Archive for July, 2015

Unlit: A driving anecdote

July 30, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 30, 2015

The other evening, I was driving along a familiar road in New Jersey while on my way to the airport. It was after 9. The sky was dark.

It was a busy road, lined by multistory office buildings on the east side and a large shopping center and other businesses on the right. Two heavily trafficked highways feed into this road’s northern end; just south of this stretch of the road are major exchanges with even busier transportation arteries.

“That car’s lights aren’t on,” I murmured* to my passenger, referring to a boxy red sedan a few cars ahead of us.

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Nuclear deterrence, nation-states and the real threat from nuclear proliferation

July 29, 2015

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

I’m not particularly eager to see Iran obtain nuclear weapons. For one thing, Iran’s government has traditionally shown extreme hostility toward Israel. For another, nuclear proliferation in general seems to hold great potential to destabilize any region.

Even so, I suspect the danger of Iran’s successful development of nuclear armaments may be somewhat exaggerated. The problem, I fear, is that atomic weaponry might fall into the hands of a terrorist organization such as the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda or the like.

Nations can act recklessly — see Operation Iraqi Freedom — but generally, they do so with one underlying goal in mind: To insure their continued existence and, if possible, prosperity. A nation tied to a nuclear strike would almost surely face extensive shunning by the global community. Economic repercussions would be all but guaranteed; some kind of military counterstrike would be likely; the chances of a war being launched to unseat that nation’s rulers would rise significantly.

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John Scalzi’s ‘Redshirts’ explores the downside of life as a supernumerary aboard a TV spacecraft

July 24, 2015

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

John Scalzi’s 2012 novel, Redshirts, is a wonderful comic exploration of what life might be like for the crew of a spaceship featured in a campy television series.

Scalzi’s protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, a 25th-century xenobiologist who has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. He’s one of five new junior crew members who quickly become aware that their new starship is, well, a little unusual.

For instance, take Dahl’s first away mission, to a space station overrun by deadly robots:

Dahl screamed McGregor’s name, stood and unholstered his pulse gun, and fired into the center of the pulpy red haze where he knew the killer machine to be. The pulse beam glanced harmlessly off the machine’s surface. Hester yelled and pushed Dahl down the corridor, away from the machine, which was already resetting its harpoon. They turned a corner and raced away into another corridor, which led to the mess hall. They burst through the doors and closed them behind them.

“These doors aren’t going to keep that thing out,” Hester said breathlessly.

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In the symbolism-laden ‘Solaris,’ Steven Soderbergh explores a remote corner of space where the past is strangely present

July 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 22, 2015

Solaris is a work that I’ve engaged repeated over the course of my lifetime. The original book, by the great Polish author Stanislaw Lem, was penned in 1961. I’ve always held it in great regard, although my understanding of it is rather limited.

The premise is simple enough: Something has gone grievously wrong with a scientific expedition to the planet Solaris, an oceanic planet that manifests waves and weather patterns in ways that indicate the presence of some form of intelligence. A psychologist named Kelvin is dispatched to the research station to investigate why its communications have become erratic. While there, he becomes obsessed — some might say haunted — by a figure from his past, much like the surviving station crew members. To say too much more would be to give away part of the story’s mystery and power.

I first read Solaris as a young man, probably while I was in high school (if not even younger). Although I haven’t read it in many years, I remember the book being about the limits of human psychology and scientific inquiry. Lem ultimately positions Kelvin as neither a hero nor an expert — he is simply an average man baffled by, and at the mercy of, an immensely powerful force he can neither comprehend nor combat.

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A reporter’s nightmare

July 20, 2015

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

On Saturday morning, I dreamed one of those weird, detailed dreams that I sometimes dream.

I was working at a small newspaper. I was going through my e-mail. One of the items was about a space mission that would carry a single person to Jupiter. I was surprised, because I’d never heard anything about this expedition, but when I checked it out, it was true — and it was something that had hardly been publicized. I wrote it up and had a modest scoop for myself and my paper.

The dream evolved. The agency (private? public? I’ve no idea) that was launching the mission had arranged some kind of publicity tour, and one of the first stops (if not the very first) would be in my town or city. I got the assignment of covering the local event.

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My visit to the Confederate graveyard

July 16, 2015

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

I’ve lived the past decade and change in North Carolina, and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it. This is not a knock on Henderson or Vance County, but I’m much better suited to Durham, and Durham is much better suited to me, than the small community where I lived for four years when I first came to the state.

My point here, however, is that despite those 11 and a half years, I am not a Southerner. I grew up outside New York City, went to college in Northern California, and returned to New York before moving to North Carolina.

As a result, my opinions on the Civil War are very different than they might have been had I been raised here. I view the Confederated States of America as a rebellion, not any kind of noble or lost cause. To me, symbols of the Confederacy stand for a group of secessionists who fought to maintain the cruel institution of slavery, not liberty-minded individuals who were standing up for states’ rights. Not until I had long been an adult, frankly, did it ever occur to me that any rational individual would think in the latter fashion.

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The romantic comedy ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ suffers from crazy, stupid psychology

July 14, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 14, 2015

There’s a short scene about two-thirds of the way through the 2011 movie Crazy, Stupid, Love that captures its willful cluelessness about how the world works.

When a quartet of adult men brawl behind the house that Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) and Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) used to share with a son and daughter, the police are called. But the officers don’t seem very concerned that two neighbors (one of them Cal, the other the father of a teenage girl standing in the back yard), Emily Weaver’s lover plus a fourth man have been involved in a melee. Instead, the cops blithely head elsewhere, pausing only to admonish the parties involved that in the future they should keep their fighting indoors, where it won’t attract as much unwanted attention.

It’s a remarkably cavalier response to the fight, which was sparked partly by Bernie Riley’s not-so-comic misunderstanding that Cal was having an affair with, or at least receiving racy pictures from, Bernie’s 17-year-old daughter and partly because of the very real infidelity that caused Cal and Emily to separate.

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Gunman for hire: George Clooney plays a man trapped by his vocation in ‘The American’

July 13, 2015

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

On a recent visit to a second-hand book-, CD- and DVD-store, I browsed the $2 DVD bin and noticed a movie called The American. It was from 2010 and it starred George Clooney, apparently playing a(n American) hit man on the run in Italy. I snapped it up.

The movie itself is somber and stripped down, as one might infer from the no-frills title and the two-tone movie poster, which was printed using only orange and black ink. (Or at least, the poster’s design suggests that it was made that way.)

Clooney plays an extremely reticent mercenary; he seems to be comprised of equal parts assassin, gunsmith and mystery. The character is known variously as Jack or Edward; I’ll refer to him by the first name, which the movie suggests is more genuine than the latter one.

As the film starts, Jack is enjoying a romantic interlude in a remote, snowy Swedish cabin. (“Enjoying” is a relative term — he seems reluctant even to smile at his companion.) About two minutes into the picture, someone shoots at Jack and his lover (Irina Björklund); two minutes further in, three people have been shot to death. It’s unclear why anyone wants to kill Jack, although presumably it has to do with his line of work. But one of the killings seems entirely unmotivated, and is therefore incredibly shocking, even though The American is relatively modest in its depiction of violence.

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Notes on tiny Kittrell, North Carolina

July 11, 2015

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

When you drive north along U.S. 1 from Raleigh, before you reach the city of Henderson, you’ll come across Kittrell, North Carolina.

To be frank, you might not notice Kittrell — and you could easily be forgiven for overlooking it. Here, according to the 2010 Census, were the populations of the three incorporated municipalities in Vance County, N.C.:

• Henderson (Vance County seat): 15,368.

• Kittrell: 467.

• Middleburg: 133.

If memory serves, Kittrell is a no-stoplight town. I worked for the daily newspaper in Vance County, which covered Vance and the counties immediately to its east and west, for more than four years. I can only remember going to Kittrell for work purposes once, to cover a community meeting about the proposed establishment of zoning authority in Vance County. (The proposal was quite controversial and was quashed by conservative rural property owners who were afraid the government would prevent them from doing whatever they wanted with their land.)

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‘Love and Mercy’ unevenly charts the personal struggles of the Beach Boys’ musical genius

July 10, 2015

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

Love and Mercy is the uneven new biopic about Brian Wilson, the brilliant but troubled musician who helped propel the Beach Boys to the heights of stardom in the 1960s.

The story unfolds on two tracks, not unlike Woman in Gold, another recent movie based on real events. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wilson, played by Paul Dano, wrangles with his occasionally baffled brothers, cousin and other bandmates about the direction of the band, which has already hit it big. He also fights with his manipulative father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp). Murry, who is separated from Brian’s mother, openly berates his sons for having fired him as the Beach Boys’ manager, and he denigrates Brian’s musical experimentation. Brian, torn by these stresses, begins dabbling with hallucinogenic drugs and starts losing control of his life.

These scenes are intercut with a separate storyline — it seems to be set in the late 1980s — in which we see Wilson after he’s bottomed out due to mental illness and substance abuse. The main story here involves Wilson’s tentative romance with car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Ledbetter is baffled by the extent to which Wilson has surrendered control of his life to a manipulative father figure — in this case, a malevolent psychiatrist named Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

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‘Red Planet’ is an outer-space expedition that ultimately goes nowhere

July 8, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 8, 2015

Fifteen years ago, two big red cinematic bombs were unleashed upon the movie-going public. The marginally superior of these two films was Mission to Mars, a Brian De Palma helmed effort that debuted in March 2000 and starred Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle and Tim Robbins. The other Mars movie was Red Planet, a November release headlined by Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss and Tom Sizemore.

Mission to Mars was an ideas movie with action, an attempt by a great director to make a successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey. By contrast, Red Planet was an action movie with ideas — an effort to replicate the original Jurassic Park in a science fiction milieu. By this I mean not that Red Planet is a monster movie, as Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster is, but that, like the earlier movie, Red Planet attempts to envelop its candy-coated center with a veneer of scientific concepts.

There are plenty of differences between the two movies, of course, one of them being that Jurassic Park had an excellent script. Red Planet can’t claim the same, unfortunately. It was penned by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin, who between them have no credit more impressive than Navy Seals or The Devil’s Advocate. Which isn’t to say that these movies — or their other outings, such as Virus or Shooter — are bad; it’s just that, like Red Planet, they’re simply not very distinguished.

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A player for all genres: Nick Cole’s heroic video gamer assumes the mantle of a knight-errant in ‘Soda Pop Soldier’

July 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 7, 2015

Nick Cole’s 2014 novel, Soda Pop Soldier, is a fun science-fiction romp with literary value roughly equal to the nutritional value of — well, of soda.

Cole’s vaguely realized protagonist doesn’t even get a proper name; most of the time, he’s known as PerfectQuestion, his in-game handle for the WarWorld video game competitions. At other times, others address the character as Wu, the moniker of the samurai he plays in an illicit fantasy video game.

Still, the plot is fairly compelling. Several decades in the future, Question has a job playing WarWorld games on his computer. The results have real-life consequences: Each victory on a given virtual front rewards the winning team’s sponsor corporation with valuable real-world advertising space. Unfortunately, Question’s sponsor, ColaCorp, has been losing battle after battle to the enemy WonderSoft corporation in a modern-warfare game set in a fictitious Southeast Asian country. (For ColaCorp, read Coca-Cola; for WonderSoft, Microsoft.) If things continue on this course, the entire team will be fired.

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Seeking the summit: Dan Simmons offers five short science-fiction tales in ‘Worlds Enough and Time’

July 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 5, 2015

Worlds Enough and Time, the 2002 anthology by virtuoso author Dan Simmons, contains five short stories. (A few, in truth, are somewhat longish.) Two of the pieces are excellent; the other three are flawed but interesting.

The stories are presented in chronological order beginning with the oldest, “Looking for Kelly Dahl,” which was originally published in 1995. It begins as a cat-and-mouse tale about a dissolute former public school teacher named Roland Jakes who is hunting, and being hunted by, one of his former students.

Kelly Dahl was a largely unremarkable child when Jakes taught her; now, however, by some unknown process, she’s acquired godlike powers. You can get a sense of them by reading the story’s opening:

I awoke in camp that morning to find the highway to Boulder gone, the sky empty of contrails, and the aspen leaves a bright autumn gold despite what should have been a midsummer day, but after bouncing the Jeep across four miles of forest and rocky ridgeline to the back of the Flatirons, it was the sight of the Inland Sea that stopped me cold.

“Damn,” I muttered, getting out of the Jeep and walking to the edge of the cliff.

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Science fiction time loop, take 1: The uneven ‘All You Need is Kill’ is most notable for having inspired ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

July 4, 2015

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

Last summer, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt starred in Edge of Tomorrow. I praised this dynamic military science-fiction movie as a likely classic of its subgenre, a motion picture that might one day be mentioned in the same breath as James Cameron’s seminal Aliens.

Somewhat to my surprise, the movie seemed to sink without a trace. True, it grossed $100 million domestically, but that was only the 33rd-biggest haul of 2014, per the website Box Office Mojo. (Edge fared better worldwide, selling $269 million in tickets overseas; the combined take gave it the 20th-highest worldwide gross of the year.)

Perhaps one reason Edge of Tomorrow fell into obscurity was that Warner Brothers had trouble committing to a title for the picture. It’s an adaptation of Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s short 2004 novel All You Need is Kill, and it was promoted under that title for much of the production process. Several months prior to release, however, the studio opted for the blander moniker Edge of Tomorrow. Then, for some reason — presumably because the film didn’t live up to box-office expectations — the suits rebranded the movie Live Die Repeat for its home-video release.

All of which is largely incidental to how excited I was to stumble upon a copy of Sakurazaka’s volume on a recent expedition to a secondhand book-, DVD- and CD-shop. Naturally, I snapped up the volume, which was the third printing of an Alexander O. Smith translation that originally appeared in the U.S. in 2009. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed by the book.

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A constantly changing, convoluted narrative leads the reader to unexpected delights in Frederick Reiken’s ‘Day for Night’

July 3, 2015

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

Frederick Reiken’s 2010 book, Day for Night, is hard to characterize. Technically, it’s a series of connected stories; however, it reads like a novel. (The indicia page indicates that three of the 10 chapters were previously published as stand-alone stories.) Each chapter is narrated by a separate character; each is connected in various ways — some of them obvious, others not so — to people or events in other chapters.

The woman at the heart of Day for Night, if such a disparate book can be said to have a heart, is Beverly, a New Jersey physician with two teenage daughters who is poised to adopt Jordan, the 13-year-old son of David, her terminally ill boyfriend. She narrates the opening chapter, in which a young Florida tour guide takes her, David and Jordan to swim with manatees. In the next section, the narrator becomes the tour guide, Tim, whose bandmate, Dee, has spent much of her life fleeing her family, a secretive and mysterious Utah clan.

Chapter 3 takes the form of the deposition of a veteran FBI agent who interviewed Tim and Dee in Salt Lake City because they were seated on an airplane flight next to Katherine, a strangely elusive fugitive suspected in a bombing, a kidnapping and other crimes going back nearly 15 years. The agent later encounters Katherine as she spirits away Dee’s brother, Dillon, a badly injured young man who appears to be a captive of his odd parents.

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The more you know: Tisane, ingesta, digesta and other Scrabble anomalies

July 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 1, 2015

Time for a Scrabble rant!

This post revolves around a single high-scoring play in game 5 of the tournament that I played on Saturday, June 27. But before I recap what happened and explain why things were so screwy, I want to discuss a key part of the game.

A bingo, as faithful readers know, is a move that uses all seven letters on a player’s rack. A bingo yields the points scored that such a move would normally score plus a 50-point bonus. Competitive games among really good players tend to average at least one bingo. Typically, in tournaments, the player who bingos the most will win the most games.

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Scrabbling: Recapping my June 27, 2015, tournament (part 4 of 4)

July 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 1, 2015

Game 7 began innocuously enough. Alas; soon, it devolved into a rout.

I played J., a cheerful local fellow. After three turns, he held a 77-53 lead, mainly thanks to his second play, AX 30.

But on turn 4, J. laid down FRIENDlY 69, giving him a big lead. And two plays later, he sprang a second bingo, MEAThEAD 66. I was down, and down big: I trailed 238-117 at the close of turn 6.

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