The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


April 2000, Issue 171

Ann's Agenda

By Ann Cecil

Sitting in the corner of The Library, where someday there will be a new bookcase, are 16 small but heavy boxes. They arrived last week, courtesy of Amtrak, which is the cheapest and most convenient shipping around, for sending boxes from one end of the country to the other. To be more precise, from California to Pittsburgh, which is from one end to nearly the other.

The boxes are so heavy because they are full of books. My brother decided to clear out his science-fiction collection, and being a well-trained Cecil, rather than taking them off to Goodwill or selling them to a bookstore, he shipped them all to me. We haven't got around to opening them yet, so we don't know exactly what's in them, but I can make some pretty good guesses.

So the November PARSEC book sale will be pretty spectacular - beyond any previous sale we've had (though the Beth n' Ruth effort last year was definitely impressive). The Cecil training referred to comes from parents and grandparents, who firmly believed in the value of passing on books. I still have two or three shelves of books that belonged to my parents, and another two shelves worth that were my grandmother's.

Literary tastes were different, in different generations. My parent's books are mostly non-fiction. My Dad contributed the ceramic books (he was a ceramic engineer), and my Mom the sociology and linguistics (she was a school teacher with wide-ranging interests). Science-fiction was beginning to be a genre in their day; the copy of The Martian Chronicles belonged to my Mother, who read us selected sections aloud when we were kids.

My grandparents heard of H.G.Wells, but regarded him as a fascinating mainstream author. I think they had his books shelved next to Sherlock Holmes (my family was never into alphabetizing). My grandmother also had a weakness for romance novels set in early America - Alice of Old Vincennes, and such. I'd probably have more than one of her father's books, too, but books printed much before the late 1800's tend to fall apart, if they are taken out and read regularly.

And reading runs in my family. I never had to justify spending money or time on a good book. Conversely, my family is always eager to hear of a good book they haven't read yet. The delights of a new 'good read' are highly prized. Whatever other differences, of age, geography, temperment, any of my relatives has that same reaction - eyes widening in anticipation, sharpened attention - "what's the name? the author?" We all know truly good books are a rare pleasure, to be treasured.

In the same way, authors who can produce really good work, over and over again, are truly treasures. Phil Klass (aka William Tenn) is one such treasure, and for the next meeting he's bringing us an insight into some of his famous contemporaries. He'll be showing us a video made of John W. Campbell discussing science-fiction writing with Harry Harrison and two other famous writers of the genre.

This should be an inspiration to our many developing writers, as well as fun for all readers, to eavesdrop on top-level talents exchanging ideas and advice. See you all there!

News Flash!

Timons Esaias sold the poem "Taunts From Beyond" to the ezine Electric Wine.

This year's SFWA Grand Master Award, presented during the Nebula Awards ceremony, will go to Brian Aldiss.

Since it will be gone by the time SIGMA comes out, I'll use this forum to announce that one of my silliest poems is online in the March issue of Electric Wine ( Entitled "Taunts From Beyond".
--Tim Esaias

OBIT: John Colicos, who won critical acclaim as a Shakespearean actor but was best known as the villain (the human betrayer -Thom) in the TV science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, died Monday in Toronto. He was 71.

Cinemania in the Hall

By Bill Hall


I think our educational system is a conspiracy designed to centrifuge us apart into two equally deluded groups.

The first group goes to school and gets the idea that learning is nothing but a meaningless, pompous, tedious void, all drudgery and headache, an impossible chore, a living death. They learn to hate to learn. At any age you find them, you so much as crack a book in their presence and they will ask you "Why do you have to waste time reading a book, now you're out of school?"

And if the first group underlearns, the second group overlearns. They come to think that the whole world is simply a larger classroom, and that the brown-nosing they got away with before will serve them again. They are prim, hoity-toity; infinitely more concerned with form than substance, disdainful of the working class, let alone their urban neighborhoods. They continue to pride themselves on their neatness and placidity, and their unquestioning devotion to the smallest and stupidest rules.

Yet what is truly tragic is that knowledge is neutral. In and of itself, knowledge does not ask us to take on a voluntary apartheid based upon our worst phobias and habits. Knowledge is for all, not to be sniffed at by the inverted snobbery of the ignorant, nor be clutched tightly by elitists who come to think of themselves as the zookeepers of us lesser animals.

Which brings me, at long last, to the movie Erin Brockovich.

I consider Brockovich to be one of a rare and fine genre, one, which stretches wildly from Lorenzo's Oil to Apollo 13 and to some extent the recent, The Insider. Quite simply: these are tributes to the power of scientific information. Insider glossed over the science and Apollo simply let us listen in impotently on the problem solving; even so, these movies dared to trust the audience, even a little. Lorenzo's Oil, the story of parents teaching themselves biochemistry in order to save their son, trusted us a lot (and did not-so-great business). But now we come to Erin Brockovich, as efficient an instrument as you can ask for to inject this thrill of power into the widest audience.

Much has been, and will be, made of this movie's many distractions. Challenge #1: its title character is played by Julia Roberts. She's a pretty enough woman; great at wringing sympathy from me ever since Mystic Pizza, but I don't "get" the whole phenomenon around her. She played a hooker and declared herself a Cinder-freakin'-rella -- what was that all about? Personally, I think the height of her career is a toss-up between the sweetly blatant morality play Flatliners and her getting urinated on by an orangutan during a PBS special.

Yet, I have to give Roberts credit. Her star power is there, but often it manages to scoot a little out of the way and let us in on some earnest acting. However, we almost immediately slam into challenge #2: her sexy wardrobe.

Yet this is part of a rather inescapable package. Erin Brockovich is a real person, a real Miss Wichita whose clothing is emblematic of her sassy and confrontational personality; what's more, this is all very much a tale of personality, of sheer drive triumphing over formal training and stuffy hands-off bureaucratic attitude. Once you can get past a) Roberts as star and b) Roberts as breasts, you come to marvel at Brockovich as that feisty yet highly functional marriage of brain and heart that Fritz Lang went and made Metropolis about.

Unemployed and desperate, Brockovich wrangles her way into helping out with the files of a law firm, then wonders -- what are medical records doing in files concerning an insurance case? She is fascinated to learn that Pacific Gas and Electric felt obliged to reassure the small California town of Hinkley that chromium in the public water supply was safe. Then she is even more fascinated to learn that the company lied about the specific nature of the chromium; it is in fact hexavalent, with amazing long-term toxicity. Before she knows it, she has to mobilize at least 90% of over six hundred affected people into what will turn out to be the biggest direct-action case in history.

Brockovich uses "feminine wiles" along the way, but some investigators (particularly jealous old-school males) will tell you that such "wiles" can often pry open a stubborn silence by way of that dusty, ancient, surefire avenue called male ego. The point being, it is easy to undervalue Brockovich as "informal" when her gift is to "keep it real" -- the case, its impact, the best way to fight it, and the sheer mountain of data behind it. Facing a company that takes public complacency towards technical details for granted, Brockovich asserts her right, and indeed everyone's right, to accurate scientific information.

As with Lorenzo's Oil, such dedication tends to occur only in reaction to someone's life being at stake. However, I consider it heartening that we ever see such dedication at all.

Class is in session. But you'll enjoy it this time, and you're permitted to have a crush on the teacher.

Book Shelf

What is it with the Wood?
a multi-book review by Ann Cecil

For years now I've had friends who talked about Druids and The Green Man, in hushed tones and with an odd mixture of respect and sly delight. And I read about Tolkien's Ents, the tree characters who won a battle by overgrowing the enemy. And there was Mythago Wood, where the wood was as much a character (and more plot) than the people in the story.

But lately, I've seen a new trend. It's clearly a trend, since I read it in three books in a row, by very different authors. This is an active, erotic Wood. It messes with Human females and creates half-Human/half-Wooden offspring.

The whole concept boggles my mind. The first time I ran into it was in Peter Beagle's newest book, Tamsin. The book is told by Jenny, a 13-year-old American, who gets unwillingly transplanted to a very atmospheric English farm. You know the atmosphere is going to be thick when you hear that Salisbury and Stonehenge are nearby.

To be fair, the Oakmen are only a part of the action in Tamsin; Jenny runs into pookas, ghosts, The Wild Hunt, a veritable kitchen sink full of things that go bump - or more sinister actions - in the night. The underlying plot is about a lost love, lost through a tragic misunderstanding, which can, with our heroine's help, be redeemed and refound, in spite of the undead villainÕs enlistment of hellish aid. The imagery is, as you'd expect from Peter Beagle, painted with a strong brush. The live characters, Jenny, her best friend, her parents, stepfather and stepbrothers are carefully fleshed out. We come to know them all very well.

Jenny is very American, very laid back and modern, which makes the language somehow flat. What should be weird and wild is almost ordinary, which spoils the book a little for me. The Wild Hunt and the obsessed Judge Jeffries - so obsessed that 300-years dead, he is still menacing - should be the most memorable things in the book, but oddly enough the Oakmen and the Hundred-Acre Wood are the most vivid in memory.

Patricia McKillip uses the Wood even more directly in Winter Rose. This is a semi-medieval tale, featuring English countryside again, another lost love and his son come back to claim a lost heritage. The core of the story seems to be about the lasting effects of child abuse, but it is inter-mixed with the dangers and rewards of getting too close to the Wood. There is some possibility that the heroine, free-spirited Rois, is a bastard child of the Wood; certainly Corbet, the hero come home to a chilling hall, is half Wood-child.

McKillipÕs language is evocative and sensuous; she manages to make being seduced by a tree seem possible, even enticing. Her book requires that you pay close attention, since the characters practice time-travel along with odd sex. It is a delightful romance, and an effective fantasy.

And so we come to Sharon Shinn's The Shape Changer's Wife. To be fair, I might not have guessed the secret so quickly had I not read the Beagle and the McKillip first. Young, clever Aubrey goes to study under Glyrendon, who brags that he can change not only his own shape, but the shape of others. His servants are fairly obviously changed beasts; and his wife is odder still.

Of course Aubrey falls in love with the strange woman who keeps telling him she doesn't feel anything, and reacts woodenly to both her insensitive, loutish husband's caresses and young Aubrey's words of love. It takes Aubrey a lot longer to figure out what she really is, and then even longer to come to terms with what she really wants.

Aubrey is surprisingly sympathetic character, as is Lilith (the wife). The husband is a more three-dimensional evil magician, since his evilness is more a function of all-too-human cruelty combined with magic powers, and not the usual magic power corrupting. The magic itself is well and unusually realized, with small, effective surprises in the side effects and consequences.

All three books were interesting and enjoyable fantasies, but it still makes for a disturbing trend. As I said in the beginning, what IS it with the Wood?

The Day the Martians Came
Frederik Pohl
Review by James Walton

Due to blunders, errors, oversights and stupidity, America's first mission to Mars is a disaster. Only 38 of the 276 astronauts who started the voyage are alive to return, and most of them have various forms of radiation sickness. The American people to want to forget this sad chapter of history and abandon the idea of space colonies. Then a dying astronaut, Harry Steegman, stumbles across the remains of a Martian city and dies in the company of living Martians. These creatures, who may or may not be the feral descendants of the people who created and abandoned the Martian city are quickly bundled into the last remaining Earth ship in order to "save" them. Earth anticipates the arrival of the Martians.

The Day the Martians Came is not exactly a novel, despite the claims on its cover. The publishing industry sometimes uses the phrase "fix up" to describe this type of book, but that isn't correct here either.

Martians is a collection of 10 short stories, ("major episodes" Pohl calls them) originally published separately but all sharing a common theme. Held together by the supplemental material, each episode chronicles how an ordinary person reacts to the news that living Martians have been discovered on the seemingly dead Red Planet and are on their way to Earth.

Some people are excited, some disgusted. Some see the Martian visit as an opportunity, some react with guilt. And for many, the Martians are just another form of entertainment with little direct effect on their lives.

Several of the episodes in Martians are not really Science Fiction. The characters may mention the Mars expedition as they go about their normal business but those mentions could be easily replaced by something mundane for all the bearing they have on the story. (Hey, how much did the Bill/Monica saga effect your life? It gave you something to talk about for a few days but did it buy dinner for you?)

The Day the Martians Came "feels" odd as a book because of its episodic nature. We hear from one or two characters in one section and they are not heard from again, except indirectly. Since each section can stand alone as a story, I suppose this was necessary.

Does the arrival of the Martians change the Earth? We don't know, as the book ends with the Martians arrival. Pohl is semi-optimistic in his thoughts about changing race relations.

I wouldn't place The Day the Martians Came among Pohl's best work (okay, I've not read all of Pohl's work) but it is very interesting in concept and execution.

Hard Landing
Algis Budrys
Review by James Walton

It's an Alien Invasion, sort of. Two separate star faring races (one extremely human looking, the other Methane Breathers who look like swamp gas) secretly patrol the Earth, mainly to make sure neither side establishes military bases. Sort of an intersteller Cold War with the human race as hostage. Both sides hope that eventually Earth will become useful.

If a patrol ship crash lands on Earth the procedure is simple: ditch the ship in a deserted area, destroy as much of it as you can, get away from the area as quickly as possible and don't expect to be rescued, because no one will come for you.

The survivors of one such hard landing scatter and try to lose themselves inside humanity and are more or less successful. For 30 years 4 aliens blend into American life (occassionally being mistaken for Russian deserters) until one of them is found dead on a Chicago train track and he is autopsied. His internal organs are not "standard" by any means. The resulting investigation gains the attention of several very shadowy agencies.

Budrys sets up Hard Landing as an "investigative report" with himself as the investigator. As such the book is divided into sections made up of interviews with people who or may not have seen something and police reports. Through technology he does not explain, the author is able to extract information from persons long after they are dead. He calls these "reconstructions." Most of us call it "omniscient narrator."

Most of the action takes place in the late 1940's to early 50's and Budrys uses the presence of aliens in the United States to explain some of the odder occurences of recent history. The recurring theme is "this may be true, or it may be false: you have no way of knowing for sure."

Hard Landing is rather short, to Budrys' credit. He did not stoop to excess padding and exposition. Many questions are left unanswered and the result is curiously entertaining.

Code of Conduct
Kristine Smith
Review by Don Cox

Captain Jani Killian was part of a diplomatic mission to the Idomeni homeworld and a student in one of their schools. She gets caught in an Idomeni civil war and, in choosing to protect her people, she chooses to become involved. Through this action, she violates non-interference rules that make her a traitor. Oh, and by the way, she kills her superior officer.

That's the bad news. The good news is: she is killed in a shuttle explosion. Or at least that is what the Earth governments think.

Fortunately for us, a group of doctors researching Idomeni genetics find her and repair her body with illegally obtained Idomeni genetic material. So for eighteen years, she has wandered the various colony worlds trying to stay two steps of a government who won't stop looking for her.

Finally discovered by Evan Van Reuter, her former lover and the Commonwealth's new Interior Minister, Jani agrees to return to Earth to help him unravel the strange circumstances surrounding his late wife's death.

True to the politics of the twentieth century, this future Earth has just as many snakes in the wood pile. As Jani digs into the evidence around the death, she uncovers things about Evan that link him to her death eighteen years earlier. And her 'augmentation' is reaching a point where her body may die again.

This is not a bad read and I would recommend it. The plot has a few twists and the reader has few clues to the real causes of Jani's involvement in the Idomeni affairs and eventual 'death'. These come out deeper into the story. It does leave one wondering just who the bad guys really are but, as usual, look no farther than your elected officials!

Elizabeth Haydon
Review by Don Cox

Rhapsody is a woman and a Singer, one who studies lore and teaches with song. She is also learning to be a Namer, one who can discern the true name of people and things. Before she finishes her studies, her mentor disappears.

Rhapsody, like most of us, has a past. Unfortunately, hers is catching up to her. In her previous profession, she gained the unending devotion of a mercenary, Michael, the Wind of Death. After being away for years, Michael, the Waste of Breath (as Rhapsody calls him) returns and demand her 'services'. No longer in THAT business, Rhapsody refuses and goes on the run.

Aided by Grunthor, a giant Bolg, and the Brother, a Dhracian assassin, she makes her escape from Michael only to be caught up in an even more complicated plot.

The F'dor are a demonic race who mean to destroy the world. The Brother has had to work for a F'dor since the F'dor learned his true name. Now, the Brother means to escape with Grunthor's help and Rhapsody must run with them or be caught by things worse than Michael could ever be.

This book is very well done. It follows the trio on a journey through the earth and time as they try to thwart the F'dor and discover their own lost past. This book leaves too many opportunities for sequels to be one and only. Or maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part.

The Company of Glass
Everian: Book one
Valery Leith
Review by Don Cox

The Everian civilization has disappeared. All except mysterious cities that appear and vanish again with time and tide. Living in the abandonded fortress of Jai Khalar, the people fight a battle with the Sekk, a deadly race that enslave the will of man.

Years ago, Ysse went to the lost city of Jai Pendu and returned with an artifact, the Fire of Glass. It has helped hold the Sekk at bay but the Sekk and others are becoming more determined to have Jai Khalar.

Now, Istar, daughter of Chyko, a legendary fighter and one of a company of men to brave the city of Jai Pendu, is determined to reach the lost city to find a new artifact. Tarquin, the only surviving member of the company who last tried to gain a new weapon against the Sekk, is determined to keep Istar from going. Holding himself responsible for his best friend's death, he doesn't want Chyko's daughter to die on the same foolish quest.

An easy read and obvious lead in to a series, I find myself again wondering why I bother to start reading these until there are at least two or three. Who knows how long I'll have to wait for the rest?

( See everyone, I do read!)

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: April 8, 2000, 12:30 PM to 4:15 PM

LOCATION: Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

PLEASE: We encourage people to bring a munchie or drink contribution ... pop, chips, cookies, etc.

TOPIC: Phil Klass - John Campbell video

PARSEC Tentative Meeting Schedule

May 2000
Time & Date : 12:00, 13 May 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA
Location : Monroeville Public Library
Note: Time and Place Change!

June 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 10 June 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

July 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 8 July 2000
Discussion Topic : Confluence Discussion Topic Development
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

August 2000
Time & Date : 12:00, 19 August 2000
Note the Date Change!!!
Discussion Topic : The PARSEC Picnic
Location : Keystone State Park, Pavillion 1

September 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 9 September 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

October 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 14 October 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA
Location : TBA

November 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 11 November 2000
Discussion Topic : Book Sale +
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

December 2000
Time & Date : 9 December 2000
Discussion Topic : Holiday Party
Location : AnnÕs House

Sad News

Barb Albert's father died on March 4th. For those of you who don't know her: Barb Albert is a local artist who allowed us to use one of her paintings for the program book and T-shirt for this past Confluence.

Diane Turnshek also lost her mother-in-law after a protracted illness at the end of March.

Condolances to both Barb and Diane.

The Editors of Sigma welcome your input! Send your columns, commentary, reviews, rants, letters, laughs, input, and throughput to us! Send art, too!

To Contact PARSEC

phone: 344-0345
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230


The Pittsburgh Area Realtime Scientifiction Enthusiasts Club

President: Ann Cecil

Vice President: Sasha Riley

Treasurer: Mia Sherman

Editor: Don Cox

Secretary: Tom Morrow

Snide Commentator: Chris Ferrier

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

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