Posts Tagged ‘science fiction novel’

Brian Daley provides fast-moving space opera fun in ‘The Han Solo Adventures’

July 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 7, 2016

Sometimes, when I pick up certain books that I read years ago, I am transported to past eras of my life. There was a stretch in the summer of 2003 when I would frequently take a picnic lunch from my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, amble over to Riverside Park and read one of the hefty volumes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I no longer recall which of the books I consumed during those warm, lazy afternoons, but I think of those idle summer reading sessions anytime I pick up the third or subsequent entires from the Potter chronicles.

Similarly, when I reread the first two volumes in Douglas Adams’s “increasingly misnamed trilogy” of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, I recall sitting in the backyard of the house where I grew up, also on a summer day, and virtually inhaling the words that I still enjoy these many years later.

The other day, I was looking for books to discard from my personal collection when I noticed a long-forgotten paperback that bore the clunky title of Star Wars®: The Han Solo Adventures. This yellowing mass-market paperback was published in June 1992 by Del Rey, an imprint of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. It’s an omnibus edition of three space opera novels licensed from George Lucas’s Star Wars universe; its cover boasts, “For the first time, all three books in one volume!”

The three books contained therein — Han Solo at Stars’ EndHan Solo’s Revenge and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy — were all written by science fiction author Brian Daley. They were originally published over what seems like an unbelievably short period: Han Solo at Stars’ End debuted in April 1979, according to Wookieepedia, while the trilogy concluded in August 1980 with the release of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy.

As soon as I saw the book, I knew that I wanted to reread it, and almost as soon as I started rereading it, I began recalling the novel’s intricate particulars in detail. All three books are rip-roaringly fun adventures that pay loving homage to the eponymous smuggler, his immense fur-covered Wookiee sidekick, Chewbacca, and their battered, deceptively ordinary-looking freighter, the Millennium Falcon.

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Four astronauts embark upon a quixotic interplanetary quest in Lewis Shiner’s ‘Frontera’

March 29, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 29, 2016

Frontera, the 1984 first novel by Lewis Shiner, chronicles a mission to Mars undertaken by a small, ragtag group of astronauts who harbor multiple secrets and varying agendas. Shiner uses the tale to explore the nature of humanity, asking what happens when traditional governmental and national structures fail due to decisions both intentional and otherwise.

The novel is set at some point in the early 21st century. Ten years ago, as governments around the world began collapsing for unspecified reasons, a ship was sent to Mars to recall colonists from the American base at Frontera. A few dozen souls opted to stay behind; later, their numbers were reinforced by survivors of a disaster (also unspecified) that struck the Soviet Union’s colony on Mars. Frontera sent a few grim transmissions in the two years following the recall, but the updates stopped, and most people believe all the colonists to be dead.

The travelers are quite an eclectic lot: Lena, the expedition’s medico, whom Shiner gives such shallow treatment that she barely exists as a character; Takahashi, scion of the Japanese affiliate of Pulsystems, the corporation that is sponsoring the flight to Mars; Kane, the nephew of Morgan, Pulsystem’s über-capitalist CEO; and Reese, an aging astronaut who was the first American to set foot on Mars, and who never wanted to leave the red planet but did so because (apparently) he was duty-bound to staff the return flight.

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In Lewis Shiner’s ‘Glimpses,’ an alcoholic stereo repairman rescues legendary rock music that never was

November 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 29, 2015

In 1993, a science fiction writer from Texas named Lewis Shiner published his fourth novel, Glimpses. I read part of it but never finished, for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps I lost interest; perhaps I never got my hands on the novel itself but instead had an excerpt published in a science fiction magazine.

At any rate, this summer, I saw Love and Mercy, the biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and it reminded me of Glimpses, or of whatever part of it that I’d read. I’d seen a copy of the book in a Raleigh second-hand store, so on my next visit there, I picked it up. (I also grabbed a copy of Frontera, Shiner’s first book, from 1984, which I will write about sometime in the next few months.)

Glimpses is a heavily autobiographical novel, according to the autobiographical essay on Shiner’s website. The story opens in late 1989, shortly after the narrator’s father has died in a diving accident off the Mexican island of Cozumel. Ray Shackleford is a 37-year-old stereo repairman trapped in a loveless marriage to a teacher; he is semi-functional despite having a major alcohol dependency. A college dropout and an only child, Shackleford has always loved music and never got along with his father.

But this otherwise ordinary man discovers an extraordinary talent. He’s at work, trying to finish mourning his dad, an anthropology professor who had only recently retired from a globe-hopping career, and trying to stop mooning over Alex, his high-school girlfriend, when something strange happens as Let It Be plays in the background of his workshop:

There’s magic, see, and there’s science. Science is what I learned at DeVry and it bought me this nice two story house off 290 in East Austin. Magic says if maybe the Beatles could have hacked it then maybe Alex and me could have hacked it.

If the Beatles had hacked it, “The Long and Winding Road” would have sounded a lot different. Paul always hated what [producer Phil] Spector did to it, wanted it to be a simple piano ballad. John might have written a new middle eight for it, something with an edge to cut the syrupy romanticism. George could have played some of the string parts on the guitar, and Ringo could have punched the thing up, given it more of a push.

It could have happened. Say Paul had realized the movie was a stupid idea. Say they’d given up on recording at Apple and gone back to Abbey Road where they belonged, let George Martin actually produce instead of sitting around listening to them bicker. I’d seen enough pictures of the studio. I could see it in my head.…

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A freighter captain and a cop take on a mysterious conspiracy in the debut science fiction novel ‘The Kassa Gambit’

November 27, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 27, 2015

M.C. Planck’s 2012 debut novel, The Kassa Gambit, is an enjoyable piece of science fiction escapism.

The book’s main characters are Prudence Falling, captain and owner of the independent interstellar freighter Ulysses, and Kyle Daspar, a politically connected municipal policeman on the wealthy planet of Altair.

As the story opens, Falling and her three-man crew are on a routine cargo run that goes horribly wrong. They arrive at their destination, a remote, sparsely populated farm world named Kassa, days after an unknown force has bombed every city, town and building into oblivion. What’s more, the marauders seeded nearby space with a set of deadly torpedoes (which the characters refer to as mines — a minor quibble, but there we are).

After Falling’s crew disables the torpedo targeting Ulysses and makes landfall, they find themselves called upon to aid thousands of survivors, a task they barely have the resources to even begin to attempt:

Prudence met the man at the boarding hatch. Standing at the top of the gangway gave her power, rendered him a supplicant at the foot of the throne. A simple trick, but it had worked on more than one dockside petty official.

“Thank Earth you’re here,” the man said.

“Captain Prudence Falling of the Ulysses,” she introduced herself. The formalities were there for a purpose. They gave structure to the negotiations, reminded everyone exactly where they stood. “And you are?”

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Two women, trapped in different ways, navigate the end of the world in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’

September 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2015

In 2004, the acclaimed Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, the dour story of a love triangle. The narrative begins in a dystopian future North America and ends after a pandemic has wiped out most of civilization, or what passed for it. In 2009, Atwood’s The Year of the Flood came out. I started reading it in March and completed it, after several interruptions (and one boneheaded accident), in August.

The book turns out to be another science fictional outing and is, in fact, the middle leg of what has dubbed the MaddAddam trilogy. Where Oryx and Crake, from what I recall, was told exclusively from the narrator’s point of view, the 2009 book is more ambitious: It alternates between two characters. Atwood also tacks between the past, in the same dystopian society depicted in Oryx and Crake, and the post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited by the previous book’s lonesome narrator. (Yes, there are a handful of human survivors — just why that is Atwood reveals in the course of time.)

One of the protagonists here is Toby, whose parents died while she was a college student (long before the plague), leaving her essentially alone and without resources. After some misadventures that will haunt her, Toby winds up becoming a teacher in a Christian sect of nature-loving hippies who call themselves the God’s Gardeners. There, one of her students is Ren, the book’s other protagonist, whose mother later takes her away from the sect and back to what the Gardeners call the External World.

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Debut novelist Ariel Djanikian builds to a devastating series of climaxes in ‘The Office of Mercy’

August 26, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 26, 2015

The Office of Mercy, the 2013 debut novel by American author Ariel Djanikian, depicts the journeys of two members of a future American community that is both highly insulated and extremely fascistic.

The main character is Natasha Wiley, a rebellious 24-year-old resident of a primarily underground habitat called America-Five. The residents rarely leave the settlement; even less rarely do they have any wish to step outside its antiseptic corridors. Wiley works in the Office of Mercy, where she monitors migratory tribes roaming a harsh environment that was scoured centuries ago by a violent storm — the result of climate change, perhaps.

The agency’s functions are hardly limited to monitoring, however. The office also conducts sweeps — a euphemism for killing. Ideally, the office confirms that all members of a tribe have gathered together and clinically destroys them with a tactical nuclear strike. If there are stragglers, either the sweep is postponed or things get…messy.

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William Dietz’s fast-paced ‘Runner’ is well built but mindless science-fiction entertainment

August 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 18, 2015

Runner, a 2005 novel by William C. Dietz, is set in a far-distant future where humanity has settled dozens of planets across the galaxy but has lost most of its understanding of science and technology.

A trio of characters are at the center of the book: The titular runner, Jak Rebo, a seasoned interstellar courier-cum-mercenary; Tra Lee, a roughly 10-year-old boy who is a contender to be named leader of his religion, a Buddhist-like denomination known as the Way; and Lanni Norr, a “sensitive” with psychic powers who finds herself gaining unwanted attentions from the ghost of a deceased technology enthusiast and the order founded by the dead man.

The plot is kicked into motion when Rebo is hired to escort Lee to Thara, which happens to be both the home world of the mainly irreligious runner and the headquarters of the Way. While trying to elude operatives of a rival sect while traveling aboard a starship, the duo encounter Norr, who senses that Lee’s life is in danger after he becomes separated from Rebo.

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John Scalzi’s ‘Redshirts’ explores the downside of life as a supernumerary aboard a TV spacecraft

July 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 24, 2015

John Scalzi’s 2012 novel, Redshirts, is a wonderful comic exploration of what life might be like for the crew of a spaceship featured in a campy television series.

Scalzi’s protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, a 25th-century xenobiologist who has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. He’s one of five new junior crew members who quickly become aware that their new starship is, well, a little unusual.

For instance, take Dahl’s first away mission, to a space station overrun by deadly robots:

Dahl screamed McGregor’s name, stood and unholstered his pulse gun, and fired into the center of the pulpy red haze where he knew the killer machine to be. The pulse beam glanced harmlessly off the machine’s surface. Hester yelled and pushed Dahl down the corridor, away from the machine, which was already resetting its harpoon. They turned a corner and raced away into another corridor, which led to the mess hall. They burst through the doors and closed them behind them.

“These doors aren’t going to keep that thing out,” Hester said breathlessly.

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A player for all genres: Nick Cole’s heroic video gamer assumes the mantle of a knight-errant in ‘Soda Pop Soldier’

July 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 7, 2015

Nick Cole’s 2014 novel, Soda Pop Soldier, is a fun science-fiction romp with literary value roughly equal to the nutritional value of — well, of soda.

Cole’s vaguely realized protagonist doesn’t even get a proper name; most of the time, he’s known as PerfectQuestion, his in-game handle for the WarWorld video game competitions. At other times, others address the character as Wu, the moniker of the samurai he plays in an illicit fantasy video game.

Still, the plot is fairly compelling. Several decades in the future, Question has a job playing WarWorld games on his computer. The results have real-life consequences: Each victory on a given virtual front rewards the winning team’s sponsor corporation with valuable real-world advertising space. Unfortunately, Question’s sponsor, ColaCorp, has been losing battle after battle to the enemy WonderSoft corporation in a modern-warfare game set in a fictitious Southeast Asian country. (For ColaCorp, read Coca-Cola; for WonderSoft, Microsoft.) If things continue on this course, the entire team will be fired.

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Science fiction time loop, take 1: The uneven ‘All You Need is Kill’ is most notable for having inspired ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

July 4, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 4, 2015

Last summer, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt starred in Edge of Tomorrow. I praised this dynamic military science-fiction movie as a likely classic of its subgenre, a motion picture that might one day be mentioned in the same breath as James Cameron’s seminal Aliens.

Somewhat to my surprise, the movie seemed to sink without a trace. True, it grossed $100 million domestically, but that was only the 33rd-biggest haul of 2014, per the website Box Office Mojo. (Edge fared better worldwide, selling $269 million in tickets overseas; the combined take gave it the 20th-highest worldwide gross of the year.)

Perhaps one reason Edge of Tomorrow fell into obscurity was that Warner Brothers had trouble committing to a title for the picture. It’s an adaptation of Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s short 2004 novel All You Need is Kill, and it was promoted under that title for much of the production process. Several months prior to release, however, the studio opted for the blander moniker Edge of Tomorrow. Then, for some reason — presumably because the film didn’t live up to box-office expectations — the suits rebranded the movie Live Die Repeat for its home-video release.

All of which is largely incidental to how excited I was to stumble upon a copy of Sakurazaka’s volume on a recent expedition to a secondhand book-, DVD- and CD-shop. Naturally, I snapped up the volume, which was the third printing of an Alexander O. Smith translation that originally appeared in the U.S. in 2009. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed by the book.

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In Ship we trust? A motley crew of amnesiac astronauts battle forces they barely comprehend in Greg Bear’s ‘Hull Zero Three’

April 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 1, 2015

Greg Bear is a prolific, award-winning American science fiction author. His 2010 novel, Hull Zero Three, is the story of a traveler aboard an interstellar sleeper ship who struggles to end a conflict that threatens the vessel and its passengers.

The Ship of Hull Zero Three (it’s otherwise nameless) is akin to the Argonos of Richard Paul Russo’s Ship of Fools in that both vessels are wandering the stars, their missions unclear. But Argonos is a generation ship, capable of sustaining a fully conscious and active population for years upon end. It can also travel from one star to another in a matter of months.

Ship travels at a much lower velocity; a single journey could last hundreds of years, after which it might lack the fuel to continue to another destination. This, at least in part, explains why Bear’s vehicle is a sleeper ship. To conserve air, water, food and other supplies, few if any of the people on Ship are awake. This changes, of course, when people are needed to deal with an emergency or some other important event, such as an impending planetfall.

In fact, Ship doesn’t necessarily convey people as such — rather, it has a genetic Catalog and the equipment and resources needed to grow the bodies and brains that it needs to handle the situation. The vessel can also implant memories and knowledge in the minds it creates.

But Ship’s voyage has gone awry. The vessel has stalled in the void as unknown forces battle for control of its systems.

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A cynic probes alien mysteries in Richard Paul Russo’s ‘Ship of Fools’

March 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 29, 2015

The narrator of Ship of Fools, Richard Paul Russo’s 2001 science fiction novel, is a cynical man. And who can blame him? Bartolomeo Aguilera has never known his parents; they abandoned him, he presumes, because of his physical deformities, which have made him a pariah throughout his life.

Aguilera is a voyager aboard Argonos, an ancient starship that roams the galaxy. The immense vessel’s age, origin and mission are all mysterious. The on-board bishop, an ambitious man, “claimed that the ship had always existed — a ‘Mystery’ that was usually a large part of his conversion sermons, a large part of his basic theology. A large part of his nonsense.”

If Bishop Bernard Soldano’s outlook hints at medieval beliefs, that’s no accident. Argonos has developed a rigid caste system: The wealthy, entitled First Echelon live on the luxurious upper decks while impoverished serfs labor to maintain the vessel on the dingy lower levels. Moreover, the captaincy is handed down along dynastic lines: “Though technically an elected position, in practice the captaincy was inherited, and had resided within the Costa-Malvini clan for several generations.”

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The astronaut at the heart of Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ finds himself at the mercy of a perilous but indifferent universe

March 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 28, 2015

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 novel, Gateway, which was originally serialized in the magazine Galaxy, is a landmark work of science fiction. It swept all of the genre’s top honors, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Campbell awards.

The book contains two tales, which appear in alternating chapters. They’re both narrated by Robinette Broadhead, and each covers a different time period. The odd-numbered chapters revolve around Broadhead’s weekly appointments with “Sigfrid von Shrink,” which is what the narrator calls his computer psychotherapist. This Broadhead, who lives in an exclusive, domed borough of New York City, is a fabulously wealthy retiree. His main pursuits are bedding women and turning the tables on Sigfrid. Sometimes these activities converge, such as when he romances a computer specialist who knows how to bypass key parts Sigfrid’s programming.

The main topic of discussion — or evasion, given Broadhead’s reluctance to engage any subject that makes him uncomfortable — is related in the even-numbered chapters. These are the experiences of young Broadhead, a cash-strapped Wyoming food miner on an overcrowded, far-future Earth. At least, that’s Broadhead’s unpleasant lot in life until he wins the lottery. The 26-year-old immediately spends the bulk of his $250,000 prize on a one-way ticket to an alien asteroid, where he hopes to find unimaginable wealth as a prospector.

His destination is an ancient outpost called Gateway. It was built by the Heechee, a mysterious alien species that has been extinct — or at least absent — for many millennia. Little is known about this race, including what happened to them. No other living intelligent alien life has ever been found.

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The revolution will be 3D-printed (and open source): Cory Doctorow explores the inventions and economy of the future in 2009’s ‘Makers’

January 8, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 8, 2015

Suzanne Church is a popular 40-something business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News when she gets her big break. It begins when she questions Landon Kettlewell, the CEO of Kodacell — the newly merged companies of Kodak and Duracell — at a press conference describing his new corporate fiefdom. Late that evening, the shrewd executive impulsively (and rather improbably) e-mails Church with an invitation to “embed” with one of his company’s free-wheeling entrepreneurial teams. The reporter’s decision to accept the invitation changes the lives of countless thousands of people, especially those of Church, Kettlewell and the two men she is soon living with and reporting on nearly every waking hour.

With this, Canadian-born author and blogger Cory Doctorow sets in motion the plot of Makers, his 2009 science fiction novel about the economy of a near-future United States. The novel is competently written but uneven: Doctorow’s scenario for how embedded journalism will work in the near future strikes me as rather unlikely, and a significant amount of dialogue comes off as pretty didactic — a lecture, rather than a conversation.

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Like father, like son? Identity is inextricably tied to parentage in Nick Harkaway’s ‘Angelmaker’

December 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 18, 2014

Absent parents loom large in the fictional realm. A key component of the original Star Wars trilogy is Luke Skywalker’s gradual discovery of the particulars of his parentage (especially the villainy of his father, the genocidal Darth Vader) and Luke’s struggle to develop his supernatural powers without being consumed by his own dark, angry impulses. The rebellious nature of the alternative timeline’s James Tiberius Kirk is shaped in large part by the absence of his father, George, whom director J.J. Abrams killed off in the opening sequence of the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Likewise, the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man makes the research and relationships of Richard Parker, father of the orphaned web-slinging Peter Parker, a key plot point in both of the series’s first two outings.

I’d wager that matters of parentage are even more prominent in British fiction. After all, the United Kingdom has been ruled for centuries by a hereditary monarchy, with power passing (at least in theory) from one generation of royalty to the next.

A major storyline in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy involves Aragorn assuming the position of king of Gondor that, according to genetics and custom, is rightfully his. My recollection of the books is hazy, but in Peter Jackson’s wonderful movie adaptation, when the audience initially encounters this character, he goes by the name of Strider and appears to be a well-trained woodsman accustomed to operating on his own — hardly the résumé of the standard fantasy prince.

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Louts and strivers, united by their desire to exploit the weak: H.G. Wells expounds a dark vision of humanity in ‘The Invisible Man’

December 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 16, 2014

Herbert George Wells’s sixth book, The Invisible Man, in 1897, continued a very productive writing career that had begun in 1895 with the publication of a debut novel and two other works. Wells’s first volumes included a short-story collection, a comic novel (The Wheels of Chance, which revolved around bicycling), and four science-fiction novels. One of those works, The Wonderful Visit, is obscure; the others are anything but.

The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man and Wells’s seventh book, The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, develop seminal science-fiction tropes. Not only are these themes — time travel, scientific overreach, all-out war against implacable alien foes, the ability to move without being seen — threaded throughout the history of science fiction, Wells’s very stories themselves have been produced for television and film many times.

Since 2004, no fewer than five movies inspired by The War of the Worlds have been released; it was also (very loosely) the basis for a 1980s TV series and a classic 1953 movie. The most recent Island of Dr. Moreau film appeared 18 years ago; it followed in the footsteps of three 1970s adaptations as well as versions from 1959, 1932 and 1921. There have been five movies based on The Time Machine, with a sixth due out next yearThe Invisible Man has inspired an even longer string of movie and TV screen (non-)appearances, including a TV series unfamiliar to me that aired from 2000 through 2002, although the book’s most famous screen incarnation might still be the 1933 version starring Claude Rains in the title role.

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Science fiction and sociology: Considering ‘The Time Machine,’ H.G. Wells’s pioneering science fiction novel

December 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 13, 2014

The year he turned 29, Herbert George Wells published his debut novel. It was the first of dozens of volumes penned by Wells and the start of an incredibly fertile period for the author. Within four years, Wells had produced seven books, four of which made a lasting impact on the then-new genre of science fiction.

These volumes were the science fiction novels The Time Machine and The Wonderful Visit and the short story anthology The Stolen Bacillus, all published in 1895; a third science fiction novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and a comic novel, The Wheels of Chance, which plays off of the newfound popularity of the bicycle, both published in 1896; and two additional science fiction novels: The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, published respectively in 1897 and 1898.

In 2003, the Barnes & Noble Classics imprint compiled The Time Machine and The Invisible Man in a single volume that included a timeline of Wells’s life, a short biography of the author, explanatory and interpretative notes, and four contemporary reviews of the two works. The biography and notes were written by Alfred Mac Adam, a professor of literature at Barnard College (who, interestingly, appears to specialize in Latin American literature).

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Science-fiction novel ‘Assault on Sunrise’ depicts a monster movie brought to life

December 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 10, 2014

Assault on Sunrise, a 2013 science fiction novel by Michael Shea, boasts a nifty premise but suffers from indifferent execution.

The novel is set in Sunrise, a small town in mountainous Northern California. Some of its residents have roots in the area that go back generations; others are “ex-extras,” people who once lived in the sprawling Southern California urban-ghetto nightmare that’s known in the book as the Zoo.

The latter group agreed to be bit players in the movies, risking their lives against artificial monsters created by Hollywood studios in return for big payments. (Apparently the extras can get the biggest checks by having the most dramatic and visually striking encounters with hostile creatures.)

As the book starts, every so-called live action movie has been “cammed” in immense controlled environments that only simulated the appearance of being outdoors. That’s about to change, however. Panoply Studios mogul Val Margolian has covertly arranged for every resident of the town of Sunrise to be indicted for murder on trumped-up charges. That enables him to purchase a contract with the state to execute the townspeople by filming their fight against a flotilla of artificial oversized wasps and mantises.

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Treasure hunter Alex Benedict rides again in Jack McDevitt’s entertaining ‘Seeker’

November 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 2, 2014

I had one reservation before purchasing Seeker, Jack McDevitt’s 2005 science fiction novel.

It wasn’t the writer, whose work I’ve enjoyed.

It wasn’t the book’s premise, which sounded great: The incidental discovery of an artifact from a long-lost spaceship sets two treasure hunters on a quest to locate the vessel and the vanished colony that it helped establish millennia ago.

No, it was the book’s characters — or, maybe more to the point, its series. Seeker is the third of six books in McDevitt’s Alex Benedict sequence, which revolve around an incredibly intelligent antiquities dealer from a prosperous colony world called Rimway.

Last year, I read Polaris, the second Alex Benedict novel, and found myself disappointed in its pacing, even though it boasts an intriguing premise (as Seeker does) and a rousing action finale.

Still, I was willing to gives McDevitt another go, and I’m glad I did.

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Marooned on Mars: A man fights (and thinks) for survival in Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’

September 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2014

Mark Watney is a man with a problem.

Actually, he has lots of problems, but they boil down to one issue: How can he survive being stranded on Mars?

Roughly a decade or two in the future, Watney is part of an American expedition to the red planet. A violent dust storm strikes six days after landing, and during a chaotic evacuation, Watney is struck by debris and swept under the sand. With the wind battering their liftoff vehicle, the mission commander orders a launch, leaving behind what they think is their colleague’s corpse.

But Mars hasn’t killed the astronaut, a botanist with expertise in mechanical engineering. It’s merely wounded him and, by destroying the expedition’s communications array, cut him off from the rest of humanity. Watney drags himself to safety and begins grappling with the hard realities of life as a space-age castaway.

In his favor, the mission’s habitat is essentially undamaged, giving Watney a nearly full complement of food, water and supplies that was originally intended to last six people for a month. Unfortunately, the next spaceship isn’t due for approximately four years…

This is the relatively straightforward setup of The Martian, a science fiction novel by Andy Weir. The book has an interesting history: The first-time author, a California software engineer, began it as a series of posts on his blog. Weir self-published the work as an electronic book in 2012. Earlier this year, Random House released a hardcover edition, and movie rights have been optioned.

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Killeen’s got 99 problems, and planetfall’s just one: Cyborgs, mechs and humans (oh my!) plague humanity’s remnant in ‘Tides of Light’

November 9, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 9, 2013

At the beginning of Tides of Light, Gregory Benford’s 1989 science fiction novel, Family Bishop is experiencing a moment of relative calm. That does not mean, however, that danger isn’t lurking.

This book, which GoodReads identifies as the fourth in Benford’s six-volume Galactic Center saga, centers on Killeen, the leader (“cap’n”) of a band of not quite 200 humans. The group boasts an unusual blend of technical savvy and scientific ignorance. This combination has characterized humans for years since the collapse of their civilization, which long ago occupied technically advanced space-going Chandeliers.

Bishop is aboard the ancient starship Argo, which they’ve used to flee their ancestral home on the doomed planet Snowglade. The vessel is approaching its mysterious destination, a distant solar system with a habitable planet. However, Argo is being shadowed by a spacecraft controlled by the mechs — a robotic lifeform that is alternatively indifferent or inimical to humanity.

This element will turn out to be just about the least of Bishop’s problems. The world they hope to make their new home is occupied by a large Tribe of humans who are in the sway of an erratic leader. Even worse, a group of large, powerful insectoid cyborgs known as Cybers recently arrived in the system, which they hope to refashion into a sort of interstellar beacon.

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Measures of redemption and enlightenment await characters in Jack McDevitt’s ‘Odyssey’

February 4, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 4, 2013

Jack McDevitt’s 2006 novel, Odyssey, opens as humanity has reached a precarious point. Early in the year 2235, interest in space exploration is fading just as concern about runaway global warming is ramping up. To make matters worse, the Academy loses a starship while political factions ready their push to cut money from the North American Union’s government-funded astronautics organization.

The person at the heart of this mess is one Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, the former starship captain extraordinaire who has traded her commission for matrimony, motherhood and a powerful job as the Academy’s operations director. She takes point on the effort to locate and recover the missing ship even as the Academy’s commissioner enrolls her in public-relations outreach to influential NAU Sen. Hiram Taylor and his 15-year-old daughter, Amy.

Hutch easily wins the affection of the space-happy Amy Taylor, but the search and rescue operation is a bit more problematic. So is the appearance of an immense previously undetected asteroid, which barely misses smashing into Earth but does leave more egg on the Academy’s face.

But, although it takes a frustratingly long time to develop, there are more things aspace in Odyssey than political maneuvering. A private company, Orion Tours, has reported another in a series of increasingly common sightings of UFOs. These so-called moonriders are presumably the work of an intelligent species, which humans have yet to find in exploring numerous star systems near Earth.

Orion and the Academy agree to deploy automatic monitors in the star systems where the mysterious flyers have been seen. And this is where things start to get going.

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Haldeman’s SF classic ‘The Forever War’ proves to be timeless in more ways than one

November 27, 2012

In 1974, Joe Haldeman published a science fiction novel called The Forever War. Its subgenre, military science fiction, made it a clear heir to Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 book, Starship Troopers. And just like its predecessor, Haldeman’s work also became a revered science fiction novel.

I did not read Forever War until this fall, and I’m sorry I waited so long.

The book is the first-person account of William Mandella, who had wanted to become a physics teacher. His plans changed when the world government began drafting Earth’s intellectual and physical elite for the United Nations Exploratory Force. (“Emphasis on the ‘force,’” Mandella wryly notes.) The organization’s purpose is to guard Earth and its fledgling colonies against a mysterious alien race that has vaporized a colony ship.

Beginning in 1997 — remember when it was written! — The Forever War tracks Mandella through basic training, an early ground campaign against an enemy outpost and subsequent assignments.

Haldeman, who wrote this book as a master’s thesis, per Wikipedia, has enough sense of how the world works to interweave exciting bits with rather duller bits. Some of the early chapters deal with the rigorous exercises Mandella’s unit undergoes on the remote Plutonian moon of Charon.

“You might as well regard all the training you got on Earth and the moon as just an elementary exercise, designed to give you a fair chance of surviving Charon. You’ll have to go through your whole repertory here: tools, weapons, maneuvers. And you’ll find that, at these temperatures, tools don’t work the way they should; weapons don’t want to fire. And people move v-e-r-y cautiously…. Read the rest of this entry »

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