Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/18/16 -- Vol. 35, No. 21, Whole Number 1937

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,
Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,
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        More on the EmDrive
        The (Negative) Power of Technology (comments
                by Mark R. Leeper)
        ARRIVAL (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        Ratings (letters of comment by John Purcell and Philip Chee)
        Superheroes (letters of comment by Philip Chee, Kevin R,
                and Keith F. Lynch)
        This Week's Reading ("How Great Science Fiction Works")
                (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)


TOPIC: More on the EmDrive

A while back Greg Frederick sent us some information on the
EmDrive, which sounds like a crazy idea violating the laws of
physics, but it seems to have some basis in fact.  See:



TOPIC: The (Negative) Power of Technology (comments by Mark
R. Leeper)

Science fiction is all about how technology brings change and how
that change may bring with it unintended consequences.  When we
think about the bad outcomes of technology we usually think on the
small scale of jobs taken from humans and given to machines.  Or
perhaps we think of it on the large scale of climate changing.
What I am finding of interest this week is the number that
technology is doing on Venezuela.  I am surprised we are not
hearing much about it in the media.  When Greece was foundering we
heard considerably more.  But Venezuela is in very big trouble and
it is the advance of technology that is doing it.

I have always thought of Venezuela as a fairly lucky.  It was in
possession of the largest oil reserves in the world and that made
Venezuela prosperous and even powerful in its part of South
America.  Venezuela could use its resources to make itself fairly
wealthy.  They could afford to thumb their noses at the US.  But
ninety-five percent of their exports are oil.  A sea of oil kept
them afloat.  About half the capital to run the country was oil
revenue.  But the technology of how to retrieve the oil was
changing right under Venezuela.

We now have new technologies that make petroleum easier to take out
of the ground.  It may be a bad thing for the climate in the long
run.  At least we can get cheap energy.  For decades American
politicians had been saying that we needed to make our country
energy-independent.  Well, friends, we got it.

Now with new retrieval technologies we are not only energy
independent at last, we have quickly become the country with the
largest oil exports in the world.  Oil is in huge supply to us.
And we all know what happens when the supply outstrips the demand.
Just from the power of competition the price went down.  And a
whole lot less money was going to Venezuela.  A country with really
only one export of any size is finding the floor fall out from
under its price.

Back when I worked at Burroughs Computer Corporation liked to use a
metaphor to explain Burroughs' position.  You have a watering hole
in the African veldt and the elephant--IBM--comes to water.  And
around him the pygmies come to drink.  Those are small companies
like Burroughs.  The elephant may not mean any ill intention, but
he shifts a little to the left and crushes a few pygmies.  He
shifts a little to the right and crushes a few more pygmies.  That
sort of describes the relationship between IBM and Burroughs and
also between the US oil business and that of Venezuela.

A few years ago there were people convinced that we had reached a
point of "peak oil" when the supply of oil had reached its high
point and was now in decline.  The scarcity of petroleum would
drive the price up and up.  And if the petroleum was a little more
than planned they oil-producers could cut back on supply.
Venezuela, that had very little other little non-petroleum export
figured it could throttle production to send the price back up to a
comfortable level.  Instead, 2014 alone saw the price of petroleum
fall to a third of its former self.  But the only thing that
Venezuela really knew how to sell was petroleum.  Most of
everything it bought had to send money out of the country.

Then bad economic policy made what was already a bad situation much
worse.  Expecting the bolivar, Venezuela's currency, to crash, the
government set the exchange rate to a fixed ten bolivars to the
dollar, which stoked a huge inflation rate, 1600 percent.  There
were huge shortages of food and medicine.  Venezuelans are
abandoning their country and migrating to Colombia and Brazil.
What is the cause of the crisis?  It is bad government economic
policy, failure to look ahead, certainly.  But the base of it all
is the technology of better petroleum retrieval.  It is an example
of the chaos that can result from technology.  We may be better off
for the time being, but we are allowing the world to go back to
burning easily retrieved fossil fuels.  That could cause a lot more
trouble than a fluctuation of oil prices might cause.

[See "How the oil crisis wrecked Russia and obliterated Venezuela"
by Jeff Spross in The Week, November 1:]



TOPIC: ARRIVAL (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Twelve alien craft land at apparently random locations on
the Earth's surface.  This creates a dangerous situation that could
lead to a third world war.  A linguist and a physicist are more or
less drafted to head up a team trying to find why these apparently
alien craft are here.  Amy Adams gives a compelling performance as
a woman trying to break the most important and also one of the most
difficult puzzles in human history.  Denis Villeneuve directs a
screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang.  This
is probably the best science fiction film of 2016.  Rating:
low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

One of my top ten films of last year (actually #4 on my list) was
SICARIO, directed by the-to-me unfamiliar Denis Villeneuve. I made
a mental note to pay more attention to his films.  But I did not
need to bother.  This year he is back with a much larger calling
card.  At a time when we have been getting some really good science
fiction films Villeneuve has managed to have a stand out work of
science fiction cinema.  At one time written science fiction
frequently would look at the theme of first contact with alien
beings and the effort to understand aliens.  Frequently these
stories broke down assuming aliens were just like humans except
they had funny accents or unpronounceable names.  ARRIVAL is one of
the rare films that has suitably alien aliens and generates a real
sense of the incomprehensibility of an alien species.

Dr. Louise Banks (played with subtlety by Amy Adams) is a
linguistics professor who had done some work to help the military,
work she later regretted.  She is at first annoyed when a news
story interrupts one of her lectures.  It seems that twelve huge
spacecraft of unknown origin have each chosen an arbitrary place on
the Earth's surface and is hovering just a few dozen feet in the

Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) had been impressed with Banks
in the past and asks her for a small favor.  Could she please be
one of the two people making the first contact with
extraterrestrials and at the same time head up the effort to
communicate with them?  How could anybody refuse such a request?

Jeremy Renner plays theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, the other
half of the communications team.  Together they visit the strange
inside of an alien craft and will be attempting to understand
whatever they find.  All the while the international political
atmosphere is supercharged with the uncertainly of just what will
the intervention of aliens do to destabilize the political climate.

One has only to look at INDEPENDENCE DAY to see that this could
lead to a slam-bang action story, but instead Villeneuve gives us a
serious thought piece, part puzzle for the characters, part puzzle
for the viewer, part philosophical introspection, part imaginative
look at the nature of time.  While the build is slow, ARRIVAL is
full of a cerebral tension.  The alien is believably alien and the
alien language puzzle is made nearly comprehensible.  The real
enemy is not someone with a gun but the unknown that has to be

There was a time when science fiction films were about flying
saucers or giant insects.  Or they might have flying saucers come
to Earth, but then we would be treated to rays that vaporize
artillery and possibly soldiers with it.  There are some battles in
ARRIVAL but the aliens are not participating and the fighting is
kept off-screen.  The film's thrills are all more cerebral and a
sign that science fiction films are maturing.

ARRIVAL is based on a sophisticated story by respected contemporary
science fiction author Ted Chiang.  While the film is not entirely
faithful to the Chiang it is told on a level matching that of the
story.  It is a story aimed at an adult and intelligent audience
featuring an adult and intelligent performance from Adams and
Renner.  ARRIVAL expects a lot from its audience at the same time
it is giving more.  I rate ARRIVAL a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:



TOPIC: Ratings (letters of comment by John Purcell and Philip Chee)

In response to Mark's comments on ratings in the 11/11/16 issue of
the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:

Ah-hah! Thank you, Mark, for explaining your ratings system(s).
When you said that you were a regular reader of CINEFANTASTIQUE
MAGAZINE, a little tingle of familiarity started at the back of
brain.  I tried to ignore it like one attempts to ignore a pesky
cat wanting to be petted, but once you said, "It really could be
thought of as using the bell-shaped curve used in statistics,"
well, that immediately brought that -4 to +4 rating system into
focus.  That makes perfectly good sense to me, thanks to my having
taken graduate statistics classes.  I don't know why that never
occurred to me before.  Oh, well.  Mystery solved.  Now I can go
back to using the 1-10 movie rating scale as a measurement of pain
level a movie causes on the viewer.  That likewise makes a lot of
sense to me.  [-jp]

Mark replies:

I think my interest in mathematics did something to the neurons in
my brain.  I tend to think and even dream in mathematical images.
Nothing profound, unfortunately but when I wake up I can picture
some mathematical principle my dream image illustrates.  [-mrl]

Philip Chee asks:

So in your rating system is 0- the same as 0+ or different?  [-pc]

Mark responds:

Actually I don't think I ever used 0-.  I do say "high 0", "0", and
"low 0"  It is in the same vein as in school of dividing the B
range into "B+", "B", and "B-".  [-mrl]


TOPIC: Superheroes (letters of comment by Philip Chee, Kevin R, and
Keith F. Lynch)

In response to comments on superheroes in the 11/11/16 issue of the
MT VOID, Philip Chee writes:

And who can forget Brother Power the Geek?

And Alan Moore used Jason Woodrue in his reboot of the Swamp Thing.
Of course I knew enough science to know that this was all fake
comic-book biology, but dammit, Alan Moore can make anything sound
utterly convincing.

Kimota! nope that still doesn't work!  [-pc]

Kevin R responds:

I'll see you a Kimota! and raise you a Shazoom!   [-kr]

And Keith F. Lynch writes:

I found all of Stross's Laundry novels convincing -- except the
comic-book superheroes one.  Not his fault; those just don't work
for me.  [-kfl]


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

We have been watching the Teaching Company course "How Great
Science Fiction Works" by Gary K. Wolfe--sorry, *Professor* Gary K.
Wolfe.  But heck, we're all fans here, so we don't pay much
attention to titles.

As Wolfe explains, the first lecture could have been called "The
Dead Frog, the Volcano, and the Teenage Bride."  Alas, the Teaching
Company (a.k.a. the Great Courses) seems to have preferred a more
academic title, so it is called "Mary Shelley and the Birth of
Science Fiction".  A list of the titles will give you a good idea
of the scope and structure of the course:
  1 Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction
  2 Science Fiction in the 19th Century
  3 Science Fiction Treatments of History
  4 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
  5 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
  6 The Rise of the Science Fiction Pulps
  7 The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories
  8 The Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
  9 The Robot: From Capek to Asimov
10 The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
11 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
12 The Science Fiction Wasteland
13 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
14 Religion in Science Fiction
15 Science Fiction's New Wave
16 Encounters with the Alien Other
17 Environmentalism in Science Fiction
18 Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
19 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
20 The 1990s: The New Space Opera
21 The Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
22 Science Fiction's Urban Landscapes
23 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
24 The Future of Science Fiction

This is an introductory course, and a lot of the material will be
familiar to the serious science fiction fan, but even for
knowledgeable fans, there is a lot that will be new and
enlightening.  The list price for the Teaching Company courses is
prohibitive for most individuals, but every course goes on sale at
least a couple of times a year, and they are also bought by many
public libraries.

(I tend to keep calling the company "The Teaching Company" because
that name lends itself to forming a phrase such as "Teaching
Company courses", while "The Great Courses courses" just does not
work.)  [-ecl]


                                           Mark Leeper

           Experience is what you have after you've forgotten
           her name.
                                           --Milton Berle