Joe Zieja’s 2016 debut ‘Mechanical Failure’ pits a grade-A slacker against a dysfunctional military

June 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 22, 2019

The 2016 science fiction comedy Mechanical Failure was the debut novel by Joe Zieja, an Air Force Academy graduate who’s worked as a voiceover artist and composer for commercials and video games. The book, which is set centuries in the future, follows R. Wilson Rogers, a retired sergeant of the Meridan Patrol Fleet in a distant corner of the universe. (“The Fortuna Stultus galaxy had been humanity’s home for a thousand years or so — ever since they’d accidentally collapsed the Milky Way,” Zieja explains in an aside.)

As Mechanical Failure begins, Rogers is a smuggler and con artist trying to play two different criminal factions against each other. Rogers is a bon vivant and slacker, but he’s close to getting away with his scam (passing off baking flour as medical supplies) when a patrol ship stumbles upon the small flotilla of mercenary ships where the phony sale is occurring. Upon being arrested, Rogers is allowed to choose between serving up to five years a prison or a three-year re-enlistment.

He opts for the latter, and ends up returning to his old assignment: A berth aboard “the aptly-if-uncreatively named [Meridan Patrol Ship] Flagship.” Flagship is, of course, the flagship vessel of the 331st Anti-Thelicosan Buffer Group, which has helped maintain the Two Hundred Years’ (and Counting) Peace for, well… you know.

However, Rogers finds that a lot has changed in his former unit. The 331st is on a war footing, the Flagship is awash in robots, and personnel assignments have been shuffled seemingly at random. Worst of all, Rogers finds himself the recipient of an unwanted and unexpected promotion. As the newly minted Ensign Rogers laments, he’d “never wanted responsibility or accountability, people calling him ‘sir’ and saluting him, people asking him to fill out paperwork.”

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Alex White’s thrilling ‘A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe’ assembles a band of misfits for a perilous treasure hunt

June 20, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 20, 2019

Alex White, an Alabama resident who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, has published at least five novels, the first of which appeared in 2011. (Goodreads also credits White with a 2005 novel.)

2018 was an extremely prolific year for White. In April, they published Alien: The Cold Forge, licensed from the 20th Century Fox science-fiction film franchise that was recently acquired by the Disney empire. Two months later, White followed up with an original book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. In December, White published A Bad Deal for the Whole Universe, a sequel to A Big Ship in what is billed as the Scavengers series. (A third entry in the series, The Worst of All Possible Worlds, is due out in a year.)

I checked a digital copy of A Big Ship out of my local library based on a half-read description. I was attracted by the prospect of a ragtag band seeking out a powerful lost warship that some dismiss as fictitious.

Once I began reading A Big Ship, I was a bit taken aback to discover that it was a science-fiction/fantasy genre crossover. Although the story is set in a future where humans have colonized many different star systems and journey in faster-than-light spaceships, most of the characters use magic. I also was a bit put off by the characters, who are something of a motley lot.

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A marine legend turns terrifyingly real for the scientists and sailors of Mira Grant’s ‘Into the Drowning Deep’

June 18, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 18, 2019

Author’s note: This book review, and particularly the novel excerpt featured herein, concerns a horror story and may not be appropriate for younger or sensitive readers. MEM

The California-born author Seanan McGuire has published, by my count, more than 40 different books, a handful of essays and dozens of short stories — all this before her 42nd birthday. In a somewhat catty assessment, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction sniffs that “[t]he fluent copiousness of McGuire’s talent helps explain the rapid increase of interest in her work; but may also explain its occasional repetitiveness.”

Some 10 of McGuire’s novels appear under the nom de plume Mira Grant, which she adopted for reasons unclear to me. The most recent Grant book is 2017’s Into the Drowning Deep, an entertaining trifle about a research vessel that makes… well, not exactly first contact… with carnivorous human/fish hybrids that normally dwell in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean.

Grant assembles her voyagers aboard the Melusine, a spacious new research vessel that sets sail for the Mariana Trench in August 2022. The ship and expedition have been commissioned by Imagine Entertainment, a media empire with the approximate success and scope of Disney — although its aesthetics are more aligned with those of infamous C-movie studios like Cannon Films and the Asylum.

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Aliette de Bodard’s ‘The Citadel of Weeping Pearls’ is an unimpression extension of her Xuya science-fiction sequence

June 15, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 15, 2019

Some months ago, I read a short novel called On a Red Station, Drifting, set in a future galactic empire guided by the values of ancient Vietnamese culture. Aliette de Bodard’s tale evoked a very different vision of human expansion than the American- and European-centered versions with which I grew up. De Bodard is an American-born software engineer who shares French and Vietnamese heritage who has spent most of her life in France, and I was fascinated and enchanted by her creation.

Regrettably, I was far less absorbed by de Bodard’s 2017 follow-up, The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, which is set a few decades after Red Station. The empire is still embroiled in conflict, but the irresolute young emperor has been replaced a number of years ago by a much firmer queen. In a bid to counter a new threat, Empress Mi Hiep has launched a project to find the titular citadel.

The citadel is not a building but a fleet commanded by the monarch’s estranged daughter, Bright Princess Ngoc Minh. The highly advanced ships disappeared three decades ago, but now Mi Hiep believes she needs the citadel’s innovative engines, defenses and weapons to repel a surprisingly swift invasion fleet dispatched by a rival kingdom.

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An amnesiac Londoner with supernatural powers is charged with sniffing out a mole in Daniel O’Malley’s ‘The Rook’

June 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 12, 2019

The Rook, a 2012 novel by an American-educated Australian, launched what to date has been a two-part series called the Chequy Files. Daniel O’Malley’s first book belongs to a genre I think of as urban fantasy fiction, which the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines in part as “the subgenre of stories set in an alternate version of our modern world where humans (often with special Talents) and supernatural beings — most typically Vampires, Werewolves, assorted other Shapeshifters and very humanlike Elves or Fairies — interact via adventure, melodrama, intrigue and Sex.”

Now I enjoyed the Harry Potter series about as much as anyone else my age. In my early teens, I was something of a fantasy aficionado, dabbling in The Lord of the Rings and successors such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern volumes, Terry Brooks’s Shannara series and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. But my interest in the genre died off sometime by the middle or end of the 1990s. Other than J.K. Rowlings’s mega-best-selling Potter series, I hadn’t read a new work of fantasy in something like two decades — until last month.

The Rook has a very clever premise and is mostly well-written, but it emphatically did not rekindle my interest in fantasy. The book begins with a woman standing in the rain in a London park with no knowledge of who she is or why she’s surrounded by bodies of people wearing latex gloves. This mostly blank slate is inhabiting the body of Myfanwy Thomas, an high-ranking official in “the Court” of a quasigovernmental secret British institution called the Checquy Group. (Her given name rhymes with Tiffany; the organization’s sounds like Sheck-Eh.)

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part lucky 13!

June 9, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 9, 2019

Upon reaching my car, the first order of business was driving out the main entrance of the casino property, turning right onto Pennsylvania Route 315, driving about 700 feet and depositing my winnings in the nearest automatic teller. Having done that, I grabbed the receipt and restarted my car and made my way back onto southbound 315.

From the bank, it’s only about a mile until the interchange with Pennsylvania 309. Unfortunately, it was coming up on 4:30 by this time, meaning that I had to wait nearly five minutes before I could make the left turn onto the state road.

Route 309 extends only a half-mile to the east it terminates at Interstate 81. You can go straight past the highway, but the road you continue on becomes Pennsylvania 115. Right around the moment I got onto the highway, my phone informed me that I was getting an incoming call. The area code was 570, which I correctly thought was local. I pulled over to the side of the highway just before the exit lane for the interstate.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 12

June 8, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 8, 2019

Remember when I busted out of the national Tournament of Champions finals? Yeah, me too. Well, long story… er, long… after that happened, I circuited the main casino floor and got a quick meal at Johnny Rockets.

A choice among three options lay before me. I could leave the casino and drive to Virginia in plenty of time to have dinner with my hosts and friends; I could play in one of the last two non-invitational tournaments remaining on the event schedule and depart after that; or I could sit down in the poker room and play at a cash table for a while.

Well, I didn’t just want to leave. I typically visit a casino exactly once a year, and I still felt a competitive urge.

However, the penultimate tournament was slated to begin at 3:30, and the last at 6 p.m.; the entry fees were $65 and $50, respectively. Since it was just approaching noon, I’d need to kill more than three hours. And unless I busted early, which of course I didn’t want to do, I wouldn’t be able to reach my friends in Northern Virginia until well after dinnertime. Worst of all, I suppose, was the possibility that, as on the previous evening, I could play for four hours and not come away with any money.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 11

June 7, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 7, 2019

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this series of posts, the last five springs running I’ve attended a national World Tavern Poker event at a particular casino in Pennsylvania. That venue is Mohegan Sun Pocono in the hills above Wilkes-Barre.

(This facility, I ought to note, is distinct in location, if not name, from the top search result for Mohegan Sun.)

(I also ought to note, being the pedant that I am, that the precise location for Mohegan Sun Pocono is the township of Plains.)

The facility incorporates a racetrack, a casino and a hotel. The racetrack betting floor and the gaming areas of the casino are, as is typical for such venues, barred to those under the age of 18 or 21, depending on the exact location. The racetrack has its own building, which can be reached without stepping outside by way of an enclosed sky bridge.

The casino and hotel are set side by side. Excluding what I think of as the racetrack annex, which houses the poker room and a bunch of slot machines, the casino’s main public area is set on a single floor. You can walk directly from the casino to a corridor that leads directly to the hotel’s reception area. Continue past the hotel for another few dozen strides and you’ll find yourself in the lobby of a set of meeting areas, which include a spacious ballroom.

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A covert agent fights his way through a hazardous galaxy in Iain M. Banks’s dynamic 1987 novel ‘Consider Phlebas’

June 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 5, 2019

Iain Banks, who published many of his science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks, falls into what for me is quite a large category of knowledge — or perhaps I should say quasi-knowledge. This Scottish writer’s name is something I’ve heard or read and am aware of, but I could not really tell you anything specific about him.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits Banks, who died in 2013 at age 59, with 33 titles. His debut novel came out in 1984 and was followed by books in each of the following two years. In 1987, impressively, Banks published a whopping three books; he maintained a relatively brisk pace for the rest of his life. Consider Phlebas, which was part of that trio, is part of my local library’s catalog of digital books. On the cover is a legend labeling the volume as “A Culture Novel.”

Prior to this spring, on a good day, about the only bit of information my brain could have dredged up about Banks, besides his being a writer, is that he had authored a science fiction series named after something called the Culture.

In fact, Consider Phlebas is the first novel in what ultimately wound up as an 11-book series that spanned most of Banks’s wiring life. I had very little idea what to expect from the series as a whole or the debut entry in particular, in part because the library catalog description is a bit vague. I’ll confess that I anticipated some highfaluting book of ideas, a notion that may have been fostered by my associations with the word “culture.”

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 10

June 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 4, 2019

I reached my seat for the National Tournament of Champions finals on Thursday morning a little after 9. I think the first hand was under way when I arrived. My cards had been mucked, but this was the only hand I missed.

Unlike the national championship finals, which had been staged over three segments spanning Monday and Tuesday, this set of finals would take place in one marathon event.

In the first blind level, 100–200, a woman out of Ann Arbor, Mich., raised to 800 in early position from seat six and got at least one caller. My hole cards were jacks. I raised to 2,600 or 2,800. I was called by Cedric, a.k.a. C.J., in seat one and maybe someone else. The flop went 10-6-3 or something like that; it was a rainbow. I put in a 5,000 chip and got a fold.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 9

June 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 2, 2019

I went back to the casino a little after 7 Wednesday evening to play in the Dream Team tournament, which had a separate prize for the four-person team that collected the most cumulative points. (Each player was given a certain number of points for each blind level he or she lasted.) My quartet included Penny Z—, another player from the bar where I direct tournaments on Sunday evenings, and a fourth player whom I did not know.

I was not exactly thrilled with the dealer at my first table, whom I recognized from previous year’s visits to the casino. At one point, I told the dealer that he could collect the cards of the player to my left, who had departed the table, but the dealer responded, incorrectly, that he had to wait until it was that player’s turn to act.

The casino’s actual rule for tournament poker is that a player’s cards should be mucked if the person is not within arm’s reach of her or his chair at the end of the initial deal (i.e., once each player has received two hole cards). I knew this playing at the casino five springs running and because a manager had stipulated the rule over the public address system moments before the tournament began. Kyle, the player to my right, backed me up, but the dealer was not moved. I shrugged and let things stand.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 8

June 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 1, 2019

Depending on the tournament, a blind at these national World Tavern Poker event can last 15, 20 or 30 minutes. (Meaning that whatever the blinds — 100–200, 3,000–6,000, anything — they stay at that level until the new blinds are announced.) Regardless of the blind length, however, a 15-minute intermission is staged after every fourth blind level.

I played past a trio of 15-minute breaks in the Patriot Poker tournament. Twice, the very last hand prior to intermission proved to be quite dramatic.

Near the end of level eight, with the blinds 4,000–8,000, Jackie raised to 14,000. I looked at my hole cards: a pair of jacks. Jackie had a pretty healthy war chest, and I didn’t want to limp in. I shoved all in for 31,800 — 17,800 more than her raise.

Glenn, a veteran, was sitting in seat one on the opposite side of the dealer. Like Jackie, he had a bunch of chips. With very little hesitation, he said he was calling my push. He moved about 35,000 past the commitment line.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 7

May 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 31, 2019

After busting from the national championship, I headed out from the casino to decompress for a few hours. After whiling away some time in Wilkes-Barre’s main public library and in a local coffee shop that I like, I decided to spend a little time playing at the $1–$2 cash tables.

I spent about two hours, roughly doubling my starting stack of $120 before losing most of my gains. I stepped away from the table after about two and a half hours, cashing in $241 in white one-dollar and red five-dollar chips. Of the specific hands I played during this span, I can tell you approximately nothing. (I think I had pocket jacks and pocket queens and/or pocket kings during this span. But really, that’s about it…)

Actually, that isn’t entirely true. I remember raising preflop with pocket nines, possibly from the small blind. The man to my immediate left, in the big blind, reraised, and I called. Much to my delight, the flop included a nine, giving me a set. I bet all my chips, and my foe dithered a bit before calling, apparently against his better judgment. He never showed his hand, but I think he had aces. I raked in quite a big pot.  Read the rest of this entry »


Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 6

May 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 29, 2019

The national championship dealers were told to stop dealing cards about 10 minutes after noon on Tuesday, May 21, only a little while after I’d relocated to my second table of the day. Moments later, we were told that we’d made it into the Pit. After relocating, we filled out a short questionnaire, took a group photograph and made pit stops.

Play began in the Pit around 12:35; I occupied seat four or five at table 141.

On the first hand, I folded queen-nine, both hearts. From the small blind, with no callers, Adam T— shoved queen-five off. Fellow New York player Jim M— was in the big blind with ace-king or ace-queen unsuited, I believe, and it held, eliminating Adam.

Later, I shoved with ace-queen and got no callers.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 5

May 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 28, 2019

I thought I’d fall into bed around midnight on Monday, if not before then. But I was extremely excited about the conclusion to the national championship and how it would play out the next morning. I think it wasn’t until around 2 a.m. that the sandman visited me.

I woke up a few hours later and had trouble returning to sleep. I decided to skip that day’s 9 a.m. meeting for World Tavern Poker tournament directors and just show up around 10:30 to check in for the finale of the finals. I ran a little late, getting in line around 10:45, but I was in my seat several minutes before cards started flying.

There were 50 players still competing for the championship. The most prosperous of us by far was Gerald F—, a gentleman I did not know who possessed more than 518,000 in chips. Shaun, the victor in Monday’s infamous “man storms off and flips the bird over his shoulder” hand, was in fourth place with 300,000, while Jeff H— was two spots behind him with 274,000. Thirteen of our number had 49,000 or fewer chips — not a favorable situation with blinds at 10,000–20,000 with a 2,000 ante.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 4

May 23, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 23, 2019

After about three hours of play in flight one of the national championship on Monday, May 20, my first table was broken up. I went to seek my fortune at seat eight at table 151. Nancy A— sat to my immediate left. We were both seated between the button and the small blind, which meant we had to sit out a hand.

The very first one that we saw, but did not participate in, turned out to be dramatic. The man in seat four pushed all in. The man in seat 10, name of Shaun I believe, contemplated what to do and then called. “Good call,” the aggressor said before displaying king-ten off-suit.

Shaun rolled over the queen and ten of spades, and the flop contained two spades. The river was a king… of spades. Seat four initially thought he’d won; he was extremely irate when it was explained to him that Shaun’s flush was in fact the best hand. He shoved his chips toward Shaun and then angrily flung his commemorative marker in the same direction.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 3

May 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2019

Nancy A—, North Carolina player, was moved to our table perhaps 90 minutes into the national championship finals. At some point, a universally beloved World Tavern Poker employee named Scooty walked up to our table with a smirk on his face and told her, “You drive however many hours and end up playing with this yahoo?” The three of us chuckled.

There was a wild hand sometime around noon. A man in late position made a big bet. Action folded to Mickey, the woman sitting on my right, who was in the small blind. After some consideration, she pushed all in.

I had Mickey covered, and I think she had the aggressor covered, but there were a lot of chips at stake, and I turned out to have unsuited seven-two in the hole. That’s the worst starting hand in holdem (check the bottom-right corner of the chart on this page), so after a fleeting flirtation with making the call, I mucked my cards.

The dealer sorted the pots. Mickey showed her cards, which were pocket jacks. The original bettor showed his cards, which were the other two pocket jacks. The table gasped when when we realized that pair was pitted against identical pair.

In a heads-up all-in situation like this, the pot is typically chopped, meaning that the chips in the middle are split equally between the participants because their hands are of the same strength. In fact, in a these circumstances, there’s only one way to avoid a chop: Four cards of a single suit have to appear on the board, thereby giving one of the players a flush.

There was a seven on the flop. If I’d called, I would have been extremely excited. Mickey and her rival could not hit a set or four of a kind because all of their outs — the cards that could help them — were in their hands and therefore no longer able to be dealt as a community card. However, a third player who hits a pair on the flop has as many as six outs. In my case, had I participated, my outs would have been the other three sevens and the other three deuces.

The river, of course, was a deuce. “I would have had two pairs!” I exclaimed. “I folded seven-deuce! Of course, that’s what I should have done, but…” I shrugged; the pot was chopped; and play continued.

Around 1 p.m., our table — which still had five of its original 10 players — was the scene of a dramatic hand involving yours truly. It would turn out to be the last hand at that table.

Mickey, the woman to my immediate right, shoved all in for 82,000 in early position. I looked at my hand as her chips were being counted and discovered pocket jacks. “I’m going to need a minute,” I mutter, half to myself, half to the dealer and the rest of the table.

Mickey did her all-in chair dance, patting her shoulder blades with alternating hands and saying, ”Good luck, Mickey. Good luck, Mickey.”

I had 55,000, and my sneaking suspicion was that Mickey had shoved somewhat light, meaning that her hand was not super strong; I put her on pocket nines.

After a minute or two, I called. Everyone else folded.

We put the cards on their backs. She had pocket kings, meaning that I was in a world of hurt.

Mickey addressed Brian, our dealer. “No jack, no jack,” she implored.

The flop included a jack. I turned my head and looked away, over my left shoulder, as the next two streets were dealt. Mickey asked for a king, and I think she also tried some reverse psychology and asked for another jack, but I could tell without looking that my set remained good. The win was a huge relief for me, not to mention a big score chip-wise.

And that was a wrap for that table. We racked our chips, collected the laminated red-and-white cards bearing our seat assignments, and went looking for our new spots.

To be continued


Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 2

May 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2019

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, May 20, flight one of the World Tavern Poker national championship finals got under way. For this, my second event of Open 26, I was assigned seat six at table 124, which was located in the back of the ballroom, near one of the large video screens. I would keep that seat for the better part of three hours.

I got into trouble during an early level when I woke up on the button with the ace and seven of hearts. I raised, deterring perhaps two limpers but leaving us four-handed going to the flop.

The flop featured two hearts, which left me this close to securing an ace-high flush. Of course, a third heart never found its way to the board, although an ace appeared on fifth street, giving me top pair with a weak kicker; the community cards also included a pair of deuces. My rival, a guy sporting a Boston Red Sox T-shirt and baseball cap, made some sizable bets on the turn and river — 3,500 each time, I think — and I called. Ultimately, he turned over ace-nine; unfortunately, his kicker played, leaving me roughly 10,000 chips poorer than when the hand had begun.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 1

May 21, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 21, 2019

Author’s note: This post contains some profanity near the end. MEM

Seconds before the digital clock metaphorically struck 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, I started my vehicular conveyance and began driving from my parental unit’s domicile to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The skies were bright and clear, the weather was warm and the drive was fairly straightforward.

I got to my lodging a little after 5:30 p.m., checked in, shuttled a whole mess of stuff from my car to the room, changed clothes and took a load off my feet for a little while. Around 6:50 p.m., I made my way through one of the expansive parking lots that surround Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, moving briskly because the once sunny skies were now heavy with rain.

I walked toward the casino and found one of the players cards terminals. I have two players cards for this venue, thanks to my participation in national World Tavern Poker events the past few consecutive springs. The first card I swiped instantly displayed my name; I stowed the other.

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Three entertaining Connie Willis novellas journey to space school, future Hollywood and a remote planet in ‘Terra Incognita’

May 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 13, 2019

American author Connie Willis was named a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2011. She’s best known for a quartet of novels in which historians from the University of Oxford travel through time to conduct their work; all four books won the Hugo award, and three of them also won the Nebula.

Terra Incognita, a 2018 anthology, collects three tales by Willis, presented by date of publication; I’ll be discussing them in reverse order.

The last item, “D.A.,” which appeared in 2007, is the slightest of the works, both in length and substance. The story is narrated by Theodora Baumgarten, a senior at Winfrey High School in Colorado who has her heart set on attending UCLA.

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Cheeps and Chirps for May 11, 2019

May 11, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 11, 2019

Let’s fire up the old tweeting machine.

• Politics

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Recent Readings for May 9, 2019

May 9, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 9, 2019

Author’s note: One of the articles linked below involves a porn star; the article is not particularly explicit, but I wanted to give warning. Also, two of the articles below contain upsetting details about violent crimes. MEM

Gosh, I haven’t done one of these in nearly two and a half years. Let’s see what’s been running through my mind lately!

• “The Sunday school children: The little-known tragedy of the Sri Lankan Easter attacks.” Rebecca Wright, Sam Kiley and King Ratnam of CNN take a detailed look at one of the bombings in the terrorist assaults that killed about 250 Christians and tourists last month. Be aware that this story is filled with a number of heartbreaking details.

• “Student slated to attend Western Michigan University beheaded in Saudi Arabia.” This was one of a series of government executions, the particulars of which should shock the conscience of every American. Alas, it’s hard to imagine that our freedom-loving pro-life president giving this matter more than 30 seconds of thought. As I tweeted: “The details presented here are shocking, and comprise a not-so-gentle reminder that this nation produced 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001.”

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Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids: Brian Aldiss examines whether the human species has a future in ‘Finches of Mars’

May 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 4, 2019

I gave passing mention to British science fiction author Brian W. Aldiss about two and a half years ago, in the first part of my examination of which science fiction grand masters have had the most works translated into television and film. But only recently have I ever read any of his novels.

Finches of Mars came out in 2012; it was Aldiss’s last science fiction novel, although he subsequently published an original anthology, a revised novel and a non-genre novel before his death in 2017. Somewhat like Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, Finches of Mars features a narrative that, at least initially, floats almost aimlessly from character to character and even, in this case, planet to planet. (However, I have no indication that Aldiss wrote the chapters as individual pieces or intended them to work on their own, as Tidhar appears to have done.)

The situation Aldiss posits is rather dire: Roughly a century in the future, Earth is even more conflict-riven than today. About four million people live on the moon, but they must rotate back home every three months to prevent deleterious effects of longterm exposure to low gravity. A consortium of schools, UU, or United Universities, has established humanity’s first beachhead on an entirely different planet: Six residential towers, segregated by region. (Westerners, Chinese, Russians, Singapore and Thailand, South America and Scandinavia each have their own building on Mars.)

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To sleep, perchance to change the world? Ursula Le Guin plumbs the depths of subconsciousness to little effect in ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

April 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 30, 2019

In 2002, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America designated Ursula K. Le Guin as a grand master. The American was the 20th author to win the honor but only the second woman, after Andre Norton in 1983. Despite her prestige and influence — Le Guin, who died last year at age 87, was named a living legend by the U.S. Library of Congress two years before she was honored by SFWA — I’ve only read a handful of her tales, mostly in the form of short fiction included in anthologies.

Le Guin’s sixth novel was The Lathe of Heaven. Unlike the preceding volumes, four of which established the Hainish or League of All Worlds universe and one of which launched the Earthsea saga, this 1971 narrative is a stand-alone story about one George Orr. This mild-mannered draftsman from Portland, Ore., seems thoroughly average in every way but one: He’s afraid of his own dreams.

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Human evolution moves in new and strange ways in ‘Central Station,’ Lavie Tidhar’s loosely linked 2016 novel about future Tel Aviv

April 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 29, 2019

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar’s 2016 novel, is a rambling meditation on the nature of humanity and the possible directions our species might take in the coming decades.

Tidhar envisions a future Israel that has been apportioned and has achieved a measure of stability. Palestine includes what has become the city of Jaffa, while Jews retain the remainder of Tel Aviv and other parts of today’s Israeli territory. The space port of Central Station straddles the two cities, uniting and dividing them, funneling people and goods both into and out of the sector.

The port serves as a gateway to colonies all around the solar system. But that doesn’t entirely explain Central Station’s amazing diversity: The neighborhood boasts creatures of many ethnicities and native tongues. Some of these are very familiar, others are fantastic and still others are wholly intangible — and a number, like the port, straddle different categories of existence.

Tidhar, an Israeli, begins to outline Central Station’s huge variety with this passage near the start of his book:

The rain caught them by surprise. The space port, this great white whale, like a living mountain rising out of the urban bedrock, drew onto itself the formation of clouds, its very own miniature weather system. Like islands in the ocean, space ports saw localized rains, cloudy skies, and a growth industry of mini-farms growing like lichen on the side of their vast edifices. 

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