Whither America? The nation marks its 244th birthday in troubled circumstances

July 4, 2020

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

As America celebrates 244 years since it declared independence from Great Britain, I find it hard to be optimistic about the state of the union.

I find it hard to be optimistic when the United States has been ravaged by Covid-19, sustaining more infections and deaths than any other nation. The country’s novel coronavirus infection rate is higher than that of any other developed nation and its death rate is sixth among major economic powers, behind the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Sweden and France. (Notably, the U.K. initially adopted, and Sweden has largely maintained, a lax attitude toward containing the virus.)

I also find it hard to be optimistic about the nation as long as it’s led by the feckless Donald Trump. He is, granted, trailing by significant margins in presidential polling, but the incumbent still maintains the support of more than a third of American adults. It’s hard to imagine his base dropping much from current levels because of the intellectual stranglehold that conservative media — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing broadcasters and websites — has on millions of devoted audience members. These outlets have prevented support for the Republican Party from plummeting to near zero, even as the Trump administration has taken multiple steps to deprive Americans of health care — a service that may be as vital today as it has been in a century.

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Man meets man, and then man meets machine, in Alex Garland’s directorial debut, ‘Ex Machina’

July 3, 2020

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

Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s 2014 directorial debut, is a haunting movie about a programmer who’s summoned to a high-tech mogul’s remote mountain mansion to evaluate a robot’s intelligence.

Garland also wrote the picture, his fifth screenplay after the zombie movie 28 Days Later…, the science-fiction movie Sunshine, the Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go and the comic-book adaptation Dredd. His novels The Beach and The Tesseract have been made into movies, although not by him. Garland would go on to write and direct the film version of Jeff VanderMeer’s science-fiction novel Annihilation; most recently, he produced, wrote and directed the science-fiction miniseries Devs.

Nearly all of the action in Ex Machina takes place in the isolated modernist mansion of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the brilliant, insanely wealthy head of Bluebook, a search engine and technology firm that’s sort of like Google on steroids. Nathan is a brooding, controlling figure. About a third of the way into the picture, he says that contractors who worked on the mansion were killed on his orders, but he immediately claims to be joking. The remark isn’t funny at all, but it seems very much like the kind of dark humor for which Nathan would like to be known.

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Washington Post reporters chronicle a chaotic White House in ‘A Very Stable Genius’

June 30, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 30, 2020

Multiple books have been written about Donald Trump’s presidency by insiders or former insiders, or by journalists with access to such people. John Bolton’s recent publication, The Room Where It Happened, is but the latest example.

But no matter the author, or the author’s ideology, the fundamental story remains the same: The president is lazy, vainglorious, utterly unprepared for his office and both unwilling and unable to acquire the knowledge or temperament needed to execute it faithfully. It’s the exact message that news reports have been conveying since the moment of Trump’s inauguration.

This very familiar theme was only reinforced by the January release A Very Stable Genius, which I recently read. Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig describe a chaotic White House in which public servants were forced to compete with ambitious self-centered sycophants to catch the president’s ear. Trump showed little regard for truth and displayed an astonishing ignorance of basic facts about history, the government and international affairs. He frequently upbraided underlings in meetings and often sulked openly when they refused to cater to his every wish, no matter how inappropriate or even illegal.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 16

June 29, 2020

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

At some point in 2021, there will no longer be any cause for anyone to fear the novel coronavirus. If, that is, the promised Covid-19 vaccine materializes on schedule, can be manufactured to scale and is distributed efficiently. And if the number of reactionaries who refuse to be vaccinated isn’t large enough to prevent society from achieving herd immunity. And if the vaccine’s effectiveness doesn’t wear off, because this disease is so tricky…

If and only if those conditions are satisfied will it truly be safe for everyone to resume the things we used to do: Congregating with other people on mass transit, or on city streets, or at a fair or concert or play or movie; eating in restaurants and lounging in coffee shops; seeing friends in person.

I’ve largely been keeping myself to myself since March 15. I’ve gone inside stores just 10 or 12 times. The only person I’ve spent significant time indoors with since mid-March has been my Parental Unit. I don’t want to get sick for selfish reasons; I don’t want to infect P.U. or anyone else for altruistic ones.

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Cheeps and Chirps for June 28, 2020

June 28, 2020

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

Man, I haven’t done one of these posts for the blog in a reallllly long time

Coronavirus, Donald Trump edition 

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Covid-19 diary: Part 15

June 27, 2020

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

Last month, I wrote the following paragraph about my May 5 trip from the New York metropolitan area to North Carolina:

One feature of this brave new world is that electronic highway signs now carry public health messages. A number that I passed displayed variations of “Stay home. Save lives.” Signs in the Garden State and the Old North State advised me to check websites for information on the pandemic. Somewhat jarringly, a display around the spot where southbound I-295 merges with 95 stated that “NY-NJ-CT TRAVELERS” were subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

I’ve seen the road signs change a bit as I’ve made the odd north-south or south-north trip over the spring and early summer. This week, seemingly every Maryland electronic sign displayed the following plea:

IF OUT AND ABOUT
DO YOUR PART
KEEP SOCIAL DISTANCE

I didn’t notice any roadside notices about quarantines on my most recent trip, but they were certainly on my mind. This week, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut imposed a mandatory, albeit voluntary, quarantine on travelers from eight states where coronavirus infection rates have spiked.

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On revisiting Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ fantasy epic

June 23, 2020

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

Although I haven’t left the house to socialize since March 15, I have not spent a lot of my abundant free time watching TV or movies. I have devoted a lot of hours to playing Boggle, and I have squandered time watching short videos.

I made an exception earlier this month, however, when I devoted five evenings to rewatching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was filmed in one go and released in December of 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively. I own the special extended editions of the first two movies, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and I wasn’t willing to sit through either one in a single night. I wound up doing that for the finale, The Return of the King, of which I own a regular-edition DVD (never opened until last week, incidentally); the finale is three hours and 12 minutes long, so even that was a significant investment of time.

I loved these movies when they were first released. They look great — elaborate sets and lavish costumes and props were supplemented by a great cast, led by Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf the Grey. Moreover, the special effects were excellent for their time. And the production utilized literally dozens of striking New Zealand spots in to stand in for the vast fantasy realm of Middle-Earth. (Indeed, hundreds of thousands of tourists annually flock to Jackson’s native land to visit filming locations used in his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.) Howard Shore’s tremendous trio of scores rounds things off.

The scripts were penned by the director with two regular collaborators, Fran Walsh (his wife) and Philippa Boyens; another Jackson colleague, Stephen Sinclair, is also credited for the screenplay of The Two Towers. To someone like me, who was and remains very casually acquainted with J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels, they capture the spirit of the source material while making it fairly accessible to the viewer.

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Spring 2020 computer catchup, part 3

June 16, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 16, 2020

Last month, I mentioned that I’d purchased a replacement for my old scanner. It works fine, but…

My Xerox Duplex Combo came with two pieces of scanning software. One is Visioneer Scan Utility, which is pretty straightforward. It works fine; my only big complaint is that it doesn’t let users save different configurations of scanner options. If I want to scan an oversized item using the flatbed as opposed to the document feeder, I have to change the settings; then I have to remember to change it back for regular-sized documents. By comparison, the (outdated) software that worked with my old scanner easily let me switch between clearly labeled different settings. The inability to choose among configurations in Visioneer Scan Utility is unfortunate, but it’s not a tragedy.

The other piece of software is a different story altogether.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 14

June 15, 2020

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

I returned to Durham on June 9. On Sunday the 14th, I walked around part of the Duke University grounds for the first time since my return.

It was a sunny late spring afternoon and the temperature was in the high 70s. I came to West Markham Avenue, the northern bound of Duke’s East Campus, which is ringed by a walking path. It was pretty busy, to my chagrin.

I’ve been wearing a mask when going inside a public facility since my shopping expedition of April 9. However, aside from my visits to the veterinarian’s practice, none of which involved stepping inside the office, I generally haven’t worn a mask outdoors.

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Short takes: ‘The Lottery, and Other Stories,’ ‘Oona Out of Order’ and ‘Monsters’

June 14, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 14, 2020

The Lottery, and Other Stories is an anthology that shows off Shirley Jackson’s versatility and talent.

The tales, all evidently published in 1948 and 1949, largely eschew the horror genre of the title story. They instead capture moments in the lives of ordinary women and a handful of men in early and mid-century America. Some of these people are quietly suffering; others are doing fine but are about to endure an unforeseen calamity. All too often, looming forces are poised to disrupt every last scrap of normality to which Jackson’s characters cling.

In the opening story, “The Intoxicated,” a drunk partygoer steps into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and has a straightforward conversation with a teenager girl about her visions of an apocalyptic future. The nameless protagonist of “The Demon Lover,” a 36-year-old Manhattan resident, awakens on what she believes will be the day of her wedding to Jamie Harris; when he fails to show up, she sets out to find him. She ventures first to his home address where, it turns out, he was apartment-sitting for a couple who have just returned from a trip. Matters devolve from there.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 13

June 11, 2020

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

I was a busy boy on Monday.

It started in the morning with a visit to the grocery store, I believe my sixth such errand since March 15. This is still an arduous experience for many reasons. You have to wear a mask, which will probably never be entirely comfortable for me or most people. You have to look for and follow the one-way-only arrows in the aisles, even when that’s inconvenient. You — or at least I — have to bite back criticisms of people who aren’t following the traffic directions or wearing their masks properly.

(Hint: If your nose is exposed, you’re not wearing your mask correctly.)

Still, I’ve grown increasingly accustomed to shopping during the pandemic, and it’s become a little less onerous. Part of the reason is that I only wash items that require refrigeration or freezing or are fresh produce. I’ll put other packaged items aside and wait three days before handling them. That can make things a lot easier.

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Short takes: ‘Alice Isn’t Dead,’ ‘Glass Houses’ and ‘Explorers’

June 6, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 6, 2020

Joseph Fink adapted Alice Isn’t Dead, his striking 2018 horror novel, from a podcast of the same name. Both book and podcast describe a harrowing series of journeys undertaken by Keisha Taylor, a chronically anxious woman who becomes a long-haul trucker after seeing her missing wife in the background of a television news shot.

Alice’s long disappearance is far from the strangest thing that will plague Keisha during the tale, which was written by the co-creator of the acclaimed Welcome to Night Vale fiction podcast. In the first chapter, a man with loose skin begins to consume someone, a sight that terrifies Keisha and sends her fleeing into the gathering night. But the “Thistle Man,” as she calls the monster based on its shirt, begins to stalk Keisha, setting up a confrontation she is powerless to avoid.

The Thistle Man turns out to be part of an array of shadowy forces preying upon Americans who happen to be unruly, unwary or unlucky. Keisha will discover a secret town, hidden bases, people possessing supernatural abilities and even a potential ally or two as she fights for her life and tries to repair an existence that seemed irreparably broken after her wife vanished.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 12

May 31, 2020

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

One of the problems with having a scatterbrained lout like Donald Trump lead of the free world is that he does so many mendacious and malicious things that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them all.

I realized recently that my catalog of the inadequacies and missteps of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic had inadvertently omitted perhaps the biggest misstep of all: The self-proclaimed Very Stable Genius’s April 23 “joke” that injections of bleach and/or internal doses of sunlight could cure Covid-19.

As humor, this is on a par with Trump’s famous “joke” of July 27, 2016, which is worth quoting in full: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”

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Dream diary: The apartment complex and the unexpected transit system

May 30, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 30, 2020

This morning I dreamed that I lived in an apartment complex. I had a nice place on the fifth floor of one of the buildings.

One morning, in this dream, I felt restless, or perhaps I had an errand to run, so I took the elevator downstairs. I wandered around the lobby for a bit. It was a well-appointed but (I thought) not stuffy place with large rooms and public lounges, all with high ceilings. I found a small group of 20-something people doing something loudly — playing video games, or maybe some kind of physical game. I was a little annoyed but decided not to say anything.

I decided to go back to my apartment, so I made my way to the elevators. There I found a family — say, two adults and two or three kids — who seemed to be coming back from the pool or maybe a beach. I waited for a few minutes, wishing I was back in my place.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 11

May 27, 2020

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

Lucky, my parent’s lovely aging yellow Labrador retriever, has a chronic condition that requires regular veterinarian visits. After a 14-and-a-half-day stint in Durham, N.C., I drove back up to my parental unit’s house in the greater New York metro area on Wednesday, May 20. The trip took about eight and a half hours, with two stops. I gassed up twice and used the bathroom once; there was also a detour to avoid traffic on Interstate 95, which I probably could have avoided altogether if I’d used one of my phone’s navigation apps after the second stop.

My parent had a doctor’s visit on Thursday the 21st, but I elected to skip it. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the facility wasn’t going to let me into the building. I had a vision of sitting in the car for a minimum of half an hour, needing to use the bathroom and not having anywhere to relieve myself.

The following day, it was the dog’s turn to go to the doctor. Once again, I called the vet’s office from the parking lot. A few minutes later, a tech came out to collect the dog. The tech asked me to remove her harness and collar, which I expected from our April visit, but said it was fine to leave on Lucky’s flea and tick collar, which is usually hidden beneath her fur.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 10

May 26, 2020

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

The United States has started to reopen after around two months in which vast swathes of the public have been strongly encouraged to stay home. I’ve looked on this partial return to normalcy with major misgivings.

As of Tuesday evening, according to data kept by The New York Times, the U.S. has nearly 1.7 million Covid-19 cases and nearly 99,000 fatalities; the latter number is almost certainly an undercount. Brazil is second in cases with more than 391,000. The United Kingdom, where government officials initially eschewed stay-at-home orders, is second in fatalities with 37,000. (The U.K. is fourth in recorded cases, after Russia.)

Federal leaders in the United States badly mismanaged the novel coronavirus pandemic, missing opportunities to review or renew planning for this kind of emergency, to ramp up the manufacturing of personal protective equipment, to coordinate the acquisition and distribution of PPE and to encourage state and local government to implement and maintain social distancing and other vital infection-control measures.

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Short takes: ‘Station Eleven,’ ‘Supernova Era’ and ‘House on Haunted Hill’

May 23, 2020

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

Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, got a lot of buzz when it came out in 2014. I finally got around to reading it this month.

It’s a strange but not entirely novel experience to read about a pandemic as one unfolds in real life. Fortunately, as disruptive as Covid-19 is, it isn’t nearly as contagious nor as deadly as the flu that kills at least 90 percent of the human race and destroys civilization in the near future depicted in Station Eleven.

Mandel’s narrative covers several characters’ experiences over a number of years both before and after the flu outbreak. The unifying theme, however, is that many of the characters — notably former paparazzo cum aspiring paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary, former aspiring artist cum shipping executive Miranda Carroll, former aspiring actor cum high-priced consultant Clark Thompson — are all linked to Arthur Leander, the famed screen actor who dies of a heart attack during a Toronto production of King Lear the night before Westerners start succumbing to flu at an alarming rate.

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Spring 2020 computer catchup, part 2

May 22, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2020

Earlier this month, I went online and bought a new scanner, a Xerox Duplex Combo, a lightweight machine that features both an automatic sheet feeder with two-sided scanning and a flatbed that can accommodate larger or irregularly shaped documents. I had it delivered to my Durham residence, where I spent time from the 5th through the 20th.

I let the box sit for a few days before opening it up. Evidence indicates that the chances of catching Covid-19 from mail or boxes that have been contaminated by the novel coronavirus are extremely low, but I’ve been trying to extremely diligent about limiting my exposure.

Setup was pretty easy. So was software installation. I had to fiddle with the software settings a bit, but it was pretty easy to begin scanning with the new machine. This meant that I could upgrade my MacBook Pro’s operating system and still be able to scan documents. I was almost ready to get my computer on board with MacOS Catalina.

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Spring 2020 computer catchup, part 1

May 21, 2020

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

I got my current computer, a 13-inch MacBook Pro with retina display, in September 2015. It features a 250-gigabyte hard drive, which seemed rather spacious at the time. Not anymore, my friends.

For perhaps the past year, and certainly the past nine or so months, I have been living dangerously when it comes to hard-drive space. MacOS Catalina, the most current Macintosh operating system, came out in early October 2019, but I put off upgrading from Mojave for a long time because I just didn’t have enough free hard drive space.

Did I try to open capacity on my drive? Yes sir, you bet I did! I offloaded old, little-used documents, photos and audio recordings. But all my efforts barely made a dent in available space. The biggest bugbear by far was my photo library, the main file associated with Photos, Apple’s native image-viewing application. With a lot of work, I winnowed it down from about 96 gigabytes to 88 GB. Even then, it remained by far the largest single item on my machine.

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Isaac Asimov gave science fiction its Sherlock and Holmes with his uneven ninth novel, 1953’s ‘The Caves of Steel’

May 11, 2020

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

The legendary science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his first novel in January 1950. By the end of 1953, 10 Asimov books were in print:

Pebble in the Sky, his first book, which forms the Galactic Trilogy in conjunction with The Stars like Dust (1951) and The Currents of Space 1952).

I, Robot, Asimov’s second volume, a compilation of previously published stories that had established the author’s famed laws of robotics.

Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), the first entries in a seven-book cycle of novels about the evolution of a galaxy-spanning human society.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 9

May 7, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 7, 2020

I traveled up to my parent’s home outside New York City on Sunday, March 22. I traveled back down to my home in Durham, N.C., on Tuesday, May 5. It was time to check on the place and see, among other things, what was happening to the accumulated mail.

The trip was fine. It took a little bit less than eight hours.

I took the off ramp for the last rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike to refill my tank, which was down to about a quarter. I figured I might be able to make it the rest of the way to Durham if I refueled in Southern Jersey, which proved to be the case.

But I also liked something about getting gas in the Garden State that I normally find a hassle: I didn’t have to touch the pump.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 8

April 30, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 30, 2020

I traveled up to the greater New York metropolitan area on March 22. Since then, I’ve been out of the house on numerous walks with the family dog. My Parental Unit takes this responsibility most of the time; less often, the two of us go, and every so often it’s just me.

A few weeks ago, I started taking the occasional solo walk for exercise. I think that this has been very good for my mental and physical well-being.

Otherwise, through the start of this week, I hadn’t been out in public areas — or perhaps I should say commercial areas — but for a pair of grocery runs, the first of which I’ve already documented.

On Tuesday, April 28, I did something new: I went to donate blood, and then I went for more groceries. These activities turned out to be like any public excursion during the Covid-19 pandemic: fine but terrifying.

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Dream diary: The Scrabble challenge and the TV producer

April 29, 2020

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

From the dream I had this morning before waking up:

I am playing a Scrabble tournament game against a smart young player. He (?) plays FORCE for a significant number of points. It looks good at first glance. But…

Rather belatedly, I notice that FORCE isn’t a legal play. Yes, that’s a real word, and those are the letters my foe put down, and in that order. But these new tiles have been jammed up against another word on the board, thereby forming something that isn’t in the Scrabble lexicon, like FORCECAPE. Or maybe the E in FORCE has been placed above the C in CAPE, making something illegal like EC. Either way, I can challenge it off the board, and my opponent will lose those points!

Yet I don’t challenge right away. For some reason, I’m sweating over what to do next.

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Short takes: ‘The Iron Giant,’ ‘13 Ghosts’ and ‘Ad Astra’

April 27, 2020

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

The 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant is a science-fiction story set in the late 1950s in Rockwell, a quiet coastal village in Maine. The night after an immense robot plunges into the ocean during a major storm, it’s discovered and then rescued by a smart, lonely boy with the unlikely name of Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal).

The pair strike up a friendship, but this is the height of the Cold War, and foreigners — be they Russians, robots or extraterrestrials (let alone extraterrestrial robots) — are not looked upon kindly. When a haughty federal agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) comes nosing around the farm where Hogarth lives with his mom, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth is forced into an uneasy alliance with Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), the beatnik artist who runs the local scrapyard.

The movie is loosely adapted from The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights, a bedtime tale that Ted Hughes devised for his children and published in 1968. (The British poet, who died in 1998, is credited as a consultant on the film.)

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William Gibson plays with time but offers little of interest in his new novel, ‘Agency’

April 26, 2020

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

William Gibson’s first book, the pioneering cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, came out in 1984. In the 36 years since, he’s averaged a new novel every three years (counting The Difference Engine, the 1990 steampunk tale he cowrote with Bruce Sterling). There’s been the occasional odd publication — the anthology Burning Chrome; his screenplay for Johnny Mnemonic, published in a volume containing the original short story; a nonfiction collection, Distrust that Particular Flavor; an original graphic novel, Archangel; and a graphic adaptation of his legendary unproduced screenplay for a sequel to Aliens.

It’s a respectable output, but not so prolific as to make a new Gibson novel seem routine. Instead, each fresh book seems like a gift — or like, as I wrote in 2019, a new place waiting to be explored:

What kind of world — often at once amazing and dispiriting — has the U.S.-born writer created, and what convoluted scheme are the characters enmeshed in, voluntarily or otherwise? Moreover, what kind of inventive gadgets will they wield?

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