The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


September 2001, Issue 188

Kevin's Comments

By Kevin Hayes

Nearly everyone I know is running around like crazy. This seems to be the time of year for it. Maybe it's because of the season -- late summer, early fall; or maybe there is some other reason for it.

I know that people do a fair share of running around at other times of the year trying to get lots of stuff done, but for some reason, this period of August blending into September seems to be one of the worst. People are getting in their last gasp of summer vacation. They're going to or organizing picnics. They're doing their back-to-school shopping, looking at new cars as the model years change, making notes on which of the new TV shows are deserving of attention and any one of a myriad of other equally mundane yet enormously important tasks.

I have to admire people who can do things like that.

It's just that all of these things lead to the recognition that summer is over. People are not withdrawing necessarily, but they are definitely cutting back and consolidating their activities. Sociologists (or maybe it was interior designers) call it "cocooning." That would be the pulling back, withdrawing and living in a small, warm and comfortably safe place. If we were bears, we would stuff ourselves with any food we could get to prepare ourselves for the winter hibernation. If we were farmers (and I know some of us still are, right Carol?), we would be getting ready for the harvest.

With the weather being as hot and humid as it is right now, as I write this, it's hard to believe that by the time you read these words, there may already be the promise of coolness in the air assuring the crisp autumn evenings we all know and love in Pittsburgh.

Those are the times, those brisk clear nights, that encourage socializing and storytelling before the in-gathering, the cocooning, that occurs in the winter. On those days, when all the running and doing and organizing and all the rest of the concomitant craziness people do this time of year, is done, comes the time to sit with friends, relax, and tell stories.

I can well imagine this is how it all started. Our ancestors -- the spiritual ones if not the actual ones -- gathered around a fire, relating the events of the day, or the events of the hunt, or the gather, or whatever it was they were involved in for that day, telling their stories.

Some would stick with the dry boring facts, some would stick with the facts, but perhaps related them in a more exciting manner. And some would tell outrageous tales of lights in the sky and travel to other worlds.

And it is here we derive our inspiration. We thrive on those stories of lights in the sky and other worlds. We look for the new, the novel, the different. And here, amongst the tales, outrageously told, we find our companions. We share the stories and search for new stories to tell.

A few months ago, under the motivational urgings of Jim and Laurie Mann, we provided topics for discussion panels for the Millennium PhilCon -- the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia. Some of us are going and some of us are staying behind. Whichever group you may find yourself in, I expect you will want to share the stories -- as we all do.

I look forward to all of us sitting down around the "fire" and deconstructing the WorldCon. I would hope that those who participated in the organizing of it will share the stories from behind the scenes. And I would hope those in attendance will share the stories of what went on in whatever part of the con they found themselves. Ann was not sanguine about this kind of a meeting, but I believe, with everyone having a slightly different take and different amounts of involvement on as big a gathering as the WorldCon, it could provide a very interesting picture. As with the elephant and the blind men, it will be an unusual animal, to say the least. I'm sure some of us will tell the dry boring facts, some will tell the simple facts but relate them in a more interesting fashion, and some will tell the outrageous tales.

And I want to hear all about the adventure Judy Friedl has set up for herself. Participating in a "write a novel in three days" type contest, she apparently decided if she couldn't torture herself in Philadelphia, she would find a way to torture herself here at home.

I expect everyone will have some sort of adventure over the Labor Day weekend. That's what happens when one lives in interesting times. We all want to hear all about it. We will deconstruct the WorldCon, and all the rest of the holiday as well.

See you on Saturday.

Cinemania in the Hall

Movie Reviews by Bill Hall


It is possibly the best SF movie of 2001. Unfortunately, this does not speak very well of 2001.

Everyone else has gone on about the computer-animated hair of heroine Aki Ross (an interesting Japan Meets America By Way of ER sort of name), but I will admit that in one sequence, where characters are walking to a sunlit height, I thought "This could pass for live action." Faces are the liability here; most of them are still not quick and fluid enough to fake humanity. Which is rather eerie, given that the plot is about spirit, in both our Earth and in alien life. Computer work lends itself to questions concerning that point where biomechanics ends and living begins.

Think of it as PRINCESS POKEMONONOKE. This recalls POKEMON, in its "Got to catch 'em all" idea of gathering eight different types of the alien ghosts that have lain waste 21st Century Earth, as well as MONONOKE, with a protagonist calling for understanding between the formidable forces of Man and Nature. Aki is the protege of the great Dr. Sid (could his last name be Dhartha?), who warns that GHOSTBUSTERS types of weapons could kill Earth's own Gaia spirit along with the invaders, and she must oppose General Hein (could his last name be Lein?), who's basically just a big grouch further complicating everything.

FANTASY is interesting, combining the grit and high action of ALIENS with the same call to "looking with better eyes" found in work like THE ABYSS. It's a history-making technical accomplishment, and its story is a handy summary of where popular SF's head seems to be these days. It's not a favorite, but some of you shouldn't feel too ashamed seeing it, either.


Much has been made of this being an original retelling, and not a remake; the problem being, it's not that original. It heavily assumes, right from its rapid delivery of us into a simian society, that we already know the first five movies. So what is this? I would call this the feverish nightmare of some fanatical worshipper of those movies who played them over and over for one long marathon weekend, had a few too many banana daiquiris, and blacked out. By the end, which for all its ballyhooed "imagination" is a simple Twilight Zone sort of inversion of the beginning of ESCAPE, Mark Wahlberg as cosmic martyr Leo Davidson has a lot more to worry about than any "mere" Planet of the Apes -- it's more like a Galaxy of the Apes.

There are two main reasons to see this. The first is all the inside jokes. The instant that Leo makes his first contact, with a gorilla general, the gorilla retorts "Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!" -- thereby inverting Charlton Heston's famous first words. Unfortunately, Wahlberg is no Heston. Heston himself appears in an cameo wearing the subtlest ape makeup in the whole movie, his face and voice permitted maximum recognizability as he moans "Damn them all to hell!" -- but as an ape this time, with no Statue of Liberty lying around.

The second reason is the makeup. It's very alive, very personalized, a good bit more than just cool masks. Two opposing gorilla generals are given a sort of effortless majesty, complete with spookily unreadable eyes -- but watch out when they fight, when they leap at each other as if in a John Woo movie, or perhaps CROUCHING CHIMPANZEE, HIDDEN ORANGUTAN. Even a bit player like Lisa Marie, playing a sexy chimpanzee, becomes a mask of viciousness as she giggles at an antihuman joke. The worst, and hence best, face is that of the chimpanzee general Thade, played by Tim Roth, the lethal Cunningham from ROB ROY. I can't tell it's Roth, but for the acting, because Thade's whole face is one great twist of hate.

Seeing Thade sneer is worth half the price of admission. I haven't recoiled so deeply into my seat since Gloria Swanson turned to "those people out there in the dark" at the end of SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I do hope this is the end of the milking of the first PLANET. However, I confess that it is a perhaps near-inevitable gimmick of analog and metaphor, to keep trading places with our simian cousins, much as literary SF has just come through a recent wave of stories about Neandertals. We may yet see more stories of intelligent apes -- and perhaps they will be permitted a highly technical civilization, as they were in the original Pierre Boulle novel, not to mention the short-lived Saturday morning TV cartoon series. I do hope someday that the treatment of apes as partners will become less bull and more Boulle.


Soon, STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE will come, and at that point I will reflect on EARTH: FINAL CONFLICT and ANDROMEDA and things Roddenberryan. Yet I continue to miss DEEP SPACE NINE. Along with its return (after what I would assess as the dry spell of NEXT GENERATION) to the importance of character, it was also an ambitious series, always struggling with, and in the midst of, a great darkness. ST:DS9 and the unfairly short-lived NOWHERE MAN (on UPN, of all places) were my guideposts through the Nineties.

Now, almost in spite of itself, a new contender has arisen, no less ambitious and skeptical in tone. It started out too hip and flashy and formulaic for its own good, and it's based on a comic book, but for some perverse reason its quality keeps ascending.

It's called WITCHBLADE, obvious pun on "switchblade," and it's on the basic cable network TNT. It's a Dark Justice Fantasy, of which cable has already seen (or inherited from network failure) legions of such series, but it is distinct in its ambitions, its meeting those ambitions, and its genuinely adult frankness.

The premiere movie isn't that promising. New York City detective Sara Pezzini, in the course of a shootout in a museum, winds up with an ancient gauntlet that attaches itself to her and disguises itself as a bracelet. It helps her to converse with her dead partner Danny, as well as to do battle with various thugs and the Man Who Killed Her Father, a non-character named Gallo who exists solely to goad her.

Given the challenge of an actual series, however, the writers gradually begin to meet it. Soon we are playing fast and loose with everything from World War Two history to Irish folklore, from Joan of Arc to a variation on Mata Hari. Recently as of this writing, Sara was treated to a talk with "past selves" reminiscent of Sisko's weird chats with those entities that hide out in the DS9 wormhole. Myth, physics ... this "cop" show is ready to take on a lot.

The TV Sara is distinctly different from the comic book Sara, and I'd call that a plus. As a modern comic book heroine, Sara is drawn as ultrasexy, trying to encompass both nymph and nemesis. On TV, such pandering gets muted all the way down to a mere whisper of occasionally bared midriff.

The writing is one reason this works. The star, Yancy Butler, is another. Veteran of action movies such as HARD TARGET and DROP ZONE, stuck with such easily axed series as MANN AND MACHINE and SOUTH BEACH plus the unfairly axed BROOKLYN SOUTH, Butler finally has a solid commodity, and it's about goddamn time. There is an air of amused disbelief about her all through the premiere movie, but by the time she must yell like an exorcist at Roger Daltrey of The Who, she does so with CONVICTION, by gum. She is wrapping herself around this just as surely as the blade has begun to wrap around her. With huge bright eyes and a voice that's a Linda Fiorentino mix of vulnerability and iron, my sole distraction is her slightly rabbitish pair of upper incisors. Yet even those remind me of Lauren Hutton, so that's not so bad.

Where is this show going to wind up? I've no idea; I'm just hoping that a candle burning so brightly doesn't snuff out too soon. Within ten episodes it has already covered more ground than years of THE X-FILES and is a better on-going mystery than TWIN PEAKS. And what is the Witchblade, anyway? (Besides false advertising: no specific actual witches are involved with it, and half the time it's more a kind of armor than any weapon.) Suspended in no-time, Sara is told it's "a branch ripped from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." What can that mean? This can all fail with any new epsiode, but for now I don't care. I admire the ambition.

The next thing to ponder: did someone running the Star Trek franchise cosmos actually read this column?


Alien Taste
by Wen Spencer
Review by Greg Armstrong

Alien Taste is a book about a tracker named Ukiah Oregon. He is partnered to a Pittsburgh private investigator and gaining a reputation as "the best at what you do," to quote a Pittsburgh cop in the story. The book starts with the team called in to a multiple homicide, and one woman, an important robotics researcher, missing from the scene. Ukiah tracks her through the woods of Schenley Park, beginning an adventure which spans the Pittsburgh area, and involves everything from a rogue biker gang to robot Mars rovers to invading aliens. Oh, did I mention that Ukiah was raised by wolves?

To describe the story further would lead me to reveal too many surprises that you should enjoy discovering yourself. Suffice to say that I could not put the book down. Not the first time I read it, nor the second. And if this ever comes out in hardcover, I'll get another copy. Oh, did I mention that Wen Spencer is eligible for a Campbell award in 2002?

All Tomorrow's Parties
by William Gibson
Review by James Walton

In All Tomorrow's Parties we return to the semi-dysfunctional world Gibson first introduced us to in Virtual Light and expanded upon in Idoru. While you don't necessarily have to have read either of the two previous books, Gibson refers to events in them often enough to make you curious about the "world history."

In this installment of the series (I think we can safely call these books a series) we are re-acquainted with characters from the previous books and we meet a few more:

Berry Rydell, the ex-cop Everyman who seems to have no ambition in life other than to live it and get by.

Chevette, ex-bicycle messenger and Rydell's ex-girlfriend, running away from a bad relationship towards who knows what.

Colin Laney, friend and benefactor to Rydell, a medical experiment when he was a child left him with the ability to see patterns of information.

Rei Toi, the Idoru, the artificial entity that manifests itself as a human female. It wants to be real.

But as in Virtual Light, the main character is The Bridge, the autonomous community that spontaneously came to be after an earthquake forced the closing of the Golden Gate Bridge. Before the government could demolish the now condemned bridge, thousands of people moved to the unused space and created homes for themselves in any way they could. The Bridge is an open city ignoring all authorities.

Rydell is in Los Angeles working as a security guard for a Lucky Dragon convenience store. The store is one of hundreds in the world and nothing special. When Rydell receives a mysterious phone call from Colin Laney instructing him to go to San Francisco, Rydell has no reason to stay.

Why San Francisco? Laney's strange talents tell him Something Big is going to happen and San Francisco is the focal point. The fact that Laney has no idea of what that something is does not deter him from setting things in motion.

Chevette desires to end a bad relationship with an abusive boyfriend so she and a friend decide to head to San Francisco and The Bridge, Chevette's old stomping ground.

Chevette and Rydell spend most of their time, separately and together, moving from point A to point B, avoiding Bad Guys and interacting with the culture of The Bridge.

Oh yeah, the Bad Guys. The ones chasing Rydell to keep him from interfering with the Something Big and take what he is carrying. And Chevette has her own bad guy chasing her for more personal reasons.

When we reach the end of All Tomorrow's Parties some of his characters can now potentially live happily ever after, but Gibson never explains the nature of the Idoru. He does however leave a very large door open for several books chronicling her fate.

All Tomorrow's Parties has the feel of an interim book, the second in a trilogy. (Hmm, but this is the third?) Gibson seems to be reminding us of situations and events from previous books while fleshing out his characters somewhat. He is pointing them (and us) toward the big finish.

We definitely don't have a big finish in Parties. At the end the Status Quo has shifted but we don't know toward who or how much. We have many more questions than answers.

Is William Gibson losing his edge? Has the razor sharpness from Neuromancer finally been blunted? Or is the story he is telling in this series of books so large that we must step back from the edge to see anything? I found these three books (Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties) to be interesting reads but ultimately unsatisfying. In a previous review I called Idoru a collection of interesting scenes and situations which didn't add up to a story. I get a similar feeling from Parties. It is only when all three books are examined together that there seems to be some focus and sense of direction. Whether or not the next book is the focal point remains to be seen.

by John Barnes
Review by James Walton

John Barnes has made a distinguished career for himself as a writer of both Science Fiction and, under pseudonyms, men's adventure. He combined the two genre's in his Timeline Wars series. In Candle, Barnes once again combines the two.

It is year 26 by the new calendar. Currie Curtis Curran (Three Cur) is a retired cowboy hunter, living a good life with his wife in a cabin somewhere in the Colorado Rockies.

Most of what is left of humanity is happy. People lead productive lives working to correct the ecological disasters caused by decades of warfare. The workers are making progress with the glaciers that form across North America every winter and disappear during the summer. The permanent hurricane that continuously circles the Earth along the Equator will need a bit more effort.

Everyone is happy. Unhappiness is not allowed. When people become unhappy the computer program on the chip inside their heads force them to be happy again.

Early one morning Currie receives a call from the computer entity One True. The world's most dangerous cowboy, Lobo, long thought dead, has resurfaced. One True orders Currie, the world's greatest cowboy hunter, out of retirement to track and capture Lobo. (A cowboy is a person who refused to accept a computer implant and One True's control, choosing to live in the wilderness alone. Living "outside" is not allowed. )

Candle is most interesting when Currie is wandering around the Rocky Mountains searching for signs of Lobo. Barnes' allows us to see his character's thought patterns and reasoning. Were it not for the high tech snow suit and the surveillance satellites, the book would be a standard, mundane adventure or a Western. Currie seems completely lucid, in control and free but we are constantly reminded that Currie has a computer program running in his head, a program that controls Currie's emotions and memories, has debates with its host and keeps constant contact with One True. Is Currie nothing more than a meat puppet?

It is when hunter meets hunted that Candle tends to bog down. Barnes has his characters explain how this Sedate New World works via recitations of their life stories. The two men lounge in a hot tub and sip wine while they swap life stories. (They put off the decision as to whether or not to kill each other until morning.)

The world where Currie and Lobo grew up was not a nice place. Poverty and constant warfare left both of them orphans at an early age. While still teens they found themselves involved in the War of the Memes, self aware computer programs fighting it out for control of the minds of all humanity.

The most efficient and ruthless meme, One True, was the eventual winner.

It decreed that any human remaining on Earth after a certain date must submit to the computer implant and One True control. Since neither Currie nor Lobo had skills which would allow them to emigrate to Mars or one of the orbital communities, they both must stay and face the world according to One True. Currie accepted the implant while Lobo headed for the mountains.

Is it possible for One True to be as benign as Currie thinks? With the power to edit memories, One True can make everyone think and feel any way it desires. And what can a computer program possibly desire? A program based on code written by humans?

No explanation is given as to the nature of the memes and how they are able to invade human brains. Are memes organic, electronic, chemical or a combination of all three?

I'd originally shrugged at this book when I finished reading it. Not enough explanation as to the nature of memes and how they infect people and too many questions left unanswered. Then I learned that Candle is a revisit of a world Barnes created in other books. As such the author assumes we already have the required information about memes and One True. Not knowing about the previous books probably limited my enjoyment of this one.

Candle is marketed as a stand-alone novel but it doesn't quite work for me.

Melchior's Fire
by Jack L. Chalker
Review by James Walton

In Melchior's Fire we return to the universe of The Three Kings which began with the book Balshazzar's Serpent. As before, Earth, the center of all human development and economics, has gone missing. The near-Earth transfer gates which allowed star ships to flitter around the galaxy no longer function. The remaining transfer gates will not connect to earth. Since all industrial facilities for mankind was located as close to Earth as possible what is left of humanity must get by with a minimal and rapidly deteriorating manufacturing structure.

To help keep things going, machinery and materials are recycled as much as possible. Lost and forgotten colonies find themselves the target for crews of salvage experts who search for anything that can be sold at a profit. Fire concerns the exploits of one such group of salvagers.

Calling them salvage experts is being too kind. They are scavengers at the best and space pirates the rest of the times. If the equipment they want is in use the pirates will use any means necessary to get it, that includes murder.

The pirates find an abandoned facility on an almost forgotten planet and make plans to dismantle the equipment for transport back to civilization. But why was the colony abandoned? Why is the equipment and structural damage so odd? The answer comes in the guise of a heretofore unknown alien lifeform, a lifeform which is obviously quite intelligent and quite deadly.

The pirates barely escape with their lives and of course lose money and equipment in the process. The crew returns home in failure to await their creditors. When a very rich but eccentric businessman offers them a mysterious contract the crew is more than willing to listen.

More than seventy years after Woodward expedition disappeared information on the location of The Three Kings resurfaced. The Three Kings are three impossibly rich planets in impossible orbits around an impossible star. No one who has gone searching for them has been known to return. Our space pirates hesitate only slightly before agreeing to the contract.

The characters in Melchior's Fire aren't as vivid or memorable as those of Balshazzar's Serpent. All the pirates have names and backgrounds but except for the physical descriptions they are all semi-interchangable. We know immediately that some of the crew are "Orcs" and will disappear soon. Others are "Ring Bearers" but the ring is important, not them. It's as if Chalker deliberately didn't want us to become "friends" with his pirates.

Fire has the feel of an intermediate book. Chalker wants to keep us interested but does not want to give away too much. Ultimately we learn little new about the mystery of The Three Kings. Which is probably the reason Chalker gave us such a good space adventure in the beginning of the book. I found myself feeling cheated when Chalker turned his attention from the alien lifeform and back to the subject of the Three Kings. Think he's going to finish that one?

Let's hope Chalker gives us the Big Finish in the next book and doesn't stretch it out to four or more volumes.

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: Sep 8, 2001, 12:30 PM to 4:45 PM

LOCATION: Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library
PLEASE: We encourage people to bring a munchie or drink contribution ... pop, chips, cookies, etc.

TOPIC: deconstructing WorldCon

News Flash

Mary Soon Lee's story "Luna Classifieds" appeared in Spectrum SF 6. She sold the story "Common Courtesy" to Kinships, and the poem "To the Whales" to Space & Time. The Japanese publication Hayakawa SF, she discovered after the fact, published two of her stories.

Ken Chiacchia sold the story "Apology for a Red Planet" to Neverworlds.

Tim Esaias sold four of his 'perhapsitudes' (a light verse form of his own, rather tasteless, invention) to Asimov's. The editor, Gardner Dozois, expects they will "undoubtedly lower the High Moral Tone of the magazine."

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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