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Science, Fiction, and points in between
July 1998

100 Best Novels, Reactions
Somewhat surprisingly there has been as much controversy surrounding Modern Library's list of the 20th Century's 100 Best Books in English as there was a few weeks ago over the AFI's list of 100 American movies. Reactions so far to the best books list fall roughly into three groups:

The Politically Correct: Why are there so few women and minorities on the list? Where are the South Africans, or other writers from countries other than the US and UK? These expressions are found mostly in the newspaper articles about the list, including this New York Times article.

Populists and Crazies: They express their derision and contempt for ML's elitist selections (''Who can read Ulysses anyway?'') on bulletin boards like this one, and vote dozens of times in Modern Library's poll of readers' choices for their favorites (Ayn Rand, The Lord of the Rings, L. Ron Hubbard). That Readers' 100 Best list has been highly volatile in the past two days, registering impressive numbers of votes for titles as various as Frank Herbert's Dune, William Shatner's Tek War, James Blish's Spock Must Die!, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Alison Spedding's The Road and the Hills, and Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary, as well as, for a while, several dozen votes for ''anything not by Ayn Rand''. Modern Library is editing the list to exclude nonqualifying titles, but the results will have little value unless multiple voting can be restricted.

The Younger Generation: While the Modern Library judges were mostly old men, a group of mostly female, 20-something future publishers at Radcliffe College compiled their own Top 100 list. (Actually the students in Radcliffe's summer publishing course were invited to participate by Modern Library, and the groups worked off the same preliminary list of 400 titles.) USA Today prints The Radcliffe Top 100, which leads with The Great Gatsby, followed by Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Notable on the list are several children's titles, including Charlotte's Web in 13th place, Winnie-the-Pooh in 22nd, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 47th, and The Wind in the Willows in 90th. And Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy makes the list in 72nd place.

Calm observers note the inevitable subjectivity inherent in constructing any 'best' list, and wonder whether the existence of these lists has much effect beyond a few days of debate. Will many new readers be motivated to pick up Ulysses?
(Wed 22 Jul 98)

100 Best Novels
As if in response to the recent American Film Institute list of 100 Greatest American Movies, the editorial board of Modern Library has drawn up a list of the 20th Century's 100 Best Books in English. Winner: James Joyce's Ulysses, followed by F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The Huxley novel is the first of several SF-related (or marginally fabulist) titles among the 100:

5. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
13. 1984, George Orwell
18. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
31. Animal Farm, George Orwell
41. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
53. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
65. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
86. Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow
90. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
93. The Magus, John Fowles
The board members who determined the list are Christopher Cerf, Gore Vidal, Daniel J. Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, A. S. Byatt, Edmund Morris, John Richardson, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and William Styron. The board plans a list of 100 nonfiction titles next year.

Links: Modern Library's web page links the 100 Best list with a parallel list of Readers' votes. And here's a New York Times article about the list.
(Tue 21 Jul 98)

Science and Society
An op-ed article by Karen Wright in the Sunday, July 19th Los Angeles Times addresses the difficulties journalists have evaluating purported scientific breakthroughs as news. Given the speculative tentativeness of most scientific developments, many announced breakthroughs never amount to much. Of the four big science stories so far this year, says Wright -- asteroid impacts, human clones, cancer cures and impotence pills -- three have turned out to be busts.

Why is this? Wright considers science writers' credulousness, but sees a broader social phenonenon at work: ''Credulous science stories are just about the only science stories most people want to read. That's because science, unlike politics, business or sports, is interesting only when it succeeds.'' And ''nothing could be duller than the ordinary failures of science: the abandoned hypotheses, the misguided hunch, the multimillion-dollar research effort that revealed nothing.'' Science is a process, but wins its place in the papers with its products.

Timothy Ferris gets to the heart of the matter in a commentary in the July 20th New Yorker about the misleading scientific veracity of the films Deep Impact and Armageddon. ''When a scientist appears in a film, his function ... is to make a declaration (e.g., that the world is about to end) that everyone immediately accepts as gospel (while breathing a sigh of relief that the government kept it secret, so as to 'avoid panic'). Nobody asks how he came to believe it. Little wonder that millions think of science as a kind of priesthood.'' And journalists are as guilty as anyone of this misapprehension; when a real astronomer announced last March the possibility of an asteroid hitting the Earth, and then was corrected the next day, ''he was denounced by journalists, who expect metaphysical certitude from scientists, as an 'irresponsible' alarmist who 'cried wolf.'''
(Tue 21 Jul 98)

Conspiracy theorists, alternate historians, Barry N. Malzberg and J. G. Ballard, take note. The Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination goes on sale to the general public for the first time this week. The 45 minute video consists of a 40 minute documentary about the restoration of the tape, followed by six separate showings, at slower and slower speeds, of the digitally enhanced 26 second clip. Suggested retail price: $19.95.
(Mon 13 Jul 98)

Tina Goes to Hollywood
Big publishing news today: controversial New Yorker editor Tina Brown has resigned and is headed to Hollywood to do a movie magazine. After six years with The New Yorker Brown will work for Miramax Films, an independent movie distributor owned by Walt Disney. Links: articles in The New York Times [this link will change]; and CNNfn. Subscribers to Slate can read this handy guide to New York magazines that matter, which has The New Yorker at the top of its list.
(Thu 9 Jul 98)

Crown Bankrupt
Crown Books Corp. is expected to file for bankruptcy protection in the next few days. The bookstore chain has lost substantial ground in recent years to rivals Barnes & Noble and Borders. Link: CNNfn.
(Thu 9 Jul 98)

Frontiers in Punctuation
A column in the Wall Street Journal claims that dots are replacing hyphens as the new grammatical vogue. The trend is from the use of dots in cyberspace addresses, and has extended to such traditionally hyphenated items as telephone numbers. (Remember when they were called periods?) Source: Slate's ''Today's Papers''.
(Thu 9 Jul 98)

Weird Astronomy
Planets around Epsilon Eridani: The latest evidence suggesting a planetary system around another star is a ring of dust discovered around the relatively nearby (and sunlike) star Epsilon Eridani, just 10 light years away. The scale of the dust ring is comparable to that of the inner comet zone, the Kuiper Belt, of our solar system. More: CNN; MSNBC.

Volcanoes on Io: Jupiter's moon Io is even more active than once thought; infrared images show that lava erupting from Io's volcanoes is hotter, at 2600 - 3140 degrees Fahrenheit, than any of Earth's eruptions, at temperatures around 2000 degrees. More: CNN. Source: Science, 3 July 1998.

Summer on Triton: Telescopic observations have revealed that the temperature of Triton, Neptune's largest moon, has risen 3 degrees, from -392 to -389 Fahrenheit, in the 9 years since the Voyager spacecraft passed. The difference is small, but enough to turn frozen nitrogen on the surface to gas at a rate sufficient cause the atmosphere to double in bulk every 10 years. Source: Nature, June 25th.
(Thu 9 Jul 98)

Space News
Japan to Mars: Japan launched its own probe to Mars last week, making it only the third country, after the US and Russia, to have sent out interplanetary spacecraft. The probe, called Planet-B, will arrive at Mars in October 1999, where it will make observations from orbit.

Killer Asteroids: Two private organizations, including the Space Frontier Foundation, have challenged the producers of the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact to help fund searches for real-life killer asteroids. The two organizations have issued a $50,000 challenge grant to start a project called The Watch. ''Hollywood is making a lot of money playing off the fear [of potential Earth killers] -- now it's time for them to ante up,'' said SFF president Rick N. Tumlinson. Neither Disney or DreamWorks, the studios behind the two movies, offered immediate response. (Source: Los Angeles Times)
(Thu 9 Jul 98)

Y2K: Tombstones, Politics, Novels
The New York Times Magazine noted, June 28th, a funereal crisis analogous to the computer world's Millennium Bug. Some monument dealers in the '50s and '60s sold tombstones pre-etched with the digits 19, followed by a blank. Some of those customers are still alive. What to do? At least one dealer in Michigan is offering new monuments to customers who survive until 2000.

A June 29th Los Angeles Times article described plans by Republicans for dealing with a Millennium Bug catastrophe: blame the Democrats. In particular, Vice President (and presumed presidential candidate in 2000) Al Gore, technology guy. Republicans in the House of Representatives, including Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have attacked the White House and Gore in particular for lack of foresight in dealing with the problem. (Armey even has a website about it.) Possible outcomes: Republican scare-mongering amplifies social panic; a genuine catastrophe derails Gore's presidential aspirations; a mild outcome gets Gore credit for a job well done.
(Thu 9 Jul 98)

The first Y2K novel has been published, Y2K -- It's Already Too Late, by Jason Kelly. It's a self-published novel (from JK Press) but the reviewers on the Amazon page like it quite a bit.
(Fri 10 Jul 98)

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