Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Review

blade runner 2049

9/10

Thoughts about Blade Runner 2049 (SPOILERS)

Character arcs and viewer experience:

The character arc of Detective K touches on all the philosophical questions about robots and consciousness that the first Blade Runner film touched on as well. But K’s arc is a lot more interesting and elegant, even, than Blade Runner offered in 1982. In the case of K, we know from the start that he is a replicant and thus programmed to behave in certain ways and to follow orders from his superior. When he “retires” another replicant played by Dave Bautista, that one tells K that he is a Blade Runner because “he has never seen a miracle”. A very human turn of phrase. Very interesting.

Then, we see in K’s personal life that he does seem to have certain emotions or needs and because he looks and partly acts as a human, we can’t help but attribute a measure of consciousness and humanity to him. This is where we as audience are walking into a trap that is quite inevitable. Then, during the course of K’s investigation, he comes across a miracle. He finds a memory that seems to be from an actual childhood, suggesting that he had one. He even starts believing that he had one; that he is “special”, in effect a unique individual. His virtual girlfriend catalyzes this belief, because that is what she is programmed to do.

And then, based on that belief, he starts acting accordingly. He helps people; he tries to find his father. We as audience, already believing that he had a measure of humanity to start with, go happily along with his belief in his own individuality. When, in the end, it all comes crashing down, the revelation that he never was the original owner of those memories and that he is in fact not unique, doesn’t matter anymore at this point. It is already too late for both him and us. He is crestfallen that it is not true, but he developed his own humanity purely through his belief that he had it. And we feel with him, because we believed along with him. And after the fall from grace, he still decides to help Deckard. He has developed a consciousness and personality through believing that he had it.

This is, of course, totally debatable, and that is the beauty of it. We are tricked into believing that it is so because we might want it to be so, and so the movie holds a series of emotional punches in store. The same goes for K’s virtual girlfriend Joi. She is more obviously a lower-grade AI, but her character raises the same conflict. The film is a litmus test on whether people will start believing that AIs have consciousness once we are able to design them. Where the first Blade Runner made the main character Deckard face this conflict, in Blade Runner 2049 we ourselves are more directly confronted with it.

Themes: Luv, Joi and touch.

In addition, there are a couple of themes running through the film, like little visual and textual clues. There is the theme that touch is connected to having a real life. The replicants are always wearing gloves, and only when K starts to believe, he removes his one to feel the bee and the rain and snow. His virtual girlfriend holds up her hand but the rain goes right through it (or does it?). Meanwhile, the girl inside the glass house, who is the actual miracle birth and therefore an inverse of the K character, feels nothing because she is surrounded by illusion.

There is also great confusion or conflicting ideas about things like love. There are two AIs, one named Joi and the other named Luv and it seems as if their names should be exchanged. But both AIs are named by Wallace, who is the chief architect of this dystopian world. He only knows through touch (again with the touch) but he is blind to what is real. Deckard rejects the copy of Rachael that he offers because the joy or love that it represents is only surface-level and not “real”. Wallace turned love into a consumer product and equates it with joy.

blade runner 20492

The film as a sequel

Because I feel that the central philosophical issue of the Blade Runner movies is explored even more skillfully in the sequel, and since the sequel builds upon the story of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 manages to improve the first movie. I don’t hold Blade Runner (1982) in particular high regard. I found it unexciting. The sequel raised my interest in the first movie and what it wanted to communicate. Now, in an age in which sequels, prequels or reboots aim to bring in a quick buck through brand recognition and cheap calls to nostalgic feelings, Blade Runner 2049 rises far above that crowd as a movie that really wanted to add and even improve on its predecessor.

And to be honest, the original is now mostly admired for its influence on visual depictions of dystopia, and its story has been superseded by the Ghost in the Shell movie from 1995, which is much more gripping and complex. Subsequent movies like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2014) provided deeper investigations into AI with consciousness. Blade Runner 2049 however presents it as a film noir that twists certain story clichés that we expect from films nowadays. It is smart enough to not go for the trope of the savior replicant who is to free everyone.

The film does incorporate all the iconic imagery of the original, but it does so with great eye for detail, for a fully immersive experience and it produces its own memorable visuals. It is hardly cheap. It is also specifically set in the future of Blade Runner, as opposed to our future.

Denis Villeneuve

Most of the praise has to go to Denis Villeneuve. He has the confidence and skill to call back to older film techniques that let the camera linger on scenes and let the audience take in everything. Fast edits and sloppy writing are a current sickness of insecure filmmaking. Simply the fact that Villeneuve makes riskier decisions shows that this film was never meant as a cash grab. This was an ambitious passion project. After so many heartless sequels, like Jurassic World, Independence Day: Resurgence and Alien: Covenant, we are blessed with a film like this.

Many scenes are quite daring in their execution, particularly certain one-on-one confrontations. The climactic fight is shot in a small, constricted area that does not try to impress with large vistas, but focuses all our intention on one place and one time. It is one of the better shot scenes of the year, and there are many like that in this film.

There is a consistent thread of highly confident, high quality filmmaking throughout the whole film, that is purely Villeneuve. The man has made stunning work in the past years, and films like Arrival, Sicario and Prisoners have shown his skill in plot and script development, his interest in intelligent storytelling, a great control of tension, a strong underlying vision behind his films and an eye for stunning visuals. Ridley Scott, in contrast, only knows how to work with visuals but is quite lost without a script.

Blade Runner 2049 will go down in history as one of Villeneuve’s masterpieces while he ascended rapidly to director stardom, while Ridley Scott is undermining his own image and legacy with muddled Alien sequels.

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James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes (2011) Review

Leviathan Wakes

  • Genre: science fiction
  • My rating: 7.5/10

I am very late to this party, and the whole world is already reading this series or watching the TV show. So, for my first paragraph I will just regurgitate some essential facts about this series to get all the obvious stuff out of the way, ok?

So, Leviathan Wakes is the first book of the series The Expanse, which will comprise nine books in total. The writer, James S.A. Corey, is actually a pseudonym for a collaborative effort of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Abraham already had some writing experience and Franck developed a role-playing game that would become the inspiration behind the universe that they created for these books. The Expanse series is gritty space opera, set in the future in which humanity is spread out across the solar system.

We are inhabiting the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt and some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons. These places function as their own nations, more or less, and with the opening of Leviathan Wakes, Earth and Mars have a tense relationship. They both have their eyes on the resources of the asteroid belt and the Belters are stuck in the middle as a lower class frontier zone. It’s a compelling vision of the future, seeing millions of people spread out over the system. It’s also realistic when it comes to politics, international tensions, corporations, class differences and so on. This future has all the vices of the 21st century.

We follow two main characters: James Holden, executive officer on the ship Canterbury, which hauls ice from the rings of Saturn to Ceres in the asteroid belt. With a small team he investigates the abandoned ship Scopuli before the Canterbury is blown up by a mysterious enemy, stranding him and his team in deep space. He’s loyal to his crew and idealistic. Secondly, detective Miller on Ceres, who is tasked to find and retrieve a girl who turned out to be a passenger on board the Scopuli. Miller is more jaded, like a detective from a noir film. There are hints of forbidden knowledge on board the Scopuli and hidden enemies are making their moves.

The chapters are short and move fast, each one ending with a cliffhanger so you keep reading. I’m not sure that is entirely a good thing. It creates momentum but also feels a bit artificial. The story is very cinematic; full of action and difficult decisions taken in little cramped ships. The switch back and forth between Holden and Miller nicely shows how events at one end of the solar system have effects at the other end.

In case you are familiar with Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space novels, The Expanse has the same type of grittiness but with a sprinkling of idealism, and has the same hard-SF stance towards the limits of space travel. Hell, the two series could conceivably be set in the same universe, only with The Expanse as a prequel series set a few hundred years before Revelation Space (I say this only after reading the first Expanse novel, though). The Expanse therefore does not have brain-tingling advanced SF concepts as are found in Reynolds’s series. However, Abrahams and Franck have a much better sense of pacing and plot structure.

I’m touching on action and plot structure because these are the brightest points of the novel. The writing is merely adequate and the characterization is rather thin. Half of the time, I had trouble keeping apart the characters Amos and Alex, and that’s a problem when your crew is only four people. Detective Miller is a walking cliché but the writers dodge that problem by making it part of Miller’s character flaws. The same goes for Holden’s naivete. The point is that the characters are easily recognizable archetypes in a story that above all aims to be fun and easily digestible.

I had a blast of a time reading Leviathan Wakes – most of the time. The story is just wonderfully paced and unfolds rapidly, and as popcorn action story this is a job very well done. I had trouble taking this story seriously, though, because the characters and writing are so flat, and I lost some interest. The universe Abraham and Franck set down is fun and the story itself is quite ambitious, so I might read some sequels. I did miss the interesting SF concepts of Reynolds or Banks, but if you’re looking for a series that is all about the reader’s journey, this one hits the spot.

Compared to the TV show

The first season covers about 75% of the first novel, but also includes material from the next books. Considering that there are 8 more novels to go, that’s a lot of material left to adapt. The TV series does many things right. It nails the visuals and most of the characters. The first obvious difference is that the show is less nuanced and rewritten for more conflict. Especially in the case of James Holden and his crew, the TV series creates more interpersonal conflict and personal drama.

Detective Miller works much better in the book, though. On screen he comes across as an arrogant, pretentious asshole. His story is also so drastically rewritten for the show that it only follows the most general beats of the story.

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Knight of Cups (2015) Review

Knight of Cups

7/10

I can’t escape the feeling that Terrence Malick just walked around with his cinematographer Lubezki and just filmed whatever they came across, trusting that the film would be created in editing, and that the brain’s power of association would make a loose story out of it in the viewer’s skull. Like: “hey guys, let’s go to the wharf and see what we can find. Oh, look there is a pelican. Let’s walk around it slowly and film it. I’m sure it will mean something when we paste some whispering narration over it. See how the pelican is shy? Maybe it is a metaphor for people shying away from life or something. Remember the plastic bag in American Beauty.”

I joke. Let’s dive deeper into this. The movie stars Christian Bale as the titular “Knight of Cups”, but he doesn’t really say anything during this movie. He plays a man living in California in modern times and we see him drifting through life. He has a successful life with a good job and full of parties, but it is like his mind is never there. He’s is always staring out of windows, silently, moving through life like a ghost. Most of the spoken lines are actually narration; something about a knight who came to Egypt, drank out of a cup and lost his memory, and then wandered through life having forgotten his original purpose. But the knight is still being send messengers to help him.

The camera is constantly moving. We follow Bale from his back as he wanders everywhere. The camera rushes over roads, past cityscapes and landscapes. It is all very beautiful to look at. I suppose we see Bale’s life rushing by, as if he is actually dying and his life flashes by in front of his eyes. But there is hardly a story. There are hardly any real characters. Bale plays a man devoid of spiritual self who tries to find love and himself, but never really finds either. People in his life are messengers on this quest.

knight of cups2

Like The Tree of Life (2010), it speaks in metaphor, visuals and feelings. The story, chopped up in chapters with metaphorical names, follows how different messengers enter the Knight’s life. A lover; a brother. The visuals have deeper meanings, like “Bale” looking at other people having fun through a window. Or him walking after his father. My guess is that the film makes some point about his relationship with his father, and about how relationships uncover different facets of himself, but it is all rather vague. One relationship represents judgement, another represents experience, and so on.

This is difficult film to stick with but also easy on the eyes to make you stay. There is a rather unique aspect about this movie and that is that while it tries to overwhelm you with visual imagery, I never more had the feeling that I was trapped inside someone’s numb mind, trying to find escape from the self in everyday experience. Like staring out of a moving car with a hangover. The narration floats in and out of the story, and every time that happens we are reminded that what we see on the screen is not where the storytelling is happening directly. The camerawork is just the illustration. It’s best not to think too hard about every shot.

Like Malick’s other films, Knight of Cups is dreamy and moody, and this one left me with a feeling of sadness. But it is also a bit vacuous and Bale’s character is hard to identify with. The “story” is so focused on finding meaning in life externally, through beauty, the senses and relationships, that the central character doesn’t seem to have any character at all. There is a focus on beauty as messenger of truth that transforms the women in the film into walking ideas and it makes the “Knight” come across as an empty vessel. I wanted it to mean more. I’m not taking any message away from it or a deeper understanding of anything, but only some feelings.

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Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) Review

Yiddish1

  • Genre: science fiction, alternate history
  • Rating: 9/10

Michael Chabon is generally seen as a mainstream author who is not afraid to dip his toes into genre fiction now and then. His masterwork The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay flirted with elements of magical realism. That book (The Amazing Adventures) by the way, is my foremost reason for reading the book I am currently reviewing. After The Amazing Adventures, which was one of the best novels I had ever read, I simply had to read more of this guy. And it so happens that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an alternate history noir science fiction novel. Take my money already.

So. In this alternate 20th century, Israel was never established in British Palestine. Instead, about 3 million Jews emigrated to an island in Alaska where they have built a new society amongst the bears and Native Americans. The “frozen chosen”. Sitka it is, the previous Russian capital of Alaska, and now a city strip of a few million Jews from all corners of the planet, and the Jewish territory will soon revert back to American soil, throwing the Jews back into limbo.

But, so what? Will this make for an interesting place, an interesting story? Yes, it will. These are uncertain times to be Jewish, and Chabon delves deeply into details and their psychological consequences. Chabon’s alternate history is an interesting one, in which Zionism failed in the middle-east and now there is an effort to make Sitka a US state, which will likely not happen. The Jewish people feel more lost and floating than ever before, and there are rumors and hopes going around of a new Messiah who may stand up again in the whirlpool of cynicism and tradition that is Sitka. Against this backdrop, we follow the moody, broken police detective Meyer Landsman as he chases a murder crime in the Sitka city strip.

Yiddish2

The shape of the story isn’t immediately apparent, though we start with very familiar tropes. Amidst all the wry descriptions of detective Landsman’s diet of alcohol and nicotine, his painful past, the colorful family histories of Jews and the interesting history of the Sitka land, a plot slowly emerges of Landsman following the clues of a murder case that touches him personally. The uncertain state of the Jewish people in Sitka is mirrored in Landsman lurching from one bottle of vodka to the next. He chases some sliver from the past while his current life is in shambles. His ex-wife Bina is also his immediate superior and a mirror of the good life that he left behind. His partner Berko is half-Indian and less lost than he is.

The story is full of cliché but that doesn’t matter because it is so well fleshed-out and written with a love and heart for the genre. A detective story allows the writer to touch on every layer of society. It is in the details that Chabon shines so brightly. The way he typifies characters and families is rich and full of humor. The story is full of grumpy old cynical people who nevertheless found some way to keep going and are charming in their habits. His story is full of droll humanity that bubbles through the surface as if the book itself is carbonated. Individual scenes when Meyer and Berko go around town to talk to people are joyfully exaggerated.

I’m sure that some will feel Chabon’s style to be too much. He lays it on thickly for the sake of wry humor. Some metaphors are really forced, while others are like a stroke of brilliance. Chabon has a romantic genius inside of him and I was frequently in awe of his writing or laughing about his comparisons. I enjoyed this book far more than I had expected and Chabon still impresses immensely with his talent and insight.

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Mother! (2017) Review

mother

7.5/10

I suppose I should start this review with the director – Darren Aronofsky – and talk about how his movies are often uncomfortable at best, traumatic at worst. They also often have religious thematic material. mother! is a Darren Aronofsky film, alright. It’s uncomfortable all the time, from the first scenes to the last. It also has religious themes that lay like a thick blanket across the whole of it. Needless to say, the final product is a rather controversial film, with people either loving it or hating it.

But hold on for a moment; his film Requiem for a Dream was also very uncomfortable, almost traumatic to watch, and it didn’t even have a happy ending. But that film is still highly acclaimed, so a film being uncomfortable is not the issue. Requiem for a Dream was stunning when it came to acting and editing, but mother! is shot in such a way that we are constantly in the face of Jennifer Lawrence. The film has no breathing space. As viewers, we are locked up in the point of view of Jennifer Lawrence with the intensity of being in a restraining suit. And she is the constant object of mental violation. I am just saying that mother! is a bit more intense than might be welcome.

I also suppose that the best way of describing the story is as an overarching metaphor for the history of the universe. There is a metaphorical frame in which it all makes sense, and if you are used to creative thinking and familiar with biblical mythology it should not be too hard to figure it out. In his earlier film The Fountain, there are scenes of a floating tree in space, inhabited by a monk, but might actually be a metaphor for the headspace of the main character in other scenes. The whole movie mother! works that way.

I’m just not sure what Aronofsky’s real goal was with this film. His ideas and his skill in making movies deserve some respect, but for mother! it was unclear what kind of reaction he wanted to provoke in his audience. Everything that happens on screen is quite extreme and over the top and I started laughing a bit because of how ridiculous it was, but at the same time the content of the story is very sad, so I felt some shame laughing about it. Was shame the goal here? Are we supposed to feel ashamed for being human, in a Catholic sort of way? I suppose so.

This movie is like An Inconvenient Truth mixed up with the Bible, but reenacted by the cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf like a stage play with a few people in a house. Haha no, that is a horrible comparison, but close. The result is both so uncomfortable and absurdist that I had no room left to feel ashamed about being human. If that was the goal. The film might have multiple goals, including a more critical look at God and religion and how we treat the planet. At the least, Aronofsky did manage to combine disparate topics into a single coherent story.

So, the film is quite interesting to follow, but it feels more like an intellectual exercise without an emotional goal on the horizon. Compared to, say, The Fountain, a movie that was about death and loss and was much more immediately about human sorrow, Aronofsky’s biblical metaphors somehow miss that human connection. The film is nicely focused when it comes to location and actors and the acting by Bardem and Lawrence is quite good. It’s an intriguing film but some heart is missing, and the point of it all is overshadowed by Aronofsky’s self-congratulatory absurdism and the extreme extention of the metaphor. You could see the absurdism as black comedy, but I’m not sure if that’s the way we are supposed to see it.

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It Comes at Night (2017) Review

It comes at night

7/10

The movie opens up with a chilling scene in which an old man is apparently suffering from a disease. It looks like the pox. His daughter is trying to ascertain if he is too far gone and eventually they drag him into the woods to shoot him and burn his body. It is a simple scene but it conveys a lot of information in a very immediate, economical way: this is a world in which a deadly disease has broken out, and this is an isolated family, deep in the woods, who are self-sufficient or are forced to be self-sufficient in world that has become the victim of a disaster.

Now it is just Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), struggling to survive. There is no electricity. Their large house is dark at night. There is incredible tension in this setting, full of darkness, constricted fields of vision and a looming sense of danger. When suddenly a solitary man arrives and tries to invade their home, they capture him, but don’t really know what to do with him. He then offers a trade between their two families, water for food.

In case you followed the reviews when this film first came out, you might remember that this film was marketed badly. It posed as a straight up horror film and with a title like “it comes at night”, many expected this to be about monsters in the night terrorizing a family in the woods, like Signs (2002). If you’re waiting for that, you’ll be waiting a long time. The monsters in this case might be fellow humans, but as always with humans, they can be friends or foe. The whole film turns around the issue of trust and risk. Do we trust these people? What if they are lying? What if they carry the disease? What if we could team up?

It comes at night2

Imagine you have a family in a post-apocalyptic setting, and another family moves into your house because together you are safer. For a while it is exciting. You’re sharing everything, making friends, feeling safer. But that feeling of mistrust, that was there before? Yeah, that always comes back to rear its ugly head, one way or another. Meanwhile, Paul’s sensitive son Travis is having nightmares, as if he is having premonitions about something that is going on unseen.

It’s a rather short film and quite engrossing; time flies by because of the tension on the screen and the gripping developments of the story. The direction is top notch. The camerawork is very selective and deliberate in what it wants to show and from which angles, bringing a lot of tension and some artistry to the film. The best thing about this story is that mistrust and fear blurs all the lines between heroes and villains.

What is strange is that the film keeps flirting with some outside threat that doesn’t seem to exist. The nightmares and buildups of tension don’t seem to lead to anything and feel disconnected from the rest of the story. Paul’s nightmares could also be a metaphor for this looming threat of mistrust or inevitability, but it is not very effective at that, nor do these scary moments give much additional depth to the film’s meaning. It could also mean that Paul identifies strongly with a couple of victims, and when mistrust eventually leads to bad consequences, he will not escape that.

While the main theme of the film is worked out in quite a fine way when it comes to directing, acting and to the general unfolding of the story, the film nevertheless feels a bit ineffective. Many scenes were quite enjoyable and even gripping to watch, but it also had some horror elements that felt out of place. As a short study of fear and mistrust, it’s alright, but to see the nightmares as a metaphor takes a bit of reaching and I can’t quite reach what they were going for.

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Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) Review

The mote in god's eye

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • My rating: 8.5/10

The Mote in God’s Eye is a bit rough around the edges, especially when reading it in the 21st century. It features stock characters that seem picked right out of 1960s Star Trek. There is the young captain making bold decisions whose name could have been Kirk. He commands a space navy vessel that also holds a sexualized female guest, a greedy Arab merchant and even a Scottish engineer. The USA and the Soviet Union inconceivably merged and started exploring space, and there are still hardnosed Russian generals but now they are in spaaaace!

This is the year 3000 as if humanity had never moved beyond the 20th century in sentiments and many basic technologies. The novel may be a classic in the field, but the field has long moved on in many ways.

If we put all that to the side as artifacts of an earlier time, then the story that comes forward is quite exciting. This is a classic first-contact novel about meeting an alien civilization for the first time. There is the spine-tingling moment of seeing an alien vessel emerge from the dark void of space. There is the deep sense of mystery and tension and of course the alien autopsy. Niven and Pournelle put many technical details into their interplanetary navigation and alien biology to give the story a slightly realistic edge, even though this future aristocratic human empire sounds totally unrealistic as a future for our society.

The story picks up considerably after about 120 pages, when captain Kirk (I mean, Rod Blaine) and a Russian general go on a mission of first contact to the God’s Eye nebula and we have our first interactions with the aliens. The plot moves satisfyingly fast, almost to the point that significant scenes don’t happen but are mentioned in conversations as have already happened. For instance, at one point the aliens start talking in regular English, but we’ve only had casual mentions that they were picking up words. The first half is a bit clunky like that. The novel was heavily edited before publication and much might have been cut, because for the 70s, this was a very long SF book. 560+ pages is still almost twice as long as many SF novels from that period and it does feel a little long towards the end. But, compared to today’s 1000+ page bloated fantasy novels, The Mote runs along with great enthusiasm.

It’s the central mystery of the Motie aliens that propels the story forwards. That is what keeps me flipping pages, that and the interesting interactions between humans and them. There is no real main character to hang on to otherwise. The cast is hardly more than a set of names in a space navy environment, and what character development there is, is muffled under short and simplified descriptions. I wasn’t really bothered by this, because the story is very full of events and I kept wanting to know what would happen next in this voyage of discovery. The aliens are one of the most elaborately described in any SF novel ever.

I love the Motie aliens, because they are complex as a society but also in the emotions that they evoke in us. Just like with us humans, it is hard to narrow down what a society or a whole species embodies. The humans in the novel also don’t know what to think of them. It is interesting though that Niven and Pournelle chose to create a human society in space that turned very conservative with a militaristic empire, aristocratic upper class, strict gender roles and a strong presence of religion. I didn’t find this society very believable, but their interactions with the Moties are more strained and confrontational than would happen with a more enlightened humanity.

The Mote in God’s Eye might be flawed and rather dated, but it is still a very engrossing, full story. The characters often must make difficult decisions and have nothing to go on except their assumptions and values. Its greatest achievement is the Mote aliens, because of their ambiguity. Even though their civilization is thoroughly fleshed out, they remain alien to us. Sometimes they seem to think like humans, other times they are unnerving. The Mote is a milestone in the genre and remains a good read with an impressively good story.

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