The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


May 2000, Issue 172

Ann's Agenda

By Ann Cecil

Currently one of the discussion threads on the Parsec-talk email list is about education. The discussion started with complaints and concerns about the state of current schools (not unreasonable, since one of our PARSEC talkers is still in high school). It has ranged over a retrospective of education past, both in grade schools and in college. One of the email contributions talked about how people learn, as well as how people [do and don't] teach.

That started me thinking about a change in education that I don't think SF has explored as deeply as it could. At work, I've noticed that increasingly I'm expected to learn new technologies by searching the Internet, rather than reading a manual. When software tool vendors, especially Microsoft, create manuals, they put them on the Web, instead of on paper. Even a few years ago, I knew people who blithely talked about learning a new software language from the help files and not the directions.

If you've ever done this, you know what a true paradigm shift this is. Instead of building your knowledge of the subject in a linear, procedural fashion (the old analogy is like building a house), you pick up bits and pieces, jigsaw puzzle fashion. Eventually, with luck, you recognize the structural outline and, voila!, it's a house.

This is easy for those who are deductive reasoners, but it must be intensely frustrating for the inductive reasoners, those who need to see the 'big picture' before they can operate. Still, we are going to be rewarding those who are magpie learners - and we're going to be developing lot fewer grand strategists.

Another talent or skill that we must all develop (or, more accurately, the next generation must develop), is the Search skill. (I can't think of a better term for it - I'm open to suggestions.) When I went through school, I learned from ordered books, which had a Table of Contents that set a framework, and then used subject headings beneath that to let you quickly locate specific topics. Once you understood the text's framework, you could find anything within a few minutes.

Today, the InterNet abounds with full text search engines. Give it the right couple of words, and the references come back. Give it the wrong couple of words, and you can spend hours beating your head in frustration. My boss is a whiz, he can find almost anything in two or three searches. I'm strictly a novice, but I'm beginning to catch on. It is truely a different way of thinking, a non-linear approach, rewarding a kind of free assocation. He who knows the most synonyms wins.

In all of the SF I've read, there have been all kinds of preductions about changes in education. Robots give each student individualized instructions. Students sit at machines and study in virtual reality machines that let them enhance book learning with practical applications - engineers constructing bridges, seeing theory applied. Machines connect up and force-feed you information while you sleep. Plug-in modules give you the information without your having to learn (pure wish fulfullment!).

But nowhere has there been a story that really explored the effects - or anticipated the paradigm shifts - that we are really going to face in the next couple decades. I think the changes are going to be more significant than anyone expects. I'm not scared - change is inevitable - and we are an adaptable people. But I think this change may well have wider implications than anyone anticipates. Sort of like the effect of the automobile on population growth.

One of the other comments on the parsec talk email discussion was about teachers. A good teacher is an inspiration, a source of enlightenment, that can bring students to private 'Eurekas.' Inspiration comes in many forms, not the least of which is good illustration.

Our next PARSEC meeting will include a presentation by Gene Fenton, who will teach us something about dinosaurs and something about art and lots about the amazing and creative things he can do with papier-mache. The meeting will start earlier than usual (and conclude earlier), due to current construction at the Monroeville Public Library. See you there!

Last Meeting

Ann started the meeting by announcing that the next (May) meeting will be held at the Monroeville Public library, because we lost out to Origami at Squirrel Hill (but we are at Squirrel Hill for June and July). Monroeville has changed their hours, so our meeting will be from 12-4 instead of the usual 1-5.

John Schmid discussed the various PARSEC lists: parsec-announce, strictly controlled and for announcements of interest to all members, parsec-talk, loosely controlled and full of random chatter.

Mia Sherman reported that the domain has been secured. The club agreed that she should pursue finding a parsec combination (parsecsf was suggested) that we could buy, and thus direct people to. Some members find it hard to remember All members find it hard to say it.

Mia also gave an official Treasurer's report: the bottom line was that current balance for the club is $589.13 in the bank, with about $300 due to be received back from Confluence in the near future.

Various members present anted up for dues, raising the club membership into the 80's; Ann is hoping for another year with over 100 members. Nancy Janda promised us artwork in barter for membership (anything of yours, Nan, would be just great!)

Diane Turnshek requested help in critiquing stories on her forum on for Young Fantasy Writers.

Nancy Janda won the raffle, and after much deliberation, hesitation, changing of mind, etc, wound up taking a book.

The primary speaker for the meeting was Phil Klass (aka William Tenn), who talked about John W. Campbell, Jr, and then showed a video tape made of a film of a luncheon meeting between Campbell and two writers - Gordon Dickson and Harry Harrison.

Phil began by saying about Campbell: "there is nobody I have met about whom I am more ambivalent." Phil believes that SF will be seen as the literature of the 20th century, and Campbell was the center of that literature. Phil told about Campbell's funeral, at which every major sf writer came; and then all got to sit at listen to a tape Campbell had made before he died, so that he conducted his own funeral.

Phil gave a brief review of Campbell's career as a writer and then as an editor, and his effect on writers, illustrating it with examples and anecdotes from his own experience and that of other sf writers.

The tape of the luncheon conversation was produced by DMZ (Digital Media Zone), a company making a documentary on SF. The tape includes other items besides the luncheon conversation; that was originally part of a University of Kansas series, narrated by James Gunn, which included a few moments of interview between Gunn and Campbell. The lunch was held in 1971, three months before Campbell died, and the subject was a story to be written by Dickson and Harrison. The tape illustrates Campbell's techniques for encouraging and challenging writers; the story turned into a 3 part serial that ran in Analog in 1975, called Lifeboat.

Phil then commented some more on Campbell, and his directions, as shown in the tape and as he experienced them. After answering some questions from the members, Phil concluded by suggesting that 1) all good SF editors have to be crazy and 2) all good SF editors wanted it their own way ("see writer as a pencil").

The members present strongly urged that Phil come back next year and present the tape segment for Isaac Asimov, complete with the personalized Klass introduction.

They chased us out of the library at around 4:45, as usual.

News Flash!

PARSEC E-mail address change Due to circumstances beyond my control the PARSEC e-mail address which was:

is now:

Sorry for the non-existent notice

Mary Soon Lee sold the story "Insight" to Space & Time. Her story "No-Name in the Long Winter" appeared, she learned somewhat belatedly, in the Winter 1999 issue of On Spec.

Timons Esaias's anti-squirrel poem "The Last Word" is in the May 2000 issue of Asimov's.

Bart Levinson's story, "Sometimes We Lie," was printed in the current issue at

Book Shelf

Infinity Beach
by Jack McDevitt
Review by Ann Cecil

Infinity Beach is Jack McDevitt doing his own specialty: the tale within a mystery tale that unfolds and unfolds to reveal new and more amazing intellectual challenges. And, as in all his work, the characters are people that fascinate, in their depth and complexity, vivid and believable - even when they're dead.

This story features a female lead, Dr. Kim Brandywine, who works on Beacon, one of the last of the SETI projects. Humanity, now quite a ways out into space, is becoming frustrated at the lack of other sentient life. Beacon is a typically last-ditch project; they're going to blow up 3 stars, as a kind of really loud signal to anyone else out there (good or bad) to please come visit.

Kim has an unusual personal history: she is the younger clone (she thinks of the relationship as sister) of an explorer, who disappeared years ago, very mysteriously, after a voyage out. A call from an old acquaintance, who gives her private information indicating that Something Happened on the voyage sets her on a quest for the truth.

In Kim's case, the truth is very hard to find, and finding it has a very high personal cost. As with most of McDevitt's leads, Kim forges on, fueled by a mix of motives, part anger at the cover-up she finds, part bitterness over the loss of her clone-sister, and part sheer intellectual curiosity.

Part of the fun of reading the book is the delicious neatness with which the mystery is unravelled, the twists and turns of the plot, and the dawning understanding the reader shares with Kim as the truth is revealed. So I won't spoil it for you. Go buy your own copy. But be warned: I stayed up until 3 am, telling myself 'just one more page' until I'd read it all.

So start it on a weekend. A long weekend.

The Reality Dysfunction
(aka Emergence and Expansion)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Review by Ann Cecil

This is intended, I think, to be an SF version of Robert Jordan's books. There are 3 more very long books in this series (I own the second 2, but not the last). The signs that Hamilton is trying for the Jordan effect: we have a very large cast, many worlds, many plots, Big Themes, major set pieces (battles, mostly), and clear indications that our cast will all eventually meet and interact.

So much for ambition. Problem is that Hamilton is not Jordan by a long shot. Each chapter introduces a new set of characters; it is something like seven chapters before you get around to a repeater, and by that time you've forgotten who these people are and what their problem was. Towards the end of the first book (some 400 pages in), Hamilton starts using multiple cuts, scenes per character, which makes it a little easier to remember who's who.

It doesn't make you care, though. Many of the characters are introduced just so Hamilton can kill them off, in spectacularly gruesome and ugly fashion. By the end of book 1 he's killed about half his cast, so in book 2 he introduces a whole bunch more people (and new worlds as well, since he also blew up some of the original ones). Book 2 repeated the pattern, so I suspect book 3 introduces yet more newbies.

Jordan-style, Hamilton is recycling. Every character is a cliche, every world, plot, and device a familiar copy of someone else's. Nothing wrong with that - it's been done by the best, but, it has to be done with a fresh twist, a slant that makes it feel a little different. Hamilton hasn't quite learned the difference between adopting and just copying.

Oh, yeah, and when the plot gets a little thin, Hamilton throws in some detailed (if pretty unbelievable) sex. I mean, I can handle one character who can have sex two or three times an hour for days on end, but by the sixth or seventh character... uh, strains my suspension of disbelief a little?

So this is a non-recommendation. Anybody who wants the first four books can have them. Free. And they can buy the fifth from the SF book club fairly cheap.

Dark Cities Underground
by Lisa Goldstein
Review by Ann Cecil

This book starts out with a clever conceit: what if the authors of childrens' books, instead of making up stories to tell the children, were really writing down tales the kids told them? What if books like Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, reflected some shared experience possible only to the unfettered mind of a child? And the dissimilarities are due to the adult's polishing and prettying up the childish tales?

Jeremy Jerome Gerontius Jones (a truly perfect name!) is now forty plus, calls himself Jerry, is recovering from a divorce, and has firmly blocked out all memory of his childhood. Ruth Berry is trying to write a bio of the mother he hasn't talked to in 25 years, the famous author who turned stories for her son into nine best-selling children's books about the Land of NeverWas.

Ruth is an unmarried single Mom, younger than Jerry but still attracted to him, an agressive woman who pushes Jerry into remembering, slowly but surely, details of his childhood and the true Land of NeverWas. Other factors helping to force Jerry to confront old traumas are Mr. Sattermole, quite as sinister as his name suggests, and Sarah Kendall, an innocent tangled quite horribly by other's needs.

In the end the characters all wind up in The Underground, which is the popular name for the London subway system. Jerry and Ruth come to meet a variety of odd and interesting people, all with agendas of their own, including a few leftover Egyptian Gods and Godesses.

To find out what they're doing in the subway, you'll have to read the book. Goldstein actually makes it almost sound logical, which is a tribute to her writing skill. Unfortunately the subway - underground metaphor has been used a lot lately (most effectively in Gaiman's Neverwhere); once the book leaves the childhood conceit and starts adding adult level plots, it gets a bit mechanical (a bad pun you'll understand when you read this).

Recommended as a good, if lightweight, read.

by Michael Crichton
Review by Robert G. Brust

Michael Crichton's exciting novel isn't identified as science fiction at Penn Hills Library (where I found it in the new books racks, and where otherwise SF is labeled and shelved separately from mainstream), nor by the publisher (perhaps to avoid what could be a profit-reducing stigma for general readers), but it certainly is 'Certes' as they say in the blend of languages used.

Timeline also is a Crichton, in the tradition of such novels as The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Jurassic Park, and The Lost World (among others) that are designed and crafted to become best-sellers, and then major if not blockbuster movies, and often do so. It's carefully planned and written - with nonstop action ready to convert to screen - to follow that successful pattern. That commercial orientation (or resentment of his resulting financial success) could cause SF people to avoid it as too mainstream, which would be a mistake, because it's excellent and highly entertaining. (I was fascinated and almost literally couldn't put it down.)

Timeline is a time travel story with both classic themes (but clever avoidance of others) and fresh ideas. Typically, this begins and ends in a world that could be our present (or near future), providing easily recognizable characters and backgrounds, and opportunities to comment on our world and its failings.

Using newly invented technology (that's secret but, for a change, in private rather than government hands), some characters travel back to English-occupied France of the 14th Century - a seemingly simpler and picturesque time of castles and knights in armor. (Well, sort of. Why this isn't really time travel is a long story, plausibly explained, that makes little difference to the plot.) History professor (and archeologist) Edward Johnson disappears during a visit there; and his students - Andre Marek, Chris Hughes, and Katherine Erickson - are sent to rescue him (while another stays behind on the home front).

In the past they soon encounter different situations and problems than they expected or were prepared for, are swept into dangerous and sometimes breathtaking action in the middle of the Hundred Years War, and have to struggle to survive, let alone get back home. (This wasn't Disney World and the castles, armor, and weapons weren't for show.) Part of the fascination is to learn how different some of the dangers, problems, and personalities are from those they or we expect - yet how much others (and human nature) are the same - and thus how right and wrong some of our ideas about the "Dark Ages" may be.

In the course of this, better than average character development takes place (if some could have been deepened), introducing us to memorable heroes, villains, and some with realistically complex attributes of both. Good and bad people turn up in unexpected places or make surprising shifts. Villainous nobles and soldiers of the past have as their counterparts corporate executives of the present. Foremost among the latter is Robert Doninger - a brilliant physicist and inventor of the quantum physics "time travel" device who's become a sociopathic billionaire capitalist and CEO - who seems a sort of caricature of too many present day corporate heads.

In other hands even this could have been made dull; but in Crichton's, the action flies at that Jurassic Park pace, never letting you relax. Surprises arise (as everything goes wrong) and mysteries linger throughout. Suspense and anxiety never let up until the end. And you could read the end first, know how it was going to turn out, and still not have a clue how (nor what motivated much of it) until the last chapters. The writing is complicated (but never dense). And almost every page is a pleasure to read. The ending is satisfying - happy for some yet still surprising - as both good and bad guys get what they have coming, and an old style epilogue wraps up loose ends.

Yet the background of this wild tale is carefully researched. The 450 page book opens with an introduction that blends nonfiction seamlessly into SF. It's supported by helpful illustrations (through I could have used more maps). And it ends with acknowledgements and a 4 page bibliography of historical and scientific sources. The settings and history through which the story is woven, like a tapestry of the period, are supported by documents and studies (if real characters and details had to be fictionalized).

Scientific explanations of "time travel" (which actually is done by jumping into an alternate universe where time but not much else is different) are only sufficient to let the story flow without detracting from it. They're not hard science - noting we can do yet - and may stretch ideas to the point of fantasy (while inventing more to fill gaps). But they're not ridiculous, but grounded in current quantum physics (which is demonstrated daily to work in hardware, though nobody really understands it. On the day I picked this up, I read journal articles about related discoveries, and an article in Scientific American about how similar techniques might someday be applied to travel through space.) And the theory of a "multiverse" of adjacent universes seems up to date and, if unproven, possibly valid.

Crichton did his homework about as well as most SF writers ever do. He applied it in the spirit in which others have written, e.g., of space travel and alien worlds by extrapolating from what we do know. In the bargain, he advanced an interesting idea of what time is, and a plausible excuse for why the paradoxes that worry most time travel writers (in SF or physics) may really be no problem. And, if he sued the SF framework and technology mainly as an excuse to set a story in olden times, that's nothing new, but almost an overused convention of the SF field.

No fiction is perfect. There are odd holes in the ideas and plot; at least one important character is left shallow; and I wish I could ask Crichton why he didn't bother to explain away (as he could have done easily) one gap in his time travel rationale that bothered me. That said, this is the best novel I've read in a while (I'm shamelessly looking forward to the movie), and is highly recommended.

More PARSEC News...

Diane Turnshek will be giving a talk entitled "Using Science Fiction to Teach Astronomy" at the South Hills Borders at 7:30 PM on the same night as the next PARSEC meeting, Saturday, May 13, 2000. If the weather is clear following the talk, there will be a star party at South Park sponsored by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh.

The online chat with authors Catherine Asaro, Tom Purdom, Jennifer Dunne, Diane Turnshek, and moderated by Gardner Dozois, will be held on June 13, 2000 at 9PM. You can link to the auditorium from either the site or the Analog or Asimov's Magazine web pages. The topic? Romance in Science Fiction.

Congrats to Wendy Kosak - she signed with the Virginia Kidd Agency for her first Ukiah novel, True as the Sky.

Happy 1st Birthday, William! (son of MSL and Andrew Moore)
Happy 14th birthday, April! (daughter of Heidi and Geis)

Read a review and see photographs taken at Confluence1900 on the darkFont site.

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: May 13, 2000, 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM

LOCATION: Monroeville Public Library

PLEASE: We encourage people to bring a munchie or drink contribution ... pop, chips, cookies, etc.

TOPIC: Gene Fenton presents Paper Dinosaurs

PARSEC Tentative Meeting Schedule

June 2000
Time & Date : 1:00, 10 June 2000
Discussion Topic : Year in Review/ Topics for con
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

July 2000
Time & Date : 1:00, 8 July 2000
Discussion Topic : Why are SF movies so bad? with examples by Randy Hoffman
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

August 2000
Time & Date : 12:00, 19 August 2000
Note the Date Change!!!
Discussion Topic : The PARSEC Picnic
Location : Keystone State Park, Pavillion 1

September 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 9 September 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

October 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 14 October 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA

Gene Fenton

Gene Fenton sees dinosaurs. And beetles, and two-headed B-movie monsters. An artist living in Indiana PA, Mr. Fenton builds fantastic creatures out of papier-mache, using old black-and-white films as influences. They may not be scientifically accurate, but they're definitely dramatic, and certainly fun. And they're coming to PARSEC on May 13th.

Next meeting, Gene Fenton will be with us at the Monroeville Library to talk about his creations and inspirations. Since the Library might not approve of a live papier-mache demonstration, he'll be bringing works in differing stages of construction, including finished pieces. And all finished works, we've been told, are available for sale.

For more information, or to see pictures of Gene's sculptures, please visit his website at And then join us on Saturday at the Monroeville Public Library to see Gene and his dinosaurs in person.

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: Ann Cecil

Vice President: Sasha Riley

Treasurer: Mia Sherman

Editor: Don Cox

Secretary: Tom Morrow

Snide Commentator: Chris Ferrier

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

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