MT VOID 01/26/01 (Vol. 19, Number 30)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 01/26/01 -- Vol. 19, No. 30

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-447-3652 for details.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


Every once in a while I read an article that questions some very basic assumptions that I have been harboring. One such article was by Phillip Longman in the December 25 issue of U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT. (A copy can be found at The assumption I have made is that technology and progress are increasing in speed. We are getting past the knee of the curve and change will be a part of life that will be almost unslowable. Longman thinks that really the greatest progress of this century was made in the first half and that progress is indeed slowing down. He looks at the example of the benign couple of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson from a 1950s sitcom and asks would they feel more out of place moved fifty years into their past or fifty years into their future?

The Nelsons, he points out, "had indoor plumbing, electric lights, a car, television, telephone, refrigerator, blender, vacuum cleaner, and probably an automatic laundry washer and dryer." These are all products of the first half of this century. These are all things that they would do without were they moved back to 1900. If they were moved instead to the year 2000 they would find life a lot like the one they had left. It would take them a few minutes to get used to push buttons on a phone, but they could drive our cars and use most of our appliances. Things have been refined in the second half of the century, but they have not really changed all that much. At least that is his argument.

In fact, Longman is probably right, though his arguments are faulty. Disorientation is not a proper measure. One can always move fifty years into the future and just not make use of the latest inventions. Members of my wife's family are extremely change-adverse and live a life that essentially they could have lived fifty years ago. Virtually nobody is forced to use the Internet, but it has brought some major changes. Ozzie and Harriet in the 21st century would not know how to make use of the Internet, but they could quickly learn what it was and that it was out there. It is true that if they were moved back in time fifty years there is a lot they would miss, but there is a lot we would miss also going instead from 2000 to 1950. Not the least of which would be some antibiotics and polio vaccine. Comparing disorientation going forward and backward is comparing apples and oranges.

But Longman's errors are correctable without negating his point. I have to believe that it would be a much worse punishment to force the Nelsons to live in 1900 than to force me to live in 1950. This would put them on the nasty side of the post-W.W.I influenza epidemic. Medicine was much improved in the first half of this century and much more slowly advanced in the second half. As Longman points out, life expectancies were much extended. The extension of life in the second half of the century has come much slower.

There are a lot of places where we have lost the technological ability or "recipe" to do what we once could. Much of the reason for that is economic. If New York City did not have a subway system to this point, it would probably never get one of the current complexity and capacity. We proved we could go to the moon in the 1960s, but then we lost the ability. If we had to put a man on the moon as soon as possible, it is not at all clear we could do it with even ten years' notice. The economic cost, I have been told, would be far greater. We probably would not have the resolve to expend the resources necessary. We may well be a civilization that has hit its prime and is now falling backward. As a third example Longman points out that the fastest one can cross the Atlantic has just gotten a lot slower with the death of the commercial supersonic transport.

Next week/A> I will return to this rather sobering concept with a look at the implications. [-mrl]

2000: Some Thoughts on a Year of Reading:

(book reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper):

I haven't done much reviewing of individual books this year, so this is in the way of compensating by hitting some of the highlights (and perhaps lowlights) of what I've read. Most are not books first published in 2000 (they go back over 2000 years, in fact). And to your great relief, I'm not covering all 157 books I read (split fairly evenly among science fiction, other fiction, and non-fiction).

The most interesting science book I read was a 2000 book: Matt Ridley's "Genome." Each of the 23 chapters covers a gene on a different chromosome, but Ridley talks a variety of approaches: sometimes historical, sometimes medical, sometimes chemical.

An unclassifiable book is Roger Bruns's "Almost History," which consist of speeches never given, paths never taken, and other ahistorical wanderings. For example, there is Eisenhower's (real) speech to be given if D-Day failed, but there is also some rather pointless speculation about whether or not Mrs. O'Leary's cow started the Great Chicago Fire. Interesting, if a mixed bag.

Simon Schama's "History of Britain" is clearly history, and only suffers by comparison to the television series, which is basically an illustrated audio abridgement. Schama writes with a lot of wit and humor, and this comes through far better when you *hear* the words spoken.

I had read Jorge Luis Borges's "Selected Fictions" last year; this year I continued with his "Selected Non-Fictions." Some of the articles I had seen before, but many were new to me, particularly Borges's book and film reviews. I also went on a John Sutherland binge, reading "Henry V, War Criminal?," "Where Was Rebecca Shot?," and "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett?" The first was co-authored with someone else who wasn't nearly as good at analyzing the literary puzzles and questions as Sutherland. The one problem, of course, is that unless you've read the work being dissected in an essay, you won't appreciate the analysis, but Sutherland sticks pretty much to the canon. ("Where Was Rebecca Shot?" does move into more modern works.)

I re-read Helene Hanff's "Q's Legacy." (I tend to re-read her books a lot.)

Borges is one of my two favorite fantastic authors; the other is Olaf Stapledon, and so I read Robert Crossley's biography of him, "Olaf Stapledon: Speaking to the Future," as well as "Talking Across the World," the collection of letters written between Stapledon in England and France and his cousin Agnes (who later became his wife) in Australia throughout World War I. Stapledon served as an ambulance driver at the front, and his letters do convey some of the horror of that war, and serve as a good way to understand his biography as well.

Other books of a biographical nature included Homer H. Hickham, Jr's "Rocket Boys" (made into the movie "October Sky"). One thing that struck me was how the events in the movie that seemed most unlikely were real, and also to see what changes were made. (One obvious one was changing his father's name--it's confusing in films for two characters to have the same name.) I recommend both the book and the movie.

Clara Solomon's "Civil War Diary" interested me because it is the only such diary I know of written by a Jew. And speaking of Jews, Fred A. Bernstein's "Jewish Mothers' Hall of Fame" is of interest here because one of the mothers interviewed was Rosalyn Yalow's mother (or Ben Yalow's grandmother).

Segueing into fandom, Camille Bacon-Smith's "Science Fiction Culture" is a definite Hugo contender (it was first published in 2000) and well worth reading. It also mentions Ben.

Drifting into another aspect of science fiction, I also really recommend Tom Weaver's "Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes." This is an omnibus trade paperback reprint of the McFarland Press two-volume hardback, and at $35 (versus somewhere around $120 for the hardback), it's a great buy. Weaver interviewed dozens of actors, actresses, and crew from 1950s science fiction and horror movies, and some of the stories they tell are hysterical. (For example, the man who played Blonde Boy in "Teenage Caveman" also played the bear and another character as well in the same movie, but his best story is about the bear's death scene.)

Harry M. Benshoff may go a little overboard in "Monsters in the Closet," seeing every use of the words "gay" and "queer" in 1930s films as indicative of some underlying homosexual subtext, but I have to say that after reading it, you will never look at these films the same way again. Oddly enough, as Benshoff moved forward in time to more obvious references in films, the book became less interesting.

As always, I read some Shakespeare. There was "Titus Andronicus" (before seeing "Titus") and "King Edward III" (after it was decided he wrote it--not one of his better efforts. I also highly recommend "Titus," which I had thought was a 1999 film, but Roger Ebert's mention of it on his 2000 list makes me wonder if I should try nominating it for a Hugo again. I also re-read Euripides's "Electra" after seeing the movie on cable. Arnold Wesker's "Birth of Shylock & The Death of Zero Mostel" would have been more meaningful if I had seen or read Wesker's play "Shylock" (which folded on Broadway after its star, Zero Mostel, died on opening night). Re-writing "The Merchant of Venice" was not original (so to speak) with Wesker, though--George Granville did it three hundred years ago with "The Jew of Venice," which steals lines shamelessly from Shakespeare.

It was the year of the series. I read books two through four of the "Harry Potter" series, and enjoyed them. I read S. M. Stirling's "Nantucket" series ("Across the Sea of Time," "Against the Tide of Years," and "On the Oceans of Eternity") and found that one can have too much of a good thing. I also read Eric Flint's "1632" and found myself in the midst of "Duelling Time Travelers"- -a seeming argument about whether Nantucket Yankees or West Virginia coal miners were better prepared to have their entire community flung back in time. (Jerry Sohl had already been there, done that, and been forgotten before either of them.) As part of my "I shall read no trilogy before its time" policy, I read the last two Stirling books back-to-back, and had the worst of both worlds: I had difficulty remembering the details of the first book after a year, and tired of the third before I finished it.

Another trilogy was Philip Pullman "His Dark Materials" ("The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass"). Again I read all three together, and again, it grew somewhat wearisome towards the end. However, I have to say that I am astonished by the notion that an author actually sold a young adult trilogy based on apparently Gnostic theology, and promoting a very negative image of God and organized religion. ("Harry Potter" pretty much side-steps the whole issue of religion.)

And speaking of negative images of God, James Morrow has finished his triptych with "The Eternal Footman." Unfortunately, it's not quite up to "Towing Jehovah" or "Blameless in Abaddon." (And he puts the toll booths on the Tappan Zee Bridge at the wrong end.)

Actually, there seems to be arising trend to get details wrong. Robert Charles Wilson, in one of the stories in "Perseids and Other Stories," completely misstates what I think is supposed to be Goldbach's Conjecture ("Every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes.") as "Two primes always add up to an even number." (Hint: If one of the primes is 2, and the other not, they don't. Otherwise, you're adding two odd or two even numbers, so of course the sum is even.) And James Stevens-Arce's "Soulsaver" says the low thirties Centigrade are the high nineties to low hundreds Fahrenheit. (The last could, I suppose, be written off as the ignorance of the first-person narrator.)

In spite of its gaffe, I recommend the Wilson collection, which contains three never-before-published stories--think Hugo. "Soulsaver" is set in Puerto Rico a hundred years in the future, at which time a Christian dictatorship has taken over the United States. It's difficult to tell whether it's Protestant, Catholic, or what. In Puerto Rico, at least, there is still confession et al, but the general trappings seem more Protestant-based, there is a minor character named "Father Luther," there are women priests, and so on. The first three-quarters or so are really good, but then it descends into a stock series of revelations, and yet another gaffe, harder to explain away, involving time and timing.

Speaking of Puerto Rico, I enjoyed all of Rosario Ferre's "House on the Lagoon," a multi-generational story starting around the turn of the century (1900, that is). I read the English translation (by Ferre herself), while I gave my father the Spanish version. (For both these recommendations, I suppose I should mention that my father is from Puerto Rico, so I have a particular interest in the island.)

As a nod to the end of the century, I read several books written a while ago, but set in 2000. The most well-known was probably Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward: 2000-1887" (written in 1888), but the most interesting was John Jacob Astor's "A Journey in Other Worlds" (written in 1894). Involving anti-gravity and a voyage to other planets, it reads more like a Jules Verne adventure novel than a realistic look at what the future might be. It is out of print but available on-line, complete with the nifty illustrations.

I read the various Hugo nominees, and my choice was Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon." I'm not going to argue as to whether it is science fiction, but just say that to me it was.

I re-read Arturo Perez-Reverte's "Club Dumas" after seeing the movie "The Ninth Gate." Though the movie was based on the book, the entire Dumas plot was removed, rather necessitating the title change. I recommend them both, though the character Johnny Depp plays in the movie is a rather bizarre interpretation of a rare book dealer. (I don't know of any book dealers who would examine a valuable 16th century book while drinking whiskey and *smoking*!)

Mike Ashley has edited a whole series of mystery anthologies set in the past (including "Shakespearean Detectives" and "Classical Whodunnits"). The latest I have read is "Historical Detectives," which is a good sampling of authors and eras.

William Sleator's "Rewind" seemed very much a children's (or young adult) version of the ever-popular "Replay" by Ken Grimwood. ("Replay" also seemed to have inspired the movie "Groundhog Day" a few years ago.)

Joe Haldeman's "The Coming" is proof that you don't need to write a doorstop. At 216 pages, it conveys a feeling for the time and place of the story, creates characters, tells a story, and ends. The style is quite interesting, and possibly one reason why Haldeman wanted to keep it short: there are no abrupt scene changes. That is to say, if he is writing about character A and wants to have the next scene be about character B, he ends the scene with the two characters interacting, or at least intersecting in some way. It's easier to express this cinematically: the story is shot in a single take. (There are time lapses allowed, however, but only within a single chapter and with a single character.)

And in short fiction, seek out Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" in the anthology "Vansihing Acts" (edited by Ellen Datlow). (Has Chiang ever written a bad story, or even one that was just okay?) If you liked James Alan Gardner's "Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream" or Richard Garfinkle's "Celestial Matters," you'll probably like this one. It's not just an alternate history, but a science fiction story set in that world. [-ecl]

Quote of the Week:

    Stay clear of anyone who refers to God more than
    once an hour.
                                   -- Roger Rosenblatt