Friday, 22 April 2016

Review: Funny Fantasy

Funny Fantasy Funny Fantasy by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a pre-release version of this collection, supplied by the publisher for beta reading purposes.

There's not enough truly funny fantasy around, and I applaud Alex Shvartsman for wanting to increase the prominence of the subgenre, not only by what he writes himself but by his work as an editor. Not only does he edit the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies of new humorous SFF, but he's now started collecting previously published works (which did not appear in UFO) as well, and this volume is one of those collections.

I'm a tough audience for comedy, and look for something more than just a parody of the usual tropes with a few silly names thrown in. By and large, the stories in this volume provided that something more, with stories that worked as stories as well as being funny. I was particularly delighted to see an example of "Runyonesque," a style of which I'm very fond, in Mike Resnick's "A Very Special Girl". (Someone should really do an anthology of Runyonesque. There was a lovely one from Maria Dahvana Headley last year, and I've read several others.)

The tone of the stories covers the usual range, from full of casual mayhem (most notably Jim C. Hines, "The Blue Corpse Corps") to sweet and warm (Gail Carriger's "Fairy Debt"); from really just playing with the tropes, but doing it well (Laura Resnick's "Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger") to more original (“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel,” by Shaenon K. Garrity; “The Queen's Reason” by Richard Parks).

The editor notes in his introduction that, in his experience, funny science fiction tends to be social satire, while funny fantasy plays with the genre tropes more. I don't know that this is necessarily true (even in this collection, there's some strong social satire in Tim Pratt's "Another End of the Empire"); I think the best of both funny SF and funny fantasy do both, and also tell a compelling story. I'm talking, of course, about Douglas Adams and, even more so, Terry Pratchett. Perhaps part of the problem is that when a story also has great character development and a well-thought-out plot we usually don't banish it to the "funny" ghetto, but consider it a fantasy or SF novel with a strong humour element. I'm thinking here of authors like Connie Willis.

All this to say that, though I didn't find any of these stories hilarious, or groundbreaking, or outstanding examples of the fantasy genre, I did enjoy them. I would like to see the standard for funny fantasy gradually ratchet up, though, and become more than having fun with genre tropes, and some, though by no means all, of the stories in this collection do attempt that.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Review: Year's Best SF

Year's Best SF Year's Best SF by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first of a distinguished series. While I enjoyed most of the stories, now that I sit down to write the review I realise that I don't remember many of them, and I only finished it the other day.

The novella Hot Times in Magma City by Robert Silverberg is one of the memorable ones. While the premise is unlikely - people in a recovery program acting as emergency responders, as part of their community service in a Los Angeles wracked with volcanic activity - it's a powerful story. Told from the viewpoint of the group's leader, it shows the addicts trying to pull themselves together as they meet the challenges of their task, and more or less succeeding.

"Downloading Midnight", by William Browning Spencer, an author I haven't encountered before as far as I remember, is a cyberpunk novelette with a noir feel. It suffers from one of the usual issues with cyberpunk - the difficulty of explaining why people in cyberspace are in any actual danger - but manages to handwave it adequately and tell a good human story.

"Coming of Age in Karhide", by Ursula K. Le Guin, is the only one in the volume I remember reading before (in the author's collected short fiction, I think). It's one of her mind-stretching ones, set in the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness (where people periodically change gender), and very much a "this is what it's like to grow up in this setting" piece rather than a strongly plotted, linear story. Such is Le Guin's mastery of style and ability to convey feeling that it works anyway.

The remaining story in the volume that I can remember without looking at the book is the novella The Ziggurat, by Gene Wolfe. I'm on record as saying that I seldom understand or like Wolfe's stories, but maybe I'm getting used to them; I didn't hate this, and I followed it pretty well. The problem I have with Wolfe, though, is that his characters always seem alienated from their emotions, and while they will act from emotional reasons, they never seem to express emotions clearly or have emotional self-insight. Also, their actions sometimes seem alien and creepy, partly because of this emotional disconnect; violence comes as if out of nowhere, or, as here, a man decides, seemingly unilaterally, that he and a woman who has been his enemy are going to have a relationship, despite the earlier death-dealing violence between her group and his. It's as if all his characters are somewhere on the autism spectrum, or as if I am (which I'm not) whenever I read a Wolfe story.

Since I picked this up for 99c, I wasn't disappointed, but later volumes had a higher proportion of memorable stories.

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Monday, 11 April 2016

Review: The Indestructibles

The Indestructibles The Indestructibles by Matthew Phillion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If this had been well edited, it would have got a fourth star and I probably would have bought the sequel. It's an engaging, though by no means groundbreaking, YA supers story. But the author has a lot to learn about the mechanics of prose.

Specifically, he needs to learn:

1. Where to use, and where not to use, a comma. In particular, not to use a comma to splice together what should be two separate sentences (this happens over and over, as do various other comma issues).

2. How to use the past perfect tense when referring to something that happened prior to the "narrative moment". Every time I hit a sentence like "Billy wished Jane came to that conclusion earlier" (instead of "had come to that conclusion"), it disoriented me. This also happened frequently.

3. The difference between breaks and brakes, effected and affected, enormity and enormousness, site and sight, waved and waived, breath and breathe, fallout and falling out, definitive and definite, queue and cue, canon and cannon, held true and held firm, and (in one case each) they're and their and it's and its. Also the meaning of a few other words, such as "refuted", "guise", "corralling", "clamored", "begrudge" and "proffered", which are all used to mean something other than what those words usually mean.

4. To always use a question mark when someone is asking a question.

There are occasional missing words, and problems with verb tense or number, but I think these are just typos, not lack of knowledge of the correct way to write the sentence.

A couple of the characters were less original than I would have preferred. One was solar-powered, and after being orphaned and rescued from a crashed vehicle had been raised to be a straight arrow by a good-hearted farming couple. She could fly and was invulnerable to harm. The other had no superpowers, but had achieved everything by grim grit and determination to be better. She was an orphan, lurked in the shadows, was the member of the team nominated by their mentor to develop a plan to take the others down if they went off the rails, and was given a grapple gun and a number of other devices by one of the team's mentors. The remaining team members were more original, but those two just had too many obvious parallels to their models.

There are formatting issues, as well, with inconsistent indents for the paragraphs. All in all, it's not ready for prime time.

That's a pity, because the story itself is good, and the characters are appealing. If the issues I've mentioned above make no difference to you, or you think you won't notice them, by all means pick it up and be entertained.

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Friday, 4 March 2016

Review: Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise of this book is that writers who are primarily known as "literary" write stories which are clearly in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Now, there are several different meanings of "literary," in my mind, and they're often confused. First of all, there's "literary-the-manner-of-execution". This includes deep, complex, evolving, memorable characters; a conscious or unconscious mastery of the tools and techniques of prose, able to produce subtle and powerful effects on the reader; apt, fresh, and beautiful imagery; and structures of progressive realization, by which I mean that one thing that's happening as the story unfolds is that the character and the reader both change their perspective. (Occasionally it's just the reader.) You'll find "literary" stories, by this definition, in every genre. These elements are what often make a book or story an enduring classic, whether its outward form is a "realist" depiction of ordinary life in the author's own place and time, a spy thriller, a Western, a romance, or a fantasy quest. The stories in this volume generally meet this definition, as one would hope given the number of awards the authors have won, and the fact that so many of them teach creative writing at universities. The prose is not just competent, but thoughtful, and (unlike many genre authors) when they use a vocabulary word, it not only means what they think it means, it is exactly the right word to choose.

Then there's "literary-the-bag-of-tricks," which inexperienced writers sometimes mistake for the first one. I include here things like writing in present tense; second person; or without quotation marks for dialog. These are all techniques that have a specific effect, when used consciously and skillfully (usually one of distancing, like any technique that draws attention to itself), but some writers just use them because they've seen them in literary stories and think that's part of how you write one. This error puts me in mind of those dreadful 1980s epic fantasies, which had to consist of three thick books in which an assorted group of companions wanders all over the map in order to defeat the Dark Lord - as if those incidentals were the essential elements of Tolkien. The stories in this volume occasionally pull out such tricks, not always, to my mind, with much justification, but usually they are using the prose in a way that clearly serves the story without being obtrusive.

Finally, there's "literary-the-genre". I know that "literary" and "genre" are often opposed, but there are all kinds of reasons that's inaccurate (this book right here sets out to demonstrate as much), and there is a set of what I can only call genre expectations that mark the so-called "literary" story just as clearly as different sets mark the romance or the Western. The element that is most obvious to me - and one of the prime reasons that I don't usually read "literary" - is that just as a classic romance is structured as "meet cute, obstacles to getting together, resolve obstacles, happy ending," a "literary" story of this type is structured by (often alienated) characters experiencing a decline through helplessness into hopelessness. If you're lucky, there's a poignant moment at the end in which it's implied that something might be saved from the wreckage.

One of the characteristics of most so-called "genre" stories is that they retain an earlier structure, the structure you'll find in most pre-20th-century classic literature: Protagonist wants something, faces fit opposition, keeps trying - in the process of which the world, or the protagonist, or both are changed - and finally triumphs through courage, perseverance and hard-won skill (or fails through a tragic flaw, less commonly). That's obviously not the only way to structure a successful story, though it's the most widely used, the easiest, and, I submit, the most satisfying to most readers. Whether this is because we have been trained to feel that stories should work this way, or whether it is meeting some deeper psychological or social need, I'm not about to discuss here; it would take too long, and besides, I don't know. The important thing for me, discussing this collection now, is that it's the story structure that I personally prefer, and that most of the stories here do not follow it. They follow the literary-genre structure of a helpless decline into hopelessness that I mentioned before.

This is different, by the way, from tragedy, where the protagonist struggles and is finally defeated as much by his or her tragic flaw as by the circumstances or antagonists. I suppose you could argue that many literary-genre main characters (they're not protagonists in the literal sense) have the tragic flaw that they're alienated and don't attempt to solve their problems, but that's rather a feeble tragic flaw, in my mind.

That isn't to say that these aren't wonderful, high-impact and masterfully-written stories. They are. I'm talking here about a matter of personal taste, but also, I would suggest, a failure of imagination, and a failure to examine the assumptions of a literary culture.

This pervasive structural pessimism is in contrast to the frequent optimism of genre fiction, and I have a theory as to why. Early science fiction, in particular, was often written by engineers, whose mode of thought is to identify and solve problems through intelligently applied effort. This gave SF a basically optimistic and progressive character at its heart, which, while often questioned since (particularly by the writers who tend to be thought of as more "literary" - Bradbury, Sheckley, Delaney, Wolfe), has never been completely lost. Even postapocalyptic and dystopian SF literature, which start from a pessimistic premise, often show the protagonists struggling against the situation. The literary versions (Kafka, Orwell, Huxley) end in failure for the protagonist, of course, but the more popular versions frequently show them succeeding to some degree.

Not only SF, but fantasy started out with a basic structural optimism: a belief in nobility of character, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and the possibility of personal transformation (classically, from farm boy to king). Today, we have a countermovement in the form of grimdark fantasy, in which the protagonists lack nobility of character, make poor and often selfish choices, and usually fail to transform or triumph. The prose it's written in, though, is often beautiful, vivid, and deeply felt.

Are those our choices, then? A beautifully written nihilism, or clunky, maladroit (perhaps naive) optimism about human potential and the possibility of change? I don't think so. I believe that it's possible in the 21st century - as it clearly was in the 19th - to write beautifully and movingly about protagonists who struggle nobly for the right and triumph through adversity - though our understanding of "the right" has hopefully evolved beyond the feudal/colonial status quo - and, in so doing, take the reader to new realizations about themselves, the world, and the human condition. I'd love to see the authors from this collection take on that project. There are authors who are doing it; Max Gladstone (at his best) and Ann Leckie spring immediately to mind, from the "genre" side. Elizabeth Bear, while a more obviously "genre" author than the other two, is writing genre so well that it's hard to argue against its literary status. The late Terry Pratchett was often, in his own words, "accused of literature," and his humane, hopeful satires certainly check all the boxes I've mentioned. There are plenty of others.

Please note, I'm not saying "don't ever write any story that shows the decline of a character through helplessness to hopelessness; that's wrong". It's one mode of writing. It's not one I like, but I acknowledge great work being done in that mode. All I'm saying is that perhaps it (like the protagonist-struggles-to-triumph story, yes) could do with being changed up from time to time, and that leaving it unquestioned and unexamined as if it was the inevitable structure for a literary story leaves literary fiction in a place where it isn't everything it could be (and isn't winning a wide audience, either, which I imagine at least some literary writers care about).

Returning to this specific collection, a couple more things to note. One is that I have a suspicion so strong as to amount to a certainty that the word "Negro" (always capitalised) has been substituted, in two of the stories, for a slightly different word that the author originally wrote, and which would be more authentic to the voice of those stories. The other is that the concern genre people sometimes express about "literary" writers attempting SFF - that they will, out of ignorance of the genre's history, come up with a story that was already a cliche in the 1950s - isn't borne out here. I have, I would say, a better than average knowledge of the SFF field, though obviously I haven't read every classic story, and all of these treatments, even of common and well-worn tropes, seemed fresh and original to me.

So, were there stories I particularly liked or disliked? There were. There were some that I was beginning to like, until they stopped abruptly; sometimes the stopping points felt like we'd reached the end of Chapter 1 (but there was no Chapter 2) - I'm thinking of "Monstro" by Junot Diaz here - but sometimes they were just sudden stops, as in "Conrad Loomis & the Clothes Ray" by Amiri Baraka. There were some I loved for the perfection of their voice, like "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" by Robert Olen Butler. It takes tremendous skill to do the voice of an uneducated, naive person who simultaneously has and lacks insight (that's why Huckleberry Finn is such a classic), and this story pulls it off brilliantly.

I thought the self-involved protagonist of "We Are the Olfanauts" by Deji Bruce Olukotun was excellently done. The slight hopefulness-amid-the-wreckage at the end of "LIMBs" by Julia Elliott was a fitting cap to a story that beautifully explored the regaining of a life's memories from dementia. "Lambing Season," by Molly Gloss, was a moving and unusual first-contact story. "Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated" by W.P. Kinsella takes first contact from the other side, and does it effectively, though I thought the voice of the narrator was a bit too fluent with what, to him, would have been an alien culture.

I recently watched several short videos on writing by George Saunders, so I was interested to read his story, "Escape from Spiderhead". Although the "hopeful" ending involved a particularly horrible suicide, and the milieu of the story was Kafkaesque, there was a great depth of humanity to the protagonist.

I was disappointed with "A Precursor of the Cinema," by Steven Millhauser, having read his story "The Barnum Museum" in The Secret History of Fantasy and been impressed by how he pulled off a pure "milieu" story with only one named character, who doesn't do anything, and no plot - and yet made it interesting. The story in this volume, by contrast, attempts to imitate a somewhat dull academic history, and succeeds all too well. The opening story, "Portal," by J. Robert Lennon, is a textbook example of what I complained about at length above: a story in which an encounter with the wonderful doesn't help, doesn't transform anyone's life, doesn't halt the decline through helplessness to hopelessness as a family falls apart in, frankly, stereotypical ways.

So, do I wish that the Usual Literary Structure wasn't so prevalent in this collection? Absolutely. Did I admire, and occasionally enjoy, the stories in any case? Yes.

I received a copy from NetGalley for review.

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Thursday, 25 February 2016

Review: Dreams of Distant Shores

Dreams of Distant Shores Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every now and then you'll see a fantasy writer go on about how magic has to have rules - rules that the reader knows about in advance. Otherwise, the argument goes, the author can just cheat by using magic to resolve the problem, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

Well, that's one approach to magic. It assumes, among other things, that the main characters have the magic, and that they're setting out to solve a problem - neither of which is necessarily the case. This is why Patricia McKillip (and many other authors, mainly, but not exclusively, those writing before the 1970s commercial fantasy boom) can get away with magic that isn't like that.

In McKillip, the magic isn't what it needs to be to have the plot work; it's what it needs to be to have the poetry work. Usually, the protagonists aren't in control of it. They're experiencing its effects more than they're using its effects. They're not necessarily solving a problem, either, so much as coming to a realization, and for this, magic that doesn't have fixed boundaries works perfectly fine.

I will say that this approach tends to work better for me at shorter lengths. I didn't enjoy the novella in this volume (Something Rich and Strange) as much as the shorter pieces, and I think it was because the characters didn't have a clear goal and clear steps to take in order to strive towards it. I missed that structuring element, as I hadn't with the shorter stories. Still, Something Rich and Strange did give me my favourite of many fine moments in the collection: "I don't know how to bargain for Jonah. I don't know how to say, you can have this for him, but not this. I don't know what he's not worth because right now he's costing me everything." And there you have the book in a nutshell, and the reason that rules and limitations on the magic would simply be wrong: for the stories to be emotionally all-in, for the characters to reach the realizations they reach, the magic has to be unrestrained, wild, not circumscribed or calculated.

The opening story, "Weird," does something wonderful with the in medius res approach: a couple are forted up in a bathroom (a nice one), with supplies consisting of a luxurious picnic, while outside terrible noises imply that something is dreadfully wrong. Their conversation consists of the man asking the woman what's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to her - and she doesn't lead with "this". If that isn't guaranteed to keep you reading, I don't know what's wrong with you.

"Mer" is a prime example of magic without rules or restraints. A nameless witch, apparently immortal or very long-lived, transforms into various shapes as the story requires. It isn't the witch's story, though, but the story of ordinary people who encounter her and are vexed and challenged and changed by the experience.

"The Gorgon in the Cupboard" is set among Victorian artists and their models, and the magic is more a way of pushing events along and creating reflection on them than it is the core of the story. The core of the story is a woman who's been treated badly, and is now being treated kindly; who was the model for Persephone, and is now the model for Medusa. Alongside that runs a theme of the artist and his love for a "goddess," the wife of his mentor, and how he comes to see her, and his own model, as human. It's intricate and beautiful and draws power from myths while, at the same time, questioning a mythological view of the world.

"Which Witch" is a music/magic story, which for me are hard to pull off, partly because it's too easy to lean on poetic descriptions that don't really convey the experience of listening to music, and then having the magic arbitrarily happen while the audience is distracted. That's not a trap McKillip falls into (she's too experienced for that). In this case, the protagonist does have magic, but she doesn't know exactly what it can do, and when it activates she still has to exercise love and courage to battle on behalf of her familiar.

"Edith and Henry Go Motoring" is another very English period piece (like "Gorgon"), with none of the horrible wrong notes that American writers so often hit when they attempt to write about English people in England. It involves a psychological journey for the main characters in the guise of a physical journey.

"Alien" is, I suppose, technically SF, but only because the narrator's grandmother has seen aliens rather than Fae. Or has she? The story is about the response of a family to a beloved elder's unlikely claim of an experience, and the relationships are where the emphasis lies.

Something Rich and Strange I've already said a little about. It's full of the magic of the sea, with a sometimes heavy-handed ecological message (still, doesn't it need to be?). The main characters spend most of the time wandering lost and confused (literally or figuratively), ill-equipped to counter the moves of ocean gods. Though I felt it was overlong, it still had power and beauty.

McKillip closes with a reflection on "Writing High Fantasy," a kind of manifesto in which she declares that simply tromping through the tropes is not enough - that the challenge she chooses is to take the trappings of high fantasy and twist them just enough to be interesting. She offers examples from her novels.

In an afterword, Peter S. Beagle celebrates McKillip's genius, from his perspective as someone who knows her personally and writes in the same genre. He claims, I'm sure genuinely, to be jealous, and that he couldn't write some of these stories as well as she has done (he goes through personal reactions to each one of them). It's an enjoyable close to the book.

Overall, this is a fine collection of a rare type of story, the mythopoeic kind of fantasy that evokes wonder and shows us complex human people undergoing realizations about themselves that shake them to the core of their identities.

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Monday, 22 February 2016

Review: The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2 The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2 by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Early," in this context, means the 1950s, and here are much the same concerns and ideas as you'll find in, say, Sheckley: consumerism, the Cold War--memorably mashed together in one story, in which social pressure makes everyone into nuclear doomsday preppers, because fear of your family's destruction has proved the best way to stimulate the economy--commuting from the suburbs to a job you hate, working with technology you don't understand. Women are housewives or secretaries (even in the stories set in the future), and are not protagonists. Because this is PKD, there's also a strong thread running through all of this of uncertainty about one's identity or what is real. In the best stories, this culminates in a powerful moment of existential horror at the end.

A number of successful Hollywood movies have been based on PKD's stories, but not on these ones, which are so much of their time that they wouldn't translate well into another decade. That isn't to say they're bad stories. Some of them are excellent. What they are, though, is limited by the viewpoint of their time, and littered with unexamined assumptions about that time--most of which would come up for examination in the 1960s, by PKD and other SF writers.

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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review: Insistence of Vision: Stories

Insistence of Vision: Stories Insistence of Vision: Stories by David Brin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Insistence of vision" describes David Brin well - he's a contrarian and a controversialist, vigorous in his promotion of his vision of the world (and of himself, I might add). I assume the title also references the phenomenon of "persistence of vision", and possibly the famous John Varley story by that name. In Varley's story, a drifter encounters a community of people who are deaf and blind and must adapt his perceptions to their world; in Brin's, augmented reality creates artificial deafness and blindness to other people's existence.

I'd read a couple of Brin's novels and enjoyed them, and more recently one of his short stories -which I thought was OK, if a bit handwavy in places - and I follow his rants on Google+, so when this came up on Netgalley I asked for a review copy.

Brin's fiction tends towards hard SF, as befits a scientist, and this can sometimes mean that the proportion of science to fiction is higher than I prefer. Like much hard SF, Brin's fiction is often about ideas more than it is about people (something he freely admits in his commentary on some of the stories). The emphasis therefore becomes delineating and (at length) explaining the world, more than developing the characters. There are exceptions, such as the story of Venusian colonists in this volume, which made it into a Year's Best anthology. The characters are still not deep, but their struggle is much more front-and-centre than the worldbuilding, and that's to the story's advantage. At the other end of the spectrum, another story is filled with the biology of life stages, and very short on characterisation or plot.

As in his nonfiction, Brin's fiction has an unfortunate tendency to employ the exclamation mark when it is only Brin, the narrator, who is exclaiming (not a character in dialog) - an old-fashioned style of author intrusion. He also falls prey, in this unedited, pre-release version, to the occasional homonym error, "let's eat grandma" omitted comma, or misplaced apostrophe. He hyphenates phrases which ought not to be hyphenated, and places commas where they have no business being (between a number and a following adjective, for example). I hope a good copy editor will remove most of these tics and stumbles before publication.

Several of the stories here are collaborations with Gregory Benford, and there's a clear contrast in the style: much smoother and more fluent, highlighting how clunky Brin's normal prose sounds.

His ideas are interesting, though, and although this is far from the best fiction I've read lately, Brin's thinking is often thought-provoking, and this makes the book worthwhile.

A number of different possible futures are explored here. Some are only touched on for a single story that plays with one idea; others are more fully realised, such as the several stories in which the alien Coss have invaded and taken over the solar system, reducing humans to servitude. I was also delighted to find a longer story set in the continuity of his popular Uplift universe, and featuring enhanced dolphins. Brin does alien perspectives well (perhaps it's part of his contrarian outlook on life), and the story also highlights an important philosophical question; it's Brin at, I think, his best, and certainly his most appealing.

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