The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


October 1998, Issue 153

Ann's Agenda

Computers are taking over our lives. No, I'm not talking a scenario out of Colossus, with Artificial Intelligence actually becoming the government. No Intelligence, Artificial or otherwise, in its right mind, would go near our government right now.

I'm really talking about the amazing power of the Internet, combined with your home computer. Suddenly, we are starting to see some of those capabilites people talked about and wrote SF stories about, oh maybe 40 years ago. Kids today can sit at home and find detailed information on any topic, without their parent's having to devote multiple cabinets to weighty encyclopedias, or the need to spend hours at your neighborhood library. Or if you live in a poor neighborhood, having to make the trip to a larger library.

Some people see this as an insidious menace: the kids aren't learning to do the search for themselves, they say, just to use the software. But what are these kids learning, as they use the search engines to quickly assemble their homework reports? Why, how to ask good questions. And wasn't that one of the things they were supposed to be learning from school in the first place? Aren't "inquiring minds" one of the objectives of education?

There's another concern I hear frequently raised: it isn't only encyclopedia tomes that are becoming obsolete. Books and the printed word seem endangered. And this matters to us, because we're SF and F fans. We buy and read this stuff. [At Confluence, I had one author comment on the "number of bibliophiles" we attract - he was impressed by the size of book piles being carried out of the dealers' room. I explained that there is no local specialty bookstore, but he still was amazed.]

As one who finds it hard to read material on the screen, rather than from pages of a book, I do worry about this trend. But at the same time, I can see change coming that's not for the worse. In Chat rooms, for instance, where you are able to find kindred souls and converse at length on topics near and dear to your heart (sort of like a Con Suite without food), the conversation is pretty stale if you don't have a topic. If you don't have books or movies in common to take off from, you wind up with boring chats (also true of Con Suites).

And, with most computers, you can adjust the size and format of the print (something you can't do with a book) to make it easily readable. With new miniaturization, it WILL be possible to read computer text on the bus, or while sitting upside down in a chair, or in bed. So you lose the tactile feel of paper pages being turned (highly overrated, in my opinion). Computer folk may even come up with a way to duplicate that (a new meaning of "friendly user interface.")

The other things computers and the Net are doing is opening up opportunities. Most SF and F fans are would-be writers (I have an unsupported theory that this is because most of us want to live in the stories we read - and what better way to continue being part of the stories than to make them up yourself?). The Net offers and increasing number of resources - contacts with other writers, editors, agents, fans; lists of magazines and anthologies which will accept stories by new writers; chances to read, for free, advice and examples of good writing, places to find science material, new ideas, new outlets, inspiration and perspiration both.

Oddly enough, our next meeting is on using the Resources of the Internet as a Writer. Diane Turnshek is organizing it, so you know it will be stimulating and exciting. We'll be doing it at the University of Pittsburgh, so we can use that great overhead projection system. And this year, we checked first, and there is no football game, so you can find parking! See you all there.

Book Reviews

Steel Rose by Kara Dalkey
Review by Greg Armstrong and Mia Sherman

Steel Rose is an engaging modern fantasy about young woman, TJ, who accidentally summons two tommy-knockers while trying to work out a piece of performance art. By asking for help with her art, she inadvertantly gets involved in a conflict between the Sidhe (elves and other nature spirits) and the Unseelie (leprechauns and "worker" spirits). The Unseelie blame the Sidhe on Pittsburgh's declining steel industry and accompanying economic woes.

Oh, did I mention that this is set in Pittsburgh? The book is filled with delightful glimpses of Pittsburgh scenery and history, as well as magic and magical beings.

Meanwhile, as the plot progresses, TJ must avoid losing her soul to either side by playing a game for which she does not know the rules. She doesn't know who to trust among the magical folk, and of course, what humans would believe her enough to help her out? I think TJ missed talking to the obvious choice, but I suppose old habits die hard. If you read the book, you'll see what I mean.

I really recommend the book for anyone who likes light fantasy and Pittsburgh.

Nebula Awards 32
Edited by Jack Dann
Review by James Walton

Looking over the copyright page of Nebula Awards 32 I see that this volume is 2 years behind. A quick glance confirms that previous volumes have all been two years "late." I suspect this is due to problems in securing the rights to reprint certain stories.

The book is subtitled SFWA's Choices for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. That is, what the authors feel we should be reading.

One thing that always bothered me about the Nebula anthologies is they print only the winner in each short fiction category and one other selection, which I assume to be the runner up. The full short list is printed so interested parties can hunt for the other stories if they are inclined.

There is a section of essays by several authors giving their opinions on the state of Science Fiction in its various forms, including computer games.

I don't see the necessity of including a section on Science Fiction and fantasy films. The movie industry seems intent on divorcing itself from anything remotely resembling good writing. Personally I'd rather see more stories than remarks about movies that sounded boring when I heard of them originally.

I won't comment on any of the fiction except to say that all are very well done even though my tastes don't always fall in line with SFWA's. This is a very good yearly collection. I just wish it were larger.

Practical Demonkeeping
by Christopher Moore
Review by James Walton

Pine Cove is a normal, small California town. It has its rich, its poor, its dope peddlers, its drunks, its transvestites, its witches coven. There is a small Arab who literally curses a blue streak. It also has a demon running around eating people. Travis O'Hearn travels around the country with a demon named Catch. Catch has kept Travis young for 70 years. Travis allows Catch to eat people. Although he likes being young, Travis hates the killing and having a demon around makes extended relationships with other humans impossible. Calling up Catch was an accident. Travis was desperate and if he'd had time to think about it he probably wouldn't have done it. Travis is searching for the incantation which will rid him of Catch forever and he thinks he has found it at last in Pine Cove.

Of course the arrival of the pair does not go unnoticed. Every dog in Pine Cove begins barking its head off as Catch approaches and people start disappearing.

Waiting in Pine Cove is a small Arab who claims to be King of the Djinn and Catch's immortal enemy. The Arab selects August Brine, a local business man, to be a demon hunter and rid the world of Catch. Brine wastes very little time questioning the djinn king or his own sanity. He is sane or he isn't.

Soon several unlikely characters have joined the chase for their own reasons. Jennifer the waitress thinks Travis is the key to getting her life straightened out. Robert the drunk wants his wife, Jennifer, back. Alphonso the policeman wants to enhance his reputation. Mavis the bar owner wants some excitement. Rachel the witch wants power. All find more than they expect, within themselves and in others.

Practical Demonkeeping doesn't make a whole lot of sense (okay, I guess no book about a wisecracking demon could be 100% logical) but it is a fun, quick read.

Maybe it says something about me, but Catch the demon is my favorite character in Practical Demonkeeping, probably because he is totally devoid of human motivations. He is not trying to get even with anyone, gain social status or get sex. He is totally evil because that is his nature. He also has the best lines.

Star Wars: Dark Forces - Soldier for the Empire
Illustrated by Dean Williams
Star Wars: Dark Forces - Rebel Agent
Illustrated by Ezra Tucker
Author: William C. Dietz
Review by James Walton

These are the first two of a trilogy of illustrated novellas based on the Lucasfilms computer games Star Wars: Dark Forces and Star Wars: Jedi Knight. The games are, in turn, based on the extremely popular Star Wars movies.

As the games filled in background and fleshed out the universe of the movies, the books fill in the games.

Kyle Katarn, a young farm boy, realizes his dream of attending the academy and becoming an Imperial Stormtrooper but is soon disillusioned. Using his knowledge of Stormtrooper tactics, Katarn eventually turns traitor and becomes a successful Rebel agent, though he is not completely trusted. His first assignment, stealing the plans for the original Death Star, almost sees him executed by both sides.

We soon learn there are a lot more Dark Jedi working for the Empire than just Darth Vader. (This and several other points seem to contradict the movies.) These Jedi are, of course, a danger to Katarn, who is developing his own Jedi powers.

The action is more comic bookish than really exciting as if deliberately written for a young audience. (Dark Horse is a comic book company but their writing standards are usually pretty high.)

Several times while reading these books I wondered why none of the Stormtroopers can shoot as straight and none of the imperial pilots can fly as well as Katarn. I guess because he is on the correct side of the Force.

For no apparent reason, Dietz places characters from the movies in cameo roles. This adds nothing to the books and contributes to the feeling of "contradiction." Why is Lando Calrissian here gambling when he should be somewhere else running a mining operation?

Neither of these books are great literature though they are quite nice to look at. They are for heavy duty fans of the Star Wars universe.

Jonathan Swift:
Founder Of Science Fiction

An opinion by Bill Hall

All right, so this isn't a movie review; it's just a thesis. But I'm sticking it in anyway, if only in the hope that someone might raise this at Confluence, or the next one.

I'd missed the NBC miniseries Gulliver's Travels the first time around, and was mildly struck by it as a summer rerun. (Incidentally, I don't know why The Editors call attention to "Another TV Movie!" in my review titles; I don't think it's as if I make a habit of it.) (Actually, Bill, it was a mistake formatting the Sigma at The Last Minute[TM], I switched the position of several reviews and so lost the effect of "A TV Movie review" followed by "Another TV Movie!" My apologies. - NJ) So I was watching, and it hit me -- I'd seen these stories before! Not pre-Swift, of course, but post-Swift. I felt overwhelmed with deja vu, in a way I'd never known simply reading these stories as text.

So here is my revelation and my proposition: that Jonathan Swift is the founder of science fiction.

Certainly, there will be a lot of objections. "But that was only fantasy and satire; only Shelley and Poe and especially Verne ever bothered to deal with technicalities, with issues of human innovation." It's a good point.

But it is hardly the main point. I would no more argue for Swift on a technical level than I would try to crowbar in ancient flights to the Moon while tied to a flock of birds.

I'm not talking about details. I'm talking about plots and storylines. So much of pop SF is Swift redone.

And, no, Swift is quite apart from ancient mythology. Those stories were about archetypal heroes, wrestling with the grand issues. But Gulliver is not that heroic a figure; he is literally cast adrift in wildly varying worlds of bizarre innovation, trying to get by -- and that is the essence of SF. Swift is not the Brothers Grimm, telling fairy tales to reassert a status quo; rather, he thrusts and parries with distinctly adult dissatisfaction, using places and peoples either as reductios ad absurdum of ourselves, or noble standards we can not match.

Mere islands, you say? Then how often is it that a story encompasses an entire planet, rather than a tight set of locales upon it --- locales which could be summed up as one island?

A traveler finds himself bogged down in pettiness. This is the classic Star Trek setup, and you find it in Lilliput. Or he finds a society which is so wise that it lacks empathy towards humanity; this is both Brobdingnag and the cold sting of trying to think seriously about supercivilizations. Was not Frankenstein, and even Verneís Robur, first glimpsed from the flying island of Laputa? If we read a Conan adventure, are we enjoying our Yahooness? When a robot or computer embodies that which is best in us, do we accord it Houhynhnm-like reverence? For horses were the slaves of their day, as machines are now.

Dicker over detail as you like, but Swift wrote the stories that we still use, in speculative fiction at its most genuinely speculative. As we follow hapless put-upon protagonists through absurdities of the spirit, be it human or alien, we follow Swift.

Mini-Bio: David Lasser (1902-96)

by Eric Leif Davin.

American science fiction editor and technical writer. The editor of Hugo Gernsback's SCIENCE WONDER STORIES and AIR WONDER STORIES (later combined as WONDER STORIES) from their establishment in 1929, Lasser guided the magazines through their formative early years, bringing his own interest in technology and space flight to the service of Gernsback's philosophy of teaching science through SF. In 1930 Lasser founded the American Interplanetary Society, now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a year later published the first English-language book on astronautics, THE CONQUEST OF SPACE. In 1933 he left Gernsback's employ to become president of the Workers Alliance of America, the major Depression-era organization of the unemployed.


Contest Winners:

The ConFluence 1998 short story contest winners are:

1st Place: Reality Forbidden by Barton Paul Levenson
2nd Place: Icarus at Noon by Eric Leif Davin
3rd Place: Angel Vision by Celeste Allen

Congratulations to them all!

The 1999 Short Story contest topic is: Natural Agendas.

Good luck, folks!

Upcoming Meetings

The October 10th meeting will be Resources on the Internet for Writing Science Fiction and Science Fact, Coordinated by Diane Turnshek, but she won't be doing all the talking. It will be in Thaw Hall, Room 102 of the University of Pittsburgh. The Dept. of Physics and Astronomy provides the internet connection/projector/screen for the demonstration. We provide the expertise and the food! The meeting runs from 12:30 to 5 PM Saturday.

Directions to the October meeting:
By car, from East: If coming via the PA Turnpike (I-76), you should take Exit 6 to I-376 West. From 376 take exit 7A, Oakland, onto Bates Street. Stay on Bates Street until the second light, then turn left onto Atwood. Travel to Forbes Ave. and turn right at the light. Move into the left lane and turn left at the first light, onto Oakland Ave, which becomes DeSoto as you cross Fifth Avenue. This isnít marked, but there is a newsstand with a green awning on the corner. Go up the hill to the next light, and turn right onto O'Hara Street. The Department of Physics and Astronomy is on your left, four buildings down. There is an indoor parking garage on the left just after you turn onto OíHara. Allen Hall, Old Engineering Hall, Thaw Hall, and SRCC are all connected. There will be signs posted to lead you to Thaw 102.

From the North, West, or South, take I-79 (from I-76 if necessary) to I-279 into the city. Follow the signs to I-376 Monroeville, but don't go all the way to Monroeville, of course. Take the Forbes Ave. / Oakland exit, which puts you onto Forbes Avenue going into the Pitt Campus. Turn left onto DeSoto Street / Oakland Avenue and follow the above directions.

The November meeting is NOT in the Squirrel Hill Library. At this time, the editor has no information on it. (In fairness to others, that does NOT mean the information wasn't given to me.)

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: 344-0456
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230


The Pittsburgh Area Realtime Scientifiction Enthusiasts Club

President: Ann Cecil

Vice President: Don Turner

Treasurer: Joan Fisher

Editor: G. D. Armstrong

Sigma Art and Layout Editor: Nancy Janda

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

Return to the Sigma mainpage.

This page maintained by Greg Armstrong.