The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


February 2003, Issue 204

Chris' Comments

By Chris Ferrier

Matt Urich on the "Periodic Table of SF/F/H Authors" is the topic for the February meeting. I don't know what is covered by this topic in a literary sense, but I am familiar with the one used in chemistry. It's a useful way for chemists to group the elements by their properties. It also appeals to the human mania for placing things in order. I sometimes wonder if the creation of lists, tables, and classifications is the determining characteristic of Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens, of course, is the name for human beings in the system devised by Carolus Linnaeus in 1735 for naming living things. Biologists have happily used it ever since.

Publishers and stores also place books into categories. Romance readers can go straight to the shelves with romance novels without encountering Crime and Punishment. Science fiction fans can avoid poetry.

Then there are specific sections for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Which lead to sub-genre such as hard science fiction and urban fantasy. All of this sounds very neat and efficient, except it doesn't really work.

The Lord of the Rings is fantasy. So are The Iron Dragon's Daughter, The War for the Oaks, and Perdito Street Station. Run that last one by me again. It has no hobbits, no elves, no dragons, and no medieval setting. The characters use a form of magic, but they're living on another planet. What about The Book of Ash? The double story line includes: first, the story of Ash, a female mercenary in mid-fifteenth century Burgundy, and, second, a researcher from the near future writing a scholarly history of Ash. The title of the first volume of The Book of Ash is A Secret History. The book could be classified as a secret history, or alternate history, or even science fiction. If you look for it, it's in the fantasy section.

Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age is science fiction. In a future where nanotech has changed the world, a young girl is given a stolen book by her brother. The book gives her entry to an enchanted world where she sets out on a quest for the twelve keys. The plot would work as fantasy except for the technology.

Are ghost stories horror or fantasy? Easy, the dark scary ones are horror and the comic ones are fantasy. Except when a woman washing the evening dishes is talking to her long dead grandmother. Then it's magic realism. So the category of ghost stories includes horror, comedy, and magic realism.

I'm sure PARSEC members can come up with many more examples of their own. As for biology, long-legged water birds were once thought to be more closely related to each other than to other birds. The long legs came first, and then the different species branched off. Closer examination changed this view. But the use of genetic analysis changed it even more. The long-legged pink flamingo's closest living relative is a bird called the grebe. Grebes resemble loons. They are short-legged, awkward on land, and plain brown.

So classification is more complicated than people once thought. Except for my last category of books, the recommended book. When a friend says, "This is a good book. You'll like it."

See you at the meeting!

Dues Due!

Remember, it is a new year, and your annual PARSEC dues are due. We haven't raised dues in many years, so be conscientious and pay yours so that we don't have to raise them for next year! -- The Treasurer

WorldWright News

Barton Paul Levenson sold "The Closet" to ChiZine.

Mary Soon Lee sold the poems "First Impact" and "Art Will Be Appreciated" to The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. Her poem "Backwards" appeared in Star*Line 25.6.

Tim Esaias had a review of Tom Standage's nonfiction book, The Turk, in The The New York Review of Science Fiction. He also had a poem in Star*Line 25.6: "First 3-Year-Old to Pitch a Major League Game".

Last Meeting

by Sarah-Wade Smith
Secretary, P.A.R.S.E.C.

Amid much socializing, PARSEC's Jan meeting began at 2:20 PM on Sat., Jan 11, 2003. The first order of business was officer's reports. This amounted to the treasurer's report by Greg Armstrong, as the newly elected secretary (who swears she will get you all for this) had nothing yet to report. Greg's treasury report indicated a balance of over $1200 in our accounts. Details have been prepared by Greg and are printed separately in this issue of Sigma.

During the new business portion of the meeting, motions were made A) to fund purchasing the domain name "" out of club funds, and to use our bulk mail permit for the monthly Sigma mailings. Both motions were approved by majority vote of members present at the meeting.

A suggestion was made that nominations for officers be moved to the Oct. meeting in order to give members more time to consider the candidates before voting for the victim of their choice. There was some discussion of a possible donation of a used printer to Ann Cecil for use with Sigma and ConFluence mailings.

The raffle was won by Kira Heston, who selected one of the runic glasses as her prize.

The meeting then proceeded to the main event-again, given by the redoubtable Greg Armstrong!

Seriously, Greg gave a very informative program on the state of modern robotics, accompanies by videos. The title of Greg's talk was "Where is C-3PO?" While the technology to build such a sophisticated robot is still some time off, Greg discussed how close we might be to such a machine with examples of a variety of existing and experimental machines. Notable were "Florence Nightingale", an experimental machine that monitors medication usage and serve as a telepresence vehicle for doctors, and Honda's walking robot Asimo which can imitate human walking and other actions, but whose batteries originally were good for only 15 minutes of activity.

Perhaps even more impressive was "Houdini", a CMU buldozer-like robot that can fold itself to fit through narrow confined tunnels. A CMU snake bot is designed for bridge inspection and for searching colapsed buildings. Another variant on the snake-bot theme was being designed to actually be able to climb trees like a real snake. Other "non-human" robots were crab and lobster-like robots intended ultimately for mine disposal underwater, and remote sensor platforms for Mars exploration and the use of robots in toxic environments such as at the Chernobyl reactor.

And, more whimsically, a working graffiti writer bot for "political activists in highly controlled environments" that can be used to paint messages on sidewalks with a reduced risk of getting arrested.

Noting that some robots are already sophisticated enough to be able to follow human gestures, Greg suggested that we may well be relating to robots as people within 20 years.



Press Release Date: January 27, 2003

Announcing Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, July 17-25, 2003. Alpha is an eight-day, science fiction, fantasy and horror writing workshop for young writers (ages 14-19). It will be held at the University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg Campus, from July 17-25, 2003. Resident professional writers at Alpha will include Wen Spencer, Tamora Pierce and Bruce Holland Rogers. Special presenters at Alpha will include authors Lawrence C. Connolly, Ann Cecil, Paul Pence, Robert L. Nansel, Diane Turnshek and Thomas Seay.

Deadline for online story and application submission is April 30, 2003 and there is a $10 application fee. A short story, no longer than 6,000 words, must be SF/F/H, no novel excerpts, no fan fiction. The $500.00 Alpha workshop fee includes all meals, housing, airport/bus/train pick-up, transportation to and from events during Alpha and reading packet. We encourage handicapped and foreign students to apply early.

The Alpha writers' workshop is scheduled just before Confluence, Pittsburgh's annual science fiction convention, to give Alpha participants the opportunity to also attend the conference as well as the workshop.

Allen Steele is Confluence's author guest of honor; Nancy Louise Freeman is the featured music guest. For more information on Confluence, see:


Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories
By M. R. James
Review by Chris Ferrier

M. (Montague) R. (Rhodes) James is one of those authors who almost disappear in the modern world of publishing. He was born in 1890 and died in 1937. While the time period is represented in type of characters and the settings of his stories, his psychology is modern.

The strength of the stories is their subtlety. Look elsewhere for piles of dismembered corpses and towering monsters dripping venom. His is a world of quiet libraries, respectable inns, and orderly fields. His heroes are quiet librarians or busy archeologists who find themselves confronted by evil. In fact, their lives are so ordinary that they often dismiss the first warning that things have gone wrong. Their responses are very human: "...the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one's brain." But evil there is, slipping through the barriers of normality when least expected. Most of his characters are the objects of its attention, although, in several stories, they are witnesses to events over which they have no control.

But James is in control. Few of the stories in this collection are over 20 pages long. Some are as short as six. But in those few pages, he conveys characters, settings, and warnings. The narrative then moves quickly to the conclusion. He doesn't linger in describing the evil beings that stalk the pages. They are shadows with eyes like glowing coals, indistinct hairy shapes, a pale figure among the bushes, or a chilling noise. They attack and depart with little explanation, perhaps only to wait for another victim.

James plays fast and loose with point of view. His technique is to use a narrator who is told of the events in the stories by the reluctant hero or witness. This is less distancing than might be expected. Once the action begins, he fades into the background from whence he may appear occasionally to add pieces of necessary information from another source or to point out that the person speaking "merely appears in this prologue, there's no need to give his entitlements".

The best stories in this collection are "Casting the Runes" in which the expert who rejects a badly written paper for publication in a scientific journal receives a note with magic runic writing, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad", and "The Mezzotint" about a haunted engraving.

James' narrator is distancing, his dialogue is sometimes stilted, but an author who can turn ordinary bed sheets into objects of sheer horror deserves to be read.

by Jack McDevitt
Review by Ann Cecil

All of Jack McDevitt's books contain scenes that bring that sense of viewing a big panorama, something like peering out into the Grand Canyon or up at Niagara Falls, the mix of awe and amazement that leave you going "Wow"! Chindi has all that of that and more, much more.

This book has people, not just characters; Priscilla 'Hutch' Hutchins, the star pilot, was featured in Deepsix, but develops new depths and longings in this book. Her passengers on the historic journey of the Memphis are an odd lot, a collection of extremely successful people who are searching for more to life than just money. They have become leaders in The Contact Society, a future version of The Planetary Society, which is financing the starship and its maiden, exploratory voyage. George and Alyx and Herman and Nick and Tor become friends you know and like, and in some cases, mourn, before this book is done.

And the book has plot: you think, okay, that was exciting and amazing and incredible, so the rest of this book is going to be about the after-effects, right? Wrong; McDevitt has surprise after surprise to keep you turning the pages and going "Wow"!

The Memphis hires Hutch to take them out to explore an anomaly that was reported and pretty much ignored by the regular Academy of Professional explorers: a directed message was observed coming from a totally unlikely spot (a neutron star). Since it is impossible that anyone or anything could live there, the Establishment put this one on the bottom of their 'things to look into' list, but The Contact Society, hungry for any proof that we are not alone, decides to fund an exploration.

The experts were right: nobody lives on a neutron star. What the experts missed: the message is directed to somewhere else, a place where people used to live. And when they get to that place, they discover that the satellite passing messages is linked to another, and yet another, in a network. The discoveries come at a price, a painful price, and yet the remaining passengers overcome Hutch's reluctance and vote to go on.

The network leads from one wonder to another. Hutch is called on to solve one problem after another, to rescue her curious passengers from unforeseen alien consequences. It's not that cliched standby, the alien booby trap that gets them; it's misreading alien technology and failing to understand alien motivations.

And all of this makes Chindi a most satisfying read, a novel that mixes adventure and scientific puzzles and personal interaction, and packs it into what is actually for today a relatively short (400 pages) book. My guess is that this one may finally earn McDevitt his long-deserved Hugo.

Highly recommended.

by Allen Steele
Review by Ann Cecil

This book is an expansion of Steele's award winning novella, 'Where Angels Fear To Tread.' The key idea behind the novella and the book is a 'what if' proposition: what if UFOs exist and are really time-travel vehicles? The novella featured a downed UFO, being chased by a miscellaneous group of FBI, UFO investigators, Air Force people and civilians. One of the UFO investigators has an unsettling and revealing encounter, which changes his world view.

The book has an beginning section, in which we learn more about the time-travelers, their world and the set-up behind their accident, plus a concluding section, which carries us into more of the consequences of time-travel and causing paradoxes. The book is very well-written, as expected from Steele; the characters are likable and three-dimensional people, fallible but logical. I particularly liked Murphy, the Ufo investigator, who in a different time-line yearns to be an SF writer.

My problems with the book are that the final conclusion is depressing; this is one of those 'there are some things man was not meant to know' books. We go through heroics to convince the likable Murphy that he should suppress his imagination and knowledge, or genocidal aliens will destroy Humanity. So he agrees. And the characters all heave a sigh of relief, because none of these people knows that the same idea often occurs to more than one person.

This wouldn't be so disappointing to me if I hadn't liked the characters, and found a good deal of the action interesting and exciting. This is an eminently readable book; I just was irritated at the ending.

Divine Intervention
by Ken Wharton
Review by Ann Cecil

This is a highly regarded first novel; it was the first runner-up in the Philip K. Dick competition for best original SF paperback, and the author was nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer of Science Fiction, based primarily on this novel.

The book is set on a future Human colony (Mandala); it has been 150 some years since the colonists last saw Earth, but they are not 'Lost'; they are just a long way from Earth. Earth received their messages and has sent another ship, with more colonists (frozen), animal stock, plants, and useful gadgets. Matter of fact, due to advanced technology, the Earthys are arriving sooner than expected.

The local government is not happy about this. The Prime Minister and his Head of Defense are black-hearted villains, who see their control of the colony threatened by the Earthys. So when the Earthys arrive, they go up and massacre the non-frozen crew (roughly 15 men and women), all except for one small linguist, who escapes to a shuttle. The shuttle is a dead end; no fuel, so the villains return to Mandala, lying about where they've been and what happened.

Luckily for Humanity, the 10 year old son of a colonist, Drew, has a special communications hook-up to enable him to hear and speak. He was born deaf and dumb, inherited from his Mother's genes, which were damaged during the colonist's trip to settle Mandala. Drew has established communication with an entity he considers God, though there are early indications that Drew's God is in space and is AI-like. Drew gets told that the Earthys have arrived, and tells his parents, who ignore him. The parents are generally self-absorbed; the father is a scientist/engineer turned Missionary, who visits the fourth component in this story, the Burnouts. These are colonists who have opted out of the controlled colony life to settle in the next valley in a sort of Hippie Freedom, complete with a native drug they trip out on. Unfortunately, Drew's father is as clueless and blind to the Burnouts as he is to Drew, and consequently the black-hearted villains find out what Drew knows and kidnap him.

Needless to say, all of the factions eventually wind up in space, clearing out misconceptions and being forced to change many of their world views. How they get there makes for an exciting plot, if occasionally a bit strained. But the relatively straight-forward narrative of the good guys figuring out what the bad guys are doing and fighting them off is interspersed with excerpts (as chapter headings) from the original Log of the ship, named the Walt Disney, that brought the colonists to Mandala, or from the Captain's Journal. The Captain had a religious conversion during the trip, based on his interpretation of quantum physics, and his religion has become the State Religion of Mandala. What lifts this book above the average are precisely those discussions, which combine advanced physics discussions with some heady theology. The characters of Drew's parents reinterpret that theology, responding to the events of the story.

It is unusual to read a book which genuinely tries to establish a religious base for actions that is not a parody of some existing organized religion here on Earth. Wharton is to be commended for his ingenuity; if and when his ability to create three dimensional characters catches up to his imagination and his scientific knowledge, he could live up to his book blurbs.

Probability Sun
by Nancy Kress
Review by Ann Cecil

While this book is a sequel to Probability Moon, enough information from that book is included that this stands on its own. Humanity is in an interstellar war with the alien Fallers, who shoot first, never talk, and have some advanced tech that is winning the war for them. In desperation, Humans are investigating anything that looks strange enough to maybe provide an edge, and the planet called World qualifies. A previous expedition investigating the system found an artificial moon orbiting World, which blew up spectacularly. After wading through layers of bureaucracy, a scientist from the remains of the expedition convinces the military to send a new expedition.

For the people on World, it's been four years. These people - a humanoid race very like Humans - live in a shared reality. For example, if one of them hits another, both feel the pain. This quickly discourages fighting. The Humans discover that the shared reality is imposed by a buried artifact, left behind by a long-gone alien super-race. The military group includes some civilian specialists: a maverick scientific genius and a gene-altered Sensitive woman, as well as the usual variety of hard-assed militarists. Conflict between these personalities, as well as the sociologists working with the natives of World, is inevitable.

The key character (and my favorite) is Lyle Kaufman, a military man put, against his will, in charge of the expedition. Lyle is that rarity in sf and in real life, a leader overflowing with common sense, a great deal of patience, endless curiosity, and considerable ingenuity. The military have saddled Lyle with multiple objectives for this mission, and inevitably the objectives collide. In a kind of counterpoint, we see a native of World, Enli Brimmidin, as she comes to know and accept the truth that the Humans have a different reality, not shared, that will completely change her society.

The characters and the conflict are well-developed, as is the portrait of the society on World. We even get tantalizing glimpses of the alien Faller society. The intrigue of the bureaucrats develops logically and all too predictably, but satisfyingly in the end. This is true space opera, done very well. Between the action scenes, we also get large doses of scientific extrapolation about the artifact, and how what it does could be possible (it involves all those extra dimensions the physicists love to talk about). The science is very cool and way beyond my depth, but it has that authentic capacity to make my head hurt. I admit that I would have traded some of the science for more detail on World and its natives; matter of fact, my chief complaint is that the book is too short. Kress is fun to read: I'd be perfectly willing to read a Nancy Kress book that was twice the size!


Treasurer's Report

PARSEC Cash Flow Report 1/1/02 through 12/31/02
Dues 200110.00
Dues 2002568.00
Dues 200356.00
Hoffman Donations50.00 Donations to a scholarship fund honoring Randy's father.
Monthly Raffle203.00
Parallax Second Tales Sales54.00
Six from PARSEC Sales220.50
Reimbursment25.00 Refund of picnic site deposit
Short Story Donation200.00
Total Income1,386.50
Con Payments42.00 Printing of con advertisement.
Miscellaneous50.00 Scholarship Fund mentioned above.
Recreation110.56 cost of the picnic site, and meats.
Short Story Winners350.00
Total Payments1,086.96
Overall Total (net income)299.54

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: Feb. 11, 2003 12:30 PM to 4:45 PM
LOCATION: Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

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

TOPIC: "A Periodic Table of SF/F/H Writers" presented by Matt Urich

PARSEC Tentative Meeting Schedule

March 2003
Date : 8 March 2003
Discussion Topic : Confluence 2003 panel topic development
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

April 2003
Date : 12 April 2003
Discussion Topic : Timons Esias moderates a panel on SF & F poetry (tentative)
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

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: Chris Ferrier

Vice President: Steven Turnshek

Treasurer: Greg Armstrong

Editor: Don Cox

Secretary: Sarah-Wade Smith

Commentator: Ann Cecil

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

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