The Editor’s Rant: Issue #18

by Michael D. Pederson

 

Wow. It’s only February and I’m already exhausted. Who would have thought that running an annual convention (RavenCon), a NASFiC (ReConStruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention) and publishing a semiprozine would be so much work? Apparently everyone but me because I’ve had innumerable people telling me that I was crazy to take so much on in one year. I may need to see if Chris Garcia has some kind of secret drug that helps him multi-task.

I’ve learned a lot though. The differences between running a mid-sized local convention and a large national convention are enormous. Although we’re predicting ReConStruction to only be between two to three times the size of an average RavenCon, the logistics and man-hours are proving to be about ten times more. I know that part of this is because we’re using a convention center and two hotels. However, I have to wonder if some of the extra baggage is the result of years and years of Worldcon “wisdom” being handed down as the “correct/only” way to do things. Does any convention really need a staff of nearly one hundred people? We’re pushing seventy now but I know that we’re still trying to fill several slots and will probably end up with nearly a hundred staffers when all is said and done.

That said though, everything is progressing nicely. We have a fantastic group of Division Heads that (for the most part) play nicely together and have a coherent vision of what the convention should look like. And, luckily for me, RavenCon is reaching the point where it practically runs itself. The only snag this year is being in a new hotel again.

As for the zine… Well, I’m glad that I have it up and running again but I really wish I had waited until NASFiC was behind me. I think I’m going to go take a nap now.

 

Con Review: Philcon 2009

philcon2009by Michael D. Pederson

 

Philcon 2009
November 20–22, 2009
Cherry Hill, New Jersey
http://www.philcon.org/

Located just across the state line from Philadelphia in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Philcon remains the oldest science fiction convention (yes, they were the first). And this year didn’t show any indications of slowing down from old age. Guests of Honor included Catherine Asaro, Frank Wu, L.A. Banks, and Cory Doctorow. I was disappointed not to get the chance to see Frank Wu; I heard he was there and having a great time but we never crossed paths. On the other hand though, Nth Degree Staff Artist J. Andrew World was quite thrilled to be on a panel with Cory Doctorow.

Programming was, of course, the true star of the show. As always, Philcon put together one of the year’s best programs. With over 250 events listed in the program book there was truly something for everyone. I was kept busy with panels on the science of zombies, natural disasters (moderated by the always-entertaining David Silverman), the fannish generation gap, BBC America, Chuck, and regional science fiction. The only snags I hit were poor attendance to panels on Sunday morning (we had some great parties going on Saturday night) and a lack of program books when I checked in. The program book’s showed up early in the evening on Friday though and the rest of the con ran smoothly. I eagerly await Philcon 2010.

 

Con Review: MarsCon 2010

marscon2009by Michael D. Pederson

 

MarsCon 2010
January 15–17, 2010
Williamsburg, Virginia
http://www.marscon.net/

MarsCon has been around in various incarnations for over twenty years now. It’s mostly been a fun but quiet relaxacon. Lately, however, they’ve been playing around with adding guests and programming. This year’s Guests of Honor were David Weber, Marrus, Steve Long, Tom Smith, and Michael Khandelwal. With over 70 items on the schedule this year, MarsCon took a major step away from it’s relaxacon roots. That’s not to say that they have turned serious on us though. Many of those scheduled events were concerts or workshops, so even though there’s more going on they still try to keep things fun and relaxing. The concerts were actually handled in a pretty clever way: they were all scheduled in the hotel bar. I’m told that the hotel staff was quite pleased with the results. From the corner of the room I sat in the sound system was a bit flat and hard to hear over the television, but if you moved closer it really worked well. With it’s low-pressure atmosphere and emphasis on fun events, MarsCon is the perfect post-holiday stress reliever.

 

Book Review: Buffalito Destiny

buffalitodestinyby Michael D. Pederson

 

Buffalito Destiny
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Hadley Rille Books, 260 pp.

I was very excited to receive a review copy of Buffalito Destiny in the mail recently. It’s the first Amazing Conroy novel by Lawrence Schoen. There were, however, two previous chapbooks which featured the Amazing Conroy which I can proudly say I was the first to review (Nth Degree #8, December 2003).

For anyone that missed the chapbooks: Conroy is a former stage hypnotist that now runs a multi-national corporation that specializes in leasing buffalo dogs. Buffalo dogs are an alien species resembling tiny buffaloes that can eat anything and fart oxygen as a bi-product. As enjoyable as the chapbooks were (I do still recommend looking them up, available through SRM Publishers) the novel stands on its own quite nicely. Schoen gives us a catchy opening chapter that establishes Conroy’s beginnings as a hypnotist before jumping into the main action. And jump he does. The central plot involves meddling aliens, a radical isolationist terrorist group, and plenty of pro-earth green activity. It’s a fast-moving story with plenty of wicked humor that reminds me a lot of the classic science fiction I read growing up. On top of all that, Schoen drops hints at a much bigger, fully realized future that I’d like to know more about: New New Jersey? And a major chrono-schism in what used to be the state of Texas could be a whole novel in its own right. Brilliant, fast-paced storytelling with eccentrically oddball characters make this a jump-off-the-shelf must read.

 

Book Review: Peter & Max

peter&maxby Michael D. Pederson

 

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
by Bill Willingham, Illustrated by Steve Leialoha
Vertigo/DC Comics, 368 pp.

I’ve been hearing plenty of good things about Willingham’s Fables series for DC Comics’ Vertigo line. My comic collecting got waaaay out of hand over the years though and I’ve since limited myself to only picking up trade paperback collections and graphic novels. Even so, I still haven’t gotten around to purchasing any of Willingham’s series yet. So when a new novel came out set in the Fables universe, it seemed like a great place to get started. I was also lucky enough to get a copy of it for Christmas this year (thank you Lucy!).

The back story: Imagine that all of the tall tales, fables and fairy tales that we grew up with have some basis in reality. They’ve been handed down to us over the years and are usually cleaned up and Disneyfied, but deep down there’s a grain of truth behind each and every one of them. Now, in the present, the genuine personalities behind these stories are living amongst us, hidden away in their own communities.

Peter & Max gives us the true story behind the Piper family—Peter Piper; his brother Max, better known as the Pied Piper; and Peter’s wife, Bo Peep. The backstory here turns out to be one of sibling rivalry; Max is insanely jealous of his more talented brother Peter and longs to possess Peter’s magic flute, Frost. The rivalry and pursuit span several centuries and crosses several worlds, culminating in a showdown between the two brothers in the modern world. Along the way we get to tour the hidden community of the Fables and go behind the scenes of several classic children’s stories. Willingham’s versions of these fairy tales are not necessarily written for children (they tend to be quite dark, though always with some humor) but they definitely appeal to the little child still tucked away inside of each of us.

 

Book Review: Testing the Prisoner

testingtheprisonerby Michael D. Pederson

 

Testing the Prisoner
Phil Giunta
Firebringer Press, 194 pp.

I won’t beat around the bush, I’ll come right out and say it: I enjoyed about half of this book. It started off strong. The main character, Daniel Masenda, is the mayor of a small town in Virginia and has a pretty good life. He also has a troubled past. Abandoned by his father at an early age, he was raised by his mother who vented her fears and worries on him, resulting in a mentally and physically abusive childhood. On the eve of Masenda’s mother’s death he begins to experience strange visions. Every mirror he looks in reflects a tortured and traumatized version of his current self and he keeps catching fleeting glimpses of a mysterious child when he’s out in public.

It’s pretty obvious, even to Masenda, that the child figure represents his innocence and the mirror images represent his traumatized psyche. And for the first half of the book we’re kept guessing as to whether or not our hero has lost his marbles. The tension continues building, including an encounter with a therapist who confirms that these haunting images are a manifestation of his troubled past and his need to forgive his mother. It makes for a pretty good psychological thriller as Masenda battles his inner demons, all while trying not to let his problems become a political liability.

And then, just over halfway through the novel, it’s revealed that the twisted reflection in the mirror is an actual demon that wants to claim Masenda’s soul. (Is that really the best motivation we can come up with for demons?) At this point all metaphor and allegory go out the window, to be replaced by a mind-numbingly cliched literalism. After this revelation the novel unfolds along the lines you expect it to. There is, of course, the requisite battle for Masenda’s soul and a reconciliation with the ghost of his mother. The only event in the latter half of the story that connected with me as a reader was an epilogue where Daniel starts to build a new relationship with his father. Yeah, I’ll take character-driven stories over the supernatural every day of the week.

 

Television Review: Caprica

capricaby Michael D. Pederson

 

Caprica
Syfy

My complete and utter boredom with Syfy’s Caprica has apparently become so overwhelming that I’m finding it difficult to generate enough venom to crank out one of my patented scathing reviews. [Deep breath.] Okay, here goes…

I originally had high hopes for Caprica, it’s got a great pedigree. Battlestar Galactica still stands as a benchmark for what can be achieved by a science fiction drama. Even when the story went in directions that I didn’t care for I was still enthralled by the great performances and solid scripting. This prequel, however, has given me nothing to get excited about. cliched characters (the grieving parents, the minority trying to make it in a discriminating world, the scientist who goes too far), melodramatic performances, and uninspired plotlines have kept me horrifically bored for six episodes now.

I’ve continued watching in the hope that things will improve. Instead I’m left with a laundry list of complaints: I don’t care for the Tamara as Neo storyline. I don’t care if Zoe was or wasn’t a terrorist. I don’t care if young Admiral Adama skipped school to hang out with his gangster uncle. What I would like to know is why a society that has interplanetary travel, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality seems to be stuck in the technological and fashion equivalent of the 1950s. I’m irritated that the story behind the Cylon revolution (artificially intelligent robots that rise up against their human masters) has been changed—it’s now started by a petulant teenager stuck in a robot’s body. I do not believe Zoe as the troubled teenager/religious cultist/genius computer programmer (I have no criticism of the actress, I just think the writers have tried to hinge way too much on a single character). And I most definitely do not like the fact that the show is scripted and directed as if it were a soap opera. Creator Ron Moore has even bragged about that, going so far as to compare the show to Dallas. This is supposed to be a good thing?!

Hey, look—I found my venom!

Bottom line? I fell asleep watching the latest episode and couldn’t even muster up enough interest to hit replay on the DVR to see what I missed. Delete.

 

View From Nowhere: Languages and Science Fiction

languageAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

Remember that mandatory scene in almost every science fiction movie, the one where everyone is surprised the aliens speak English? Or makes reference to languages like “Romulan,” “Klingon,” “Minbari,” or even “Barsoomian,” each indicating that an entire sentient species speaks a single tongue? Of course, realism aside, these advance the plot without characters stumbling over memorization of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. And there are exceptions. Tolkein and the less well-known games and novels of M.A.R. Barker’s science-fantasy world of Tekumel revel in linguistic complexity. Still, if there’s one area where much science fiction loses me, it’s when language differences are explained away with a wave of one’s hand

Language diversity is, after all, a universal human trait linked to our adaptability. As people form groups they begin to speak differently. The more isolation, the more time, the more societal change, the more these groups’ languages tend to diverge. This results in such interesting facts as Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) being home to more than 100 languages. In China and India, although numbers are in dispute, linguistic complexity is everywhere. In Africa and India, the colonial languages of French, Portuguese and English retain surprising importance largely because of the underlying linguistic diversity of the regions.

Few Americans really appreciate the natural linguistic diversity of mankind. This is probably because the many indigenous languages of the Americas have been largely supplanted by English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Commonly, our awareness of European linguistics is low as well. In the United Kingdom, not just English is spoken but also Welsh and Scotch and Irish Gaelic. In the nation of Spain commonly spoken languages include not just Spanish but also Catalan, Galician and the entirely unrelated language of Basque.

A quick look at Beowulf or the writings of Shakespeare demonstrates that the English spoken in the past is not the English spoken today. Language diversity is temporal as well as geographic and cultural, although most time travel stories ignore this.

Some science fiction bypasses the problem by using telepathy for universal communication. Unfortunately, not only is hard evidence for psychic phenomena sorely lacking but humans think largely in language. Even if you could read a person’s thoughts what good would it do if you could not understand the language they were thinking in?

Could an automatic language translator even exist? Something like the universal translator of Star Trek or the Babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It would be difficult.

Languages consist of words and words are symbols for underlying concepts. These concepts do not line up exactly from one language to another. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese there are eight different words for “first cousin.” These words, which do not sound similar, specify if a cousin is older or younger, maternal or paternal, male or female, three factors that directly influence how one should treat them in Chinese culture. Although the Spanish word “siesta” entered English, it did so because there was no English word for “nap during the hottest time of day when work is impossible.” In his writings, Jim Cummins, a leading authority on bilingualism and bilingual education, refers to these differences as a language’s “conceptual base.”

Languages also vary widely in terms of syntactic variation (word order), tonality (whether or not the pitch of a word affects meaning), and the embedded information and concepts. For instance, although some languages incorporate concepts of gender for nouns into their grammar, they do not do so in a universally consistent manner. In Spanish the sun is a masculine object, while in German it is feminine. Navajo incorporates some incredibly complex grammatical changes to verbs allowing a native speaker to modify a verb depending on things such as the shape of the object that is performing the action. And as for the old myth about multiple Eskimo (Inuit) words for snow, it just isn’t so. In fact, there is just one Inuit word for snow which Inuit grammar allows to be modified multiple ways.

Controversies abound in linguistics and the quasi-mystical field of language acquisition. We are literally assisting people to reprogram the deep coding within their very brains. The implications are unsettling. What would Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary and (the hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda think? Images of John Dee and his announcement that he had learned the Enochian language come to mind as one’s thoughts travel deeper into realms where language, mysticism and psychology intersect. The tower of Babel. The language of the birds. Adam and God strolling through the garden of Eden giving names to everything they see. The study of human language is an intellectual quest of mythic proportions, but science is a tool that can guide us through this quest. Although we are a small and stupid species, condemned to stride through the dirt unnecessarily proud of our upright posture, as we do our brains, our opposable thumbs and our facility for language are the only means by which we (barely) differentiate ourselves from animals.

Although we can and should research and study how people use and learn language, ultimately it will be centuries before the details are really known or understood. Our brains seem to be using language to learn language but it’s probably actually largely using processes that we are nowhere near understanding. The world is much bigger than we are and we are beginning to understand that perhaps both neurophysiology and physics lie completely outside man’s capacity to understand. Therefore we may never completely understand how people learn language. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that linguistic complexity is a universal feature of mankind.

 

The Gallery: Alan F. Beck

 

Alan F. Beck has been an artist, designer and illustrator for over thirty years doing work for many major corporations including book covers and magazine illustrations. His work has been exhibited in art shows and conventions all across the country. He has won numerous awards and honors including two Chesley award nominations and a Hugo award nomination, and received a “Body of Work” Award at the LA Con IV Worldcon Art Show.

Alan first came to my attention when he contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in using his art for Nth Degree. His first illustration appeared in Issue #12, December 2004. Since then, he’s contributed artwork to every issue and has been featured on the cover three times (including this issue).

I’ve also been fortunate to meet Alan on several occasions, and have had him as a Guest of Honor at RavenCon. Take a look at his work here, and you’ll see why he’s always at the top of my list for a Best Artist Hugo Award. Enjoy.