Archive for February, 2019

John Scalzi traps readers in a dull narrative with his 2014 science fiction–detective novel ‘Lock In’

February 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 26, 2019

About four and a half years ago, I read and very much enjoyed John Scalzi’s popular 2012 novel Redshirts, a comic exploration of the (often short) lives of junior crew members aboard a starship that bore a suspicious resemblance to a certain vessel from the TV series Star Trek. This month, I read Lock In, which the same author published in 2014.

This Earthbound story, set perhaps three or four decades into our future, posits a world where a disease known as Haden’s syndrome has caused millions of people to experience total paralysis — the titular lock in. However, thanks to new scientific advances, victims needn’t suffer silent and unheard. (This fortunate development is partly a function of one very prominent early victim being Margaret Haden, the beloved spouse of an American president.)

Implanted neural nets enable Haden’s sufferers to remotely operate sophisticated human-shaped machines known as personal transports. While a Haden’s sufferer’s body remains stationary at home or in a facility, where they’re fed intravenously, transports or “threeps” enable her or his mind to engage with the real world. Threep users hear and sense just what a “normal” person would.

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Poker postseason stories, winter 2019: Part 2

February 21, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 21, 2019

Every six months, World Tavern Poker concludes a regular season and transitions into two weeks of tavern-level championship events. The first postseason week is dedicated to tavern championships; the second, to so-called tournaments of champions.

Each week has a slightly different format and eligibility criteria. But the goal every game is always the same: To win the tournament and collect some hardware, at minimum a medallion. Unfortunately for me this year, I started out with a number of frustrating near-misses.

I ended my first tavern championship, on a Monday night in late January, with a sixth-place finish. The next evening I finished in fourth place. On Wednesday, I didn’t even make it to the top 20. On Thursday, I barely cracked the final table, going out in seventh place. I got up to fourth place on Friday night and sat out the next two nights.

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Poker postseason stories, winter 2019: Part 1

February 20, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 20, 2019

I was involved in a remarkable World Tavern Poker hand the other evening.

Playing the button — that is, dealing, which puts me last to act after the flop — I saw four players limp into the pot for 400 chips. When I looked at my hole cards, I had eight-six off-suit. I decided to limp in, meaning just call for the amount of the big blind. The small blind and big blind, who act after the dealer before the flop, did the same. That left us seven-handed going to the flop.

The flop came seven, nine and 10 with two clubs. It was a pretty good board for me, giving me a 10-high straight right out of the gate.

Much to my delight, M—, in the small blind, bet 800. Then the big blind, D—, bet 1,600. One of the table’s short stacks, P—, playing in first position, called. Two players folded; then H—, seated in the cutoff, called.

I paused. I had a made hand, there were a bunch of chips in the pot, and I didn’t want someone to hit a lucky draw and beat me out. I figured that P—, who began the betting round with 7,100 chips, was going to call me no matter what; the trick would be to get everyone out but him.

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William Gibson connects a small Georgia town to Russian-British kleptocrats in his intricate 2014 novel, ‘The Peripheral’

February 17, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 17, 2019

To read a William Gibson story is to embark upon a journey of discovery.  What kind of world — often at once amazing and dispiriting — has the U.S.-born writer created, and what convoluted scheme are the characters enmeshed in, voluntarily or otherwise? Moreover, what kind of inventive gadgets will they wield?

Gibson, who moved to Canada in 1968, after initially traveling there to explore options for avoiding the draft, is one of the titans of science fiction. Beginning in the early 1980s, Gibson’s enormously popular short stories and novels fueled the genre’s cyberpunk movement. The subgenre typically posits dire futures in which a small number of powerful corporations, oligarchs, criminal syndicates and autocratic, sometimes rogue, governmental organizations oppress large civilian populations; clever hackers who infiltrate computer systems also appear often.

Naturally, Gibson’s writing has evolved over the past three and a half decades. He’s no less enamored of novel scientific concepts and technology, but over time his stories have shifted their focus from heroic figures to regular people. That transition is on display in his most recent novel, 2014’s The Peripheral, which features as its main characters a dissolute publicist from (presumably) the late 21st or early 22nd century and an underemployed 27-year-old from small-town Georgia about a decade in our future.

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China Miéville invents an incredible alien civilization in ‘Embassytown’

February 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 14, 2019

I know the British author China Miéville by his reputation for being one of the more inventive science-fiction scribes working today. However, until recently, the only work of his that I’d read was his novelette “Reports of Certain Events in London,” a haunting epistolary tale about streets that mysteriously appear and disappear in that city.

Miéville’s 2011 novel, Embassytown, is narrated by one Avice Benner Cho, a native of the eponymous community on the planet Arieka. Cho lives in a future so distant that Earth’s location has been forgotten by humanity, which along with other sentient races lives in cities scattered across at least one galaxy. (Trade and travel is enabled by a mode of faster-than-light transportation known as immersion.) As it happens, one of the strangest places in existence is her native world, an isolated outpost populated by a race of alien genetic engineers called the Ariekei, also known as the Hosts.

There’s no simple way to describe the many-legged Hosts, which “walked with crablike precision … with a gait that made them look as if they must fall, though they did not.” They see through moving eye-corals, described as a “constellation of forking skin.” Each hears through a many-colored fanwing that extends from its back; each grips using a giftwing mounted below its primary mouth. Their technology, called biorigging, is completely organic — Ariekene buildings, batteries, power plants, planes, garbage cans and even their equivalent of spacesuits are all living beings.

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In ‘The Feed,’ a young married couple goes through hell after society’s disintegration

February 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 12, 2019

Think about what you do with your computer, phone and/or tablet: Scrolling through social media, favoriting your friends’ posts, checking and responding to emails, posting a rant or status update, sampling the headlines on your favorite news and entertainment websites, watching videos, sharing a funny meme or interesting article, voting in polls.

Now imagine doing all these things — and so much more — exclusively using your brain, with each activity consuming not seconds, or even tenths of a second, but mere thousandths of a second. What’s more, imagine if equipment enabling this instant networking could be implanted in utero. This near-future innovation serves as the basis for Nick Clark Windo’s 2018 science fiction novel, The Feed.

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Harry Harrison’s debut novel, ‘Deathworld,’ is a light and breezy science fiction adventure

February 7, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 7, 2019

As a child, I spent a bunch of time loitering in the science fiction section of libraries and bookstores; my friends also tended to be sci-fi enthusiasts. From these times, I have vague memories of the covers of paperback books written by Harry Harrison, whom I associate with a series of books about someone or something called the Stainless Steel Rat. However, I don’t think I’d ever actually read any of Harrison’s fiction until just the other week, when I zipped through his first novel.

Like many sci-fi adventures prior to 1980, Deathworld was initially published in periodical form. But even though the tale dates to 1960 (when its Connecticut-born author was 35), the book has a spare prose style and propulsive narrative that makes it feel like a much more contemporary work.

The hero of this work, Jason dinAlt, left his native stuffy, caste-conscious farm planet of Porgorstorsaand at age 19 and hasn’t looked back since. He became an itinerant gambler after realizing that he possessed unusually long runs of sustained success at games of chances — a phenomenon enhanced by his fickle psychic powers, which at times grant him amazing awareness of his environment and the thoughts of the people around him.

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Joe Haldeman postulated a peaceful first contact in his 1976 novel ‘Mindbridge’

February 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 5, 2019

Author’s note: This post contains some minor spoilers for the terrific novel The Forever War. Although these spoilers are rather trifling, If you have any interest in science fiction and haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so before you read this post! MEM

Joe Haldeman made his bones as a science fiction author in 1974 with his first genre novel, The Forever War. Like much of Haldeman’s work, this gritty soldier’s-eye perspective of a centuries-long conflict fought between humans and a mysterious alien race was informed by the author’s experiences as a draftee who was injured during his service in the Vietnam War.

Under a pseudonym, the Oklahoma-born author published two adventure novels featuring a merman before releasing another book using his own name. That volume was Mindbridge, a 1976 work which borrows a few techniques from The Forever War while tackling a story that in many ways is quite different from its predecessor.

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A psychic astronaut hits the road in Clifford Simak’s 1961 novel ‘Time is the Simplest Thing’

February 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 2, 2019

Shortly after the opening of Time is the Simplest Thing, the 1961 Clifford D. Simak novel, protagonist Shepherd Blaine realizes that the machine he is telekinetically operating has entered an artificial structure in a desert on a faraway planet. The open-aired dwelling is occupied by a sprawling pink blob about 12 feet high with a base 20 feet in diameter.

“Hi pal,” the Pinkness tells the probe, “I trade with you my mind.” In that instant, the alien creature swaps a slice of its consciousness with part of Blaine’s… and in the next, Blaine’s mind is recalled to his sleeping body at the Fishhook complex in Northern Mexico.

It emerges that Blaine — and yes, his first name is capital-S Symbolic — is a sort of psychic astronatut who works for an organization called Fishhook. Over a century or so beginning around the end of the 1900s, Fishhook has harnessed psychic powers to explore outer space, a task to which human bodies and ordinary technology proved ill suited. As soon as Blaine awakens, he realizes that in a matter of minutes, the scientists at his organization will review recordings from the probe he’s been using and discover that he has been compromised.

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