Archive for March, 2019

Science fiction anthology roundup, including a major reason to visit ‘Old Venus’

March 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 31, 2019

Over the last month and a half or so, I’ve been reading a handful of anthologies. Notable among them were Galactic Empires, a 2017 publication edited by Neil Clarke themed on, well, exactly what the title says; and Infinite Stars, also from 2017, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and billing itself — rather grandiosely, I thought — as “The Definitive Anthology of Space Opera and Military SF.” I enjoyed both volumes but thought the former to be stronger overall.

It’s worth devoting a moment on Schmidt’s collection because it revisits some famous science fiction universes. Infinite Stars includes a new Dune story co-written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, which I found to be particularly weak, and an original “Ender’s Game” story by Orson Scott Card, which I didn’t much enjoy but felt arrived at a haunting ending. I particularly enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti,” which approaches space exploration and interspecies conflict from an African perspective, and “Night Passage,” an Alastair Reynolds tale set in his “Revelation Space” saga, of which (unlike “Dune” and “Ender’s Game”) I have no knowledge.

However, the real point of this post is to share a few thoughts about Old Venus, a 2015 themed collection edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

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‘Apollo 11’ vividly recreates man’s first voyage to another planet

March 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 29, 2019

Apollo 11, the new film directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, is a gripping documentary chronicling astronauts’ first landing on the moon.

The picture proceeds in strict chronological order, beginning as the massive Saturn V rocket is slowly moved to its launch pad and ending once the three-man crew has been sealed into a mobile quarantine unit after being recovered from the Pacific Ocean by the U.S.S. Hornet.

Most any reader of this blog knows the outcome of the mission, but things remain lively thanks to several elements, foremost among them the inherent drama of the events being depicted.

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The specter of death writ large looms over Ben Winters’s science fiction–mystery hybrid ‘The Last Policeman’

March 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 26, 2019

Maryland native Ben H. Winters is a prolific author whose first two books, published in 2009 and 2010, were the literary mashups Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. The author’s first wholly original novel, the horror story Bedbugs, appeared in 2011. Since then, Winters has completed a number of volumes for adults and young readers. His work for the youth set includes a horror anthology and a pair of mysteries. Over the years, Winters has also penned several theatrical productions meant for both adult and young audiences.

Most of Winters’s adult-oriented tales have science-fictional elements; many also borrow elements from the mystery genre. His 2012 book, The Last Policeman, straddled both literary categories in launching what’s come to be called the Last Policeman trilogy.

The core death investigation plays out against an unusual background: The planet is six months away from a catastrophic collision with a massive asteroid. A number of tales about apocalyptic encounters between Earth and heavenly bodies with menacing trajectories focus on the effort to avert potential tragedy or to preserve segments of the population. The 1998 movie Deep Impact, by way of example, features both elements, with the U.S. government converting a set of Missouri caves into a shelter for a million survivors while a space mission attempts to alter the asteroid’s course.

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Horror maven Stephen King’s 1978 anthology ‘Night Shift’ still packs a powerful sting

March 23, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 23, 2019

Look, Stephen King obviously doesn’t need my help to sell more copies of his books — even though, as I recently established, he isn’t the best-selling modern fiction author of all (or even just of modern) times. But still…

I recently reread Night Shift, a 1978 anthology of King stories that I probably first read back in the ’80s. I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time round. Some of the passages that chilled me back then gave me the same shivers of horror more than two decades later.

The book contains 20 stories, which by my count directly inspired an eye-popping six movies: Children of the CornMaximum Overdrive (infamously known as King’s only directorial outing, based on the story “Trucks”), Graveyard ShiftThe ManglerSometimes They Come Back and The Lawnmower Man (although this film was so loosely based on King’s story that he successfully sued to have his writing credit de-emphasized).

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Authorial success: A highly skewed investigation

March 21, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 21, 2019

The other day, I wondered who was the most successful author of all time. So I did what people do in 2019: I consulted Wikipedia.

As of mid-March 2019, a regularly updated Wikipedia list of books sold ranked Stephen King as the 22nd most successful fiction author. The American horror scribe rises to 16th by excluding writers working in a language other than English — by name, Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon, Japanese manga artists Eiichiro Oda and Akira Toriyama, Spanish romance author Corin Tellado, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. And by removing five children’s and young-adult writers — Brits Enid Blyton, J.K. Rowling and Gilbert Patten and Americans Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine — King rises to 11th place.

Now, you might protest that this is cheating. After all, not all of Rowling’s books have been aimed at youngsters — see The Casual Vacancy and her trio of mysteries written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Moreover, there’s some debate over whether the Harry Potter series, which of course brought Rowling fame and fortune, is properly categorized as children’s literature. My qualms about classification extend to Stine, Blyton and Patten, with whose work I have zero familiarity. But who’s writing this post — me or you?

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A Canadian master puts a modern twist on Shakespeare in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’

March 17, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 17, 2019

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian poet and novelist, is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers. Her popular 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, postulated a post-democratic United States controlled by fundamentalist Christians. The book, which Hulu adapted into a hit streaming video series, plumbed the souls of a certain strain of Reagan supporters and came away with a vision of a near-future America that no longer seems as preposterous as it once did. (See: Bush, George W.; and Trump, Donald.)

Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy explored future scenarios that were far wilder — as well as more dystopian and more apocalyptic — than that of The Handmaid’s Tale. As with the earlier book, the vision expressed in 2003’s Oryx and Crake and sequels, seems more relevant today than at the time of publication. Not only does corporate power, and its ability to quash individuality and independence, appear to be ascendant in the United States (thanks in no small part to federal judges appointed by Bush and Trump), scientists are slowly acquiring the genetic mastery needed to create the augmented, hybrid and altogether novel species that Atwood described in her MaddAddam sequence.

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Poker postseason stories, winter 2019: Part 4

March 9, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 9, 2019

Saturday inevitably leads to Sunday — that’s how weekdays work. And a tournament of champions is supposed to be followed either by another tournament of champions or the regular season — but not invariably.

Because of a Super Bowl–related closure, the venue where I usually run poker tournaments on Sunday nights pushed back its postseason schedule by a week. Which meant that, unusually, the tournament of champions that I won on Saturday evening was succeeded the following night by a tavern championship.

In Sunday night’s event, I did well in the early going, one of three that were used in the tournament. I had a healthy stack when my first table broke and I shifted to my second one. There, when sitting in the small blind, I made a mistake.

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Poker postseason stories, winter 2019: Part 3

March 6, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 6, 2019

When last I chronicled my poker misadventures, I had just shoved pocket sixes into pocket aces and busted in third place in a tournament of champions at a Saturday-afternoon venue where I rarely play.

Following a pinball-playing interlude, I drove to a Saturday-evening venue where I rarely play. I took possession of a minimum stack — starting chips in TOCs are based on a player’s number of top-three finishes at the tavern that season, of which I had one at this spot — and took a spot at one of three tables that were in use.

I got off to a poor start, losing a non-trivial portion fo my stack pursuing a busted flush draw to the river. Fortunately, because of bust-outs at one of the other tables, I was moved to balance the number of players.

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Unseen phenomena seemingly lurk around every corner in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Authority’

March 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 4, 2019

Annihilation, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, described the dissolution of a four-woman expedition into Area X, a mysterious zone somewhere on the coast of the U.S. Authority, which like the other books in the sequence was published in 2014, details the aftermath of the excursion.

The book takes the point of view of one John Rodriguez, who for reasons that are never fully explained goes by the moniker Control. A disgraced former operative with influential supporters in an unnamed American intelligence agency, Rodriguez as the story opens has just taken up his post as head of Southern Reach, the obscure government agency tasked with overseeing research into Area X.

The reason — or, at least, one reason — for Rodriguez’s appointment its explained to the reader early on:

His first full day was only four hours old and he already felt contaminated by the dingy, bizarre building with its worn green carpet and the antiquated opinions of the other personnel he had met. A sense of diminishment suffused everything, even the sunlight that halfheartedly pushed through the high, rectangular windows. He was wearing his usual black blazer and dress slacks, a white shirt with a light blue tie, black shoes he’d shined that morning. Now he wondered why he’d bothered. He disliked having such thoughts because he wasn’t above it all — he was in it — but they were hard to suppress. 

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