Standard Hollywood Depravity, by Adam Christopher / **** ½

31216087Last year, I picked up Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill on a whim, and was delighted I’d done so; marrying the hard-boiled PI stories of Raymond Chandler with science-fiction trappings, Made to Kill was a treat, telling an old-fashioned story in a wholly unique and interesting way. Its protagonist, Ray Electromatic, was the last robot left working after a brief boom in the industry, and now, he was left investigating cases – oh, and murdering for hire, too. It was a great hook for a pulpy tale, and if Made to Kill never really moved beyond its pulpy roots, that’s fine; it was enough fun that it more than justified its existence and then some.

Now comes Standard Hollywood Depravity, a follow-up novella to Made to Kill that finds Ray being brought in for the killing of a young go-go dancer, only to find the club full of very dangerous made men – a situation that makes his life far more complicated, and the job far more complicated. And making things worse is the way that Ray is no longer content to just follow orders and his programming; no, Ray is getting curious about things, and questioning the situations he finds himself in, and feeling a little more reluctant about killing without reason.

In pretty much every way, Standard Hollywood Depravity is an improvement on Made to Kill; the story is more complex and interesting, Ray more complicated as a hero, the writing sharper. But best of all, Christopher seems to have eased into his world more comfortably, digging around in the weird world that he’s been shaping. What’s it like to be a huge robot and not have people surprised to see you? What happens when you’re becoming aware, as a programmed creation, that your coding might be antithetical to your rapidly growing consciousness? Depravity deals with all of this and more, and does so in a tighter narrative – all the more impressive.

There are still a few issues, mind you; it feels like Christopher elides out a pretty significant scene towards the end of the book, but not in a way that would lead to interesting ambiguity; it just feels incomplete and off-balance in a way, and makes it feel like the book gets rushed right at the very end. And that’s a bit of a disappointment, considering how good the rest of it is. But in pretty much every other way, this one is a knockout, and has me even more excited to check out the next entry in the series.

(Side note: Standard Hollywood Depravity also features a short story entitled “Brisk Money,” which serves as a bit of a prequel to the series. “Brisk Money” is a great story; that being said, the story relies so much on Ray not having information about his life that we already have that it doesn’t always entirely work, especially since the story never really makes it clear when it takes place. In other words, it took me most of the story to realize that this was a prequel that takes place before Made to Kill, and sets up the series to come. There’s still a pretty fascinating detail included here, and it’s a good story; it just feels like it would work better if it was clearer when in the series it took place.)

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Blade Runner 2049 / *****

blade-runner-2049-posterIt’s been almost a year since I last saw the original Blade Runner (well, the “Final Cut” of the movie, anyway); as a result, I don’t know that I need to spend an inordinate amount of time describing my feelings on the film when you can just read them for yourself. Here’s the simple version: I think the original Blade Runner is an incredible accomplishment; it’s a film that created a world unlike anything else in cinema, and while I have some issues with the film’s plotting (or lack thereof), there’s little denying the way its world lingers with the viewer long after you’ve finished. It’s also a film that I’ve never felt earned its philosophical conversations at times; while the film deals with interesting ideas, it’s never as engaged with them as I wish it was.

All of which brings me to Blade Runner 2049, helmed by Denis Villeneuve (and shot by Roger Deakins), starring Ryan Gosling, set thirty years after the original, and following up on the original story in ways both direct and indirect. Once again, we follow a “Blade Runner” (the film’s term for an LAPD officer tasked with “retiring” rogue androids that are attempting to blend in with “normal” humans), this time an officer named K., as he’s tracking down some remaining Nexus units. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t follow in the plotting footsteps of the original for long, though; not long into the film, K. makes a discovery that sets him on the path for a far stranger, more complicated mystery, one that gets right to the heart of the philosophical questions so often raised by the original film.

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That’s about all of the plot that should be known about Blade Runner 2049 for a new viewer; suffice to say, the film’s plotting is more interesting and more complex than the original film, with more to discuss. And yet, for all of that, Blade Runner 2049 in no way compromises on the moodiness, pacing, and stillness of the original film, using every minute of its lengthy running time to immerse viewers in this saturated, gleaming future. There’s little chance that longtime fans are going to argue that Villeneuve has “betrayed” the original film here; 2049 is of a piece with its predecessor, spending just as much time luxuriating in its scenery and the silence of its lead, and mainstream success be damned.

What’s incredible, then, is that in some ways, Blade Runner 2049 might be even better than the original film, fixing my issues with it and somehow improving on the one thing that seemed unbeatable about the original: the visuals. As helmed by Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just the best-looking film of the year; it’s got to be high in the ranking for most beautiful, astonishing films in recent memory, delivering shot after shot that left my jaw hanging open and nearly in tears. From brilliant framing to incredible shadows to stunning use of colors, Deakins turns in the best work he’s ever done – and when you look at his credits, that’s no small feat. Words genuinely can’t do justice to the look and feel of Blade Runner 2049; suffice to say, if you’re interested in seeing it, and don’t see it on the biggest screen you possibly can, you will be kicking yourself for years to come. (Myself, I paid for an IMAX ticket, and was immediately glad I did within two shots; it only got better from there.) Mixing film-noir shadows with neon-drenched skyscapes with desolate waste lands, Deakins turns every frame of Blade Runner 2049 into a work of art that somehow equals the original.

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So, the visuals measure up – welcome news indeed. But what about the film itself? How does the content stack up to a film whose simplicity invited any number of readings? How can Villeneuve grapple with some of the biggest questions of the original – such as whether Deckard is a replicant or not – without ruining the mystery? And can the film manage to not simply retread the plot of its predecessor?

Miraculously, 2049 manages to succeed on every one of those fronts and then some. The thirty years (both in-story and in the real world) since the previous film has only led to deeper, more unsettling questions about the gap between what’s “real” and what’s synthetic, and 2049 deals with these questions more head-on than Scott’s original film, with a plot that drags the film’s subtext into the light, forcing us to grapple with it whether we like it or not. It’s aided by Gosling’s outstanding performance; without getting into too much information, Gosling has a difficult role to pull off, but he does it superbly, letting K. convey so much of his internal monologue with a bare minimum of movement or expression. But he engages deeply with the material, grappling with the philosophical debates of the film in a way that Harrison Ford’s no-nonsense Deckard rarely did.

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Which brings us, of course, to Ford, who appears in the film as Deckard, older and still alive. Where he’s been – and why he’s in 2049 – I leave for the viewer to discover. What’s worth discussing is how strong he is in the role, giving us a looser, more vulnerable Deckard who’s not the man he once was. That makes sense, given the nature of the story, but it’s a joy to see Ford reminding you once again that he can be fantastic in films when he’s interested and committed to a role, as opposed to the coasting he’s done in so many recent years. More than that, he makes a superb counterpart to Gosling, as we see what this job can do to those who deal in death for a living.

But as rich as the plot is, as good as the performances are, and as incredible as it looks, none of it would matter if Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t as engaging and rich as it is. In many ways, it’s more loyal to the spirit of author Philip K. Dick than the original was; it’s more thoughtful and complex in its storytelling, yes, but it’s also more interested in dealing with questions of consciousness, of reality, of what it means to truly be “alive” – and how we react when those limits are questioned and overturned. That’s heady stuff, and it’s to the film’s credit that it does all of that while still giving us a gripping – if thoughtful and dreamlike – story. In short, it’s everything a sequel to a beloved cult film should be – faithful to the spirit of the original, while standing on its own and expanding on the ideas of its predecessor in interesting, unexpected ways. It’s brilliant hard science-fiction, astonishing filmmaking, and all in all, an incredible achievement – one of the year’s best films.

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Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.

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Sent for Life, by Jason Turri / * ½

51gc2uq-m6l-_sy346_One of the common issues I’ve started to see among independent authors, especially those on their first or second book, is not knowing how to balance ambition and plotting. There’s a sense sometimes that they think to themselves, Well, I have all of these great ideas – why not put all of them into the same book? But the result is often an overstuffed, jumbled read, one that leaves you wishing that the author had focused on any one or two of the ideas in depth instead of throwing them all into the same book and doing none of them justice.

Such is the case with Sent for Life, Jason Turri’s debut novel, which follows a young scientist as he creates a vaccine for a deadly disease sweeping the world, gets framed for murder, discovers a secret cloning operation, gets told that he’s going to be sent to an alien world, discovers a conspiracy behind that launch, discovers a separate secret plan on that alien world, helps to save that world from a deadly asteroid – and all of this (and plenty more, including a few twists) happens in 300 pages. If that sounds like a lot to cover, well, it is. And every time you think the book is about to dig into a single plot thread, it swerves onto something new, until I really got frustrated figuring out who the plot’s villains were supposed to be, and why it would spend so long on things that it had no interest in paying off.

That world-shaping disease? Barely matters to the book. The framing of him for murder, and the slowly uncovered motivation of the villain behind it? Discarded as soon as the character gets ready to move onto the alien world. And again and again and again, the book jumps from plot to plot. There’s something admirable and enjoyable about a book that’s so ambitious and eager to do so much, but as a reader, there’s also a sense of frustration as you deal with a book that has no idea what it wants to be about. (That even becomes more of an issue as the book randomly breaks from its first-person narration without warning at times, without rhyme or reason.)

Not helping things is that our hero is…well, “flawed” would be putting it mildly, and it’s never quite clear how much we’re supposed to dislike him. If the answer is “a huge amount,” that would be great; between his habit of describing every female in terms of her looks (all are “beautiful” in various ways) and his constant whiny, wheedling pressure for all of them to sleep with him regardless of their interest level, he’s undoubtedly a slimeball. But that’s pretty tame compared to his behavior when he gets to the alien world, where he introduces drinking, drugs, and wet t-shirt contests for his own entertainment among a species that knows none of these things. Far from being funny or endearing, it makes him a fairly repellent figure, and his ego as he approaches basically every situation makes him hard to root for.

There’s some interesting ideas in Sent for Life – any number of which could have made a single really fun book. But putting them all together, and the sheer revolting nature of its hero, really keeps the book from being something I can recommend. I think Turri has great ideas, and he seems like the kind of author who can learn from his mistakes – hopefully he can see the issues with Sent for Life and learn from them in the future.

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Rogue One / ****

rogueone_onesheetaI’m naturally skeptical of the whole “extended universe” of Star Wars. It’s nothing really against Star Wars, which I like pretty well – I’m not an obsessive fan, but I’ve enjoyed the movies on the whole. But it’s not like the original extended universe of Star Wars was particularly great – need we remind everyone of the whole “Chewbacca was crushed by a moon” debacle? And now, with everything borrowing from Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” thing, everything has to be a franchise, ideally without ever feeling too risky or interesting.

And yet, there’s a lot that’s promising about Rogue One, even though it’s an undeniably flawed movie. There’s the fact that, tonally, the movie feels legitimately different from the other Star Wars movies. Yes, it’s an adventure film, but there’s a different feel to it all, most notably in the ending. It feels like a movie made up of Han Solos, for lack of a better term; it’s a collection of selfish rogues, caught up in this story almost against their better judgment or rationale.

Better than that, though, is Rogue One‘s approach to action, which feels far richer and more ambitious than much that we’ve seen in any of the other Star Wars films. It’s not just that there’s no lightsabers deployed here; the action feels bigger and broader, turning into the first time we’ve seen a true “war” in the Star Wars films. And in Gareth Edwards’ hands, there’s a sense of dread in the scope that we haven’t seen. Just as Gareth slowly doled out the glimpses of Godzilla in his film, Edwards makes great use of the Imperial elements of his battles, whether it’s the terrifying reveal of the Walkers or the dreadful looming of the Death Star. And that doesn’t even get into the instantly iconic scene near the end of the film that finally underlines something that’s been an undercurrent for the whole series.

This all makes Rogue One sound great, and to be honest, whenever Rogue One is letting action loose, it’s phenomenal. But a movie has to have a script and a plot, and that’s where Rogue One falls down. In many ways, Rogue One is a heist movie; it’s about the theft of the Death Star plans that set the first film into motion, and the film’s climax is all about that heist. But any heist has to have a coming together of the crew, and Rogue One‘s motley cast, while enjoyable, never really comes to life more than as archetypes and sketches. Motivations feel rushed at times, most notably in the case of Felicity Jones’s lead role, which feels like she decided to join the Rebellion offstage between scenes. (That’s better than Forrest Whitaker’s non-role, which feels like a blatant nod for some tie-in novel somewhere.) We know who these characters are a little, but not much, and it’s hard to be too invested in their fates when they feel a bit tossed in. It all ends up feeling like a functional script, and not much more, and one that hopes that the director can paper over the holes.

The result isn’t a great film, really. But it’s a promising start for these spin-off films, in that it shows that there’s a chance for these stories to be their own thing – not just more Star Wars, but a chance to find some of their own personality and style. Rogue One isn’t quite there yet, but in its action and style, it’s a step in the right direction, with enough action and fun to keep fans happy.

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Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Coilhunter, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

51nzzo74xkl-_sy445_ql70_For a while, all I knew of Dean F. Wilson’s work was The Great Iron War series, a rich, involving steampunk war saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. Wilson’s prose was direct and effective – he had a clarity to his prose that befitted his action sequences, always keeping the battles clear, the environment understandable, and the various players clearly defined. What I didn’t realize – not until I read the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Agon series – was that Wilson’s prose was pared down and concise by design, not because that was just his style. Because Children of Agon read like Tolkien – it was epic fantasy, with dense, poetic prose and style to spare.

I mention this because, without that context, it could be easy to dismiss Coilhunter‘s prose as excessively colorful or too much. But within a couple of pages, I realized that that wasn’t a bug in Coilhunter; it was the design, creating a book that lived and breathed its Western atmosphere in every single word. With verbose killers, colorful turns of speech, and all sorts of fun writing, Coilhunter ends up being a lot of fun, and the prose is part of that, creating a rich, lived-in tapestry.

That Wilson is good as Westerns isn’t a surprise; what’s surprising to me is that Coilhunter is a Western in the first place, since it’s technically set in the same world as Wilson’s grim Great Iron War series. Wilson’s taken one of his more fascinating character – the titular Coilhunter, who makes his living as a bounty hunter in the less settled parts of that world – and written a book around him. The plot is pretty traditional fare, especially for the Western genre: the Coilhunter chases bounties, only to find that one he’s taken up could lead him to the killers of his family. But Wilson takes it on with style and panache, bringing his sci-fi steampunk Western world to vivid life, filling the pages with interesting characters and odd locales, and making it stand on its own.

More than that, Wilson has a great lead character in the Coilhunter, whose gadgets, tricks, and lethal abilities make him both a great hero and an exciting one to watch. Like so many Westerns, the question isn’t really if the Coilhunter is going to succeed; the question is, how will he pull it off. Even more to the point, though, Wilson makes his Western world all its own, making it stand out from the Great Iron War to the point where it feels less like a spinoff and more like its own series. With bounty hunter towns, old friends, and spectacular lawless zones, Wilson brings the world – and the characters – to life in a satisfying way, all while peppering things with his usual strong action sequences.

If there’s a knock on Coilhunter, it’s that the story feels more generic and formulaic than I’ve come to expect from Wilson; there’s little sense of surprise in what happens here or how things unfold. None of that keeps the book from being engaging or entertaining, mind you; it’s executed well enough that I tore through it quickly, eager to stay in this world for a while. But I’m more excited to see what happens in the next books in the series, now that Wilson has set the stage and cleared off some of the necessary backstory to get things moving. Here’s hoping it comes soon.

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