MT VOID 11/07/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 19, Whole Number 1831

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/07/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 19, Whole Number 1831

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

Alternate History Interview:

An interview of Evelyn by Matt Mitrovich for "Alternate History Weekly" may be found at:>

How Long Can a Knock Be? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

In UP THE LINE Robert Silverberg has a character hide in a bathroom and told, "don't let anybody in unless he knocks two longs and a short." Can anyone tell me what a long knock sounds like? [-mrl]

Disconnected Life (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was visiting Monticello, the home that Thomas Jefferson designed and built for himself, and that incorporated many design ideas that Jefferson had seen in Europe. Now one feature of the grounds is a huge garden with many of the same varieties of flowers and plants that Jefferson had planted. It occurred to me to ask how much of the garden was the original plants planted in Jefferson's time, but I stopped myself when I realized I was not sure what that actually even meant.

Why is there such a question? We are used to thinking about non-human organisms to some extent as being like humans. We think of plants as being the way humans are but things are much different with plants. We are used to the concept that we are individuals. Humans are mostly in one piece. A given human is entirely in one piece more or less. There is only one Barak Obama and he is in one place at a time. If he is visiting France he cannot be in Washington at the same moment. He is an individual. Plants are not individuals. A plant can be in France and Washington at the same instant. A single plant can be growing both places due to extension by cuttings.

Consider the seedless navel orange, one of my favorite fruits by the way. How many seedless navel orange plants do you think there are in the world? Most people would guess that there are hundreds. In truth there is exactly one. A seedless orange tree is... well... seedless. It can never have offspring the way humans can. A seedless orange tree is a mutant that cannot reproduce sexually. There is only one in the world. It was born a mutant. Something went wrong (or from my point of view it went unexpectedly right) in its DNA and it produced oranges that have no seeds. The mutation also for some reason creates a smaller enclave sub-orange within the larger one. That does not seem to bother people and seedlessness of the orange is a definite benefit. This plant spreads by cuttings, not by being pollinated naturally.

So if there is only one seedless orange tree, can I visit it? Where is it located? It is many places in the world. There is at most one seedless orange plant that was grown from seed. That tree may or may not still be alive. (Wikipedia claims that it was in Bahia, Brazil, by the way.) But while it was alive someone took a cutting from it and grew a whole new plant. And cuttings from those plants started other new plants. So there are many seedless orange trees, but in all of history only one was ever grown from seed.

That orange plant could be and is many places in the world right now, but only one came from the process of pollination to produce offspring. Barring mutation I guess they would all have identical genomes.

Now the question I would have had at Monticello would have been were these plants the originals or not? But what does that mean? If the plant has been alive and living in Monticello the whole time I think most people would agree that it is the same plant. What if a cutting was taken from it and grown right there? I think most people would accept that it is the same plant. Though it really is no longer an individual. It has been divided. It is able to live in disconnected pieces.

Are plants grown from two different cuttings of the same plant growing elsewhere still the same plant? I would say probably they are, though it may come down to a question of semantics. Of course you could have different plants of the same species. You can grow them from seed. If you do that you have a whole different plant of the same species. But growing from a cutting does not change the genome so you just have another copy of the same plant.

But it is strange to think of one plant that can be alive, disconnected, and growing in different locations. We tend to think of animals to each be connected. We have the word "individual" which literally means a human or creature that cannot be divided. You cannot break a piece off of a person and get a new person. But as I said above you can do that with plants and plants are "dividuals" to coin a new word.

By the way, I lied above. Seedless oranges are not seedless. They have some seeds but the seeds themselves are scrawny and no good for reproduction. You have to pick out two or three when you eat a so-called seedless orange. It is worth it. [-mrl]

Magazine Editor Round-Table (report by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Last Saturday (November 1) at the Old Bridge Public Library, the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers sponsored a panel on the future on the future of magazine publishing. On the panel were Ellen Datlow (many anthologies,, Gordon Van Gelder (THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION), and Sheila Williams (ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE). About twenty people attended.

Van Gelder started by saying that from 1950 to almost 2000 there was very little change in magazine publishing, but from 2000 on there has been great change. Up through the 1990s books of advice for writers had large sections on the care of typewriters and how to handle carbons. Then the books started giving new advice, such as that authors should keep their stories short for on-line publication. Datlow said that the rule used to be no fiction longer than 3000 words. (Under Hugo rules, a piece of fiction can be up to 7500 words before it moves from short story to novelette.) However, she ignored the rule when buying pieces. Williams used to get shorter pieces (short stories and short novelettes) for the magazine, but now gets mostly longer works.

Datlow said that has always done novellas, and Tor is now buying novellas, which they are calling "short novels" and are being sold as novels. Other publishers that have been publishing novellas in stand-alone book form are PS Publishing, Subterranean, Cemetery, and Dark Fuse.

Williams said that writers are being told by their writing groups, "Short sells better," but this is not necesarily true. Datlow said the truth is that groups just don't want to critique longer stuff.

Williams said that she finds that she spends more time downloading submissions and opening the folder than she does in deciding whether to buy something.

When Datlow edited OMNI, she said, they had "short-shorts" (originally 500 words, later increased to 1500 words). [NATURE has something similar, I think.] She diverged into talking about the difference between soliciting a story and commissioning one, which applied to both OMNI and her anthologies. (She also commissioned stories for DISCOVER.) She mentioned she only ever had to pay one "kill fee" for a story she had commissioned, and said it was very important for writers to understand the difference between a story being commissioned and being just solicited: the former is a promise to buy the story, the latter is not. Van Gelder added that editors should never promise a writer that they would buy a rewrite.

Datlow noted that she had commissioned both Joan Vinge and John Varley but neither submitted a story. (Vinge told her that short stories were not worth it timewise, since creating a world for a short story takes as long as for a novel.) Van Gelder wanted to know if there was something about the initials "JV".

Williams said that she likes the sense that someone really put time in a story, regardless of length. Van Gelder said that so many stories do not feel as if they have a real lived experience behind them--they seem to have time on the computer behind them. Williams said that Jack Dann observed that authors write about authors (which is similar to the observation that Hollywood writers make all their characters ad executives, lawyers, accountants, and other professions they are familiar with). Van Gelder said that writers need to expand their (social) circles and life experiences.

Datlow said that she does not read unsolicited manuscripts. Williams said that everything she gets is unsolicited, but some authors give her higher expectations than others (she feels "more relaxed" when she starts to read them).

Datlow said she often finds herself asking the author, "Why did you write this story?" (Well, she does not actually ask the author, but she symbolically addresses him through the manuscript pages.) "It's not about anything." She says this is more common in fantasy and horror than in science fiction.

Williams said that someone (Jeff Ford?) said that in ghost stories all the ghosts have a reason to hang around as ghosts, but this is not true in real life. That is, when someone relates that they saw the ghost of their dead grandmother, or the previous tenant of their apartment, the ghost just *is*--she never has a reason for being there. However, Williams said, she would not buy a ghost story unless the ghost had a reason.

Van Gelder said that in terms of length, "flash fiction" didn't exist ten years ago. But while short stories are stories, flash fiction pieces are usually just vignettes or scenes. [Where is Fredric Brown when you need him?] Datlow and Williams added that flash fiction is often a joke. Van Gelder should be able to relate to that: F&SF regularly used to publish Reginald Bretnor's "Ferdinand Feghoot" tales. Van Gelder did say that the author of a very short piece will sometimes say something like, "This [flash fiction] is brimming with potential," to which Van Gelder's response is "Fulfill the potential."

Someone asked what genres and themes are currently popular. Van Gelder said he is seeing the move away from core science fiction accelerating. Datlow said that she was happy that William Gibson has gone back to science fiction (with PERIPHERAL). However, she fears that "[his audience in] the mainstream won't know what the f*** is going on" in it. Van Gelder added, "But they'll pretend they do."

Van Gelder and Datlow say they are seeing stories with one token science fiction element. Williams said she is getting more near-future stories, with emphasis on cultural changes, etc. Van Gelder said that he spoke to a technologist recently who talked about all the latest news in robotics, medicine, physics, etc., that he could not even keep up with, and all Van Gelder could think was why wasn't he getting stories about all that stuff? Lots of areas of science are busy, but there are no stories about them. Williams thought that workshops like Clarion should require a week of science and technology in addition to all the creative writing aspects. Writers need both idea and narrative skills.

[I just finished reading ARROWSMITH, which lists Sinclair Lewis as the sole author. However, Lewis readily acknowledged the aid he got from Paul de Kruif, and gave de Kruif a share of the royalties, indicating that for this book at least, there was a union of author and scientist.]

Regarding how long it takes to write a story, Van Gelder talked about Daniel Keyes's account of writing "Flowers for Algernon". Keyes was a teacher, and at one point one of his lower-IQ students asked, "If I work real hard in this class, can I get to be smart?" This idea got filed away in Keyes's mind, but the story actually came much later.

Van Gelder also gave one answer to his own question about why there are so few cutting-edge science stories: one author told him that it was hard to get all the science right--he could write two or three non-technical stories in the same time it took to write a cutting-edge science story. Williams agreed that a good science/technical story does take a lot of work. But Van Gelder said, "Writing should be hard." He said he feels "that the barriers have gotten so low to being published."

Williams gave the example of two authors. One made a reference to "the three moons of Mars." The other was Joe Haldeman who for "The Hemingway Hoax" pedaled his bicycle to the Harvard Library so that he could look up the exact titles of the courses offered in the English department in a given year.

Regarding how she assembles her "Year's Best", Datlow said that she reads for those anthologies with a purpose, not for enjoyment. So she tends to read the first couple of pages and then the end of every story she is considering, and this tells her if she should read the rest. She does not trust other editors to tell her which stories in their magazines or anthologies she should read, and in particular, "Gardner Dozois does not know what horror is."

Williams said there seem to be more stories with the style of the mainstream. In particular, a recent acquisition is a story about a blue-collar worker in a space station, alcoholism, and Christianity. (The latter as a positive force is something she rarely sees in submissions.) Datlow said that there are several "mainstream" outlets for speculative fiction, e.g., GRANTA, CONJUNCTIONS, and TIN HOUSE.

Someone asked about humor. Williams said that she recently bought a droll David Gerrold story, and Datlow likes black humor, but they all agreed that comedy is hard, and is very particular and personal. You need to work hard at humor to make it look casual.

Regarding horror, Datlow said that horror is "really horrifying in a disturbing sort of way ... nasty." (The French term is "conte cruelle".)

There was some discussion of novels. Van Gelder said that in the 1960s and 1970s science fiction novels were less than 220 pages and were very effective. Someone asked if DUNE had problems being published because of its length, and Van Gelder pointed out that it was accepted and published serially in ANALOG with no problem, but the glue used for paperbacks then was so bad that a book that long would fall apart. Chilton eventually published it because 1) the son of the owner was a fan, and 2) they published automobile manuals and knew how to publish thick books that would not fall apart.

Datlow said that bloat these days is also a problem. Williams added that it was not necessary to see all the author's research in the book.

Van Gelder thought that new writers were usually okay at under 15,000 words, but above that, they often have problems until they become more experienced. Also, some writers start with too short a story and have to build it up, while others write too long and need to pare it down.

Williams said that she got a story that she really liked but the ending was very unclear. She asked the author about it and he said that it had had more explanation at the end, but his writers group told him to stay under 5000 words so he took out all the stuff that made it clear.

Datlow observed that sometimes the author's explanation is less interesting than the one you think up. [The question of which is "valid" touches on the intentional fallacy.]

What are they reading for enjoyment? Datlow reads Jonathan Carroll, Elizabeth Hand, and William Gibson. Williams is currently reading ENDURING LOVE by Ian McEwan. Van Gelder read the non-fiction in THE NEW YORKER. [It sounds as though being a science fiction editor means you do not have much time (or inclination?) to read outside of work.]

Are science fiction writers still optimistic about the future? Van Gelder says that obviously some are and some are not, and now he thinks we are actually pretty much in the middle (though he also said there are fewer optimists than pessimists among writers in general). He feels that there is plenty of room for both.

Williams said that readers like to read positive stories, but writers like to write negative ones. A recent story by Elizabeth Bear, he said, looked at the real negative repercussions of what is going on, but also found positive elements in it.

Van Gelder said it was a literary versus commercial split: the literati prefer negative stories, but positive stories are more commercial. Datlow said that as far as horror goes, she feels it is somewhat the reverse, and that to be successful (and to get included in the "Year's Best") a horror story needs to be negative/pessimistic. (Somehow, a horror story with a happy ending does seem a contradiction in terms.)

What is the future for short fiction? The first word Van Gelder came up with was, "SNAFU." Obviously electronic publication (on-line, Kindle, etc.) is the 500-pound gorilla. But "interactive fiction", once considered up and coming, is not going to happen. (Williams noted that" Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" novels have died out, although Van Gelder pointed out that there was one designed for 20-somethings who were nostalgic for the form.)

What should we be looking forward to? Van Gelder recommends "I'll Follow the Sun" by Paul de Filippo the November/December issue of F&SF. Datlow said there is a story coming up about the toilets in Versailles (by Kelly Robson?), and also Eugene Fischer's "The New Mother" and Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch". Williams recommended Dominica Fett's (?) "95% Safe".

Asked for advice, Van Gelder said, "Don't try to do what everyone else is doing." He said there seems to be a huge herd mentality online these days. Williams said to have a good opening, write well, and work hard--there is always hope. Datlow said that you need a hook: a strong character, situation, or background. And Van Gelder and Datlow agreed that you should never say your character is bored, because that will bore the reader. [-ecl]

CONSIDER PHLEBAS by Iain M. Banks (copyright 1987, Orbit, $14.99, 527pp, ISBN 978-0-316-00538-8) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Joe Karpierz):

One of my friends once said to me, "You've never read any Culture novels? At least one of them had to be nominated for a Hugo, right." Well, wrong. It's not that I've never wanted to read a Culture novel. It's that I've got so many books on my to-read list that I've just never quite gotten around to reading even the first one, CONSIDER PHLEBAS. I *have* read one Iain M. Banks SF novel, THE ALGEBRAIST, which was nominated for a Hugo in 2005 (One might think it odd that Banks' famous Culture novels never got a sniff of a Hugo, but that one of his books outside the series did.) I enjoyed it well enough, as I remember--I did not go back to look at my review of it--but not so much that I was going to run out and start reading the Culture novels.

After my friend made that comment, I decided that it was time to take the plunge. I bought CONSIDER PHLEBAS and put it on my to-read list. And there it sat. For a very long time. Then, Loncon 3 announced that Banks was going to be a Guest of Honor at their convention, and this was all I needed to get myself kick-started into reading the book. I knew I was going to Loncon, and I thought it would be a decent idea to read the novel and maybe get it signed.

We all know that Banks' life was tragically cut short so that he could not attend the convention. Nonetheless, I vowed that I was going to read it--as soon as I finished reading those darned Hugo nominees and anything else I was in the middle of. I *finally* started the book a couple of days before Loncon ended--and just finished reading it the other day. Yeah, over two months. To be fair, my schedule has been absolutely crazy, and my reading time has been limited--as you can tell by my lack of reviews recently--but there was more to that, I think. We'll follow up on that later.

CONSIDER PHLEBAS tells an account of one small incident in the Idiran-Culture war. A Culture Mind has escaped a battle and ended up on a planet called Schar's World, a place where there is a colony of Changers. Our lead character, Horza, is a changer. He allies himself with the Idirans in the war, as he doesn't believe in anything the Culture stands for. As we meet Horza, he is undergoing a nasty bit of torture at the hands of the Culture, and is rescued by the skin of his teeth by an Idiran agent that he works for. The agent, Xoralundra, sends Horza on a mission to retrieve the Mind before the Culture can get to it. And thus, CONSIDER PHLEBAS is the story of that quest to retrieve the Mind.

I wanted to really love this book, but all I did was really like the book. The reasons are varied, but the main issue I had is that the book never held my interest. A really good book will grab me by the throat and make me want to pick it up at any possible reading moment. This book did not do that. Much like Horza on his quest, this book meandered all over the place, and it felt padded.

For example, Horza found himself as a crew member on an independent ship called the Clear Air Turbulence (to be honest, Banks comes up with the most terrific names for his space-faring vessels. While some may think them trite, or an example of Banks trying to be cute, I found them clever and engaging.) The captain hires the CAT and its crew out to do various jobs in order to keep themselves going--a typical but reasonable thing. The captain has an addiction for the game Damage, which is played on a galactic scale for very high stakes. Apparently there is going to be a Damage game on an Orbital that is going to be destroyed at a particular date and time, and the game is scheduled to be played near the time of the Orbital's destruction. All well and good, but I did not see much point in this particular episode in the novel. It did not particularly advance the plot along, in my opinion. Also on the Orbital, Horza was held captive by a bunch of undernourished humans called Eaters, whose leader was a grossly fat individual. The leader would not let his people escape, even though there was a shuttle on the island where the episode played out. I enjoyed the Damage game, but I can't say as much for the Eater episode. I just don't understand what those episodes added to the story.

Oddly enough, though, I did enjoy the novel as a whole. I'm a sucker for Space Opera anyway, and CONSIDER PHLEBAS is Space Opera on a grand scale. Particularly enjoyable was the section entitled Appendices: the Idiran-Culture War. Banks gives the reader a more detailed look into the war and the two civilizations that were involved, as well as the people that were involved in the episode detailed in CONSIDER PHLEBAS.

It wasn't outstanding, but it was serviceable. I will, at some point, move on to the second book in the Culture Series. [-jak]

PELICAN DREAMS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Judy Irving (writer/director of this film and of THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL) returns to her study of birds. The story begins when a pelican lands on the Golden Gate Bridge, ties up traffic, is captured, and is taken to a seabird rescue center. Irving tracks the bird's probable origins and examines the lives of these awkward and graceful birds. As is almost de rigeur for wildlife documentaries there is a lament for how human effects on nature are destroying animals' lives. This film has a sort of laid-back quality following the lives of pelicans Gigi and Morro. There is plenty of footage covering the birds in flight, but nothing amazing. It is not as focused as WILD PARROTS and it certainly is not one of the technological wonders that cutting edge nature films have become. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

In the final moments of JURASSIC PARK we see what appear at first to be graceful pterosaurs in flight. After a moment we realize what we are seeing is pelicans in flight. They are no less graceful and there is no less wonder that there is an animal living in our world which looks so much like a beautiful prehistoric flying reptile. On the ground a pelican seems a little ungainly and even humorous with the long neck needed to swing the long beak. They look like they have been pulled through a keyhole. The appearance is deceiving. In flight they are glorious figures.

Pelicans have always been a fascination of Judy Irving, the writer and director of this film. (She also filmed it, produced it, and edited it.) But to make another film like her WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL she needed a story to make the subject of her film. Then a four-month-old pelican landed on the roadbed of the Golden Gate Bridge, snarling traffic. Attempts to rescue this bird suggested to Irving that this was how to begin a film that told about the lives of pelicans. This one was dubbed Gigi--a name suggested by the abbreviation of Golden Gate. Gigi had not been able to hunt enough fish to stay healthy and was also suffering from dehydration. Later a second pelican also was the subject of the film. Morro had a broken wing that would not heal and was forever exiled from the skies. We follow the lives of these birds and are told about the life cycle and society of pelicans.

Pelicans themselves are fascinating to watch. They are a strange combination of awkward and graceful. They have that humorous-looking long beak and the longer neck to accommodate it. Not only can they see 360 degrees around them, they can turn that neck so the beak and eyes can point almost full circle, 360 degrees around their bodies. In flight their wings can span to six or seven feet. In WILD PARROTS Irving was able to bring us into the lives of parrots and to make us feel for them. That is the mode here also. Morro was one of three pelicans brought to a wildlife hospital with injured wings. Two healed but Morro can never fly again. Morro sees birds recover and go flying off, but her wing cannot heal so she can only watch other birds come, heal, and regain the sky while she is lonely and earthbound.

We take a time-out in the story and nature photography to see what human-despoiled nature is doing to pelicans, formerly with DDT and now with overfishing, pollution, dumping, oil spills, and climate changing. There are so many threats and so little time for Irving to spend on each.

It has been eleven years since Judy Irving released her documentary THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL. PELICAN DREAMS is her new release and again it is looking at the lives of birds. Her earlier film was, for the time, a special nature documentary. PELICAN DREAMS is not quite as good a film, taken on its own merits. In the interim, however, technology has completely transformed nature documentaries. Now if you want to see a bear cub's first emergence from his hibernation, that is on film. Do you want a penguin's eye view of the huddle of penguins huddled and waiting out the long Antarctic winter? That is on film also. PELICAN DREAMS is an old-fashioned documentary, not so cutting edge. It shows you a lot of footage of pelicans in flight and gives you some information about mankind's threat to pelicans. Technology has raised the bar on nature films, and it is hard to make this kind of film compete with documentaries one can see free on PBS. But at least PELICAN DREAMS has a natural style of nature filmmaking.

When it looks at the plight and prospects for the species the film might better have been called PELICAN NIGHTMARES. This species of majestic birds is all too probably in its final years, one more species dying from the effects on the environment of human contact. The brown pelican has been removed from the endangered species list, but the struggle is far from over. I rate PELICAN DREAMS a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


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

BURMESE DAYS by George Orwell (ISBN 978-0-156-14850-2) is a sort of "reverse-Jane-Austen" novel. Like Austen's novels, in this the characters are concerned with marriage and station in life; unlike Austen's novels, in this things do not end well for everyone. John Flory is an Englishman stationed in a small town in Burma (then part of British India, now Myanmar), where his social circle consists of his club (which allows only whites) and one Indian doctor. The club's members are both racist and petty, and everyone is scheming. When Elizabeth Lackersteen comes to Kyauktada from England, it is clear that this is her last chance to find a husband and avoid spinsterhood and penury. She has some interest in Flory, but only until Verrall, a high-society British officer, shows up. Then she throws herself at Verrall, but he is even more a cad than Austen's Willoughby.

In all this, one sees glimpses of Orwell's work to come:

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. ... Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator,; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs' code."

"The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honorable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you."

THE HISTORY OF THE SIEGE OF LISBON by Jose Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-15-600624-8) is yet another example of unrecognized "fantastika" (to use John Clute's coinage for works of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the surreal). Raimundo Silva is a proof-reader who one day impulsively inserts the word "not" into a sentence, changing it from saying that the Crusaders will help the Portuguese retake Lisbon from the Moors to saying that the Crusaders will *not* help the Portuguese retake Lisbon from the Muslims. The result is an examination of counterfactuals (alternate histories).

(Actually Silva is more a copy editor, since his function seems more to be finding and correcting such errors as anachronistic coats of arms and flags, inaccurate descriptions, and so on.)

The counterfactual element is actually somewhat limited. Silva's alteration is discovered, and his publisher suggests/orders him to write "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" assuming the Crusaders *had* abandoned it. [Slight spoiler] But Silva feels obliged to have the end result be the same--Lisbon is taken by the Christians from the Moors. [End spoiler]

The development of the alternate history is told in parallel with the story of Silva's own life and relationship with Dr. Maria Sara, his new supervisor, though when I say "in parallel" I do not necessarily mean that there are parallels between the two, just that the novel alternates back and forth. These plotlines are interspersed with musings on history, and on cause and effect.

For example, "Going further, somewhat rashly, these authors argue that all the visible and recognizable causes have already produced their effects, and that now we need only wait for them to manifest themselves, and they also insist that all effects, whether manifest or about to be made manifest, have their inevitable causality, although our manifold limitations may have prevented us from identifying it in terms of establishing the respective relationship, nor always linear or explicit, as we said at the outset." [page 104]

Saramago seems more conscious of cause and effect in history than many authors of alternate history. He has Silva think, "... there must have been some serious motive behind their refusal to assist the Portuguese with the siege and capture of Lisbon." He then goes through a list of possibilities: climate, dryness of the land, pestilence. None of these will serve, so Silva concludes that it must have been something in the king's speech, and then works out what that might (must?) have been. [pages 111-114]

He also has a few comments on modern society, such as, "Throughout the journey from the publishing house back to his apartment he had managed not to think... For a few moments he had allowed his thoughts to well on Sonhora Maria, but now his brain was vacant once more. To make sure it stayed that way, he went through to the sitting-room where he kept the television and switched on the set." (page 80)

(The translation was done into British English, so Pontiero uses the Anglicism "biro" rather than the more universal "pen", as well as the British style of not using periods after most titles such as "Mr" and "Dr".)

I had hoped for better things from THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SCIENCE FICTION: FROM THE TWILIGHT ZONE TO THE FINAL FRONTIER by Gabriel McKee (ISBN 978-0-664-22901-6). I was hoping for an in-depth analysis of science fiction works that dealt with the themes of Gospels (e.g., A CASE OF CONSCIENCE) or future Christianity (e.g., A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ). Instead, McKee darts from work to work, choosing such a motley assortment of works that most readers will be unfamiliar with a large proportion of them, and spending only a page (or even just a paragraph) on most of them. Sometimes his choices are just peculiar: he covers Arthur C. Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God" even though that is rooted in Buddhism rather than Christianity, but omits Clarke's classic story, "The Star".

He also makes sweeping statements, such as, "The purpose of this creation [science fiction] is to change *our* world. By creating altered universes, science-fiction authors hold up a mirror to our time, sometimes amplifying its best aspects, sometimes warning us of its worst. In all cases, the goal of science fiction is to use its imaginary worlds to create a *real* world of the future that is better than our present." The idea that science fiction has a single goal (other than perhaps to entertain) is misguided at best. Every once in a while, someone decides science fiction is not doing enough to make a better future and comes up with a project to change this; the latest is HIEROGLYPH, an anthology edited by Neal Stephenson. But this is a subset of science fiction; it is large, it contains multitudes.

He also makes some basic logic errors. On page 1, for example, he says "Space, [Han] Solo argues, conceals no spiritual secrets, no answers to eternal questions, and no gods. But STAR WARS and its sequels are an epic refutation of this statement. Powers beyond our everyday understanding *do* exist, and there is mystery and wonder to be found in the vast reaches of the universe." No, STAR WARS is not a refutation of anything--it is a story, written by a human being. (Similarly, the claim by someone in STARSHIP TROOPERS that their system of flogging et al is good because it works is *not* applicable to the real world. This ties in with the discussion of "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse" a few weeks ago.) Is "The Nine Billion Names of God" a refutation of the Christian view of the universe? [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          America had often been discovered before Columbus, 
          but it had always been hushed up.
                                          --Oscar Wilde

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