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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/13/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 7
Table of Contents
Chain of Fools (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
My sister sent me a joke about chain letters and I thought that it might be time to recycle a couple I wrote, one seventeen years ago, one from six years ago. Maybe they will make some lighter reading.
THE SHORTER ITS LEGS, THE HIGHER IT FLIES
This message has been sent to you because you are a bozo and need the luck it brings. Do not keep this letter. Make 43 copies and send them to 43 people who are also bozos. Eventually this letter will find its way to every bozo in the world. Won't that be something!
This is the only true chain letter and it has brought luck to millions. Unlike most chain letters, this one will list real case histories of recipients whose names you will recognize and can verify if you want. When they received the letter it was just as you see it now and they were no doubt astounded to see their names already on it.
Mickey Mouse received the letter and decided not to pass it on. That afternoon he went to a picnic and it rained! When he got home he sent out his 43 copies and the next day Morty came home with a B+ in spelling.
Batman received the letter and lost it somewhere in the bowels of the Batcave. Two days later the Riddler was released from prison and started a crime wave in Gotham City.
Wiley Coyote ignored the letter and the Road Runner tricked him into running off the edge of a 400 foot cliff. Coyote was in itchy plaster casts for the next SIX scenes!
Beaver Cleaver got the letter but lost it spying on Wally, Eddie Haskell, and Lumpy Rutheford. On the way home Beaver fell in newly laid cement and ruined his new pants.
Donald Duck got the letter and sent out 43 copies. That afternoon he got some voice improvement pills that made him sound like Ronald Coleman. But the next day Mr. Mailman brought all 43 letters back and said Donald had forgotten to put stamps on them. Donald used his new- found voice to chew out Mr. Mailman, but just then the pills gave out and in a frenzy of duck yelling he ripped up the letters. Two days later Uncle Scrooge gave all his money to Oral Roberts.
The FBI is still investigating a torn-up copy of this letter found by a waiter cleaning up Jimmy Hoffa's table setting that last day.
Don't risk it. Surely you run into more than 43 bozos EVERY DAY! I know I do. How about the one who took up two parking spaces so nobody would park near his fancy new car? I am sure he can use this letter. Why not leave it under his wiper for him? And to be sure it doesn't blow away why not epoxy it to his windshield? You must know hundreds of bozos you could give it to, but limit yourself to 43. Otherwise there could be a serious shortage of bozos who haven't gotten it.
In 1998 I suggested to readers that when they get chain letters they should return the dubious favor:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I recently received a chain letter from you with a puerile, feel- good proto-prayer expressed as an incoherent thought surrogate. I am so pleased that you thought of me, and I hope you are not overly concerned about your possible upcoming martyrdom for your fatuous beliefs. Let me explain in some detail what I mean. The following facts have come to my attention.
-- Rudolf Hotze was on Death Row for the brutal dismemberment murder and robbery of Robert Rowland. In what was to be his last mail delivery he received a chain letter with some sentimental claptrap. He made up copies and was about to send me one, when decided it was not worth it. HE CHOSE NOT TO SEND ME A CHAIN LETTER. Two hours later his execution was commuted to a prison term. Last week due to DNA evidence he was released and now has a lucrative job.
-- Carol Johnson, got a chain letter in the mail and immediately thought of me. She made up a copy and crossed the street to MAIL ME THE COPY. She was so excited she never saw the UPS truck coming up the hill.
-- A man in Portland Oregon got a chain letter and immediately threw it in the wastebasket. Two days later he won the Irish Sweepstakes.
-- Robert Rowland got a copy of the same chain letter in the mail and he SENT ME A COPY. A week later he suffered a misfortune and his body was found in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
-- Scott Adams had the idea to send anti-chain-letter mail and today he writes the fantastically successful DILBERT comic strip making millions from what should be common knowledge.
-- A woman in Stowe, Vermont STARTED A CHAIN LETTER and one week later was diagnosed with lymph cancer.
Remember, chance favors people who are not moronic, superstitious putzes. You already have made yourself a stupid jerk by giving me a chain letter. A very bad fate may be waiting for you after what you have already done. But there may still be time. Make ten copies of this letter and pass it to the next ten people who give you chain letters. I am doing this because in spite of the fact that you have shown yourself to be dumb as a chewed pork chop, I still care for you and I am ready to forgive. [-mrl]
MORE THAN HUMAN by Theodore Sturgeon (copyright 1953, Ballantine Books, SBN 345-02199-9, 188pp, $0.95) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I knew that I would only have time for one more of the retro-Hugo nominees, so I picked the one novel that I'd never read--MORE THAN HUMAN by Theodore Sturgeon. I've not read very much Sturgeon, but certainly have intended to. I own the first seven volumes of THE COMPLETE STORIES OF THEODORE STURGEON, but just haven't gotten to them yet. I saw MORE THAN HUMAN as an opportunity to get into his work.
Sturgeon has been hailed as one of the best literary SF writers in history, and after reading this novel I can see why. This book is the complete opposite of MISSION OF GRAVITY--character development is everything, motivation is everything, and the sfnal elements are secondary to the story. Indeed, they provide the backdrop for the greater story of the morality of the next generation in human evolution.
It's very hard to describe and summarize this novel. The next generation that I mention in the previous paragraph is described by one of the characters as Homo Gestalt--a kind of superhuman entity made up of several almost less than human characters, where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. We do get some insight on the background of many of the members of the gestalt and how their behavior is shaped by their pasts.
This is one of those stories that seems to work on many different levels, and I get the feeling that I need to read it a few more times before I get them all. It's a terrific story with a terrific ending, and I'm glad I picked it to read next. And once again, this book proves that you can tell a terrific, "literary" SF story in something less than 600 pages--in this case, 188. I highly recommend it. [-jak]
COLLATERAL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Jamie Foxx plays a cab driver who gets an unusual passenger, a professional assassin who has a list of people to kill that night. The driver learns from the assassin how to live his life. The passenger learns why it is better for an assassin to drive himself, even in Los Angeles. Tom Cruise, the assassin, adds another good performance to his portfolio. But under scrutiny the premise is actually absurd and script really falls to pieces. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Tom Cruise long ago mastered the role of handsome lead and hero. He moved on to a variety of more complex roles like a dysfunctional maladjusted political activist, an amoral vampire, a disaffected warrior, a man who learns to love his autistic brother. Along the way his acting talent has steadily developed. He is still limited. I doubt he could convey strong emotions the way a Lee J. Cobb could. But he passed long ago the stage where he was mostly decorative.
In COLLATERAL Cruise is a calculating and systematic hired assassin. This time around he is not even the main character though he certainly is the center of attention. We see the night that the film takes place through the eyes of Max (played by Jamie Foxx), the cab driver that assassin Vincent (Cruise) has hired to take him around to his next five victims. From the Max's point of view the story is a tense thriller. The cabby has to try to save the lives of the victims and very possibly his own life. This puts him in the position of sometimes working against Vincent and sometimes working for him.
The surprise inside the story is that if we see the film through the eyes of the assassin Vincent it turns from a thriller into a shaggy dog story. Vincent, who outwardly looks so cool and professional, is really something of a bumbler. The evening goes nothing like he could have planned it. His primary error is to put the success of his assignment and his very life into the hands of an innocent bystander over whom he has so little control. We are told why he does this and it still seems a bone-headed maneuver that is not worth the risk and would likely not work the way he hopes. He gets what he deserves. (I will discuss his motive in more detail in a spoiler section following the review.) Over the course of the evening Vincent loses the data he needs for his work, he is made to look like a fool to his employers, and he ends up in the hospital visiting his driver's mother Ida (Irma P. Hall of the recent THE LADYKILLERS). At one point he has his gun pointed directly at his victim and for no particular reason he just pauses. And we quickly see why no assassin would ever do that. In the end Vincent's worst nightmare about Los Angeles comes true for him. It is unclear whether director Michael Mann and writer Stuart Beattie recognized how unprofessional the professional Vincent is. Certainly they hope the audience does not notice.
In the course of the night there is a good deal of discussion of philosophies of life. Max has big plans for his future but lies to himself about going after those goals. Vincent wants to help Max to control his life, but Vincent has his own fears. Max has his own ideas of how to handle fears, which he imparts to an earlier passenger, but is also limited by his own fears. Along these lines there is someone else we see relating to Vince and Max about the happiest night of his life.
Cruise here has prematurely grayed hair, dark glasses, a few days' growth of beard, and a knockout suit. Somehow the look is one I associate with Richard Gere. From a distance he even resembles Gere. By now Mann is an old hand at filming crime stories set in Los Angeles. Still at times his visual style seems to fight the camera's storytelling. A sequence filmed in a disco is almost incoherent.
COLLATERAL is one of those films that seem like one kind of film while you watch it and becomes a very different film with thought afterward. Still it rivets the viewer because it does not give the viewer time to think about the premise. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Spoiler ... Spoiler ... Spoiler ...
The implication is that Vincent has been successful in framing a similar driver on a similar assignment and the police had assumed that they were random killings by a cab driver who suddenly turned psychotic. But presumably in that assignment the victims were related as they are here. It seems unlikely that the police would think an amateur and psychotic would just happen to choose a related set of victims. Even if they believe that once they would never believe it twice and in fact they do not. A real professional would have driven himself or gotten a local driver he could trust. But then there would have been no story to tell. [-mrl]
GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL, THE FATE OF HUMAN SOCIETIES by Jared Diamond (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999, 425 pages text, 480 pages total including references, plus 32 pages of photographs. $16.95 soft-cover) (book review by Pete Brady):
(This review was first published as a book review in the "Bulletin of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums".)
I know a woman that once had a de-scented pet skunk. The skunk was slightly friendly and slightly playful. Like my cat. But there is a major difference between the two animals. My cat is domesticated and the skunk was wild.
GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL is an ambitious book, and the domestication of animals is only one of many topics covered therein. The book describes the present day world and its various peoples - the languages they speak, their physical attributes, the diseases they are immune to or susceptible to, the things they eat and, if they grow crops, what they grow. The author shows how these factors led to different peoples being subjugated by other people, and why. So, in one sense this book is a directory of peoples of the world. Diamond specializes in southeast Asia, where he has spent much time, especially in New Guinea. "New Guinea has the highest concentration of languages in the world: 1,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are crammed into an area only slightly larger than Texas." And, as a directory of peoples, this makes a good and thorough textbook.
But this is more than a textbook. Some forms of human or similar species have occupied Earth for the past five million years, with Homo Sapiens being around for the last 150,000 years. We have historical records for only the last 13,000 years, and this shorter period is the author's time-line. The author tells how people moved from place to place and, when they stayed put, developed or didn't develop in stature.
The big question that Diamond tackles is why people developed at different times and at different rates. The title "GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL" refers to the way that the more advanced civilizations conquered the others by using more advanced weapons, inadvertently (usually) spreading diseases that the conquered people were not immune to, and having a more mechanized way of life. Now, in a planet of our size, one cannot expect all civilizations to advance at an equal rate, especially if they were not connected to each other until recently, some even in just the last few hundred years. But Diamond argues that the differences are not just statistical variance.
Diamond gives many reasons for these differences, and we can only sample one or two here. We'll look at diseases. With agriculture, populations are larger, and with mechanization, cities and towns are larger. Thus, contagious diseases spread more easily. This means that many will die, but natural selection leaves those alive that tend to be immune, that is, immunity builds up in the population. While this was taking place over centuries in Europe, the native American Indians were thinly spread over their continent and did not catch these diseases - until the Spanish explorers and others arrived, at which point the natives got nearly wiped out.
We then probe deeper. Why do some people have crops and others remain hunter-gatherers? Diamond's answer is domestication. He defines a domesticated animal as one that is "selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors." Thus, while our particular skunk was tame, it was not domesticated. Diamond indicates that domestication is perhaps the major reason that some civilizations developed more than others. Of the 148 big terrestrial herbivorous animal species, only 14 have been domesticated, and further, those 14 were all domesticated prior to 2500 B.C. (Attempts have been made in more modern times to domesticate other species such as the zebra and American bison, but these have not succeeded.) Domestication was not uniformly spread over the continents. Of those 14 animals mentioned above, only one--the llama (alpaca)--came from the western hemisphere. So, the Americas lacked the advantages gained from, for example, cattle which supplied work and meat to Eurasians.
Domestication also applies to plants (that is, to crops), because this is what made agriculture possible and transformed us from hunter-gatherers into civilized people that were freed from hunting and could indulge in the arts, develop machines, and, with more food, increase in numbers. The author uses the wild almond as an example of the value of modifying crops. A few dozen wild almonds contain enough cyanide to kill a person, but with domestication, they become an ingredient in candy bars. There are 200,000 species of flowering plants, but only a few were domesticated in the Americas. For example, the native Americans did not domesticate the grape or apple, although these plants have later been domesticated. In Australia, macadamia nuts are the only practical crop that evolved from native plants. Thus, Australians remained hunter-gatherers.
Once crops began to be established, Diamond argues that the geographic shape of the continents played perhaps the major role in spreading the knowledge about farming, arts, writing, and machinery. Eurasia is lateral; one moves easily east to west across a similar climactic zone. But the western hemisphere has Central America blocking the way, with a difficult passage thru Panama. Similarly, the north-south routes in Africa are blocked by desert and jungle. So, the Americas and southern Africa remained primitive while civilization advanced in Eurasia.
Diamond is so firm in his conviction that geography and prior settings of natural plant development are the major, if not sole reason for differences in humanity that, at the end of his book, he makes a daring conjecture: "If the populations of Aboriginal Australia and Eurasia could have been interchanged during the Late Pleistocene era [13,000 years ago], the original Australians would be occupying Europe and America and the original Eurasians would be downtrodden fragments in Australia." It's where they were way back when, not what they were.
That argument can be subject to the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after the fact, therefore because of the fact). That is, we see what's around us today and we see what conditions existed a few thousand years ago (such as the existence of the Isthmus of Panama), and conclude that those conditions had to produce our current state, even if the populations had been switched around. Well, Mr. Diamond, what about chaos? Chaos occurs when the process that produces the final result is so complex, with so many variables, that the slightest change in even one initial variable can produce a profound and unpredictable change on the final result. How does he know if one or more seemingly insignificant events, which he could not know about thousands of years later, and which would not repeat if you switched populations and started over, had a profound effect on our current status?
Diamond himself makes such an argument. He notes that in summer 1930, two years before Adolph Hitler seized power, he was nearly killed in a car-truck collision. He speculates that if the truck driver applied his brakes two seconds later and killed Hitler, wouldn't that have completely changed the course of events in the 20th century? Would there have been, for example, a frantic search for the atomic bomb, or any of the technological advances produced by World War II?
So, this book makes very informative and challenging reading. It will particularly appeal to back-breeders interested in early crops and how they changed. With my own interest in history of languages, I was pleased to learn how major language groups developed and spread, and how some nations acquired an alphabet while others remained using pictographs. One of my biggest challenges from this Pulitzer Prize-winning book has been to review it in a limited space. I hope I have done at least a fair job of that. It remains for you to go to the book and get the full story. But be warned--it's not bedtime reading! [-ptb]
About the Author
Pete joined ALHFAM in 1976. He is now retired, but continues as a volunteer historic interpreter, fiddler, and database designer, and is the founder and manager of the D-Major Singers, a group of four people who sing folk music of the 1700s. They have performed at 16 sites in five states including several ALHFAM sites. This is his fifth book review for the ALHFAM Bulletin.
[Pete is also a very old and respected friend. His musical evenings are great and memorable events. -mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Jack Dann's REBEL (ISBN 0-380-97839-3) is an alternate history: what if James Dean had not been not killed in his car crash? This didn't sound very promising to me, and indeed becomes interesting only by getting Dean involved in politics by way of Marilyn Monroe's connection with the Kennedys. I felt like I was reading a tabloid newspaper through most of it, with the bulk of the story being about Jimmy and Marilyn, and Jimmy and Pier Angeli, and Marilyn and Jack, and Marilyn and Bobby, and all sorts of other pairings. Oh, and Elvis. Even I, a cinema fan, found this uninvolving. (Contrast this with Kim Newman's or Howard Waldrop's Hollywood alternate histories--those are very engaging.)
Ruth Rendell's BLOOD LINES (ISBN 0-517-70323-8) is a collection of mystery short stories in a style similar to Patricia Highsmith, though not nearly as edgy and unsettling. The result is that I can actually *read* these stories, and I recommend them. I have not read any of Rendell's novels, but she has several other collections out as well, and she also writes under the name of Barbara Vine.
Tim Powers's THE ANUBIS GATES (ISBN 0-441-00401-6) is a classic that I had never gotten around to reading. Its macguffin is a poet named William Ashbless, who does not exist in the (our) real world. I mention this because, like FARGO, this story has convinced many people of the reality of something which is not real. ("William Ashbless" was a pen name used by Tim Powers and James Blaylock for their jointly written poetry in college. Both authors now use the character.) Powers's style reminds me of Ray Bradbury's. I have no idea why, and I'm sure everyone now thinks I'm nuts for saying so. But there you have it. Maybe it is just a highly poetic style with the sort of imagery that Bradbury might use.
This book was a reprint by Orb, and one quibble I have is that what I assume were errors in the original printing were not corrected. For example, on page 47, the characters talk about October 1, 1810, as a Saturday; it was a Monday. (Earlier on page 29, they spoke of September 1 of that year as a Saturday, and on page 132 they are only up to September 11, so the typo is obvious--and should have been fixed.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The feeble tremble before opinion, the foolish defy it, the wise judge it, the skillful direct it. -- Jeanne-Marie Roland
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