MT VOID 01/22/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 30, Whole Number 1894

MT VOID 01/22/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 30, Whole Number 1894

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 01/22/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 30, Whole Number 1894

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

Welcome to the Void Express (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

What you are now reading is the shortest issue of the VOID Evelyn and I remember since the 1970s or so. No, this is not an editorial plan to shorten the MT VOID. It is actually just a statistical anomaly. Our loyal contributors (to whom we are ever grateful) had nothing to say this week. Neither did Evelyn or I. So why not take the opportunity to go for a walk and breathe some fresh air? Or if you live in the Northeast you can use some extra time to dig your car out of the snow. [-mrl]

Maybe the First Smoke (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

If you do not know about Tabby's star, please bear with me. I will start slow and get progressively more excited writing it. I am not an astronomer or an exobiologist and so I cannot judge how serious this news is. These days just reading the science news is as exciting as science fiction was when I was growing up. But there seems to be an uproar about Tabby's star. "Tabby's star" sounds like science fiction for eight-year-olds. There was an old series called "Space Cat" that I read about that age. But no, Tabby's star is getting some expert attention. That is because it is doing what I think no other star is doing. Apparently it is growing dimmer. It is irregularly losing its luminosity. At least less and less light from the star seems to be getting to us.

Well, that does not sound like it is all that intriguing. If it went out altogether I am not sure I would feel it was a personal loss. With all the stars out there, why should we care that it is just not as light as it used to be. But you can look at it that we now have studied a tremendous number of stars and only one is known to be dimming like this. That makes Tabby's dimming a very low probability event. Tabby's star, whose real designation is KIC 8462852, is the only star we know of that is dimming this way. Tabby's star is named for Tabetha Boyajian of Yale University who leads a team of astronomers studying KIC 8462852.

Boyajian discovered that over the interval from 2009 to 2013 the star had lost luminosity. Now other astronomers have been reexamining photographic plates that show the star and they discovered that Tabby's star was about 25% brighter in 1890 than it was 1989. This behavior seems unexciting but it is unique.

So why does it matter so much that the star is dimming? Well it does not seem to be the star itself that is dimming. It is more likely that something is orbiting Tabby's star and blocking the light that passes between it and us. What might be progressively blocking more and more light between the star and us? As a planet orbits the star it might cause periodic dimming, but as it moves out of the way the brightness would return. It would appear there is progressively more matter circling in orbit around KIC 8462852 and obscuring light from the star.

An early guess was that this is detritus and debris from comets coming close to the star and melting the ice and freeing gravel. It would be a lot of comets. It would take 648,000 comets 200 kilometers wide. That is what it would take to drop enough stuff to obscure enough starlight for a 20% loss in luminosity. Don't get me wrong--it could happen! But the smart money does not bet that way. (Actually the smart money does not bet on anything that is 1480 light years away. What light we are currently seeing left Tabby's star A.D. 536.)

It does not sound like comets would dump enough stuff to cause the dimming we are seeing. In fact there is nothing natural that seems like it could be causing this diminution of like there from KIC 8462852. It could have been intentionally done. Maybe if someone was building a Dyson sphere around Tabby's star. Or maybe some other energy collector that would explain it.

Sure, that might explain it. Probably not. We think that if there were large-scale energy collectors there would probably be infrared light leaked because of the heat of the star. So maybe what we are seeing has a logical explanation for it to be a natural phenomenon, or it has been suggest that energy collectors are being systematically placed around Tabby to collect and harness radiation. That suggests that we could be seeing something being done by intelligent life. What we are seeing might be the first smoke we see from a neighbor's cook fire. Maybe it is a neighbor a mere 1540light-years away. I would not bet on it. The Drake Equation and its brother, the Seager Equation, just produce numbers that are so tiny as to be almost negligible. But it is extremely unlikely we will know one way or another in the lifetimes of anyone now reading these words.

This essay is based on an article by Jacob Aron in THE NEW SCIENTIST.



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

The film-and-book group did THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD and "Red Nails" and "Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard this month. THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD is a (highly-recommended) sort-of-biopic about Robert E. Howard, based on the memoirs of Novalyne Price. In the film, we hear Vincent D'Onofrio (as Howard) re-telling excerpts from a couple of his stories, describing Conan, and so on. D'Onofrio does an excellent job, and this was really useful to reading the two stories chosen, as I ended up hearing them in D'Onofrio's voice.

"Red Nails" is the longer of the two, and is the story in which Conan meets Valeria. (It has nothing to do with the film in which he meets her, CONAN THE BARBARIAN.) It is also the last Conan story thatHoward wrote, and was serialized in three issues of WEIRD TALES in 1936. Whether it is a function of being paid by the word, or the general style of pulp writing, Howard rarely has a noun without an adjective.

"Pigeons from Hell" was made into an episode of "Thriller" (episode 36 of the first season). It must have been hell to shoot (no pun intended), with a need for probably more than one pigeon wrangler. The constant cooing of the pigeons is annoying enough, even before they added weird voices and screams. It was shot "day-for-night", which probably made some things easier--I suspect that pigeons tend to sleep at night rather than perform all the actions they do in the episode. Interesting trivia: The episode was directed by John Newland, who went on to fame with the television series "One Step Beyond". The short story (novelette, actually) was written by Howard in 1934, but not published in his lifetime. It was published posthumously in 1938 in WEIRD TALES.

The episode made some changes to the story. Not surprisingly, it brought it up to date (1960). It made the two friends in Howard's story brothers, and (with the choice of actors) made them very immature. But the setting still seems to be Louisiana, or that general area. H. P. Lovecraft set his stories in New England, while Howard set his in Texas and the surrounding area. Perhaps as a nod to Lovecraft, Howard's friends come from New England.

On the one hand, Howard could recognize that the myth of the idyllic antebellum South was just that--a myth: "Griswell grew faint with nausea, that rose from a frantic abhorrence of these back woods, these ancient plantation houses that hid forgotten secrets of slavery and bloody pride and mysterious intrigues. He had thought of the South as a sunny, lazy land washed by soft breezes laden with spice and warm blossoms, where life ran tranquilly to the rhythm of black folk singing, in sunbathed cottonfields [sic]. But now he had discovered another, unsuspected side--a dark, brooding, fear-haunted side, and the discovery repelled him."

On the other, of course, one also finds the casual racism of the period. Howard writes, "Joan had white blood in her, and she was proud, too," as though that meant that when she was whipped by the sisters, it was worse than if a black servant or a slave were being whipped. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper
Quote of the Week:
          I read the book of Job last night. I don't think God 
          comes well out of it.
                                 --Virginia Woolf (attrib.)

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