Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Dogs of War

Posted: August 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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dogs-of-war-16By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog.

He’s also a 7 foot tall canine/human hybrid killing machine. A bioform bred for war by a private security firm, he leads a multiform combat team that also includes Honey, a heavy weapons toting bear, Dragon, a serpentine infiltrator come sniper, and Bees, a distributed intelligence in the form of, well, a swarm of bees.

Loyal to his Master and his inbuilt hierarchies, Rex just wants to be a good dog and fight Master’s enemies, but when he and his comrades are deployed in Mexico to battle insurgents, the lines between friend and foe blur, and when his Master is charged as a war criminal, Rex’s whole existence is up for grabs. Are he and the other bioforms mere things, or are they sentient creatures worthy of rights?

*****

If you read my review of Children of Time you’ll see I absolutely loved it (still the best book I’ve read in years) but this left me with something of an odd conundrum, on the one hand it encouraged me to seek out more from Tchaikovsky, but it did make me worry that whatever I read next wouldn’t be as good as Children of Time.

Well if I’m being honest Dogs of War isn’t as good as Children of Time, the good news is that it’s still an enjoyable read.

On the surface it’s a very different kind of book, less expansive, and a much leaner read, and yet there are similarities. Again Tchaikovsky excels in writing sentient, non-human characters, and where Dogs of War works best is in the shape of its central character, Rex, who feels completely three dimensional, and Tchaikovsky never feels the need to fully anthropomorphise the character. Rex isn’t human, and Tchaikovsky never cheats the reader by pretending he is, yet still makes him a character we can empathise with.

And you have to applaud the sheer chutzpa of making your lead characters a sentient dogman, a surprisingly eloquent bear, a lazy reptile and an intelligent swarm of bees! Really, you’ve never read anything like it, and the sheer imagination of show here’s is amazing.

It isn’t perfect, after a strong start the middle portion of the book feels somewhat disjointed and meanders a little before the pace and the plot pick up again, and given there are so many big ideas at play here (sentience, distributed intelligence, cloning, private security firms doing governmental dirty work etc.) at times I wanted it to become more epic in scope, but then again we’d have lost the intimacy we have with Rex and the other characters if the author had gone down that route, so swings and roundabouts and all that!

All in all a though provoking and enjoyable read.

Rex is a good dog, and this is a good book!

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US: Buy for just $2.58

It’s an anthology of tales, each of which relates to time in some fashion. From countdowns and deadlines, to travelling through time itself, there’s something for everyone. Here’s more detail on each of the ten stories inside…

Do the Trains Run on Time?

An England that could be today, could be tomorrow, or could even be yesterday, has been invaded by a faceless, implacable enemy, and for a lucky few the only escape is via refugee train, but time is running out for one group of evacuees waiting at a lonely railway station when they find themselves menaced by a monstrous creature.

Irreconcilable Distances

Long distance relationships can be challenging, but as humanity heads for the stars things will only get harder!

The Delicate Art of Deep Space Negotiation

When a labour dispute on a far flung mining colony threatens to bankrupt a galaxy spanning corporation, one senior executive embarks on a desperate mission to resolve the issues, but time is of the essence.

Tempus Stultitia

When a student takes radical action to get a good grade, he imagines he’s thought of everything, but he may have made a very big mistake.

Folding Back the Years.

The place is London, the year is 1970, and Soviet backed forces are on the verge of taking the city. As the evacuation begins only one man knows that this isn’t how things were supposed to be…

Temp Agency

It’s the ultimate part time job, but is there a catch?

Mr Dweeb Comes to Town

The young man who wanders into a bar on a distant planet looks like an easy target for local thugs, but why does he keep checking his watch?

The Astronaut’s Son

Growing up is hard enough without your dad being an astronaut who’s aging slower than you are.

Habeas Corpus 

All new technologies get misused, and time travel is no different as some disreputable academics plan a very unique heist.

Ulrik Must Die!

It is another place, another time. Lady Maryam is far from home and heavily pregnant, with only her wits to rely on she must fight to ensure not only her own future, but the future of her unborn child. One thing is clear, for them to survive, Ulrik must die!

Embers of War

Posted: June 11, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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30748899By Gareth L Powell

It’s the future, and a devastating conflict known as the Archipelago War is bought to a shuddering conclusion by a heinous war crime that devastates large swathes of a planet. One of the perpetrators of this attack, albeit under orders, is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. In the aftermath of the conflict Trouble Dog develops a conscience and resigns her commission, signing on with the noble, if underfunded, House of Reclamation, an organisation whose purpose is to provide aid and rescue to those in distress. The ship has a minimal crew and is captained by Sal Konstanz who was on the opposite side during the war.

After a tragedy, Sal imagines she might lose her captaincy, but when a pleasure liner is attacked in a mysterious solar system known as the gallery—where an alien intelligence carved planets into giant sculptures—the Trouble Dog is the only ship that can speed to its rescue in time.

Meanwhile, on a distant jungle world Ashton Childe, a burned-out spy, is given new orders. He’s to also make his way to the Gallery, and he’s to rescue one particular passenger from the downed liner, the renowned poet Ona Sudak.

Sudak isn’t quite who she appears to be however, and the Trouble Dog is heading towards more danger than she realises, which given this particular dog has had most of her fangs removed, could mean trouble!

There’s some ship to ship combat towards the end of this book that’s almost worth the cover price alone. It’s like the very best Star Trek battle transferred onto the page. Beyond this there’s a lot else to enjoy here, though this isn’t a perfect book by any means.

Powell’s world building feels a little sparse at times, but on the whole he does a good job of imagining a conceivable universe. I’m sure people might say it feels a bit derivative, but while sentient starships are nothing new, I liked the idea of a ship with a conscience, a ship that regrets what she was ordered to do and wants to make amends, and I loved the fact that, despite her noble aspirations, this is a ship that still enjoys a good fight!

If I had a problem with the book then it’s the use of first person, or more specifically the use of first person to cover multiple points of view. This would be fine but, despite Powell’s obvious talent as a writer, too often it was hard to tell one voice apart from another, and if it wasn’t for the handy aide memoir that each chapter is named for the character, it would have taken a while to determine which character’s POV we were with at any given time, especially once most of the characters are on board (or are!) Trouble Dog. Ironically the one character whose chapters do feel different is the alien engineer Nod, though it’s chapters are kinda superfluous, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

Yes it’s a tad lightweight in tone, never quite managing to hit the epic sweep it clearly wants to, but it was a fun read, with an interesting central conceit, and Powell writes well, especially scenes of combat, and it’s certainly a way better sci-fi novel than the last one I read.

So long as you don’t go in expecting Banks or Reynolds this is an enjoyable book, I’m certainly on board for any sequels and I’d really like to see Trouble Dog get into a few more scraps!

Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo and Paul Bettany.

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Chewie had an awful feeling Han’s coat might have once been a relative.

On the planet Corellia Han (Ehrenreich) is part of a gang of youths forced into crime by an evil alien. He dreams of being a pilot however, and of escaping Corellia with his lover Qi’ra (Clarke) He manages to escape, but has to leave Qi’ra behind. Determined to make enough money that he can buy a ship and come back to rescue Qi’ra, Han enlists in the Imperial navy, imagining they’ll train him to be a pilot. Instead he winds up in the infantry where his path crosses that of a veteran criminal named Tobias Beckett (Harrelson), a somewhat disgruntled Wookie and a debonair gambler named Lando Calrissian who owns an incredibly fast ship…

In order to get vicious gangster Dryden Voss (Bettany) off their backs, Han and his newfound cohorts must pull off a daring robbery, and if successful Han might get enough money to buy his own ship, and finally be able to rescue Qi’ra from a life of crime, but in this Universe can things ever go to plan?

Do you remember that bit at the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where young Indy (played by River Phoenix) has his first adventure and every aspect of his adult personality is acquired in ten minutes (hat, whip, snakes, scar)? Well imagine that sequence stretched out for two hours and you have a pretty good idea what Solo: A Star Wars Story is like, and your enjoyment may, in many respects, depend on how you feel about this. Me, I found it interesting in places, dull in others, but for the most part downright painful. This is a film that’s so on the nose at times as to be wince inducing.

It falls into the trap of too many prequel/origin stories of feeling it has to explain every aspect of Han’s personality, even things that didn’t really need explaining (did you ever sit and ponder “I wonder why he’s called Han Solo?” No? Me neither!)

So be prepared for a list to be checked off. Meet Chewie, check. Meet Lando, check. Get iconic blaster, check. Get Falcon, check. Shoot first, check? And so on and so forth…

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Han and Chewie having way more fun than I was…

It could have worked, with a better script and, it has to be said, with a better Han. By all accounts they saw over 3000 people, which makes the decision to cast Ehrenreich all the stranger, because whilst he tries, he never comes anywhere near the natural cocky cool of Harrison Ford. Sure, this Han is younger, less sure of himself, more of a nice guy, but really the only link between the two men is the grin. There’s a difference between cocky and smug however, and the young man slips too often into the latter while Ford was effortlessly the former. It’s not that I think anyone is irreplaceable (Chris Pine proves this with his top draw Kirk performance), but I think they could have done better, perhaps with someone who looked less physically similar, but could play the role better. It’s also painfully obviously that Ehrenreich is a fair bit shorter than Ford.

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“Aren’t you a little short for a Han?”

I hope his height wasn’t the reason they cast the diminutive Emilia Clarke, just to make him look taller? Clarke is a strange one. As Daenerys on Game of Thrones she’s phenomenal, yet in other thing I’ve seen her in she’s struggled, and this is no exception. She never convinces as a young woman who’s had to do terrible things to survive. I didn’t detect much chemistry between her and Ehrenreich either.

Surrounding a weaker or inexperienced actor with better performers can work to a film’s advantage (take On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) but it can also backfire, which it does here really, because many of the supporting characters are, it pains me to say, way cooler than Han.

fpcztz5shdvxlzthxzhzAs Beckett Harrelson is effortlessly more interesting than Han, with his world-weary attitude and fancy blaster work, and more than once I wish I was watching a film centred on him and his partner Val (Thandie Newton, excellent in a minor role).

Donald Glover isn’t a perfect fit for Lando, and perhaps plays it a trifle too broad at times, but he makes up for any shortcomings with the kind of charisma I wish Ehrenreich had, and you really have to admire the man’s cape work.

Bettany is superb as the villain of the piece, and his performance is even better once you realise he was parachuted in at the last minute to replace the original actor who couldn’t commit to the reshoots. As Chewie Suotamo does a good job, and Waller-Bridge threatens to steal the film at times with her pithy one liners as droid L-3, but even this feel forced, and feels too much like they were trying to emulate K3 from Rogue One.

We’ll never know what Lord and Miller’s original version would have been like, maybe it would have been too comedic, maybe it would have been terrible, but I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have at least had more verve to it, because in the end part of Solo’s problem is that it plays it too safe. Howard does a solid, if uninspiring job directing, and it would be wrong to suggest some of the set pieces aren’t decent, and late on there’s some neat double and triple crosses but, to paraphrase Princess Leia, while Solo does have it’s moments, it doesn’t have nearly enough of them.

Not so much Solo as So-So.

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“Can I interest you in an honest game of chance?”

A Quiet Place

Posted: April 17, 2018 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe

A QUIET PLACE

One downside to this film, you’ll see people doing this a lot!

In the future humanity has been almost wiped out by the appearance of a deadly species of predators that, although blind, have incredibly sensitive hearing. Lee Abbott (Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Blunt) along with their children have survived by embracing a near silent existence, communicating mainly through American sign language which they learned because their daughter Regan (Simmonds) is deaf.

After an early encounter with a creature the family set up home in a remote farmhouse, doing everything they can to stay safe by being as quiet as possible, but their survival is threatened by the fact that Evelyn is pregnant, and about to give birth any day. The family make plans to mask the sound of the impending birth, and the noise the baby will make, but stress is affecting each member of the family, especially Regan and one of her brothers, Marcus (Jupe) and all it takes is one inadvertent loud noise to draw the lethal hunters towards the family…

image3.1520777936

“Look we can’t get you an X-Box so stop asking!”

In many ways horror shares traits with comedy. Scaring or amusing people is equally hard. In this respect good horror films, like good comedies, are rare.

A Quiet Place is a good horror film.

When I first saw the trailer I wasn’t too impressed, but following on from a lot of positive word of mouth I decided to watch this and I’m so glad I did.

A Quiet Place is a short sharp shock of a film, with a refreshingly lean run time, an original script that doesn’t overload the audience, inventive direction and sound design and great acting from a small cast, this is a film that belies its minimal budget and, much like last year’s Get Out, kinda came out of nowhere.

Kudos must be given to Krasinski who not only directs, but also rewrote the original script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, and stars. This is a simple story, but a simple story told very well, and each choice Krasinski made feeds into a whole that is in many ways more than the sum of its parts. The decision to start the film in the middle of the action, and to end in the midst of a confrontation works perfectly, emphasising that what we’re seeing here is a snapshot of Armageddon and how one family survives it. Krasinski wields silence so effectively that the absence of sound is almost a character itself, as much as the creatures, and when I came out the world seemed impossibly loud all of a sudden (thankfully my fellow patrons were mostly quiet during the film which aided in creating the right atmosphere). This means that when noise comes it can’t help but shock, even if it isn’t the imminent arrival of one of the terrible beasties.

What’s amazing is that even in this world of silence Krasinski quiets things even more at times, and the decision to completely mute the soundtrack whenever we’re seeing things from the point of view of Regan is another spot on choice, emphasising how different the world seems to her—and in many ways she’s the most vulnerable because she can’t tell if she’s making noise, can’t tell if there’s a creature right behind her—and in the casting of a deaf actress (and Simmonds is truly phenomenal in this, essaying a frustrated teenager who isn’t only trying to fathom her place in the world as she grows up, but is having to do it with a disability and in a post-apocalyptic setting where monsters are real!) he adds and extra layer to the story. I can’t say whether this was a good onscreen portrayal of a disability, all I can say is that, to me, it felt like a very good one, and one we need to see more of.

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Don’t you just hate it when you go for a bath then realise you’ve left your clothes on?

As the father Krasinski is as good in front of the camera as he is behind it. Blunt is a great actress so its no surprise that she’s great here, and she looks truly terrified at times, yet still managed to imbue Evelyn with strength. Rounding out the cast Jupe does a good job as the younger child, who clearly wants to be brave yet who is scared to death much of the time (can’t blame him for that).

Best of all they feel like a family. Sure, Krasinski and Blunt are married, but often couples with a genuine relationship find it hard to replicate that on screen. Not so these two and they share some lovely scenes.

Krasinski’s direction is top notch, especially considering he’s relatively new to directing, and given he freely admits he’s never been a big horror buff. Maybe that distance allows a new perspective? Not that this is a film that necessarily has anything new to say, but in Krasinski’s hands it feels fresh. Maybe it’s the use of silence, maybe the focus on character. The world building is also excellent, especially given how short the film is, but the family home feels real, care has been taken to come up with solutions to the problem of how you raise the alarm when you can’t make a noise, for example, and note the elegance with which Krasinski makes it clear there are multiple other communities of survivors, without needing more than a single extra.

Best of all is the way he creates tension; when the film enters the final third it’s a masterclass in edge of the seatness, and be warned, it features one of the most wince inducing foot related scenes since Die Hard!

There are flaws. The first act is a little slow, a certain (presumably noisy) event occurs off screen and there’s a pretty big plot hole, but none of that dented my enjoyment one iota. There are a lot of terrible horror films out there, but Krasinski shows what you can do with a limited budget if you have a great script, an inventive director and a great cast.

I’m sorry but I can’t stay quiet, I’ve got to shout from the rooftops about how good this is!

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Surely the kids will be safe in here…

Arrival

Posted: March 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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arrivalBy Ted Chiang

The first thing to note is that this isn’t a novelisation of the movie, instead it’s a repackaged anthology of stories by American science fiction writer Chiang, which does include Story of Your Life, the novella the film was adapted from, but also contains seven other stories. Given there’s only eight stories in the book I’ll talk a little about each one. Some I liked, some I was less keen on. C’est la vie…

The anthology opens with Tower of Babylon, a curious tale set in an alternate world where the titular tower was actually built. It took me a little while to get into this, it goes on a bit and it feels a tad repetitive at times (but this might have been intentional to serve as a metaphor for the time taken to climb the tower) and the ending, where it turns out cosmology functions differently in this universe, left me cold, but Chiang’s world building inside the tower that’s so huge it takes a year to climb is certainly evocative, and it’s original if nothing else.

Next up is Understand, where a man given a revolutionary drug to regenerate brain tissue following an accident finds his intelligence increasing at an exponential rate. I liked this, especially the fact that the protagonist starts to become quite alien in his interactions with the rest of humanity, and despite his superior intellect he doesn’t seem to really do anything with it. It reminded me a lot of the film Lucy, which the story obviously predates. Only the ending lets this down.

Division by Zero is something I just couldn’t get my head around, as a genius mathematician finds her mind unravelling when she discovers a fundamental flaw at the heart of mathematics. It left me a trifle cold if I’m honest.

Story of Your Life is probably the best tale in the book, and you can see why someone in Hollywood decided this would make a great science fiction movie. Chiang’s story delves more into the nature of time, or more specifically the perception of time, and explains why the Heptapods see things so differently. There’s a lot of science here, and even some diagrams, yet Chiang never lost me and there remains an emotional core to the story that’s mirrored in the film, and the end did bring a lump to my throat.

Seventy-Two Letters is another tale bordering on fantasy, set in an alternate Victorian England where golems are an everyday part of life, each bought into existence by the writing of names, each of which can command a golem to do different things. That’s where the 72 letters of the title come from. There’s a hefty dash of Jewish mythology here, but Chiang grounds it. Much like Tower of Babylon this is a universe where the natural laws we are used to don’t function the same, only here it’s the basis of biology, and specifically reproduction, that’s different. It’s certainly inventive but I think Chiang asked more of a leap of faith than I was prepared to give it. Maybe if I’d just gone with it I’d have enjoyed it more.

The Evolution of Human Science is a short sharp tale positing how learning would look in a world where super intelligence existed. It’s ok but it’s a trifle too short to really grab you.

Hell is the Absence of God is another alternate Earth story, this time one where Angelic visitations are commonplace, but where they’re perceived almost like natural disasters, and each time an Angel manifests on Earth destruction is wrought in the immediate vicinity and as many people are likely to be injured or killed as are those who are healed by the Angel’s power. It’s a very interesting story around faith, and I loved the idea of Angel’s being perceived, well, as an act of God, with no rhyme or reason sometimes to who they kill and who they save. Infuriatingly yet again it’s the ending that lets it down.

The final story is perhaps my second favourite. Liking What You See: A Documentary posits an intriguing near future where a science known as Calliagnosia can affect your perception so that you no longer recognise if someone is aesthetically beautiful. The story is told in epistolary form, in interviews with people on both sides of the argument. It’s an interesting and very even handed take on something that could change humanity, perhaps for the better, perhaps not, and Chiang is smart enough to leave the interpretation to the reader.

Over all Chiang seems to be an incredibly imaginative writer, coming up with radical and inventive ideas. Whilst these are universally intriguing, the execution is variable. At times he pitches the science at a level I could understand, at times it goes over my head. Several of his more fantastical tales require a suspension of disbelief and I found this harder to undertake in some stories than others.

In addition his prose is a little too academic and anaemic at times. It isn’t that he doesn’t weave emotion into his stories, just that at times is writing felt a little dry, to me.

Still I did enjoy the book and wouldn’t rule out reading more of his stories in future, though I can’t say I feel the urge to suddenly rush out and buy everything he’s ever written!

isbn9781473222687.jpgBy Philip K. Dick

In the future (ok it’s 1992 but it was the future when this was written, ok) and World War Terminus has devastated much of the Earth. With the atmosphere polluted by radiation mass emigration to off-world colonies has begun, with the human emigres incentivised by the presence of humanoid robots (or Andys as they’re known) to provide slave labour and satisfy humanity’s every whim. Those left behind on Earth struggle to survive, taking solace in the ability to dial moods, and to connect with the Christlike figure of Wilber Mercer via the use of empathy boxes. In this world bereft of so much flora and fauna the greatest status symbol you can possess is an animal, preferably a real one but if not an android animal will do.

In San Francisco Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter employed to hunt down and retire (a polite term for kill) andys that have gone rogue. When six highly advanced Nexus-6 andys arrive on Earth, having violently escaped Mars, Deckard is given the task of tracking them down. But few bounty hunters have ever retired six replicants in a single day, and never the Nexus-6 models, andys built by the Rosen Association that are so advanced that even Deckard’s Voight-Kampff empathy test might not pick them up…

 

As a fan of Blade Runner, it’s hard not to be interested in the source material. I had read this before, but that was many, many years ago. To be honest I didn’t much enjoy it first time around but, having picked up a copy free with the Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049, I thought I might give it another go.

Whilst I still wouldn’t call it a great novel, I have to admit that I enjoyed it more second time around, and it made a lot more sense to me. There are many parts of the book that ended up in the film, Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachel is word for word in places, but in many other respects this is a very different beast.

For starters the term Blade Runner is never used, Deckard is merely a bounty hunter, and Replicant isn’t used either. It’s hard to imagine how the term Blade Runner first sounded, because now its iconic, but it’s hard to say that using the term replicant isn’t a huge improvement on andy!

Whilst animals—real and fake—play their part in the film, their importance isn’t highlighted as much as here, and their existence in both organic and artificial form feeds into Dick’s wider story about empathy. Deckard feels empathy towards animals, and even his robot sheep, yet he, along with everyone else, sees no contradiction in fawning over animals yet having no empathy for humanoid robots, and one of the major strands of the book is Deckard’s growing empathy towards the Nexus-6s he’s hunting.

Another change is that here Deckard is married, to a woman named Iran with whom he has a fractious relationship, although Rachel is still involved in the mix, only here she’s Rachel Rosen; there’s no Tyrell Corporation, only the Rosen Association (interesting side note, in 1975 an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker featured a killer robot built by the Tyrell Institute!)

In many ways Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a product of its time; whilst there are some female characters of note, in Deckard’s world they’re mainly secretaries rather than cops or bounty hunters, and even the female andys have feminine roles. Dick’s world building is at times really good, and at others quite laughable (men have to wear lead lined codpieces because of all of the radiation.).

The prose is variable. At times it’s quite wonderful, and at others its dreadfully clunky. There’s a palpable lack of tension at times too. Many of the Nexus-6s become quite passive when they’re about to be retired, resigned to their fate—no beating at the hands of Leon or being hunted by a deranged Rutger Hauer here—and it does tend to suck the drama out of things, but then I guess Dick was more interested in meditating on empathy than producing a thrilling detective novel.

For a story about empathy the book still feels a trifle lifeless to me, and too often it wanders off down dead ends to do with Mercerism when what you really want is for Deckard to go andy hunting, but it’s surprising how much of this does translate to the film, even down to the notion that Deckard might be an andy himself (though this strand is resolved rather than being left open as it is in the film) and a trip to a mysterious alternative police precinct existing side by side with Deckard’s is a wonderful mind-bender of a plot twist.

It’s a tad old fashioned and clunky, but this is a more interesting book than I once thought, even if its main significance is as the basis for a film I love way more than I could ever love the book.