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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Mon 28 Feb 2000
Weekend Nonfiction Reviews

§ New York Times Book Review, February 27, 2000

§ San Francisco Chronicle, February 27, 2000

Thu 24 Feb 2000

• An essay by Keith Windschuttle about World War I considers historian Niall Ferguson's arguments in favor of ''counterfactuals'' -- what SF writers and readers call alternate histories:

Far from being spurious ... counterfactuals serve a legitimate role in the writing of history. While the vantage of hindsight might persuade historians that they can identify the ''necessary'' causes of events, Ferguson says the world appears very different at the time to those who participate in those events, especially to powerful political figures. Their world of decision-making is one that is full of counterfactuals. They have to judge the outcome of their decisions and, in this process, must pose to themselves a constant series of ''what if?'' questions. To recover their thinking, historians thus need to recover the counterfactuals they confronted.
Ferguson's Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals was published last year in the US.

Salon summarizes Microsoft's predictions -- arranged here as a timeline -- for the future of e-books.

Salon 24 Feb

• Robert Wright's ''The Earthling'' column considers how social status relates to keeping up on one's e-mail. The Internet allows us to keep in touch with more people, even if most interactions are ''along a slender strand of common vocational or avocational interest.''

Slate 24 Feb

Wed 23 Feb 2000

Time Magazine has several interesting items this week [though they're not online until next week]-- an excerpt from Matt Ridley's Genome (Science, page 84); a review of a new book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point (Little, Brown), about how ideas and trends are spread through society: like germs (Ideas, page 90); and a book review of John Seabrook's Nobrow (Knopf), about how old distinctions between elite culture and mass culture have been eroded (Books, page 97); and photos of the redesigned Hayden Planetarium in New York City (Astronomy, page 80).

Time 28 Feb

Mon 21 Feb 2000

• A George Johnson essay considers the bizarre strangeness of modern scientific theories...

With theories getting wilder and wilder, real physics and fictional physics -- call it phiction -- have become mashed into a new folklore. When writers for ''Star Trek'' need to bring back a dead character or reverse a pivotal event, they can simply invoke a space-time distortion or declare that what seemed so persuasive was just a simulation on the holodeck. ... When causality appears so mushy, tragedy becomes impossible. If a story's essential turning point -- what Aristotle called peripeteia -- can be undone at will, the drama starts to leak away. Whether the entertainment comes from science or science fiction, an old-fashioned narrative sometimes comes as a relief.
div align="right"— New York Times 20 Feb

• How fast to you read? Most people think they read slower than average; Michael Kinsley lets you take a test.

Slate 18 Feb

Fri 18 Feb 2000

• Russian officials are renting out the Mir space station to a British/Russian production team making a film called The Last Journey. A subplot concerns a renegade cosmonaut, to be played by Russian actor Vladimir Steklov, who refuses to leave the station, and a woman sent by ground control to lure him back.

Wed 16 Feb 2000

• The ballot for The New Yorker Book Awards said ''There are all kinds of book awards... But this is the only prize we know of that lets the reader decide the winner.'' Salon's report points out that while that may be true, readers didn't decide the nominees. Winners this year included Annie Proulx's Close Range in the fiction category, and a special lifetime award to Saul Bellow.


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