First, a shameless plug for My Fair Ladle:
Come one, come all; come see My Fair Ladle! It's the heartwarming (okay, sidesplitting) story of how a changeling learns to look like a proper human. The reviews are in:
Yes, critics love it! We have music! We have cheesy props! We have fun! And you will, too. Besides, if you don't come, Quark will hunt you down and force-feed you his stock of Stuff That No Life-form Will Touch! (And he'll charge you for it, too!)
Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program. Oh, wait, that WAS our regularly scheduled program--now what? I know! I'll remind everyone that it's once again time for ConFluence. ConFluence '97 will be held August 8-10 at the Marriott City Center in downtown Pittsburgh, as all of you should know by now. I look forward to seeing you all there.
On July 19, I attended Monster Bash. Monster Bash was held at the Ramada Inn in Ligonier.
by Karen Rose Cercone
Review by Sasha Riley and Ann Cecil
Steel Ashes is a very well written mystery novel that captures the feel of 1905 very well. The story is simple, but in its pages you will find many twists and turns. You may think it is boring at the beginning, but don't get discouraged, just keep reading. Not everything or everyone is as it seems.
The feel of old Pittsburgh -- both the physical sights and the flavor of the town, the politics and the union problems, the mixture of ethnic groups, all are captured very well in this book. They form a distinct and pleasant background, adding to the mystery and romance -- because this book has a very pleasant romantic angle -- that make this book a delight to read. My only quibble is with the 'mystery' - I confess I guessed early on what misdirection we were taking, but the local flavor and the wonderful characters kept me reading.
Our heroine is a feminist in old Pittsburgh, who lives with a quirky brother and has an aunt that has to be believed. Our hero is an immigrant's son, battling prejudice against his (concealed) background. In spite of their differences, the characters quickly begin to respect each other's tenacity, wit, and independence of spirit. The genuine depth of the characters and the believability of their developing relationship is particularly attractive and refreshing. I found this pair much, much more appealing and realistic than Anne Perry's popular odd couple (to note the competition).
The mystery involves steel mills (surprise!), mill workers, tenements, libraries, and a very odd political group. Oh, yes, and a funky priest who is not keeping his vows like he should. (editorial comment inserted by Sasha). Altogether a Good Read and Highly Recommended.
Sasha wants to know when is the NEXT ONE COMING OUT?
I've been wondering for years (30?) why Paramount licensed novels based on the Star Trek television shows only. With the vast implied history of the Star Trek universe there is a wealth of un-mined material at any point on the Trek time-line.
Paramount chose to set their new series in the "present" that is, the same time period as The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. This gives them the advantage of being able to use characters, places and events familiar to the Trek audience. It also restrains them to the characters, places and events familiar to the audience.
House of Cards reads like it wants to be a TV script when it grows up. The various sections of the book are like scenes from a show. I suspect this was done purposefully, to help fans of the various TV series feel comfortable.
In House of Cards we meet our new captain and crew, but they do not meet each other. Each section shows us the past of a different character, establishing something of their personality and their qualifications to serve on a starship, the newly re-fitted Excalibur.
Captain Mackenzie Calhoun is a natural leader whose exploits as a teenager brought him to the attention of Jean Luc Picard, then captain of the Stargazer.
Soleta, a very inquisitive half Vulcan female, always follows her curiosity, never mind the danger. Mr. Spock recommends her as the Excalibur's science officer despite her apparent lack of common sense.
Selar is a Vulcan physician who served under Beverly Crusher on the Enterprise D. Her terrifying pon farr causes her to dedicate her life to science. She vows to become the perfect Vulcan and never allow emotion to touch her.
The most interesting character may well be the New Frontier itself. The remains of the Thallonian Empire is full of planets and people savoring their first taste of freedom in generations. They are eager settle old scores and create their own empires. (Sounds very familiar, doesn't it?)
The Excalibur will be the sole starship in the quadrant, playing the role of marshal/knight-errant/peacekeeper/diplomatic mission/humanitarian aid/target/scapegoat.
House of Cards doesn't end, it quits. This is the first episode in a continuing series and the story lines will evolve along with the characters. As mentioned above, this is merely an introduction to the characters. We suspect they will have interesting problems in the future, but we don't know what.
I will admit to enjoying House of Cards, mostly because it reminded me of the original TV series. (I was even amused a couple of times, when Mr. Spock was "on screen.") I don't know if I will bother with book 2 since the plot develops so slowly, but I will probably "tune in" again around the 4th or 5th book.
Flux by Stephen Baxter is a story about artificially engineered humans living in a neutron star. I think it is in the middle of a series that Baxter is working on, but it is capable of standing on it's own. Overall, I'd give it a "B-" with an adamant suggestion that you not read the book unless you're looking for hard sci-fi. The science (including the setting of the book is first rate, and I like the pre-history of the story included in the work. However, the book suffers from several very sharp stylistic weaknesses related to trying to the author's attempted use of devices that he isn't capable of handling. The plot development is rated as such because the author attempts to do a Tolkienesk type of duoplot for the second half of the book. The book would have been much better and more palatable to non-hard-sci-fi readers if he would have kept to the main plot and left out the secondary events (or, at least minimized them). It didn't read as if there were two plots - even though that's what the author clearly intended to do. - It felt as if there was a main plot and events that were occurring parallel to the plot that had some bearing, but that were so predictable that the author shouldn't have done anything but make the occasional slight mention that they were occurring. The book also looses a bit of steam about midway because the author starts fully integrating the "local" lingo of the characters, and, there again, he's no Tolkien. Some of the lingo that is supposed to be serious -especially the made-up profanities- become highly annoying. Finally, the characters all act as if they are high-energy astrophysicists, instead of farmers, nomadic herders, and political administrators (I have a lot of trouble buying the explanations that the author gives, when he even bothers to do so.) It isn't a bad read, but it's not the kind of a "smooth ride" that you get from someone like Bradbury or Clark (in his better works).
This novel by Ian McDonald grabbed me and kept my attention throughout. It's nanopunk, I guess, based in a near future in which nanotechnology can re-engineer people. The frontispiece quotes two authorities on the subject: "Watson's Postulate: Never mind turning trash into oil or asteroids into heaps of Volkswagens, or hanging exact copies of Van Goghs in your living room, the first thing we get with nanotechnology is immortality." and "Tesler's Corollary: The first thing we get with nanotechnology is the resurrection of the dead."
The world described is inhabited by the "dead" or people who have been resurrected in the Dead Houses, most of whom have huge debts to pay off through indentured servitude for the privilege of living virtually forever; and the living, or "meat" who are the only folks who legally exist and can inherit property. With the numbers of the former ever rising compared to the latter this situation obviously can't last long. The dead who've been sent to space to run the mines and space factories have already revolted, fought Earth to a draw, and are threatening to attack again.
They've recreated dinosaurs in this future, and all sorts of creatures that never were. And they have cars that change make and model at will. This book is full of Neat Stuff.
I enjoyed the imagined world of the first generation of humans who can literally reshape themselves however they wish (some, of course, grow wings and fly; others are able to walk unclothed in hard vacuum). There's a bit too much of the cyberpunk All-The-Characters-Are-Super-Excellent trope, but nonetheless this book put me in a new world and I enjoyed the ride.
I'll be buying other McDonald books now. And that really ticks me off, because new authors are the last thing my budget needs.
Capsule Summary: Hell let loose in South Carolina provides the humorous setting for this worthwhile tale of love and damnation.
Dayne Kuttner says a prayer, a solemn and sincere prayer, a ten on the scale of heaven missives, and God decides to grant the boon. Dayne, mournful for her deceased husband, certain that he is rotting in Hell, asks God to give all the souls in a Hell a second chance. In his own way, God allows it; a number of damned souls equal to one-tenth the population of the state are released into South Carolina.
Lucifer sees this as the opportunity of the millennia, and sends his second-in-command, Agonostis, to set up shop in South Carolina. God has imposed rules, of course, but those rules don't forbid the tempting of mortals to their damnation. Lucifer gives Agonostis one additional task as well: the damning of Dayne Kuttner's soul. A soul capable of moving God with a prayer would certainly be worth a lot in Hell.
This is a fun novel. Lisle has taken her thesis and run with it for what it's worth. The details she's put in, such as Hell's bill served to Dayne when she accidently squashes a gremlin or Hell's Muzak (an all-tuba version of Herman's Hermit's Henry the Eighth), make the story.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the story is the protagonist. Lisle sets herself an arduous task in characterizing this ultra-pure nurse whose prayers are answered. Unfortunately she comes across as rather bland for a good portion of the novel. Although I appreciate her and like her, I am never moved by her and my sympathy remains superficial.
Secondarily, Dayne's prayer and God's response seem slightly flawed logically. Each damned soul, technically, has the power to ask for forgiveness and reach Heaven, so Dayne's wish need not have been uttered or granted at all. It is already the state of things.
Nevertheless, Lisle has written a funny, original book that is worth reading.
Capsule Summary: The decay of society, the rise of fascism, wrecks the lives of a girl and her family, who, caught in the edge of this whirlwind, must fight, change or succumb.
This novel, written in diary form, chronicles a half-year in the life of young Lola Hart, a twelve-year-old girl living in Manhattan in the very near future. Over the course of her diary, we see her family struggle to survive in a world that is slowly disintegrating. The family is forced to move to a lower class neighborhood, to tighten their belts. Lola is charming and smart, intelligent and incisive in her commentary about her life.
Lola's parents appear as liberal hippies-turned-yuppies, her father a screen writer for PBS, her mother an English teacher who enjoys her sedatives a little too much. In contrast, her mother's sister in California is a militant right-winger, heading for the hills, armed to teeth, ready to fight to keep Amerikkka away from the undesirables. Lola can see that neither of these philosophies are working in the real world, the new world.
Slowly and painfully, Lola's ties to her old friends break and she forms new bonds with the girls of her new neighborhood. In so doing, her speech and thoughts transform. She becomes alienated from her parents and from her sister. This is both fascinating and horrifying to watch.
This one hurts to read. It makes you think about uncomfortable things, about conformity and alienation and loneliness. It makes the reader question the stability of his or her own life. Human society is examined and shown to be fragile and weak.
Touching, painful, repellent and gripping, this novel is a must-read.
Capsule Summary: In a cross-time war against an evil human sect, our hero finds himself in an alternate USA where Nazi Germany has won WWII. He struggles to turn this time-line back onto a path of freedom in this fast-paced and interesting adventure.
Mark Strang is a private investigator in Pittsburgh, a bodyguard for battered spouses and people on the run. He chose his field because of the destruction leveled on his own family, suffering caused by the Blade of the Most Merciful, a terrorist group unlike any other terrorist group ever known. They don't care about money or politics. They simply cause chaos and destruction; they are deadly and after Mark's family for the research done by his father. Worse yet, they aren't from this time-line.
The Blade of the Most Merciful is just a front group for the Chosers, a group of cross-time terrorists out to make the many Earths a more totalitarian place. Before long, Strang finds himself helping the opposing side, the Allied Time-lines for Nondeterminism.
In a mission to save a little girl with a great future, Strang is flung into an alternative time-line where Hitler won WWII, with a little help from the Chosers, and the USA is just coming out of the grasp of Nazi occupation. Dodging pogromming Boy Scouts and fascist Good Neighbors, Strang must make his way to the Free Zone and help the remnants of the Allies defeat the Nazis and turn this time-line around.
Barnes does a great job of writing a fast paced adventure. I read this page-turner quickly and excitedly. The alternate history Barnes has built is fun, especially with its use of alternate historical figures, such as Patton.
Nonetheless, of the three books I've read by Barnes, this ranks the lowest. It was a good adventure, but had little of the subtext and social commentary I saw in Orbital Resonance or A Million Open Doors. Those told a great tale, while remaining engaging at a high level. Whereas those two were the equivalent of mental steak, Patton's Spaceship seems like a mental Jolly Rancher: fun to eat but not very filling.
One of the most disconcerting things about the book is the amount of deaths. True, it is the bad guy usually dying. Still, the protagonist is directly involved in thousands or tens of thousands of deaths. Indirectly, he is a participant in millions of deaths. At the start of the book, Strang states that he has never fired his gun at a person. By the end, he has left an easily followed trail of Choser, Nazi, and Blade corpses behind him.
Barnes fails to explain away the paradoxes of time travel and parallel universes in any way, but this story is more about the adventure in an alternate time-line than it is about the physics of the travel. This is moderately bothersome, as is the amount of death levied by the main character, but over all I enjoyed reading this story and hope to see more by Barnes in this series.
Mary Soon Lee's short story "One Small Step" is in issue #14 of Pirate Writings magazine.
Paul Melko sold the short story "Alien Fantasies" to Terra Incognita.
Timons Esaias's poems "Nunc Dimittis" and "BS Detector Reading Off The Scale" are currently online in tomorrowsf. You will need to be able to process java script to access the site.
Timons Esaias sold the poem "It's All Time-Machines, She Said" to the SFPA magazine Star*Line.
"It is better to get plenty out of too little than too little out of plenty." This is as close as I can get to a moral lesson to be drawn from this summer's SF movies. The most tantalizing concepts get watered down, while the simplest ones get stretched, and stretched some more.
I went to MIB with sky-high hopes. As a fan of the sillier episodes of The X-Files, it sounded like my kind of madness: a send-up on the modern myth of mysterious officious intimidators who instantly appear at the scene of a UFO sighting. Better, it had a chance to poke holes in our Star Trek concepts. For if we can visit Klingons and Ferengi in the 23rd Century, what is to stop such peoples from visiting us now? The frustration of knowing the political map of the sky, and not being able to send out one starship to check it out, seems like great raw material.
Alas, the mark of Speilberg weighs heavily on MIB. The many visiting aliens are consistently silly and zoological, with no cultures or ideals to speak of; the sky is a sackful of cartoonish nuisances. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (the Addams Family films), tries to inject a bit of the Cosmic Absurdity of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, but the Guide was a supremely fluid situation, whereas MIB are stuck with constantly having to save the Earth. Heck, even Dr. Who had to take a break from that every now and again.
The plot seems to be that fifteen hundred aliens live in our midst in (usually) human (or close enough) disguise -- solely to set up weak punch-lines. Sly Stallone is an alien; hey tell us something we don't already know. (Think about it: it explains Jackie Stallone.) When NYPD officer Will Smith stumbles into the world of MIB, he remarks to old veteran Tommy Lee Jones, "I always thought that my old school teacher was, like, from Venus, you know?" Jones, bringing up the image of said teacher on a master TV screen replied, "Actually, she's from Jupiter. Well, one of the moons." These kind of gags make for a great one-shot movie, but I was hoping for enough stature to justify sequels, if only to finally take on the Star Trek monopoly.
In the final assessment, MIB is charming enough, but misses a lot of opportunities. The MIB's world as the reductio ad absurdum of a Cold War and all spycraft; secrets so big that no one can know them; the yearning (such as Jones has) for quality of life in a field of total anonymity; even the Zen problems of using "flashy thingies" (called "neuralizers") to erase the memories of innocent witnesses -- all these get set aside so that we can concentrate on interrogating a dog, to track down a galaxy hanging around the neck of a cat. (Yes, you read that correctly.) By the final scene, in which our galaxy is just one of many marbles kept by some giant non-human kid, I felt more disappointed than delightedly shocked. (Besides, why was the cat's galaxy specifically smuggled into a giant marble -- oh, never mind ... )
In Contact, we see the opposite application to the gloves-on approach to great ideas. In MIB, a seriously sexy concept is kidded around and cutesified as much as possible, ending with the universe we know reduced to a kid's marble. In Contact, the old and safe concept of ET contact is treated as gently as possible, beginning with a scene of our universe gathered up in the eye of a little girl. The girl is ham radio operator Ellie Arroway, the heroine of Carl Sagan's only novel, and just as Sagan is no longer with us, so Contact feels like a mere wispy ghost of whatever fire burned in Sagan's soul.
When the child Ellie loses her father, she is unimpressed by a priest assuring her of God's will, replying that some medicine should have been kept downstairs. Such defiant atheism is presumably Ellie's heroic flaw once she grows up to become Jodie Foster, and the debate between Science and Faith goes on throughout the movie, sometimes fairly well, sometimes badly. The movie's biggest villain is an Apocalypse-obsessed fanatic played by Jake Busey (last seen as the lead psycho killer in The Frighteners) who blows up the mysterious machine we build from plans transmitted from Vega. Me, I prefer Cedric Hardwick's rally against the space mission in 1936's Things to Come.
Ellie is the first to hear the Vegan signal, and from that point on is as driven as Joan of Arc was when she heard God; indeed, when Ellie enters a duplicate of the machine, which is believed to be some sort of interstellar transport, she is wearing a very conspicuously Joan-like outfit. Unmentioned is this obvious trick that the movie has managed to play, taking proudly "objective" Science and forcing it into the same situation as "subjective" Faith. "I need proof," Ellie argues with studly soft-edged Christian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughay). "Did you love your father?" asks Palmer, playing a tad dirty. "Yes." "Prove it." Another good Palmer moment is when believes that 95% of the world (believing in God) is living with some form of mass delusion; I wish she could have blurted "Yes" and gotten it over with. Instead, we see one more instance of the Persecuted Scientist, though there is one sly subplot in which Ellie loses her (first) chance to go far-traveling to her boss, Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), simply because he likes to invoke God; we suspect his faith is less genuine than Ellie's passion.
In the end, though, Contact prefers to resolve nothing. "Go find your own truth," Ellie tells a gaggle of kids as the movie wraps up. Argh. Director Robert Zemeckis last gave us Forrest Gump, which made a fool a hero; faced with Big Issues he decides to agreeable fudge his way through a story that demands a strong, sure voice. There is a weird sequence where a bureaucrat named Kitz (James Woods, Hades in Hercules) is permitted to suggest that the 500 billion dolar Vegan machine project all turned out to be a human hoax; it's nice, I suppose, that Palmer quietly tells Ellie that he believes in her, but I wishhe had said much more, and right in Kitz's face.
While Men in Black gives us too much goofiness, Contact barely gives us anything. It's one truly cool gimmick is a billions-of-years-old intergalactic transit system of Einstein-Rosen wormholes. But wouldn't you know it, Ellie never gets to ask her one question about surviving our current technological adolescence. Or that Other Classic Question, about the existance of God. Yet even "The Galaxy Being," the premiere episode of the original Outer Limits, gave that one a stab. Ellie speaks of a vision, yet the solforming of Jupiter in 2010 is more inspiring. In an age of gutsy effects, these scrits are gutless wonders.
Face/Off is borderline SF: face-switching is supposed to be perfectly sensible, the movie argues, but does it really matter? I think not. We get another Zoroastro-Maniceo-Bogomil set-up of Good Versus Evil in terms of a perfectly symetrical duality. On the side of Good: John Travolta as ultrasecret FBI counterterroism expert Sean Archer. On the side of Evil: Nicolas Cage as Castor Troy, a terroist for hire and one depraved loon. The idea: For archer to briefly wear Troy's face (and Troy killed Archer's son!) so as to trick Castor's brother Pollux into spilling information that could save Los Angele. Simple, right?
Uh-uh. Because this is a John Woo movie. In the hands of the Impossible Mission Force (I speak of the TV Force, as I continue to be disgusted with Tom Cruise's new version), this would have been taken care of after two commersial breaks and Jim Phelps would have said, "Okay, Barney, now go defuse the bomb." But Woo has been squeezing as much drama and conflict as possible from a movie, to a frequently ludicrus degree, long before he came to America. So Troy gets Archer's face (please don't ask how), assumes his identity and keeps the real Archer in prison. Archer must break out of prison (again: please don't ask how) and reclaim his career, his family, his identity, his very self from the imposter Troy. (Troy as in Trojan Horse?)
As action-addicted as Woo is, he is in fact one of those rare directors who does not honor the current apparthied between Thought and Action in motion pictures. To see his Chinese A Better Tomorrow movies rather than the American-made Broken Arrow is to see that Woo is a lover of story, and there is a lot of story in Face/Off. Beyond the hurt pride of stolen identity, Face/Off also goes far in saying, "All men are brothers." (Even if occasionally they are Cain and Abel.) Archer's family appreciates Troy loosening things up and showing more joy and confidence in his life; Troy's family (such that it is) is touched by Archer's tenderness. The theme "Criminals have lives, too," usually told messily if at all, is treated very handily here. If a soap opera as directed by Sam Peckinpah sounds like your cup of tea, then you've got to check Woo out.
In fact, it would be nice if Woo finally restrained himself a little. Why must there be a long, pointless speedboat chase? Why is a church filled with pigeons flapping in slow motion? Woo seems to be out to reclaim the level of Camp Opera achieved in the first two Batman movies, and one must conveniently forget the hundreds of innocent bystanders who are getting shot up as this intensely personal story unfolds. And don't let the New York Times' talk of "strong characters" fool you -- a villian who boyishly exclaims "Wheeee!" when a multiple standoff erupts is just not very dee.
And yet, Face/Off successfully tells a story, and even makes a smidgen of a point when Archer adopts Troy's son. Would that the same kind of payoff had been sought in Men in Black or Contact. What if Woo had switched identities with Sonnenfeld or Zemeckis? Now, THAT would have been a daring adventure!
Our convention will be August 8th through 10th at the Marriott City Center downtown. Come and enjoy the BEST con in Pittsburgh!
September 13th will be the annual PARSEC picnic, just a bit delayed by the convention.
October's meeting will be at the University of Pittsburgh. The topic will be Computer Art.
Novermber's meeting will be the annual book trade/sale, and will be held at the Mount Lebanon Public Library.
To Contact PARSEC
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230
President: Kira Heston
Vice President: Wendy Kosak
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.
This page maintained by Greg Armstrong.