Sigma, January 2003

The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


January 2003, Issue 203

Chris' Comments

By Chris Ferrier

My name is Chris Ferrier. It appears that I'm president of PARSEC for the next year. It was pointed out to me that the job requires writing a column for Sigma. So that's what I'm doing now.

The topic for the January meeting is "An Update on Robotics" presented by Greg Armstrong. As many of you know, Greg works in the robotics department of Carnegie-Mellon University. I'm sure Greg will present many interesting facts about new developments in the field. And maybe he'll give us information about some future projects.

Throughout history, mechanical beings have fascinated us. Mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe in the 13th century AD. Large municipal clocks included figures moving through a door in the tower as the clock struck the hour on certain days. Townspeople were proud of their clocks. Their popularity caused clockmakers to create automata, popular toys of the wealthy during the eighteenth century. Automata imitated dancers, animals, or birds and some could draw or play music.

In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian nobleman, created a mechanical man, which became known as the Turk. The Turk, Kempelen announced at its first public appearance, could play chess. It then played a volunteer from the audience and went on to amaze spectators in Europe and North America. Among those who observed it were Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Babbage. Poe, who was working for a magazine at the time, set out to gather all of the information he could about the Turk. His investigative reporting may well have influenced his development of the mystery story. Babbage, who also thought the Turk was a fake, did believe machines were capable of doing mathematical calculations and later began construction of the Difference Engine. This eventually led to the digital computer, but that's another story.

Getting back to robots, the word comes from the Czech word "robota" which means work. It was first used by Karel Capek, a Czech writer, in the play "R.U.R." ("Rossum's Universal Robots") written in 1920. Now that they had a name and a resume, automatic machines eventually moved into science fiction movies and literature.

From Isaac Asimov's robot stories, to Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover, to R2D2 and C3PO, robots have been busy ever since. Fictional robots are most often depicted as humanoid in form. In fact, most of the robots we could encounter are not humanoid. Their form depends on their function.

Today, robots can do jobs too dangerous or too boring for humans. But as robots begin to do the work of humans, the people they replace join the ranks of the unemployed. Isaac Asimov used this theme of social disruption in The Caves of Steel and other novels. In the movie, A.I, the robot child first replaces, then is replaced by a human child. The interaction between robots and humans remains an interesting subject for writers and film makers.

As for the future, will we live in robotic houses? Will they wash their own windows? Will we get into our robotic cars, tell them our destination, and sit back to nap or watch a movie while they drive themselves? Will we discuss philosophy with our can openers? Will robot pets replace animals? Will Greg be able to answer these and other questions?

Come to the January PARSEC meeting and find out.

Eighth PARSEC Short Story Contest

The contest is open to non-professional writers (those who have not met eligibility requirements for SFWA or equivalent). Previous multiple winners and current contest coordinators are also ineligible. The best story which relates to and features the contest theme will be published in the Confluence 2003 program book, and the author will be awarded the first prize of $200. There is NO entry fee.

Format: Stories must be Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror in genre. Stories must be original, unpublished, unsold and no more than 3500 words in length. Submit in standard contest format (title and page number on each page, but author name only appears on separate cover page; otherwise as in any professional submission). No email submissions. Incorrect format will make entry ineligible.

Theme: "The Alien Wore Fish-Net Stockings"

Deadline: February 1, 2003.

Send entries to:

Timons Esaias
PARSEC/Confluence Short Story Contest
6659 Woodwell Street
Pittsburgh PA 15217-1320

Last Meeting

PARSEC's December meeting was the annual Christmas party held at Ann Cecil's house. It started around 2pm and ended around 2am on December 14th.

Because of competition from Philcon, a number of regulars were missed: Randy Hoffman, Mark Stewart, Dan and Ruth Milks, and JJ Walton among others.

This meant there was a smaller crowd than has been observed some years, but they seemed to stay longer, and conversations lasted longer (at least mine did).

There was a large group that played a game named Cranium, in the living room. I don't know what the game was about, but it was marked by frequent bouts of uproarious laughter.

The younger set tended to hang out upstairs, either watching dvds on tv, or playing various board games.

To the delight of many long-time members, this year saw the return of The Akhtar family; Pervaze and Aleta brought their two sons along, and informed us that they are back in the Pittsburgh area to stay!

While all three writing groups had members in attendance, WorD easily had the most members present. Besides found Diane Turnshek, and long-time member Dan Bloch, returnee George Sherman, and newer members Pete Butler, Joe Benedetto, and Karen (who brought great home-made chocolate chip cookies adorned with M&Ms.

Food was plentiful, as always. Sarah-Wade brought chicken strips and deviled eggs, among other things; Matt Urich brought a delicious dip, and Henry Tjernlund found an excellent hummus that tastes remarkably like his olive dip. Ann made an oreo cheesecake, as promised, that turned out to be a chocolate lover's delight. There was lots more food, enough that there were leftovers to giveChristmas carolers a week later!

And there was an election. PARSEC officers for next year:

President: Chris Ferrier VP: Steven Turnshek
Treasurer: Greg Armstrong Secretary: Sarah-Wade Smith
Commentator: Ann Cecil

Ballots were accepted via email and in person, and votes were counted By the outgoing President, Kevin Hayes, who wishes the new officers the Best in 2003.

Highly biased and moderatly accurate report by Ann Cecil, who apologizes to all those whose food and deeds were left out.


Precursor, Defender, & Explorer
By C.J. Cherryh
Review by Ann Cecil

This trilogy gives us the latest adventures of Bren Cameron, translator turned action hero. Background for this series is The Foreigner Trilogy, which introduced Bren, and the complex world he lives in. Bren is the descendent of Humans who were forced to colonize a world already occupied by a sentient humanoid civilization, the atevi. As Bren comments at one point, "How do you explain, we misplaced our home planet and had to move in with aliens"?

The Humans and the atevi suffered major cultural misunderstandings, such that in the first book, only one individual, the appointed translator or paidhi - our hero, Bren - represents Humanity to the atevi. The starship, the Phoenix, that brought Humanity to the world had been gone for 200 years; at the end of the first trilogy, the Phoenix returned and Bren successfully negotiated a new arrangement, translating between the atevi, the Human colony, and Phoenix Humans, who are now culturally different in many ways from the colonists.

The new trilogy picks up some three years later, with Bren, now working for the atevi, helping to lead a major industrial revolution. The revolution - to get the atevi industrialized enough to build a shuttle to go up to the old abandoned space station - is necessary because Phoenix brought the news that another group of aliens are out there, and they are not happy about something Phoenix did. The new aliens have ships and nifty weapons, which they demonstrated by destroying a space station named Reunion, built by Phoenix's crew about 1 year's travel distant.

In Precursor, Bren goes up to the station with the charge from his atevi boss: take over the station. Within days of Bren's arrival, things get hairy; there are four Captains on Phoenix, who make up the council that determines policy. The xenophobic Captain shoots the alien-friendly Captain, and Bren's party, contacted surreptitiously, supports the wounded man, now in hiding. This novel is pretty much stand-alone, with mounting suspense and unexpected twists, that demonstrate Bren's ability to handle a volatile situation, and turn it into a success for his side. Bren also gets to see action as something more than a observer.

In Defender, we pick up the action three years further; Bren is happily running the atevi concerns on the station, watching over the effort to refuel Phoenix and secondarily start building a new starship. Then things start getting strange; Phoenix's alien-friendly Captain dies a natural death, but on his deathbed leaks disturbing news: he lied to the crew (and almost everyone else). The new aliens didn't destroy Reunion, they just damaged it, and there are still Humans living on it. Humans who, if captured, could tell the aliens where we live. So it important to have Phoenix get back there, rescue the Humans, and incidentally destroy any trail. Bren is frantic, trying to cope with an explosive situation and a sudden lack of information from his atevi boss. There are conspiracies within conspiracy, and large parts of this book are reminiscent of the original trilogy, capturing the sense of a man operating on a tight rope in the dark. The book ends with all the explanations, and a clear picture of the problem, but no resolution.

Explorer continues a year later, as Phoenix, with Bren and an atevi group aboard along with representatives of the Human Colony, nears Reunion station. This book answers the questions raised in the previous books, both as to how the two Human groups and the atevi are going to get along, and what exactly happened to Phoenix and at Reunion station. Of course we get to meet the neighbors, the Kyo. Of course it is because of Bren, and his translating abilities, and the atevi's incredible skill at confrontation and communication and not incidentally intrigue and blasting powder, that the day gets saved.

All three books are page-turners, Cherryh at the top of her form. As with many of her other books, when we do the smoothly integrated 'what came before' sections, the reader goes "Oh! So that's what was going on." Partly because Bren is more knowledgeable, partly because these books have more plot, I found this series of stories easier to follow. I was particularly charmed by the actual inclusion of several jokes! The explanations in EXPLORER are satisfying and well worked out. My only quibble is that things went a little too smoothly; all the problems were caused by the obstinacy of the station Captain. The current Captains just listen to a good translator (Bren), and everything works out happily for all. I would have expected a little more residual hostility on the part of the Kyo, but who wants to argue with a happy ending?

Highly recommended by Ann Cecil

The Apocalypse Door
by James D. Macdonald
Review by James Walton

I promised myself that I would not buy anything. I was going into the bookstore to kill a little time. I already have more books than I can read and comfortably store. I don't need any more books.

Then I foolishly read the copy on the back cover of The Apocalypse Door:

The Blue Dolphin was a waterfront dive on the Hudson side of Manhattan.The lights were low, the vinyl on the seats was cracked, and the air was thick with the odors of sweat, cigarettes, and sin. I'd reported in by phone to the local chapter as soon as I was clear of Newark. The phone call had been four hours ago, and every bone in my body kept screaming, "The OP is blown, get out," but there are times you have to ignore screaming bones. I mentally gave my contact fifteen more minutes and turned my attention back to observing the degradation of my fellow man.

I half-heard, half-felt someone approaching on my right. I still had my attention split three ways between what I hoped was a waitress, the stage, and the door - mostly the door - when she came up and bent over to murmur a few words in my ear. Her breath was warm, her lips moving close beside my ear. She was all but nibbling my earlobe.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days since my last confession."

My cover was blown. She knew what I was, even if she didn't exactly know whom. And she knew exactly how to get me. I couldn't refuse her the sacrament, not without risking my own damnation. I had no choice but to ask her, "What is your confession, my daughter?"

"I've come here to kill you."

The narrator, who is using the name Peter Crossman this week, is a spy, a hired killer, a troubleshooter and a priest. Specifically he is a Knight Templar, a warrior priest who handles dangerous situations for his order. (The CIA and FBI routinely pass along work they can't handle to the Knights Templar.) While on a routine assignment he and his partner uncover evidence that something is exerting an extremely unholy influence over the world.

But there are many organizations interested in what Crossman has found and most do not want him to pass along his information.

Door, which is actually two parallel stories told in alternating chapters, is written in a lean and spare style. There are few, if any, wasted words. One is tempted to use the words "hard boiled" and "Chandleresque" while describing the action. There is a lot of gunplay and narrow escapes and an overriding sense of paranoia.

Crossman, who has good reason to not trust his partners, spends time questioning motives and wondering about the final dispensation of hissoul. He is a very complex person with a very dark background. (Everyone in the book has an extremely shady background. Those who do not work for the Church probably work for the Devil.)

At the end of the book we are still unsure if The Apocalypse Door is Science Fiction, fantasy, horror or mystery. It has many aspects of several genres and is a very interesting read.

Angry Young Spaceman
by Jim Munroe
Review by James Walton

This book is an oddity.

Sam is a young Earthling eager to leave his home planet. He takes a job as an English teacher on the distant planet Octavia where the inhabitants have humanoid torsos and eight tentacles.

Earth is the dominant planet in the galactic federation and all other worlds must conform to its economic, time and language standards.

Hence the need for Earth born English teachers.

Angry Young Spaceman chronicles Sam's adventures on his new planet as he experiences various forms of culture shock while trying to become part of Octavian society.

Octavia as a planet doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The atmosphere is described as an oxygen bearing liquid, not quite as viscous as water. It is occasionally mentioned how sluggishly Sam moves and how long it took him to learn to breath liquid but the rest of the physical and chemical reactions do not stand to close scrutiny.

Octavia as a society doesn't bear close scrutiny either. For reasons I am never entirely clear on Sam is not supposed to learn the language of his host world. Being a linguist he cannot resist trying to copy the sounds a human throat was not meant to make. Octavia has a Terrible Secret, which must be hidden from Sam.

The title of the book is not entirely accurate, but this is a nitpick. Sam alternates between angry, sexually frustrated, lonely and angry again in his moods, and he is young. But he is not a spaceman. He lives in a society where spaceships are as common as busses in our society. He doesn't pilot a ship, he pays his fare and travels where he wishes.

Sam mentions dissatisfaction with the Earth government that is not fully explained. He is a product of his society and takes full advantage of the prestige of being born on Earth. Yet he feels he is being manipulated for nefarious reasons.

Back on Earth Sam was a Pug. I suppose Pug is short for pugilist, though Sam makes himself sound little more than a street brawler. It was his way of setting himself outside of Earth society.

I felt cheated when I finished Spaceman. The book didn't seem to really go anywhere. The chronicle seemed as aimless as Sam. He seemed to grow up a bit and perhaps become less angry but when I shut the book I asked myself "What was that about?"

Night Watch
by Terry Pratchett
Review by Ann Cecil

Fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series will need only to know that this a Vimes book. They can stop reading here and go buy this one (if they haven't already).

For the rest of you, I'll add some background. Terry Pratchett, who is a Brit with enormous style, wit, and sharp observation of the foibles of Humanity. On a good day, he's right up there with William Tenn; on a bad day, he's just funny.

A number of years ago, having made a small splash with some good, insightful, inventive sf, but not much money, he turned to fantasy. But, being Terry Pratchett, he invented a format all his own: Discworld. It is NOT fantasy in the traditional sense. Discworld conforms to its own rules, which only Pratchett understands. While there are 33 or 34 books all labeled 'Discworld,' there are four discernable threads or types of Discworld novels. The original books were about a hapless wizard named Rincewind, whose spells mostly didn't work; these books are mostly broad parodies. The next set is about female wizards, the Grannies, whose spells most definitely work. And then came books about Vimes, who belongs to the Night Watch; Vimes' books tend more toward social satire. And last but not least, the archetype, Death, has become the hero of his own set of books, which defy description. Mostly they defy description because you are either laughing too hard, or hit by an odd touch of pathos. Pratchett has the touch of a master; at his best, he can mix the two so as to catch you unawares and go straight to your heart.

Vimes' books, which started out to just be about the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork, your typical very large, very corrupt city, have morphed into something with a great deal more substance. The latest, Night Watch, uses a standard fantasy device to send Sam Vimes, now a successful Commander of the Watch, Duke, and about-to-be father, back in time. Back to meet the raw, wet-behind-the-ears Constable Vimes, who needs some sage advice. The advice is critical. A turning point, in many senses, for Ankh-Morpork and many of its inhabitants, is about to occur.

And Vimes wrestles with moral dilemmas, not once but throughout the book. Needless to say, the reader gets some new insights into the backgrounds of several of the recurring characters; Pratchett develops his minor characters as thoroughly as the heroes and villains. This one has its fair number of chuckles, and one really good laugh-out-loud scene, but it is more thoughtful than hilarious. And that's only fair, since Sam Vimes has continued to grow impressively in this series.

Highly recommended, of course, by Ann Cecil.

by Timothy Zahn
Review by Ann Cecil

Writing pop SWARS fiction has been good to Tim Zahn; not only has it given him college funds for his son, but it seems to have polished the talents that won him his first Hugo. Angelmass got overlooked in the Hugo derby last year, but I found it entertaining and enthralling.

Our hero is a fresh-out-of-grad school scientist manhandled into being a spy for Pax, the sort-of Federation that rules most of the Galaxy in this far future of Human colonies grown large and independent. Pax was once a peacekeeping group, but we learn very quickly that they are now becoming ruled by accountants, folks whose worship of profit borders on insanity.

Pax sends Jereko Kosta off with instructions to spy on the Empyreans, a five-world system of Humans who have an edge. They have found tiny beings, spewed from a nearby black hole they named Angelmass, that seem to turn anyone who wears one into an improved person, both more ethical and more reasonable. Pax neglected to mention that Kosta is really supposed to be a decoy, a sacrificial lamb, to distract the Empyreans from initial setup to support an eventual invasion fleet.

Kosta is the original innocent, a lousy spy but a solid researcher. He crosses paths with Chandris: young, pretty, sharp-witted, but from a poor and crooked background. Fate pushes them together, in spite of initial dislike, because they both get caught up in questions about what the angels really are, how they work, and what is actually happening out at Angelmass. All the plot elements, the Pax invasion fleet, the angels, an Empyrean Senator who doubts the angels, the researchers who study the angels, collide in a tense finale that changes many things in all their worlds.

Zahn has a number of well-developed characters (the starship captain is particularly well done, as are the other researchers at Angelmass Institute). He kept me turning pages, eager to see where this impressive max of speculative science and space opera was going, and he surprised me at the end. While his insights into Human nature are not exactly new deas, they are well observed.

Recommended by Ann Cecil.

The Impossible Bird
by Patrick O'Leary
Review by Ann Cecil

This book is an intellectual thriller: a novel in which the author never lies to you, but sure confuses you a lot. The characters lie to each other and to themselves, but since this is also a novel of discovery, they gradually home in on truth. And the truth is very weird.

The basic story is about two brothers, Mike and Danny. As children, orphaned young, they were incredibly close; as adults, they are anything but close. An alien appears to each of them, and starts them off on a journey to find each other. In the course of this journey (which has metaphorical overtones), they and we learn the reasons for the estrangement, some of which include old secrets and betrayals. We also discover the even stranger truth of an existence neither Mike nor Danny expected, but in a weird way requested.

The novel makes good use of some movie sf references, "Klaatu barata nikto' being the most obvious. Another unspecified reference is to a very popular recent movie, especially popular with the younger fans (think black trenchcoats - classy, not hammy). The Impossible Bird deals with the choices of living, posits an impossible (today) choice, and comes to answer that can be argued with, but it ultimately fascinating.

Recommended by Ann Cecil

WorldWright News

Mary Soon Lee sold her poem "Flame War" to Mythic Delirium.

Happy New Year to All!!

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: Jan. 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: "An Update on Robotics" presented by Greg Armstrong

PARSEC Tentative Meeting Schedule

February 2003
Date : 11 February 2003
Discussion Topic : Matt Urich's "A Periodic Table of SF/F/H Writers"
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

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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