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Letters to the Editor, July 1998

This a traditional letter column. You are encouraged to write a letter of comment on anything that you find worthy of comment. It will (may) be published in this column along with my reply. As editor I reserve the right to delete material; however I will not alter the undeleted material. E-mail to me that solely references the contents of this site will be assumed to be publishable mail. All other e-mail is assumed to be private. And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication. Oh yes, letters of appreciation for the scholarly resources provided by this site will be handled very discreetly. This page contains the correspondence for July 1998.

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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/25/98
The Cold Equations

I’d be interested in seeing what changes you made from the earlier version of this, whose ideas I shamelessly borrowed (along with those of other interesting bits to hand, such as the then-unpublished essays in BETTER THAN ONE) the summer I taught SF at Emerson College.

(I had been hoping to sharpen — or at least awaken — the students’ critical senses by giving them some sense of the motivations behind the writing of SF. This aroused one furious complaint about artistic integrity (when I mentioned that some SF was created to fit a pre-existing cover rather than the other way around) a great deal of apathy, and an exam response that MISSION OF GRAVITY was about how bugs were taking over the universe and people did not like bugs. “Hal Clement” had the grace to be amused when I told him this.)

The points are just as valid now, although the debate has gotten much nastier as the right has tried to push personal responsibility regardless of circumstances (c.f., for instance, smoking) or the impossibility of fixing/preventing all dangers, and the arguments of ]the left[ often appear to assume malice (rather than greed or even simple incompetence) in every unfortunate outcome. Somebody could have a fascinating time trying to follow the competing threads of “We can do anything” vs “Sometimes things just happen” and who takes which argument under which circumstance. (Yes, I know, any party will take any convenient argument and ignore the rest….)

You may be amused to know that I fell on your page from Tony’s recommendation (during a discussion of foods for bid parties) of your list of ten worst foods, to which we considered adding creamed chipped flamingo on toast. (Have you webbed somewhere your apa reprint of the military recipe for SoS for several hundred?)

Some one of these days I am going to revise that essay. I ran it in usenet a while back, cross posted on rec.arts.books and rec.arts.sf.misc. It provoked a quite spectacular foodfight in which yours truly gave as hot as he got. I don’t know as I would classify this one as a right vs left, so much as a hard vs soft.

The thread started 2/7/97 under the title “The Cold Equations” and ran for several hundred comments. I have copies of all of my postings. I will append one of them – it is an early exchange which framed one of the discussions. I started a new web page (not completed) which I haven’t completed. However for your convenience I have put it up on my web site – the URL is One of things that was fascinating about the defenses of the story were some of the recurring themes. These include:

(1) Criticizing the story means that you defend the “modern” notion that people have a right to be stupid and not suffer the consequences.

(2) Any one who criticizes the story doesn’t really understand the moral issue involved.

(3) Certain metaphors were repeatedly advanced. These include people getting killed because they ignore warning signs at train stops, conditions in military units (to one chap the entire world is the inside of a nuclear sub), conditions on ships two centuries ago, the lifeboat scenario, and really bizarre arguments about passenger liners.

As a side note the physics of TCE are rather better than they appear; SF fans are good at working out hypothetical physics.

In any event one of the interesting things about the story and the discussion that ensued is the illumination of attitudes.

Your students were, ah, naive. If you’re browsing through my pages you might search out “The Death of Fiction” and “Image of the Book” – look for links to them on the literature page or the essays/original stuff page. The Death of Fiction is a review of (non-existent) collection of essays on, surprise, the death of fiction. You might be amused by the argument that capricious irrelevant constraints are a necessary feature of art.

I don’t recall having put the recipe for SoS by the hundreds in one of my Apas. I will have to dig it out for my recipes page.

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From: Larry & Jan Kent
Date: 06/28/98
Subj: Web site

Very nice improvement, I like what you have done here and from my experience last year this is much better.
Clean, Sharp, Quality…


Thanks for the kudos. As you may have noticed, I haven’t upgraded the older pages to match the latest and greatest formats – the major exceptions are pages that seem to get heavily hit such as the Darwin Awards pages.

I like to think of this site as a toxic waste dump; the poison at the bottom just gets squeezed down and the flowers grow on top. I have tried to make the contents more accessible by providing more paths into the rubble; the quality of the content therein is a matter of taste.

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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/25/98
Essay on Lewis

Your afterthought on C. S. Lewis’s blindness to large-scale evil is an interesting opposite to a complaint that showed up in the Yale alumni rag ~15 years ago. (My sister was a family loyalist, so she followed several generations of scholars into Yale; I’m an apostate, but as a fan I read anything lying around.)

The writer had asked his students for a written piece demonstrating (concerning?) evil, and was very disturbed at a piece in which the viewpoint character, a fraternity pledge, followed orders to get his date drunk enough not to resist gang rape at the frat house; there was a clear implication that this was a duty rotated among pledges. The writer was disturbed not by the subject but by his conclusion that his student did not understand Evil; the tone suggested to me that the writer did not believe that Evil was within the capabilities of the everyday human being. I wonder if he had ever been exposed to Lewis (or, for that matter, Kate Wilhelm, who is very good on the extraordinary capabilities in all directions of ordinary people).

One wonders what on Earth the writer thought Evil was. Come to think on it, though, it’s not simple. There is this notion of Good versus Evil as two competing sides with the kicker that, as Mammy Yokum says, “Good is better than Evil because it is nicer.”

“They were playing football in Heaven’s own back yard
With Jesus playing halfback and Moses playing guard.
The score was six to nothing and oh how they did yell
When Jesus scored a touchdown against the boys from Hell!”

(Old school song.) Right and wrong are simple enough – there’s a list somewhere that says A, B, and C are right and X, Y, and Z are wrong. Several lists, actually, but that’s a separate problem. Sins are the wrong things. But is there a line between sin and evil? If the pledge had gotten his date drunk and had sex with her would that have been a sin but not evil?

Of course, Lewis had his own blind spots — having been at a couple of non-“progressive” boarding schools I find the conclusion of THE SILVER CHAIR, in which everything is made right by a return to the old-school command structure, rather worse than naive. (Remember the movie “If…”? Would you believe there was a place in the Northeast that fostered similar hierarchically-based violence as a matter of “school spirit”?)

Oh, yes, the ending of TSC is priceless. The beginning of The Dawn Treader is more of the same. TSC was one of things that I had in mind when I said that Lewis never quite understood the difference between being an English gentleman and being a Christian.
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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/25/98

Have you read Christopher Moore’s COYOTE BLUES? Very uneven writer, but this is fun and has an interesting take on Coyote’s ancestry.

I also note you speak of Loki as a Hermes-type trickster; is this not a sanitized version? Even leaving out the Marvel comics version and his successors (e.g., in SANDMAN), I get the feeling there is a core of viciousness in the original deity — after all, no other trickster wound up in quite as painful a spot as Loki did when Odin tired of him (although Odin was considered by his devotees to be almost as vicious a deity as the Christian god).

I wouldn’t say that the Christian God was vicious – the God of the old testament, yes, but not the God of the new testament. I recently read Chesterton’s essay on Job. One of the ideas that he brings out is that the Jewish God wasn’t “Good” in the Christian sense.

Was the Norse Loki nasty? Probably, in his time. These days Homer Sap has snatched off the viciousness concession for himself. The gods are all working at the amusement parks which have themselves been sanitized over the years.

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From: Michael McMaster
Date: 06/25/98
Subj: Web site

Love the site and the jokes!!

The only thing is that I can’t get to see the pumpkin fall from the tower at Cornell. (sniffle)

Any way you can help?


Sigh. Cornell seems to have removed the link which I think is jolly unsporting of them. I suspect they felt that it didn’t enhance their image properly. I will have to change the page and remove the link. Sorry about that.
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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/29/98
Sex on the brain

You quote Blum’s observation that (in short) one effect of pregnancy is a (temporarily) depressed immune system. Did she note the indications that having been pregnant is statistically connected to long-term health advantages (specifically chances of certain kinds of cancer, IIRC)? I don’t have the figures to hand, and I don’t think they’ve sorted out all the reasons yet (although there’s speculation that reducing the total number of menstrual cycles may reduce chances of cancer later on).

I don’t recall that she did; she was covering the immediate effects of the various sex related hormones. Breast cancer is one of the cancers IIRC.

This has its own interesting effect: if you don’t control for number of children born, you get a statistical connection between abortion and certain kinds of cancer — hence one of the recent noises from somewhere in the morass of anti-choice forces….

I hadn’t heard that one. I tend to stay away from abortion arguments and the various advocates although I do contribute money to groups like NARAL. The arguments on all sides are both irrefutable and untenable; the advocates, again on all sides, tend to be as obnoxious as the Jehovah Witness types.
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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/29/98
The Symbolic Species

weird cross-connection:

The problem with infant care and transport is treated lightly which is depressingly customary.

In side matter to a later edition of THE MAN WHO COUNTS (orig pub WAR OF THE WING-MEN), Poul Anderson says Karen convinced him that migration while pregnant was not possible and to make migration the trigger for female & male oestrus. However, the OmniMax film on the Serengeti (at the Science Museum a couple of years ago, may still be around) shows gazelles giving birth immediately after migration; for a migrating species that takes more than a very few months to reach gross physical maturity, the evolutionary odds are better if the offspring have the maximum amount of time to mature between opposing migrations. (You lose some pregnant females in one direction and some immatures in the other, but the net is better than moving with lots of way-immatures.) (The film also mentioned a branch species in dead-volcanic area with enough year-round green to avoid migration; I don’t remember if it said anything about the resulting effect on mating season.)

The title of the ASF serial was The Man Who Counts.

The migration in TMWC is dubious. When I think about it Karen was probably right. Grazing animals can migrate while pregnant; they eat as they go along and migration doesn’t consume extra energy to speak of. However a flying animal undertaking a long migration has a big energy deficit. This isn’t necessarily a problem as long as the young are born quite early, either from eggs as in birds or marsupial style. Note however that birds do their breeding after arrival.

The real catch that I see is that migration is an annual event. This is inconsistent with delayed maturity. If the young have to mature fast enough to be able to migrate with the flock they won’t have extended childhoods and probably will have short life spans.

Somewhere I was reading a comment on the unlikelihood of VanRijn’s oratory having the effect that Anderson credited it with. The power of poetry is not only culture specific, it is species specific. Perhaps, however, it is best not to look at these things too closely – realism is not wanted in SF, only a patina.

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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/29/98
The Fall of Chronopolis

Niven’s thesis is explictly contraverted. Far from “time travel acting to destroy itself” the converse (with the structure of the theory) is true: once time travel is discovered it acts to preserve itself.

I don’t recall where Niven argued this; in an early story he has a typical stamp-on-a-butterfly change, and in the Unicorn shorts he says time travel is a fantasy. But I’m reasonably sure that Brunner presented this hypothesis (in the quartet of stories about time patrolmen who were Spanish because the Armada won) some time before Niven’s first sale.

He did an essay on it; I recall the essay well enough but I don’t intend to look it up. My books are not exactly organized. He argued that if the universe has temporal inertia so that it changes as little as possible then the minimum change comes with wiping out the time travellers. He did a short story along those lines – one side on a war gives the other side the plans for a time machine. The other side tries to build and their star goes nova. If the past can be changed indefinitely (no inertia) then change after change is made until we arrive in a time-line where time travel is never invented.

I don’t recognize the Brunner stories. However it doesn’t sound like Niven’s thesis; Niven was arguing that time travel never happens because one way or another it gets eliminated as a possibility.

Chip responded July 3 with:

The story sounds like overkill of de Camp’s principle from “A Gun For Dinosaur”, in which any attempt to alter the past creates such a strain on spacetime that the would-be alterer is slammed back to his starting point. The conclusion is exactly that of Brunner’s TIMES WITHOUT NUMBER; at the end of the last story, the lead character ends up in present-day Central Park, realizing that his world is irretrievably gone.

I suppose some of the difference is point-of-view — where does a timeline go when you eliminate it? Niven’s proposal seems implausible, as it suggests that you can be inside or outside a timeline purely as a matter of physical location. (All this is sheerest ungrounded speculation, of course, but I’ve had a very minor interest in collecting plausible theories about changing the past.)

I’m puzzled by your comments. I don’t see where you get the “inside or outside the timeline” thought from. Niven is arguing against non-deterministic time travel – the mode of travel doesn’t matter. If the time-line can be altered (ignoring parallel time tracks and that whole bit) then his argument runs:
(a) There is temporal inertia; the past resists being changed. Then if I am about to invent a time machine the minimal change to the universe is for me to drop dead or some other equivalent event that prevents the time machine from being invented.

(b) There is no temporal intertia; the time-line keeps changing in response to time travel. It keeps changing until someone does something that changes the time-line to one in which time travel is never invented, e.g., wiping out the ancestors of the human race.

Niven was arguing that time-travel is self-eliminating. As a side note a recent ASF article suggests that this may be a physical principle. If GR holds it is possible in principle to build FTL vehicles; the theorists keep running into problems if you try to use them for time travel.

From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 06/30/98
The Deuce of Diamonds

A nicely-setup package; I can see it finding a market somewhere in the 60’s. (Finney did some of this earlier, but without the punch at the end.) Since then the Godly have gotten a deservedly bad name, and the Devil has been shown in a number of other facets; have you read Brust’s TO REIGN IN HELL (the blurb might not have attracted you, but it’s a well-constructed classic tragedy) or Godwin’s WAITING FOR THE GALACTIC BUS (and sequel THE SNAKE-OIL WARS — both a touch light, and fitting some of my biases, but well done).

I’ve read Godwin’s two books and Brust’s book. They were good but they didn’t have any impact on me – I remember reading them but I recall very little about them.

Several of the pieces are probably publishable but they mostly don’t fall into standard categories. I ran The Deuce of Diamonds through rec.arts.books; it triggered a discussion on whether the ending was too pat, too sentimental or whether it was just right.

I wonder what your reaction to The Small and Stupid Gods will be.

From: Chip Hitchcock ([email protected])
Date: 07/02/98
Make an immediate left turn

You may remember that I was flying light planes around the time I joined NESFA; I gave it up a couple of years later shortly after getting an instrument license, when I found empirically that flying my own plane was more expensive than buying airline tickets and (in bad weather) slower than driving. During my one significant expedition I returned to Dulles from the ocean just at sunset; I was off the runway quickly (Dulles has high-speed taxiways) and a correspondingly long way from the terminal, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear Ground say “American 2, give way to that Cessna on the taxiway”; however, it was a little jarring to look way up at the 707 looming over my shoulder….

I do recall that you were a small plane pilot and yes, I can see that small planes are not an economic proposition. This is not entirely true; if you live in places like South Dakota airplanes, like horses, are more viable. In the East it is ungodly expensive to keep a horse; in SD you just put them out in the pasture with the cattle. Likewise with small planes. It’s all very well to say that airline tickets are cheaper than flying your own plane. That’s true enough but in SD the place where airlines fly to are few and far between. Again, SD has more than ample “good” weather, i.e., sunny days, and the plane does beat driving. The catch is that when you drive you have a car when you get there.

Continued July 27

I had a similar argument from somebody who flew himself to Iguanacon from someplace in Colorado. Certainly the equation is different for trips in which even one endpoint is a small field — Ocean City (Maryland) was not a day trip from DC except on that flight. But I had been thinking flying would actually be practical (as opposed to a hobby) around here. In some cases it was even less practical; I had thought of flying to MidAmericon, but it would have taken less time to drive because as the only pilot I could stay at the controls only 8 hours/day (=>2+ days to KC given stops), while the car I was in got there in 2 days of 12 and 14 hours. (And was entertained on the way by a Jesse Jackson lecture that nobody wanted to interrupt to complain about a car parked across the railroad tracks — blocking the train with the fannish car.)

Even so. In a totally different context, I took shorthand in high school on the assumption that it would be useful for taking notes in college. I discovered that it wasn’t so. What happened was that my attention would be entirely on getting the lecture down on paper; I heard nothing and had to transcribe the notes en toto to find out what the lecture was about.

And even the sunny days we get here aren’t as good; I was at the club when somebody reposted from Colorado Springs came back from his familiarization flight doing a wet-hen imitation. He was used to lots of CAVU and a little zero-zero, and we had the typical “ceiling indefinite, visibility 5 miles in haze”.

Crop dusting, checking cattle, flying out to oil rigs – small planes are good for that. So much for the predictions of the 40’s and 50’s that by now everybody would have an air car.

There are a lot of things that killed that idea — flying in general is harder than driving, flying in bad weather is much harder (there’s a Kit Reed(?) story involving an alien assigned to setting up weather control so air commutes will be feasible), planes can’t slow down in heavy traffic (and helicopters are even more expensive and delicate than planes), … The postwar predictions were based on the same ignoreance of basic Newtonian physics that gave us a lot of the SF we remember fondly — remember Heinlein (who usually was more careful about engineering) writing that a 3-part rocket system could get cargo to the moon for $30/pound?

From: Patricia Wadley
Date: 07/15/98
Subj: send me mail


Thank you.

Patricia replied with

Mr. Harter, I am sorry, but I just couldn’t resist. It was such a great straight line and it was so so tempting. I must admit, I have no shame. But you have a great web page, which I am enjoying greatly.

Don’t apologize. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t some glitch in the mail program and I just cracked up. Nobody else has caught that and pulled it off.

Glad you liked the rubble heap.

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