Archive for June, 2019

Numerous flaws detract from Elizabeth Moon’s ambitious 2019 galactic odyssey ‘Ancestral Night’

June 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 28, 2019

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits Connecticut-born author Elizabeth Bear with 46 titles; her first book, Hammered, the initial entry in a trilogy, appeared in 2003. Her latest work, published this year, is Ancestral Night; despite her prolificacy, it was the first novel of hers that I read. (I have read at least one of her stories, a military science fiction tale in Moon’s Vatta’s War universe from the largely excellent Infinite Stars anthology, which struck me as being mediocre.)

Ancestral Night is narrated by Haimey Dz, engineer aboard the two-person salvage tug. Her vehicle is called Singer, the handle favored by its artificial intelligence; in fact, the “shipmind” is usually as difficult to distinguish from the vessel carrying it as a person’s mind is from her body. As the story opens, Singer, Dz and their pilot, Connla Kurusz, are approaching an anomaly well outside the usual galactic travel lanes.

The trio expect to find a wrecked spacecraft but actually locate something far more complicated. When Dz boards the abandoned alien-built vessel, she finds that it generates artificial gravity, a capability that the multiracial galactic government called the Synarche lacks. Dz also makes two other discoveries: The ship was involved in, to put it mildly, unsavory drug trade, and that its complement was evidently murdered by a human.

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Joe Zieja’s 2016 debut ‘Mechanical Failure’ pits a grade-A slacker against a dysfunctional military

June 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 22, 2019

The 2016 science fiction comedy Mechanical Failure was the debut novel by Joe Zieja, an Air Force Academy graduate who’s worked as a voiceover artist and composer for commercials and video games. The book, which is set centuries in the future, follows R. Wilson Rogers, a retired sergeant of the Meridan Patrol Fleet in a distant corner of the universe. (“The Fortuna Stultus galaxy had been humanity’s home for a thousand years or so — ever since they’d accidentally collapsed the Milky Way,” Zieja explains in an aside.)

As Mechanical Failure begins, Rogers is a smuggler and con artist trying to play two different criminal factions against each other. Rogers is a bon vivant and slacker, but he’s close to getting away with his scam (passing off baking flour as medical supplies) when a patrol ship stumbles upon the small flotilla of mercenary ships where the phony sale is occurring. Upon being arrested, Rogers is allowed to choose between serving up to five years a prison or a three-year re-enlistment.

He opts for the latter, and ends up returning to his old assignment: A berth aboard “the aptly-if-uncreatively named [Meridan Patrol Ship] Flagship.” Flagship is, of course, the flagship vessel of the 331st Anti-Thelicosan Buffer Group, which has helped maintain the Two Hundred Years’ (and Counting) Peace for, well… you know.

However, Rogers finds that a lot has changed in his former unit. The 331st is on a war footing, the Flagship is awash in robots, and personnel assignments have been shuffled seemingly at random. Worst of all, Rogers finds himself the recipient of an unwanted and unexpected promotion. As the newly minted Ensign Rogers laments, he’d “never wanted responsibility or accountability, people calling him ‘sir’ and saluting him, people asking him to fill out paperwork.”

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Alex White’s thrilling ‘A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe’ assembles a band of misfits for a perilous treasure hunt

June 20, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 20, 2019

Alex White, an Alabama resident who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, has published at least five novels, the first of which appeared in 2011. (Goodreads also credits White with a 2005 novel.)

2018 was an extremely prolific year for White. In April, they published Alien: The Cold Forge, licensed from the 20th Century Fox science-fiction film franchise that was recently acquired by the Disney empire. Two months later, White followed up with an original book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. In December, White published A Bad Deal for the Whole Universe, a sequel to A Big Ship in what is billed as the Scavengers series. (A third entry in the series, The Worst of All Possible Worlds, is due out in a year.)

I checked a digital copy of A Big Ship out of my local library based on a half-read description. I was attracted by the prospect of a ragtag band seeking out a powerful lost warship that some dismiss as fictitious.

Once I began reading A Big Ship, I was a bit taken aback to discover that it was a science-fiction/fantasy genre crossover. Although the story is set in a future where humans have colonized many different star systems and journey in faster-than-light spaceships, most of the characters use magic. I also was a bit put off by the characters, who are something of a motley lot.

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A marine legend turns terrifyingly real for the scientists and sailors of Mira Grant’s ‘Into the Drowning Deep’

June 18, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 18, 2019

Author’s note: This book review, and particularly the novel excerpt featured herein, concerns a horror story and may not be appropriate for younger or sensitive readers. MEM

The California-born author Seanan McGuire has published, by my count, more than 40 different books, a handful of essays and dozens of short stories — all this before her 42nd birthday. In a somewhat catty assessment, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction sniffs that “[t]he fluent copiousness of McGuire’s talent helps explain the rapid increase of interest in her work; but may also explain its occasional repetitiveness.”

Some 10 of McGuire’s novels appear under the nom de plume Mira Grant, which she adopted for reasons unclear to me. The most recent Grant book is 2017’s Into the Drowning Deep, an entertaining trifle about a research vessel that makes… well, not exactly first contact… with carnivorous human/fish hybrids that normally dwell in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean.

Grant assembles her voyagers aboard the Melusine, a spacious new research vessel that sets sail for the Mariana Trench in August 2022. The ship and expedition have been commissioned by Imagine Entertainment, a media empire with the approximate success and scope of Disney — although its aesthetics are more aligned with those of infamous C-movie studios like Cannon Films and the Asylum.

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Aliette de Bodard’s ‘The Citadel of Weeping Pearls’ is an unimpressive extension of her Xuya science-fiction sequence

June 15, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 15, 2019

Some months ago, I read a short novel called On a Red Station, Drifting, set in a future galactic empire guided by the values of ancient Vietnamese culture. Aliette de Bodard’s tale evoked a very different vision of human expansion than the American- and European-centered versions with which I grew up. De Bodard is an American-born software engineer who shares French and Vietnamese heritage who has spent most of her life in France, and I was fascinated and enchanted by her creation.

Regrettably, I was far less absorbed by de Bodard’s 2017 follow-up, The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, which is set a few decades after Red Station. The empire is still embroiled in conflict, but the irresolute young emperor has been replaced a number of years ago by a much firmer queen. In a bid to counter a new threat, Empress Mi Hiep has launched a project to find the titular citadel.

The citadel is not a building but a fleet commanded by the monarch’s estranged daughter, Bright Princess Ngoc Minh. The highly advanced ships disappeared three decades ago, but now Mi Hiep believes she needs the citadel’s innovative engines, defenses and weapons to repel a surprisingly swift invasion fleet dispatched by a rival kingdom.

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An amnesiac Londoner with supernatural powers is charged with sniffing out a mole in Daniel O’Malley’s ‘The Rook’

June 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 12, 2019

The Rook, a 2012 novel by an American-educated Australian, launched what to date has been a two-part series called the Chequy Files. Daniel O’Malley’s first book belongs to a genre I think of as urban fantasy fiction, which the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines in part as “the subgenre of stories set in an alternate version of our modern world where humans (often with special Talents) and supernatural beings — most typically Vampires, Werewolves, assorted other Shapeshifters and very humanlike Elves or Fairies — interact via adventure, melodrama, intrigue and Sex.”

Now I enjoyed the Harry Potter series about as much as anyone else my age. In my early teens, I was something of a fantasy aficionado, dabbling in The Lord of the Rings and successors such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern volumes, Terry Brooks’s Shannara series and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. But my interest in the genre died off sometime by the middle or end of the 1990s. Other than J.K. Rowlings’s mega-best-selling Potter series, I hadn’t read a new work of fantasy in something like two decades — until last month.

The Rook has a very clever premise and is mostly well-written, but it emphatically did not rekindle my interest in fantasy. The book begins with a woman standing in the rain in a London park with no knowledge of who she is or why she’s surrounded by bodies of people wearing latex gloves. This mostly blank slate is inhabiting the body of Myfanwy Thomas, an high-ranking official in “the Court” of a quasigovernmental secret British institution called the Checquy Group. (Her given name rhymes with Tiffany; the organization’s sounds like Sheck-Eh.)

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part lucky 13!

June 9, 2019

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

Upon reaching my car, the first order of business was driving out the main entrance of the casino property, turning right onto Pennsylvania Route 315, driving about 700 feet and depositing my winnings in the nearest automatic teller. Having done that, I grabbed the receipt and restarted my car and made my way back onto southbound 315.

From the bank, it’s only about a mile until the interchange with Pennsylvania 309. Unfortunately, it was coming up on 4:30 by this time, meaning that I had to wait nearly five minutes before I could make the left turn onto the state road.

Route 309 extends only a half-mile to the east it terminates at Interstate 81. You can go straight past the highway, but the road you continue on becomes Pennsylvania 115. Right around the moment I got onto the highway, my phone informed me that I was getting an incoming call. The area code was 570, which I correctly thought was local. I pulled over to the side of the highway just before the exit lane for the interstate.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 12

June 8, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 8, 2019

Remember when I busted out of the national Tournament of Champions finals? Yeah, me too. Well, long story… er, long… after that happened, I circuited the main casino floor and got a quick meal at Johnny Rockets.

A choice among three options lay before me. I could leave the casino and drive to Virginia in plenty of time to have dinner with my hosts and friends; I could play in one of the last two non-invitational tournaments remaining on the event schedule and depart after that; or I could sit down in the poker room and play at a cash table for a while.

Well, I didn’t just want to leave. I typically visit a casino exactly once a year, and I still felt a competitive urge.

However, the penultimate tournament was slated to begin at 3:30, and the last at 6 p.m.; the entry fees were $65 and $50, respectively. Since it was just approaching noon, I’d need to kill more than three hours. And unless I busted early, which of course I didn’t want to do, I wouldn’t be able to reach my friends in Northern Virginia until well after dinnertime. Worst of all, I suppose, was the possibility that, as on the previous evening, I could play for four hours and not come away with any money.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 11

June 7, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 7, 2019

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this series of posts, the last five springs running I’ve attended a national World Tavern Poker event at a particular casino in Pennsylvania. That venue is Mohegan Sun Pocono in the hills above Wilkes-Barre.

(This facility, I ought to note, is distinct in location, if not name, from the top search result for Mohegan Sun.)

(I also ought to note, being the pedant that I am, that the precise location for Mohegan Sun Pocono is the township of Plains.)

The facility incorporates a racetrack, a casino and a hotel. The racetrack betting floor and the gaming areas of the casino are, as is typical for such venues, barred to those under the age of 18 or 21, depending on the exact location. The racetrack has its own building, which can be reached without stepping outside by way of an enclosed sky bridge.

The casino and hotel are set side by side. Excluding what I think of as the racetrack annex, which houses the poker room and a bunch of slot machines, the casino’s main public area is set on a single floor. You can walk directly from the casino to a corridor that leads directly to the hotel’s reception area. Continue past the hotel for another few dozen strides and you’ll find yourself in the lobby of a set of meeting areas, which include a spacious ballroom.

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A covert agent fights his way through a hazardous galaxy in Iain M. Banks’s dynamic 1987 novel ‘Consider Phlebas’

June 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 5, 2019

Iain Banks, who published many of his science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks, falls into what for me is quite a large category of knowledge — or perhaps I should say quasi-knowledge. This Scottish writer’s name is something I’ve heard or read and am aware of, but I could not really tell you anything specific about him.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits Banks, who died in 2013 at age 59, with 33 titles. His debut novel came out in 1984 and was followed by books in each of the following two years. In 1987, impressively, Banks published a whopping three books; he maintained a relatively brisk pace for the rest of his life. Consider Phlebas, which was part of that trio, is part of my local library’s catalog of digital books. On the cover is a legend labeling the volume as “A Culture Novel.”

Prior to this spring, on a good day, about the only bit of information my brain could have dredged up about Banks, besides his being a writer, is that he had authored a science fiction series named after something called the Culture.

In fact, Consider Phlebas is the first novel in what ultimately wound up as an 11-book series that spanned most of Banks’s wiring life. I had very little idea what to expect from the series as a whole or the debut entry in particular, in part because the library catalog description is a bit vague. I’ll confess that I anticipated some highfaluting book of ideas, a notion that may have been fostered by my associations with the word “culture.”

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 10

June 4, 2019

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

I reached my seat for the National Tournament of Champions finals on Thursday morning a little after 9. I think the first hand was under way when I arrived. My cards had been mucked, but this was the only hand I missed.

Unlike the national championship finals, which had been staged over three segments spanning Monday and Tuesday, this set of finals would take place in one marathon event.

In the first blind level, 100–200, a woman out of Ann Arbor, Mich., raised to 800 in early position from seat six and got at least one caller. My hole cards were jacks. I raised to 2,600 or 2,800. I was called by Cedric, a.k.a. C.J., in seat one and maybe someone else. The flop went 10-6-3 or something like that; it was a rainbow. I put in a 5,000 chip and got a fold.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 9

June 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 2, 2019

I went back to the casino a little after 7 Wednesday evening to play in the Dream Team tournament, which had a separate prize for the four-person team that collected the most cumulative points. (Each player was given a certain number of points for each blind level he or she lasted.) My quartet included Penny Z—, another player from the bar where I direct tournaments on Sunday evenings, and a fourth player whom I did not know.

I was not exactly thrilled with the dealer at my first table, whom I recognized from previous year’s visits to the casino. At one point, I told the dealer that he could collect the cards of the player to my left, who had departed the table, but the dealer responded, incorrectly, that he had to wait until it was that player’s turn to act.

The casino’s actual rule for tournament poker is that a player’s cards should be mucked if the person is not within arm’s reach of her or his chair at the end of the initial deal (i.e., once each player has received two hole cards). I knew this playing at the casino five springs running and because a manager had stipulated the rule over the public address system moments before the tournament began. Kyle, the player to my right, backed me up, but the dealer was not moved. I shrugged and let things stand.

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Pennsylvania pokerpalooza 2019: Part 8

June 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 1, 2019

Depending on the tournament, a blind at these national World Tavern Poker event can last 15, 20 or 30 minutes. (Meaning that whatever the blinds — 100–200, 3,000–6,000, anything — they stay at that level until the new blinds are announced.) Regardless of the blind length, however, a 15-minute intermission is staged after every fourth blind level.

I played past a trio of 15-minute breaks in the Patriot Poker tournament. Twice, the very last hand prior to intermission proved to be quite dramatic.

Near the end of level eight, with the blinds 4,000–8,000, Jackie raised to 14,000. I looked at my hole cards: a pair of jacks. Jackie had a pretty healthy war chest, and I didn’t want to limp in. I shoved all in for 31,800 — 17,800 more than her raise.

Glenn, a veteran, was sitting in seat one on the opposite side of the dealer. Like Jackie, he had a bunch of chips. With very little hesitation, he said he was calling my push. He moved about 35,000 past the commitment line.

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