Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil by Terrance Dicks

doctor_who_the_mind_of_evilThe Third Doctor and his companion, Jo, visit Stangmoor prison where a Professor Kettering is using a device on criminals that, it is claimed, drains all evil and negative impulses from their minds. The machine is used on a prisoner named Barnham who, to the Doctor’s horror, is successfully pacified by being turned into a drooling imbecile. But as the Professor tests the machine a string of mysterious and impossible deaths occur in the prison, and when The Doctor approaches the machine he is psychically assaulted with manifestations of his greatest fear – all consuming fire. Nearby the first World Peace Conference is taking place where one of the delegates is acting strange and suspicious. It is revealed that she is being manipulated by The Master, Dr Who’s archnemesis, who it also turns out is the man who invented the machine.

At the prison a riot breaks out as a prisoner who was destined to be next for the machine takes over the prison, capturing Jo and eventually The Doctor. Upon hearing of this, The Master meets with this man and supplies him with weapons and attacks The Doctor with the machine, weakening him. He reveals that it actually contains a dangerous alien Mind Parasite that feeds off mental energies. But the parasite is growing too powerful for The Master to control and he must enlist the Doctor’s help to contain it.

The Master then enlists the prisoners as his army and uses them to capture a nerve gas missile that is being transported nearby – his plan, to launch the missile at the Peace Conference and start WWIII unless The Doctor gives him the component to his TARDIS back. It is discovered that Barnham, having no negative energies left in him, is now immune to the parasite. The Doctor uses Barnham to unleash the alien on The Master while The Doctor sets the missile to self-detonate, destroying the parasite at the same time. Unfortunately, amidst the anarchy and chaos that follows, The Master gets his component back and is able to escape, killing Barnham in the process.

This book is the novelization of six episodes from season eight, aired in 1971. The scripts were written by Terrance Dicks, who also wrote this novelization. This has allowed him to expand on the nature of the relationship between The Master and The Doctor more than what was able to be shown in the show. Unfortunately, because it is six episodes compacted into one short novel, some scenes transpire so rapidly that, what would have been an engaging serial on TV, turns into a rushed mess that jumps all over the place. That aside, it is a very enjoyable book. Having never seen any of the classic series of Dr Who I was intrigued by the concept of Dr Who being exiled to Earth as punishment, working as a Sherlock Holmes type character in a subtle role, as opposed to the hyper-intelligent superhero he has come to be known as in modern serials. An acceptable political drama, but mostly a very decent sci-fi thriller. The twists were predictable, but there were also some ploys in the book that caught me completely off guard, which is always satisfying to be outsmarted by an author. A strong Dr Who story that any fan or layman will surely enjoy.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

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An epic adventure of High Fantasy and High Stakes; deserves a place next to Pratchett or Goodkind.

Set amidst a backdrop of steam and coal smoke, high magic and complicated politics; the bustling metropolis of Thorn faces an impending evil and only a group of five heroes, summoned by fate, can stop the cataclysm. The sovereign hand is a masterful work of depth and breadth. Paul Gilbert has created a deep backstory and a rich world, often seen lacking in most fiction, that is on par with Game of Thrones or Sword of Truth. Various races and species co-exist in a noisy city rife with politics and crime and culture, and it is from these crowded streets that our five heroes are chosen by fate to become The Sovereign Hand; a select group of individuals trained to fight against evil.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book filled with many classic D&D or Pratchettesque tropes; goblins, kobolds, lizard-men, minotaurs, wizards, priests and thieves. Some of these elements are severely under-used, and other’s feel out of place and forced; the book starts with the integration of the Taurean peoples and the end of conflict, and this idea is followed for many chapters before being completely abandoned. It has little-to-no bearing on the plot and is more of a distraction than a neccessary part of the book; in fact the first half of the book (particularly the first quarter) is so heavy on uneccessary world-building and exposition that it was difficult to become emotionally connected to the world or the characters; I had no clue what was going on or who the story was talking about. The language was overdone in the first half as well – obscure allusions and similes that don’t work and just leave the reader confused and distracted. The raw talent of Gilbert is buried and drowned beneath the verbose excess; this is one of the most over-written books I have ever read.

However, once into the second half of the book things began to pick up. Suddenly there was a clear plot; I knew who characters were, they had clear goals and even, eventually, an antagonist. By this point, however, I had had little investment into the characters, so motivations were vague and confusing and important elements of the book seemed to spontaneously erupt onto the pages, leaving me lost and confused. The climax was excellent – though there were unanswered questions and unfinished plot-points which left the ending of the book feeling flat and unsatisfying, with an unfinished feel.

This is Paul Gilbert’s first book and shows incredible potential to be a top-shelf competitor in major bookstores in the future. Hopefully the next book will be more tightly written and won’t meander as aimlessly as The Sovereign Hand often did, leaving the reader feeling lost and wondering if the author knew where his book was going. 7 / 10 stars.

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The Chain by Antony Millen

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A dystopian scavenger hunt that takes you across the world and brings you back cynical and rebellious.

In The Chain we are introduced to a cynical story of near-futurism where everyone is watching everyone all the time. Governments cease to function as they once did as the online world both transcends and negates borders. As Lukan and Topia travel the world they see first-hand the impact of the global network upon small communities; on local customs and mythologies and even dialects. Through the digital corporatocracy society is slowly being eroded and dissolved and replaced by a mainstream connectivist culture. There are some brilliant ideas in this book that have much relevance for today’s world and the direction we are headed. The Chain deals with themes of technology vs freedom of speech, preservation of culture, knowledge vs censorship and the impact of technology upon small communities and cultures.

Despite having some brilliant ideas, this book ultimately doesn’t deliver on the fundamentals. The characters motivations are weak, vague or sometimes forced, and in the boys journey they encounter very little, if any, real conflict until towards the climax. The reader is told of the global police state, and of the constant monitoring, censoring and dictation of social media, yet this predominantly remains an unseen world. In a heavily regulated and controlled society the boys manage to, very easily, travel across the world, walk through cities, discover allies almost immediately upon arrival of a new country, and engage with communities of “off-liners”. The boys experiences contrast the given expectation of the world. The government agents are lenient and barely do more than stand around in the shadows, watching but remaining inactive. Right from the start of the book, Millen misses an opportunity to present the totalitarian forces as anything but indifferent. Even Lukan and Topia’s motivations are lackluster. This, coupled with the lack of imminent danger or threat to the boys throughout the book, leaves their journey feeling flat and, overall, dissatisfaying. If the characters lack a solid emotional drive or investment then so do the readers.

But, despite the lack of genuine emotion, implied or inherent, the book is still an enjoyable read. Millen presents a very interesting and poignant look at the future and introduces some fascinating new concepts, while taking existing concepts and giving them a refreshing makeover. Everyone loves to compare dystopian fiction to Orwell’s 1984, but The Chain is more comfortable in the company of the likes of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A sometimes-thought provoking read with moderate cyberpunk elements: 6/10.

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Squid’s Grief by D.K. Mok

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A fast-paced thriller filled with humor, intrigue and palpable smoke-screens.

Set in the near future, Squids Grief is a crime thriller with some cyberpunk elements. Squid is a thief with morals who has ‘one last job’ before she goes clean, but everything goes wrong when she finds Grief, a man with no memories, inside the boot of a car she steals. Meanwhile, the gangs are in upheaval as they are restructured and gang-war begins to break out and Police officer Casey is trying to tackle the rising gang violence in the city of Baltus; but the harder she fights, the more intricate the web of corruption ensnaring the city and it’s officials becomes.

D.K. Mok’s third novel, Squid’s Grief is thoughtfully written; fast-paced with excellent action and consistent humor throughout, it also manages to deal with strong themes without being preachy. Both villains and heroes are seeking new beginnings; the gangs, the police department, Casey, Squid, Grief and even the city itself – everyone is seeking a figurative rebirth and a fresh start. The secondary theme of redemption is also strong in this book. Both heroes and villains alike are three dimensional characters full of regret and desire; they are well written, likable characters who all walk in that moral grey zone. There is no clear-cut good or bad. Everyone is a hero, or a villain, to someone depending on their situation or point of view.

The thriller aspect of the story was well done. I fell for many of the distractions and got distracted by the smokescreens and I was wholly surprised by the twists as they appeared. In all, this was a very enjoyable read that I recommend to anyone that enjoys the show Gotham or authors like John le Carre or Lee Child. 8/10.

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The Observers by C. R. Downing

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A buddy-cop comedy of errors in the tradition of Douglas Adams or J. D. Crayne. This is what happens when a science teacher writes fiction. Not to be confused with Damon Knight’s ‘The Observers’.

The Observers explores complex scientific themes; should science and technology advance simply for the sake of progress? Who should be in control? Who does ownership of information really belong to? These themes are explored through our two main characters, Mxpan and Zerpall. Mollusc-like telepathic beings, Glieseians have made themselves technological overseers that monitor species technological development and intervene as necessary. The Observers is a comedic buddy-cop novel about two investigators, one being the by-the-book professional, and the other being a fun-loving take-it-as-it-comes kind of guy.

Despite interesting and well-written characters the book falls flat, however, with its setting and plot. There are three major plot lines in this book. Each is contextually irrelevant to the other and the book feels like three short stories were stuck together and as it progresses it begins to feel disconnected. The story is forgettable and the major plots lack satisfying conclusions, leaving you feeling underwhelmed.

Downing is a teacher of science, and his knowledge and love for technology and biology clearly show, but he has missed some major opportunities. As with the forgettable plot, so are the settings equally uninteresting. Different alien worlds and civilizations are treated almost indifferently – despite well developed characters downing has forgotten to characterize the worlds or environments, and with the vague story this lends to the feeling of staleness throughout the book.

However, this is a comedy book and the humour is well written: timing is everything in comedy, and Downing delivers witty punch-lines and well-paced gags that carry the reader through an often drawn-out experience. The banter between Mxpan and Zerpall is delightful and Zerpall’s child-like innocence is often laugh-out-loud material. If Downing had given even a fraction of the attention he gave his characters to the settings and plot, this book could have been a monumental entry to the genre, placing him with the likes of Heinlein or Asprin. 5/10.

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Star Trek: The Klingon Gambit by Robert E. Vardeman

cvr9780743412100_9780743412100_hrSet during the original five-year mission (and according the star date placing it roughly towards the end of the second season) this book reads like a classic Star Trek episode. That can be a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes, as Star Trek is one of those franchises that proves to polarize it’s fans and non-fans.

When a Vulcan science ship is found completely intact but all the crew dead, and no traces of toxins or foul play, the Enterprise investigates what has happened. Meanwhile, on the planet below, an archaeologist finds the traces of a long lost civilization and a Klingon warship orbits above, threatening the Enterprise.

Whatever has been unearthed on the planet below is affecting Human, Vulcan and Klingon alike. The crews of both ships start acting up, making illogical and poor decisions, and it is up to Kirk and the Enterprise to maintain the fragile truce despite the Klingon’s best attempts to subvert peace.

Gambit is a mystery space opera. There is little action and to be fair, the mystery element gets overlooked often. But, that been said, it is a solid character-driven story. The conflicts arising in this book are from the way the characters are all being individually affected by the planet below, and this presents some very entertaining tension and drama and often some humor.

Unfortunately, what lets this book down is Vardemans inability to write about minorities or women without objectifying them or forcing stereotypes on them. The scenes of what are supposed to be sexual tension come off as awkward, and the mystery takes a back seat, only to be revived towards the end of the book with an anticlimactic resolution.

Gambit is not a boring book, by any means, and thankfully is a short read, so it’s pacing is quite adequate. There was one surprise twist, which I won’t spoil here, that is a really original idea, but as far as plot twists go it was mostly predictable. The most surprising element of the big reveal caught me completely off guard, however, in what was a fantastic concept that could easily have been fleshed out into a more significant role.

I am not a Star Trek fan, and I don’t know if this helps or hinders the book. I recognize a lot of references and archetypes from the films or occasional tv shows I have seen, but I had no expectations of what the book was when I went in. Also, not having any previous attachments to the characters allowed me to enjoy the story more freely without questioning characterizations or story elements which may be contrary to the official canon. Nonetheless it was an enjoyable story which felt relatively true to the series and I would recommend to both fans alike and unalike.

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Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon by Will Brooker

51hy3ljls0l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Many people are Batman Fans, and some are Batman fanatics. Will Brooker firmly places himself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum with Unmasked. It is a look at the development throughout the generations of the mythos of Batman and what he means.

The book discusses social and political parables, sexual innuendo, satire and comedy, war propaganda in the forties and even the varying art styles. It is by no means a ‘comprehensive’ look at The Dark Knight, but it is an interesting and illuminating read at a complex and often misinterpreted multi-facet hero.

Will Brooker is an academic. At the time of writing He was Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University. Currently he is Director of Research of Kingston’s Film and Television Department. Though he has has published several books on cultural studies, Batman Unmasked (2001) is his first. As an expansion of his PhD thesis, it is essentially a series of essays on different aspects of the Batman.

The book starts off with a lengthy introduction which comes off as self-indulgent and more of a defensive statement against those who disregard his research than of surmising or hyping up the following texts contained within. But once you have waded through these arrogant first pages and he stops talking about himself and starts talking about Batman, then the book becomes truly interesting.

The book is broken down into five major sections: Origins and Wartime (1939-1945), 1954 Censorship and queer Readings, Pop and Camp (1961-1969), Fandom and Authorship (1986-1997), Conclusion (1999).

The first section is the backstory of Batman. We explore his creation and the dynamics between his creators, watch as his mythos was developed and experimented with and we see how the writers, in the spirit of Batman, resisted pressures to fill the comics with war propaganda. Interestingly, they managed to keep Batman in America fighting crime, while most other superheroes were drafted by government or industry as spokespersons for war bonds or other propaganda.

Censorship and Queer Readings is a topic which thematically runs through each other section from this point. It is an interesting look at the duality of Batman and Robins relationship, the duality of their personalities, and even of the duality of the villains and the very city of Gotham itself. Ultimately, the genius of Batman, is that in these dualities, rather than being blatant around sexuality or creed, it is left ambiguous (and to the storylines, irrelevant) so that anybody, irrespective of their own personal lifestyle or beliefs, can relate to the character and his struggles.

Rather than isolating or excluding minorities, Batman welcomes them to join him in an open-world approach to story telling. This is an integral part of his mythos, and is reiterated in many films and stories: Batman is a just a mask; Batman is just a symbol; Batman could be any body, and of course within the comics has had half a dozen different people take his place when he has become incapacitated, further reinforcing that ideal of symbolism: Batman is not a man, he is an idea.

Pop and Camp explores the sixties. No analysis of Batman would be complete without bringing up the Adam West era. In this section Brooker is, remarkably like Batman, able to walk the line of duality: it’s hard to say where disapproval becomes adulation as it is a subject as multi-faceted as Batman himself. There are some interesting revelations in this chapter about the Dynamic Duo and even the opinions of the actors themselves.

Fandom and Authorship explores the growing relationship between authors and fans and studios: an interesting discussion on the way the writers create fans, the fans make celebrities out of the writers, the writers embrace the mainstream and forsake their celebrity status and reputation, which makes celebrities out of the studios and their actors, and viciously makes the fans antagonists to their own franchise. It is a fascinating and bipartisan view of the ownership fans take on source material, and the way society creates cultures and fandom.

For any fan of Batman or of comic books, or anyone who is interested in cultural studies, this book gets a very high recommendation. Informative and interesting.

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The Cat Who Walks Through Walls By Robert A. Heinlein.

16685Heinlein was one of the Trinity of Sci-Fi Masters that rose to prominence during the Golden Age of science fiction. The Science Fiction Writers of America named him the very first Grand Master in 1974, he had an asteroid named after him in 1990, and in 1994 a major Martian crater was named after him as well.

Heinlein is considered one of the greatest and most influential science fiction writers ever. So it is surprising that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls has received so much negativity. Was this because there were preconceived expectations from an author that strictly followed most genre conventions – his attempt to branch off into something different viewed as weak and disappointing?

I have never read any of his works, and decided based on numerous curious synopses and disenfranchised reviews, that perhaps it would be an intriguing introduction to Heinlein’s work. Perhaps I could enter this novel with no preconceived notions of what to expect from his writing style.

At first the book was strange, and awkward, and seemed plotless drivel filled with bad dialogue and unbelievable scenarios, and flat underdeveloped characters. I struggled to understand exactly what the plot was – the characters seemed to just go from one situation to the next.

The Cat also makes assumptions that I have read previous entries in the series, and as such the character development takes place before this entry, and many confusing references start to make sense to me as the book progresses.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that it’s genius hit me. The nonsensical story, the bad dialogue, the coincidences and near-misses are all explained (or at least make sense) towards the end of the book. This wasn’t poorly written; it was a deliberate exercise.

I shall write a list of my evidence below:

  • The Cat is in reference to Schrödinger’s cat – a paradoxical thought experiment that deals with multiple states of being.
  • The Scourge of The Spaceways! is a sci-fi serial of major importance to the characters.
  • This book is metafiction – Heinlein winks at us – the readers – multiple times, addressing us directly and breaking the fourth wall.
  • The World as Myth. ’nuff said.

When you read this book, think back on it retrospectively – and you will see their significance. This book is both a parody of science fiction serials and of metafiction in general. It’s also, I feel, fan-service to his own fan-base, and as such is satirical of his own books.

The World as Myth is a theory that strings many of Heinlein’s books together and includes characters and locations from other works; if a book or story or script has been written, then it creates a universe where these things are real and tangible; likewise, our universe is both real and hypothetical as an author somewhere writes fiction that creates and defines our reality.

This premise is what drives the style of the book – I believe Heinlein wrote this book as a parody of itself. The unbelievable dialogue or sequences or plot points… he’s stating the fact to the readers, that none of this is real because it is only fiction, but paradoxically that’s what makes it real. It’s confusing, but retrospectively the book treads along this paradox and it isn’t obvious to the reader that this is happening until the latter half of the book.

However, I was let down by a consistent theme in the book: sex. There is so much of it. It’s everywhere. Monogamy, polygamy, group-sex, incest, homosexuality – the pages are practically stuck together from it. Again, one could argue that it can be explained away by The World As Myth theory, but if you research the author, it perhaps takes on a more personal attribute.

Heinlein and his wife tried unsuccessfully to have children. They were just not able to create life. It is not unreasonable that, in this, sex would have become a subconscious preoccupation. Women have all the sexual power in this book, they take who and what they want, when and where they want it – the future is dictated by free-love for all. It’s almost as though Heinlein was creating a fantasy world where all sexual responsibility would be taken off him, and all the shame of being unable to gift his wife with a child would disappear.

It would also help explain his preoccupation with pseudo-pedophilia. At no time is there any pedophilic activity – but there is a tendency to try to titillate the reader in numerous scenes involving a thirteen year-old girl, including some nudity and attempted sex (again, by the girl, not the main character.) But if someone had never had a child, had never understood the child-parent dynamic first hand, and had built up the idea of a child onto a pedestal, it would be logical that this deification could spill over into a physical desire and not be constrained to just an emotional and psychological desire.

But psycho-analysis aside – without prior knowledge of the author or of the series, and no knowledge of The World As Myth or any of the characters – it was an uncomfortable book to read. And yet, it still held me. I was morbidly fascinated. Like a car crash on the highway, I couldn’t look away, I was too curious about what I might see if I stayed.

The book, for all it flaws, isn’t terrible. It has some really decent ideas, it deals with paradoxes in an interesting way, and the characters being to grow on you – though you do wish they would shut-up sometimes.

There were times when I felt the author was, perhaps, being lazy or perhaps uncaring in his writing, and other times where I would dismiss those ideas because of the excitement of the scenes I was caught up in. It was often fast-paced and hard to put down, and despite the confusion, I generally cared about where the story might or might not be headed.

Overall, it was actually a decent book. It took a lot of discussion and deep thinking to figure out – but that’s what I get for choosing a controversial book at the near-end of a series to introduce myself to. I’m convinced that if I had read his previous entries in the series, that I would have had an even richer experience from this book. I will definitely keep an eye out for more from Heinlein.

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Douglas Adam’s Starship Titanic By Terry Jones

51sdnzvetcl‘The Ship That Cannot Possibly Go Wrong’ is a novel based on the game Starship Titanic (written by Douglas Adams,) but due to timing constraints he was unable to write the novelization himself, so he approached the next best person – the voice actor of the parrot in the game – Terry Jones.

This is the one-and-the-same Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and he is an extraordinary talent with science fiction, fantasy and comedy, irrespective of the medium.

Starship Titanic is an inane and hilarious (stylistically an amalgam of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett) space adventure that manages to conjure some pretty original and clever science fiction ideas, whilst conforming to the tropes we know-and-love.

A small band of humans are given a free cruise after the ships systems malfunction and it crashes through their roof. Before they can truly make a decision they find themselves in space, caught up in a grand scheme of corruption and greed and murder. But this is no mystery story – this is a race against time as they struggle to stop a bomb, fix the ship, fix their relationships, and have vague and hilarious alien sex.

The human characters are a bit under-developed and two-dimensional, but this contrast also plays well against the strange and over-the-top alien and robot characters, so it actually balances out quite nicely.

This book was written for one purpose alone – to promote the CD-ROM game, and it does so as one of the best game-to-novel translations I have read.

It’s a fast-paced book that catches you in it’s gravitational pull and refuses to let you go. I read it in one sitting: the book gave me no indication of when I could rest or catch my breath. It is an incredibly fun romp that I highly recommend for both young adults and a more mature audience.

To help promote this book it was published online in it’s entirety here in alphabetical order: http://www.fpx.de/fp/Fun/Titanic/pages/index.html.

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Mortal Gods by Jonathan Fast (part one)

2271892Her skin was sea-blue, so fine as to be almost transparent. The scintillation of light across it seemed to be caused by some sparkling oil, possibly cosmetic or else an effusion of the flesh. Her neck was long, thin and graceful; her face, surrounded by a halo of fleecy white hair, was dominated by huge almond eyes. Nose and mouth combined in a pliant beak, giving her the profile of a hawk.

And thus are we introduced to the strange and reclusive Alta-Tyberians: a species destined to extinction unless the scientists at MutaGen Corporation can find the fault in Alta-Ty DNA and prevent further generations of deformities and sterility.

Nicholas Harmon – a failed genetic engineer now working as public relations officer – is chosen to accompany Hali, the Alta-Ty emissary who brought the frozen samples of sperms and ova to MutaGen. While she is on Sifra-Mesa Spaceport (cloning and genetic engineering being outlawed sciences on Earth) she witnesses the murders of two Lifestylers – God-like genetic constructs that are worshipped across the galaxy.

It is at this point that the story starts taking twists and turns in unexpected directions. It becomes an inter-dimensional murder mystery layered with political intrigue, social rhetoric, decent action scenes and some crazy adventures that give it a 50’s pulp science fiction vibe.

Nick Harmon is bigoted and chauvinistic and makes no effort to disguise the fact. His attitude towards women and aliens, the casual use of strong swear words in some scenes and the numerous sex scenes (a mix of equally erotic and uncomfortable to read,) make this book a futuristic blaxploitation story but with an updated colour pallet.

This feel is further fuelled by the almost-African features of Hali on the cover and the constant retrofuturistic language and technology used throughout the book. And yet, these elements are redeemed; the science is, still to this day, relatively accurate, the political environment surprisingly close to post 9-11 America (this book being written in 1978), and Nicholas Harmon actually has a deep and thorough character arc.

Pepper this with a mixture of hard-science, biopunk and some technoir elements (imagine The Matrix and Blade Runner and the Alien franchise had a bastard child), and add some intriguing ideas and compelling plot, and you get an incredibly unique and entertaining story.

See Mortal Gods (part two) for an interview with Jonathan Fast.

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