Archive for March, 2015

A cynic probes alien mysteries in Richard Paul Russo’s ‘Ship of Fools’

March 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 29, 2015

The narrator of Ship of Fools, Richard Paul Russo’s 2001 science fiction novel, is a cynical man. And who can blame him? Bartolomeo Aguilera has never known his parents; they abandoned him, he presumes, because of his physical deformities, which have made him a pariah throughout his life.

Aguilera is a voyager aboard Argonos, an ancient starship that roams the galaxy. The immense vessel’s age, origin and mission are all mysterious. The on-board bishop, an ambitious man, “claimed that the ship had always existed — a ‘Mystery’ that was usually a large part of his conversion sermons, a large part of his basic theology. A large part of his nonsense.”

If Bishop Bernard Soldano’s outlook hints at medieval beliefs, that’s no accident. Argonos has developed a rigid caste system: The wealthy, entitled First Echelon live on the luxurious upper decks while impoverished serfs labor to maintain the vessel on the dingy lower levels. Moreover, the captaincy is handed down along dynastic lines: “Though technically an elected position, in practice the captaincy was inherited, and had resided within the Costa-Malvini clan for several generations.”

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The astronaut at the heart of Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ finds himself at the mercy of a perilous but indifferent universe

March 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 28, 2015

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 novel, Gateway, which was originally serialized in the magazine Galaxy, is a landmark work of science fiction. It swept all of the genre’s top honors, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Campbell awards.

The book contains two tales, which appear in alternating chapters. They’re both narrated by Robinette Broadhead, and each covers a different time period. The odd-numbered chapters revolve around Broadhead’s weekly appointments with “Sigfrid von Shrink,” which is what the narrator calls his computer psychotherapist. This Broadhead, who lives in an exclusive, domed borough of New York City, is a fabulously wealthy retiree. His main pursuits are bedding women and turning the tables on Sigfrid. Sometimes these activities converge, such as when he romances a computer specialist who knows how to bypass key parts Sigfrid’s programming.

The main topic of discussion — or evasion, given Broadhead’s reluctance to engage any subject that makes him uncomfortable — is related in the even-numbered chapters. These are the experiences of young Broadhead, a cash-strapped Wyoming food miner on an overcrowded, far-future Earth. At least, that’s Broadhead’s unpleasant lot in life until he wins the lottery. The 26-year-old immediately spends the bulk of his $250,000 prize on a one-way ticket to an alien asteroid, where he hopes to find unimaginable wealth as a prospector.

His destination is an ancient outpost called Gateway. It was built by the Heechee, a mysterious alien species that has been extinct — or at least absent — for many millennia. Little is known about this race, including what happened to them. No other living intelligent alien life has ever been found.

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A brave exercise in truth-telling: The Heritage Foundation’s Obamacare recap promotes bad news about a bad law

March 27, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 27, 2015

With the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, taking place on Monday, the media have been packed with assessments of the law. But not all assessments are created equal.

Take the article (excuse me — I meant to say, the “brave exercise in truth-telling”) written by Melissa Quinn of the Daily Signal, an outlet of the conservative Heritage Foundation. She got things off to a terrible start:

Five years ago on March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law.

Many of the health care law’s provision took effect in 2013, and Americans have since been experiencing the effects of the law—both good and bad. Millions learned they were not able to keep their original insurance plans and more than 7.7 million received subsidies from the federal exchange.

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Bias, bias everywhere, and not a drop of good old-fashioned patriotic American red-blooded conservative coverage of Obamacare

March 26, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 26, 2015

With the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, taking place on Monday, the media have been packed with assessments of the law. Two of them caught my eye, for no other reason than that they flitted across my Twitter feed.

Tony Pugh of McClatchy’s Washington, D.C., bureau wrote more than 1,400 words on the Affordable Care Act’s rocky five-year history. PolitiFact’s Steve Contorno and Angie Drobnic Holan assembled an assessment that spanned more than 2,000 words. (That count doesn’t include the article’s bibliography, which lists 31 different interviews, articles and studies that formed the basis for the story.)

Now, conservatives love to bellyache about how the mainstream — oh, excuse me; lamestream — media is biased toward liberals. Sadly, anywhere one turns, one finds evidence that these complaints are accurate. Check out these fawning paragraphs that Pugh wrote to conclude his story:

As the health care law hits age five, it’s way too early to pass judgment on its effectiveness, said health care blogger Robert Laszewski. The law’s main provisions have been in place for only about 18 months, Laszewski said. Marketplace insurers are still being subsidized by the federal government, and only about half of the estimated 22 million marketplace plan members the CBO envisions in coming years have purchased coverage.

“I would rate Obamacare, 18 months after implementation, as incomplete,” Laszewski said. “Anybody who wants to look at Obamacare and talk about whether it’s a success or a failure, call me in 2017.”

Obviously this reporter is totally in the tank for Obama, right?

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Dream diary: Vampires and skyscrapers and gliders, oh my

March 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 24, 2015

Last week, while I was sleeping, I dreamed up a horror movie. It involved vampires.

The movie had a prologue set in World War II that showed the origin of the vampires. It apparently also showed their containment — at least, for the next several decades… (Yes, much of my recollection of this dream is vague. So sue me.)

Then the movie switched to the present day. Most of the rest of the story took place in a large modern skyscraper. I dreamed about the vampire menace being unleashed inside the building and the numbers of the contaminated quickly growing. Vampires preyed upon unsuspecting regular people and converted them into the undead. As they threatened to outnumber people, the creatures began attacking openly.

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The American right embraces Netanyahu ardently as Netanyahu embraces U.S. conservatives’ slash-and-burn tactics

March 20, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 20, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, prides himself on taking a hard-nosed approach to security issues. He’s been warning for more than 20 years that Iran was just a few years away from building a functional nuclear bomb. He’s a longtime proponent of building settlements in the West Bank, an initiative that diminishes the possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish nation of Israel — the so-called two-state solution.

But Netanyahu’s Likud Party was struggling in the polls leading up to Tuesday’s elections, in part because many Israelis are focused on economic issues, not national security. So Netanyahu doubled down on his core issues.

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Nerdiest. Injury. Ever.

March 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 18, 2015

This is the story of how, on an otherwise unremarkable Friday night, I sustained what may well be the nerdiest injury in the history of our species.

A friend of mine organizes many of the Scrabble tournaments and get-togethers in the Triangle area. He’s also the director and host of the North Carolina youth Scrabble championship, the winner of which gets to compete in the national youth Scrabble tournament. This year’s state youth tournament was held Saturday at the Chapel Hill school where my pal (let’s call him D.) works.

After meandering through some coffee shops, where I polished my recent post about my favorite books, I headed home for the remainder of what I expected would be a quiet Friday evening. That night, I sent D. a text message confirming that I’d be at the school at 10 and asking if there was anything he wanted me to bring.

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When life gives you the (magic) finger: James Hynes ventures into a mixture of fantasy and academic satire in ‘The Lecturer’s Tale’

March 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 17, 2015

The Lecturer’s Tale, a 2001 novel by James Hynes, is a wicked academic satire about an English professor who becomes extraordinarily persuasive following an accident.

The story is set at the University of the Midwest, a public institution in the Minnesota town of Hamilton Groves. (The university and town are fictitious; the state of Minnesota apparently does exist.) Moments before the tale begins, the protagonist, Nelson Humboldt, has been released from his job as a visiting adjunct professor due to budgetary reasons. This appears to signal the ruination of a once-promising scholarly career; in a matter of weeks, the married father of two young daughters will lose his job, his health insurance and his eligibility to remain in faculty housing.

But then, as Humboldt walks across the university’s teeming quad at noon on Halloween, he stumbles and falls, losing his fingertip in the spokes of a passing bicycle. The finger is sewed back together, but it suddenly seems to have magical properties: When Humboldt touches another person with his fingertip and utters a command or suggestion, the other must obey his will.

The professor first uses his power — unintentionally — when Nelson and his wife, Bridget, encounter a noisy couple at a movie theater. Humboldt walks over to them and asks them not to talk; when they start to get up, he asks them to stay where they are.

As the lights came up after the movie, Nelson noticed that the middle-aged couple were glancing anxiously back at him. The man had his hands on his throat, and was making choking sounds. Nelson hurried down the aisle.

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These are a few of my favorite books

March 15, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 16, 2015

Author’s note: Recently, a young acquaintance who was working on a school project asked me what my favorite book was. I sent this e-mail and then realized, Hey, this would make a great blog post. I’ve made a few relatively minor changes to the text, and — well, here it is. Enjoy! MEM 

“What’s your favorite book?” is a great question to ask someone! It’s hard for me to answer, however, because I love so many different books.

I am extremely fond of Tales of Pirx the Pilot, an anthology about a future astronaut written by the late Polish author Stanislaw Lem. (This book was published in Poland in 1968; it was translated into English and published in two parts. I refer here to the first volume, 1979’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot; the second volume, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, appeared in 1982 and is also excellent.)

Pirx’s adventures are often kind of comical: In the opening story, a very persistent fly gets caught in Pirx’s capsule on his first solo rocket flight. Sometimes, they’re dull — Pirx’s first duty assignment in outer space is essentially watching two scientists who don’t really need any help at a very quiet observatory on the far side of the moon.

The protagonist is a bit bumbling and ordinary, but at the same time he is hard-working, stubborn and kind of charming in a quaint way. Also, Pirx manages to escape some genuinely dangerous situations. We can’t all be Captain Kirk from Star Trek (my favorite TV show when I was a kid), but I like to think that there’s a little bit of Pirx in everyone.

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Encounter with the author as a young man: Spying and romance mingle in Ian McEwan’s understated ‘Sweet Tooth’

March 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 13, 2015

Sweet Tooth, the 2012 novel by British authorIan McEwan, is a tale of social upheaval, literature, betrayal and romance.

The novel’s first paragraph sets the stage in brisk fashion:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

These sentences are somewhat misleading. (This is a spy novel, after all.) Frome never journeys anyplace more distant or exotic than Brighton, a coastal town about 50 miles south of London, the only foreigner she encounters is an American who’s invited to present a lecture at MI5’s offices, and she never meets anyone more hostile than a jealous co-worker. Even so, Frome finds herself in a certain kind of emotional peril when she becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue thanks to her past and present lovers.

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‘Star Trek Generations’ got the 24th-century Enterprise crew off to an uneven start in the movie theaters

March 11, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 11, 2015

Star Trek Generations, the seventh feature film in that science fiction franchise, opened in theaters in November 1994, a few months after the end of the seventh and final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The movie, which was written by TNG producers Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, was explicitly intended to springboard the newer cast into a cinematic series.

Generations did so in part by transporting a character from the original show and movie series into a 24th-century adventure. The Next Generation had largely avoided this kind of crossover, at least partly out of deference to the wishes of Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991 at age 70.

(Dear readers: There be spoilers ahead. I mean, they’re for a 21-year-old movie, but still, you’ve been warned!)

The movie starts in the 23rd century as Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and two of his former crewmen participate in the maiden voyage of the fourth starship Enterprise. This time around, Kirk isn’t in charge — he’s just a guest aboard the Excelsior-class vessel, registration number NCC-1701-B. The crew includes a young ensign named Demora Sulu (Jacqueline Kim), the daughter of Kirk’s old helmsman. Kirk wonders aloud how Sulu was able to start a family. “If something’s important, you make the time,” Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) reproachfully tells his former commanding officer.

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A brief history of ‘Star Trek’

March 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 10, 2015

Author’s note: I know the blog has been Star Trek–heavy lately, thanks to all the musings prompted by the recent death of actor Leonard Nimoy. As it happens, I recently acquired DVDs of the four movies starring the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, and I watched one of them the other night. But before I wrote about the film proper, I wanted to put it in the context of the Star Trek franchise.

Also, I recently read two books: Sweet Tooth, a spy novel by Ian McEwan, and The Lecturer’s Tale, an academic satire by James Hynes. Please bear with me… I’ll get back to non-Trek programming soon, I promise! MEM

Creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned the television show now known as Star Trek: The Original Series as being a “Wagon Train to the stars.” Despite its status now as a pop-culture icon, the program — which chronicled the 23rd-century adventures of Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise — got off to a rocky start. In 1968, two years after its debut, NBC executives decided to commission a third season only after fans mounted a letter-writing campaign. But the show was canceled for good in 1969.

The franchise limped along over the next decade. A cartoon version featuring most of the original cast, which is now called Star Trek: The Animated Series, was produced for the 1973-74 TV season.

But Trek survived mainly in the form of reruns; this was how (and when) I first came to know the show as a young child. Trek fans were also able to enjoy print adaptations of the TV episodes, original stories told in novel and comic-book form, and a variety of franchise-themed toys and clothing. After the cartoon show was scuttled, however, there were no new television or cinematic adventures to be seen.

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After Genesis: More notes on the evolution of ‘Star Trek’ and Spock following ‘The Wrath of Khan’

March 9, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 9, 2015

The recent death of actor Leonard Nimoy prompted me to watch and think about the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanThat 1982 film, which was written by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards and directed by Nicholas Meyer, is probably the high point of the Star Trek franchise.

(Note: As with my previous post, this blog entry contains mild spoilers. Of course, it’s for a 33-year-old movie, but anyway, you’ve been warned: There be spoilers ahead.)

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Farewell to Spock: Notes on the poignant denouement of ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

March 6, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 6, 2015

After hearing that actor Leonard Nimoy, famous for portraying Mr. Spock from Star Trek, had died last week at age 83, I did the same thing as many thousands of others, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of others: I watched this clip from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

If you’ve never seen that movie, and if you care nothing for the Star Trek franchise, then move on; this blog post will be of no interest to you. If you like Star Trek but haven’t seen The Wrath of Khan, then by all means bookmark this page and put off reading the rest of this blog entry until you’ve watched the entire film.

(Yes, friends: There be spoilers ahead.)

If you’ve seen the movie, then you know the grim climactic details that I avoided spelling out in my post about the afternoon I went to watch Star Trek II in the movie theaters.

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Farewell to Spock: On seeing, and suffering through, ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

March 4, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 4, 2015

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, died Friday morning. That sad occasion prompted me to mull the first time I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which many (including me) consider to be the best of all the Star Trek films.

The Star Trek universe is largely a positive place, especially as depicted in the original TV series, which aired from 1966 through 1969. Yes, conflict exists, but in general, Star Trek was a much more family-friendly milieu than that depicted in landmark 1970s science-fiction entertainment such as AlienOutlandCapricorn OneSaturn 3 or even Star Wars. (Granted, George Lucas’s universe is pretty PG-friendly. But there’s very little in early Star Trek that approaches the seediness that the first Star Wars film displayed in the scenes at the Mos Eisley cantina and the Death Star trash compactor.)

Star Trek II takes a very different approach from earlier Trek. In many ways, the film — written by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards and directed by Nicholas Meyer — is a rehearsal of mortality. In the opening scene, the Enterprise is brutally attacked by Klingons while on a rescue mission; Spock, chief communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), helmsman Sulu (George Takei) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are killed before the ship’s master, a fresh-faced female Vulcan named Saavik (Kirstie Alley) gives the order to abandon ship.

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‘Lifepod,’ a 1993 science fictional update of Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat,’ offers scant rewards for viewers

March 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 3, 2015

Journey with me, dear readers, back to a time before the Internet, when the media landscape was very different…

Two decades ago, every American city of any size had a daily newspaper. Many newspapers would print daily television listings. Typically, one of the sections in Sunday’s newspaper — usually the largest edition of the week — comprised a guide to the coming week’s television programming.

In June 1993, someone in the press devoted a bit of attention to Lifepod. This was a TV movie directed by actor Ron Silver that reworked the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat with a science-fiction spin: The characters, instead of surviving an ocean-going vessel sunk by a Nazi submarine, are refugees from a spaceliner that may or may not have been destroyed by an act of sabotage.

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A motley shipwrecked crew struggles to survive in Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’

March 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 2, 2015

In the first shot of Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 war drama, we see the smokestack of a freighter framed by an infinite expanse of ocean. The opening credits — actually, all of the credits — appear over this image as melodramatic minor chords from a score composed by Hugo Friedhofer play ominously.

After about a minute, with all (all!) the credits having been shown, the camera pulls back slightly. We see that the smokestack is not just framed by the waves — it is sticking out of them, all that protrudes above the surface of a ship that has been torpedoed. Within seconds, the groaning smokestack submerges, and the frame turns almost entirely white as the turbulent water fizzes and churns.

Hitchcock’s camera pans across a carefully curated selection of flotsam. There’s a wooden supply crate, which is labeled as having been shipped from New York. A copy of The New Yorker bobs gently, face up, displaying a seemingly timeless image of Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s top-hatted, monocled mascot. A bag floats quietly, along with some kind of diploma or certificate (one that perhaps bears a six-pointed Star of David), as does an evidently lifeless sailor who wears an flotation vest bearing the insignia of Nazi Germany.

Eventually, the camera lands on Constance Porter sitting alone in a lifeboat. Tallulah Bankhead’s well-to-do journalist could hardly seem more out of place: Draped in a fur coat, Connie calmly smokes a cigarette and grimaces at some imperceptible flaw in her fingernails or her shoe polish or her stocking.

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