The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


July 2001, Issue 186

Kevin's Comments

By Kevin Hayes

I think the hardest thing to do, at least once a month, is to write this piece in a way to interest and stimulate you, the basic PARSEC audience. Understand, I write -- perhaps not a lot compared to others among us, but I write more than your average fan-on-the-street. I keep a journal, I write stories and poems; I've even tried my hand at writing epigrams -- not too successfully on that front. So it isn't as if I don't have things I could write about. But let's face it, you don't want any stories here and you probably don't want any of my poems. Most of them tend to be limericks. And I'm equally sure you don't want any of my epigrams.

And, of course, I have also written comics and cartoons. There have been times I have threatened to provide cartoons in lieu of the normal (?) full-blown, 12 point, courier font, 600 to 800 word journey through my maze-like musings, but I have been told in no uncertain terms to stick with the verbal rather than the visual.

When there was some question as to whether this would be finished in time, our noble commentator indicated she would happily provide a column for the space if I couldn't. I offered to allow that, depending on how ascerbic Ann Cecil was willing to be. She provided: "This space is supposed to be filled by a well-written, thoughtful column from your elected President. Unfortunately, he blew you all off this month, so instead you will have to put up with my musings on the reasons why I will be sorry to miss a meeting. . ."

I decided I was at least as entertaining as that, so you are left with this. . .no graphically descriptive prose, no visceral explorations of character reaction in suspenseful situations. Just some things I think about.

I think it's interesting how the country has developed a secret fascination with science fiction and fantasy. There are references on TV, both in sitcoms and the hour long dramatic shows, anything that purports to show life as it is today. Even when watching news or politics, one will see items about the Star Wars Initiative, the ethical impact of cloning, and myriad other things that writers in the genre have confronted for the last hundred years.

Closer to home, other friends of mine have mentioned how they watch Star Trek, liked the Terminator movies, loved E.T., or Cocoon, or any number of other films and TV shows. But they aren't really "fans" -- they would never be caught actually reading it. They would rather read Thomas Clancy, Danielle Steele (talk about fantasy!), Michael Crichton, or any of a number of other best sellers.

It took me a while to figure the why of all this out, but what is going on is that each generation develops its own mythos, its own visual, or verbal image set. It's the catch phrases, the short hand, the way of seeing the world and how we, as a group, deal with it.

The influences of science fiction and fantasy in our so-called modern world are hard to get away from. I know there have so many overlapping inputs from so many different media that it's hard to delineate what started where, but every one understands references to "pod people" and what about "phone home?" (Yes, I know, the extra-terrestrial actually got the idea from a commercial it watched on TV, but how many people really remember that?) And how many people realize the idea for counting backwards for a rocket launch comes from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis?"

But where do the influences on science fiction and fantasy come from? I tend to look at the ancient myths and legends, the Jungian archetypes, even fairy tales (see "Six from PARSEC" edited by James J. Walton Jr. $6.00, available now) and see those as the best foundations for the best stories. Any of Wells' stories, Verne's also, these have set so many of the original tropes and premises for so much that has come since.

But different cultures provide different archetypes and different media can provide divergent imagery. Some things will survive and others will fall by the wayside. Japan has rebounded from it's post-World War II depths and embraced western cultures and icons to the point of doing the American lifestyle better than Americans. They have taken a distinctly American form of entertainment -- the comic book -- and turned it into something with a whole new style, look and sensibility. The manga comic-book style has then gone on to become the Anime style of film animation and given us Pokemon, Digimon, and DragonBall Z as well as the other things that hardly belong in the same category, "The Ghost in the Shell" and "Princess Mononoke" spring to mind. But I am no expert.

We have among us people who, if not exactly expert, are certainly much better informed about anime and manga than most of us. And we have the pleasure of their company and expertise. At Saturday's meeting, Amy Finkbeiner and friends will be talking about those distinctive art and story styles, the creative influences and the influences they've had on other forms.

I know Ann Cecil expressed her regret over not being able to explore the mysteries of the unique art style and imaginative stories, but that is certainly her great loss. See you all on Saturday.

Last Meeting - June 9, 2001

by Tom Morrow

PARSEC meeting for June 9, 2001 was held at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library, Kevin Hayes presiding. The meeting began to come to order at 2:36.

Ann Cecil reported that she is investigating the possibility of renting a relatively cheap storage unit to store the PARSEC library in. Ann also reminded everyone that Confluence is coming up soon (July 20-22!) and gave some details on the latest guests.

Greg's Treasurer's report: Read by Sasha Income was: Dues:$52, One anthology sale:$6, and a repayment by Confluence :$221.49 for mailer printing, making a total income of $279.49 Expenses were: $20 to Confluence for memberships, $143.60 for postage, $221.49 for Confluence mailer printer, $188.00 for Confluence bookmark printing (which will be reimbursed later), and $125 for the bulk mail permit renewal, total outgo: $698.09 (no balance was given, but it is still positive)

Kevin Hayes introduced guests Jeannine Donna (who up and joined Parsec at the end of the meeting), and Teri Flinder.

Our discussion of movies was immoderate, as our moderator did not show up. The panelists were our frequent Sigma video and movie commentators, Randy Hoffman and Bill Hall (of Cinemania in the Hall).

Discussion Notes Follow

There is a general contionuum of movies, and most entertainment. One end is the mundane adventure/thriller sort of movie. Then comes the Techno-Thriller Still mundane though the focus is on the Technology. Then comes the Gimmick or Gadget fiction, which is Science-Fiction only by the virtue of the strange flashy new machine. Superhero fiction is most often Gimmick fiction, however sometimes they get into the implifications of what superpowers do. Then comes the ouvre? fiction. There is a setting that is manifestly not our own world. For example, Gattaca. There is not really a whole lot of science in the film, though it is a setting manifestly not our own, and moved forward in time. Finally comes the pure science-fiction. Movies that show and play with paradigms. Scientific, especially. Social ones often end up in the previous category...they are on the grey line often. Very few movies though are strongly about what science really does which is create new paradigms.

So far, it seems that, although we have the amazing special-effects technology we do, we have not really used it to live up to what science fact shows, for example, proper gravity does not show up on Mars and Moon movies. One problem is that the market forces that drive what movie will be made are not mostly from the audience but from the investment community. Even if a movie is made and it bombs, it does not have a big impact on future movies. The Abyss is an example of a movie that, while very good, had no studio backing, and therefore it bombed. No advertising and no promotion, led to no success.

The question was just posited. "What constitutes a good science-fiction movie?"

Bill Hall: First of all, a good premise. Then, how deeply and well does it explore the premise.

Randy Hoffman It has to be intellectually satisfying. It has to be emotionally satisfying.

Movie makers sacrifice science, for the special effects and the drama. The ideas that where discussed was the sacrifice of the science for the drama, and the effects wanted for the movies, or tv shows. Imagination being better. In the past you couldn't show everything, but anymore since you can show everything,they do. Science fiction humor- can science fiction be funny? Knowing the science makes it possible to make science funny. Play with that premise and the science. Bad science fiction movies vs bad stuff in general given the time period it was made in. How much of what is made is not based on the science but as a commintary on the state of society, television or something else.

Dr.Who Started out as an educational tv show for children. Concept was Dr.Who would use the device to explain about the past. Not from commercial tv but from educational tv, given to the possibilty that that was the reason why it was better. Educational tv. They worked from a more creative point of view. Educational tv as a starting point for better tv. To write for educational tv you have to write to inform, instead of to simply entertain.

Remake, remakes.. how to convince people to skip the remakes and move on to better new stories.

Sci-Fi channel is comming up with orginal movies and tv shows. Some of which are original and good.

Clear backing for what is wanted. Ask why the producers are making it? Nothing better to do? Running after an old title? Or because they believe it is a good story worth looking into and trying to make well.

Clear intent of what is wanted from the movie. Cultural? Technology?

What books would make good science fiction movies or tv shows? Neuromancer Farenheit 451

Smaller independent movies, home movies done on computers and with good cameras. Small producers where you get some of the best humor stuff. Could see the really good stuff comming from independent low budget places. Independents trying to make money given that it will be difficult to find a way to get their movies out there. Internet? yes it's a way to get it out there, but there is no way to get any money for it.

Sasha has taken most of these notes, as she felt as though she needed to do something to keep herself busy, though she did indeed participate well in the discussion. I thank her for taking these notes, as I was not sure what to take.

PARSEC Commentary

By Ann Cecil, your duly elected Commentator

With Confluence coming up in just three weeks, it's hard to think about much else. My living room is regularly full of people enthusiastically singing their hearts out, rehearsing for the Evening Entertainment (wait'll you hear this one!). A corner of the room is being sectioned off for storage of 'con stuff' - giveaways, flyers for the freebie table, etc. We're assiduously collecting bio updates and photos for the program book, searching through the archives (that's the big pile in the guest room upstairs) for old program info that we can reuse.

Which of course leads me to think, why are we are doing this yet another time? Have I gotten tired of all this? Conventional wisdom (no that this not an intentional pun) says that sooner or later everyone burns out. After 13 of these, I should be a pile of little ashes, right?

Nah. It's too much fun. They're all crazy. Yes, there are problems, moments of sheer terror (will we make the room block? gasp, at the last minute, yup. Can we survive if we don't make it? yup, did that last time), and moments of disappointment (nothing like looking at a resignation with a note saying 'I never got around to doing the job I promised' - but life happens).

But in the end: knowing you helped to make this one of the best cons anywhere, knowing that Confluence has a reputation that makes people who have never attended say, "oh that's a GOOD con", seeing it all come together and knowing you did your part - that's a very good feeling. That's the kind of memories and satisfaction that last a lot longer than the badges or the stuffed animal you bought in the dealer's room, or the weird video you saw at 2am.

And having that feeling, knowing that you can cope with mild insanity and come out on top - that builds a confidence that is worthwhile. It really does translate into a viable commodity; I have had someone say, "I knew you could do this job because I watched you get stuff done for the con when you were in another state." And, yes, you can put activities like running registration at a con on your resume as evidence of responsibility and initiative.

So: think about it. Consider maybe volunteering for a little job. Gofer this time, see how you like it. See how much more you get out of the con, knowing that you were part of it. Maybe next year, take a part on the concom. Think about it.

After all, if you're a PARSEC member, Confluence is your con!


Balshazzar's Serpent
by Jack L. Chalker
Review by James Walton

The human race, through the use of stabilized wormholes, (gates) which permitted faster than light space travel, colonized planets in very distant sections of the galaxy. The resulting network of gates allowed the planets to remain in contact with each other over the centuries. Then without warning one third of these gates mysteriously ceased to operate. The topography of the non-operational gates is a huge sphere, several light years in diameter with the Earth as its center. Thus began The Great Silence and a new Dark Age for mankind.

As with Earth's first Dark Age, it is the religious institutions that help maintain civilization. Utilizing the relatively few starships that remain, (Earth had strictly controlled the placement of starship construction facilities) various groups set out to find as many "lost" colonies as they could.

One such religious group, lead by the charismatic Dr. Karl Woodward, (a large gentleman with long white hair and beard who sounds remarkably similar to characters in many of Chalker's other books) uses its starship, The Mountain, to search for lost colonies and deliver The Word to the people. On one such trip Woodward and crew encounters a group of stranded space pirates intent upon taking The Mountain for their own use.

In addition to being trained lay missionaries, Woodward's people are all trained as soldiers and/or security guards. They've seen trouble before and are prepared to deal with it. The clash between the crew of The Mountain and the space pirates is both predictable and disastrous.

It is while dealing with the space pirates that Woodward receives information about the "Three Kings", three planets reputed to be remarkably Earthlike, all within the life zone of the star they orbit. Such a triumvirate of useable planets in one system is considered impossible, yet human scouts have visited the system at least twice. The exact location of these three planets, Melchior, Kasper and Balshazzar, has been a mystery for centuries. Not even such a devout man as Woodward is immune to the call of huge wealth.

Chalker does not choose to use Balshazzar's Serpent as a podium to push his own agenda or vilify organized religions. He has the characters speak just enough dogma to keep things realistic. Instead Chalker decides to tell a story without hitting us with a message. (What a quaint idea, storytelling solely for entertainment.) The preaching is never overpowering and is not the main focus of the book.

Serpent has an ambiguous ending. God and the Devil (okay, their equivalent in this story) make a bargain that may or may not be fodder for more books in this line. Chalker also has two more planets to work with, both of which have their own mysteries. Perhaps the next two books will deal with how these were colonized. Or will Chalker take the opposite view and tell us what is happening on Earth during The Great Silence?

The preface of Balshazzar's Serpent detailing the discovery of the Three Kings is reminiscent of the beginning of Chalker's Four Lords of the Diamond series. While the reuse of ideas by authors is nothing new I found it odd that Chalker is repeating himself so closely.

Mars Crossing
by Geoffrey Landis
Reviewby Ann Cecil

Back in the 50s, there were so many books about man getting into space that a feeling of inevitability developed: sooner or later, you knew we'd actually do it. Now, it is beginning to feel inevitable that we will send an expedition to Mars. Geof Landis is the latest to join the group, with his take on how it will happen.

In Landis' version, getting there is the easy part. Getting back again is where all the difficulties arise. His book deals with the Third Expedition, some of whom do (to the reader's surprise) make it at least back off the surface of Mars. In flashbacks, we are told of the fates of the first two expeditions, both of which made it to Mars, but never got home.

The crew starts out with six members, one of whom gets killed shortly after the successful landing. The remaining five are John, the slightly older, experienced captain, Ryan, the young, almost Heinleinian pilot and engineer, Estrela, a Brazilian geologist, Tana, a black pilot, and Trevor, a teen-ager who won a lottery to make the trip. In flashbacks (the book is replete with them), we learn about the pasts of each of these characters. And two of them have deep dark pasts: dreadful childhoods, in which they had to do horrible things to survive, which haunt them to this day. Naturally the media, NASA, the psychologists, etc. have never suspected the existence of these dreadful traumas lurking in the characters' pasts.

The basic setup is that the expedition is using a plan popularized by the Mars Society today (Kevin Geiselman presented this at a Parsec meeting last year, and Robert Zubrin has written a book about it, which Landis credits). They arrive on Mars in one vehicle, which is now out of fuel and so much junk. Another vehicle has been flown under automatic control several years earlier, parked waiting and filled with fuel. Unfortunately, in the first chapter, they discover that a miscalculation has screwed up this plan; the waiting ship explodes, venting the fuel and killing off the surplus crew member. The only hope is to cross a lot of Mars to find the leftover ships from the first and second expeditions, which may still be in good shape.

Landis 'strength is the science, the problem-solving, and the best parts of the book are the descriptions of Mars and the expedition coping with the impressive geography. These parts are so good, they pretty much allow you to ignore the less convincing character stuff. And the description of Valles Marineris is terrific: I want to go see this!

The Lord of the Rings (board game)
American version published by Hasbro
Review by Alan Irvine

If you have read the novel, this game gives you a chance to take part in the action and see how you would have fared against Sauron's wrath. If you have not read the novel, don't worry about it; this will still be the best game you play all year.

In the game, the players each take on the role of one of the hobbits setting forth to destroy the Ring of power before it falls into the clutches of the dark lord Sauron. This is not a role playing game however; while each character possesses a unique ability to bend the rules in certain ways, they are otherwise simply pieces in the game. The action unfolds over five boards-one master board, and one board each for four main scenarios from the novel: the Mines of Moria, the Battle of Helm's Deep, Shelob's Liar, and Mordor. The boards are not representations of each area however, but abstract, representing the actions, and perils encountered on each step of the way. As the players traverse each board, they must avoid danger, but also collect the resources they will need to survive later on. If they successfully complete the journey and reach the final space, they must the attempt to destroy the Ring. All the while, however, Sauron is advancing on the players. If Sauron catches a player's token, the player is taken over by evil and removed from the game; if Sauron catches the player carrying the Ring, Sauron wins.

What makes the game unique, and so much fun to play, is that players are not competing with each other. Rather, they all work as a team, and either all win or all lose together. (There is no player for Sauron; like in the novel, Sauron is not so much a character, but an implacable, unstoppable force.) This does not, however, mean that all players will live to the end of the game. One of the crucial dynamics of the game, in fact, is the tension between keeping yourself alive or sacrificing for the good of the group. At various points, players may need to surrender resources that they may want to keep for later, or even sacrifice their lives so that the surviving members of the group can continue on. ("Dead" players can continue to observe and advise, and are encouraged to do so - their help may be critical to winning the game.) Teamwork is essential to winning. This makes this a great game for families, since there is no danger of sore winners or losers at the end.

Because the game is so abstract and different from regular board games, it can take a little while to master. For example, it is not a good idea to gather everyone together to read the rules; they probably won't make sense to everybody. Better to have one person (preferably someone familiar with gaming) read them, and then explain them to everyone else. Then play the game through once or twice before everything really clicks. The rules actually anticipate this, and provide easier going the first couple of times you play to give you a fighting chance. Even so, expect to die the first time through. After that, however, you should start to see that the action is really rather simple.

When we played, we had a group of adults and kids, the youngest being 8 years old. Some of us had read the novel, some had not; some of us were ardent gamers, some were not. The first time through, Sauron slaughtered us.

We did not even make it half way. The second time, however, we had a much better sense of how things worked. Half our party died during the journey, but two characters made it to the end, and we pulled off a narrow victory, so close that if the game had gone one turn longer, we would have lost, but a victory all the same. And the strategy that got us through the last, desperate turn was devised only by all five of us (living and dead) putting our heads together and figuring out the one and only sequence of actions and sacrifices that would actually succeed.

So, to recreate the feel of the book, to introduce people to the book, or just for an intriguing and fun game, check out The Lord of the Rings.

Letters to SIGMA

Dear Friends:

I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirit. It may interest you to know that the world's oldest planetarium theater projector resides here in Pittsburgh, PA. Twenty-eight Zeiss Model II star projectors were built by hand from 1926-1935. The Zeiss here in Pittsburgh is number 28 and is factory exact in every detail and feature. (These facts have been verified by Zeiss Optical in Jena, Germany.)

Not only is the Pittsburgh Zeiss still operational, it was the only planetarium projector in the world to be mounted on a custom Westinghouse elevator designed by engineers here in town. This afforded the use of the star theater as a stage with seating in the round. The stage was 'created' by lowering the 6000-poin Zeiss in a pit below the theater floor where self-lowering doors covered the Zeiss star projector. The self-lowering doors then served as a floor for the stage. This unique application has never been repeated anywhere else.

The Zeiss Model II is still mounted in the same theater where it was installed in 1939. This planetarium was one of five built during the great age of planetaria in America, and is the only one to remain as a pristine architectural example of the classic American planetarium.

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science also contains the world's largest siderostat telescope installed in a public observatory. No other public facility can claim this distinction. This 10-inch telescope was installed in 1941, and is still operational.

It's amazing to think that the Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science contains the planet's largest public-use siderostat telescope and the world's oldest planetarium projector mounted on the only custome elevator of its kind, constructed and set in the last untouched public planetarium in America. The future of these and numerous unrivaled attributes are now in jeopardy. Without your help, the perpetuation and preservation of the building and its contents is impossible. All it takes is the writing of a letter expressing your concern for saving this globally unique and historically American facility. The letter should be concise and include the reason the Buhl Planetarium is important to you, and why the facility should re-open its doors to the public. Letters can be sent to SAVE THE BUHL, Box 431 Pittsburgh, PA 15230 USA. Do not put this off. Time is running out for the Buhl.

I wish to extend my thanks for the gift of your time and your letter of support.

Timm Barczy
This letter can be copied and dispersed if desired.

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: July 14, 2001, 1:00 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: Anime and Manga discussion by Amy Finkbeiner and friends

News Flash

Mia Sherman is coordinating a list of who needs rides/rooms at Worldcon, and who has rooms or ride space to share. The current list can be found at:

To be added to the list, please email Mia at


Well, it's been a quiet month for the Worldwrights. The big news is that Ken Chiacchia made his first professional-rate fiction sale: the short story "A Technical Fix" to the young-adult magazine Cicada! It is believed that Ken got the highest per-word rate for this story in the history of the Worldwrights.

Mary Soon Lee's story "More Than Magic" appeared in the inaugural edition of the ezine Elysian Fiction.

Tim Esaias's poem "Venusian Cuisine" appeared in the ezine Strange Horizons.

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: Kevin Hayes

Vice President: "Cap'n" John Cope

Treasurer: Greg Armstrong

Editor: Don Cox

Secretary: Tom Morrow

Commentator: Ann Cecil

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

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