Archive for July, 2019

Short takes: China Miéville’s ‘The Last Days of New Paris’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Nine Lives’

July 31, 2019

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

I generally try to review each book that I read. Here are two recent ones that fell through the cracks.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 (spins wheel) novella by China Miéville, a London author with a penchant for exotic subjects. The bulk of the narrative is set in 1950 Paris — but this is neither a year nor a city that you or I would recognize.

24-year-old Thibaut, the cynical main character, inhabits a quarantined city divided among Nazis, Resistance fighters, armed Surrealist irregulars and paranormal phenomena. The latter category includes literal devils as well as “manifs,” which are animated works of literature and art that have somehow become tangible.

Amid this chaotic metropolis, Thibault encounters Sam, an American photographer. She claims to be researching a book about the devastated French capital and the weirdness that infests it. Thibaut suspects that his new friend is concealing something, not least because the Germans are hell-bent on killing her.

This is all quite fantastic. Unfortunately, it was challenging to figure out just what was going on in any given scene, let alone in the overall narrative, and I never got invested in either Thibaut or Sam.

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How long is long enough? A very short inquiry into the lengths of works of literature

July 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 30, 2019

Author’s note: This post briefly refers to concepts of a sexual nature; it also includes a hyperlink to a rather dry 25-page law journal article related to this. Consequently, the post may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

How does one distinguish among the short story, the novelette, the novella and the novel? In contemplating this question, I was tempted to paraphrase Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart’s famously nebulous 1964 definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.

However!

The open-source educational website Owlcation features a helpful short article that categorically divides these narratives by word count. According to Syed Hunbbel Meer, a Pakistani writer who’s contributed more than 100 articles to the site, a short story ranges from 3,500 to 7,500 words; a novelette, from 7,501 to 17,000 words; a novella, from 17,001 to 40,000 words; and a novel is any piece of fiction that exceeds a novella in length.

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At once frustrating and fascinating, Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Problem’ explores an outlandish plot against science

July 29, 2019

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

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu’s fascinating but uneven science-fiction novel, opens in 1967 as internecine battles rage across Beijing. The scene becomes even direr as the author, a Chinese native and former power plant engineer, focuses on an intellectual clash at Tsignhua University, where a physics professor refuses to renounce his scientific approach when called upon to do so before an audience of frenzied revolutionary diehards. China is in the grips of the Cultural Revolution, a period that saw spouses, siblings and friends turn against each other in the name of ideological purity.

By the end of the chapter, which is titled “The Madness Years,” a young physicist named Ye Wenjie has seen a beloved relative killed, partly at the instigation of other family members, and discovered the corpse of a revered mentor. An emotionally devastated Ye is exiled to a remote mountain range in Northeast China, but despite her disinterest in bucking authority, troubles flock to her like moths to a flame.

Salvation of sorts arrives in the book’s third chapter, which sees Ye’s services coopted by administrators at a secret alpine communications facility known as Red Coast Base. When she enters the installation, Ye expects to remain there for the remainder of her life. In fact, the disgraced physicist encounters multiple situations that will shape not just the rest of her existence, but potentially those of her nation, species and planet.

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Mid-2019 D.C.–area poker anecdotes, conclusion

July 28, 2019

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

My D.C.–area poker tour concluded with a visit to a popular area venue. Things did not go as hoped.

I don’t think I won a hand during the hour or so that I played in the early game. This set the stage for a pretty unenjoyable remainder of the day.

After getting knocked out, I wandered over to the front of the room and asked the server for a burger and fries. Since she was responsible for covering more than one room, and since I wanted to sit and eat outside, I asked her a question after placing my order: “Can you find me outside?” She pulled a face, as if parsing my request, and then nodded.

With that taken care of, I went outside to unwind. I sat down and looked at my phone; I paced around and looked at my phone; I shook my head in sorrow and anger. Woe is me!

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Mid-2019 D.C.–area poker anecdotes, part 2

July 26, 2019

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

A few days after my experiences at A Place, I played poker at another large establishment, this one a combined diner, dive bar and pool hall. But the nature of this spot, which I’ll call B Place — if I need call it anything at all — is actually irrelevant to my tale, which entirely revolves around poker.

I arrived a bit late for the early game, but soon after I sat down, I started catching cards. I made a full house and extracted a bunch of chips from a non-believer. Pretty soon, I was chip leader at my table.

The good run continued as the first two tables broke up and I moved to each of the others in turn. When we got to a final table of maybe nine players, I was sitting pretty.

But not for long!

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Mid-2019 D.C.–area poker anecdotes, part 1

July 24, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 24, 2019

Author’s note: The following post contains brief, not particularly specific references to illegal activities. Consequently, it may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

Hey, remember when I went dog-sitting in the greater D.C. area the second week of July? Well, I’ve got some poker and poker-adjacent posts from that period.

Let’s start with an establishment I’ll call A Place, which was a rather clubby spot. One of the tables the players used was a purpose-built card table. Rather handily, it had built-in cup-holders. Alas, the table was… not in tip-top shape. At one point, as I raised my cup of soda to sip some delicious chilled carbonated sugar water, I actually pulled up the cup-holder along with my drink. Sadly, this detracted a bit from the ambience.

When I went to lift my cup of soda, I inadvertently lifted the cup-holder out of its slot.

When I went to lift my cup of soda, I inadvertently lifted the cup-holder out of its slot.

During my session at this very same place, I strolled away from the card-playing area, either to order something — perhaps my now-legendary Soda, Dominator of Cup-Holders?! — or to pay my bill. My eyes located a relatively unpopulated spot at the busy but expansive bar and I headed there. When I arrived, I pulled out my wallet.

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A family of frustrated science-lovers is caught up in a bizarre disaster in Erika Swyler’s ‘Light from Other Stars’

July 23, 2019

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

At the opening of Light from Other Stars, Erika Swyler’s 2019 new novel, the main character awakens to birdsong. But this seemingly commonplace occurrence is anything but; not only is Nedda Papas listening a recording of a species that’s been extinct since 1987, she is part of a four-person crew taking a one-way voyage aboard the starship Chawla to establish a colony on a far-flung planet. The mission is critical; without the colony, humanity will be unable to escape a homeworld that’s increasingly being devastated by climate change.

The book’s main action is staged in a very different setting: The (evidently fictitious) town of Easter some 32 years in the past. This community nestled on Florida’s space coast seems like a hamlet typical for its time and location, but the events Swyler chronicles are anything but.

That’s because on the morning of Jan. 28, 1987, a shockwave from the nearby Challenger explosion jostles a highly advanced but all-too-fragile experimental device that Nedda’s father has built in a lab at the local college. As Theo explains to his daughter, the prototype is designed to produce some incredible effects:

“Let’s say I have a bowl of marbles, half red, half white. Red on one side of the bowl, white on the other. Now, you come along and shake up the bowl. Do those marbles stay divided or do they get mixed up?” 

“They mix.” 

“Right. Entropy is you, shaking up the bowl, that progression of things. Entropy is how things move from order to disorder. It’s also one way of thinking about and measuring time.” 

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A rudderless prodigy enters a bizarre tournament in a distant, barbaric space empire in Iain Banks’s ‘The Player of Games’

July 17, 2019

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

Iain Banks’s 1987’s novel Consider Phlebas chronicled a shape-shifting secret agent undertaking a dangerous secret mission on behalf of the Idirans, a species of giant three-legged lizards locked in a bloody galactic struggle with a foe called the Culture. The following year, the British author published the second entry in what became the 11-volume Culture series, a book called The Player of Games.

The two narratives are wildly different. Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, is a grim mercenary who passionately believes that his Idiran patrons deserve to defeat the Culture. Gurgeh, the main character in the sequel, is a highly refined game-player. As accomplished as he is jaded, Gurgeh evidently wanders ambivalently from one academic posting to another. Throughout his arc, Horza is at war with at least half the galaxy and prepared to knife most of the other half in the back at a moment’s notice. By contrast, at the start of his story, Gurgeh is practically master of all he surveys; like a mountaineer who’s scaled every noteworthy peak, he can no longer find anything to excite him.

As Jewish grandmothers might say, we should all have such problems. Seven centuries after Gurgeh’s civilization won the Idiran war, the Culture evidently sprawls across a major chunk of the galaxy. Thanks to genetic engineering (“genofixing”), its human inhabitants are capable of internally manufacturing and self-dosing on their own mood- and mind-altering substances. Sex changes are not just easily implemented but almost de rigueur (“normally people bore one [child] and fathered one”).

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Plodding pacing and a wooden narrator make reading Jack McDevitt’s ‘Octavia Gone’ feel too much like a chore

July 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 14, 2019

Octavia Gone, a recently released Jack McDevitt novel, is the eighth novel in the author’s Alex Benedict series. I’ve previously read Polaris and Seeker, respectively the second and third books in this science fiction sequence, and I thought that the new entry has a lot in common with those volumes — for better and for worse.

Genius treasure hunter and antique merchant Alex Benedict and his sidekick, starship pilot Chase Kolpath, once again find themselves investigating a disappearance in deep space. The subject of their probe this time is Octavia, a distant research station orbiting a wormhole.

The outpost is paired with a cannon that peppers the phenomenon with pods in an attempt to locate the opposite end of the wormhole. After Octavia drops out of contact, a starship that’s dispatched to investigate finds the cannon. However, there’s no sign of the station itself, the quartet of people it carries or the short-range shuttle they used to transit between station and cannon.

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Misadventure in dog-sitting, 2019 edition

July 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 13, 2019

I’ve spent the last nine or so days dog-sitting in (depending on your point of view) the greater, middling or lesser Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. This prompted one rather comical episode.

On our Tuesday afternoon walk, more than a day after the area was subjected to dramatic flash flooding, I— wriggled out of her harness and lay in a damp spillway on the side of the road. Five or 10 minutes later, she wriggled out of her harness again and plunked her entire body down in a muddy patch next to a sidewalk. The previous evening, mind you, I’d tightened her harness because it seemed a bit loose.

The incident with the mud patch prompted me to scold I—, because I knew this would likely make me late for the 6:30 p.m. poker game I’d been hoping to attend. Little did I know!

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Richard K. Morgan puts his aggressive antihero through physical, emotional and mental wringers in ‘Woken Furies,’ the culmination of his Takeshi Kovacs trilogy

July 12, 2019

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

At the start of Richard K. Morgan’s 2003 debut novel, Altered Carbon, his narrator’s consciousness was revived in someone else’s body — a “sleeve” — in Bay City, a sprawling metropolis straddling the San Francisco Bay. It was Takeshi Kovacs’s first visit to Earth, a journey arranged by an ultrawealthy Methuselah who had memories of watching the first interstellar colony ships journeying to the stars.

Morgan envisions a future in which memories can be transferred from an original body to a robot to a clone to an entirely different body nearly at will. Although physical travel across interstellar distances consumes a few decades, human minds and other information can be shuttled from one star to another almost instantaneously thanks to “needlecasts.”

The sequel to Altered Carbon, 2003’s Broken Angels, was set a few decades later on Sanction IV, a colony world ravaged by a vicious insurrection. The plot saw Kovacs defect from a mercenary organization to pursue an amazing discovery — a portal to an abandoned alien starship.

Woken Furies, the 2005 capstone to the Kovacs trilogy, returns the character to his home planet, Harlan’s World. However, the reunion is not exactly a happy one; as the first chapter gets under way, Kovacs is wounded by a priest shooting blindly through a door. The protagonist, a sort of free-agent gunsel with a conscience, isn’t above pursuing a sadistic vendetta, although Morgan conceals the exact nature and scope of what’s going on for a few hundred pages.

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