Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Michael Crichton and the origins and nature of the technothriller

January 14, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 14, 2019 2020

Any history of the technothriller subgenre is bound to include Michael Crichton, the Harvard-trained physician who penned multiple bestsellers and created the hit television drama ER. For the last three decades, Crichton has been best known for his pair of dinosaurs-run-amok novels, Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

The splashiness of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie adaptation and its four (!) sequels (not to mention three pinball tables) makes it easy to forget that Crichton’s flair for combining science and thrills has been on display ever since 1969.

That’s the year that Crichton, who died in 2008, published The Andromeda Strain. This story of a research team desperately trying to stop the spread of a mysterious disease was both the first book to appear under Crichton’s own name and his first bestseller. But it represented an important commercial — and dare I say literary — development in its own right.

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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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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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Prominent authors contribute original, mainly horror-tinged tales to ‘McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories’

September 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 13, 2014

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories is a 2004 anthology edited by Michael Chabon with a notable bent toward horror-tinged tales of the supernatural. The book’s stories, all original, are penned by an impressive list of authors, but I found their quality to be a bit uneven.

Margaret Atwood contributes the first story, “Lusus Naturae,” narrated by a deformed young woman whose family fakes her death in order to mitigate their shame in her existence. (The title is a Latin phrase for “freak of nature.”) The tale is short, and its plot relatively unimaginative, but it generates sympathy for the shunned protagonist. Atwood also strikes an enjoyable sardonic note in the final paragraph.

“What You Do Not Know You Want,” by David Mitchell, is a mystery with supernatural elements. The narrator, a memorabilia dealer, is visiting Hawaii in order to locate the dagger his partner had acquired just before killing himself. The protagonist is disaffected — he’s engaged to be married but notably unenthusiastic about his fiancée. The story’s tone is naturalistic, but it ends with a disturbing otherworldly killing.

“Vivian Relf” is a curious short offering by Jonathan Lethem about a man who meets a woman a few times. Nothing happens between them, even though their lives seem to be intertwined in mysterious, indefinable ways.

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2001: A science fiction odyssey — Volume 19 of Gardner Dozois’s excellent ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction’ lives up to the series standard

May 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 17, 2014

If you love science fiction but have never read The Year’s Best Science Fiction, then I urge you to remedy that immediately. Launched in 1984 and now in its 30th annual volume, the series is curated by legendary editor Gardner Dozois. Each edition contains roughly two dozen stories; some are just a few pages long, with others stretching to novella-length. A mix of writers prominent and otherwise is represented each year.

A few weeks ago, I came across two volumes from the series at a used bookstore. The pair included the 19th annual collection, which was published in 2002 and anthologizes top stories from 2001.

The book opens with “New Light on the Drake Equation,” Ian R. MacLeod’s chronicle of the life of a lonely, dissolute SETI hunter. (That acronym stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, natch.) Protagonist Tom Kelly is listening for signals from intelligent alien civilizations on a mountaintop in France a few decades hence. The astronomer has all but shut himself away from his earthly surroundings, which are quite fantastic in their own right: Those who are rich enough can genetically re-engineer their bodies to be capable of flight and their minds to be fluent in other languages.

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Puns on the loose: A very silly science fiction list

April 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 18, 2014

And now, this blog humbly presents some alternative, and far less appealing, names for some well-known (and otherwise) science fiction franchises.

Star Bores

• Star Dreck

• Battlefarts Galactica

• The PG-13 Files

• Starship Bloopers

• All-But-Dissertation Who

• Agents of I.R.S.

• Blade Cleaner

• Peninsula of the Apes

• RoboMeterMaid

Sept. 11, 2001: George Bush’s Odyssey 

• Men in Gray Flannel Suits

• Fahrenheit 51

• Invasion of the Body Sculptors

• The Lamest American Zero

• Infinitesimal Leap

Logan’s 5K

• seaQuest DVR

• The Six Million Dollar Hip Replacement

• Buck Rogers in the 21st Century

‘And Another Thing’ proves to be a worthy sixth entry in ‘Hitchhiker’s’ trilogy

October 3, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 3, 2012

I am not, for various reasons, the kind of person to make a big deal of my birthdays. I did precisely nothing in observance of my last two birthdays, one of which marked a significant milestone. Looking back, I can only remember what I did on two relatively recent birthdays; those were memorable because my then-girlfriend made some arrangements.

One of the few other birthday memories that I have comes from my childhood. I don’t recall how old I was turning, but I would guess that my age might have been somewhere from 10 to 14.

What happened? Simply this: My mother handed me a gift consisting of a small stack of new paperback books. One must have been a Star Trek novel of some sort. The only other one I can name was a copy of a 1979 book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the work of Douglas Adams, the comic genius behind the Hitchhiker’s series. What I did not realize until a few weeks ago was that in 2009, Eoin Colfer penned a sixth entry in what has sometimes been described as the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s trilogy. Read the rest of this entry »

No need to stalk ‘Screamers: The Hunting’

September 30, 2012

I’ve not seen the 1995 film Screamers, but apparently it’s considered a minor classic of the science fiction/horror genre. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety,” it is set on the planet Sirius 6B, where killer robots designed to help one side vanquish its foes are now targeting all humans.

The 2009 sequel, Screamers: The Hunting, was apparently released direct to video; I watched it the other night. Directed by Sheldon Wilson and written by Tom Berry and Miguel Tejada-Flores, it is an acceptable but hardly wonderful B-movie.

The plot is set in motion when a human transmits a distress signal, leading to the dispatch of a seven-person crew aboard the Alliance Central ship Medusa. Their mission: Find and rescue any remaining humans on the planet, which was abandoned years ago and was thought to be lifeless.

Commander Sexton and his team are operating on a strict timeline. Six days from the time they land, some kind of space storm will wipe out all life on Sirius 6B. (The wonderful SF/horror/fantasy movie review site describes the phenomenon as a Magellanic storm, although I never seemed to hear the term clearly.)

Things start going badly when the team first contacts the screamers — so named because of the terrifying noises some models emit; two crew members are soon killed. Worse yet, a screamer has entered the ship and drained its power supply, stranding it on the planet unless the team can locate more fuel cells. (Oddly, no thought ever seems to be given to discovering how the screamer boarded Medusa or determining whether it is still aboard.)

Having discovered a dormant screamers factory and made an unsuccessful attempt to parlay with a band of human survivors, the team returns to where they had seen the humans. The competent Lt. Victoria Burke (Gina Holden) convinces a paranoid woman named Hannah to lead the group into the settlement. There, a survivor named Guy slices open Burke’s hand and tastes her blood in order to verify her humanity. Screamers, you see, now emulate people… Read the rest of this entry »

James contemplates the end of the world in quiet, haunting ‘Children of Men’

August 24, 2012

In the year 2021, no human child has been born for nearly 24 years. England is one of the few remaining bastions of civilization. Oxford historian Theo Faron, 50 years of age, contemplates his species’ impending doom with a detached eye. But when he’s approached by an emissary from a small group of motley would-be revolutionaries, he discovers, against all expectations, that there may be hope for the future.

This haunting vision of Britain in decay is detailed in The Children of Men, a 1992 novel by the esteemed British writer P.D. James.

Faron, her protagonist, is a keen observer. But he also embodies the apathy that has overtaken nearly everyone in England. He occupies a five-story house; it has been his alone for a year, ever since his wife left him for an artist. The marriage was a bad match from the start. Its eventual doom was sealed in 1994 when Faron backed over and killed the couple’s 15-month-old daughter, their only child. Read the rest of this entry »

Robinson charts intriguing voyage in ‘The Dark Beyond the Stars’

August 18, 2012

While browsing the science fiction section of a used bookstore some days back, I noticed a hardcover copy of The Dark Beyond the Stars. I had read this 1991 Frank M. Robinson novel many years ago, and I believe I still have the trade paperback version of it (somewhere!).

Unable to resist revisiting an old friend, I bought the book. It was a good call.

This first-person story is told by Sparrow, a 17-year-old technician and space explorer. At the beginning of the book, a traumatic fall on the surface of an inhospitable planet erases virtually all of his memory.

And so the reader discovers the intriguing patterns and puzzles of life aboard the generation ship Astron at the same time Sparrow does. The pinnacle of human achievement, at least up until the point it was launched, the ship has been voyaging for 2,000 years in search of life. Thus far, none has been discovered.

The ship’s captain, Michael Kusaka, has been at the helm since the mission began; unlike his crew, who have normal life spans, he benefited from treatments that have prolonged his existence indefinitely. And unlike many of his subordinates, who believe the quest for extraterrestrial life to be a fool’s errand, Kusaka is determined to press ahead.

Matters come to a head when the captain plots a course across the Dark, a vast void beyond which lie star systems that could harbor life. But Astron is deteriorating, and the crew fears that without opportunities to replenish supplies, the ship will fail before it reaches the far side. Read the rest of this entry »

Man’s dark side comes to light beautifully in ‘Moon’

August 16, 2012

I recently rewatched Duncan Jones’ Moon on DVD. If you have any interest in science fiction, or even if you’re an aficionado of intelligent and offbeat films, you should definitely see this if you have not yet already done so.

The 2009 movie stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut who is finishing a three-year solo stint at an energy mining base on the far side of the moon. Because of an equipment glitch, Sam communicates with his employer and his wife and baby on Earth by exchanging one-way video messages; his only company is a sympathetic robot called Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

The isolation is clearly wearing on Sam, and strange things start happening in and around the base. Help is available for him — but dark discoveries are at hand as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Outer space mystery ‘Polaris’ attracts but does not hold attention

August 15, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 15, 2012

I recently read and raved about Chindi, a 2002 novel by the prolific science fiction author Jack McDevitt. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that I plunged into his 2004 offering, a far-future mystery called Polaris.

I found the setup for this book irresistible. (I purchased both it and Chindi on a recent trip to the new location of Falls River Books in Raleigh, N.C.) Polaris is an interstellar yacht carrying some of the Confederacy’s most celebrated figures on a once-in-a-lifetime junket: They have traveled to an uninhabited solar system to watch its encounter with a disruptive rogue star.

But the captain and her six passengers never return from their voyage. A rescue crew finds an empty Polaris drifting in space. The disappearance of the seven souls she carried is never explained. 

Sixty years later, adventurous antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath manage to acquire some objects from the Polaris moments before a bomb destroys an exhibition of artifacts from the ship. The pair soon twig to a mysterious conspiracy. Someone is very interested in the surviving items — and may be willing to kill for them. Read the rest of this entry »

McDevitt probes alien mysteries in ‘Chindi’

August 12, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 12, 2012

Jack McDevitt’s 2002 novel, Chindi, is a fun science fiction romp about explorers who get in over their heads.

This is the third of at least six novels in McDevitt’s so-called Academy sequence, which involves the 23rd century exploits of interstellar voyagers pursuing relics of ancient spacefarers. The hero of Chindi and its predecessors is a no-nonsense captain known as Hutch.

I hadn’t previously encountered Priscilla Hutchins, and I don’t believe I’ve read any of McDevitt’s novels before. But Chindi grabbed my attention almost immediately, and I plowed through the book enthusiastically. Read the rest of this entry »

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