Archive for January, 2013

Demolished Man: Closing Thoughts

It’s the 31st of January, which means the first month of the Great Hugo Read comes to a close. I wanted to talk about one last element of The Demolished Man then present some closing thoughts.

Espers, man. Espers. Telepathy has emerged by the time of The Demolished Man, and these Espers have found their places in society as human resources personnel, psychiatrists, cops, or any number of jobs where reading someone’s mind would put one at a distinct advantage. They’ve also formed a clearly eugenic sub-culture within the society. Want to get anywhere in the Esper guild? You better be married to an Esper and making little Esper babies. Whenever eugenics work their way into a story, I get a creepy sensation. more so when it’s introduced very casually, not called out by name, just sitting there being chill about itself. This is probably why I had such a difficult time pulling out the protagonist in the story.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair. Lincoln Powell isn’t entirely interested in the eugenics part of the guild, even though it’s keeping him from higher office. He’s been paired up with a perfectly nice girl, but he’s not interested in marrying a fellow Esper just for the sake of marrying a fellow Esper. That he falls in love with a girl who happens to have unrealized, latent telepathic abilities by the end of the book is his little win. Sure, he solves the case, but he’s also looking for some normalcy in his own life and control over his own destiny. Upgrading from a woman he’s not interested in marrying to one he is? That’s a plus.

Just so long as you ignore him basically raising her from infancy over the course of a week. Yeah, there are some issues in there one has to ignore to be fully happy for Lincoln and his ascendance within the Esper eugenics club.

At a broader level, telepathy in The Demolished Man is handled as well as I’ve seen in any book. It’s tougher than one might think, and it’s not a matter of just shifting dialogue from quotation marks to italics. It’s an attempt to explain a sense that the reader does not possess, and further explain it entire in written words. Well, not entirely in written words. Early in the novel, Lincoln Powell throws an Esper party, a more staid affair contrasted with the nigh-orgy bacchanalian about to happen in Reich’s chapters. During this party, Bester plays around with formatting to show the Espers weaving their thoughts together, overlapping sentences, laughing when someone is left dangling by her sentence being one word too long. They play with rebuses, shaping their words. Throughout the book it’s common for images sent from one Esper to another to pepper telepathic dialogue . In short, telepathy was clearly a slightly different sense, not just talking without moving ones lips.

Some final thoughts.

It’s no great secret, I really liked this book. More so because I didn’t expect to like the early books in the Read nearly so much. I’ve read other science fiction from the era and most of it felt, well, from the era. Don’t get me wrong, there are occasional elements in The Demolished Man that feel dated, but for lack of a better word, the novel felt shockingly modern in many regards. And yes, I’m specifically choosing the word “modern” rather than “timeless.” Perhaps it’s because the book captures much of the Cyberpunk zeitgeist well before anyone considered that as its own subgenre.

I know it’s thorny, attempting to go back and pigeon-hole books into a subgenre that they predate. But Demolished Man has the ascendant corporations and stratified society that became some of the Cyberpunk hallmarks thirty years later.

The book blindsided me. It won me very early on with the Esper party and the screwed up code and it all paid off with a trippy climax as the Espers demolish Reich’s world, bit by bit. The little commentaries the book makes about violence, about greed, about excess, and about capital punishment are the things I expect out of my science fiction. This scored on just about every attempt, and I’m left with little doubt why it was picked as the first book to win the Hugo.

With no Hugo awarded in 1954, we now skip ahead to Clevention, the 1955 WorldCon, and its Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, paired with my own choice of I Am Legend. See you in mid-February as I start talking these two books.

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Eat This: Rice Cereal

rice cerealThe list of ingredients is simple. It’s mostly rice, ground into a fine powder, and enhanced with vitamin E and iron. Mix it with a little warm milk or water, just enough to turn it into a slurry. Best served on a small spoon with enamel covering.

I’m sorry, I should have specified something from the get go. This particular episode of Eat This is aimed at the 4-6 month olds in my readership. I’ve been meaning to work on broadening my readership appeal. Look for my upcoming board book Mama’s Little Automaton.

We’ve started the little bird on her first bits of solid food. The first experiment was a mashed up banana thinned out with a little milk. We were later informed by our pediatrician that this is Not Recommended, as starting children on sweet foods like bananas can make it harder to introduce foods less interesting to eat. Like grains, vegetables, and basically anything else that isn’t actually sweet. So we backed off that, and started on a daily feeding of rice cereal. We started first at a 4-to-1 milk to powder ratio, and worked our way gradually to a more 1-to-1 mix, offered to her one meal a day just before we have dinner.

For three nights now we’ve offered her a dinner of rice cereal. And for three nights now she’s slept through the night. I’m probably jinxing it, but this is now her longest stretch of through the night sleeping, previously topping out at two nights. This isn’t even pediatric sleeping through the night, defined as midnight until 5am, this is our parental definition, from her bedtime of around 9pm until at least 7am the next morning. The kind of sleeping through the night that also lets us sleep through the night, and that’s a beautiful thing indeed.

I don’t know how much it’s a coincidence, whether offering her a meal of solid food at the end of the day is getting her through the nights. However, I cannot overlook the correlation and imply causation. It fills her up better, it’s slower to digest, there’s no reason to think the rice cereal isn’t directly tied to better sleep habits.

Some other highlights since last I spoke of the little bird on the blog:

We’ve found a rather foolproof way to get her to smile, and even laugh on command. It’s a little game called “P-U Stinky Baby!” It’s a rather simple game you can play at home, and really just involves saying “P-U STINKY BABY” in as high pitched a falsetto as you can manage. To mix it up, we’ll sometimes take her to see Other Baby (that weird backwards baby that lives in the mirror) and accuse her of being the “P-U stinky baby.” That makes both of them laugh.

She shows some awareness of her name. One of my favorite places to chart her progress are the milestone charts on babycenter.com. And I don’t mean to brag or anything, but at a week shy of 5 months the little bird has mastered all of the 5 month “most kids” listing, two of the “half of kids,” and is all over two of the “advanced skills.” If she keeps up with blowing these charts out of the water, we should in the next month see her crawling and jabbering. This is all exciting, as most Ivy League universities are now so competitive that a few weeks’ head start on jabbering can only help her future merit scholarship application.

It’s hard to reconcile the little person living in our house now compared to the pink lump we brought home back in September. Every day are new adventures, and clear progress as she moves towards being a fully aware and interactive toddler.

Next time I do “Eat This” I promise an actual Eat This post rather than using the feature to trick you into reading about my baby. As a hint, it involves something in this video:

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Demolished Man: Rewarding The Reader

Standard caveat, this is writing at the end of the month so contains spoilers for this month’s book, The Demolished Man.

Can I share with you my favorite bit of The Demolished Man? Of course I can, it’s my blog. Early in the book we’re shown a code book that protagonist(?) Ben Reich uses to communicate business transactions. First, as a side note, it’s somewhat quaint that the book conjectures a future where we return to the use of telegraph-style code books for encrypting business transactions. It was written in a time before public key infrastructures and strong computer encryption, and does not appear to foresee either. I’m glad for this, because the code book led to my favorite little detail. First, the code book as outlined in the book:

QQBA PARTNERSHIP
RRCB BOTH OUR
SSDC BOTH YOUR
TTED MERGER
UUFE INTERESTS
VVGF INFORMATION
WWHG ACCEPT OFFER
XXIH GENERALLY KNOWN
YYJI SUGGEST
ZZKJ CONFIDENTIAL
AALK EQUAL
BBML CONTRACT

Using this code book, Reich sends a message:

“This one’s confidential. To Craye D’Courtney. Send–” Reich consulted the Code Book. “Send YYJI TTED RRCB UUFE AALK QQBA. Get the answer to me like rockets. Right?”

To do the hard work for you, Reich’s message decodes to “Suggest merger both our interests. Equal partnership.” Even before he sends this message, he is convinced D’Courtney will rejected it. As expected, the reply comes at the end of the chapter:

The phone chimed once and then the automatic switched on. There was a quick chatter and tape began to stutter out of the recorder. Reich strode to the desk and examined it. The message was short and deadly:

CODE TO REICH: REPLY WWHG

“WWHG. ‘Offer refused.’ Refused! REFUSED! I knew it!” Reich shouted. “All right, D’Courtney. If you won’t let it be merger then I’ll make it murder.”

See what happened there? Of course you do, because I’m drawing your attention to it. However, if you’re reading the book you have to skip back a half dozen pages to get back to the code book. It’s not shown again. The only way the reader could know that Reich has misread the code is to flip back and verify it for himself. The only clue that something is remiss is if, like me, you don’t remember any line in the code book for “REJECT OFFER.” There are several extraneous items in there, but the biggest possible red herring of all isn’t.

That aside, for the rest of the book Reich obsesses on this one element. In his chapters it is the reason for the murder of D’Courtney. He is single-minded in his quest. Which is interesting as a reader when seeing his motive is all backwards. It rewards the reader for calling the character out, for going back and seeing Reich as the unreliable narrator he is.

This little thing, so simple as to be potentially overlooked on the first read, is even how Reich comes closest to getting away with the murder.

So thank you, Demolished Man, for putting that in there for me to find, and rewarding me over the long run for finding it. Details like these are what make books more enjoyable, they’re what make rereading books possible. Miss that the first time through? You’re bound to catch it the second time, slap yourself on the forehead, and say “of course.” Those are my favorite moments in books.

Got a favorite moment from Demolished Man? Got another book that rewarded you in the same way? Leave a note.

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Demolished Man: Protagonists

With the first month of the Hugo Read winding down, I figure it’s time to actually talk about the book. The Demolished Man is the story of Ben Reich, a young plutocrat in a future dominated more by businesses than by governments, trying to get away with the murder of competitor Craye D’Courtney while being hounded by police investigator Lincoln Powell. Unless The Demolished Man is the story of Lincoln Powell, an “esper” working to pin the first premeditated murder in nearly 70 years on the boldly cocky and clearly guilty Ben Reich.

There is no question that Ben Reich and Lincoln Powell are the protagonist and antagonist of The Demolished Man. The only real question is whether the word “respectively” can be added to that description.

In the classical sense of the two terms, the protagonist is the character in the book who wants something, and whose pursuit of that goal typically, but not always, drives the plot of the story. Or, at the very least, to whom the plot happens. The antagonist is the character who stands in the way of that pursuit. Getting those out of the way, both of our main characters in The Demolished Man have clear objectives beyond the broader murder investigation plot. That is to say, while it is certainly a goal of Reich’s to get away with murder, that is just a part of a much broader goal surrounding power consolidation and wealth accumulation. Likewise, Powell certainly sees solving the mystery as a goal, but he too has broader desires to advance within the esper guild. Each stands firmly in the other’s way, and the broad goals are contradictory. If Powell succeeds, Reich will be “demolished,” a process not fully explained until the book’s denouement. If Reich succeeds, Powell will be roundly embarrassed and any future advancement within the police force or esper guild will be abruptly halted.

So the book presents us with two characters, and asks us which one we’d like to cheer for. Is our hero the sociopath businessman? It’s not unheard of, and my fondness for American Psycho prepared me for that. Or is our hero the affable bureaucrat? That’s certainly who we’re meant to cheer for in most murder mysteries. Though that’s largely because we see so little of the story from the murderer’s point of view in the typical mystery.

The Demolished Man is a reverse mystery. Like most Columbo episodes, the mystery is not “who done it” but “how will he be caught?” Unlike the typical Columbo episode, however, we don’t lead off with a murder, rather we’re shown all the planning that goes into the murder. We get to see enough of Reich’s rationale, broken as it may be (I’ll talk about this in a later post, as it’s a moment in the book I absolutely adored), and just how much work he puts into killing someone. Because it is work in this future. It’s not until midway through the first act that the murder actually happens, and by this point we’re invested in Reich’s success.

Or, at least, I was invested in Reich’s success.

Yes, I went with Reich as the protagonist. Judge me now if you will.

Powell, through this planning, is living his abnormally normal life as one of the most powerful espers on the planet. We know he’s a police investigator in a book where a murder is about to happen, so we know how he will be involved in the plot, but in these first few looks at Powell, he’s involved only with the internal esper politics and hosting fancy parties for fellow telepathics. Perhaps Powell’s distance from what I knew to be the A-plot of the story is why I sided with Reich as the protagonist. Perhaps, as Jen Brinn has often called it, I had a baby duck problem where I imprinted on the first character of agency I saw, and was willing to cheer for him no matter how morally troublesome his goals may be.

It’s the typical anti-hero problem. Can you cheer for someone who is doing all the wrong things, potentially even for the wrong reasons?

There are arguments to make on either side. And here we get a little more into spoilers, so walk away if you haven’t finished the book yet.

Do you want to cheer for the guy who gets his goals? The character who wins out in the end? Do you play lawful good characters? Then Lincoln Powell is your protagonist. By the end of the book he’s proven Reich committed the murder, discovered the motive that even Reich himself wasn’t fully aware of, and found a fellow esper to fall in love with, fulfilling the eugenic requirements of higher guild office. Rah rah, Lincoln Powell. If you want to go with the title character, give in to the baby duck imprinting, and feel sympathy when your guy loses in a rather spectacular method, join me in being bummed that Ben Reich couldn’t quite pull it off.If you’ve finished the book (or read it previously), who did you see at the protagonist? Did you even see the same duality of choice that I did? Before month’s end, I also hope to look at the use of telepathy in the book, and make some observations that probably don’t fit in full-length blog posts of their own.

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Oh Fer Two

Our first beehive failed in a spectacular way. Two hives went to war in the late afternoon, the sun catching them as they flew about the back yard. Far more bees than I’d seen in flight at once, each shining like gold. As the commotion died down, we knew we’d witnessed a robbery, and when we went into the hive we found it empty of nectar and pollen. Thus sealed the fate of Queen Victoria Queen Victoria Queen Victoria.

Our second beehive failed much more quietly. We’d combined the hives after the robbing event under advice from our mentors and several apiarist websites. We’d kept them fed with sugar water, artificial pollen, and bee candy as the weather turned colder. However, even on the balmiest of days we saw no activity from the hive, no bees wandering off to see what food they could find to add to the stores. We knew the hive was likely dead for a while. I’ve since confirmed it.

One hive failed for very obvious reasons. The other is more of a mystery. There are frames absolutely heavy with honey and concentrated sugar water. The hive just…failed. There were fewer dead bees than I expected. Some were forced out at the beginning of winter, others will flee a hive on the verge of failure. I wasn’t able to identity Reina Kickass, but I’m sure she’s there.

We picked a rough year to start beekeeping. Hives failed at an alarming rate all through the Northern Virginia region. Even in the best of years, hives fail, sometimes at up to a 50% rate. Even well-intentioned new beekeepers will often lose all their hives the first year. We’re trying not to be discouraged, especially when we see reports from far more experienced beekeepers who lost most or all of their suburban hives. We’ll clean out the hives, save what honey we can, and give it another go next year.

It’s a bummer. I’m surprised I cared nearly so much about insects, but they were our insects. They weren’t quite like a pet, they were self-sustaining, we were largely giving them a place to live. But they were still living things under our care who failed to keep living. So, yeah, perhaps I’m a little bummed about the hive failure.

On the plus side, all our neighbors who knew about the bees reported increased fruit and vegetable yields this year. And that’s what beekeeping is about: helping the pollinators. And, eventually, making mead.

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Great Hugo Read: January 2012 Midway

It’s the 15th of the month, which is when I’m going to start doing little reminder posts about the Great Hugo Read.

I’ve finished The Demolished Man. I’m going to start talking about it more in-depth over the next two weeks, especially my uncertainty about who to consider the protagonist and antagonist and how the book handles presenting psychics in a print medium.

Looking ahead to February, on tap is the 1955 Hugo Winner They’d Rather Be Right aka The Forever Machine. I keep prefacing this book as the weakest Hugo winner, which is an unfair way to approach the reading, potentially prejudicing people against the book. If you’re interested in following along into this book, you might want to get a copy squared away. They are surprisingly expensive for such slim volumes, as the book has spent long periods of time out of print but has some demand from folks like me trying to read all the Hugo winners. Here’s your availability information:

February will also inaugurate the secondary reads. As I’ve said before, these will be optional books meant to either prep for future winners or compliment the current winner in the read. For the first month I indulged myself by picking a personal favorite, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. This is a book that came out the same year as They’d Rather Be Right, and was marketed as science fiction at the time, though it has later been associated more with the horror genre. I want to be clear, by picking a book published in the same year my goal is not to say “this is what should have won the Hugo.” Instead, I wanted to pick a book I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have won, but is from the same year, and may provide some contrast in 1954 science fiction. I also wanted to pick a story as widely available as possible (an ongoing goal with the secondary books). To wit:

Since this will be the first month of the secondary reads, I’d like to tackle a few…well, not frequently asked questions, but certainly fair to ask questions.

No, they will not always been books I’ve already read. They will occasionally be, sure. Looking at the five secondary books I’ve picked for far for 2013, three are books I’ve previously read, albeit one of those three (Fahrenheit 451) is a book that would end up as a secondary read eventually anyway as a Retro Hugo winner.

Yes, I will be rereading the books. Even the ones that I’ve read recently. Even if “recently” means “a year ago” as is the case with Old Man’s War in November. If folks are following along the read, it wouldn’t be fair for me to suggest everyone else read two books in a given month when I’m only reading one. Long and short, I see these secondary reads as optional for everyone except for me.

There you have it, your mid-month reminder. I hope at least some of you are reading along with The Demolished Man. I thoroughly adored the book, so I look forward to talking about it with others.

Update: This is a sort of stream of consciousness update, something a little too long for Twitter that I’m putting here because, hell, I’m already talking about the Great Hugo Read today on the blog. It occurs to me that George R. R. Martin is planning two more books to the Song of Ice and Fire series. The most recent three books have been Hugo nominated. While I don’t even want to guess what books will be nominated this year, much less whether books that aren’t even written, much less scheduled for publication…yeah, it’s really damn likely that one or both will end up nominated.

Which means I should probably find spaces for the first five books in the series in the secondary reading spots.

In general, I’ve not planned for what happens if later books in a series get nominated and require some catch-up reading. If it’s book two or three in a series, I can just schedule it as the last book in the nominee read… Bridges to potentially cross when we get there.

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A Writer Reviews: Django Unchained

It’s hard to talk about Django Unchained the way I want to talk about Django Unchained without bringing up rather big moments of the plot. So I’m going to hide it all behind a more tag. If you directly linked to this article and haven’t seen the movie, this is your cue to exit until you do.

Read the rest of this entry »

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A Writer Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterWith the Oscar nominations announced this morning, I wanted to take some time to talk about movies that I’ve meant to talk about, but haven’t. Two in particular that took home nine nominations between them, including two of the nine Best Picture slots. Today, as you can tell from the subject line and the poster on the right, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tomorrow it’ll be Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained.

Typically these reviews are about pulling out some aspect of the movie or television show and turning it into a lesson for those of us who create visual, rather than produced, fiction. This is a little different. Today, I’d just like to talk about a movie that left me awed when I left the theater, and talk in terms of pure admiration for film craft and production.

There are two massive challenges when crafting a child character for film. First comes the challenge that all writers must face, creating a young voice that is believable, approachable, without turning the audience away with treacle. It’s about capturing innocence or earnestness. It is, perhaps, the most difficult character one can approach. Which is odd, we were all children once, we all have those experiences, but our memories are so clouded by time that it takes a true craftsman to get everything down on page.

Those of us who write for the page wrap it up there. For better or worse, we’ve tried our damnedest, and it’s up to the reader. When producing a television show, or especially a movie, the larger challenge now begins. Now it’s time to find the right kid, that rare child actor who can step up to the duties of carrying a movie, especially one who must carry a movie so thoroughly as Quvenzhané Wallis carried Beasts of the Southern Wild, acting as both lead actress and narrator. Really, this is a two-part challenge in itself. You need the actress who can carry a role beyond her years, and the director who can get that performance out of her.

I’m thrilled all three aspects of Hushpuppy’s character landed nominations: the screenplay, the actress, and the director. Add in a nomination for Best Picture, and today is really the day for Beasts of the Southern Wild. And let it have its day, I unfortunately foresee the movie going 0-for-4 on the night of the Oscars itself. So let’s ride the high for this movie, and we can talk about Lincoln and Les Mis another day.

In the broadest strokes, the movie is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a place only every called the Bathtub. Where the Bathtub is doesn’t actually matter, this is a community cut off from the world, figuratively by their customs and spirit, and literally by their existence on the wrong side of a series of levees built to protect the mainland. Through Hushpuppy we experience a storm that is almost, but not quite, Katrina, her father’s illness, a quest to find her mother, and a community trying to hold together when threatened by a nameless government entity that is almost, but not quite, FEMA.

The entire movie plays out through her perspective. We get enough hints to piece together the larger narrative, but not all of it. The movie was billed as fantasy, and that’s what I went in expecting, but the real fantasy element is spending two hours living in the mind of a six-year-old girl. Magical realism comes from her imagination and understandings of the world. Things feel bigger and perspectives shift. It’s a movie that, in each of its moments, will make you cheer for this lifestyle because it’s all Hushpuppy knows. To make you want to get in there and fight everything intended to make her life “better” because that’s not what she wants, and it isn’t what anyone else in the Bathtub wants.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the few movies I’ve seen that I would describe as beautiful. There is not a single element of the movie that pulls at you and says “this is a work of fiction.” This goes right down to the cast, composed entirely of unknown, local, and first-time actors. There’s no known faces to remind you these are people in roles, creating an odd purity of the experience.

Oh man, I’m starting to use phrases like “purity of the experience” when talking about a movie. I better dial this back now. But that’s just what this movie did to me. It’s not one I would typically have seen in theaters, it’s not a movie that I would say is fun to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one I’m very glad that I did watch. While I have low hopes for it capitalizing on any of these nominations next month, I really hope the movie proves me wrong.

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Hugo vs Nebula

It’s January 2nd, the day that we all stumble back to our routines after two weeks of disruptions, see that we made some outrageous New Years Resolutions, and look ahead to the year. This year it’s also the beginning of the Great Hugo Read. I know I’ve talked a lot about the Read lately, largely because the idea came to me so late in the year and is now kicking off. This is going to be the standard beginning of the month reminder that the Read is happening, and what the book(s) for that month are. However, I’m also going to go briefly into why I picked the Hugo as opposed to the Nebula or any other awards.

First thing’s first.

The_Demolished_Man_first_editionJanuary 2013 Primary Book: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Secondary Book: None.

I hate that we’re starting out with two months of books with availability issues. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. My copy of Demolished Man arrived from Better World Books on New Years Eve, perfectly timed, though I’m wrapping up The Victorian Internet (more on Unleaded) before I tuck into the first of the Hugo novels. I decided no secondary novels this month because it was a late addition to my plan, however I have picked a favorite of mine as a secondary novel for February. In the future I’ll always provide at least some rationale behind the secondary work, and I promise (a) it won’t always be something I’ve read and (b) I’ll be re-reading it if it is. It’d be cheating for me to add books just to not read them.

So…why the Hugo? I had an interesting few moments this morning flipping between the Hugo Award and Nebula Award pages on Wikipedia, each of which offers quotations from various sources about why it is the more prestigious of the two awards, and other quotations talking about the equal standing of the two. Why the Hugos boils down to a few points that have nothing to do with any rivalry between the awards (which I suspect doesn’t really exist anyways).

  1. The Hugo is older, providing more history to read through.
  2. The Hugo is fan voted, so represents what people were reading at the time. This also connects to why I didn’t include the Retro Hugo awards as primary reads.
  3. They mostly overlap anyway. Since it was adopted, the Nebula has agreed with the Hugo voters nearly half the time.

So I’m not so much playing favorites as I am bowing to seniority.

So grab your copy of Demolished Man and join in the first month of the Read. If you’re a Goodreads member, go check out the group I created over there. If it populates, I’ll keep it going, if it doesn’t, I’ll just let it languish. And now I promise I’ll stop talking the Great Hugo Read for at least two weeks. At the end of the month, we’ll get together and talk the book.

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