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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 01/01/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 27, Whole Number 1891
Table of Contents
Puzzle (by Mark R. Leeper):
This is probably not too hard.
What do Catholics do to sinners, fathers do to sons, and Jews do to bread?
The answer will be our penultimate item this issue. I guess part of the puzzle is knowing what penultimate actually means. [-mrl]
Update on Bell Works (Holmdel Bell Labs Building):
Since this zine started as a newsletter for the Bell labs SF Club, I figure there are people who might still be interested in the following. It's a PDF; the BTL/Bell Works update starts on page 3.
Mini-Reviews of Films of the Year (The Big Short and Macbeth) (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
After a week of my column telling what was coming up on Turner Classic Movies, I am back to short capsule reviews of movies from 2015 that you may or may not know of, and suggesting which may be of interest to you if you stumble across them on NetFlix or Amazon Prime. Some may even play in a theater near you. (In truth, nobody tells me of the release plans are for any of these movies. The films are provided to me by film publicists so I can vote on the Online Film Critic Society's annual awards. But the release plans are not provided.)
THE BIG SHORT
There is a podcast about economics called "Planet Money". This film could almost be PLANET MONEY: THE MOTION PICTURE. The film, like "Planet Money", tries to explain the finance all simply and understandably and in that noble purpose fails. But it is told with wit or even an acid cynicism that is apparently more than justified. This is a film about naked greed. We follow three story lines (true stories) with three people through the 2008 financial crisis. People who saw the financial bubble bursting and who exploited it in each's own way. Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale) saw the crash coming and committed his company to seriously exploiting it; Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers it is happening and slowly comes to realize how serious the situation really is; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) discovers his company is criminally courting serious financial damage. This is a film that names names and signals a warning that the world seems to be ignoring. While being fun to watch it tells you what you need to know about the financial crisis and almost certainly do not. It is best to see this film multiple times until it starts to stick. It is hard to believe how serious and at the same time how funny the film is. I guess it also should be considered a horror film since virtually the same meltdown could happen again. Adam McKay directs a screenplay he wrote with Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis. Rating low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
I may stand alone in my tastes, but I like my Macbeths to be reasonably spectacular. They should offer my eye as much as they offer the ear. I want to see Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane with acres of moving foliage, not just a few sparks of a forest fire and the rest done with a red filter. The Weird Sisters should look like weird sisters. Nobody asks a performance of MACBETH to be spiritually uplifting, but one wants to see the witches to seem a little weird and threatening. You know, witches. That is simply not the style of this production.
Justin Kurzel directs this new MACBETH from a screenplay by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso based on a stage play by some British guy. Certainly watching this version is a much better experience than sitting and reading the play without visuals. But Kurzel seems to be so afraid that he will compromise the play and pander to the audience by putting in too much visual excitement that instead he goes overboard toning the visuals down to the bare bones minimum. Battle scenes seem more like ad hoc gang fights than two big armies facing each other.
But for three familiar actors this film seems to have been done on a low budget. The actors I mentioned are Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths. Also there is David Thewlis as the unfortunate Duncan. But too many of what should be exciting scenes are cloaked in fog. The feel of the production can best be described as raw. The screenplay is abridged from the original play, but that is to be expected to bring this version down to feature length. This film is heavy into style and it was a style that will have selective appeal. But the story is strong enough to hold the audience captive with what is, as comes as no surprise, a good story. For that thank that English dude. Rating: low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Downtowns Are Not What They Used to Be (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When I was growing up in the 1960s, we lived in Rantoul, Illinois, a fairly small town. But it had a "downtown"--the main downtown street had small shops, two five-and-dime stores, and a movie theater. The surrounding couple of blocks had the library, a grocery store, a couple of churches, and the train station. My friend and I walked downtown every Saturday. We went to the library and the stores, dusted the church (her father was the janitor), and in general found plenty to entertain us. (We also did this at age 12 on our own, but that's another story.) Fast-forward to the 1990s and 2000s. Now we live in Old Bridge, New Jersey, a town with no downtown. (Don't let the name "Towne Square" or some such applied to a shopping center fool you.) Shopping is strung out along the various major roads that go through the town.
However, Matawan (the next town over) does have a sort of a downtown. It is not much--three or four blocks with the Post Office, the library, a couple of banks, and a few restaurants and stores. For a while there was even a "supermarket" (more like a grocery store). But gradually, it declined. The drug store closed (defeated by a Rite-Aid, a CVS, and a Walgreens, all within a mile or so). It was replaced by a dollar store, but it also closed. Currently the location is a dance academy.
The supermarket eventually closed, after being picketed by the supermarket workers union (even though I think it was a family- owned store, and exempt from union requirements). Currently, there is only a deli (bodega) with a minimal stock, and the old supermarket location is a hole in the ground where they are supposedly going to put retail space and apartments.
One of the Mexican restaurants closed and moved down to near the train station, which is at least a mile away from the "downtown". Its location has been empty for a couple of years (as have other spaces along the street). The other has changed ownership at least once.
The latest is that the thrift shop closed and was replaced by an upscale consignment shop. Speaking to the owner, I find that she is on the Chamber of Commerce and hopes to revive the downtown. But apparently her idea of reviving the downtown is to put up seasonal decorations and attract businesses like the dance academy and a party planning business that will be opening. (There are already plenty of medical offices on the street several blocks out of downtown.)
The problem is that the 12-year-old me would find this new downtown terrifically boring. There are no real retail shops, no drug stores, no hardware stores, no soda fountains--nothing to attract people to come downtown and walk around. If you come downtown to go to the Post Office or the bank, you park, do your errand and leave. Maybe the library would attract you, but there is nothing else to encourage unplanned business. No one walks down the street and says, "Gee, I think I'll drop into the party planner and see what's new." There is not even a coffee shop there. And no one goes into a sit-down restaurant to get a cup of coffee, so they get into their car and drive to the Starbucks a mile away. [-ecl]
This Picture Says It All: Falcon 9 Returned First Stage (comments by Dale L. Skran):
Some of you may not be aware of this due to criminally poor media coverage, but on December 21, 2015, at 8:29 PM EST SpaceX made history. Not only did they return to flight after a loss of mission six months ago, they demonstrated the "Full Thrust" Falcon 9 using super-cooled fuel, delivered 11 OBRCOMM data communications satellites to orbit, and landed the first stage back at the Cape in Florida. It is this last event that garnered the most attention, as it presages a new age of cheaper spaceflight, potentially driving outward human expansion. The first stage of a rocket is the most expensive, and extensive re-use of first stages with only minor refurbishment promises to significantly reduce the cost of getting to orbit.
Naysayers will point out, "Well, they have to re-fly. And even if they do, they have to prove it is economic. And it has to save enough money to make a difference." And so on, and so on. Yet there comes a point where it starts to seem like something is really happening. That maybe every issue has not been resolved, but that it is more likely than not that they will be resolved. That this is the end of the beginning of the space age, and the dawn of human expansion across our solar system.
Sometimes a single picture communicates the message. A (National Space Society, http://www.nss.org) NSS press release on this topic can be found at http://tinyurl.com/falconreturned. You'll find some more info on the launch, and a quote from somebody named Dale Skran. And a picture. And what a picture it is! The returned Falcon 9 first stage rests firmly on Space Launch Complex- 13 (SLC-13) at the Cape. This pad has been baking in the Florida sun since 1978 until SpaceX leased it from the Air Force for use as a landing site. It is night, and the booster is brightly lit by floodlights, recalling the final chapter of H. G. Wells' FOOD OF THE GODS.
The first stage of the rocket is clear and sharp, showing no obvious damage or scorching at this distance. It stands tall on enormous triangular landing legs that recall Virgil Finley paintings. "SpaceX" is written vertically in big block letters. And then you see tiny figures walking around the legs wearing orange jackets. A jeep is visible behind and below the engines. A truck can be seen on the left. Your eyes travel up and up, and you realize the stage is huge--more than 10x the height of a person, maybe 20x. This colossus has flown to the edge of space and back, delivered its costly bale to orbit, returned under powered flight, buffeted by supersonic winds, and tempered by searing heat. And yet there it stands, home again. In the darkness behind it you can see the future, and it is glorious. [-dls]
SICARIO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Denis Villeneuve directs a suspenseful story of an inter-surveillance-agency team chosen for a mission to illegally cross the border into Mexico and to attack and if possible assassinate a powerful drug lord living in Juarez. FBI agent Kate Macer needs to figure out why she is on this team and mission and is highly troubled by the answers she is or is not getting. The theme is how the violent drug war in Mexico warps the US law enforcement. But the film makes for a tense thriller. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) was part of a raid near the Mexican border in Arizona that turned up some extremely gruesome findings. The raid also ran into trouble and two agents died in the effort. Macer herself considers the raid a disaster, but for her part in the raid she is asked to work with an elite team on a mission to eliminate a high-profile drug Cartel boss. Macer is surprised to find out one of the members of the team is a Mexican, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), which seems to be a violation of the law. The team is going to Juarez, Mexico for their mission, another violation. Macer has to not only try to understand her enemy; she needs to understand just who and what her own team is and most importantly why is she with a team performing a mission so different from her experience. Not surprisingly all will be explained though Macer may not like the answers to her questions.
The story is a quiet struggle between Mercer and the mysterious Alejandro who is Mexican and not even from the US and nonetheless seems to be controlling the US team. Del Toro is very smooth in his role and Blunt, in some of her best performance to date, shares her mounting frustration with the viewer. They are two very accomplished performances.
Very controversial is the film's treatment of the city of Juarez in Taylor Sheridan's screenplay. It is portrayed as a city in chaos where crime is totally out of hand. Juarez comes off as a city of nightmarish horror. One need only stop outside and listen for a few minutes to hear the chatter of machine guns. The film is just a little gory and graphic, but some of the ideas may be as horrifying as anything the viewer sees on the screen. Graphic scenes are avoided by having them take place just off camera. Though there are disturbing visual images in a few places, the film's thrills do not come from violence and blood on the screen but from intelligent and unsettling dialog. Nevertheless, the film is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, one of the great film cinematographers. As often as he can Deakins shows us really majestic skies, often dark and heavy with ominous clouds. The musical score by Johann Johannsson employs a nearly subsonic rhythm that helps to put the viewer on edge. The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve who manages a very natural style with sufficient but not exaggerated action.
SICARIO is playing in theaters opposite SPECTRE and generally is the same genre of film, but there is no doubt that SICARIO has a better and more relevant story with more believable characters. I rate SICARIO a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. Aside: The word "sicario" is Spanish for "hitman".
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3397884/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sicario_2015/
CAN & CAN'TANKEROUS by Harlan Ellison (copyright 2015, Edgeworks Abbey in association with Subterranean Press, $45 Trade Edition, 236pp, ISBN 978-1-59606-751-6) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Joe Karpierz):
Earlier this year I reviewed THE TOP OF THE VOLCANO, THE AWARD- WINNING STORIES OF HARLAN ELLISON (R), a beautifully produced book from Subterranean Press. Of course, there are more Harlan Ellison stories than just those that won awards. He has written more shorts stories, articles, reviews, and whatnot than anyone can count--well, maybe anyone but Ellison himself. However, I'd been wondering aloud to a couple of friends of mine about what he'd been doing recently. Granted, he is no longer a young man and has had his health issues, but surely he must still be writing something, I thought. Lo and behold, here comes a new collection, CAN & CAN'TANKEROUS. The Subterranean Press website says the book "... gathers ten previously uncollected tales from the fifth and sixth decades of Harlan Ellison's professional writing career ...". While that's not quite true--"How Interesting: A Tiny Man", the 2011 Nebula award-winning short story, appeared in the aforementioned THE TOP OF THE VOLCANO--I was ecstatic to find a collection of stories of Ellison's that I had not read before. That's not to say I've read everything of his; I have not. But I've read quite a bit, and I was excited to jump into this collection.
Let me start off by saying that while the stories in the collection are good, they are, by and large, not great. There are a few gems, but you won't find stories on the order of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman", or "Deathbird" (one of my all time favorites). What you will find are well written, well crafted stories that can tear at your heartstrings, make you laugh out loud, or shake your head at Ellison's inventiveness.
My favorite story in the entire collection may be "Incognita, Inc.", a story that is both at once a sad and wondrous story, which on one level is about a man who is sent to terminate the employment of a map maker in a tough to find part of Chicago, on another level is about how the corporate bottom line--an item to which many of us are beholden these days--can destroy the livelihood of small businesses (and this business may or may not be small, depending on how the reader looks at it), and on yet another level is about the independent craftsman losing his job to modern technology.
I should step back here and note that some of the most interesting works in this book are Ellison's introductions, forewords, and afterwords to the stories themselves. They are in part tales of how these stories came to be, and part a running account of Ellison having his stroke. They are funny, thought provoking, and insightful. In the case of "Incognita, Inc.", Ellison asks the reader who makes all those maps that we always see in movies and TV shows--the maps that lead our heroes to the object of their quest. Another favorite is "Never Send to Know for Whom the Lettuce Wilts Tuesday". Henry Leclair is a man with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything. He just had to know. He reads a fortune from a cookie in a Chinese restaurant that on the front says "Tuesday", and on the back says, "You're the one". That certainly drives him crazy with curiosity, and so Henry runs off to find the fortune cookie factory. What he finds there is quite interesting.
I've read "How Interesting: A Tiny Man" twice now, and I'm still not sure what I'm reading. The narrator has created, with difficulty, a tiny man. The tiny man goes from being a curiosity to being an object of hatred. Ellison provides two endings. The first ending has a last line that is a bit of a surprise, and the second is stunning. I think I like the second ending better, but they're both effective.
"Weariness" is also a story that I enjoy, about the end of the universe that was written at a writer's workshop that was inspired by a painting. While the story is terrific, what is even more terrific is the afterward, which recounts an episode in Ellison's friendship with Ray Bradbury, which is an example of their relationship as a whole.
"The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes A Novella of Manners" is a pulp-era type story. Ellison claims it was written back in the 1950s, then lost, found, lost again, found again, etc., until finally it saw the light of day. It truly is a story in the pulp tradition which is set on Mars and includes rebelling native Martians, invading aliens, galaxy spanning travels, and a weird 6 part alien trying to take over the universe. It's a terrific story, and one that is worth multiple reads.
Other stories included in the collection are "Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear", "Loose Cannon, or Rubber Duckies from Space", "From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet", "Goodbye to All That", and "He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes". Of this group, I find I enjoyed "From A to Z...." and "Goodbye to All That" more than the others, but they're all pretty good stories, and there are a few with some pretty good titles that make the reader want to take a peek into them just to see what's going on under the covers.
Sometimes, especially recently, when I write a review, I learn things about the book that I hadn't known when I was reading the book initially. This is one of those times. I find that upon further reflection, I enjoyed this book more than I thought I did at first. It's well worth the read, and a great addition to anyone's Harlan Ellison collection. [-jak]
Honesty and Dishonesty in Fiction (letter of comment by Robert Mitchell):
In response to Taras Wolansky's comments on MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! in the 12/25/15 issue of the MT VOID, Rob Mitchell writes:
[Taras writes:] "This led me to some ruminations about honesty and dishonesty in the writing of fiction, and what we should think of an SF writer who engages in extrapolations he knows to be false and/or impossible."
I'd respond that the first question would be, is the story interesting (and you can use your personal definition of "interesting", of course)? If the plot was engaging, the characters three-dimensional, and the world intriguing, then sure, why not write even when you know the extrapolations are highly improbable or impossible? Sometimes thought experiments, although impossible in real life, can shed light on what *is* possible.
In the specific case of MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!, I personally found the story failed the "interesting" test because it was too polemic. I didn't object because it was propaganda, I objected because it was *bad* propaganda. Heavy-handed and preachy. Harrison has written much better, such as the "Deathworld" or "Eden" books. [-rlm]
WORLD OF PTAVVS (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Evelyn's comments on WORLD OF PTAVVS in the 12/25/15 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
I've always assumed Larry Niven's WORLD OF PTAVVS is pronounced exactly as written. It's just English parochialism to think the initial "p" is silent.
Greek, for example, uses that consonant combination: I can still remember how Carl Sagan pronounced "Ptolemaios". In Ukrainian, several words relating to birds--ptakh, ptashka, ptytsia--do, too. (I have a vague recollection Anthony Burgess' droogs used the last term, borrowed from Russian.)
Though I can't think of any real-world use of the "tn" initial combination, I never had a problem pronouncing "tnuctipun". (It comes out rather like a sneeze!) "Kzanol" is dead easy; "gnal" is not very tough, just "regnal" without the "re"
I remember I enjoyed Niven's 1966 novel (his first), though I haven't reread it in decades. [-tw]
Choices (Organic vs. ?) (letters of comment by David Goldfarb, Phillip Chee, Keith F. Lynch, Paul Dormer, Gary McGath, Dorothy J. Heydt, Alan Woodford, and Peter Trei):
In response to Evelyn's comments on choices in the 12/25/15 issue of the MT VOID, David Goldfarb writes:
[Evelyn writes,] "Produce has similar problems. Yes, there's the question of organic versus ... inorganic?"
I've usually seen "conventional". [-dg]
Phillip Chee adds:
Unless you are some sort of mutant extremophile bacteria, you might find digesting inorganics rather difficult. [-pc]
Keith F. Lynch responds:
A food can fail to qualify as organic without being from a Genetically Modified Organism. For instance if it was treated with pesticides or artificial fertilizers. [-kfl]
Paul Dormer also replies:
Table salt and water are both inorganic, and I have no trouble ingesting them.
Having done chemistry to A-level, I still think of organic as meaning to do with the carbon-carbon bond. [-pd]
Gary McGath adds:
Or to do with living things. Some European languages refer to organic foods as "bio" foods, which has exactly the same problem. [-gmg]
Dorothy Heydt also replies to Paul:
And you are right to do so.
"Organic" among food-purists means "grown according to organic principles, which involve using no inorganic chemicals." A wishy- washy definition at best.
I can remember, back in the lower Pleistocene when I was pregnant with my son and having a fair amount of morning sickness, having some herb or other recommended to me--coneflowers, maybe?--with the statement "There's no chemicals in them." I told Hal that later, and we both had a good laugh. [-djh]
["Organic" among food-purists means "grown according to organic principles, which involve using no inorganic chemicals."]
No dihydrogen monoxide? [-gmg]
They'd probably want to be reassured that it comes from pure Sierra melt-off, which has been hard to come by the last few years. [- djh]
And Alan Woodford also replies to Gary:
I should hope not--we're suffering from a vast oversupply of that substance in the North of England at the moment, and people there are getting rather annoyed! [-aw]
Keith Lynch replies to Dorothy (in an unexpected return to science fiction):
I still say there's a market for space mining of ice. Foolish wealthy people will pay a fortune for water guaranteed to have never be in the form of urine or feces. [-kfl]
And Keith also responds to Paul:
[Regarding ingesting table salt and water]
Ingesting, yes. Digesting, no. They pass through you unchanged.
[Organic as meaning to do with the carbon-carbon bond]
No, molecules with a single carbon atom still count as organic. For instance the first organic chemical ever artificially synthesized, urea, has just one carbon atom. Other examples include methane, methyl alcohol, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon disulfide, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, formic acid, hydrogen cyanide, and phosgene. (I didn't say any of these substances were good to eat, drink, or breathe. But they're all part of organic chemistry. As are compounds with more than one carbon atom but no bond directly linking them, e.g. dimethyl ether and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO).) [-kfl]
Peter Trei adds:
This is an example of the common error of assuming that human- created categories can be universally and unambiguously applied to nature. It also shows the error of applying modern definitions of categories to historic cases.
'Organic' vs 'Inorganic' means nothing to reality, which contains plenty of corner cases and in-betweens, such as single-carbon compounds.
Urea is called 'organic' not because it contains a carbon, but because prior to Friedrich Wohler's 1828 synthesis that chemical, many thought that there was an division between the 'organic' chemistry of living things, and that of 'inorganic' dead chemicals.
Prior to Wohler, urea was only known from living sources. His synthesis of it from clearly non-living starting materials was a blow to thedoctrine of vitalism.
So, urea is called 'organic' not because it contains carbon, but because, historically, it was extracted from biological resources. [-pt]
Answer to Puzzle (by Mark R. Leeper):
What do Catholics do to sinners, fathers do to sons, and Jews do to bread?
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather (ISBN 978-0-679- 72889-4) is considered a classic, but while modern audiences can read it as a description of the landscapes and scenery of New Mexico, they will probably also find the human aspects troubling. It starts with three Cardinals in Rome needing to name a bishop for the new See of New Mexico. The Bishop of Durango has written to suggest one of his priests, but the Bishop from America who is in Rome says, "[It] would be a great misfortune if a native priest were appointed; they have never done well in that field." This is the same feeling expressed by Abner Hale in James Michener's HAWAII--he keeps asking his superiors back on the mainland to send more ministers and refuses to ordain any native Hawaiians. Maybe this was a common trait among missionaries, but in DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP it is just the first of many rather patronizing comments about the native Latino population. Cather is much more respectful towards the Navajos, and does make her worst "villains" white people, but her attitude towards other races seems to consider them as children who need to be (gently) disciplined and taught.
This is reinforced by such asides as, "The Mexicans were children who played with their religion." Of the Native Americans on the other hand, she writes, "It was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything," "They seemed to have none of the European's desire to 'master' nature," and (of two Zuni runners) "their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight." The Archbishop (and presumably Cather herself) sees them as a part of nature, not as people. To him, they have no desire to change, to improve their condition. Given that, could they be true Catholics, could they convert from their old way of life to a new one? If the Bishop at the beginning of the novel was against making Mexicans anything higher than an ordinary priest, then the Archbishop here would probably not accept Navajos even as priests.
(I will also note that Cather and her characters consistently refer to characters as Mexicans, even though they are living in American territory and are presumably Mexican-Americans. Then again, even today people refer to Mexican-Americans (and often other Latinos as well) as "Mexicans", so this shouldn't surprise me. After all, this was written in 1927.)
Like I say, the descriptions are poetic, but the social attitudes seem very dated. I cannot say it worked for me, but Catholics may find some of the religious meditations more meaningful than I did.
And speaking of outdated attitudes, THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London (ISBN 978-0-451-52703-5) exhibits some of the same: wonderful nature descriptions and characterization of Buck, but also multiple uses of the "N-word" (both in abbreviated form as a dog's name, and it compound form describing a geologic formation). Oh, and the Native Americans (or since it is in Canada, First Peoples) don't come off very well either. My guess is that not too many schools have this on their required reading list any more. SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) (ISBN 978-0-14-243718-6) was our book discussion group choice for last month. Somehow I could not get into the mood of it. I liked the rhythm of the writing: "In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Sal- wood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman. The sun tanned his light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings." It seemed poetic, and reminiscent of various religious texts without resorting to "thee/thou" and "dost" and "hath" and that sort of thing.
And I liked a couple of the ideas. For example, Hesse writes, "It is this what you mean, isn't it, that the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?" This is actually a fairly good statement of one theory of time--that the past, present, and future all exist and we merely move through them, rather than the past and the future being created each instant. (In the former, the future is fixed; in the latter, it is mutable.)
And one of the central ideas--that some things cannot be taught but must be experienced--is certainly similar to the idea of "Mary in the Black-and-White Room" proposed by Frank Jackson.
But if I was supposed to have some sort of spiritual satori from this, it just did not work for me.
I had given up on SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (ISBN 978-0-062- 19037-6) after about a hundred pages, because I just didn't want to slog through another 750 pages to finish the book. Then a friend recommended it, so I decided to keep going, though I did decide to skim the "hard-science" parts. (For starters, I find it difficult to picture the various structures that Stephenson is describing. They say a picture is worth a thousand words--the problem is that authors often think that a thousand words is a good substitute for a picture.)
SEVENEVES has been described as "Stapledonian", but in my opinion it spends too much time in the near-future and not enough in distant time to qualify. It is, however, in the current sub-genre of "Humans try to do large engineering projects in space and bad stuff happens." Now, in general, novels or movies in which everyone dies are not considered marketable. So sometimes the humans manage to overcome the problems without everyone dying and at the end are on an upswing--this would be termed success (e.g., THE MARTIAN, INTERSTELLAR). But sometimes the humans barely pull through and the results are in some sense failures (e.g. AURORA). I would put SEVENEVES in the latter category. Almost everything that is tried is either a fraud or a failure, and one is indeed reminded of Olaf Stapledon (who in LAST AND FIRST MEN has the human population of First Men drop at one point to two women and one man), as well as Kurt Vonnegut's GALAPAGOS. At least Stephenson understands the need for a certain level of genetic diversity.
I did find one (possible) error early on, though not in the science: "She was forty-two years old, which made her the youngest president of the United States, edging out J.F.K. by a year." Actually, if one is measuring in whole years, she would be tied with Theodore Roosevelt, who was forty-two when he became President. Kennedy was the youngest person *elected* as President. (To be precise, Roosevelt was 42 years, 10 months, and 18 days when he became President; Kennedy was 43 years, 7 months, and 22 days.) While Stephenson is not specific as to when this statement is being made, internal evidence indicates it is probably the summer of her first year in office. Therefore, she would be about five months older than when she took office, so she may well have been younger than Roosevelt, but that is not the way Stephenson phrases it. Yeah, I know--picky, picky.
I would have liked SEVENEVES a lot better if it had had less engineering, orbital mechanics, and physics detail. Even without expanding the other aspects, there would have been enough for a good-sized novel. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It is better to be a has-been than a never-was. --C. Northcote ParkinsonTweet
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