T.J. Bass – The Godwhale (1974) Review


T.J. Bass only ever wrote two books and this is his second and last one. Both of them are extraordinarily weird. So, Half Past Human (1971) and The Godwhale (1974) play out in a future earth where a few trillion humans live underground in hive cities. They are very degenerated and the hives work like giant machines, and an AI named Earth System provides the humans with simple protein and jobs. Bass was a doctor and he suffused his writing with medical terminology, so the humans are more or less described as biological robots with mandibles and papillae and gonads and lymphocytes. The effect of this is an absurdist, darkly comedic dystopia full of bio- and robotic weirdness. As if the world of Demolition Man progressed another few thousand years.

A main character is Rorqual Maru, a beached android whale. Part ship, part whale and sentient, Rorqual was once a harvester in the oceans for humanity. But after the oceans died out, she swum around for thousands of years looking for organic life and humans to command her. And there is Larry, a young guy who loses his legs in the first chapter. He keeps freezing himself in the hope that future technology can heal him, having adventures as a crippled man in the Hives and ending up as a centaur with a fruit machine girlfriend.

There are a couple of recurring characters, but the novel mostly follows a sequence of events that plays out over hundreds of years. There isn’t much of a plot, and each new chapter may introduce new characters, so the story is more like a disjointed heap of short stories that Bass wrote while being a doctor in daytime. Chapters jump through time a lot, skipping through months or years. A story does crystallize out of the heap eventually, but there is no hook to pull you through it and getting through the novel occasionally feels like work.

I had trouble getting through it because I just didn’t care about anything that happened. Bass actually doesn’t spend much time with Rorqual Maru and is more interested in writing about an underwater society of humans, but the relationships are clumsy, even creepy, and the pacing and story is haphazard.

There is however a touching pathos in Bass’ stories when it comes to robotic life. Robots come in all shapes and sizes and have nicknames and are often cute and childlike. The whale Rorqual has a little cleaner robot sidekick named Trilobite who swims around the oceans looking for humans. In Half Past Human, there was a cool sentient spear named Toothpick. So, while the robots are humanized and written as pets, the human society itself is robotized in an interesting inversion. The characters are flat, though, and Bass comes across as very old-fashioned when it comes to women.

This is the kind of book that needs an affinity with the genre in its readers to be appreciated. I would never recommend this as anyone’s first SF novel. What’s more, you’ll be better off with Half Past Human anyway, because that one introduces this weird world. If you like that one and want more of the same, this one is waiting for you at your convenience. For me, two books was more than enough.


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Dunkirk (2017) Review


What Nolan aims to do with Dunkirk, if I interpret it correctly, is to make us feel what it was like to actually have been there, as an anonymous soldier, one of countless thousands. And as is clear near the end, the operation at Dunkirk is seen as a military disaster and the soldiers were burdened with a feeling of shame for letting down their country. Nolan dedicates this film to them and to their experiences.

For him the best way to do this is to simply chronicle the event from a couple of viewpoints, without ever giving us proper characters to identify with. There are no real characters in this film, because viewers are supposed to be characters themselves. To identify with a character is one more step of removal that Nolan wanted to short-circuit. We are just observers as if we are running along. I would almost say that the film is akin to a computer game where you yourself fill in the blank space of the observer, with the major difference that Dunkirk is a traumatic experience that happens to you.

And the hopeless situation at Dunkirk is the great traumatic experience where the other soldiers around you feel just as helpless as you do to influence what happens. Nolan’s deceptively simple plot of a couple of soldiers trying to find a boat to escape that horrible beach does the trick. Every time they think they made it, they find themselves in another situation that strands them back at Dunkirk. Boats are full. Or they are bombed, or some other disaster happens. Or a pilot finds himself rescued and then taken back to Dunkirk. The sheer helplessness and desperation is the emotional goal of the movie. That is how their memories are honored.


I find the script to be extraordinarily successful in this. We are a young eager man on a fishing boat, steering towards Dunkirk. We are an exhausted soldier sitting in the sandy wind and salty, murky waters of the North Sea. We see what it feels like to chase planes far above the waters.

Compared to Nolan’s earlier films, Dunkirk feels refreshingly simple and streamlined in its message. No convoluted science fiction story to make rather basic points about love. Simple empathy for the soldier in battle is enough, and do away with strict black and white opinions about courage. Nolan tries to depict bravery in impossible situations, and addresses shellshock and painful choices between life and death, mercy and toughness. For instance, when the character George on the boat asks if a rescued soldier is a coward, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) corrects him, and later on we see his son set aside his own anger to spare that soldier more emotional pain.

On top of all that, yes, it is technically impressive and visually overwhelming. The lack of characters can turn one away from the film, but it is hard to mark it as a fault when it was intentionally done. It might work for you or it might not. But, if there is one thing that Christopher Nolan never lacks, it is the ambition to tell grand stories. He has the freedom and the guts to follow his own vision, and I admire him for that. So, Dunkirk is admirable and impressive, once you stand back to consider what Nolan’s point was with it and what he did with it.


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R. Scott Bakker – The Unholy Consult (2017) Review

The Unholy Consult

  • Genre: epic fantasy
  • Series: Aspect-Emperor, part 4

In reviewing this novel, I accidentally wrote a novel myself.

So it has come to this. The final book in the Aspect-Emperor sub-series. All storylines converge in the far north. The Ordeal marches on across Agongorea, while it succumbs ever more to the madness of the Sranc that are eaten. Akka and Mimara go north, in search of Kellhus to confront him with Mimara’s Judging Eye. Kellhus himself thwarted Yatwer, saved Esmenet and Kelmomas and brings them as he returns to the Ordeal. Sorweel, Serwa and Moenghus too return, after Ishterebinth has been cleansed of Consult influence.

Bakker drops many answers, or at least hints towards answers, to questions that have been open for many books. What exactly happened during the Circumfixion? Why did Kellhus break Proyas’ faith? And so on. He also leaves many things ambiguous, and the eventual manuscript is sure to generate long discussions on internet fora.

In my reviews of the previous books, The Judging Eye (2009), The White-Luck Warrior (2011) and The Great Ordeal (2016), I have mused about Bakker’s deeper goals and the themes that he is grappling with. Above all, it was clear to me that Bakker’s two series are a profound meditation upon the natures of love, worship, relationships and power, and how the Dunyain make travesties of these concepts. Still, I feel like there is a deeper thematic layer in Bakker’s work and that I have not fully taken up the gauntlet that he throws before his readers’ feet.

The most superficial way of looking at this story is that of a march of the armies of humanity against an evil force, in the way that Aragorn returned to Gondor in the Lord of the Rings and then marched all the good and righteous human men, filled with nobility, against the evil Sauron and his quest for power. A very black and white picture of good and evil. The Aspect-Emperor series is in many ways a color negative version of Tolkien’s story. A similar picture of good and evil exists, an objective morality that declares people damned or not, but it feels either justly or unjustly imposed by “gods” and does not align with the war between what we interpret as good and evil forces in the story. This is not a critique; this is by design.

The Aragorn of this story, Kellhus, may therefore liberate humanity from evil, while being damned in the eyes of the gods all the same. As we saw in The Judging Eye, Mimara has a metaphysical third eye that shows the truth about someone’s damnation in the afterlife. Achamian is damned simply because he is a sorcerer and messing with the nature of reality has damned him. But using other humans as tools is similarly damnable and if there is one thing that the Dunyain do, is making tools of humans. Don’t they deserve damnation for that? As Gandalf says to Frodo: who are we to decide what others deserve? Especially since Kellhus’ action of making a tool out of humanity might well save the human race. Now the nature of good and evil is totally twisted, and even the evil force bent upon eliminating humanity is given an ethically defensible position.

Phew. This raises so many questions. We have different definitions of good and evil now in the story that are juxtaposed, including everything that we take personally into the books with us. Different lenses of morality to flip before your eyes to look at the story. And Kellhus, the lynchpin, both sociopath and savior (depending on which lens of morality you use), carries on his shoulders the future of humanity and the wrath of the Gods and of humanity’s evil adversaries. He is not a character to identify with, and how to regard him is a central mystery of the story. As is his plan.

There is no fantasy series in existence where this subversion is so thoroughly and captivatingly explored.

Sorweel, Believer-King and at the same time instrument of the goddess Yatwer, also embodies this central conflict of moralities. He is stretched between these vectors in a very immediate way. The marching humans, too, are stretched upon the same spider web of crossing moralities. They lose all sense of nobility and humanity to be able to even reach Golgotterath, but this is a consequence of Kellhus’ plan in which the human army is just a tool. Bakker does not shy away from graphically describing every depravity in a series of chapters that feel overlong.

The writing can be cryptic at times. Its connection with common human emotions does not work so well, probably because the text often feels overwrought and misses a poetic fluidity. Especially the chapters concerning the Ordeal and its descend into obscenity are full of prose that is just excessive. But when the focus turns towards the landscapes or the large scales of time and space, the prose does have exactly the intended effect, and I can feel the sheer weight, the enormity of the events I am witnessing. This is epic to an awe-inspiring level, and the battle of Golgotterath holds its own compared to the battle of Minas Tirith. Almost no other current fantasy series reaches this height, and it is also a clear victory for Bakker’s world-building.

Bakker dives into inhuman states of mind with great gusto. Just about every character is filled to the brim with conflicting emotions and traumas, and if you thought you were going to read a simple story of a human army marching towards the bad guys, you thought wrong. This is not Tolkien. This is closer to the later parts of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, in which alien madness infects humanity. But it is not just madness; there is a clear vision behind this series, and together with every step that the army takes, we step through Bakker’s design.

Without spoiling the ending, it will divide people. It’s abrupt and rather unsatisfying. In general, the pacing of the novel is uneven, with some parts stretched out in the first half and the ending feels a bit truncated. On the one hand, the sub-series definitely gets the ending it deserves. This is a 450-page ending, in which every twist and turn of the concluding events are writ large. The fortunes wax and wane in a gigantic concluding battle. The confluence of powers is on a level with Steven Erikson’s books. Originally it was supposed to form a single novel with the previous one, and it does feel like the book is not a self-standing whole, but I think Bakker made the right decision in cutting it in half. Abridging this story would have hurt its impact. On the other hand, the ending is also a setup for a next series and that may be why many characters do not get a fair conclusion of their arc in this novel. Too many questions remain, and some built-up antagonists feel underwhelming. Let us hope that future books will truly wrap it up for the characters.

Almost one-third of the novel is taken up by a gargantuan appendix that brings back memories of the novel of The Return of the King. It also has two short stories.

What do you get when you have an author who really “gets it” when it comes to worldbuilding, who creates unique and fascinating characters and has a deep philosophical interest behind writing his series? You get one of the best fantasy series ever written; it is surely in my top five of all time. Bakker’s series is on a level with Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and like Wolfe’s series it will probably never really find the big crowds of readers and will be disliked by some, but it will also be found again and again with each new generation and it will be greatly admired by a subset of readers.


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Motivational Growth (2013) Review

motivational growth1

When Ian’s television set breaks down, his entire world breaks down with it. Living like a hermit, his television (nicknamed Kent) was the only thing keeping him going. Ready now to commit suicide in his bathroom, a fungal growth under his sink starts talking to him. It calls itself The Mold and convinces Ian to go on a journey with him. The Mold decides to get Ian back on his feet, and it may have other plans for him as well.

It sounds heavy but Motivational Growth is brought to us like an airy, breezy film. Ian quickly breaks down the fourth wall, narrating his life to us in person. He is played very sympathetically by Adrian DiGiovanni. His philosophy on life he illustrates wonderfully with a little speech while sitting on the toilet. He is wonderfully expressive about his sad state of mind.

The Mold is voiced by the always great Jeffrey Combs, better known from a couple of Star Trek series and many other TV shows. We only hear his voice, and the Mold itself looks like a dark green, eyeless Jabba the Hutt living in a disgusting corner of his bathroom. The special effects on the mold are barely acceptable, not better than the effects on Jabba the Hutt in fact, back in the 80s. The extreme close-ups on its mouth don’t help either. It just flaps its mouth like a plastic object, but at least it is a practical effect, because this is a low-budget film and any attempt at a computerized effect would have been horrible.

motivational growth2

The Mold knows, Jack. The Mold knows.

The film floats on a lot of witty monologues and dialogues. Most of it works, but not all side characters are that great at acting, and their personalities are taken too far to the extreme. DiGiovanni does a good job though and thank heavens because he carries the whole thing, and the story is quite a funny, quirky one. Combs is great with the dialogue that he is given, but the lines for the Mold are laid on thick. He sounds like a car salesman and an uncle trying to impersonate a motivational speaker. It takes a while to get used to.

The romance subplot is incredibly unrealistic but that is ok because the whole time the movie plays around with what is real and what is some fungus-induced hallucination. We, like Ian, don’t even know anymore. But after floating on this film for more than an hour and grasping at plot points, it starts to get a bit tedious. There is too much weirdness going on and not enough storytelling to keep me engrossed in Ian’s fate.

Director and writer Don Thacker does a whole lot with a small amount of money. The whole movie basically plays out in Ian’s apartment, which is wonderfully gross. Parts of the story are suddenly told as pixelated animated sequences which look quite alright, and 8-bit music is incorporated in the background. At other times, this film comes close to a David Lynch nightmare. The creature effects are nicely varied and squirmingly gross. Overall, the film has some nice effects and fun dialogues to offer, and that what-the-hell factor of a talking mold that is worked out quite well.


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Jeff VanderMeer – Borne (2017) Review


  • Genre: New Weird/Science Fiction/Biopunk
  • Pages: 336
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Jeff Vandermeer’s new creation, or concoction, requires so much explaining that I don’t know where to start. I will try to give a brief description of what is only the setup: we are in a city that I presume is somewhere along the coast of California. A biotech company has lost control of one of its bio-engineered creations: a giant floating radioactive bear the size of Godzilla, named Mord. The bear has ravaged the city and knows how to levitate in the air, and by night it nests in the ruins of the Company’s campus. Many of the other bio-engineered creatures of the Company get lost in its fur at night, and fall into the city by day when the bear floats over it.

Rachel is a scavenger in the city and finds a small purple pulsating anemone in the bear’s fur and brings it home to her boyfriend Wick, who is a bio-engineering drug dealer. The anemone stays in their hidden warren of a home and grows into something extraordinary. Now, any other writer would have spent large paragraphs in infodumps to explain all of this, but Vandermeer very neatly unfolds all of this in the background of the text while also describing Rachel’s character and her relationship with Wick and how their living area mirrors their own psychological state at the same time.

The text is very economical and evocative at the same time; very dense in its explaining power. And Vandermeer creates a world that is shockingly strange but feels real and dangerous too. There is a completeness of vision behind Borne where the characters, their relationships and their surroundings click together. It has the biopunk inventiveness of Paul McAuley’s Fairyland and the imaginative strangeness of China Mieville’s Railsea. But its emotional core is stronger than both of these novels.

Borne is also one giant allegory for motherhood. On the basis of it, this story is a variation on that of the unusual creature that enters someone’s life and plays a personal role in that person’s development, like The Iron Giant, My Neighbor Totoro or Lilo & Stitch. But Borne grows up, gets in between Rachel and Wick, and learns from Rachel. The post-apocalyptic world outside is dangerous, and Rachel gets upset when Borne moves out to live next-door ( ‘cause Borne also needs his privacy). We move through all these parenting stages with her. I suppose Jeff Vandermeer approached his wife Ann and suggested: what if I write a book about a mother with some kind of cute alien baby?

For a biopunk novel full of weird organisms in a post-apocalyptic world, this is a very personal and heartfelt story. Vandermeer dives deeply into his main character Rachel’s emotions and especially her connection with Borne, the anemone that grows into something like a child to Rachel. I was worried at first that the creature Borne would be presented as too unbelievable, too cute, too much like some kind of imaginary fantasy of a super creature that can do all kinds of things, and Vandermeer does not totally avoid that trap. Borne is all big eyes and colors and cute speak to the point that this became rather childish, but the idea that Borne is a designed, bioengineered organism makes it more acceptable, and his interactions with Rachel are also very charming.

Thoughtful and moody, Vandermeer goes to great length to describe the feel of this world that he creates. Very similar to his Southern Reach trilogy, Borne is full of wandering people, making observations of the mood of the place. It even has a woman who describes herself as a ghost with a fascination for tidal pools, a nameless mysterious company, a landscape deformed by a new ecology. And like Annihilation and its sequels, it even becomes an exploration of inhuman sentient life and how we might interact with that.

Borne does not recreate that same frisson of spookiness of Annihilation and repeats quite a few of its themes, but it does have a much stronger emotional heart. I wished though that Vandermeer spent more time designing a plot and would show more than tell us what is happening. The story drags at times, but the inventiveness and completeness of its vision is very impressive.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Review

Spider man homecoming


2017 is shaping up to be an amazing year for comic book movies. First we got Logan, giving a strong ending to the X-Men after the mediocre X-Men: Apocalypse, then Guardians of the Galaxy 2 which was a lot of fun, then Wonder Woman which finally turned DC’s abysmal record around and now we have Spider-Man: Homecoming, which had the hard task of warming people up for another spider-man introduction.

I don’t think I need to repeat how tired everyone got of these Spider-Man reboots. It is therefore with a great sigh of relief and an exclamation of delightful surprise that Spider-Man: Homecoming is an excellent movie. It is a comedic, well-paced, adventurous tale that dances as light as a feather and hits all the right notes. And considering how many things this movie had to accomplish, that is a bloody miracle.

First, Homecoming avoided the danger of telling us again the origin story of Spider-Man with the radioactive spider and uncle Ben dying and “with great power…”. People seriously would have thrown tomatoes at the screen. I would have. I had them ready. It is still an origin story though, but it is about Spidey (Tom Holland) coming of age and being mentored by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Peter Parker is still in high school, still being a teenager exploring his own powers, while he has an agent (Jon Favreau) at the Avengers who is babysitting him.

Spider man homecoming2

This scene gave me sweaty hands

This interaction with the Avengers is a great source of comedy, and Downey Jr. does not show up so much that he derails or dominates the story – letting it stay Spidey’s film. And, of course, this mentorship ties into the larger plan by Marvel to let Spider-Man play a greater role in their future ensemble films. And to keep it Spidey’s film, the action is not as world-spanning as in these Avenger films. Peter Parker as a teenager is still earning his stripes in his own neighborhood and fights a villain who comes and operates in the lower working classes too. That villain, by the way, is one of the better ones so far in the Marvel universe. It is the Vulture, played by a duck-facing Michael Keaton; also a wink-wink to his meta-role in Birdman.

So, it all sort of comes together. Spider-Man: Homecoming has to balance precariously on three or four spider-webs simultaneously to keep the audience satisfied and to tie it to the Marvel universe. Tom Holland as Peter Parker does a good job at being a wide-eyed kid. He has a lot more likeability than Tobey Maguire ever had and is like a younger and naiver version of Andrew Garfield.

The weakest part of the movie were actually the high school drama/comedy scenes. Peter has a sidekick/best friend who doesn’t have much personality on his own, and Peter’s romantic adventures did not really pull me in. What succeeded very well was that Peter had to sacrifice parts of his teenager social life to be Spider-Man. That conflict of priorities made his actions as Spider-Man more important because he had to invest more of himself into choosing to be a superhero. That also puts us on Peter’s side when Iron Man makes some failing attempts at being a father figure.

There are so many right choices made with Spider-Man: Homecoming that it feels like a little miracle.

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Dan Simmons – Olympos (2005) Review


  • Genre: science fiction
  • Pages: 912
  • My rating: 8/10

[Some spoilers for Ilium]

Ilium was great, but now it is time to get some answers. Ilium attempted to combine high science fiction concepts with both Greek mythology and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. That was an exciting idea but it was also a bit confusing. And to be honest, the two genres mixed a bit like oil and water. You see, this science fiction world is constructed as conceivably our future, but the literary characters come from books. How does this click together? Throughout the story, Simmons gave hints that these characters – Achilles, Odysseus, and characters from The Tempest, like the wizard Prospero and the monster Caliban – are the actual characters from the books.

Simmons does provide some answers in Ilium to how this is possible. In the sarcastic words of Terry Pratchett: “it must be quantum.” Post-humans had opened holes in the fabric of space-time and things came out. Now, all these extra-universal things and emergent consciousnesses took up the identities of literary gods and then opened a portal to the distant past of Greek antiquity.

That… that must be it, but don’t ask me to be confident about this. I got the distinct impression that Simmons just wanted to talk about Homer and Shakespeare, and then argued back from that starting point to figure out how he could combine that with science fiction. But arguing the other way around doesn’t work: literary gods are not a reasonable expectation to have as a consequence of advanced technology. And Simmons never managed to convince me of that. Coming from an interest in science fiction, that made this series just a bit silly and confusing. And the idea of “in a post-singularity future anything is possible”, that is also a cop-out for loopy ideas.

There is an undercurrent in these books that is about an exploration of what is means to be human, or how to find meaning in life. The dumbed-down humans on Earth are rediscovering humanity, and the post-human/emergent consciousnesses have appropriated literary figures that imbue them with a predesigned meaning that is articulated through human art. This exploration becomes the main theme of the book Olympos. Especially the character Odysseus plays a vital role in this because he finds himself amongst the poor future humans who have no culture or memory left.


The way Simmons deals with Gods interacting with humans brings to mind the works of Gene Wolfe – especially his Soldier of Sidon and The Book of the Long Sun. Also like Gene Wolfe, there are many questions and mysteries in this story that make you wonder more strongly about its underlying themes. For instance, there is the mystery of Odysseus on the Earth of the future. In effect, he is undergoing his odyssey but at a different time and place, and teaches his values to future humans like a prophet. And then the siege of Troy is mirrored on Earth and we see whether Odysseus’s lessons were the right ones.

So, on the one hand Simmons creates a dialogue with Homer’s texts; he mimics Homer’s style with acceptable results, and lets his storylines play out along similar lines in a SF setting. This is impressively done. On the other hand, by mixing these stories with science fiction he asks whether the old Greek way of life was superior to that of current or future Earth. Such value judgments are hidden between the lines, but Simmons is not lauding the old Greeks unconditionally. He clearly admires their passion and confidence, but uses his other character Hockenberry to show that the Greeks are difficult to understand and judge from a modern point of view, because Hockenberry is from our current age. So, Simmons presents humans from the distant past (the Greeks), from the current age (Hockenberry) and the far future, and lets them interact.

There is a truly magnificent epic quality and uniqueness to this duology of Ilium and Olympos. The premise and setup of the story was so audacious and the plot lines so many that simply hammering this story into shape is an achievement on its own. The story stays unpredictable and flipping the pages to see what comes next is a joy. Especially the moravecs, Mahnmut and Orphu of Io, are memorable characters.

Unfortunately, Simmons does not quite succeed and his exploration of meaning in life is muddled up in the story structure. Odysseus who teaches the humans disappears halfway through the book and no longer plays any important role. Simmons keeps on introducing new ideas, more and more and more, while having great problems wrapping it all up nicely. The main characters have their arcs but no real conclusions. Daeman, for example, goes on an important quest and he had a “nemesis” in the creature Caliban, but that story then never really culminates into anything.

The main story is about the new humans trying to become proper humans again. But this process is a very thin thread, concealed beneath plotlines about the future of the solar system, and all those epic plotlines are built up to with a lot of bombast but then sort of fizzle out because they were never Simmons’s focus. So, story-wise this is very disappointing or simply makes little sense. For example, certain characters are woken up because they are “important”, but then they don’t seem to do anything. Or alien robots are given a sudden explanation about Muslim fundamentalism that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story. But it is all meant to tie in with Harman being the new “Prometheus” because he learns new knowledge about good and evil this way, but if you take these events less metaphorically it all feels rather ridiculous.

I could go on but the point is that the story feels like a whole bunch of unrelated stuff without payoff, because the point of it all about humans rediscovering humanity is told metaphorically through very illogical events. On top of that, Simmons adds characters from The Tempest and from Greek mythology because he has bound his novel to those other works; it is in dialogue with those other works, so out of the blue new characters like Circe show up because they “have to”, but story-wise this is not fulfilling. On a page-to-page basis it is exciting to read, but in the end the novel left me disappointed. Its ambition is great, but its meaning is hidden beneath messy storytelling.

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