boy with Squint, and Girl with Dark Glasses. He then adds five more: Pharmacist's Assistant, Hotel Maid, Taxi Driver, Policeman, and Patient 0's Wife. He briefly mentions the Employee from Surgery, Man from Hotel, and Hotel Policeman, but after that hardly any new characters are introduced, which is just as well considering how difficult it is to keep track of characters with long names, especially given Saramago's peculiar attitude toward dialogue and punctuation. Hint: In long stretches of dialogue, capitalization indicates a change of speaker.
Saramago's characters describe themselves as "blind in eyes and blind in feelings, because the feelings with which we have lived and which allowed us to live as we were, depended on our having the eyes we were born with, without eyes feelings become something different, we do not know how, we do not know what, you say we're dead because we're blind, there you have it. Do you love your husband, Yes, as I love myself, but should I turn blind, if after turning blind I should no longer be the person I was, how would I then be able to go on loving him, and with what love, Before, when we could still see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we're still only at the beginning, for the moment we still live on the memory of what we felt, you don't need eyes to know what life has become today..." [Due to Saramago's bizarre punctuation, this is actually a dialogue between two characters.]
Now there are two ways of looking at Saramago's contention here (or more precisely, his characters' contentions, but it seems clear that Saramago is at least to some extent supporting them). One is that the idea that blind people's feelings are qualitatively different from seeing people's feelings. But this seems to make blind people into almost another species, and hence not human in the way sighted people are. This is the negative interpretation. A more positive interpretation is that blindness leads to different feelings, but they are just different--not better, not worse, not more, not less. This is a more positive interpretation. The problem with trying to apply the latter interpretation is that Saramago has made the life of blind people so unpleasant, so repulsive, that it is hard to say the feelings that go along with this are not actually worse than those of the sighted people. (The sighted people do not act in the noblest fashion either, but one can argue that their existence does not end up as degraded as the blind, whose "descent" from civilization is what Saramago is portraying.
As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, Saramago paints a much more horrific--and realistic--picture of the results of (near-)universal plague of blindness than books such as John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. Science fiction--at least traditional science fiction of the ASTOUNDING/ANALOG variety--prides itself on asking "what if?" and then using scientific analysis and reasoning to come up with an answer. Yet no one (except perhaps Tom Godwin) has been willing to accept the "inconvenient truths" that this leads to, so we get science fiction that somehow manages to avoid many of the obvious negative results by hand-waving. (For example, in EARTH ABIDES, potable water continues flowing through the plumbing system much longer than it would in reality, and the effects of all the dead bodies seem considerably muted.) Instead, we usually get what has been called "cozy catastrophe."
The result of Saramago's unflinching look is a very unpleasant book to read, much as realistic war films are unpleasant films to watch.
TIME TRAVELER: IN SEARCH OF DINOSAURS AND ANCIENT MAMMALS FROM MONTANA TO MONGOLIA by Michael Novacek (ISBN 978-0-374-52876-8) is a combination of autobiography, travelogue and paleontology textbook. Novacek describes his life leading to, and at, the American Museum of Natural History. The bulk of his description is of his field trips in the United States, Baja California, Chile, and Mongolia. This is heavily interleaved with information about ancient life forms and geology, but because this information is introduced as warranted by the various locations and discoveries, it is very disorganized. As a result, I found that I never really got a coherent view from the science lessons, and the only interesting parts were his accounts of the field trips, full of anecdotes of bandits, rattlesnakes, near-fatal accidents with horses, and so on.
In November 1970 a dead sperm whale was washed up in Florence, Oregon. After considering several ways to dispose of it--too decomposed to drag away, too close to the water to bury effectively, etc.--the state decided the best way would be to blow it up, creating small enough pieces that gulls and other scavengers would finish the clean-up. Reporter Paul Linnman and cameraman Doug Brazil of KATU in Portland were sent out on November 12 to cover the event. What happened that day and for the next quarter century is laid out in great detail in THE EXPLODING WHALE AND OTHER REMARKABLE STORIES FROM THE EVENING NEWS by Paul Linnman (ISBN 978-1-55868-743-1). Even so, there is not enough to fill a book, so Linnman also describes his career and some of the inspirational stories he has covered over the years. (Mobility- impaired race car drivers such as Mark wrote about in his review of DRIVEN are not a new phenomenon, apparently.) Frankly, I skimmed the rest and read mostly about the whale.
And in answer to your next question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBgThvB_IDQ with 1,716,825 views so far. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: I wear a necklace, cause I wanna know when I'm upside down. --Mitch HedbergTweet
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