Archive for January, 2019

Astronauts face peril on a remote planet in Poul Anderson’s 1966 novel ‘World Without Stars’

January 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 31, 2019

I continue this month’s (inadvertent, I swear!) tour of early novels by science fiction and fantasy grand masters with World Without Stars, a 1966 tale by Danish-American author Poul Anderson.

The book revolves around an ill-starred voyage by the merchant vessel Captain Felipe Argens and his crew of eight. The Meteor is bound for a remote star located outside our galaxy, a place where sentient technology users have developed despite the relative paucity of heavy metals (due to the vagaries of the formation of isolated heavenly bodies).

Humanity is but one of many species that use space jump to zip from one point to another in Anderson’s far future. What’s more, galactic inhabitants are blessed with virtual immortality courtesy of the “antithanatic,” an internal system that instantly rejects “any hostile nucleic acids.” People don’t live forever, for as our narrator, Argens, relates, “sooner or later some chance combination of circumstances is bound to kill you.” And without selective memory editing every so often over the decades or centuries, brains become overwhelmed with information and eventually succumb to madness.

Still, the travelers are engineered to survive all but the most extreme exigencies, which means that for Anderson to imperil his characters, he must meet a high barrier. Naturally, the author realizes this, and he’s up to the challenge: In chapter five, out of 17 in the book, Meteor crash-lands on a distant planet. Two of the astronauts die instantly; one lasts only a few hours longer.

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Paper-thin characterizations help sink Robert Silverberg’s 1969 science-fiction tale ‘The Man in the Maze’

January 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 30, 2019

Every so often, I’ll think about books that I read, or at least tried to read. A long time ago, probably when I was a teenager, I stumbled across a promising book in my local library’s science fiction section. It was set in an ancient and deadly maze constructed millennia ago by a mysterious alien race that had long since gone extinct. The heart of this sprawling, city-sized labyrinth housed a former interstellar ambassador who lived in self-imposed exile after having been tainted in the course of making first contact with an alien species. This contamination, which took place unbeknownst to the ambassador, left him telepathically emitting a flood of noxious emotions that quickly sickened anyone who entered the same room as him.

Into this tableau enters a starship crew on a desperate quest: To evade the maze’s numerous dead ends and lethal traps, reach its center and recruit the embittered exile for a dangerous mission that could save humanity from extermination.

This seemed like a surefire premise for a science-fiction thriller. Unfortunately, experience belied expectations; my teenage self began reading this book but never finished, put off by meandering philosophical and psychological digressions that hopelessly bogged down what I’d expected to be an action-packed story.

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Richard K. Morgan’s dynamic 2003 debut novel, ‘Altered Carbon,’ is an entertaining murder mystery set on far-future Earth

January 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 29, 2019

Richard K. Morgan’s 2003 debut novel, Altered Carbon, is an immensely entertaining synthesis of two genres: The noir-style hard-boiled detective story and the hardcore cyberpunk science-fiction tale.

The narrator and protagonist of the tale is Takeshi Kovacs. A one-time hoodlum from Harlan’s World, Kovacs endured a rocky experience as a marine for the United Nations’ interplanetary protectorate before becoming a member of a shadowy group called the Envoys, a contingent of planet- and body-hopping warrior monks with the lethality and mission-oriented amorality of James Bond.

Kovacs has bombed out of the Envoys and been placed in punitive deep freeze when he’s summoned back to consciousness on Earth by Laurens Bancroft, an ultra-rich, nigh-immortal centuries-old Methuselah who needs a can-do private investigator to unravel the mystery of his death.

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Aliette de Bodard fashions a fascinating albeit understated crisis in deep space with her ingenious novel ‘On a Red Station, Drifting’

January 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2019

Aliette de Bodard’s 2013 novel On a Red Station, Drifting is an intriguing, understated science fiction story set in a future galactic empire where Vietnamese culture reigns supreme.

The story begins as Lê Thi Linh, a magistrate — here apparently signifying a planetary governor — arrives at an interstellar outpost known as Prosper Station. Linh has preemptively fled her position on the Twenty-Third planet because of an approaching invasion fleet led by an insurrectionist warlord. Resources are scarce on Prosper Station because of the rebellion, which the emperor finds himself unable or unwilling to resolve. The position of chief human administrator on Prosper has fallen to Lê Thi Quyen, whose husband was drafted by the empire.

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In George R.R. Martin’s 1981 science fiction thriller ‘Nightflyer,’ the possibilities raised by a long journey and a malevolent force are thwarted by bad company

January 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 26, 2019

As a youngster, I loved almost everything about space. If I found a book, movie or TV show with a spaceship in it, I wanted to read or watch it.

This enthusiasm has persisted into my adult, albeit in somewhat diminished strength. (I still haven’t seen Solo: A Star Wars Story, for instance, and it took me months to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi.) These days, I’m especially intrigued by science fiction stories concerning mysteries or atrocities committed aboard a spaceship — for instance, Event Horizon or Supernova.

Given that background, you can understand why I was excited to run across George R.R. Martin’s 1981 novel Nightflyers in my library’s online catalog. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the book’s potentially dynamite scenario was tempered by my disinterest in the 10 travelers whom the author imperils.

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A biologist investigates impenetrable mysteries in Jeff VanderMeer’s enigmatic 2014 science-fiction novel ‘Annihilation’

January 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 22, 2019

When I saw Alex Garland’s Annihilation last spring, I found myself captivated by the atmospheric, understated science-fiction story. I recently read the book it’s based upon, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, which similarly establishes an odd and unsettling mood.

The story unfolds entirely from the perspective of an unnamed biologist, the template for the movie’s Lena, played by Natalie Portman. Much like Garland used an interview with Lena after her emergence from the strange Area X to frame most of the events, the book unfurls as an account that the biologist has written in her journal following the dissolution of her four-woman expedition.

The exploration party is led by an older psychologist and includes an anthropologist and surveyor. (The movie’s group was led by an older psychologist and had an anthropologist, but featured a physicist and paramedic.) The biologist has followed her husband, who vanished along with the previous party sent into Area X before mysteriously returning to the couple’s home; unlike in the movie, the husband — here a seaman turned paramedic, rather than an army special forces operator — has died.

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Strangers in a strange land grapple with their lust for death in Fritz Leiber’s strangely poignant post-apocalyptic novella ‘The Night of the Long Knives’

January 16, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 16, 2019

If you’d asked me just yesterday to recite everything I knew about Fritz Leiber, I’d only have been able to tell you that he was one of the old grand masters of science fiction. This is correct, but only in a limited technical sense. While the Chicago native was the fifth person to be named a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in 1981, his biggest impact on speculative fiction was actually in fantasy, by way of his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

As it happens, I was browsing my local library’s collection of science-fiction electronic books earlier this month when one of Leiber’s titles caught my eye. I initially thought that this 1960 novella was known to me as an old science-fiction movie. Here again, I was mostly wrong; the movie of that title, released in 2005, is a 45-minute documentary concerning the deadly 1934 purge of opposition figures that then-chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered to strengthen his control over the Nazi party and German society at large.

Long story short: I started reading Leiber’s tale on the strength of (somewhat mistaken) name recognition and a short blurb about the contents of the book. As it turns out, The Night of the Long Knives is an engrossing story about drifters in a hellish wasteland who are drawn together by happenstance.

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Bad-Ugly-Good: Taking stock of 9-4 Stanford

January 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 12, 2019

I viewed the 2018 Sun Bowl at a Stanford alumni watch party in Lower Manhattan. Afterward, I played for a few hours at Modern Pinball NYC.

• The Bad

Yikes, yikes, yikes — Stanford’s offense struggled against Pitt, and mightily. In my game writeup, I detailed the unit’s futility: The lowest points, passing completions, aerial yardage, overall yardage and third-down conversions for the season.

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Stanford sends out 2018 with cringe-inducing 14-13 victory over Pitt in the Sun Bowl

January 11, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 11, 2019

The Stanford football team closed out its 2018 season with an ugly 14-13 New Year’s Eve victory over Pitt in the Sun Bowl.

It was the Cardinal’s closest contest of the season, with the team putting up its lowest point total of the year after a 17-3 win over USC. Junior quarterback K.J. Costello completed just six of 17 passes for 105 yards, and the offense gained just 208 yards while converting a single third down on 10 opportunities — all season lows. It seemed fitting that the winning touchdown came on an offensive fumble recovery.

Granted, Costello’s unit was missing a number of starters, including hobbled wonderback Bryce Love, who (wisely) opted out out of the game in order to prepare for the NFL draft. But the defense was also missing players, and it turned in a commendable performance. The Panthers offense rolled up a modest 348 yards, making only five of 17 first downs, and managed just one touchdown in three visits to the red zone.

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