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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Monday 24 July 2000

• The American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of the past decade leads with Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series (accused of ''being too scary''). Further down the list: R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series at #15, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time at #23, Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon at #43, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series at #48, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World at #54.

• The Washington Post Book World for July 23 has a page of letters denouncing Charles Platt's negative review of Robert Park's Voodoo Science. Some of the letters point out Platt's science fiction and CryoCare connections. (Platt's original WP review is no longer accessible except through the paper's pay archives.)

• A CNN article from by Richard Corliss considers the New York Times's decision to create a separate Children's bestseller list in time to keep Harry Potter #4 from outranking, say, Danielle Steel.

Perhaps the change does damage to nothing but Scholastic's pride. Says [NYT Book Review editor Charles] McGrath: "I really do not think that moving Harry Potter onto the children's list is going to affect Harry Potter one way or the other." That's true. But it has already singed the reputation of the Times list. "The plan is a jumble of loose ends that is continuing proof to some that the Times ain't what it used to be," observed Publishing Trends, an industry newsletter, "and that this latest project is only hastening the decline in its importance to the book industry."

• Just one more Harry Potter item: Salon's Gregg Kilday wonders what Hollywood's purveyors of special effects laden movie blockbusters (especially sequels) might learn from the increasing success of each new book by J.K. Rowling. Lesson number one (on page 2): It's the story, stupid. Kilday also offers the following box office comparison (an interesting contrast to the comparison we quoted from Slate at the bottom of this News Log page).

Since the book's first printing effectively sold out -- in Los Angeles, the Borders on La Cienega Boulevard devoured its Potter allotment on Friday night -- its publisher, Scholastic Press, could theoretically claim an opening weekend gross of $90.8 million. (That's 3.5 million copies at a list price of $25.95.) Of course, lots of bookstores and online sellers were discounting the thing by 30 to 40 percent. But even an across-the-board discount of 35 percent still produces an opening weekend haul of $59 million -- bigger than any other movie this season.

• This New York Times Book Review back-page essay by D.T. Max, No More Rejections, discusses self-publishing on the web through websites like Xlibris, MightyWords, and iPublish -- ''vanity publishers online''. The problem for readers is, there's too much available and no way to distinguish what's worthwhile.

My visit to Xlibris was illustrative. I was trying to choose among 1,700 titles I'd never heard of. The alphabetical listings that first appeared were uninformative. Even after I drilled down to brief descriptions of the books, everything blended together: titles, plots, excerpts. I gave up and called the company instead. Send me what's best, I asked. I needed a gatekeeper, a critic -- an editor.

• Here's a National Post Online article by Neil Seeman about how writers deal with bad reviews.

E.O. Wilson, from the Washington Post June 25, on The Writing Life:

The linkage of science and literature is a premier challenge of the 21st century, for the following reason: The scientific method has expanded our understanding of life and the universe in spectacular fashion across the entire scale of space and time, in every sensory modality, and beyond the farthest dreams of the pre-scientific mind. It is as though humanity, after wandering for millennia in a great dark cavern with only the light of a candle (to use a metaphor!), can now find its way with a searchlight.

No matter how much we see, or how beautifully theory falls out to however many decimal places, all of experience is still processed by the sensory and nervous systems peculiar to our species, and all of knowledge is still evaluated by our idiosyncratically evolved emotions. ... Art is in our bones: We all live by narrative and metaphor.

• This July 5 NASA press release describes breakthroughs in the use of sails to propel an interstellar mission -- work that relies on contributions from Dr. James Benford (brother of novelist and physicist Gregory Benford) and SF author Geoffrey A. Landis.

Salon has this profile, under the title Did Einstein cheat?, of the anti-relativity underground.

It is interesting that cranks almost never dispute the accuracy of relativity's predictions; they just insist there must be a "simpler" way.

May Aether Vibrations

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