Archive for the 'Books' Category

Iain Banks considers the morality of force in his third Culture novel, ‘Use of Weapons’

August 3, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 3, 2019

Iain Banks’s 1990 novel, Use of Weapons, is the third entry in his Culture series, which revolves around an immensely advanced human civilization that dominates the galaxy in the far future. Superficially, the subject matter here has more in common with the series’ initial volume, Consider Phlebas, which followed the exploits of Horza, a mercenary fighting on behalf of the Culture’s enemies.

The protagonist this time around is one Cheradenine Zakalwe. Like Horza, the main character of Use of Weapons is a mercenary born into a society outside the Culture. However, Zakalwe generally fights on behalf of the Culture, even if he doesn‘t always understand or agree with its aims.

The book’s core has an interesting structure. Chapters numbered 1 through 14 relate what I think of as the main narrative, detailing Zakalwe’s most recent exploits; they alternate with chapters, counting down from XIII through I, which chronicle earlier parts of Zakalwe’s life. This is sandwiched between several short items: at the front, a song and a prologue; at the end, an epilogue, a poem and a separate epilogue that I initially skipped because I mistook it to be an excerpt from a separate Banks novel. (This last section’s title, “States of War: Prologue,” was not helpful.)

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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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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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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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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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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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Three entertaining Connie Willis novellas journey to space school, future Hollywood and a remote planet in ‘Terra Incognita’

May 13, 2019

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

American author Connie Willis was named a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2011. She’s best known for a quartet of novels in which historians from the University of Oxford travel through time to conduct their work; all four books won the Hugo award, and three of them also won the Nebula.

Terra Incognita, a 2018 anthology, collects three tales by Willis, presented by date of publication; I’ll be discussing them in reverse order.

The last item, “D.A.,” which appeared in 2007, is the slightest of the works, both in length and substance. The story is narrated by Theodora Baumgarten, a senior at Winfrey High School in Colorado who has her heart set on attending UCLA.

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Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids: Brian Aldiss examines whether the human species has a future in ‘Finches of Mars’

May 4, 2019

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

I gave passing mention to British science fiction author Brian W. Aldiss about two and a half years ago, in the first part of my examination of which science fiction grand masters have had the most works translated into television and film. But only recently have I ever read any of his novels.

Finches of Mars came out in 2012; it was Aldiss’s last science fiction novel, although he subsequently published an original anthology, a revised novel and a non-genre novel before his death in 2017. Somewhat like Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, Finches of Mars features a narrative that, at least initially, floats almost aimlessly from character to character and even, in this case, planet to planet. (However, I have no indication that Aldiss wrote the chapters as individual pieces or intended them to work on their own, as Tidhar appears to have done.)

The situation Aldiss posits is rather dire: Roughly a century in the future, Earth is even more conflict-riven than today. About four million people live on the moon, but they must rotate back home every three months to prevent deleterious effects of longterm exposure to low gravity. A consortium of schools, UU, or United Universities, has established humanity’s first beachhead on an entirely different planet: Six residential towers, segregated by region. (Westerners, Chinese, Russians, Singapore and Thailand, South America and Scandinavia each have their own building on Mars.)

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To sleep, perchance to change the world? Ursula Le Guin plumbs the depths of subconsciousness to little effect in ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

April 30, 2019

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

In 2002, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America designated Ursula K. Le Guin as a grand master. The American was the 20th author to win the honor but only the second woman, after Andre Norton in 1983. Despite her prestige and influence — Le Guin, who died last year at age 87, was named a living legend by the U.S. Library of Congress two years before she was honored by SFWA — I’ve only read a handful of her tales, mostly in the form of short fiction included in anthologies.

Le Guin’s sixth novel was The Lathe of Heaven. Unlike the preceding volumes, four of which established the Hainish or League of All Worlds universe and one of which launched the Earthsea saga, this 1971 narrative is a stand-alone story about one George Orr. This mild-mannered draftsman from Portland, Ore., seems thoroughly average in every way but one: He’s afraid of his own dreams.

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Human evolution moves in new and strange ways in ‘Central Station,’ Lavie Tidhar’s loosely linked 2016 novel about future Tel Aviv

April 29, 2019

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

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar’s 2016 novel, is a rambling meditation on the nature of humanity and the possible directions our species might take in the coming decades.

Tidhar envisions a future Israel that has been apportioned and has achieved a measure of stability. Palestine includes what has become the city of Jaffa, while Jews retain the remainder of Tel Aviv and other parts of today’s Israeli territory. The space port of Central Station straddles the two cities, uniting and dividing them, funneling people and goods both into and out of the sector.

The port serves as a gateway to colonies all around the solar system. But that doesn’t entirely explain Central Station’s amazing diversity: The neighborhood boasts creatures of many ethnicities and native tongues. Some of these are very familiar, others are fantastic and still others are wholly intangible — and a number, like the port, straddle different categories of existence.

Tidhar, an Israeli, begins to outline Central Station’s huge variety with this passage near the start of his book:

The rain caught them by surprise. The space port, this great white whale, like a living mountain rising out of the urban bedrock, drew onto itself the formation of clouds, its very own miniature weather system. Like islands in the ocean, space ports saw localized rains, cloudy skies, and a growth industry of mini-farms growing like lichen on the side of their vast edifices. 

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‘Broken Angels,’ Richard K. Morgan’s sequel to ‘Altered Carbon,’ puts his hero in jeopardy on a war-torn colony world

April 22, 2019

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

About four months ago, I reviewed Altered Carbon, the breakout debut novel by British science fiction and fantasy author Richard K. Morgan. Last week, my local library hold on a digital copy of the sequel, Broken Angels, and I’m happy to report that it’s just as entertaining as its predecessor.

The second book, which was published in the U.S. the same year as Morgan’s first, 2003, is set on the war-wracked colony planet Sentinel Sanction IV roughly 30 years after the events of Altered Carbon. The story opens when narrator Takeshi Kovacs, a soldier with a freighted past, is approached while recuperating from wounds sustained in a savage local civil war being fought between a cartel and insurrectionists. This individual has a proposition for Kovacs that concerns an artifact left behind by an apparently extinct alien race whose remains humans have been uncovering and attempting to interpret for centuries:

“[A]ny decent archaeologue who wants to make a killing is going to head for the centers of habitation, and that’s what they all did.” 

“How do you know all this, Schneider? You’re not an archaeologue.” 

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Humanity makes a sudden and unexpected splash on the interstellar scene in Patrick Tomlinson’s science-fiction novel ‘Gate Crashers’

April 13, 2019

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

Patrick S. Tomlinson’s 2018 science-fiction story, Gate Crashers, is an uneven but promising work.

At the heart of the book is a slight twist on a familiar premise: Homo sapiens discover an alien device and use it to reverse-engineer revolutionary technologies, including faster-than-light travel. Tomlinson’s novelty is that the object is discovered in deep space — literally the middle of nowhere — by humanity’s most ambitious crewed extrasolar flight. However, the crew is not alone…

…and not just because there are aliens about.

Due to the miracle of quantum entanglement radio, or QER (for which read: ansible), which enables instantaneous communication, the crew of the American/European Union Starship Magellan is able to share its discovery with a small group of scientists at the American/European Space Space Administration, the 24th century’s successor to NASA. The ground-based team of whiz kids team up with the astronauts to unlock amazing secrets.

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A time-traveling federal agent doggedly pursues justice in Tom Sweterlitsch’s gripping novel ‘The Gone World’

April 12, 2019

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

I’d never heard of Pittsburgh science-fiction author Tom Sweterlitsch until I stumbled across a library catalog listing for his second novel, 2018’s The Gone World. Having read the book last month, however, I’m prepared to say that he’s a force to be reckoned with in the genre.

Sweterlitsch’s debut book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, concerned a man who investigates unexplained deaths in a virtual recreation of a destroyed city. The Gone World is a complex time-travel mystery in which a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent attempts to apprehend a SEAL accused of slaughtering his wife and children.

The protagonist here, Shannon Moss, is uniquely qualified to investigate the 1997 triple homicide. Like suspect Patrick Mursult, Moss trained to sail with Naval Space Command, a classified U.S. military fleet capable of probing the distant reaches of time and space. Moss was diverted to NCIS after her first solo excursion on a far-future Earth ended in a bizarre injury that resulted in the partial amputation of her left leg.

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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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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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