Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/11/15 -- Vol. 34, No. 11, Whole Number 1875

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,
Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,
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        PARTICLE FEVER (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        Thirteen Top Scientists' Favorite Books And Movies
        Sameness in Time and Space (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
        Henrique Alvim Correa Illustrations for WAR OF THE WORLDS
                (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
        The Crowded Sky (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
        Ace Doubles, Donald Wollheim, and Harlan Ellison (letters
                of comment by Fred Lerner and Allan Maurer)
        THE HARD WAY by Lee Child (letter of comment by Jim Susky)
        Lincoln's Assassination (letter of comment by Paul Dormer)
        Weapons, Feuds, and the Rule of Law in the Roman Empire
                (comments by Mark Zenier)
                (Volume V of VI) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)
        This Week's Reading (THE BURIED GIANT, PLAGUE LAND, and
                DREAMERS OF THE DAY) (book comments
                by Evelyn C. Leeper)



WNET (Channel Thirteen) and probably other public television
stations will be running PARTICLE FEVER on Wednesday, September 16
at 10PM.  Mark's review is included below.


TOPIC: Thirteen Top Scientists' Favorite Books And Movies

 From Huffinton Post:


TOPIC: Sameness in Time and Space (comments by Mark R. Leeper)

They say that time was invented to keep everything from happening
at once.  I am not sure about that.  I think that is not serious,
but I think distance really was invented with the Big Bang so that
everything was not in the same place.  [-mrl]


TOPIC: Henrique Alvim Correa Illustrations for WAR OF THE WORLDS
(comments by Mark R. Leeper)

The first book illustrations for WAR OF THE WORLDS were created by
Henrique Alvim Correa in 1906.  They are incredibly surreal in that
he made the war machines look like they were creatures themselves.
I have seen two or three of these illustrations before, but I never
realized there was a whole set of them, most of which were were
never available.  A site called Monster Brains has what I think are
a complete set:

Actually, the whole Monster Brains site is worth exploring for
weirdly surreal art:



TOPIC: The Crowded Sky (comments by Mark R. Leeper)

The first-released science fiction film of the 1950's science
fiction boom was ROCKETSHIP XM.  It is the story of what is
supposed to be humanity's first spaceship and its first mission, a
trip to the moon.  The "XM" was a sort of an abbreviation for
"Expedition Moon."  Apparently someone thought the title on a
marquee sounded better than ROCKETSHIP EM.  The latter sounded a
little too much like something out of THE WIZARD OF OZ.

[I am about to reveal a plot detail.  Hopefully anyone who does not
know the plot of ROCKETHIP XM and wants to see the film with the
plot not spoiled would have had their whole life (or at least 65
years) to see the film.  If not, you are too darn late.]

In the story of the flight of Rocketship XM, some force knocks
everybody on the ship unconscious and they wake up to find
themselves in orbit near Mars.  This seems unexplainable in any
manner that does not employ the hand of God.  God has changed the
meaning of the XM to "Expedition Mars."  It turns out that what is
presented as the most viable explanation is that God took the
spaceship to Mars so the humans could see what a mess atomic war
made of Mars.  When the humans head for home with their God-given
message they are just a bit too far from Earth to get back
themselves, but they can get the message "atomic war is bad" to
Earth.  The medium was inelegant, but the message was what was

But what was told with no surprise was that the fuel to take the
rocket to the moon and back was at least sufficient to take the
ship from Mars to oh-so-close to Earth for the return trip.  On the
way to Mars they may have saved on fuel because they were
unconscious and in the hand of God.  But they had nearly enough to
get back home from Mars entirely with fuel they had brought.

What I think sounded silly in all this was that just a small
diversion was enough to get from our moon to Mars.  One destination
in space must have been really close to any other.  Hopefully if
you are reading this you know that the distance from Earth to Mars
at its absolute minimum is a whole lot more than the distance to
the moon.  Currently it takes about three days to get to the moon
and about nine months to get to Mars.  Clearly the writers of
ROCKETSHIP XM were just guessing.

I think the writers got their ideas of the distribution of planets
much like the Navy going to ports.  You go a certain route you end
up in Peru.  A little bit further and you are in Chile.  Go to the
moon takes three days.  Go a little bit further and you are
effectively nowhere and marooned in space.  The planets are really
just widely separated bits of matter swirling down a gravity well.
There is nothing that says one will be any sort of convenient
distance from any other.

That was a mistake they repeated over and over in 1950s SF films.
FLIGHT TO MARS had Mars be a seven-day trip from Earth.  WORLD
WITHOUT END had a spaceship orbiting Mars when it hits a realistic
glitch and finds itself suddenly orbiting Earth.  The process is a
lot like that in ROCKETSHIP XM, but the unpredictable hand of God
is replaced by rogue relativity.

What other films seem to not understand the makeup of space?
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS have the two go to Venus instead,
but that probably was just that the producers might not have liked
the title ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO VENUS.  I am not sure their
ship was ever supposed to be bound for Mars.

STAR TREK probably has a better understanding of the makeup of
space, but they use tech mumbo-jumbo to explain how easily they
travel between habitable planets.

The cake-taker is SPACE 1999.  Made from 1975 through 1977 its
premise is that the moon has been blasted out of its orbit and
every week it passes by some human-habitable planet, presumably
after having crossed interstellar distances.  In their universe
there are a lot of earth-like planets, so numerous that if you just
shoot off in any direction you will pass by earth-like planets
wherever you go.

So what is my point in all this?

The generation that grew up watching these science fiction movies
and TV shows that got the science so far wrong was also the
generation that got their science right enough to put a man on the
moon.  Clearly good science would be better than bad science.  But
bad science in science fiction is more inspirational than no
science fiction at all.  The science in "Commando Cody: Sky Martial
of the Galaxy" was pretty hokey.  I was way too young to realize
that.  But it had enough flash and pizzazz to make me a science
fiction and science fact buff for the rest of my life.  [-mrl]


TOPIC: Ace Doubles, Donald Wollheim, and Harlan Ellison (letters of
comment by Fred Lerner and Allan Maurer)

In response to Mark's comments on Ace Doubles in the 09/04/15 issue
of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:

When I was in library school at Columbia at the end of the 1960s I
took the late Susan Thompson's great course on The History of Books
and Printing. When she happened to mention tete-beche as an
obsolete form of book production I made a point of bringing an Ace
double to the next class meeting.

Professor Thompson was greatly supportive of my interest in science
fiction (as were the other members of the faculty, who let me do
all my term papers on topics related to SF) and when I returned to
the School of Library Service for my doctorate she served as
advisor for my dissertation on the changing reputation of modern
American science fiction.  [-fl]

Evelyn responds:

Indeed, it is from you that I first learned the term "tete-beche",
which I can recognize and type even if I can't pronounce it
properly.  [-ecl]

And Allan Maurer writes:

I just thought I'd note that Don Wollheim was also largely
responsible for both the renewal of interest in the Edgar Rice
Burroughs series, which he reissued in Ace paperback, and also the
Tolkien craze, which he started with the unauthorized Ace
paperbacks.  In addition, he edited the first paperback anthology
of SF, and the ground-breaking portable novels of SF.  On top of
all of that, he created many fannish traditions (and disputes)
prior to his pro career.  Someone should write a bio of the man.
He had a tremendous effect on the pop culture of our era.  [-am]

Evelyn notes:

Moskowitz certainly cover some of Wollheim's life, but I agree--a
full biograohy would be wonderful.  I assume by "portable novels of
SF" you really mean the Viking Press omnibus PORTABLE NOVELS OF
SCIENCE [no "fiction" in the title].  [-ecl]

Mark adds:

I agree.  John Campbell gets a lot of credit for what he did for
science fiction.  I have heard not so much about Wollheim and his
influence is probably just as much.  [-mrl]

Allan also writes:

Re: Ellison--I think Ellison is right to classify his mature work
as magic realism.  It's certainly richer than his earlier pulp SF,
mystery, suspense and other genre work.  Occasionally though, he
dives off the deep end and comes up with a Howdy Doody button.


TOPIC: THE HARD WAY by Lee Child (letter of comment by Jim Susky)

In response to Dale Skran's review of THE HARD WAY in the 09/04/15
issue of the MT VOID, Jim Susky writes:

Dale Skran's notice of "Reacher" #10 aroused the Lee Child fan in
me.  I binged on most of the novels in about 18 years and continue
to enjoy them as they come out about once per year.

Dale has gleaned the essence of Reacher's MO as a detective and
alluded to his not quite superhuman skills.  I'd like to add a
biography and speak to his consistent, if unconventional, morals.

"Reacher", as his French mother called him because Jack didn't seem
to fit, lived at many different Marine bases, mostly overseas.  He
enlisted in the Army and served on missions only hazily alluded to
with hazily alluded killings.  During the latter part of his
service he was an MP.

To police hard men the cop must be harder.  Child does not belabor
this bit of exposition because it is plain from Reacher's size (6-6
and variously 230-260 pounds) and superior hand-to-hand dirty-
fighting ability.  Four-to-one, four ordinary brawlers to one
Reacher, only begins to constitute an even fight (he learned to
fight dirty as a child, defending his older, not-ruthless brother).
His worst injuries were suffered in prison as he dealt worse
injuries to two or three others (and the rest backed off).

In one novel, Reacher recalled that he mostly finished near the top
and once won in series of world-wide military long-range shooting
competitions.  This foreshadowed the rare instance in which hitting
targets at 1000-yards was important to the plot.  More often he
makes do at seemingly "long odds" with pistols.  In those cases 4-
to-1 is nowhere near an even fight.

Reacher has an almost chivalrously deadly ethic and often endures
hardship and mortal risk to avoid hurting the innocent.

A notable example was when he permitted himself to be captured
without a fight by the bad guys as they also abducted a blond FBI
agent--reason being that if they'd started shooting on that busy
Chicago street others might be shot.  He once took a bullet for his
ex-CO's adult daughter with whom he'd been smitten for fifteen

He flouts the law--instead he is guided with his own moral compass-
-one that is more true, more admirable than legislative bodies and
regulators can usually imagine.  His ultra-competence and self-
control permit him to narrowly focus his aggression.  This narrow
focus mostly justifies his extra-legal acts.  He does not imagine
that aggressors need escape injury or death, therefore, he rejects
much of the constraints that ruled his MP career - and which rule
our police.

Because of this some readers regard his morals to be questionable
at best.  I find them to be consistent--almost to a fault.  One
critic accused him as "judge, jury, and executioner".  This is
true, except that most judges and juries have inferior moral
judgment by comparison.

Reacher never starts fights.  Many times he could walk away, except
that his assailants would probably hurt him if he did so.  He
measures his force (and the injury he exerts) proportionally to the
threat.  He kills mostly to avoid being killed.  Occasionally he
kills the bad guys preemptively, usually when imprisoned and his
captors would kill him to prevent his escape.

Once or twice he has burglarized drug dealers--taking cash,
weapons, and ammunition.  Lee Child apparently believes such
traffickers to be fair game but stops short of harming them
physically using Reacher as his proxy.

I don't read thrillers much (except The Executioner and The
Destroyer as a teen), but like those pulpy thrillers, Reacher often
beds an off-the-charts beautiful woman.  "Spectacular" seems to be
Child's favorite feminine superlative.  All are uber-competent.
She is often ex-military or has a current career in law

Mere beauty does not trip Reacher's trigger.  He tips waitresses.
He sleeps with women who could drop you in a firefight.

Child nods to police and spycraft excellence in many guises and
especially feminine excellence.  Frances Neagly served under
Reacher as an MP and occasionally appears in a story at his behest.
He commands her loyalty and knows she is one of the few humans on
the planet who could take him out one-on-one (with firearms or
other deadly means).  She's his superior in spycraft.  An
occasional joke is that he believes he has gone from points A to B
to C without being watched/tailed--only to discover later that
Neagley had him surveilled all along.

I can't claim to be well-read in thriller domain, but can recommend
the "Jack Reacher" series almost without reservation.  [-js]


TOPIC: Lincoln's Assassination (letter of comment by Paul Dormer)

In response to Evelyn's comment on seeing someone who had seen
Abraham Lincoln assassinated in the 09/04/15 issue of the MT VOID,
Paul Dormer writes:

Evelyn notes:

I had said I was about ten, but I must have been about six.  This
may be one of my earliest distinct memories.  [-ecl]


TOPIC: Weapons, Feuds, and the Rule of Law in the Roman Empire
(comments by Mark Zenier)

In response to Evelyn's comments on weapons in ancient Rome in the
09/04/15 issue of the MT VOID, Mark Zenier writes:

[Gibbon:] "The Barbarous practice of wearing arms in the midst of
peace, and the bloody maxims of honor, were unknown to the Romans;
and, during the two purest ages, from the establishment of equal
freedom to the end of the Punic wars, the city was never disturbed
by sedition, and rarely polluted with atrocious crimes."

Evelyn: "Though Gibbon earlier seemed in favor of the Second
Amendment, here he makes an important qualification.  Namely, that
while the people may *possess* arms, they do not wear them in
everyday life, either concealed or openly."

Doesn't honor play a large part here, too?  Did the Romans rely on
intimidation and extended feuds to maintain their reputations, or
did they rely on the rule of law?  [-mz]

Evelyn responds:

I don't recall anything about blood feuds in the eras Gibbon is
writing about, and certainly there was nothing like the situation
in Scandinavia, where feuds were the norm.  However, Gibbon
certainly would be inclined to emphasize the rule of law as being
uppermost in the "purest ages" and then gradually declining along
with the rest of Roman culture.  [-ecl]


TOPIC: PARTICLE FEVER (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

[This review first ran in the 07/18/14 issue of the MT VOID.]

CAPSULE: Back in the 1960s people could appreciate and enjoy
scientific accounts of the space program even if they did not
understand all the technicalities.  PARTICLE FEVER is a science
documentary for our time.  The viewer does not need to have a
scientific background to appreciate and enjoy this account of
scientists trying to uncover the secrets of fundamental particles
that could lead to a better understanding of the universe and its
origins.  The film follows six of the 10,000 scientists working for
several years at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.  They are trying to
capture and find the mass of the Higgs Boson particle.  For once we
have a rarity, a documentary that is not depressing and not even
overly political.  Instead it suggests looking at the universe with
a real sense of wonder.  Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

The Large Hadron Collider is the center of the largest, most
expensive scientific project with the greatest number of people
participating of any scientific endeavor in history.  The
experiment is going on at CERN (the European Organization for
Nuclear Research).  The particle collider it has built is
underground right under the border between France and Switzerland
not far from Geneva.  More than 10,000 scientists and engineers
were required to design, build, and interpret output from it.  This
staff came from more than 100 different countries.  The collider
itself is a circle as near perfect as it is possible to make it,
and it is a circle 17 miles in circumference.  Particles going
clockwise and counterclockwise are accelerated to near the speed of
light and then directed in each others path to collide shattering
each other breaking into many smaller particles so the contents of
the larger particles can be analyzed better understood.  By
colliding these particles the accelerator somehow (I admit I am not
sure how) recreates conditions just after the Big Bang.

Director Mark Levinson, once himself a particle physicist at
Berkeley and now a filmmaker tells the story of five years at CERN
as few filmmakers have the background, the understanding, and the
clarity to tell.  The film covers the years from 2008 when the
collider was first turned on to 2012 when the Higgs Boson was
finally isolated and its mass found.  The Higgs Boson is believed
to be the particle that holds matter together and that gives other
particles mass.  Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson may tell us
whether a multiverse model of the universe is true or if the
competing supersymmetry model is correct.  Each theory predicts a
different mass for the Higgs Boson, so it would be extremely
valuable to isolate one in order to observe the mass.

Levinson's film follows six scientists and the ups and downs of the
huge job of preparing for the experiment and then collecting an
analyzing the data from the experiment.  With frequent interviews
in a variety of accents they tell the viewer what they are doing.
One gets the feeling that particle physicists are people much like
us except that they seem to drink more coffee.  To keep this story
moving apace the editor is Walter Murch who edited films like GHOST
(1990), the 1998 re-edit of TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), and THE TALENTED
MR. RIPLEY (1999).  Here he gives the film pacing and creates
genuine suspense even in viewers who cannot appreciate the
implications of the results.

So what does all this effort add up to?  What will understanding
the Higgs Boson do for humanity?  Nobody in the world knows.
Whatever is discovered, it will have literally cosmic implications.
This is pure science, not applied.  One can never know what
applications this sort of knowledge can lead to.  But most
practical science started out with just looking for scientific
truth.  This is a film that feeds the imagination and is the most
exciting documentary so far in 2014.  I rate it a +3 on the -4 to
+4 scale or 9/10.  I have to say that being a lover of mathematics
and science fiction the dichotomy of boson mass implications
appeals to me.  A multi-verse, an infinite set of parallel
universes, appeals to my science fiction side.  Supersymmetry
appeals to the math maven in me.  Either discovery would be

Film Credits:

What others are saying:

For more information start with



(Volume V of VI) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)

[continuing my comments from last week]

"Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming
youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created
for the meanest believer...  Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice,
the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes; but Mahomet has not
specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should
either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb the
felicity, by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage."
E: I love Gibbon's analysis of why the details of Paradise for
women has not be specified!

"Among the Arabian philosophers, Averroes has been accused of
despising the religions of the Jews, the Christians, and the
Mahometans...  Each of these sects would agree, that in two
instances out of three, his contempt was reasonable."

E: This sounds like some odd vote distribution used to prove some
paradoxical result in a particular vote-counting system.

"... the absolute prohibition of divorce, concubinage, and interest
for money, enslaves the freedom of trade and the happiness of
private life."

E: While most people today would agree with Gibbon on divorce and
the lending of money, his argument that concubinage is necessary
for the happiness of private life would likely get far less

"From the age of Charlemagne to that of the Crusades, the world
(for I overlook the remote monarchy of China) was occupied and
disputed by the three great empires or nations of the Greeks, the
Saracens, and the Franks."

E: It is not at all clear why Gibbon decided to ignore China,
unless he is implying by "remote" that China had no interaction
with the other empires.  But that is not true; China was
interacting with the Saracens.  And he completely omits the Maya
Empire.  (The Aztecs and Incas considerably postdate the Crusades
to which Gibbon is referring.)

"In the system of modern Europe, the power of the sword is
possessed, at least in fact, by five or six mighty potentates;
their operations are conducted on a distant frontier, by an order
of men who devote their lives to the study and practice of the
military art: the rest of the country and community enjoys in the
midst of war the tranquility of peace, and is only made sensible of
the change by the aggravation or decrease of the public taxes.  In
the disorders of the tenth and eleventh centuries, every peasant
was a soldier, and every village a fortification; each wood or
valley was a scene of murder and rapine; and the lords of each
castle were compelled to assume the characters of princes and

E: This is quite the reverse of how we usually perceive warfare.
We look upon "total war" as an invention of the twentieth century,
but it was certainly common in the Bronze Age and, as Gibbon
indicates, recurred intermittently since then.  (The Mongols are
another example.)  One might claim that the period that Gibbon
lived in was merely a brief respite from the more common model of
warfare as total warfare.

"The poets and orators were long imprisoned in the barbarous
dialects of our Western ancestors, devoid of harmony and grace; and
their genius, without precept or example, was abandoned to the rule
and native powers of their judgment and fancy."

E: Gibbon has clearly been co-opted by the common prejudice of his
time that Latin and Greek were beautiful languages, designed for
poetry and rhetoric, while Anglo-Saxon, the Celtic languages, and
so on were only slightly better than the grunts of a gorilla.  The
fact that he liberally footnotes his work with passages in Latin
and Greek indicates that he assumes any educated person will know
those, while the knowledge of those "barbarous dialects" was
unknown to him or most of his readers.  Strangely, almost any human
language is quite suitable for poetry and rhetoric.

"But these advantages [if returning to a purer form of the Greek
language] only tend to aggravate the reproach and shame of a
degenerate people."

E: Okay, we can tell that Gibbon does not think much of the
"Eastern Christians" or "Byzantines" or whatever term one wishes to
apply to them.

"[The Latin Christians'] sole use of the gospel was to sanctify an
oath, that the lawful owners had now secreted any relic of their
inheritance or industry."

E: On the other hand, he does not think much of the "Western
Christians" either.  Indeed, the attitude of the Western Christians
in general, and the Crusaders in particular, seemed to be that
their religion was a good excuse for attacking and pillaging the
Holy Land, while not following any of the less convenient precepts
of their religion.

"[The Muslims attacked a temple of Ganesha in India] ... the walls
were scaled; the sanctuary was profaned; and the conqueror aimed a
blow of his iron mace at the head of the idol.  The trembling
Brahmins are said to have offered ten millions sterling for his
ransom; and its was urged by the wisest counsellors, that the
destruction of a stone image would not change the hearts of the
Gentoos; and that such a sum might be dedicated to the relief of
the true believers.  'Your reasons,' replied the sultan, 'are
specious and strong; but never in the eyes of posterity shall
Mahmud appear as a merchant of idols.'  He repeated his blows, and
a treasure of pearls and rubies, concealed in the belly of the
statue, explained in some degree the devout prodigality of the

E: As we can see, Gibbon is pretty much an equal opportunity
religion-hater: the Hindus here care about their "idol" only
because it is filled with treasure.  (Gentoos were residents of
Madras who spoke Telugu.)

"But the triumph of the Koran is more pure and meritorious, as it
was not assisted by any visible splendor of worship which might
allure the Pagans by some resemblance of idolatry."

E: This is an odd claim, because although the Muslims were somewhat
tolerant of Christians and Jews ("the People of the Book"), they
were usually fairly relentless in "conversion by the sword" of
pagans, so the notion that pagans needed to be lured inby splendor
seems wrong.

"A crowd of pilgrims from the East and West continued to visit the
holy sepulchre, and the adjacent sanctuaries, more especially at
the festival of Easter; and the Greeks and Latins, the Nestorians
and Jacobites, the Copts and Abyssinians, the Armenians and
Georgians, maintained the chapels, the clergy, and the poor of
their respective communions.  The Harmony of prayer in so many
various tongues, the worship of so many nations in the common
temple of their religion, might have afforded a spectacle of
edification and peace; but the zeal of the Christian sects was
imbittered by hatred and revenge; and in the kingdom of a suffering
Messiah, who had pardoned his enemies, they aspired to command and
persecute their spiritual brethren."

E: This underlines the hostilities among the various sects within
Christianity, which Gibbon returns to again and again.

"At the report of this sacrilege [the destruction of the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre], the nations of Europe were astonished and
afflicted: but instead of arming in the defence of the Holy Land,
they contented themselves with burning, or banishing, the Jews, as
the secret advisers of the impious Barbarian."

E: This is a classic example of a convenient scapegoat, although I
have read elsewhere that the argument was not so much the
(purported) current sins of the Jews, but the accusation that they
had killed Jesus.

"[The] Crusdaers were alternately exalted by victory or sunk in
despair; either swelled with plenty or emaciated with hunger.  A
speculative reasoner might suppose, that their faith had a strong
and serious influence on their practice; and that the soldiers of
the cross, the deliverers of the holy sepulchre, prepared
themselves by a sober and virtuous life for the daily contemplation
of martydom.  Experience blows away this charitable illusion; and
seldom does the history of profane war display such scenes of
intemperance and prostitution as were exhibited under the walls of

E: As noted above, Gibbon repeatedly points out the impiety of the
Christians in their pursuit of their "holy" Crusade.
"The emperor Alexius, who seemed to advance to the succor of the
Latins, was dismayed by the assurance of this hopeless condition.
They expected their fate in silent despair; oaths and punishments
were tried without effect; and to rouse the soldiers to the defence
of the walls, it was found necessary to set fire to their

E: This seems an extreme example of the "stick" approach of

[Peter Bartholemy claimed that the head of the lance that pierced
Jesus's side was buried under the Church of St. Peter in Antioch.]
"The ground was opened in the appointed place, but the workmen, who
relieved each other, dug to the depth of twelve feet without the
discovering the object of their search.  In the evening, when Count
Raymond had withdrawn to his post, and the weary assistants began
to murmur, Bartholemy, in his shirt, and without his shows, boldly
descending into the pit; the darkness of the hour and of the place
enabled him to secret and deposit the head of a Saracen lance; and
the first sound, the first gleam, of the steel was saluted with a
devout rapture."
E: Gibbon is definitely an unbeliever when it comes to miracles,
relics, and all such things.

[to be continued next week]



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

THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro (ISBN 978-0-307-27103-7) is set
in a post-Roman Britain.  Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple
who wish to visit their son in another village ... or is he?  Their
memories are fogged, but it is not just age.  Everyone seems a
little confused about the past, including those that they meet
along the way.  These include a Saxon warrior, an orphan, and a
knight, and all of them have their own goals, which are at times in
conflict with each other.  Both the warrior and the knight, for
example, want to find the dragon that lives nearby, and resent the
interference of each other.  There is a boatman who seems somewhat
out of place, perhaps even otherworldly.  And so on.

If this sounds a bit (or a lot) like a fantasy novel, it is.  And
it is by an author best known for the novel THE REMAINS OF THE DAY-
-hardly a work of fantasy.  Indeed, when THE BURIED GIANT came out,
many genre writers assumed that Ishiguro would do what many
"mainstream" authors do when they write fantasy: either deny it was
fantasy, or claim to have invented a new genre.  But Ishiguro
surprised them by saying that of course he was writing fantasy, and
fantasy in the long tradition of fantasy.  (He and Neil Gaiman even
had a discussion of fantasy on BBC radio.)

There is more to this than just fantasy, of course, and what
Ishiguro is writing about through his premise is something that is
very much applicable to the present.

Of course, this was not Ishiguro's first foray into the fantastic--
his novel NEVER LET ME GO is basically an alternate history about
cloning.  Both THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO have been
made into films; one wonders if this will be also.

PLAGUE LAND by S. D. Sykes (ISBN 978-1-60598-673-9) is a murder
mystery set in a village in England shortly after the Plague.  The
Plague has turned everything upside down, with the third son of the
lord of the manor suddenly called back from his probationary period
at the monastery when his father and two older brothers die of the
Plague.  He has to contend not only with running the manor when so
many of its vassals have died, but also with someone--or something-
-that has murdered two village girls.  I cannot judge whether this
is an accurate picture of fourteenth century life in England, but
there is a lot of melodrama and soap opera laid over it.  I found
some of the twists and turns unlikely, but then that is true of a
lot of Agatha Christie's novels as well.

DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Mary Doria Russell (ISBN 978-0-345-48555-7)
is a story set primarily in Cairo during the 1921 Cairo Peace
Conference.  Our narrator (Agnes) is a woman who at the beginning
of the novel loses her entire family to the Spanish flu and decides
to take the insurance payment she receives and visit Cairo and the
Middle East.

The story is part travelogue, part history, and part romance.  The
travelogue part is very well done--Russell gives a really good feel
for Egypt in the 1920s (and for that matter, even in the 1980s when
we visited).  The history part is a bit too much info dump about
World War I, the Spanish flu, the various characters (and politics)
of the Middle East, and even dachshunds' eyes.  Agnes is an average
tourist who somehow manages to fall in with all the famous people
who are involved in the Conference.  Conveniently, her sister was a
friend of T. E. Lawrence, which is part of her entree into that
level of society,  But her involvement definitely requires some
suspension of disbelief.

In addition to info dumps, the characters are all incredibly
prescient about where the decisions made at the Conference will
lead.  This is easy for Russell, who obviously is writing in the
21st century.  And she tries to justify some of it by having her
character writing from a later time period than the 1920s as well.
But having other characters mention all the cities of Iraq that are
so much in the news now, or having the various divisions among the
Muslims recognized by as many people as they are is a bit jarring.

The last chapter is particularly awkward in this regard (with a lot
of explanation of "what happened to X?" in the manner of what one
sees in the end credits of historical films).  It also becomes far
too preachy for the rest of the novel.

Russell knows how to turn a phrase--the problem is that she does it
a bit too often.  Lines such as, "No one at home knows where I am
or what I am doing.  No one knows who or what I am, or have been,
or shall be," are striking at first, but there are a bit too many
such aphorisms.  After a while, it seems almost like an Oscar Wilde
play, with the writing seeming more crafted to be striking than to
be a naturalistic accounting.  This is particularly ironic since
her main character hears Churchill use the phrase "blood and tears"
in regard to painting and observes that clearly Churchill could
recognize a good phrase and was not shy about improving and re-
using it.

In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy reading DREAMERS OF THE DAY,
but though mostly for the travelogue aspects.  [-ecl]


                                           Mark Leeper

           Not to be born at all would be the best thing for man,
           never to behold the sun's scorching rays; but if one
           is born, then one is to press as quickly as possible
           to the portals of Hades, and rest there under the earth.