Posts Tagged ‘science fiction novel’

Short takes: ‘Station Eleven,’ ‘Supernova Era’ and ‘House on Haunted Hill’

May 23, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 23, 2020

Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, got a lot of buzz when it came out in 2014. I finally got around to reading it this month.

It’s a strange but not entirely novel experience to read about a pandemic as one unfolds in real life. Fortunately, as disruptive as Covid-19 is, it isn’t nearly as contagious nor as deadly as the flu that kills at least 90 percent of the human race and destroys civilization in the near future depicted in Station Eleven.

Mandel’s narrative covers several characters’ experiences over a number of years both before and after the flu outbreak. The unifying theme, however, is that many of the characters — notably former paparazzo cum aspiring paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary, former aspiring artist cum shipping executive Miranda Carroll, former aspiring actor cum high-priced consultant Clark Thompson — are all linked to Arthur Leander, the famed screen actor who dies of a heart attack during a Toronto production of King Lear the night before Westerners start succumbing to flu at an alarming rate.

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Isaac Asimov gave science fiction its Sherlock and Holmes with his uneven ninth novel, 1953’s ‘The Caves of Steel’

May 11, 2020

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

The legendary science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his first novel in January 1950. By the end of 1953, 10 Asimov books were in print:

Pebble in the Sky, his first book, which forms the Galactic Trilogy in conjunction with The Stars like Dust (1951) and The Currents of Space 1952).

I, Robot, Asimov’s second volume, a compilation of previously published stories that had established the author’s famed laws of robotics.

Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), the first entries in a seven-book cycle of novels about the evolution of a galaxy-spanning human society.

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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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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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Humanity prepares for a looming life-or-death struggle against a superior foe in Cixin Liu’s ‘The Dark Forest’

March 10, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 10, 2020

Author’s note: Beginning in the second paragraph, this post has spoilers for the novel The Three-Body Problem; these were inescapable in discussing the book’s sequel. MEM

Chinese writer Cixin Liu made a splash at home and abroad with his novel The Three-Body Problem, which originally was published in serial form starting in 2006 before appearing in an English-language translation in 2014. The Dark Forest, the second volume in the trilogy, was published in English the following year, with Joel Martinson replacing Ken Liu as translator.

The sequel opens with a prologue set during the action of the first novel but soon forges ahead into new territory. At a moment in the first half of the 21st century, all humanity has been alerted to the threat of the Trisolarans, an advanced alien civilization that evolved around a nearby solar system despite radical temperature swings caused by exposure to the system’s multiple suns. The Trisolarans have launched an invasion fleet; it’s purpose is to eradicate Homo sapiens and install their own species on our very hospitable planet.

Humanity has ample preparation time, since the aliens will need centuries to reach Earth. But that edge is severely blunted because our enemies have sophons. These essentially invisible and massless multidimensional particles allow the Trisolarans to hear or see anything and everything, even though they’re physically separated from Earth by more than four light-years. The sophons, which can hold conversations with willing human collaborators, were responsible for blocking the progress of scientific research in a strange plot that the protagonists of the earlier book were able to uncover.

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Short takes: ‘The Devil in Silver,’ ‘The Third Lynx,’ ‘Odd Girl Out’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

February 21, 2020

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

Victor Lavalle’s 2012 novel, The Devil in Silver, begins in the early weeks of 2011 with a large, powerful man named Pepper being committed to Northwest, the psychiatric inpatient unit of the fictitious New Hyde hospital in Queens. Pepper isn’t really crazy; he’s just hot-tempered, and a little socially isolated. Three cops bring him to the hospital because it allows them to bypass an hour or two of unpaid overtime that they’d need to book him in jail for scrapping with them.

The system is hard to escape, Pepper discovers, especially after two altercations indefinitely extend what could have been just a 72-hour stint in the psych ward. He loses two months after being heavily medicated; even when his mind has fought off the drug-induced fog, the 42-year-old professional mover still thinks and moves and talks like an unsteady nonagenarian.

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Short takes: ‘Famous Men who Never Lived’ and ‘Meddling Kids’

January 28, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 28, 2020

The New York City that Helen Nash and Vikram Bhatnagar travel through is not the one they knew. The two main characters in K. Chess’s 2019 debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, are UDPs, or universally displaced persons. Their New York City has been destroyed; they are permanently cut off from everyone and every place they ever knew.

The protragonists are among about 160,000 New Yorkers from an alternative timeline who escaped nuclear catastrophe through a sort of one-way dimensional portal. Their timeline diverged from ours about 11 decades ago, in 1910. Some landmarks and neighborhoods in the new New York City are familiar; others are entirely different.

The same is true of the linguistic, political, cultural and technological landscapes for the UDPs. Back home, the refugees used ordinators, not smartphones; a world war in their 20th century saw America besieged by a hostile Latin American power; gay people there were called verts and hadn’t won marriage equality.

It’s no wonder that so many UDPs are lost in the new world — although to be fair, Hel (who plays a more prominent role than Vikram, her lover), didn’t fit in so well back home. She was a cancer surgeon there who’d ceded custody of her son to her ex-husband; here, she’s an unemployed layabout.

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Daniel H. Wilson builds on Michael Crichton’s first technothriller in ‘The Andromeda Evolution’

January 15, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 15, 2019 2020

The Andromeda Strain pitted a small team of scientists against a mysterious virus that has killed all but two residents of Piedmont, Ariz. The 1969 Michael Crichton novel culminates in a desperate race against time. Its protagonists exhibit feats of intellectual prowess as well as a few acts of bravery. One might argue that the book is the original technothriller.

The Andromeda Strain inspired a 1971 movie version directed by Robert Wise, who had previously helmed West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and who would later bring Star Trek into the cinema; a miniseries adaptation with Ricky Schroeder and Viola Davis aired in 2008. Given corporate America’s propensity to recycle and reboot ideas, it’s mildly surprising that The Andromeda Strain had mostly lain dormant for years.

Enter The Andromeda Evolution, published late last year, which has Crichton’s name emblazoned on the top third of the cover. Although Crichton is listed first in the book’s author biographies, he seems to have had nothing to do with the plotting or writing of this volume, which is labeled “A novel by Daniel H. Wilson” in much smaller type on the bottom of the cover.

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Short takes: ‘The Heavens,’ ‘The Psychology of Time Travel’ and ‘The Outpost’

November 5, 2019

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

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is classified by the digital media service from which I borrowed it in audiobook form as horror. That’s not particularly accurate; although this 2019 novel has some touches of horror, it also incorporates elements of romance, historical dramas and science fiction.

The variability is fitting, because the main character, Kate, lives multiple lives. In what the people around her very sensibly call reality, Kate is a sweet but feckless twentysomething American artist with Iranian roots. In her dreams, however, she is Emilia, a married young musician of Jewish and Italian extraction with ties to the royal court of a strange preindustrial land called Albion. But she — “she” being both Kate and Emilia — also has dreadful visions of a post-apocalyptic city where nothing stirs but the air. Gradually, the two-faced protagonist comes to feel that her actions may play a role in preventing this augury from occurring.

This is no easy burden to assume, not least because Kate and Emilia don’t know just which actions might stave off disaster. With Albion’s capital stricken by plague, Emilia embarks upon a peripatetic excursion across the land, where she encounters her disaffected former patron, an obscure but aspiring poet and a handsome young lord.

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Short takes: ‘The Final Frontier,’ Denis Johnson’s ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’

October 4, 2019

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

The 2018 book The Final Frontier is a collection of 21 stories that share the topic of deep-space travel. My favorite entry in the book was the final one, which I’d read before: Peter Watts’s “The Island,” which is essentially a three-character narrative.

The tale is set aboard Eriophora, a deep-space vessel that set out millennia ago and whiles away the centuries ceaselessly building a network of teleportation gateways. Each gate empowers not its builders but the offshoots of whatever civilization launched the ship; each one also destroys anything near it, which is among the reasons why the vessel cannot slow or even change course by more than a tiny degree.

The unnamed narrator, like all of her crewmates, is carrying out a limited rebellion against Chimp, the deliberately hobbled artificial intelligence that ruthlessly hews to the ship’s original mission. Make that most of her crewmates — the third player in the story is Dix, the 20-something son she’s never met, who is suspiciously loyal to Eri’s brain.

‘The Final Frontier’ edited by Neil Clarke.

The narrator and Dix are awakened as part of a seemingly random rotation of personnel who shepherd the assembly of each new gate. As so often is the case, there’s a wrinkle, which is precisely why the ship has a crew. Chimp has detected an anomaly and wants to know if it will affect the build. The narrator discovers something amazing, something the AI likely would not have perceived on its own. In the end, though, she finds that her intuition — her uniquely human wisdom — may not be as well geared to comprehending the immensity and variety of the universe and its strange creations as she initially believed.

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Short takes: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’ and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘2312’

September 1, 2019

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

The Mountain Goats released their debut record, Sweden, in 1995, and have gone on to make 15 more albums. One of its members is a Durham resident, John Darnielle, who is described in part in his publisher’s biography as “the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band.” His first novel, Wolf in White Van, debuted to critical praise in 2015.

Darnielle’s second book, the horror novel Universal Harvester, came out two years later. Genre fans should be aware that this is horror is literary, not lurid; the volume is far more reminiscent of the painting “American Gothic” than, say, a slasher film or the science fiction/horror movies of which I’m fond.

That 1930 work by Grant Wood may well have served as inspiration for the novel, which takes place almost entirely in small Iowa communities. Universal Harvester’s characters are as repressed as the Iowa couple — in reality, a dentist and the artist’s sister; in Wood’s depiction, a farmer and his daughter — that peers out of the canvas.

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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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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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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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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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