Archive for April, 2020

Covid-19 diary: Part 8

April 30, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 30, 2020

I traveled up to the greater New York metropolitan area on March 22. Since then, I’ve been out of the house on numerous walks with the family dog. My Parental Unit takes this responsibility most of the time; less often, the two of us go, and every so often it’s just me.

A few weeks ago, I started taking the occasional solo walk for exercise. I think that this has been very good for my mental and physical well-being.

Otherwise, through the start of this week, I hadn’t been out in public areas — or perhaps I should say commercial areas — but for a pair of grocery runs, the first of which I’ve already documented.

On Tuesday, April 28, I did something new: I went to donate blood, and then I went for more groceries. These activities turned out to be like any public excursion during the Covid-19 pandemic: fine but terrifying.

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Dream diary: The Scrabble challenge and the TV producer

April 29, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 29, 2020

From the dream I had this morning before waking up:

I am playing a Scrabble tournament game against a smart young player. He (?) plays FORCE for a significant number of points. It looks good at first glance. But…

Rather belatedly, I notice that FORCE isn’t a legal play. Yes, that’s a real word, and those are the letters my foe put down, and in that order. But these new tiles have been jammed up against another word on the board, thereby forming something that isn’t in the Scrabble lexicon, like FORCECAPE. Or maybe the E in FORCE has been placed above the C in CAPE, making something illegal like EC. Either way, I can challenge it off the board, and my opponent will lose those points!

Yet I don’t challenge right away. For some reason, I’m sweating over what to do next.

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Short takes: ‘The Iron Giant,’ ‘13 Ghosts’ and ‘Ad Astra’

April 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 27, 2020

The 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant is a science-fiction story set in the late 1950s in Rockwell, a quiet coastal village in Maine. The night after an immense robot plunges into the ocean during a major storm, it’s discovered and then rescued by a smart, lonely boy with the unlikely name of Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal).

The pair strike up a friendship, but this is the height of the Cold War, and foreigners — be they Russians, robots or extraterrestrials (let alone extraterrestrial robots) — are not looked upon kindly. When a haughty federal agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) comes nosing around the farm where Hogarth lives with his mom, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth is forced into an uneasy alliance with Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), the beatnik artist who runs the local scrapyard.

The movie is loosely adapted from The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights, a bedtime tale that Ted Hughes devised for his children and published in 1968. (The British poet, who died in 1998, is credited as a consultant on the film.)

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William Gibson plays with time but offers little of interest in his new novel, ‘Agency’

April 26, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 26, 2020

William Gibson’s first book, the pioneering cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, came out in 1984. In the 36 years since, he’s averaged a new novel every three years (counting The Difference Engine, the 1990 steampunk tale he cowrote with Bruce Sterling). There’s been the occasional odd publication — the anthology Burning Chrome; his screenplay for Johnny Mnemonic, published in a volume containing the original short story; a nonfiction collection, Distrust that Particular Flavor; an original graphic novel, Archangel; and a graphic adaptation of his legendary unproduced screenplay for a sequel to Aliens.

It’s a respectable output, but not so prolific as to make a new Gibson novel seem routine. Instead, each fresh book seems like a gift — or like, as I wrote in 2019, a new place waiting to be explored:

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?

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Covid-19 diary: Part 7

April 22, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 22, 2020

It was overcast and breezy with the occasional light drizzle when I set out for Shoprite to get some much-needed groceries on the afternoon of Thursday, April 9. I took a scenic route to the store and arrived right around 3 p.m., which is when I was supposed to be able to pick up the order I’d placed early on Tuesday, April 1.

I wanted to do my best to be protected even while using this relatively safe method of acquiring food. I had a scarf wrapped around my face, including my nose. Over that, I wore the — take your pick: neck covering, neck gaiter, neck warmer, neckup — that I’d had on my journeys to the veterinarian’s office the previous week.

There was a problem almost as soon as I entered the parking lot: I had no idea where to pick up the groceries. I asked a guy who looked like he might work at the store — he seemed to be an attendant for the bottle and can redemption machine, which may not be an official position — but he told me he had no idea. I parked and called the store, whereupon I was told that they didn’t actually have curbside pickup per se and I’d have to go inside.

So be it. I pulled on a pair of disposable gloves, got out of the car and ventured into the supermarket.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 6

April 21, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 21, 2020

This must be the easiest time, and the easiest crisis, in history to have to hole up at home. The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t interrupted vital utilities; electricity, water and sewer are functioning normally, although authorities around the nation have had to caution people not to dispose of wipes in their toilets. Similarly, communications services and broadcast and streaming entertainment options are flourishing, although the surge in Internet usage has put a strain on network providers.

There’s a catch, however. (Isn’t there always?) Because so many people are intent on staying home as much as possible, just about every service that delivers to homes or allows curbside pickup is at maximum capacity.

As mentioned previously, I arrived at my parent’s house on March 22. Within a few days, it was clear that we — by which I mean I — would need to make a grocery run. My Parental Unit had some stuff on hand, but not a ton. Bread, chicken breasts, pizza bagels, yogurt, microwavable breakfast burritos, peanut M&Ms, peanut butter, ice cream, baby carrots, fresh fruit: We were running low on all of these vital commodities. Worse yet, there was no milk or soy milk, nor any jelly or jam with which to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

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‘The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson’ showcases the author’s ambition and versatility

April 19, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 19, 2020

Roughly a quarter-century ago, I read a story in a science-fiction magazine or anthology about an American writer who had been commissioned to write an introduction for a volume commemorating the 20th century. The tale was published, I suppose, in the 1990s, and was set at least a year before the turn of the century. (Which technically began on Jan. 1, 2001.)

Two things about the piece have stuck with me for a very long time. One is the central character’s struggle with the station wagon he rents in England. The driver’s seat is on the car’s right or starboard side; cars travel on the left or port side of the road; and the clutch is on the driver’s left side rather than his right. And yet the clutch, brake and gas pedals are arranged in the same configuration as in America and the rest of the world.

The writer has a harrowing drive to an isolated part of the United Kingdom, which helps inform the second thing I recall about the story. The character, having researched the atrocities of the 20th century, is overwhelmed by pessimism about the coming hundred years. And yet, shell-shocked both by his research and by his trip, when he begins writing the forward to A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations, the author borrows what turns out to have been ludicrously optimistic words first printed in A History of the Nineteenth Century, With Illustrations.

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A detective journeys to a strange colony planet in Isaac Asimov’s classic mystery ‘The Naked Sun’

April 17, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 14, 2020

The Naked Sun struck me as an obvious choice of reading material for a science-fiction fan during a quarantine. This 1956 novel by the legendary Isaac Asimov is the middle leg of a trilogy of detective stories featuring Elijah Baley, a detective in New York of the distant future, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot with a very convincing human form.

What makes The Naked Sun so germane to the present day is its primary setting. I’ll get to that in a moment; first, the premise.

Baley is dispatched to Solaria, one of half a hundred Outer Worlds colonized by humans in a galaxy otherwise lacking in sentient life. The secretive Spacers are served by countless millions of household, agricultural and industrial robots; consequently, they want for little and routinely live three centuries. Spacers regularly advance the frontiers of science and technology and very much have the upper hand in trade with Earth.

Earth, by contrast, houses eight billion souls, all dwelling underground. The planet is crowded with short-lived, disease-prone people, robots are unheard of, and little effort is devoted to improving science and technology. About the only thing Earthers have in common with Spacers is their barely concealed hostility toward the other group.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 5

April 13, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 13, 2020

As previously mentioned, I’ve been holed up with the Parental Unit since the evening of Sunday, March 22. Yesterday marked my third week up here; it also marked one month since I started staying at home in an effort to avoid Covid-19.

I’ve left this northern abode zero times to socialize. Not counting a few dog-walking excursions, I’ve journeyed into public spaces just three times. The first of those was for a necessary veterinarian’s appointment on the afternoon of Thursday, April 2.

The vet’s office had instructed clients to call the front desk upon arriving in the parking lot; technicians would then come out to get the animals. One member of the duo who came out for Lucky had me remove her collar, harness and leash. The office is obviously doing its best to reduce employees’ and clients’ potential exposure to the novel coronavirus, which I found reassuring.

I was supposed to wait in the parking lot until the vet was ready to return our beloved canine to me. It didn’t quite work out that way, however. The cardiologist disliked Lucky’s readings and wound up keeping her overnight. I drove home dogless.

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Short takes: ‘Unknown,’ ‘The Last Days on Mars’ and ‘Sucker Punch’

April 12, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 12, 2020

Author’s note: By necessity, my review of Sucker Punch deals with sex and sexuality and therefore may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

Dr. Martin Harris, a mild-mannered, well-to-do university professor from New Hampshire, flies into Berlin with Liz, his beautiful wife; in a few days, he’s going to make a presentation at a prominent biotechnology conference. As Liz checks into the hotel, Martin realizes that his briefcase is missing and hurriedly hops into a cab in an effort to retrieve it. En route to the airport, he’s knocked unconscious during a car accident.

A few days later, Martin awakens from a coma without identification or any memory of how he landed in a hospital bed in a country where he doesn’t speak the language. As he soon learns, he’s also bereft of his spouse and the life he once had. Liz insists that she’s never seen the injured man and that she’s married to a different Dr. Martin Harris. The doppelgänger has the same memories as the injured man; he also has the same souvenirs.

Even accounting for his traumatic brain injury, “Martin Harris” (Liam Neeson of Schindler’s List and Taken) can’t understand why some of his memories of his marriage to Liz (January Jones of X-Men: First Class and Mad Men) are so detailed. What’s more, he’s concerned that a man he’s never met may be trying to kill him…

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Mourners spend their summer vacation next door to a haunted house in Michael McDowell’s superb horror novel ‘The Elementals’

April 11, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 11, 2020

The prologue of Michael McDowell’s 1981 novel The Elementals opens in an empty church in Mobile, Al., on a scorching midweek afternoon toward the tail end of May. The matron of a wealthy, powerful family has died, but only a dozen or so people are in attendance. Because of some grisly history, we soon learn, Savage family tradition demands that no decedent be entombed without checking that the corpse is thoroughly lifeless — a procedure that the influential clan would very much prefer to keep out of the public eye.

This unusual funeral service sets the stage for a Southern horror story mostly set on the remote coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The Savages own a beachside estate consisting of three houses built back to back to back using identical blueprints. But these dwellings certainly aren’t all the same: “The third house,” as all visitors to Beldame automatically call one of the structures, is slowly being buried under a mound of sand far higher than any dune in sight. Moreover, this supposedly empty abode seems to be strangely active

Still, this isolated estate — separated by six miles from the nearest neighbors, and entirely cut off from other land at high tide — is beloved by both the Savage and McCray families, who own the remaining two houses. And it’s where businessman Dauphin Savage; his wife, Leigh Savage, née McCray; his mother-in-law, Big Barbara McCray; his brother-in-law and best friend, Luker McCray; Luker’s 13-year-old daughter, India; and the Savage family’s longtime maid, Odessa Red, settle in for an indefinite stay.

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Covid-19 diary: Part 4

April 5, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 5, 2020

Between March 12, when I began quarantining myself in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19, and March 22, when I drove up to New York, I ventured further than two or three feet beyond my property line on only three occasions. Two of those took place on Sunday the 15th.

What’s the opposite of daring adventure? This is my tale of cringing semi-normalcy on that not-so-fateful day.

After realizing that I didn’t have enough food to eat comfortably for more than a few days, despite having stocked up sometime in the previous week, I reluctantly journeyed to a grocery store. The first one I tried, the Food Lion by Hillsborough and West Main Street in Durham, seemed to be extremely crowded based on what I could see from the parking lot. There was no way I was going to go inside.

After some vacillation, I decided to visit one of the Food Lions on the north side of town. This one was still too crowded for comfort, but, after sending some text messages, reading some new coverage of the spread of Covid-19 and psyching myself up, I decided to go in anyway.

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