“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979)

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Don’t Panic.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

I always try to start the year with something I’m going to enjoy, be that something optimistic, magical, or heartwarming. Given the mess that 2017 had left me – and most of us, to be honest – in, I was taking no chances. It was time to dip back into the works of one of the greatest writers ever.

This is the story of Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has woken up on a Thursday morning with a terrible hangover to find a series of bulldozers in his garden, filled with workmen who want to demolish his house. Arthur does his best to halt them by laying down in the mud, but his plans are foiled by the arrival of his best friend Ford Prefect, who demands they go to the pub. Once there, Ford reveals that he’s not from Guildford, but actually from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the world is going to end in about twelve minutes. Making sure Arthur knows where his towel is, Ford hitchhikes off the planet and onto one of the Vogon ships now orbiting the Earth, seconds before the whole planet is wiped from existence.

Now entirely homeless, Arthur is given a crash course in interplanetary travel as he finds himself in some very odd company: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the psychopathic and two-headed President of the Galaxy; Marvin, the manically depressed robot; Trillian, a fellow human who he once met at a party and entirely failed to get off with; and Slartibartfast, whose name doesn’t actually matter. Zaphod drags the team along on the hunt of the legendary planet of Magrathea, in search of the answer to the Ultimate Question – the answer to life, the universe, and everything…

Douglas Adams had that perfectly magical skill of making brilliantly complicated concepts and plots seem easy. He was infamous for his inability to meet deadlines (he always said he enjoyed the whooshing sound they made as they passed by) but thank god he buckled down for long enough to give us this book, and the rest of the series. The writing is superbly tight, funny on every page, and yet also somehow all a little bit terrifying. The technology may be bizarre, and the aliens may be unusual, but broadly speaking the themes are very familiar. Above them all, though, sits the question, “What is it all about?” Much of the second half of the book focuses on answering the meaning of life, and the answer we get, now famous throughout our world, is pleasingly mental, and yet tantalisingly indecipherable. I think I agree with Slartibartfast’s assessment of the whole thing: “I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remove that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

Adams is also legitimately one of the funniest writers we were ever lucky enough to have. From his excellent, surrealist metaphors (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), and his comments about the nature of beauty and wonder (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”), to his attempts to explain the universe in simple terms (“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), there’s not a single joke that falls flat here, nor any wording that seems out of place. His creations too, such as the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drive, beautifully and simply solve typical narrative problems of the genre with pure madness, and yet they’re so good you don’t pause to question them. Never stop to think too hard about an Adams’ novel. They make sense, but only if you’re totally on board.

I already can’t wait to get back into the remaining four books in the wildly misnamed trilogy.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu (2015)

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time-salvager“A sliver of light cut through the void, shooting toward the center of the battle display.”

An ongoing theme of 2016 has been a fear for the future. Humans have always worried, but this year, with the terror of Brexit, several very high profile tragedies involving people from all walks of life, and a xenophobic madman just a few steps away from taking the most powerful office in the world, it makes anyone stop and think long and hard about what we might be stumbling into. I’ve been trying to give dystopian fiction because it feels too much like fact these days, but old habits die hard and that’s how I ended up in the horrendous future depicted in Time Salvager.

It’s 2511 and we meet James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who is one of an elite band of highly trained individuals who is employed to leap back in time and collect equipment that will help humanity in this future. The species is spread across the solar system, from Mercury to Eris, but it’s rapidly dying out. Heading back in time to collect energy sources and more mundane resources from spots in history that won’t alter the chronostream is the only way humanity is continuing to cling on. The Earth itself is poisoned and almost destroyed, with just a few cities left populated by scavengers and primitive tribes. The land, sea and air of our former home are all brown and grey, polluted and overrun with a plague that destroys everything it comes into contact with.

James is assigned a new task to rescue a power source from an oceanic rig in 2097, the year before World War Three started. If he succeeds in this job, he and his handler Smitt can retire to Europa and never have to work again. However, while there, he forms an attachment quickly to biologist Elise Kim, and when the rig begins to fall into the sea as history dictates, he breaks the first law of time travel and brings Elise with him back into the future to a world far grimmer than she could ever have imagined.

Now considered a fugitive, James must hide on the toxic wasteland that is Earth, in a city that once may have been Boston, and make sure that neither he or Elise are found by the ChronoCom, or worse, the megacorporation Valta. James may have some of the most advanced technology in history at his disposal, but it’ll take more than machinery to stay hidden and survive on that Earth.

Wesley Chu manages to neatly sidestep the question of how time travel actually works in this book, by having James explain that just because he uses it, it doesn’t mean he understands it. This is fair, really, because while I’m typing this on a laptop, I’d never be able to explain to a stranger exactly how it works. The vision of a brown, desecrated Earth is a terribly sad one, and the book suggests that life out among the planets isn’t much better. Humans have continued doing what they’ve always done – fought wars over resources – but we learn through neat exposition that the stakes always got bigger, whether humans were fighting for the rocky minerals of the asteroid belt, or mining the gas of Saturn and Neptune. Our knowledge of what happened between our time and 2511 comes piecemeal, explained to Elise by James. Humanity seemed to go through various phases, including one where the planet turned into something Orwellian for a while. Specific explanations of what the technology used by the characters are also fleeting, but you get the general idea.

James Griffin-Mars isn’t outstandingly interesting as a character. He’s plagued by guilt with all the people he’s left to die (chronmen must take resources from a point where it won’t affect the timeline, so it’s usually just before some major disaster was going to destroy the equipment anyway) and sees visions of some of these people. He’s also something of a cliched alcoholic who doesn’t like authority. He’s not entirely without redeeming features though. He’s brave and he certainly cares about (some) people, just often has a funny way of showing it. He also has the most character development throughout the novel, but it’s not much we haven’t seen before. The best characters are the two leading ladies, Elise Kim and Grace Priestly, the latter being the scientist who first drew up the rules of time travel and is almost worshipped by the chronmen and their organisation. They each lend James a touch of humanity, but in different ways, and allow us often to get a better grasp on what’s happening in this future.

Like most books set in dystopian futures, there is a note of hope in the text, especially towards the end, and a sense that while humans will almost always do the wrong thing first, they will eventually see the error of their ways and try to do the right thing, in their own slapdash, do-it-yourself style. Humans are the great survivors, and once more you get the impression that they’ll make it through this in one form or another.

A nice addition to the time travel canon, and definitely one for those who can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, but full to the brim with science fiction tropes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

“Armada” by Ernest Cline (2015)

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armada“I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.”

Like many people on the planet, my last couple of weeks have mostly been taken up with Pokemon Go. Suddenly we’re all out and about at all times hunting down an elusive Pikachu or prized Scyther. Video games, be they on our phones, computers or any number of consoles, are a fun distraction and most of us have played a game at some point, even if just Candy Crush. In Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada, he does what he did in his first – takes our love of these games and turns it up to eleven.

Zack Lightman is staring out of the window during high school when he sees a spaceship fly past. As if this wasn’t strange enough, he recognises it as one of the enemy spaceships from his favourite video game, Armada. No one else in the class seems to have noticed, and concerned he’s about to do something insane, he leaves the school and goes home. He seeks peace among the possessions of his father, who died when Zack was just a baby. His father was just as much of a video game nerd as Zack is, but this strange sighting today has reminded him of one of the notebooks in his father’s boxes that he’s tried to forget about.

Xavier Lightman, it turns out, was convinced that there was more to these films and games about alien invasions than met the eye. Were they preparing humanity for something that was coming? That night, Zack joins the world in the latest Armada mission and the following day it seems that his dad may have been onto something after all. Aliens are coming, but thanks to video games, humanity has been preparing for a very long time.

Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, takes place almost entirely inside an AU that has dominated the globe in the near future. Here, we’re only a couple of years ahead of real time, but again, video games have taken control. The conceit of having video games actually be training simulators for a future interplanetary war is a really fun one, and the book makes use of a huge number of aspects of conspiracy theory to fuel the plot. Such things as the missing Nixon tapes, the arcade game of legend Polybius, and the Star Trek reboot and Star Wars sequels are all shown to be part of this conspiracy. Plus, we also get some amazing cameos from some of the most famous scientists alive today.

Cline is also not one to hide the fact that his knowledge of video games, seventies music, and science fiction pop culture is beyond that of anyone else. The book is peppered with film titles, song lyrics, famous quotations, TV series, and ancient arcade games with more references than I could ever hope to get. The book is playing with tropes, however, and there’s a certain amount of a tongue-in-cheek feeling about much of it. It’s a slightly ridiculous premise, but it’s such a fun one that you can’t help but go along with it.

It takes quite a while to get going, but once the second act hits, it goes for it full force. Aside from the epilogue, the whole story takes place over two days, and the pace is fast enough that you believe it (even if it’s only later you realise that no one has been to the toilet for several hours). Irritatingly, I felt the pay-off at the end lacked something and the book ends a little abruptly, but all in all it’s an exciting, thrilling and incredibly nerdy tour de force that anyone who has ever looked out a window and wished for adventure should read.

That’s all of us.

“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers (2015)

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the long way“As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things.”

The publishing industry seems unwilling to take a chance on science fiction novels. Only a short time ago, The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir and when it started selling well, publishing companies started taking note, having had no interest in it before he’d taken matters into his own hands. The situation is the same with The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. Once it had been self-published and developed something of a cult following, the people with the money showed up. But why was no one willing to take a chance on these novels? Clearly they are well-written and they sell very well, but it seems that the people who are meant to know about these things simply don’t understand it.

The Long Way opens with Rosemary Harper, a Human, on her way to a long haul spaceship, the Wayfarer, which is a tunnelling ship responsible for constructing hyperspace tunnels between distant areas of space, allowing for easy travel for all the species in the Galactic Commons (GC) and their allies. The ship is old but the crew are welcoming. There are four other humans on board – captain Ashby; algaeist Corbin; and the technicians, fun-loving Kizzy and the more sensitive Jenks – as well as a few other crew members of alien species. Without going into too much detail and bogging down the review…

  • Sissix; an Aandrisk; a reptilian species who are one of the most powerful races in the GC and thrive on physical contact
  • Dr Chef; a Grum; one of the last of his species of a race that is never able to be silent and has multiple sets of vocal chords
  • Ohan; a Sianat Pair; from a blue-furred race that is in a symbiotic relationship of sorts with a virus that controls their minds
  • Lovelace; the sentient AI that controls the ship and has vague desires of being able to live in a physical body

The crew are given the opportunity to build a new hyperspace tunnel in a dangerous, untapped area of the galaxy which is home to a species that is always at war with itself. Despite the risks, the money they’d earn would be astronomical, so Ashby decides that this is the job for them. The Wayfarer sets off in the direction, but there are complications along the way. Humans, it turns out, are just about the only species in the universe who hide their true feelings and have the capacity to have secrets. As the journey goes on, Rosemary, Ashby, Corbin, Kizzy and Jenks must all face what they’ve kept hidden, and try not to let it interfere with the mission.

I didn’t know anything about this book before I started it, but I liked the description on the back and was curious. With some science fiction, it can be tedious to plow through the made up words and languages and species for another story about an errant robot or some warmongering species that won’t sit still. This book is nothing like that. It’s special. Yes, there are a myriad of species present, but they all feel real enough, as do their relationships with each other and the compromises they’re willing to make as regards to everyone’s cultures, languages and belief systems. Humans are present, and one of the main members of the GC, but they’re perhaps the least influential. It seems, more than anything, that humans are simply there because there are so damn many of them. The idea of them being the universe’s great explorers or conquerors is laughed off – they’re just fleshy tubes with fairly average abilities at whatever they turn their hands to. If anything, their defining trait is their adaptability.

But for all the AI and wormholes, this book is surprisingly about family. It actually deals with the whole gamut of relationships – enemies, friends, lovers – but, yes, predominantly, it’s about family. We get a lot of exposition via Rosemary’s eyes, as she’s never been off Mars before heading out on this mission, so we can find out in a natural manner exactly how these other species work. Sissix, for example, comes from a species where children are looked after by unrelated elders, and everyone is generally naked and promiscuous (by Human standards). The Sianat are symbiotes; Ashby has a physical relationship with a woman from another species; Rosemary is trying to process the events that led her to leave her family; and Jenks has fallen in love with the AI system. As the story progresses, it seems we encounter each of these species, their stories, and every possible configuration of family that could exist. It’s a reminder that the universe is a vast place, and when we get out there, anyone we meet shouldn’t be judged by our cultural norms.

Frankly, as science fiction goes, this is up there with the greats. It somehow seems irrelevant that they’re in space, visiting moons and planets and dealing with technology that is currently impossible. It’s not really highlighting that “we’re all the same” because, as I said, we’re not and we won’t be once we’re out there. But it teaches us how we can respect those who are different from ourselves, and maybe how the only universal need might be a need to feel like you belong.

It’s beautiful and heart-breaking, but also funny, sharp and hugely readable. Yes, Chambers plays with language and science, but it all feels incredibly thought out and none of it is excess, frivolous fluff. This is some seriously good literature and I look forward to the sequel immensely. In the meantime, you should really get on this – you won’t be sorry.

“The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury (1951)

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martian“One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.”

Humans seem to always have been fascinated by the idea of life on Mars. I suppose because it’s our nearest planetary neighbour, it’s the one place we’re likely to go any time soon, since we’ve given up on the Moon (turns out it was grey and rocky). Mars has long instilled within us a sense of mystery and no matter how many times science and rationality tries to tell us that there’s probably nothing living there, we can’t help but imagine that somehow some kind of intelligent life has flourished.

Ray Bradbury, the master of science fiction, here weaves a selection of short stories that show humans trying to get to Mars. Unfortunately for us, there is already a race of Martians there, and they aren’t too impressed. The first expedition gets killed as soon as they step out of their rocket. The second are put in an insane asylum because everyone thinks they’re mad for saying they came from another planet. By the third expedition, the Martians are ready, and use their telepathic skills to lull the humans into a false sense of security and get rid of them.

But then when the fourth expedition arrives, the Martians are (mostly) gone, and now humans can arrive in full force, turning up on thousands of rockets over the next few years. We meet the man who wishes to plant trees to remind him of home, the priests who wish to introduce Christianity to the natives, the black slaves who have built rockets in secret away from the white men and now are all heading to the new planet, and we also meet the last few Martians and find out what happened to them.

The book is really a hybrid between a novel and a collection of short stories. The stories are mostly separate from one another, but occasionally there is a recurring character, or a previously mentioned concept will resurface. The stories are set between 1999 and 2026, which implies that Bradbury had a lot of faith that humanity would get to Mars by then (we hadn’t landed on the Moon when this book was written) but he also shows that in some areas perhaps he wasn’t so advanced, such as suggesting that in the early 2000s, black people were still second class citizens and had fewer rights than the whites.

His version of Mars is highly fantastical. The Martians are humanoid in shape with dark brown skin, gold eyes and six fingers, and can all project ideas telepathically and share in hallucinations, a trait that becomes important in some of the stories. A little of their lifestyle is explored, such as showing how they cook, clean and entertain themselves – it’s very domestic. However, this is also a Mars with plants and animals, rivers and strange forms of transportation. Their cities are huge and crystalline, lasting thousands of years, and they seem to have blended knowledge of science, religion and art together to create what seems to be a utopia. Until, as usual, humans turn up to ruin it.

It’s not my favourite Bradbury, but it’s highly imaginative, very visually satisfying and an interesting look at the damage humans do, with good intentions or not.

“The Left Hand Of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)

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left hand“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So many books I read take place on Earth. In fact, I think most books take place on Earth, or at least the ones written on this planet do. As such, it’s nice to occasionally make a beeline for somewhere entirely different; a whole new world. Ursula K. LeGuin is often billed as one of the greatest science fiction writers ever, so why not take to the stars with her and visit her famous planet of Gethen.

Gethen, known as Winter by explorers because of its permanently freezing temperatures, is a planet in a remote corner of the universe that has no knowledge of anything living beyond its atmosphere until an envoy comes down to meet them and welcome them to the Ekumen, a league of planets that is trying to work together in harmony and to share information and technology between them all. The envoy is Genly Ai, who has been on Gethen for two years now, trying to convince the people of Karhide, a Gethen kingdom, to join with the other humans on other planets.

Shortly before his meeting with the king is finally arranged, Genly finds that the Prime Minister, Estraven, is a traitor and has been accused of treason. He is banished from Karhide, and Genly must meet with the insane king alone, only to discover that he is not trusted. Frustrated, Genly meets with the Foretellers, a group of people who can see the future, to ask if Gethen will ever be part of the Ekumen. When he is informed that it will, he moves to another country, Orgoreyn, to try his luck there. But soon his luck will run out, as the people of this planet are highly suspicious and before he knows what’s happening, Genly has been imprisoned and carted off to work against his will. When things start to seem completely hopeless, help might just come from the place he would least expect it.

Notably, I’ve managed to summarise the plot without mentioning one of the key things about this novel, and one of the things that is most well known about it. That is, that the Gethen people are neuter, having no gender or sex or most of the year, and then once a month entering a state called “kemmer”, in which they turn into either a male or female – which isn’t constant in an individual – and breed. After this passes, they return to a neuter state again. This way of living has shaped their entire culture, and so they find Genly strange, since they view him as permanently being in kemmer, which is perverse to them.

Estraven and Genly Ai (Copyright: Evan Dahm 2013)

There’s a lot going on in this book but despite the fact it’s set in a different world with a different calendar, you find yourself very quickly invested in Genly Ai, his mission and the world of Gethen. Exposition is delivered via the use of notes taken from the first investigators, or from old stories told by the Gethen people about their history. The themes are manyfold, but none detract from the story. Clearly, it is primarily a story about gender and sex. Genly has difficulty at first in understanding a society where there is no division of the genders, so there are no dominant/subservient or protector/protectee relationships based on different parts of the population. Genly attributes “he” and “she” almost randomly, based on whether someone seems masculine or feminine in his eyes, but he trips up. The King has been both a mother and a father, and his “landlady” has only ever fathered children.

Communication and the struggle of communicating with different cultures is also a key topic. The people of Gethen have something called shifgrethor, which appears untranslatable to non-Gethen ears, but refers basically to a set of social rules to do with pride, honour and respect. The people of Karhide and those of Orgoreyn treat it differently, and Genly is slow to realise that he’s often been misunderstanding people because of it.

It also appears that in this story there was an original race of humans who spread to different planets and then, when their civilisation collapsed, each planet lost contact with the other. This explains why people look basically the same across the galaxy, as they try to re-establish these connections thousands of years later. Genly is explicitly stated to be from Earth, known here as Terra, which was simply one of the planets populated by the Hainish millennia before. A whole series of books is built up around this by LeGuin, but this is the most famous.

Nonetheless, the story is keenly interesting and mostly about a political situation brewing thanks to the arrival of Genly Ai. The use of many words that are native to the planet or can’t be translated can be a bit overwhelming at times – some of the Karhide people have very long names that, when used in full, can dominate a paragraph – but there’s something about it that makes everything seem believable. At the back of the book, or my edition at least, is a guide to the calendar of Gethen and the names of all the days, months and seasons. This is a great resource to check back on, but not essential to one’s enjoyment.

There are some incredible ideas going on in this book, not least the idea of a population that doesn’t understand gender, and it should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. And it’s not often I say that about a book.

“Redshirts” by John Scalzi (2012)

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redshirts

Never wear red on a space ship.

“From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well, this sucks.

I like science fiction, as evidenced for my love of Doctor Who, Douglas Adams’s work, and The Martian. However, now we’re all over the excitement of Back To The Future Day, everyone seems to be hyped up over just one science fiction universe: Star Wars. Despite my penchant for spaceships and pulse guns, I’ve never been into Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate or any of those big staples of the genre. Nonetheless, I know enough about them to know what redshirts are.

“Redshirt” is the term given to an expendable member of a team, usually in a science fiction setting. This comes from the fact that in Star Trek, any team heading down to a planet tended to involve the main characters and another previously unseen low-ranking crew member in a red uniform. Invariably, that character would die and the others would emerge from the adventure either damaged but able to be healed, or simply entirely unscathed. This novel turns the concept inside out and plays around with it in exciting new ways.

This is the story of Ensign Andrew Dahl, who has just been recruited onto the flagship craft of the Universal Union, Intrepid. Along with his old friend Hanson and new accomplices Duvall, Finn and Hester, he is to be working on board the enormous ship as one of a crew of thousands, his own speciality being xenobiology. However, he quickly finds one or two things to be a little strange. For a start, none of the other people on board seem to want to spend much time around him, although all are keen to tell him to watch out for any away missions he might be sent on. And if they don’t like him much, it’s nothing compared to how quickly they vanish when a senior officer is approaching.

After a strange incident which involves Dahl having to deliver a message to the bridge personally rather than send it electronically, he and Finn are accosted by a hairy yeti-like man who tells them to stay away from the bridge and out of “the Narrative”. Things only get weirder when the gang start looking at the medial records for the senior officers, in particular those of Kerensky, who seems to suffer a near-fatal illness or accident on an almost weekly basis.

They all decide to do some digging to find out what’s really spooked the other ensigns and establish once and for all why the ship seems to weird and so many people are dying on their away missions. But they find far more than they bargained for…

If you enjoy writers who play around with tropes, lean heavily on the fourth wall, and generally like going a bit meta with their stories, then this is absolutely one for you. And actually, even if you don’t, it’s still a super-quick, easy read that you should get a lot out of. It’s incredibly fast-paced, whipping through scenes and mostly containing fast dialogue between the characters as they struggle to do their jobs and make sense of the situation. I confess that it took me a little while to get into it – the first chapter didn’t grab me quite as I usually like – but power through that and it becomes sublimely genius. Once you’ve got it, you’ll be hooked.

Scalzi is a fine writer (although I say that having only read one of his books) and really knows the medium, allowing him to toy with it and show us all the clichés of the science fiction genre, and then go one further to show why they exist. It’s a new breed of storytelling and one that I hope is cultivated for a long time.

The characters are all as interesting as they need to be – you’ll see what I mean if you read it – and while the plot initially might not seem to make any sense, it soon enough does. Just go with it, and you’ll be in for a rollercoaster of a romp through a genre that often seems to have been milked for all its worth, which is ridiculous, given that in science fiction, one can pretty much do anything.

Funny, fast and unique.

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