MT VOID 08/15/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 7, Whole Number 1506

MT VOID 08/15/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 7, Whole Number 1506

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/15/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 7, Whole Number 1506

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, La Honcha Bonita: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Generation Chasm (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

True story: A few weeks ago I was showing two teenage girls some origami. They knew how to fold the famous crane. When the Japanese want something really special they fold 1000 cranes. I started of fold what looked like a crane, but with a few different folds at the end I made something very different and held it up.

"What's that?" they asked. It is a slightly unhappy experience when you fold a figure and people cannot recognize what it is.

"It's a Starship Enterprise."

"What's that?"

"It is a Starship Enterprise, like from 'Star Trek'."

"I never watched any 'Star Trek's. 'Star Wars' is more popular."

I said, "I thought even 'Star Wars' was not that popular any more. It is THE MATRIX that is popular."

"Well, yeah, that is really true."

"Excuse me. I think I am going to go take some Geritol."

"What's that?"


10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

John Tierney gives us a few things we can stop worrying about, including killer hot dogs, carcinogenic cellphones, deadly sharks, the universe’s missing mass, and unmarked wormholes. [-ecl]

One More Thing to Worry About (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

There is a popular cartoon that shows two fish swimming, not in a tank, but in a blender. One fish is telling the other, "I can't stand the tension." It is a scary thought that with one quick button press you might go from being a healthy--if anxiety- ridden--fish to being gefilte fish. It is a common human angst that things can be going just fine for you one moment and then a moment later you have had a huge reversal of fortune and you are in big trouble. And those who are in big trouble are perhaps the lucky ones. Something can happen unexpectedly and you can be snuffed out in a matter of seconds or perhaps days. That is what the story of Oedipus all about. This guy is on top of the world. He is King. Then he finds out that the man he killed a while back was his father. That cute lady he married is his mother. Hours later he has lost it all and is plucking out his eyes. The theme shows up a lot in the great literature. One minute you have invented a Nobel-Prize-worthy matter transmitter that will revolutionize the world, the next you have an insect body and want to go out and find a nice dog pile. It is very dramatic. These Swords of Damocles hanging over people's heads fascinate us. Of course, the story of Damocles is another such story. Damocles envied his king so to teach Damocles a lesson he was given a royal banquet. In the middle of the meal he looked up and saw a sword suspended over his head. A single hair that could have broken at any second held it up. He got so caught up in physics questions about the mass of the sword and tensile strength of a human hair that he clean forgot that one of the powers of the king is simply to move his seat at the dinner table.

But in some senses we all have a Sword of Damocles. During the Cold War the Sword of Damocles was replaced by a certain button that would send guided missiles chock full of nuclear greetings from a certain unnamed country to the United States. That missile could fall at any second. And that sort of fear is still with some of us. I live just a very short distance (as the crow flies) from terrorist target Manhattan. This is a constant threat. And the probability is a little alarming that a large asteroid or meteorite could fall from the sky as others have in the past. We all are figuratively looking down the barrel of a gun. But in fact we are also looking literally down the barrel of a sort of loaded gun. Do you know about WR104? No, it is not a rock station. WR104 actually is a gun pointed you. Worse yet, it is also pointed at me. It is pointed at all of us. But don't look around the room for this gun. You cannot see it with the naked eye. Only astronomers can see it. It is 8000 light years away. Or at least it was 8000 years ago. Who knows if it even exists right now? And if it does not exist any more, that could be even worse.

Okay, enough hysteria, it is time for me to start making some sense. What am I talking about? WR104 is an unstable star in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. And, yes, it is 8000 light years away. Why do you care? Well it might explode. Why do you care about that? Well, by the sheerest of coincidences our solar system just happens to be on the extension of the axis of spin of WR104. Why do you care about that? Because when an unstable star like this explodes it sends out an intense focussed beam of gamma radiation right along its axis of spin and in this case right at planet earth. OK, maybe you are starting to care. Let me set your mind at ease. If it exploded today it would take, of course, 8000 years for that gamma radiation beam to hit Mother Earth. That is the good news. Here is the bad news. We are seeing it as it was 8000 years ago and then it was ready to pop. And for all we know it did. Your surprise package of gamma radiation may already be in the mail. For something that is that far away, what are the chances that it would be aimed right at us? Well, they are not big. But according to astronomer Peter Tuthill at University of Sydney, Australia, it looks a lot like we are looking down "the barrel of the gun."

So what can we do? Well, we can sit here on Earth like craven cowards quaking in our boots afraid it might explode or we can go to WR104 and re-aim it in another direction. Given our current state of technological advancement I suggest we sit here on Earth like craven cowards quaking in our boots afraid it might explode.

How serious is this fear? Well, even if the star appears to be aimed precisely at us there is still a lot of error in that observation. If it did go off and it missed us by just a couple AUs it would pass by unnoticed. (An AU is 500 light-seconds. It is by definition the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun.) So we may be isolated from the beam in spatial distance. More to the point we are likely to be isolated from the killer beam in time. Being ready to explode can mean that it will explode just a few hundred millennia in the future. I do not know if this helps you or not, but even if this nasty thing does come to pass while you are on Earth you will probably never know anything is happening. Any sign that the explosion has happened will travel to Earth at the same speed as the radiation itself does. You will get no notice. Will anyone survive? It is possible. If by the time it goes off we are a space-faring civilization that can survive without the solar system, yes, of course then life will go on. Humanity would continue. If we are not that far advanced at the time your best hope is probably something that I believe is called "The Rapture."

All kidding aside, this is not a great fear, unless somebody wants to make it one. But it is perfectly real and as far as I can tell I have represented it accurately.



SUNSTORM by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (copyright 2005, Ballantine Books/Del Rey, $7.99, 357pp, ISBN 0-345-45251-1) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

The second novel that I read on my Alaskan vacation was SUNSTORM by Clarke and Baxter. It's the second book in the "A Time Odyssey" trilogy, and in my opinion it is vastly superior to its predecessor, TIME's EYE. I felt that the first book was a dud, and I was hoping that this one would be better--and it was.

Bisesa Dutt has returned to her regular time and place from Mir, the patchwork world put together by the Firstborn and watched by the Eyes. In fact, she has returned a day after she was abducted, and just in time for a monstrous burst of solar activity that disrupts all electronic life on earth. In the time of the book, *everything* has a computer chip or is run by some electronics or other, so when the sun does its little number it disrupts all life on the planet.

Cut to the moon. Mikhail Martynov lives on the moon and works at the Space Weather Service Station. Mikhail receives a visit from one Doctor Eugene Mangles, the one fellow who predicted precisely when that solar event would happen. It appears that Mangles has discovered that there is another nasty solar event coming, but this one will be much worse: it's going to wipe out all life on earth.

People need to be convinced of that, of course. That's where Siobhan McGorran, the Astronomer Royal, comes in, as well as various other political and scientific folks. And then there's that Bisesa Dutt person, begging for an audience with McGorran to tell her that the event that is leading up to this catastrophic solar activity occurred thousands of years ago, and was done deliberately by an alien race that is trying to wipe out humanity. Even though most folks are wary of Dutt's story of alien abduction, McGorran takes a chance that Dutt may be telling the truth, and passes the information along to Mangles to see where it will take his investigation.

What to do? Why, build a giant shield/umbrella in space to protect the earth from as much of the harmful stuff as possible and hope that humanity survives the rest. Yeah, it's a bit of a stretch, but that's not the point here.

This story worked for me on a couple of levels. The first is that, unlike the first book, *something actually happens*. I've said that some of the best science fiction is about how technology and events affect mankind, or tells the story of how mankind deals with technology and events. This book revels in showing how humankind, basically down and out, can work together when things get tough, and if most of humanity working together to build a giant shield in space isn't it, I don't know what is. The second is that there is a lot of science here, and I tend to like that in my science fiction. There is a drawback though, in that if you don't like a lot of info-dumping you won't be happy with SUNSTORM. Sure, early SF was written with the idea of teaching in mind, but folks aren't expecting that these days, I don't think. You get it here in abundance.

So, the real questions are who are the Firstborn and why do they want to wipe out humanity? I suspect those questions will be answered in the final book of the trilogy. I'm looking forward to it. [-jak]

Short Film Comments (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):

These are comments on some recently viewed films.

2006 brought one of the better efforts from maverick horror film maker Larry Fessenden. It is not special-effects heavy. The film shows an Arctic drilling crew led by Ron Perlman having some odd and unprecedented problems. It seems this year it is just not getting cold, so the roads are slushy rather than icy, a big inconvenience. But something else is desperately wrong. The warming is causing something very bad to happen under the permafrost, though nobody is quite sure of the nature of the evil. People are dying, and those left alive have an inexplicable sense of doom. Fessenden seems to set many of his stories in the cold North. He is good at creating an eerie, chilly mood. This film reminds me a lot of John Carpenter's THE THING, but without the explicit scenes of a monster. Fessenden tends more to Val Lewton's approach of showing very little of the real horror and letting the viewer's imagination run wild. This is a very strange, mysterious film. Rating: high +1 or 6/10

This 1948 drama is one more fine film from Carol Reed, the man who directed THE THIRD MAN, ODD MAN OUT, and a personal favorite of mine, the almost impossible to find OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS. A young boy idolizes his family's butler (played by Ralph Richardson). As pleasant as the butler is, that is just how nasty his wife the head of the service staff is. When the wife is accidentally killed the boy believes the butler is guilty of murder, but loves him enough to try to lie for him. The story is by Graham Greene and Reed is his very best screen interpreter. The photography is excellent sharp monochrome with very black blacks and very white whites, in start contrast to the writing. I liked the film so much I watched again THE THIRD MAN, Reed's best known class. Two Greene/Reeds in one day makes for a very good day. Rating: low +3 or 8/10

This is the classic film adaptation of James Hilton's novel of Westerners kidnapped and taken to a lamasery where people live in peace and contentment. They discover that living placidly give them a life-span of hundreds of years. Slowly their Western attitudes are conquered by the sheer joy of being in this paradise. I know people who are greatly inspired by this film of Shangri-La, where high in the Himalayas everybody lives in peace and harmony, free from want. In fact, of course, Hilton cheats. He assumes that in Shangri La there is no illness. There is also a large gold deposit also takes care of everybody's desires. Fans of this story tend to forget that Shangri-La runs on plentiful gold and magical healing. It also is predicated on the assumption that there is no crime where there is no need. Would that it was true. But the happy paradise is attractive to the film's fans and it is a powerful image. This is considered one of Frank Capra's finest films. Rating: low +3 or 8/10

Made the same year as SHANE, THE NAKED SPUR outshone it in the box-office. Aside from the acting power the budget was not very high. It does have some nice high country nature photography, filmed in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Under Anthony Mann's direction it was one of the first films in which Jimmy Stewart got beyond his aw-shucks, country boy image and was shown as a driven and disturbed man. In this film he is full of rage and suspicion. The plot is sort of a portable TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE crossed with 3:10 TO YUMA. Stewart is a bounty hunter looking for a former acquaintance with a big reward on his head. Along the way he picks up a gold-hungry old prospector and a disreputable ex-soldier (Ralph Meeker). They get their wanted man (Robert Ryan) and the young woman who is traveling with him (Janet Leigh wanted a role where she had to do more than just pretty up a set). The three bounty hunters have to get their prisoner back to civilization to claim the reward. Ryan is clever enough to play his three captors off against each other. Three men want the reward split as few ways as possible. One man wants to kill his three captors. One woman is deciding what she wants. This is a good story and the scenery is a plus. Rating: low +2 or 7/10

This is a 1950 film by Samuel Fuller. Fuller worked outside the studio system and was what we would call today an independent filmmaker. Many of his films had a sort of amateurish or unpolished appearance. Perhaps they have the feel of the short film that the studios assigned to their new directors to give them practice. Nevertheless, Fuller frequently took on themes that were taboo at the time. Here Fuller tells the story of real-life James Addison Reavis (1843-1914) and one of the greatest frauds in American History. Reavis used forged papers in an intricate plan to falsely justify his purported claim to virtually all of the land in Arizona. Supposedly it was his inheritance from a land grant by the King of Spain. Spanish deeds had to be honored by the United States government under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The government could not prove his claim was a fraud. With a plan perhaps more elaborate than cinematically intriguing, Reavis creates and plants forged evidence to make his claim. The story is not polished, but will appeal to fans of THE HOAX and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. In spite of some awkwardness and the mostly static telling the story is basically good. Rating: low +2 or 7/10 [-mrl]

THE KITE RUNNER by Khalid Hosseini (book review by Mark R. Leeper):

Khalid Hosseini was born in Afghanistan and today lives in California as a physician and now a novelist. In fact, THE KITE RUNNER (ISBN-13 978-1-594-48000-3, ISBN-10 1-594-48000-1) is his first novel, it was adapted into a popular film, and he has now written a second novel, A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS which itself is in the early stages of production as a film.

THE KITE RUNNER begins as the story of the relationship of two boys. Amir is a boy of Kabul whose father, a wealthy merchant, owns a nice mansion with servants. Hassan is the son of Amir's servant. The two boys are inseparable. They seem apart only when Amir goes to school and Hassan returns home to for the household chores of a servant.

For sport Amir flies kites competitively and is becoming very good at the sport, attracting local attention. His servant Hassan is his kite runner. That means Hassan chases after the rival kites that Amir has decapitated. Hassan dotes on Amir, which bother Amir a little. Amir also tells stories that enchant Hassan. Together they face the local bullies who terrify them both.

The day of a great kite competition comes and Amir has a great victory. Hassan runs to get the loser's lost kite. Eventually Amir runs after Hassan and sees him being confronted by the bullies. Amir watches on as his friend is raped. He wants to defend his friend and knows he should, but is terrorized and instead sulks off.

After that nothing is the same between the boys. Amir comes to hate himself for his cowardice and disloyalty. Hassan does not admit to knowing of his friend's betrayal of him, but he almost certainly does. Amir turns his shame into rejection of Hassan.

This is all just the set-up of the story. We will follow Amir through tumultuous years of history for Afghanistan and his father's and his own perilous escape to the United States. His shame at the one action will bring him back to a Kabul under the Taliban in an effort to redeem his life and to recover his self- respect.

There are some minor faults to the book. The character of Hassan is just a little too perfect and it adds a melodramatic feel to the book. Amir did so much worse than betray a friend, he betrayed the wonderful, loyal, faithful Hassan. He denied, if you will, a Christ-figure. This weakens the story. If Hassan had not been so perfect would the betrayal be any more forgivable? Do we need to be just only to the faultless?

Much of the thrust of the book is the contrast of life in Kabul before and after the coming of the Soviet invasion and later of Taliban. The old Kabul under the monarchy is a place of contentment (at least for the wealthy Amir and his family) whose similarities to the West are more apparent than the differences. Kabul under the heel of the Taliban is a place of constant fear, of public executions, of corruption, and of systematized child rape under the guise of religious orthodoxy. It is the place that Amir must go to redeem himself and his self-respect.

As bad as the Taliban is for the men in THE KITE RUNNER, it is far worse for women as we see in the haunting A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS. These are purported to be the first novels written in English by an Afghan. If so they are an enthralling start.

I read in sequence THREE CUPS OF TEA (by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin), THE KITE-RUNNER, and A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS. The three make a very good combination. The Mortenson book is non-fiction and tells of his efforts building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. At least to Mortenson this work is a powerful weapon against the Taliban and other Islamic extremists. His schools give education to the young and with education they can resist the extremists. His book also describes what a virulent evil the Taliban has been for Afghanistan. It also sees that part of the world through the eyes of an American. This has a downside and an upside. The downside is that Mortenson cannot understand the area as thoroughly as someone who was born and raised there. The upside is that he knows how an American would see that part of the world. To Mortenson the area is very alien to his and our expectations. On the other hand in Hosseini's writing Kabul sounds not too unlike the town I grew up in. Each book in the succession expresses more rage and frustration at what the Taliban did to Afghanistan. Together they make a strong case for anything anyone can do to defeat this terrible movement.

My review of THREE CUPS OF TEA:



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

WHO? by Algis Budrys (ISBN-13 978-1-587-76010-5, ISBN-10 1-587-76010-X) was one of the books chosen for discussion by the Worldcon this year. I have read this before, but decided to re- read it.

It has a New Jersey connection: Lucas Martino comes from Milano, NJ, which is supposedly near Bridgetown (also spelled Bridgeton). Milano doesn't exist, but Bridgeton does, and at the location described. And because it was written in 1958 and set in the 1960s, the book has some anomalies. Martino goes to "Mass Tech" (also called MIT). More seriously, there is no Vietnam War, and the result is a very "alternate history" feel to it.

The premise is that an American scientist has been injured in an industrial/experiment accident near the Russian border, and has been repaired by the Soviets (who were closer than the Western doctors), but now has a metal head and one metal arm. The question facing the United States government is whether the man returned to them is Lucas, or whether he has been replaced. One problem with the book is that no one seems to take into account the possibility that the man is Martino, but that he has been brainwashed. Budrys eliminates fingerprints by saying that if they could attach a metal arm to a man, they could attach another man's arm instead. I'm not sure this is true, but even so, wouldn't Martino's footprint as a baby be on file? (Maybe not-- it's possible that this is a more recent procedure.)

The real problem is that it seems as though Budrys has pre-determined that it will be impossible to tell whether the man is Martino or not. Any possibility they come up with, they also come up with a reason why it won't work. Admittedly, the metal head rules out dental matches, but what about identifying marks or scars? Nope, he doesn't have any. Memories? He could have done research. And of course this was written before DNA analysis. In fact, what Budrys has given us is an example of non-falsifiability.

Continuing through the books selected for Worldcon discussion, I also started THE LANGUAGES OF PAO by Jack Vance (no ISBN available), but concluded after a few chapters that it wasn't doing anything for me, and gave up. Other books chosen included METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN by Robert A. Heinlein (ISBN-13 978-0-671-57780-3, ISBN-10 0-671-57780-8; with REVOLT IN 2100), A CASE OF CONSCIENCE (ISBN-13 978-0-345-43835-5, ISBN-10 0-345-43835-3) and THE TRIUMPH OF TIME by James Blish (ISBN-13 978-1-585-67602-6, ISBN-10 1-585-67602-0; as part of CITIES IN FLIGHT), and THE BIG TIME by Fritz Leiber (ISBN-13 978-0-312-89078-0, ISBN-10 0-312-89078-8). I did not have time to read all of them (see next week's column for one reason), so I skipped A CASE OF CONSCIENCE (I've read it several times already) and THE TRIUMPH OF TIME (the last book of a tetralogy). I read THE BIG TIME, but was not impressed. I will note that THE BIG TIME was the Hugo winner for 1958, so not everyone agrees with me. And I skipped METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, which was chosen because it was a Heinlein novel written in 1958. (All the books chosen were written in 1958, and therefore are celebrating their fiftieth anniversaries. At that time, there was only an announcement of the Hugo winner, without a preliminary list of nominees, so I have no way of knowing if these would have been that list.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           My Country, right or wrong" is a thing no patriot 
           would think of saying except in a desperate case.  
           It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober."
                                          -- G. K. Chesterton 

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