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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