Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/01/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 27, Whole Number 1891

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,
Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,
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        Puzzle (and Answer) (by Mark R. Leeper)
        Update on Bell Works (Holmdel Bell Labs Building)
        Mini-Reviews of Films of the Year (THE BIG SHORT and MACBETH)
                (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper)
        Downtowns Are Not What They Used to Be (comments
                by Evelyn C. Leeper)
        This Picture Says It All: Falcon 9 Returned First Stage
                (comments by Dale L. Skran)
        SICARIO (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        CAN & CAN'TANKEROUS by Harlan Ellison (book review
                by Joe Karpierz)
        Honesty and Dishonesty in Fiction (letter of comment
                by Robert Mitchell)
        WORLD OF PTAVVS (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky)
        Choices (Organic vs. ?) (letters of comment
                by David Goldfarb, Phillip Chee, Keith F. Lynch,
                Paul Dormer, Gary McGath, Dorothy J. Heydt,
                Alan Woodford, and Peter Trei)
        Answer to Puzzle (by Mark R. Leeper)
        This Week's Reading (DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP,
                (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper)


TOPIC: Puzzle (by Mark R. Leeper)

This is probably not too hard.

What do Catholics do to sinners, fathers do to sons, and Jews do to

The answer will be our penultimate item this issue.  I guess part
of the puzzle is knowing what penultimate actually means.  [-mrl]


TOPIC: Update on Bell Works (Holmdel Bell Labs Building)

Since this zine started as a newsletter for the Bell labs SF Club,
I figure there are people who might still be interested in the
following.  It's a PDF; the BTL/Bell Works update starts on page 3.



TOPIC: Mini-Reviews of Films of the Year (film reviews by Mark
R. Leeper)

After a week of my column telling what was coming up on Turner
Classic Movies, I am back to short capsule reviews of movies from
2015 that you may or may not know of, and suggesting which may be
of interest to you if you stumble across them on NetFlix or Amazon
Prime.  Some may even play in a theater near you.  (In truth,
nobody tells me of the release plans are for any of these movies.
The films are provided to me by film publicists so I can vote on
the Online Film Critic Society's annual awards.  But the release
plans are not provided.)

There is a podcast about economics called "Planet Money".  This
film could almost be PLANET MONEY: THE MOTION PICTURE.  The film,
like "Planet Money", tries to explain the finance all simply and
understandably and in that noble purpose fails.  But it is told
with wit or even an acid cynicism that is apparently more than
justified.  This is a film about naked greed.  We follow three
story lines (true stories) with three people through the 2008
financial crisis.  People who saw the financial bubble bursting and
who exploited it in each's own way.  Michael Burry (played by
Christian Bale) saw the crash coming and committed his company to
seriously exploiting it; Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers it is
happening and slowly comes to realize how serious the situation
really is; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) discovers his company is
criminally courting serious financial damage.  This is a film that
names names and signals a warning that the world seems to be
ignoring.  While being fun to watch it tells you what you need to
know about the financial crisis and almost certainly do not.  It is
best to see this film multiple times until it starts to stick.  It
is hard to believe how serious and at the same time how funny the
film is.  I guess it also should be considered a horror film since
virtually the same meltdown could happen again.  Adam McKay directs
a screenplay he wrote with Charles Randolph, based on a book by
Michael Lewis.  Rating low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

MACBETH (2015)
I may stand alone in my tastes, but I like my Macbeths to be
reasonably spectacular.  They should offer my eye as much as they
offer the ear.  I want to see Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane with
acres of moving foliage, not just a few sparks of a forest fire and
the rest done with a red filter.  The Weird Sisters should look
like weird sisters.  Nobody asks a performance of MACBETH to be
spiritually uplifting, but one wants to see the witches to seem a
little weird and threatening.  You know, witches.  That is simply
not the style of this production.

Justin Kurzel directs this new MACBETH from a screenplay by Jacob
Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso based on a stage play by
some British guy.  Certainly watching this version is a much better
experience than sitting and reading the play without visuals.  But
Kurzel seems to be so afraid that he will compromise the play and
pander to the audience by putting in too much visual excitement
that instead he goes overboard toning the visuals down to the bare
bones minimum.  Battle scenes seem more like ad hoc gang fights
than two big armies facing each other.

But for three familiar actors this film seems to have been done on
a low budget.  The actors I mentioned are Michael Fassbinder and
Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths.  Also there is David Thewlis as
the unfortunate Duncan.  But too many of what should be exciting
scenes are cloaked in fog.  The feel of the production can best be
described as raw.  The screenplay is abridged from the original
play, but that is to be expected to bring this version down to
feature length.  This film is heavy into style and it was a style
that will have selective appeal.  But the story is strong enough to
hold the audience captive with what is, as comes as no surprise, a
good story.  For that thank that English dude.  Rating: low +2 on
the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.



TOPIC: Downtowns Are Not What They Used to Be (comments by Evelyn
C. Leeper)

When I was growing up in the 1960s, we lived in Rantoul, Illinois,
a fairly small town.  But it had a "downtown"--the main downtown
street had small shops, two five-and-dime stores, and a movie
theater.  The surrounding couple of blocks had the library, a
grocery store, a couple of churches, and the train station.  My
friend and I walked downtown every Saturday.  We went to the
library and the stores, dusted the church (her father was the
janitor), and in general found plenty to entertain us.  (We also
did this at age 12 on our own, but that's another story.)
Fast-forward to the 1990s and 2000s.  Now we live in Old Bridge,
New Jersey, a town with no downtown.  (Don't let the name "Towne
Square" or some such applied to a shopping center fool you.)
Shopping is strung out along the various major roads that go
through the town.

However, Matawan (the next town over) does have a sort of a
downtown.  It is not much--three or four blocks with the Post
Office, the library, a couple of banks, and a few restaurants and
stores.  For a while there was even a "supermarket" (more like a
grocery store).  But gradually, it declined.  The drug store closed
(defeated by a Rite-Aid, a CVS, and a Walgreens, all within a mile
or so).  It was replaced by a dollar store, but it also closed.
Currently the location is a dance academy.

The supermarket eventually closed, after being picketed by the
supermarket workers union (even though I think it was a family-
owned store, and exempt from union requirements).  Currently, there
is only a deli (bodega) with a minimal stock, and the old
supermarket location is a hole in the ground where they are
supposedly going to put retail space and apartments.

One of the Mexican restaurants closed and moved down to near the
train station, which is at least a mile away from the "downtown".
Its location has been empty for a couple of years (as have other
spaces along the street).  The other has changed ownership at least

The latest is that the thrift shop closed and was replaced by an
upscale consignment shop.  Speaking to the owner, I find that she
is on the Chamber of Commerce and hopes to revive the downtown.
But apparently her idea of reviving the downtown is to put up
seasonal decorations and attract businesses like the dance academy
and a party planning business that will be opening.  (There are
already plenty of medical offices on the street several blocks out
of downtown.)

The problem is that the 12-year-old me would find this new downtown
terrifically boring.  There are no real retail shops, no drug
stores, no hardware stores, no soda fountains--nothing to attract
people to come downtown and walk around.  If you come downtown to
go to the Post Office or the bank, you park, do your errand and
leave.  Maybe the library would attract you, but there is nothing
else to encourage unplanned business.  No one walks down the street
and says, "Gee, I think I'll drop into the party planner and see
what's new."  There is not even a coffee shop there.  And no one
goes into a sit-down restaurant to get a cup of coffee, so they get
into their car and drive to the Starbucks a mile away.  [-ecl]


TOPIC: This Picture Says It All: Falcon 9 Returned First Stage
(comments by Dale L. Skran)

Some of you may not be aware of this due to criminally poor media
coverage, but on December 21, 2015, at 8:29 PM EST SpaceX made
history.  Not only did they return to flight after a loss of
mission six months ago, they demonstrated the "Full Thrust" Falcon
9 using super-cooled fuel, delivered 11 OBRCOMM data communications
satellites to orbit, and landed the first stage back at the Cape in
Florida.  It is this last event that garnered the most attention,
as it presages a new age of cheaper spaceflight, potentially
driving outward human expansion.  The first stage of a rocket is
the most expensive, and extensive re-use of first stages with only
minor refurbishment promises to significantly reduce the cost of
getting to orbit.

Naysayers will point out, "Well, they have to re-fly.  And even if
they do, they have to prove it is economic.  And it has to save
enough money to make a difference."  And so on, and so on.  Yet
there comes a point where it starts to seem like something is
really happening.  That maybe every issue has not been resolved,
but that it is more likely than not that they will be resolved.
That this is the end of the beginning of the space age, and the
dawn of human expansion across our solar system.

Sometimes a single picture communicates the message.  A (National
Space Society, NSS press release on this
topic can be found at  You'll
find some more info on the launch, and a quote from somebody named
Dale Skran.  And a picture.  And what a picture it is!  The
returned Falcon 9 first stage rests firmly on Space Launch Complex-
13 (SLC-13) at the Cape.  This pad has been baking in the Florida
sun since 1978 until SpaceX leased it from the Air Force for use as
a landing site.  It is night, and the booster is brightly lit by
floodlights, recalling the final chapter of H. G. Wells' FOOD OF

The first stage of the rocket is clear and sharp, showing no
obvious damage or scorching at this distance.  It stands tall on
enormous triangular landing legs that recall Virgil Finley
paintings.  "SpaceX" is written vertically in big block letters.
And then you see tiny figures walking around the legs wearing
orange jackets.  A jeep is visible behind and below the engines.  A
truck can be seen on the left. Your eyes travel up and up, and you
realize the stage is huge--more than 10x the height of a person,
maybe 20x.  This colossus has flown to the edge of space and back,
delivered its costly bale to orbit, returned under powered flight,
buffeted by supersonic winds, and tempered by searing heat.  And
yet there it stands, home again.  In the darkness behind it you can
see the future, and it is glorious.  [-dls]


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

CAPSULE: Denis Villeneuve directs a suspenseful story of an inter-
surveillance-agency team chosen for a mission to illegally cross
the border into Mexico and to attack and if possible assassinate a
powerful drug lord living in Juarez.  FBI agent Kate Macer needs to
figure out why she is on this team and mission and is highly
troubled by the answers she is or is not getting.  The theme is how
the violent drug war in Mexico warps the US law enforcement.  But
the film makes for a tense thriller.  Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) was part of a raid near the
Mexican border in Arizona that turned up some extremely gruesome
findings.  The raid also ran into trouble and two agents died in
the effort.  Macer herself considers the raid a disaster, but for
her part in the raid she is asked to work with an elite team on a
mission to eliminate a high-profile drug Cartel boss.  Macer is
surprised to find out one of the members of the team is a Mexican,
Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), which seems to be a violation of the
law.  The team is going to Juarez, Mexico for their mission,
another violation.  Macer has to not only try to understand her
enemy; she needs to understand just who and what her own team is
and most importantly why is she with a team performing a mission so
different from her experience.  Not surprisingly all will be
explained though Macer may not like the answers to her questions.

The story is a quiet struggle between Mercer and the mysterious
Alejandro who is Mexican and not even from the US and nonetheless
seems to be controlling the US team.  Del Toro is very smooth in
his role and Blunt, in some of her best performance to date, shares
her mounting frustration with the viewer.  They are two very
accomplished performances.

Very controversial is the film's treatment of the city of Juarez in
Taylor Sheridan's screenplay.  It is portrayed as a city in chaos
where crime is totally out of hand.  Juarez comes off as a city of
nightmarish horror.  One need only stop outside and listen for a
few minutes to hear the chatter of machine guns.  The film is just
a little gory and graphic, but some of the ideas may be as
horrifying as anything the viewer sees on the screen.  Graphic
scenes are avoided by having them take place just off camera.
Though there are disturbing visual images in a few places, the
film's thrills do not come from violence and blood on the screen
but from intelligent and unsettling dialog.  Nevertheless, the film
is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, one of the great film
cinematographers.  As often as he can Deakins shows us really
majestic skies, often dark and heavy with ominous clouds.  The
musical score by Johann Johannsson employs a nearly subsonic rhythm
that helps to put the viewer on edge.  The film is directed by
Denis Villeneuve who manages a very natural style with sufficient
but not exaggerated action.

SICARIO is playing in theaters opposite SPECTRE and generally is
the same genre of film, but there is no doubt that SICARIO has a
better and more relevant story with more believable characters.  I
rate SICARIO a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.  Aside: The
word "sicario" is Spanish for "hitman".

Film Credits:

What others are saying:



TOPIC: CAN & CAN'TANKEROUS by Harlan Ellison (copyright 2015,
Edgeworks Abbey in association with Subterranean Press, $45 Trade
Edition, 236pp, ISBN 978-1-59606-751-6) (excerpt from the Duel Fish
Codices: a book review by Joe Karpierz)

Earlier this year I reviewed THE TOP OF THE VOLCANO, THE AWARD-
WINNING STORIES OF HARLAN ELLISON (R), a beautifully produced book
from Subterranean Press.  Of course, there are more Harlan Ellison
stories than just those that won awards.  He has written more
shorts stories, articles, reviews, and whatnot than anyone can
count--well, maybe anyone but Ellison himself.  However, I'd been
wondering aloud to a couple of friends of mine about what he'd been
doing recently.  Granted, he is no longer a young man and has had
his health issues, but surely he must still be writing something, I
thought.  Lo and behold, here comes a new collection, CAN &
CAN'TANKEROUS.  The Subterranean Press website says the book "...
gathers ten previously uncollected tales from the fifth and sixth
decades of Harlan Ellison's professional writing career ...".
While that's not quite true--"How Interesting: A Tiny Man", the
2011 Nebula award-winning short story, appeared in the
aforementioned THE TOP OF THE VOLCANO--I was ecstatic to find a
collection of stories of Ellison's that I had not read before.
That's not to say I've read everything of his; I have not.  But
I've read quite a bit, and I was excited to jump into this

Let me start off by saying that while the stories in the collection
are good, they are, by and large, not great.  There are a few gems,
but you won't find stories on the order of "I Have No Mouth and I
Must Scream", "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman", or
"Deathbird" (one of my all time favorites).  What you will find are
well written, well crafted stories that can tear at your
heartstrings, make you laugh out loud, or shake your head at
Ellison's inventiveness.

My favorite story in the entire collection may be "Incognita,
Inc.", a story that is both at once a sad and wondrous story, which
on one level is about a man who is sent to terminate the employment
of a map maker in a tough to find part of Chicago, on another level
is about how the corporate bottom line--an item to which many of us
are beholden these days--can destroy the livelihood of small
businesses (and this business may or may not be small, depending on
how the reader looks at it), and on yet another level is about the
independent craftsman losing his job to modern technology.

I should step back here and note that some of the most interesting
works in this book are Ellison's introductions, forewords, and
afterwords to the stories themselves. They are in part tales of how
these stories came to be, and part a running account of Ellison
having his stroke.  They are funny, thought provoking, and
insightful.  In the case of "Incognita, Inc.", Ellison asks the
reader who makes all those maps that we always see in movies and TV
shows--the maps that lead our heroes to the object of their quest.
Another favorite is "Never Send to Know for Whom the Lettuce Wilts
Tuesday".  Henry Leclair is a man with an insatiable curiosity
about just about everything.  He just had to know.  He reads a
fortune from a cookie in a Chinese restaurant that on the front
says "Tuesday", and on the back says, "You're the one".  That
certainly drives him crazy with curiosity, and so Henry runs off to
find the fortune cookie factory.  What he finds there is quite

I've read "How Interesting:  A Tiny Man" twice now, and I'm still
not sure what I'm reading.  The narrator has created, with
difficulty, a tiny man.  The tiny man goes from being a curiosity
to being an object of hatred.  Ellison provides two endings.  The
first ending has a last line that is a bit of a surprise, and the
second is stunning.  I think I like the second ending better, but
they're both effective.

"Weariness" is also a story that I enjoy, about the end of the
universe that was written at a writer's workshop that was inspired
by a painting.  While the story is terrific, what is even more
terrific is the afterward, which recounts an episode in Ellison's
friendship with Ray Bradbury, which is an example of their
relationship as a whole.

"The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes A
Novella of Manners" is a pulp-era type story.  Ellison claims it
was written back in the 1950s, then lost, found, lost again, found
again, etc., until finally it saw the light of day.  It truly is a
story in the pulp tradition which is set on Mars and includes
rebelling native Martians, invading aliens, galaxy spanning
travels, and a weird 6 part alien trying to take over the universe.
It's a terrific story, and one that is worth multiple reads.

Other stories included in the collection are "Objects of Desire in
the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear", "Loose Cannon, or Rubber
Duckies from Space", "From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet",
"Goodbye to All That", and "He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock
Holmes".  Of this group, I find I enjoyed "From A to Z...." and
"Goodbye to All That" more than the others, but they're all pretty
good stories, and there are a few with some pretty good titles that
make the reader want to take a peek into them just to see what's
going on under the covers.

Sometimes, especially recently, when I write a review, I learn
things about the book that I hadn't known when I was reading the
book initially.  This is one of those times. I find that upon
further reflection, I enjoyed this book more than I thought I did
at first.  It's well worth the read, and a great addition to
anyone's Harlan Ellison collection.  [-jak]


TOPIC: Honesty and Dishonesty in Fiction (letter of comment by
Robert Mitchell)

In response to Taras Wolansky's comments on MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!
in the 12/25/15 issue of the MT VOID, Rob Mitchell writes:

[Taras writes:] "This led me to some ruminations about honesty and
dishonesty in the writing of fiction, and what we should think of
an SF writer who engages in extrapolations he knows to be false
and/or impossible."

I'd respond that the first question would be, is the story
interesting (and you can use your personal definition of
"interesting", of course)?  If the plot was engaging, the
characters three-dimensional, and the world intriguing, then sure,
why not write even when you know the extrapolations are highly
improbable or impossible?  Sometimes thought experiments, although
impossible in real life, can shed light on what *is* possible.

In the specific case of MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!, I personally found
the story failed the "interesting" test because it was too polemic.
I didn't object because it was propaganda, I objected because it
was *bad* propaganda.  Heavy-handed and preachy.  Harrison has
written much better, such as the "Deathworld" or "Eden" books.


TOPIC: WORLD OF PTAVVS (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky)

In response to Evelyn's comments on WORLD OF PTAVVS in the 12/25/15
issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

I've always assumed Larry Niven's WORLD OF PTAVVS is pronounced
exactly as written.  It's just English parochialism to think the
initial "p" is silent.

Greek, for example, uses that consonant combination: I can still
remember how Carl Sagan pronounced "Ptolemaios".  In Ukrainian,
several words relating to birds--ptakh, ptashka, ptytsia--do, too.
(I have a vague recollection Anthony Burgess' droogs used the last
term, borrowed from Russian.)

Though I can't think of any real-world use of the "tn" initial
combination, I never had a problem pronouncing "tnuctipun".  (It
comes out rather like a sneeze!)  "Kzanol" is dead easy; "gnal" is
not very tough, just "regnal" without the "re"

I remember I enjoyed Niven's 1966 novel (his first), though I
haven't reread it in decades.  [-tw]


TOPIC: Choices (Organic vs. ?) (letters of comment by David
Goldfarb, Phillip Chee, Keith F. Lynch, Paul Dormer, Gary McGath,
Dorothy J. Heydt, Alan Woodford, and Peter Trei)

In response to Evelyn's comments on choices in the 12/25/15 issue
of the MT VOID, David Goldfarb writes:

[Evelyn writes,] "Produce has similar problems.  Yes, there's the
question of organic versus ... inorganic?"

I've usually seen "conventional".  [-dg]

Phillip Chee adds:


Unless you are some sort of mutant extremophile bacteria, you might
find digesting inorganics rather difficult.  [-pc]

Keith F. Lynch responds:

A food can fail to qualify as organic without being from a
Genetically Modified Organism.  For instance if it was treated with
pesticides or artificial fertilizers.  [-kfl]

Paul Dormer also replies:

Table salt and water are both inorganic, and I have no trouble
ingesting them.

Having done chemistry to A-level, I still think of organic as
meaning to do with the carbon-carbon bond.  [-pd]

Gary McGath adds:

Or to do with living things.  Some European languages refer to
organic foods as "bio" foods, which has exactly the same problem.

Dorothy Heydt also replies to Paul:

And you are right to do so.

"Organic" among food-purists means "grown according to organic
principles, which involve using no inorganic chemicals."  A wishy-
washy definition at best.

I can remember, back in the lower Pleistocene when I was pregnant
with my son and having a fair amount of morning sickness, having
some herb or other recommended to me--coneflowers, maybe?--with the
statement "There's no chemicals in them."  I told Hal that later,
and we both had a good laugh.  [-djh]

Gary responds:

["Organic" among food-purists means "grown according to organic
principles, which involve using no inorganic chemicals."]

No dihydrogen monoxide?  [-gmg]

Dorothy counters:

They'd probably want to be reassured that it comes from pure Sierra
melt-off, which has been hard to come by the last few years.  [-

And Alan Woodford also replies to Gary:

I should hope not--we're suffering from a vast oversupply of that
substance in the North of England at the moment, and people there
are getting rather annoyed!  [-aw]

Keith Lynch replies to Dorothy (in an unexpected return to science

I still say there's a market for space mining of ice.  Foolish
wealthy people will pay a fortune for water guaranteed to have
never be in the form of urine or feces.  [-kfl]

And Keith also responds to Paul:

[Regarding ingesting table salt and water]

Ingesting, yes.  Digesting, no.  They pass through you unchanged.

[Organic as meaning to do with the carbon-carbon bond]

No, molecules with a single carbon atom still count as organic.
For instance the first organic chemical ever artificially
synthesized, urea, has just one carbon atom.  Other examples
include methane, methyl alcohol, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide,
carbon monoxide, carbon disulfide, chloroform, carbon
tetrachloride, formic acid, hydrogen cyanide, and phosgene.  (I
didn't say any of these substances were good to eat, drink, or
breathe.  But they're all part of organic chemistry.  As are
compounds with more than one carbon atom but no bond directly
linking them, e.g. dimethyl ether and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO).)

Peter Trei adds:

This is an example of the common error of assuming that human-
created categories can be universally and unambiguously applied to
nature.  It also shows the error of applying modern definitions of
categories to historic cases.

'Organic' vs 'Inorganic' means nothing to reality, which contains
plenty of corner cases and in-betweens, such as single-carbon

Urea is called 'organic' not because it contains a carbon, but
because prior to Friedrich Wohler's 1828 synthesis that chemical,
many thought that there was an division between the 'organic'
chemistry of living things, and that of 'inorganic' dead chemicals.

Prior to Wohler, urea was only known from living sources.  His
synthesis of it from clearly non-living starting materials was a
blow to thedoctrine of vitalism.

So, urea is called 'organic' not because it contains carbon, but
because, historically, it was extracted from biological resources.


TOPIC: Answer to Puzzle (by Mark R. Leeper)

What do Catholics do to sinners, fathers do to sons, and Jews do to

Bless.  [-mrl]


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

72889-4) is considered a classic, but while modern audiences can
read it as a description of the landscapes and scenery of New
Mexico, they will probably also find the human aspects troubling.
It starts with three Cardinals in Rome needing to name a bishop for
the new See of New Mexico.  The Bishop of Durango has written to
suggest one of his priests, but the Bishop from America who is in
Rome says, "[It] would be a great misfortune if a native priest
were appointed; they have never done well in that field."  This is
the same feeling expressed by Abner Hale in James Michener's
HAWAII--he keeps asking his superiors back on the mainland to send
more ministers and refuses to ordain any native Hawaiians.  Maybe
this was a common trait among missionaries, but in DEATH COMES FOR
THE ARCHBISHOP it is just the first of many rather patronizing
comments about the native Latino population.  Cather is much more
respectful towards the Navajos, and does make her worst "villains"
white people, but her attitude towards other races seems to
consider them as children who need to be (gently) disciplined and

This is reinforced by such asides as, "The Mexicans were children
who played with their religion."  Of the Native Americans on the
other hand, she writes, "It was the Indian's way to pass through a
country without disturbing anything," "They seemed to have none of
the European's desire to 'master' nature," and (of two Zuni
runners) "their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand
dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried
flight."  The Archbishop (and presumably Cather herself) sees them
as a part of nature, not as people.  To him, they have no desire to
change, to improve their condition.  Given that, could they be true
Catholics, could they convert from their old way of life to a new
one?  If the Bishop at the beginning of the novel was against
making Mexicans anything higher than an ordinary priest, then the
Archbishop here would probably not accept Navajos even as priests.

(I will also note that Cather and her characters consistently refer
to characters as Mexicans, even though they are living in American
territory and are presumably Mexican-Americans.  Then again, even
today people refer to Mexican-Americans (and often other Latinos as
well) as "Mexicans", so this shouldn't surprise me.  After all,
this was written in 1927.)

Like I say, the descriptions are poetic, but the social attitudes
seem very dated.  I cannot say it worked for me, but Catholics may
find some of the religious meditations more meaningful than I did.

And speaking of outdated attitudes, THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack
London (ISBN 978-0-451-52703-5) exhibits some of the same:
wonderful nature descriptions and characterization of Buck, but
also multiple uses of the "N-word" (both in abbreviated form as a
dog's name, and it compound form describing a geologic formation).
Oh, and the Native Americans (or since it is in Canada, First
Peoples) don't come off very well either.  My guess is that not too
many schools have this on their required reading list any more.
SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse (translated by Joachim Neugroschel)
(ISBN 978-0-14-243718-6) was our book discussion group choice for
last month.  Somehow I could not get into the mood of it.  I liked
the rhythm of the writing: "In the shade of the house, in the
sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Sal-
wood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew
up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together
with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman.  The sun tanned his
light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing
the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings."  It seemed poetic, and
reminiscent of various religious texts without resorting to
"thee/thou" and "dost" and "hath" and that sort of thing.

And I liked a couple of the ideas.  For example, Hesse writes, "It
is this what you mean, isn't it, that the river is everywhere at
once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the
ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at
once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the
shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?"  This is
actually a fairly good statement of one theory of time--that the
past, present, and future all exist and we merely move through
them, rather than the past and the future being created each
instant.  (In the former, the future is fixed; in the latter, it is

And one of the central ideas--that some things cannot be taught but
must be experienced--is certainly similar to the idea of "Mary in
the Black-and-White Room" proposed by Frank Jackson.

But if I was supposed to have some sort of spiritual satori from
this, it just did not work for me.

I had given up on SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (ISBN 978-0-062-
19037-6) after about a hundred pages, because I just didn't want to
slog through another 750 pages to finish the book.  Then a friend
recommended it, so I decided to keep going, though I did decide to
skim the "hard-science" parts.  (For starters, I find it difficult
to picture the various structures that Stephenson is describing.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words--the problem is that
authors often think that a thousand words is a good substitute for
a picture.)

[Spoilers ahead.]

SEVENEVES has been described as "Stapledonian", but in my opinion
it spends too much time in the near-future and not enough in
distant time to qualify.  It is, however, in the current sub-genre
of "Humans try to do large engineering projects in space and bad
stuff happens."  Now, in general, novels or movies in which
everyone dies are not considered marketable.  So sometimes the
humans manage to overcome the problems without everyone dying and
at the end are on an upswing--this would be termed success (e.g.,
THE MARTIAN, INTERSTELLAR).  But sometimes the humans barely pull
through and the results are in some sense failures (e.g. AURORA).
I would put SEVENEVES in the latter category.  Almost everything
that is tried is either a fraud or a failure, and one is indeed
reminded of Olaf Stapledon (who in LAST AND FIRST MEN has the human
population of First Men drop at one point to two women and one
man), as well as Kurt Vonnegut's GALAPAGOS.  At least Stephenson
understands the need for a certain level of genetic diversity.

I did find one (possible) error early on, though not in the
science: "She was forty-two years old, which made her the youngest
president of the United States, edging out J.F.K. by a year."
Actually, if one is measuring in whole years, she would be tied
with Theodore Roosevelt, who was forty-two when he became
President.  Kennedy was the youngest person *elected* as President.
(To be precise, Roosevelt was 42 years, 10 months, and 18 days when
he became President; Kennedy was 43 years, 7 months, and 22 days.)
While Stephenson is not specific as to when this statement is being
made, internal evidence indicates it is probably the summer of her
first year in office.  Therefore, she would be about five months
older than when she took office, so she may well have been younger
than Roosevelt, but that is not the way Stephenson phrases it.
Yeah, I know--picky, picky.

I would have liked SEVENEVES a lot better if it had had less
engineering, orbital mechanics, and physics detail.  Even without
expanding the other aspects, there would have been enough for a
good-sized novel.  [-ecl]


                                           Mark Leeper

           It is better to be a has-been than a never-was.
                                           --C. Northcote Parkinson