Short takes: ‘The Last Stone,’ ‘Bird Box’ and ‘The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek’

March 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 27, 2020

Lloyd Lee Welch, the prisoner at the heart of Mark Bowden’s 2019 true crime book The Last Stone, is a repellent figure. A seventh-grade dropout who spent years abusing alcohol and drugs, Welch is a chronic liar who insists that the lengthy sentence he’s serving for child molestation is largely the result of bad luck.

And yet it’s almost impossible to turn away from Welch, a member of an impoverished Southern clan rooted in the Virginia mountains. As an 18-year-old, Welch had spoken to police about what he’d seen on March 25, 1975, at a popular Maryland mall from which 12-year-old Sheila Lyon and her 10-year-old sister, Kate, had vanished. The disappearance, presumably a kidnapping, remained unsolved for more than three and a half decades.

Near the start of The Last Stone, members of the Montgomery County, Md., police department travel to Dover, Del., in the fall of 2013 to speak to the then 56-year-old Welch. Although local police had deemed the information they got from Welch on April 1, 1975, to lack credibility, the county’s cold case squad now wanted to question him about the man with a limp whom he’d reported seeing at Wheaton Plaza on the fateful day. And after some initial evasions, Welch indeed confirmed to questioners that Ray Mileski, a known pedophile and murderer with a permanent leg injury, had been at the mall the day the Lyons were abducted.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 3

March 25, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 25, 2020

When I woke up on Tuesday, March 24, I felt slightly feverish. I went to what I still think of as the orange bathroom, even though its colors are now predominantly brown after a renovation in 2018, and again opened the closet. This time, I was searching for a thermometer.

I found what I wanted almost immediately. However, after I pulled the silver tip from beneath my tongue, I saw that it registered my temperature as… nothing.

After fiddling with the thing for a couple of minutes, I determined that, yes, in fact, this thermometer seemed to be entirely out of mercury. Where did it go? Good question.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 2

March 24, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 24, 2020

After about two hours of passing New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway electronic signs referring me to covid19.nj.gov, I was nearly at my parent’s home. I had given a lot of thought to how I was going to get out of my car and into the house safely in this pandemic.

I don’t display any of symptoms of Covid-19. Unfortunately, that seems to be true of many of the people who have been spreading the disease. Still, I could make an effort to avoid bringing in any coronavirus that I might have picked up during my rest stop.

I called ahead and, editing my to-do list on the fly, asked my Parental Unit to confine the dog and unlock the front door. After parking in the driveway around 10:30 p.m., I pocketed my phone, which was already powered down. When I got out of the car, I shouldered my duffel bag and my computer backpack and then walked inside.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 1

March 23, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 23, 2020

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, I did some shopping at a home-improvement store and picked up a pizza. Then I headed home and went inside, where I would stay for nearly 72 hours straight. With a very few notable exceptions, which I’ll probably write about later, I remained in the house until Sunday the 22nd.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, I started up my car and drove to a nearby automated teller machine. After withdrawing some cash, I hopped on Interstate 85 for the long drive to my parent’s home outside New York City.

In this still-early stage of the American coronavirus pandemic, everything I do outside my home — and even many things I do inside — is worrisome. When I reached to put my ATM card in the slot, part of my bare finger brushed against the housing. I cursed myself, because I’d taken out a pair of disposable gloves prior to pulling up to the automatic teller. I sheathed my hands in order to complete the transaction.

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It’s all fun and games until somebody gets shot: My very short, very upsetting attempt to play pinball early one Wednesday morning

March 19, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 19, 2020

Author’s note: Although this post is not graphic, it involves violence. It also includes some foul language and refers to drug usage. As such, it may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.

Worth noting, perhaps, is that I started writing this blog post several days ago but put it on hold as concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic surged. I apologize for the delay. MEM

Around 10 minutes after midnight on the morning of Wednesday, March 11, I walked into a Durham establishment that I will refer to as Pinball Oasis. Pretty much right away I noticed that something was off.

A strange grouping of people was arrayed near the high-top tables on the far side of the pinball cluster. Two men were facing each other; behind each, a few people were fanned out. After I showed my identification to a staffer at the front desk, I took a moment to study this formation.

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Humanity prepares for a looming life-or-death struggle against a superior foe in Cixin Liu’s ‘The Dark Forest’

March 10, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 10, 2020

Author’s note: Beginning in the second paragraph, this post has spoilers for the novel The Three-Body Problem; these were inescapable in discussing the book’s sequel. MEM

Chinese writer Cixin Liu made a splash at home and abroad with his novel The Three-Body Problem, which originally was published in serial form starting in 2006 before appearing in an English-language translation in 2014. The Dark Forest, the second volume in the trilogy, was published in English the following year, with Joel Martinson replacing Ken Liu as translator.

The sequel opens with a prologue set during the action of the first novel but soon forges ahead into new territory. At a moment in the first half of the 21st century, all humanity has been alerted to the threat of the Trisolarans, an advanced alien civilization that evolved around a nearby solar system despite radical temperature swings caused by exposure to the system’s multiple suns. The Trisolarans have launched an invasion fleet; it’s purpose is to eradicate Homo sapiens and install their own species on our very hospitable planet.

Humanity has ample preparation time, since the aliens will need centuries to reach Earth. But that edge is severely blunted because our enemies have sophons. These essentially invisible and massless multidimensional particles allow the Trisolarans to hear or see anything and everything, even though they’re physically separated from Earth by more than four light-years. The sophons, which can hold conversations with willing human collaborators, were responsible for blocking the progress of scientific research in a strange plot that the protagonists of the earlier book were able to uncover.

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Super Tuesday aftermath: It looks like we’re down to Biden vs. Sanders, plus — maybe? — Democrats vs. Trump

March 5, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 5, 2020

Joe Biden swept the South on Super Tuesday and did well in the Northeast and Midwest, taking the delegate lead and becoming the Democrats’ clear frontrunner. Bernie Sanders won Colorado, Utah and possibly California and finished a close second to Biden in Texas and other states, positioning him as the party’s most viable alternative to the former vice president.

Elizabeth Warren finished third behind Biden and Sanders in Massachusetts, her home state; her 22 percent share of the vote there was her best showing, leaving her campaign in serious jeopardy. Michael Bloomberg, who spent half a billion-with-a-B dollars, dropped out Wednesday after winning the American Samoa caucus and nothing else. The media mogul and former New York City mayor endorsed Biden.

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More than you (or I) ever wanted to know about USB cables

March 4, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 4, 2020

I wanted to add some odds and ends about the computer stuff I’ve been posting about.

First, USB ports on Macintosh laptop computers — that is to say, the MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. I wrote on Friday that these machines had had USB Type A ports since the line was introduced in 2006 up until 2017. If you’re a Doubting Thomas, you can click the links in the first sentence of this paragraph, which will lead you to the appropriate pages on the website EveryMac.com.

The MacBook’s USB Type A ports came in two flavors; the receptacles initially conformed to USB’s 2.0 standard before being upgraded to the 3.0 standard. The early version transfers up to 480 megabits per second, while 3.0 can transfer 5.12 gigabits per second, which is roughly 10.7 times faster. By contrast, USB 1.1 — the version that made the Universal Serial Bus a popular connection standard starting in the late ’90s — topped out at a measly 12 megabits/second.

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Surveying the Democratic presidential campaign

March 3, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 3, 2020

As the rain fell this afternoon, I drove to a nearby elementary school and cast a ballot in North Carolina’s primary election.

I am not a Democrat; back in the spring of 2004, shortly after my move to the Old North State, I registered as an unaffiliated voter. But since I’ve resided in two heavily Democratic counties over the past 16 years, I’ve now voted in eight Democratic primaries. In even-numbered years, there typically aren’t enough candidates for local Republican, Libertarian or nonpartisan — meaning county and school board — offices for there to be a contested primary.

I’ve cast zero Republican or Libertarian ballots and five nonpartisan ones in primary elections; those five were all in odd-numbered Durham city races, which formally eschew political parties.

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Let’s look back on four years of fun and adventure as leap day comes to a close!

February 29, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 29, 2020

How’s your leap day been? Feb. 29 comes no more than once every four years, so I hope you’ve had a special one!

Just think: Four years ago, we had no idea that Donald Trump would…

• lose the popular vote — by a lot! — but win the election;

• repeatedly kowtow to authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Viktor Orbán of Hungary without raising a peep of protest from Republicans;

imprison migrant children at the border in horrendous conditions without raising a peep of protest from Republicans;

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DriveQuest: The hardware strikes back

February 28, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 28, 2020

My plan to add a network-attached storage device to my home computing setup and thereby create a personal cloud has yet to come to fruition.

I put in an online order for a network-capable hard drive on Thursday, Feb. 13; it was set to arrive the following Tuesday, Feb. 18. But after my post on this topic went up, I received an email saying that the NAS drive was out of stock and that I could cancel my order and receive a full refund.

I did so and instead bought what I believe is a slightly newer device made by WD, or Western Digital. It was a little bit more expensive than the item I’d originally bought. It came on Thursday the 20th.

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Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Memory Police’ is a simply written novel that limns the ways that people and societies deal with loss

February 26, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 26, 2020

The basic premise of Yoko Ogawa’s short allegorical novel The Memory Police is utterly fantastic: On a large unnamed island, possibly part of Okinawa Prefecture, items and concepts vanish at sporadic intervals. But this foundation comes with a nasty twist: A paramilitary organization, the eponymous Memory Police, enforces these disappearances, destroying objects and imprisoning people who perpetuate any reminder that these things once existed or may still exist elsewhere.

Ogawa, in a 2019 translation from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, renders this story in plain, straightforward prose. Her narrator is an unassuming young writer living in isolation in the home where her late parents raised her. Aside from an unnamed elderly man, the husband of her late nanny, and R, her editor, the writer has no friends; she only rarely talks with her neighbors.

The old man and the local library collect copies of her books, but they arouse no excitement and evidently go unread by anyone other than R. The writer does nothing to draw attention to herself, and she has no sense that anything about her life might be lacking.

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Short takes: ‘The Devil in Silver,’ ‘The Third Lynx,’ ‘Odd Girl Out’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

February 21, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 21, 2020

Victor Lavalle’s 2012 novel, The Devil in Silver, begins in the early weeks of 2011 with a large, powerful man named Pepper being committed to Northwest, the psychiatric inpatient unit of the fictitious New Hyde hospital in Queens. Pepper isn’t really crazy; he’s just hot-tempered, and a little socially isolated. Three cops bring him to the hospital because it allows them to bypass an hour or two of unpaid overtime that they’d need to book him in jail for scrapping with them.

The system is hard to escape, Pepper discovers, especially after two altercations indefinitely extend what could have been just a 72-hour stint in the psych ward. He loses two months after being heavily medicated; even when his mind has fought off the drug-induced fog, the 42-year-old professional mover still thinks and moves and talks like an unsteady nonagenarian.

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J.J. Abrams caps an iconic space-opera franchise with the flashy but not necessarily compelling ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

February 20, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 20, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the 11th entry in the blockbuster space opera, opens with a blast from the past. As the series’ signature opening crawl that follows the film’s title (see previous sentence) and episode number (nine) announces:

The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power…

Director J.J. Abrams, who directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot and its first sequel and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among other projects, and who helped create the TV series Alias and Lost, thusly sets up the climax to the third Star Wars trilogy before a single planet, object or person appears on screen. If The Force Awakens, which launched the franchise’s latest trio in 2015, recapitulated George Lucas’s first Star Wars, retroactively titled A New Hope (1977), and The Last Jedi (2017) took The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as its template, then The Rise of Skywalker, released in December 2019, is here to replay 1983’s Return of the Jedi for audiences young and old.

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Items for Feb. 15, 2020: Lost pens, new pens, computer storage

February 15, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 15, 2020

Various items:

• Sometime over the last week, I lost a red pen. It’s not a big deal, I guess, but it was still annoying, especially because when I checked my office supplies at home I discovered that I didn’t have any red pens in reserve. I use red ink to mark questionable words and challenges while playing Scrabble; I also use them to mark attendees and the total number of players in late games when I work as a World Tavern Poker tournament director.

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, I went into a convenient office-supply store that’s part of a national chain; I had a $30 “e-gift card” for it. (This item, which I printed out at home, belongs in a different category than either a gift card or a gift certificate, as various cashiers and I learned in 2019 through trial and error.)

I wound up buying a four-pack of fine-tipped black pens for $10.98 and a five-pack of fine-tipped red pens for $7.29. I wasn’t out of black pens, but I have been searching for fine-tipped black writing implements. I can no longer find the 0.5-millimeter black rollerball pens that used to be stocked in every office-supply store.

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Poker postseason recap, winter 2020

February 12, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 12, 2020

Having scooped up a pair of tavern season points titles, I went into the two-week World Tavern Poker postseason with the goal of collecting some more trinkets.

The first postseason week, which began on Monday, Jan. 27, consists of tavern championships. Those who placed in the top 10 at that venue start these games with double stacks and can re-enter if they’re knocked out before a certain time. Top tenners only get one re-entry, and those who knock them out receive a bounty.

I held top-10 rankings in three venues, playing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday nights. I also qualified to compete, and did compete, at venues on four other days.

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Poker regular season recap, mid-summer 2019 though mid-winter 2020

February 11, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 11, 2020

Another six months, another World Tavern Poker season in the books.

This stretch was gratifying for a few reasons. I collected 11 tournament victories, which made for my second-best season ever. (I managed to take down 16 wins between September 2016 and February 2017.)

Even better, I found myself competing for a pair of tavern season points championships, both at venues where I serve as tournament directors. My Wednesday night race ended in something of a rout was fairly secure — I led by 495 points in the final reckoning — but the Sunday night race was determined in the final two games.

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My discovery in the dead of night

February 8, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 8, 2020

I went to bed on Thursday night. Technically, it was Friday morning. Nothing about the preceding sentences is unusual for me. What follows, however…

Every so often when I’ve been sleeping, my mind will rise to a state of semi-wakefulness. Often, this is because my bladder is insisting that I go to the bathroom but the rest of me just wants to stay in bed.

After all, who likes getting up in the middle of the night? It’s often unpleasantly cool outside the bedroom, if not outside the bed, period; this is especially true in the wintertime, even one as mild as we’ve been having down here in North Cackalacky.

Even worse, getting out of bed means waking up, and who knows how hard it will be to fall back asleep. Getting out of bed: What’s to like?

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Short takes: ‘Anvil of Stars’ and ‘Roadside Picnic’

February 5, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 5, 2020

I generally try to avoid reading books that are part of a series, because I fear the time and effort it might take to finish the entire cycle. So when I checked out a digital copy of Anvil of Stars, the 1992 science-fiction novel by Greg Bear, it was without knowing that it was part of a duology. And I definitely didn’t realize that it was the back half of the pair.

There was certainly some back story, and presumably some resonance, that I missed due to not having read The Forge of God, the 1987 initial entry in what Fantastic Fiction dubs (simply enough) Bear’s Forge of God series. But I trust that I got enough of the information I needed, especially given that Anvil evidently executes a very different shift in setting and story.

From what I gather, the earlier book — set during or a short while into the future of the time the story was published — chronicled humanity’s first encounter with aliens. The visitors, who mostly take the form of self-replicating needle-shaped vehicles, turn out to be very mean; by the end of the volume, they’ve destroyed Earth.

Fortunately for us, another set of robots is nipping at the heels of the Killers. These represent a set of aliens known as the Benefactors, who save a relatively small group of survivors. Most of these (fortunate?) souls live aboard an Ark orbiting Mars as they wait for the planet to be terraformed into a hospitable environment.

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There are no good outcomes: Thoughts on Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and impeachment

January 31, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 31, 2020

Author’s note: This post contains brief references to sexual assault and suicide. MEM

Over the years, I’ve come to believe something that I suspected but tried to suppress at the time: That Bill Clinton disgraced and endangered his office of the presidency by conducting an extramarital affair in the White House and then lying about it under oath.

The affair displayed bad judgment on a number of levels, not least because it potentially exposed him to blackmail. The perjury ultimately cost Clinton his ability to serve as a lawyer (although he hadn’t practiced in years). Shortly before Clinton left office, Robert Ray, the special counsel who succeeded Kenneth Starr, announced that the president has surrendered his Arkansas law license for five years and accepted a $25,000 fine.

As Starr’s investigation and impeachment effort proceeded throughout 1998 and into 1999, I generally scoffed at the Republican endeavor to remove Clinton from office. The Grand Old Party had always despised “Slick Willie,” a hatred that prompted Hillary Clinton to coin the infamous phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Right-wing nuts and grifters — it was hard to think of them in any other way — had spent years accusing Clinton of committing sexual assault, exploiting a savings and loan association to salvage what turned out to be a bad investment in the Whitewater Development Corp., facilitating international arms and drug smuggling through an airport in Mena, Ark.; and killing a high-level White House attorney.

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The theoretical impartial senator and the very real imperial president: Thoughts on the impeachment trial

January 29, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 29, 2020

If there were such a thing as a truly impartial senator, then he or she might be in quite a pickle right now.

Before start of the ongoing proceedings against the president, senators took the following oath: “I solemnly swear [or affirm] that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: so help me God.”

The House of Representatives’ impeachment managers have presented an impressive case; the president’s defenders have mounted a vigorous defense. There are flaws in each.

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Short takes: ‘Famous Men who Never Lived’ and ‘Meddling Kids’

January 28, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 28, 2020

The New York City that Helen Nash and Vikram Bhatnagar travel through is not the one they knew. The two main characters in K. Chess’s 2019 debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, are UDPs, or universally displaced persons. Their New York City has been destroyed; they are permanently cut off from everyone and every place they ever knew.

The protragonists are among about 160,000 New Yorkers from an alternative timeline who escaped nuclear catastrophe through a sort of one-way dimensional portal. Their timeline diverged from ours about 11 decades ago, in 1910. Some landmarks and neighborhoods in the new New York City are familiar; others are entirely different.

The same is true of the linguistic, political, cultural and technological landscapes for the UDPs. Back home, the refugees used ordinators, not smartphones; a world war in their 20th century saw America besieged by a hostile Latin American power; gay people there were called verts and hadn’t won marriage equality.

It’s no wonder that so many UDPs are lost in the new world — although to be fair, Hel (who plays a more prominent role than Vikram, her lover), didn’t fit in so well back home. She was a cancer surgeon there who’d ceded custody of her son to her ex-husband; here, she’s an unemployed layabout.

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Ted Chiang puts societies to the technological test in his new collection of science fiction stories, ‘Exhalation’

January 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 27, 2020

Writer Ted Chiang has a relatively slender publication history. His debut book was the 2002 anthology Stories of Your Life; last year, he published a second volume of stories, Exhalation. The website Fantastic Fiction lists the New York native as having stories in four annual genre-fiction anthologies and in 1998’s The Mammoth Book of Fantasy All-Time Greats.

Despite this, Chiang is prominent enough to have merited a 2017 New Yorker profile. This was due in no small part to Arrival, the splendid 2016 Denis Villeneuve movie about first contact with aliens, which is based on the 1999 Hugo and Nebula award–winning novella “The Story of Your Life” from Chiang’s first collection.

I’m happy to report that Chiang’s second book, Exhalation, is full of engaging, thought-provoking tales. The title story is a monograph written by, it soon emerges, a member of a race of robots that breathes not oxygen but argon. “Every day,” it writes near the start of the second paragraph,

we consume two lungs heavy with air; every day we remove the empty ones from our chest and replace them with full ones. If a person is careless and lets his air level run too low, he feels the heaviness of his limbs and the growing need for replenishment. It is exceedingly rare that a person is unable to get at least one replacement lung before his installed pair runs too empty; on those occasions where this has happened — when a person is trapped and unable to move, with no one nearby to assist him — he dies within seconds of his air running out.

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What if the Senate impeachment trial results in conviction?

January 24, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 24, 2019 2020

I’d originally planned to post a review of Ted Chiang’s outstanding recent anthology Exhalation this week, but life got in the way.

There was the big January charity Scrabble tournament, which took up most of Saturday and Sunday and about half of Monday. Then, of course, the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began, and I found myself concentrating on National Public Radio’s audio feed from the Senate floor. (I was also, to be honest, playing word games as I listened.)

At any rate, there have been a few distractions from writing. However, I here present a few musings prompted by the impeachment trial.

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Daniel H. Wilson builds on Michael Crichton’s first technothriller in ‘The Andromeda Evolution’

January 15, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 15, 2019 2020

The Andromeda Strain pitted a small team of scientists against a mysterious virus that has killed all but two residents of Piedmont, Ariz. The 1969 Michael Crichton novel culminates in a desperate race against time. Its protagonists exhibit feats of intellectual prowess as well as a few acts of bravery. One might argue that the book is the original technothriller.

The Andromeda Strain inspired a 1971 movie version directed by Robert Wise, who had previously helmed West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and who would later bring Star Trek into the cinema; a miniseries adaptation with Ricky Schroeder and Viola Davis aired in 2008. Given corporate America’s propensity to recycle and reboot ideas, it’s mildly surprising that The Andromeda Strain had mostly lain dormant for years.

Enter The Andromeda Evolution, published late last year, which has Crichton’s name emblazoned on the top third of the cover. Although Crichton is listed first in the book’s author biographies, he seems to have had nothing to do with the plotting or writing of this volume, which is labeled “A novel by Daniel H. Wilson” in much smaller type on the bottom of the cover.

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