Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/24/15 -- Vol. 34, No. 4, Whole Number 1868

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,
Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,
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        Solar System Skullduggery (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
        Sam and the Law (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
        Some Comments on BUBBA HO-TEP (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)
        DARK WAS THE NIGHT (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison (book review
                by Gwendolyn Karpierz)
        SKIN GAME by Jim Butcher (book review by Gwendolyn Karpierz)
        10 CENT PISTOL (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        Murder Rate in USA in 1911 (letter of comment
                by Peter Rubinstein)
        Taking a Course On-Line (letter of comment
                by Gwendolyn Karpierz)
        Irrational Numbers and Invasive Species (letter of comment
                by Steven Milton)
        Coffee (letter of comment by Philip De Parto)
        Rote Learning and the Elements (letter of comment
                by Peter Rubinstein)
        Cities Named for Other Cities, But Pronounced Differently
                (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein)
        Symmetry in Animals (letters of comment by Taras Wolansky,
                Steve Coltrin, and Peter Trei)
        ADVANTAGEOUS (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky)
        This Week's Reading (AURORA, UNIVERSE) (book comments
                by Evelyn C. Leeper)


TOPIC: Solar System Skullduggery (comments by Mark R. Leeper)

I was discussing the physics of the New Horizons probe and how it
is not obvious what path it would follow.  As I told my friend,
with a good lawyer you can find tax loopholes that let you travel
further on less fuel, gaming the system and bending the physical
laws without actually breaking them.  [-mrl]


TOPIC: Sam and the Law (comments by Mark R. Leeper)

As a one-time dog owner I occasionally had actual differences of
philosophy with my dog.  A dog may have a very different personal
concept of ethics than you or I have.  Now you may be thinking
that, of course, a dog will take a selfish stance on a conflict in
morality.  Not so.  A dog judges himself harsher on an issue than a
human would be.  Sometimes the dog owner will want to tell the dog
that he really needs to forgive himself.  The dog will take the
attitude of an unfairly self-critical critic.  A dog's ethics are
frequently based on appearances rather than what the dog secretly
knows is true.  This thinking all comes out of an incident with my
dog Sam many years ago in which he punished himself when knew that
he had had the best of intentions but still unfairly judged himself

Sam, my complex dachshund, knew that he had rooms in the house that
were off-limits to him.  Even setting paw in the living room was an
offense that would at the very least earn him a reprimand.  My
parents' bedroom was nearly as restricted.  For short intervals of
time he might be allowed in my parents' bedroom, but generally he
was quickly asked to leave.  He knew that we were uncomfortable
letting him in my parents' bedroom.  He spent most of his life in
other parts of the house, especially the den.  And by "most of his
life," I mean 16 to 18 hours a day.  As someone who is susceptible
to boredom myself, I realize now what a barren, boring life it was
that we provided to our dog.

Okay.  That is the background.  One day my mother was home alone
with the dog.  She was planning to go out shopping.  Sam probably
could tell that she was making herself up to go out, probably from
the aroma of her makeup.  He came into the near-sacrosanct sanctum
of my parents' bedroom and with some urgency he tried to signal my
mother that he needed attention from her.  My mother interpreted
the dog as wanting to go with her.  She was not leaving yet, so for
the time being she just ignored him.

After a few minutes of this it became apparent that Sam was
communicating the wrong message.  What he actually wanted to tell
my mother was that he was having a digestive problem and needed as
quickly as possible to get to the back yard and to where he could
relieve himself on nature.  Because that was not how his message
was interpreted he had no choice but to make a small mess on the
carpet.  My mother recognized the situation was not the dog's fault
and willingly cleaned up the mess.

Meanwhile Sam had quietly walked to the other end of the house to
the two-pedestal desk.  That was a kind of den for him where he
could best retreat from the world.  His instinct was to have a
small enclosed place to hide and this was the closest to a natural
retreat in the house.

He spent the afternoon under the desk. It may have been that he was
hiding from punishment, but I think it more likely that he felt he
had committed an unforgivable crime in one of the worst places in
the house for the crime to occur.  He had chosen his own
punishment.  He had exiled himself to this cell of penitence.

My mother tried to coax Sam out of his hole, but Sam resisted all
attempts and seemed inconsolable.  Maybe he thought my mother had
not discovered the crime yet, but he was afraid she would and she
would remember when she did that Sam had known he had done wrong
and was punishing himself.  The evidence was there and he figured
he had done wrong and would be discovered.

Sam's self-punishment lasted about six hours.  When he returned
from his punishment exile nobody scolded him and certainly nobody
spanked him.  Sam may have wondered why he went unpunished, but the
incident was apparently over for him.  A dog would probably never
understand that human justice looks not just at action but at
intent.  His attitude had remained and went no further than that
something bad had been done and he was the one who had done it.


TOPIC: Some Comments on BUBBA HO-TEP (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)

I recently re-watched the film BUBBA HO-TEP and have a few

1. When Bruce Campbell is playing the young Sebastian Haff, he is
clearly playing an Elvis impersonator.  But in the "present-day"
part of the film, is he playing Elvis, or an Elvis impersonator
playing Elvis?  On the one hand, his thoughts imply he is really
Elvis; on the other, when he is telling the Ossie Davis character
who he is, he says he is Sebastian Haff.  Is this because he wants
to be honest with Davis when Davis seems confused, or because he
thinks Davis thinks he is really Haff?  (Oddly, later Davis says he
believes Campbell is Elvis, and starts calling "Elvis" that instead
of "Sebastian".

2. And why do we have no problem in believing that in the world of
the film there are monster cockroaches and resurrected mummies, but
not that a conspiracy could have turned John F. Kennedy black?

3. When we first see the mummy walking down the hallway, he is
back-lit with rays from the left end of the hallway (as seen from
the room).  After he passes the room, he is similarly back-lit from
the right.  In neither case is there any explanation for where the
light is coming from.  [-ecl]


TOPIC: DARK WAS THE NIGHT (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: The deep woods holds the secret of a mysterious creature
that moves fast and leaves dead bodies around.  The narrative
suggests it may be an Indian spirit, or it may be a prehistoric
creature, or it may be some kind of devil.  The story advances
deliberately and slowly as a small town sheriff and his deputy
investigate what is killing the livestock and citizenry of the
secluded town.  Jack Heller directs a screenplay by Tyler Hisel.
The film is slow, but generally rewarding.  Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)
or 7/10

In the 1960s drive-in theaters' favorite fare was low-budget
monster movies, many with lurid and fun titles like ISLAND OF
TERROR and TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST.  Most monsters these days are
in studio CGI-laden films like JURASSIC PARK.  DARK WAS THE NIGHT

is a very nice throwback to the 1960s sort of horror film.  Even
the pacing is pre-STAR-WARS style and unhurried as we get to know
the characters like we would have in a 1960s horror film.  None of
the actors is familiar, but the acting is top-notch and they are
worth spending some time with.

Perhaps inspired by the style of M. Night Shyamalan's SIGNS, this
is a film very strong on suspense and mystery, generous with hints
and loose ends, but very stingy with the answers to the secrets it
holds.  There is (or may be) something stalking around Maiden
Woods, an isolated town, possibly in the Pacific Northwest.  We do
not know what it looks like, where it came from, or even if it is
real.  But whatever it is it is deadly to animals and people.
Sheriff Paul Shields (played by Kevin Durand) with his deputy Donny
Saunders (Lukas Haas) track down the source of the killings, but
always too late to save lives and the citizens of Maiden Woods are
starting to wonder if they need a new sheriff.  This is all
happening while Shields is sorting out his life, battling demons
literally and perhaps figuratively.  He is separated from his wife
over his mourning of the loss of one of his two sons in a swimming
pool accident, blaming his own negligence for the death.  His other
son is tired of his parents being separated.  That is a
surprisingly heavy subplot that is just being used to characterize
his main character.

The script is bleak and virtually humorless giving the film a dour
atmosphere.  Outdoor scenes are nearly colorless and washed in blue
tint.  Scenes in the bar are in reds and yellows.  It almost gives
the effect of monochrome.  The color pallet is kept very narrow to
preserve the grim mood.

Borrowing a page from Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, any explanation the
characters suggest for what is really going on in the town sounds
really hokey.  So then what is really going on?  Visual and script
clues intentionally mislead the viewer to preserve suspense.  Even
the title tells the viewer frustrating little of the film's

The real subject of DARK WAS THE NIGHT is not the whatever-it-is
that is doing all the killing.  The film is a study of people in
fear and a study of guilt in a man who needs the help of the people
around him if he is ever going to let go of his regrets.  The
characters and their attitudes are more than just the mortar to
hold the horror scenes together.  This was a slow film, but
credible and involving.  Good luck in figuring what is out there in
the dark of night.  I rate DARK WAS THE NIGHT a +2 on the -4 to +4
scale or 7/10.  DARK WAS THE NIGHT will be in theaters, and on VOD
and iTunes July 24, 2015

Film Credits:

What others are saying:



TOPIC: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison (copyright 2014,
Tor, $25.99 hardcover, 446pp, ISBN 978-0-7653-2699-7) (excerpt from
the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Gwendolyn Karpierz)

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR follows Maia, half-goblin in a land of elves,
exiled and disdained last child of an emperor who just--along with
every one of his heirs higher in line for succession than Maia--
died in an airship crash.  Maia is hustled onto the throne, barely
eighteen and facing opposition all over the place: contenders for
the throne, unpleasant rumors, the aftermath of his father's
disfavor, bias toward goblins, and people who just generally think
he's useless.  This comes with all the usual paraphernalia--
assassination plots, balls, political brownnosing, the works.  It
also comes with airships, steam-powered bridges, and goblins on

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is political intrigue like I've never seen it
before.  Political fantasy generally reads like blackstrap molasses
to me (slow, bitter, and only good if tempered with enough other
flavors), and I tend to stop caring pretty early on (right about
the time I get wildly confused).  This book isn't like that,
because its central character is also completely lost, so instead
of being shut out of the story, the complicated political quagmire
just offers several compelling reasons to empathize with Maia.

Now let's get this straight: very little happens in this book, and
what's more, Maia himself does /absolutely nothing/.  He is
shuffled around trying to convince somebody not to hate him while
people who understand the politics do a lot of things in his name.
While this is the point of Maia (he's adrift in a sea of court
intrigue), it occasionally feels really pointless to read.  ('Oh,
look, let's read about Maia reading /more/ letters from courtiers
for /another/ three pages.  And then watch him ask /other/ people
what to do.  Yay.  Thrilling.')

Despite this, the GOBLIN EMPEROR was really enjoyable to read--
although I can't for the life of me tell you what was so enjoyable
about it.  I read it in just a few sittings.  Maybe it was how
sympathetic Maia was--or how satisfying it was to see him succeed,
find his way, show others what a good person he really was.
Whatever else happens in this book, you really root for Maia.
Maybe it was how smooth and delightful and quick the writing style
was.  Maybe it was all the fascinating hints at world-building--
although I would have appreciated a lot more of that.  This was
supposedly steampunk, but all we got was one airship ride and a
model of a bridge raised by steam.  (The description of this,
incidentally, is /fabulously cool/--I have a feeling that if this
had carried through the world more, it would have finally been the
actually-good steampunk novel I've been looking for.)

If you like political intrigue, this is your book.  If you don't
like political intrigue, this might still be your book.  (On the
other hand, if you like mysteries, this is not your book--the
mystery murder plot felt tacked-on, and the solving of it was
mostly related through yet more letters.) I feel like I have said
very little about this book that was actually good, but it /was/,
and I personally would be interested to see if Addison does more in
this world.  [-gmk]


TOPIC: SKIN GAME by Jim Butcher (copyright 2014, Orbit, $31.99
hardcover, 454pp, ISBN 978-0-451-46439-2) (excerpt from the Duel
Fish Codices: a book review by Gwendolyn Karpierz)

I won't make a secret of the fact that I love the Dresden Files--
it's one of my favorite series currently running.  Consequently, I
read SKIN GAME way back when it came out.  When it was nominated
for a Hugo, though, I reread it trying to pay closer attention to
some things besides my all-consuming love for it.  Does it hold up
under scrutiny? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.  Yes, this book
is excellent.  YES, okay?) Is it actually a solid book, if you look
at it outside the series? This ... was really difficult.  Even
having read this once, and knowing what was going to happen, I kept
getting swept up in it, which made it quite the challenge to look
at it from any sort of outside perspective.

Ultimately, SKIN GAME /is/ a really solid book.  Its basic plot
structure is nothing innovative: This is a heist plot, in which
Harry Dresden is roped into robbing a high-security vault.  A very,
/very/ high-security vault.  Owned by a guy called Hades.  You
might have heard of him.
The book runs along on a day-one, day-two, day-three (preparations,
preparations, break-in) formula; it's a little like watching the
heist episode of a long-running TV show, which feels like it should
be tired and a little weak.  But that's when the fact that this is
/Harry Dresden/, with fourteen books behind him, takes over.  SKIN
GAME is pretty unadulterated awesome, chock full of the witty
banter and captivating characters (not to mention magical
unsubtlety ...and by unsubtlety I mean explosions) that one has
come to expect from the Dresden Files.

The problem is that none of this means anything to you if you
haven't read the rest of the series.

SKIN GAME relies on a wealth of backstory and intensely-developed
character relationships that a Dresden newcomer just wouldn't have
at this point.  That is one of the most beautiful things about this
book: seeing the little moments pass between people you've been
with for fifteen books now, seeing just how /far/ everybody's come.

And then there's, you know, flashy magical destruction and witty
banter, and those are fun, too.  I mean, those are /really/ fun--
Dresden's fight scenes don't get old.  (And let's not forget that
Nicodemus is one of the best dang villains I have ever encountered.
So classy, and so /actually creepy/.) But this all has a lot more
impact if you know where they've been before; I really think this
isn't a book you can come into as a gateway to Harry Dresden,
though I feel many people might see it that way, what with it being
up for a Hugo.  White I /strongly/ recommend reading the Dresden
Files--the first few books take some time to hit their stride, and
after that, they never stop being amazing--I would suggest that you
don't start here.

By the time you get here, though, you won't be able to stop.


TOPIC: 10 CENT PISTOL (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Somewhere here there is a solid crime thriller with a lot
of twists and surprises.  First-time director Michael C. Martin is
good at plotting but not so good at telling a story so that it can
be followed.  Previously he wrote but did not direct BROOKLYN'S
FINEST (2009).  Brutal and bloody, the narrative of his new film
follows a twisted plot forward and backward in time, throwing off
the viewer just when he thinks he has it understood.  The viewer
may want to be prepared to see the film a second time to follow
what happened.  Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

T. S. Eliot said, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end
of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know
the place for the first time."  That could have easily been the
inspiration for the crime film 10 CENT PISTOL.  The story moves
backward and forward in time.  Several of the scenes we return to.
Each time we return we think we understand what is going on, and
each time we think we are understanding it for the first time.

Easton (played by Damon Alexander) has recently been released from
prison.  It seems some months back he tried to pull a job on his
own without getting the permission of local crime lord Punchy (Joe
Mantegna).  Easton's punishment was that Punchy stole from him some
government bonds.  But Punchy had saved Easton from a long prison
term by letting him be the fall guy for a smaller crime.  Now
Easton is out of jail and wants his bonds back from Punchy.
Meanwhile Easton hangs around with old pal Jake (JT Alexander,
Damon's real life brother).  The two of them hang around with a
failing young actress, Danneel (Jena Malone).  Danneel applies the
lessons from her acting class as rules to run her personal life.
Meanwhile, Punchy wants Jake and Easton to do another job for him
for a big score against the Russian mob that will net Easton a lot
more profit than the stolen bonds are worth.

The film was written and directed by Michael C. Martin.  His plot
is good, but somehow Martin has written a script that is top-heavy
with too many mysteries to keep straight.  Making that even more of
a problem is that without notice the story jumps backward and
forward in time.  It is hard for the viewer to know if characters
are changing their looks over time or if we are looking at
different people.  Are we looking at two different characters or
the same character at two different points of time?  This ambiguity
combines with unexpected plot twists keep the viewer struggling.
And I found there are few familiar faces in the cast, which is one
more contribution to the plot confusion.  The final plot twist,
however, telegraphs itself too far in advance.

Joe Mantegna takes full advantage of the quirky dialog Martin has
written for him.  Still, Jena Malone makes herself the center of
attraction in every scene she is in.  It is hard to believe this is
the actress who played the pre-teen scientist in CONTACT.

For intentional and unintentional reasons this is a crackling good
crime film that keeps the viewer off-balance.  The film fully
achieves that goal.  Martin as director might have given the viewer
a little more of a chance to get that balance back.  Or not.  I
rate 10 CENT PISTOL a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.  10
CENT PISTOL will be released to VOD, iTunes, and limited theaters
on July 24.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:



TOPIC: Murder Rate in USA in 1911 (letter of comment by Peter

In response to Evelyn's comments on 1911 nostalgia in the 07/10/15
issue of the MT VOID, Peter Rubinstein writes:

[Evelyn wrote, "An email making the rounds about 1911 claims (among
other things) that there were 'about' 230 reported murders in the
entire [USA]."]

Just how violent was Japan in 1911?  Perhaps there were that many
reported murders in USA, Kyushu, Japan.  [-pr]


TOPIC: Taking a Course On-Line (letter of comment by Gwendolyn

In response to Evelyn's comments on taking a course on-line in the
07/17/15 issue of the MT VOID, Gwendolyn Karpierz writes:

[Evelyn writes,] "In other words. the key to getting the most out
of the course is to devote all your waking hours to it.  Well,
duh."  Now imagine taking five courses at a time and being expected
to devote all your waking hours to each of them.  Pretend, for a
second, that they're all just as disorganized and full of
ridiculous expectations (like Twitter and message boards) and
complicated as your TCM course.  Only if you ditch any of the
components, no matter how ludicrous, you fail the class and--
usually--have to do it again anyway.  Is it any wonder college
students are so stressed out these days?  [-gk]


TOPIC: Irrational Numbers and Invasive Species (letter of comment
by Steven Milton)

In response to Mark's comments on irrational numbers in the
07/17/15 issue of the MT VOID, Steve Milton writes:

There are continued fraction representations of Pi that have a
pattern.  See; the
second one is one I was familiar with.  [-smm]

In response to Evelyn's comments on invasive species in the same
issue, Steve writes:

My favorite is the tumbleweed.  Nothing says the old West like this
import from the Ukrainian steppes.  [-smm]


TOPIC: Coffee (letter of comment by Philip De Parto)

In response to Mark's review of CAFFEINATED in the 07/17/15 issue
of the MT VOID, Philip De Parto writes:

FYI, Alex Shvartsman came out with an anthology of SF/fantasy
stories about caffeinated beverages, COFFEE, a few years ago (ISBN
978-0988432833).  [-pdp]

Mark replies:

I have either seen COFFEE or a collection much like it.  Not really
being a coffee fan I didn't pay much attention.  But I've seen
several collections on similar unlikely themes.  Somewhere I have
an anthology on weight loss science fiction stories.  [-mrl]

Evelyn adds:

The weight-loss anthology is THE SCIENCE FICTION WEIGHT-LOSS BOOK
edited by Isaac Asimov.  Keith Laumer once edited an anthology
called DANGEROUS VEGETABLES, which I think originated at a party
when people were trying to come up with the most unlikely themes
for anthologies.  [-ecl]


TOPIC: Cities Named for Other Cities, But Pronounced Differently
(letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein)

In response to comments on cities named for other cities but
pronounced differently in the 07/17/15 issue of the MT VOID, Pete
Rubinstein writes:

And don't forget North Versailles, PA.  Pronounced North VerSALES.


TOPIC: Symmetry in Animals (letters of comment by Taras Wolansky,
Steve Coltrin, and Peter Trei)

In response to Mark's comments on symmetry in the 07/17/15 issue of
the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

Actually the flounder starts out bilaterally symmetrical; then, as
it matures, one eye migrates over the top of the head.  Bilateral
symmetry has embryological roots, in that almost everything comes
down to one cell splitting into two.

Visiting the UK for various Worldcons, I got to thinking about
driving on the "wrong" side of the road (though I never tried it).
I came to the tentative conclusion that the North American way is
objectively better:  most people are right-handed, so their right
arms are heavier than their left.  Thus, when drivers nod off, they
will tend to drift to the right:  away from oncoming traffic in
North America; into oncoming traffic in the UK.  However, I don't
know if accident statistics corroborate this.  [-tw]

Steve Coltrin writes:

[Mark writes,] "It is not an easy job to think of animals that are
not bilaterally symmetrical."  [-mrl]

Echinoderms--starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars/euro, etc.--have
bilateral symmetry as larvae, but as adults have fivefold radial
symmetry.  [-sc]

Mark notes:

Starfish are bilaterally symmetrical.  Actually you could cut them
five different ways to get two congruent halves.  [-mrl]

And Peter Trei responds:

If your lifestyle involves living in a gravity field, and moving
horizontally through a resistant medium, bilateral symmetry pretty
much falls out automatically.

There are efficiency gains from adopting a drag-reducing elongated
shape, and specializing one end with sensory and other manipulators
(mouth, etc), and the other for propulsion. So you get front and

There are also efficiency gains from taking into account the
gravity field, and differential amounts of light above and below,
so you get a top and bottom.

Once those two are settled, bilateral symmetry gives you the
ability to turn left and right with equal efficiency.

Non-bilateral creatures are uniformly slow movers, and I can't
think of anything bigger than a diatom that doesn't have a top and
bottom.  [-pt]


TOPIC:  ADVANTAGEOUS (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky)

In response to Mark's review of ADVANTAGEOUS in the 07/17/15 issue
of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

One of the things I love about GATTACA is that it seems to be a
mash-up of BEYOND THIS HORIZON and STARMAN JONES.  Andrew Niccol is
about the right age to have cut his SFnal teeth on Heinlein's

Mass technological unemployment is something people have been
predicting for 200 years, and they've always been wrong.  After
all, advances in agricultural technology already "eliminated most
jobs": by that measure, the unemployment rate should be about 90%.

Most people get that, as the number of units of a good goes up, the
value of the marginal unit goes down.  The point is, as the value
of the marginal unit declines, eventually so does the value of all
the units together; thus, the number of units might go up by a
factor of 100 while the total value (the marginal value times the
number) goes down by a factor of 100.  (This is a major reason why
agricultural interests everywhere antisocially try to limit
production and raise the price of food.)  In effect, as an industry
is automated, it tends to shrink as a part of the economy--and
people spend their money on something else.

Another current film on a similar theme is SELF/LESS, in which
dying billionaire Ben Kingsley buys Ryan Reynolds' body but finds
he made a deal with the Devil.  I didn't expect much from this
reworking of John Frankenheimer's SECONDS, but I was a pleasantly

Another nice ish.  [-tw]

Mark replies:

Regarding the unemployment rate, those who remember the past are
condemned to be misled by it.  Unprecedented turns of fate happen
all the time.  [-mrl]


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

I got to read AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN 978-0-316-09810-
6) immediately after it was published, because I was ordering a hub
from Amazon the very day it was released, so with free shipping,
how could I pass it up?  (Yes, I know about Amazon Prime, but most
of my purchases are from third-party sellers who fulfill their own
orders and so are not eligible for Amazon Prime.)  With such an
opportunity, I abandoned my general FIFO rule and moved AURORA to
the front of the queue.  And reading about a generation starship
was especially apposite, because our discussion group this month
was reading Robert A. Heinlein's UNIVERSE.

Warning: There will be some spoilers, mostly implied, but if you
don't like spoilers, stop now, read the book, and then come back

My first observation is that while Robinson's "Science in the
Capitol" trilogy was ultimately optimistic, AURORA seems ultimately
pessimistic.  Throughout AURORA, characters speak of limitations:

"It's not me being negative.  It's the universe obeying its laws.
Science isn't magic!  We aren't fantasy creatures!  We have been
dealt a hand." [page 195]

"When you discover that you are living in a fantasy that cannot
endure, a fantasy that will destroy your world, and your children,
what do you do? [page 211]

No one ever accused Robinson of subtlety in his message.  And while
the message has not changed, the emphasis seems more on what we
will have to give up.

Robinson draws on previous science fiction works.  The actions of
the AI that is the ship ("Ship") echo both D. F. Jones's COLOSSUS:
THE FORBIN PROJECT and Isaac Asimov's "The Evitable Conflict" (as
well as "With Folded Hands" by Jack Williamson and many other
stories).  The first two works take opposite views of the same
scenario, and Robinson does not take a stand, so the reader has to
make up his own mind.  One character expresses part of the problem
of needing to make a decision at the end of the voyage: "Suspended
in their voyage as they had been, there had never been anything to
choose, except methods of homeostasis." [page 200]  But the
question becomes whether it is better to have a computer/AI make
decisions for you, even if those decisions are guaranteed to be the
best (i.e., most rational) decisions, or whether it is more
important for people to have free will.  This is not a new
question, though--substitute "God" for the AI and you get the
classic question of why an omniscient and omnipotent God permits
evil.  The answer is usually that God wants us to have free will so
that we can freely choose good, but I will grant that one can
hardly attribute this motivation to an AI.

Another reference is not one likely to be noticed by most readers.
It is to Isaac Asimov's THE NAKED SUN, which takes place on a world
orbiting Tau Ceti, a world named Aurora.

And while I do not think Robinson was necessarily consciously
inspired by Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, that is the book I
first think of when I read about culture shock between people
temporally displaced by relativistic effects and their originating

As I have already said, the central conceit of AURORA is the
generational starship.  (For the sake of brevity, I will use the
term "space ark" from here on out.)  Robinson takes direct aim at
the two motivations that have inspired the space arks of the
science fiction from the 1940s to the present.  The first is the
"Cradle Metaphor" of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "The Earth is the
cradle of mankind, but humanity cannot live in the cradle forever."

[translations vary]  And the second is the "don't-put-all-your-
eggs-in-one-basket" philosophy, which Robinson in interviews has
said leads people to believe that if they destroy Earth's
environment, they can just move somewhere else.

These rationales were supported by science fiction that for decades
concentrated almost entirely on the problems of propulsion (and
deceleration).  However, hardly anyone considered the biological,
ecological, psychological, or sociological constraints or problems
until recently, and these are considerably more intractable.  A
space ark--a self-sustaining biome--needs to be really big.
(Indeed, there are some who think even the Earth itself is too
small!)  But most space arks in fiction are about one-trillionth
the size of Earth or smaller.

For example, one factor that Robinson addresses that no one seems
to have thought of before is that (because of their life spans)
bacteria and viruses evolve faster than humans.  In a limited
ecosystem, this means that a deadly disease is much more likely to
develop than in a wider and more robust environment.

Obviously the space ark is the main focus of the story, but part of
the space ark is the computer that runs it--or rather, the AI,
since it is far more than a computer.  After a brief prelude, the
novel opens with the AI being given instructions to tell the story
of the voyage.  Robinson has said that he found this one of the
most interesting parts to write, since in effect he had to develop
an algorithm for writing a novel: The AI starts with a list of
statistics.  It (she?) is told, no, you need to have people
(characters).  So it starts listing all two thousand inhabitants.
No, no, no--you need character development.  And so on.
(Apparently, Robinson actually created names for all the
inhabitants and listed them in the book.  He was a bit unsure,
though, of whether a dozen pages of names was a good idea, but his
editor provided the clincher: consider how this would read in the
audiobook!  Robinson settled for an initial subset.)

Later the AI says that it has learned what love looks like (what
its external manifestations are), but not what it is (what its
essence is).  This is reminiscent of one of the aspects of the film
EX MACHINA, and to some extent of the Turing Test in general.  If
an AI exhibits the external signs of an inner emotional life, does
that really prove anything?  (For that matter, the same could be
asked of other people--how do we know that they aren't all faking
it?  Shades of "Invasion of The Body Snatchers"!)

As usual with Robinson's works, there are plenty of expository
lumps, and an assumption that his readers are well-read.  For
example, he talks about cognitive errors such as the ease of
representation, probability blindness, overconfidence, and
anchoring.  For the average reader, this probably means a trip to
Wikipedia (at least).

(In fact, Robinson himself has decided that sometimes he has
overdone the expository lumps, and has trimmed 15% of his "Science
in the Capitol" preparatory to issuing all three books in a single
volume titled GREEN EARTH.  What is being cut is apparently a lot
of the explanation of things like the polar vortex and other
environmental events that he thought needed explanations back in
2004, but now are much more familiar to people.)

AURORA is highly recommended, and sure to be nominated for multiple
awards next year.

UNIVERSE by Robert A. Heinlein (contained in ORPHANS OF THE SKY,
ISBN 978-0-671-31845-1) was not the first "space ark" story (that
was probably Laurence Manning's "The Living Galaxy"), but it was
certainly the first to gain widespread attention and was extremely
influential, which is why it was chosen by SFWA as one of the
"greatest science fiction novellas of all time."  So if AURORA
represents one end of the history of the "space ark" story,
UNIVERSE represents the other.  As such, it is worth noting the

In UNIVERSE, all names are Anglo-Saxon or at least northern
European.  (Admittedly, it is a very small set, but this name bias
was standard in 1941.)  In AURORA, the names are representative of
the entire population of Earth, with a very high proportion of
Asian names.

In UNIVERSE, illiteracy is standard, and a lot of knowledge seems
to have been lost for some reason.  (Given that pre-literate
peoples manage to transmit knowledge over many generations, the
reason for this is now clear.)  The crew now attribute everything
they do not understand to religion (one is reminded of THE MOTEL OF

On the other hand, Heinlein's reasoning about the mystery of the
gravity makes sense--the crew has no solar system to observe
orbital mechanics in, nor are there any bodies on the ship large
enough to exert any substantial gravitational force.  This reminds
me of "Mary's Room", the philosophical puzzle of someone who has
learned everything in physics, biology, etc., about the color red,
but has been raised in a black-and-white room.  When she finally
leaves the room, will she learn something new about red, and if so,
what?  (One has to assume that Mary never sees any blood, so
perhaps "Mario's Room" would make more sense.)

 From comments made by characters, there was originally a Christian
tradition (involving at least Heaven and such).  One wonders what
happened to it.

Heinlein has the ship's crew use the muties for population control
(the muties kill off the excess crew and keep the numbers down), or
at least that is the explanation given for why the muties are not
exterminated.  Again, in 1941 there was no really effective birth
control method that could be sustained over a multi-generational
period (just how many condoms would they have to carry with them?),
so this may have seemed the only practical approach at the time.
Now it just sounds barbaric.  [-ecl]

                                           Mark Leeper

           Drawing on my fine command of the English
           language, I said nothing.
                                           --Robert Benchley