All posts by GalacticJourney

Beware the Blob! (The Blob; 3-15-1959)

Hello, again, dear readers. 

As you know, I had planned to write an article for this column yesterday, but I was unable to do so because I’d misplaced my wrist braces.  Manual typewriters have very stiff keys, and composition is difficult without braces (shall I take up a collection for a lovely electric?)

Adversity always proves to be advantage, however.  I took the opportunity to catch a double feature at the local dive cinema where last autumn’s The Blob is still playing along with I Married a Monster from Outer Space.  I must say, I got my eight bits worth!

This led me to believe radiation might be involved.  It wasn’t.

I’ll talk about the latter film later–right now, I want to talk about The Killer Jello-Mold!…er… The Blob.  The film starts on an odd note for a sci-fi/horror–with a catchy tune by “The Five Blobs,” which I note has gotten a lot of airplay lately.  It was a smart move; while the movie is not awful, where it falters, it can be excused because you were all ready for something camp.

Our heroes.

Meet Steve Andrews and Jane Martin, a pair of…ahem… teenagers who, while making out on Lover’s Lane, spot a falling star.  But this is no ordinary meteor.  It is, in fact, an egg.  Prodded by an old farmer, it hatches a little translucent blob that adheres to the man’s hand and begins to digest it.  Panicked, the farmer runs across our two heroes, who obligingly take him to the town doctor.

Don’t touch that!

This is one of the more unsettling bits, watching the parasite eat the hapless old man alive.  After the teens leave to check out the spot where the meteorite landed, the doctor and his nurse are eaten.  Steve returns to the doctor’s house just in time to see the doc digested. 

Nurse Kate’s brave assault was to no avail.

Most of the rest of the movie is devoted to Steve and Jane’s attempts to warn the police and, when this is not immediately fruitful, the town as a whole, of the danger. 

Listen to him!  He knows!

Their efforts prove to be rather superfluous.  The blob, increasingly red with the blood of its victims, and ever expanding in size with each meal, eventually becomes big enough to be unignorable (though, I was pleased to note, the blob did not seem to violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics; it merely assimilated its food with remarkable efficiency).  It eats 50 movie-goers at the cinema and then turns its gooey pseudopods on our heroes, who become trapped under its now-enormous bulk in a diner.

Oozing out of the theater and looking surprisingly tasty.

As had been hinted at earlier, the blob hates cold.  It is ultimately subdued, but not destroyed, by an onslaught of fire extinguishers.  The Air Force then airlifts the beast to the Arctic, where I’m sure we’ll never hear from it again…

Dig this Carbon Dioxide!  Blob, schmlob!

Sounds pretty dumb, right?  Well, sure.  But there’s also a lot to like.  For one, the movie is aware that a pile of tinted gelatin is not a particularly scary sight.  You don’t see the blob very much.  It’s just this menacing presence that you know is eating people right and left just off camera.  There is real tension in the film, though the pacing is a bit strange.  There are lots of long, pointless scenes that are fun in a character sense, but have little to do with the plot.  Life is like that, though. 

I particularly liked the character of Lt. Dave, the head policeman.  No matter how fanastic Steve’s story is, and despite the chidings of his police sergeant, Dave gives Steve respect and credence.  If there’s any subtext to the movie, it’s that kids aren’t all bad, despite what you’ve seen at the pictures lately.

Kids ain’t so bad.  Especially ones in their late 20s!

I also thought it a nice touch when Jane’s father, a prim, socially conscious school principal, reluctantly but with grim determination, smashes the door to his school to retrieve a score of fire extinguishers.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The acting is no great shakes, though I thought Steve McQueen (Steve Andrews) did a decent job.  I don’t know if this film will make or break him, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him lead in future movies.

The film was shot in some kind of widescreen Technicolor, and it’s very pretty.  Black and White is increasingly a thing of the past, and I’m enjoying the transition. 

Now, I know I have a reputation for being a Fantasy & Science Fiction snob, but The Blob is worth a look.  It is genuinely suspenseful and interesting.  Moreover, it leaves room for speculation.  What is the blob?  Is it a weapon?  A planetary sterilizer?  It has some interesting traits.  It doesn’t like to break into smaller units (which would have made it truly unbeatable) though it will partially disassemble to get through grates and windows.  It only eats living creatures, and we only ever see it attack people.  That kind of menace seems a bit too tailored to be an accident.  I bet it heralds an alien invasion.

Or how’s this for a wild thought–what if the blob doesn’t kill its prey but merely assimilates them into a collective?  Maybe the blob is a peaceful being trying to unite all of humanity into a red, gelatinous mass.  And now all those poor souls are trapped in a frozen ball at the North Pole.  Brrrr…

Maybe I’m just thinking too much.  You be the judge!

See you tomorrow…

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A Free Gift! (The Pirates of Ersatz; 3-12-1959)

And now, my gentle readers, a free gift.

As you know, I am well-acquainted with Mr. Murray Leinster, science fiction writer extraordinaire.  His newest novel, The Pirates of Ersatz has just finished its serial run in this month’s Astounding, and the nice fellow has given me permission to distribute it freely amongst my readers.

That’s right.  This book is yours entirely free of charge!

Now, the question is, should you read it?

I suppose that depends.  As I said a couple of months ago, it’s set in the same universe as the Med Series, but with a completely different protagonist. 

In brief, young Bron Hoddan is an engineer from a family of pirates.  Where Hoddan’s from, it’s almost respectable, even.  But Hoddan wants to make his mark in the clean world and so heads to squeaky-clean Walden… where he runs afoul of the law for trying to improve on paradise with an upgraded power generator. 

Fleeing for his life to the crude medieval planet Darth, he then runs afoul of the local aristocracy for… well.. just about everything.  Yet, so resourceful is Hoddan that he manages not only to survive but to thrive, getting the best of the petty nobles and winning the admiration of the plucky heroine, Lady Fani.

That’s only the first half.  How Hoddan turns a ragtag fleet of colony ships into a phoney piracy concern and manages to steal from the rich and somehow make everyone richer, is rollicking adventure.

Now, I don’t think this is the best Leinster I’ve ever read.  He likes to write short sentences.  His sentences have few words.  They can be repetitive.  He abuses this trait a little overmuch to my liking.  The story is also a bit disjointed (dare I say “episodic”?), particularly in the Darth section. 

That said, there is also much to like.  I happen to really like the decentralized Med Series universe with its range of interesting, unique planets.  The story also makes it quite clear that a strong heroine is far more compelling than a trophy, and it is always clear who is in the driver’s seat in the Fani/Hoddan courtship.

Most interestingly, in the course of his travels, Hoddan invents an independent landing device small enough for installation on starships.  This is huge as, until this book, ships could only land on planets that had erected mammoth landing grids that projected magnetic tractor beams to guide vessels to the ground.  I wonder if we’ll see the fall-out of this invention in later stories.

So try it.  The price is right, and it will definitely get you from point A to Z with a smile on your face.  3.5 stars out of 5.

See you on the 14th!

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Fire from the Sky (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-10-1959)

Last time on this station, I informed all of you that Part 2 of this (last) month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction review would have to wait since I’d wanted to get through the Poul Anderson novelette before reporting.

Well, I’m glad I did.  Damn that Anderson, anyway.  How dare he write a good story!  Now I can’t justify skipping him.  But more on that later.

Of Time and Cats by Howard Fast, who normally doesn’t dip his toe in the science fiction pool, is a fun tale of the multiplicity that ensues when time travel is involved.  A slick, paradoxical story.

Algis Budrys has another winner with The Distant Sound of Engines about impending death and the urgent need to impart a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom before final departure.  Sad.  Good.

Avram Davidson’s The Certificate is dystopic in the extreme, and probably inspired by the recent Holocaust.  A subjugated humanity is reduced to bitter slave labor.  The only “gift” from their new overlords is perfect health.  How does one escape?

I liked Three Dimensional Valentine by Stuart Palmer (who had a story in the very first F&SF) quite a lot.  It is fun and frivolous and rather old-fashioned.  It is also unexpected.  The author has given me permission to distribute this one, but I haven’t quite received it in the mails yet.  I’ll let you know when I do.

And now to Poul Anderson’s The Sky People.  As you know, I always approach Anderson with trepidation.  Apart from the amazing Brainwave, his work is generally turgid, and I don’t like his manly men and absent women.

This one was different.  There is still plenty of swashbuckling in this post-apocalyptic tale, but it is done in the style and with the flaire of a good pirate movie like Black Swan.  It is set in old San Antone, in the heart of the decaying “Meycan” Empire, south of Tekas and north of S’america.  Their technology and mindset is mired in the 16th century.  The eponymous “Sky People” are dirigible-driving corsairs from the Kingdom of “Canyon.”  Though rapacious and ruthless, they possess a greater technology than their target–the Meycans.  Unfortunately for them, the timing of their attack proves to be inauspicious as it coincides with the arrival of a delegation from the Federation, successors to the Polynesian nations of Oceania. 

Told by three viewpoint characters, one Polynesian, one sky pirate, and one Meycan (a woman!), it is really quite good.  Not only has Anderson managed to convincingly portray a wide variety of cultures, he has done a fine job of projecting recovery from an atomic catastrophe in a world that has used up most of its natural resources.  I don’t know if Anderson has written other stories in this universe or if he intends to, but I would enjoy reading more.

The final story is Alfred Bester’s Will You Wait?.  The deal with the Devil story has been just about done to death, but this is an infernally cute story about how the modern way of business has made the process Hell on Earth.

Gosh, where does that leave us for the issue?  4 stars?  4 and a half?  Definitely a good read worth picking up–if there are any left on the stands, that is.

See you on the 12th!

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Where’s my script?  (F&SF Part… um… Pioneer IV update!; 3-08-1959)

Isn’t it frustrating when you try to tune into your favorite program and hear nothing but static? 

Sorry folks!  I’d planned to give you Part 2 of this (last) month’s F&SF.  Well, the last third of the issue is taken up by a Poul Anderson novelette, and I know I won’t be able to devote a whole article to just that, assuming I can even get through it.  But I don’t have enough to fill an article with the remaining stories. 

Therefore, I have resolved to just give you all an extra-long column day-after-tomorrow!  It will be worth the wait, I promise.  There are some fine stories this month.  And who knows?  Maybe the Anderson story will be good.


All right, I can’t hold my breath that long.


In other news, if you’ve been tracking the flight of Pioneer IV, you may have heard that we finally lost communications with the plucky little probe at more than 400,000 miles away.  This isn’t the fault of the ground antennas, which could probably track the vehicle much further out.  The satellite’s batteries just ran out of juice.  Hopefully, when we have bigger rockets (perhaps the Air Force’s Thor “Hustler”?), we can send out satellites with solar panels on board that can broadcast indefinitely.

Anyway, the Russians are crowing that their Mechta made it further, but we’re saying that our science was better.  But can we really trumpet our mission as a triumph without a sodium flatulence experiment?

See you on the 10th!

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Second chances (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-6-1959)

I promised a book review today, but then I misplaced my book.  Life is like that.  So, for your reading pleasure, I instead offer my meanderings through the March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction (you know, the one I was supposed to have done last month instead of the prematurely secured April issue).

As with the last (next) ish of F&SF, it starts with a bang.  Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—“ is an unique tale of time travel.  Everyone has heard of the Grandfather’s Paradox, but what if you end up being your own granpaw?  I have to give extra credit to Heinlein for having a transsexual protagonist (i.e. someone who has been both male and female).  I hope I’m using that word correctly–it’s brand new.

I like Asimov’s science article, Nothing, in which he points out that the mass of all the “empty” spaces between the galaxies actually exceeds the mass contained in the galaxies by a significant margin.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is odd to conceptualize.  I guess the Great Watchmaker needs to stir up the universe just a little more to get the lumps out…

Ray Bradbury has a tale involving mermaids in this issue called The Shoreline at Sunset.  Any mermaid story in F&SF naturally invites comparison to Sturgeon’s mermaid story A Touch of Strange (published in the Jan. 1958 issue).  Unfortunately, unlike Sturgeon’s quite brilliant piece, Bradbury’s is well-written but somewhat pointless.  But then, I might say that any time I compare Bradbury to Sturgeon.

Have you been following Zenna Henderson’s stories of “The People”?  Human in form but possessed of tremendous psychic powers, these interstellar refugees have been trapped on Earth in hiding for many years.  They dwell in their sequestered valleys, occasionally venturing forth to rescue isolated members of their kind raised by native Earthers.  Henderson’s stories are always beautiful, often with a touch of sadness.

Well, with Jordan, the castaways finally have the opportunity to be rescued.  More “civilized” members of their race arrive in a spaceship with an invitation to settle on a new planet, one on which they won’t have to hide their powers or use rough technology to do what their powers could do more elegantly.  Yet the exiled People have grown to love the Earth and even the crude methods they’ve had to employ to survive.  Can they leave it all behind? 

According to the editorial blurb preceding the story, it looks like Ms. Henderson finally has enough stories of The People to fill an anthology.  I definitely recommend picking it up when it hits the shelves.

See you on the 8th!

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We’re Number Two! (Pioneer IV; 3-04-1959)

In any nascent endeavor, it is human nature to trumpet even the most modest of achievements.  Sure, Pioneer I didn’t make it to the moon, but it went pretty high and confirmed the Van Allen Belts.  Sure, Vanguard I was the size of a grapefruit, but it taught us that the Earth is pear-shaped.

In that vein, sure, Pioneer IV, NASA’s latest moon shot, may not have been entirely a success, but at least it will be the first (American) probe to sail beyond our planet’s celestial companion and into solar orbit.

Launched yesterday on a Juno II, Pioneer IV is essentially an exact duplicate of the less-successful Pioneer III, with a little extra shielding around one of its charged particle detectors to better measure cosmic radiation.  In the tradition of focusing on the positive, I will note that Pioneer IV’s mission is not just to take snapshots of the moon, but to duplicate the mission profile of its predecessor so as to provide a comparative data set.  This is the soul of science–the repeating and repeatability of experiments. 

As far as the trip to the moon is concerned, there have only been a couple of minor hiccoughs: one of the three scaling factor taps on one of the counters got knocked out when Pioneer IV‘s engines shook it a bit too roughly.  In English, a scaling factor allows scientists to convert the raw voltages, recorded when charged particles hit the spacecraft, into usable numbers.  I don’t think this critically damages the instrument.  Pioneer IV‘s transmission also went on the fritz for about 30 seconds while the craft traversed Earth’s outer radiation belt. 

While we’re on the topic of problems, it looks like the little spacecraft is going to pass wide of its target, missing the surface of the moon by some 37,000 miles.  This is too far to activate the photoelectric sensors on the spacecraft, which would have been used to activate a camera–if the probe had been heavy enough include a camera!  Not a huge loss.

What will really be exciting is to finally give the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s deep space tracking network a full run through its paces.  We’ve never tried to monitor a spacecraft several hundred thousand miles from Earth before.  On the other hand, if the Soviets can do it, I suspect we can, too.

So there you have it.  We launched a probe that weighed sixty times less than Luna I and which missed its target by a distance ten times greater.  And we did it two months after Luna I.

A success?  You be the judge…

P.S. Following up on Discoverer I, the Air Force is claiming that they are still receiving sporadic signals from their spacecraft.  They’ve also confirmed that their new rocket is a Thor-Hustler, whatever that is.  The Swedish press is calling Discoverer I “The Whispering Satellite” since they can barely hear it, if at all. 

I’m still unconvinced.  Something’s fishy.  I just can’t tell you exactly what.

See you on March 6 with a book review!

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Fool’s Satellite (Discoverer 1; 3-02-1959)

Something went into orbit on the 28th.  Maybe.

Normally, I herald each new space launch with strident fanfare.  After all, when Vanguard or Explorer go up, it’s big news and everybody knows about it.  But the Air Force’s announced launch of “Discoverer” on February 28 has that same sort of strangeness and after-the-fact quality I’ve come to associate with Soviet Sputnik launches.

Let’s back up.

Yesterday, the Air Force announced that it had launched “Discoverer” into polar orbit from its California launching facility, Vandenberg Air Force Base.  They said it was an engineering flight designed to test what will someday be a biological sample return mission (i.e. the Air Force will send up animals, retrieve them after several days in space, and study them to determine the effects of space on living things).  Apparently, this is the second time they have tried this; the first time was on January 26 of this year, but it was reportedly unsuccessful.

Here is where the story gets a bit dicey:

1) Why was Discoverer launched into a polar orbit?  Normally, space launches are done from Cape Canaveral in Florida.  Aided by the Earth’s rotation, they go out on an Easterly course over the Atlantic.  This restricts their track to a narrow range of latitudes.  A satellite in a polar orbit eventually covers the entire Earth as the planet rotates underneath the track of the probe’s flight, making it better suited for mapping and reconnaissance missions.

2) Why wouldn’t strictly scientific missions be done under the auspices of NASA, as the Air Force did with the Pioneer moon shots?

3) If Discoverer made it into orbit, why have independent stations been unable to pick up its telemetry on their radios? 

4) What did they use to launch it?  A capsule-return spacecraft isn’t a light vehicle, and neither the Thor-Able nor the Juno II are strong enough to send one into orbit.

Now, I don’t want to be visited by the fellows in gray suits for my observational acumen, but putting two and two together, I’d conclude that Discoverer must be a prototype surveillance satellite.  If I really wanted to get far out with my speculations, I’d conclude that it’s a fake surveillance satellite designed to gauge the reaction of the Eastern Bloc to having a spy probe overhead.

Apparently, the Communists don’t care much.  Aside from one stern protest from an East German radio station (I know–all Commies are the same), the Warsaw Pact has been conspicuously silent about Discoverer.

Maybe they know it’s a fake…

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Five Tomorrows (Nine Tomorrows, second half; 2-28-1959)

And here we are with Part Two of our journey through Isaac Asimov’s latest opus, the anthology Nine Tomorrows!  One of my readers made the observation recently that if Asimov has a flavor, it’s “light vanilla.”  It’s not outstanding, but neither is it objectionable. 

I think that’s an astute observation (though I really like vanilla, so perhaps it’s not fair to that poor, maligned spice).  In any event, I’ve now finished this collection of Asimov’s most recent work and shall resume my full report.

The Gentle Vultures came out in the December 1957 issue of Super-Science Stories, one of the few magazines that came out in the second boom of digests stating 1956.  Devoted largely to “monster stories” now, it seems to be hanging in there, surprisingly.  In Vultures, Hurrian representatives of a galactic federation have been monitoring our planet for the past 15 years, waiting for the inevitable nuclear apocalypse.  I say inevitable because in the universe of Vultures, no race, with the exception of the vegetarian and thus non-competitive Hurrians, has managed to harness atomic energy without using it to destroy or nearly destroy itself.

You can argue with the premise or the basic assumptions if you like.  I wouldn’t, since the point of the story is that humanity sort of turns these assumptions on their head.  So now you’ve got these Hurrians impatiently waiting and wondering whether or not they should, you know, give things a little push…

Skewing the data to fit a premise, indeed!

All the Troubles of the World also came out in Super-Science.  Imagine the crime-stopping precogs of Dick’s Minority Report are actually a big computer.  Now imagine that this computer is sick of predicting crimes (and sicknesses and other species malaises).  Now imagine that this is an amazing, groundbreaking story.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

Spell my name with an ‘S’ came out in Star Science Fiction (I’ve never head of them either).  This one came so close to being good as a satire of confirmation bias leading to self-fulfilling prophecy, but the end is a typical and uninspired gotcha.  I do enjoy when Asimov writes close to home, culturally, however.  He’s a lanzmann after all.

I may get flak for this next one.  The Last Question is one of Isaac’s favorite stories, and my wife liked it a lot when it came out in a 1956 Science Fiction Quarterly.  It is a trillion-year history of humanity, the computer that people built, and the universe.  The story ends with the universe’s heat-death and rebirth.  While I admire the scope, the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense for several reasons, which I won’t detail here for fear of spoiling it, but about which I’d be happy to discuss over coffee and/or beer.

And now for something quite different.  I read The Ugly Little Boy when it came out as Lastborn in Galaxy last year.  This one may be the best thing Asimov has ever written, and it’s a fine swansong to leave on if he’s going to wear his non-fiction hat full time.  The ugly boy is actually a Neanderthal child plucked from the Pleistocene and held (for sound scientific reasons) as a prisoner in a lab.  His only friend is the protagonist, a woman doctor, who essentially adopts him.  It’s a lovely, touching story whose only fault is that it is too short.  Isaac, I didn’t know you had it in ye.

So there you have it.  Asimov completists should pick up this representative sample of what may someday be known as his “Late Fiction Era.”  Who knows–maybe if he goes back to fiction in twenty years or so, he’ll have learned how to end a story properly.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Four Tomorrows (Nine Tomorrows, first half; 2-26-1959)

For twenty years, Isaac Asimov (spelled with an “s”) has been a name synonymous with science fiction.  Quite recently, Asimov has been making a name for himself as a science fact writer a la Willy Ley.  It’s a natural transition, I think, so long as you can swing it.  Thus far, I’ve preferred Asimov’s defunct column in Astounding to the one he does for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but that doesn’t mean the latter one is at all bad.

But today, I’m going to focus on Asimov the science fiction writer.  I’ve a confession to make: I recognize that Asimov is one of the field’s major icons, but I’ve always found his work, well… workmanlike.  Unlike Dick or Sturgeon or Sheckley, there’s not much flavor to his stuff, and the writing and concepts are still rooted in the Golden Age of Campbell.  I have a suspicion that his stuff will date poorly.

Why do I pick this particular moment to faintly praise my colleague in age, ethnicity and interests?  Nine Tomorrows, an anthology of recent Asimov fiction was just published, and I thought you’d like to know what I think.  I’ll cover the first half today.

Being an avid digest reader, several of the stories were already familiar to me.  To wit, I read the lead novella Profession in Astounding back in June of ’57.  In the story, it’s the far future.  Humanity has spread across the stars, and the demand for specialized knowledge is so acute that people now have a college degree imprinted in their brains at age 18.  Yes, it’s another “everyone does the job they are best suited for, and the one who can’t be programmed ends up running the game.”  I liked it better the second time around, but it is hard for me to swallow that there can be sufficient innovation at the hands of so very few innovators.  I am not surprised to hear (through the grapevine) that this was a Galaxy reject before Campbell took it.

The Feeling of Power came out in IF about a year ago, and it covers similar ground.  In a world where all mathematical computations are done by computer, manual/mental arithmetic is seen not only as wasteful but impossible!  It’d be good satire if Asimov meant it as such, but I don’t think it is.  Interestingly, Asimov posits that computers will have a minimum effective size and, as such, missile guidance will always be limited to a subhuman level of accuracy and responsiveness.  In Power, it is concluded that the best use of the rediscovered human computation ability would be to employ humans as pilots for spacecraft and missiles. 

It is such a strange point for the author to assert as even he concedes in other stories that computer logic components, if not computers as a whole, are trending toward the smaller.  From mechanical switches to vacuum tubes to transistors.  I don’t know what’s next, but I suspect it’s not far off.  Oh well.

If you like Asimov’s scientifically inspired mysteries, you might enjoy The Dying Night.  It’s a straight whodunnit with the key to the puzzle being the environment in which the murderer has lived.  Not bad.  Apparently, it came out in one of the F&SF issues I missed before I started reading them regularly (July 1956).

Finally, for today, is I’m in Marsport without Hilda, which came out in Venture in the November 1957 issue (after Robert Silverberg made me stop reading it with his vile, misogynistic tale, Eve and the Twenty-three Adams–it’s right up there with Queen Bee).  It has the potential to be cringeworthy, but it degenerates (evolves?) into another decent whodunnit with a slightly dirty, somewhat silly solution. 

I note and applaud that Asimov makes a conscious effort to include an international cast of characters in his stories.  If only he’d recognize that women are people too…

So, thus far, a solid 3, maybe 3.5 stars out of 5.  Not at all bad, but not the work I’d ascribe to a master, either.

See you on the 28th!

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