The Girl Who Would Be King

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly ThomsonReview: The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thomson (1979 Semi-Finalist Inc, 2012)

This review has been languishing in the ‘must-write’ pie for months and it’s a damn disgrace. The delay that is, not The Girl Who Would Be King which is bloody splendid. Kicking myself now for not having spread the word sooner. I think I heard about this one over at io9 and ended up downloading it as a spot of light reading for my summer holiday back to Scotland. Good choice yet bad choice – it had me utterly rapt from beginning to end but unfortunately was over in a flash as I devoured the majority of the pages on one sleepless flight. But anyway, before the praise I’d best go through the formalities.

Bonnie Braverman was orphaned by a fatal car accident, leaving her to spend much of her youth in a group home and pining for the return of her long-lost brother. Always the shy and retiring type it comes as something of a surprise when she finds herself rescuing one of her fellow inmates (for want of a better word) from the clutches of an imposing bully and her gang. Surely people aren’t normally able to hit that hard? And did she really just jump onto the roof of that building? Something has awoken inside Bonnie and it begins drawing her inexorably towards her ultimate fate.

The other half of that fate is Lola LeFever, a girl of similar years and verging on adulthood. Lola shares Bonnie’s orphanhood but with a slight difference – she murdered her mother herself in pursuit of a power she believed her to possess. A power which was Lola’s birthright and squandered by her useless, drug-addled mother. Before long she too is feeling the draw of the force inside her, leading her towards her opposite number, her nemesis.

The Girl Who Would Be King pitches a fairly classic good-vs-evil story put dresses it up with two post-adolescent American girls donning superhero costumes and trying to figure out just what they’re capable of. Woah, holy coming-of-age metaphor. You might guess from the subject matter that Kelly Thomson doesn’t take things too seriously but the book does actually have a fair amount of emotional heft and depth to it. While Lola’s story does provide some wonderfully over-the-top supervillain shenanigans there’s a whole lot more darkness and gravitas with Bonnie as she struggles to do the right thing while the world’s deck of cards seems stacked against her.

Actually, halfway through the novel I kind of expected a ground-shaking plot twist as a result of Bonnie’s trial by fire. I could smell it coming, it seemed like such a perfect way to throw expectations out of the window. When it didn’t happen I almost wanted to hunt down Thomson’s email address and just ask, “Why??? Why didn’t you go this way???” But in the end it didn’t matter because the way things unfold is just fine. Sometimes it’s okay to just play it straight and keep piling up the tension until the grand finale and that’s the way it happens with The Girl Who Would Be King.

So yeah, maybe it missed a fantastic switcheroo but there’s still plenty to recommend this novel. An original plot despite borrowing heavily from the usual superhero tropes; two very strong characters in the form of Lola and Bonnie; and some action so ridiculously fun that Amazon had to print a disclaimer on their site that this is a prose novel, not a comic. It’s lightweight for sure but no less fun for that and noteworthy for the fact that its creation was funded by Kickstarter. Definitely one with which to while away the incoming winter nights.

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Horns

Horns by Joe HillReview: Horns by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 2011)

Check me out being all topical! Seeing as the big-screen adaptation of Horns starring Harry ‘Daniel Radcliffe’ Potter is released here this weekend – Halloween no less – I thought I’d best get the novel read so I could act all ‘the book is so much better’ on exiting the auditorium. Joe Hill’s horror debut, Heart-Shaped Box, took bookstores by storm  many moons ago and I was quietly impressed though not overwhelmed. He was a fresh, original voice in a slightly tired genre but wasn’t about to set the world on fire in my opinion. So how does Horns stack up? Was it worthy of the dollars the studio must have parted with? Read on…

Those of you who have read the blurb or seen the trailers will already be familiar with the central conceit of Horns; Ignatius Parrish awakes after a particularly drunken evening to a rude surprise. It seems he has sprouted a pair of horns from his head. Not just any old horns, proper devil horns. Actual horns. In his head. After initially dismissing them as the hallucinogenic detritus of an unusually toxic hangover he goes about his day. But of course, they’re real. And Ig’s problems are just beginning. The horns are visible to others but they tend to seem somewhat nonplussed by them and more concerned with confiding in Ig their darkest, vilest desires and most violent fantasies. And Ig, with a simple “Go for it” or “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” can set them on the path to damnation or salvation.

Now so far this is what I was expecting and settled back for a horror-comedic cavalcade of unsuspecting souls being tempted to their doom by demonic Ig. Bzzt, wrong. Horns is so much more than the pulpy joyride I was expecting and instead ventures far darker and meatier territory than I could have hoped for. It transpires that Ig is a man with his own demons stalking him. Just a year prior to the story’s opening his girlfriend, Merrin, was found raped and murdered following a loud and public break-up between the two of them. Needless to say Ig was the main suspect but also was not to blame. Unfortunately for him his own memory of the evening is an alcoholic haze and any evidence which could have either fingered him or cleared his name went up in smoke along with the rest of the locker, a cruel and suspicious twist of fate. Since that date he has lived in hell, guilty in the eyes of all around him and unable to even begin to find Merrin’s killer.

Now however, everyone who crosses his path seems to be revealing their innermost secrets. Skeletons are bounding out of closets and Ig is homing in on his nemesis. But those horns are getting hotter and the real Hell seems to be creeping ever closer.

Joe Hill manages to totally confound expectations by turning Horns into a seriously dark psychological-cum-theological thriller, a horrific tale of betrayal, anguish and revenge which seems increasingly biblical with every page turn. By the time the climax rolls around you swear you can feel the flames lapping at your feet, rooting for Ig every step of the way while becoming all too aware of the demon he is becoming. The structure of the book lends it a near-perfect sense of pace. With every encounter a little more of the fateful evening’s details are coloured in, each reveal becoming more painful and poignant, until the flood becomes almost too much. The fire-and-brimstone crescendo hits with exactly the right mix of tragedy and vengeance, providing an endpoint to the tale which satisfies without pandering to the reader’s expectations.

By the time you read this review you may have already caught the movie but don’t let that put you off. Horns is a twisted, vile little read and I mean that in the best possible way. Its darkness seeps through your skin and you’ll feel your own little horns sprouting before long. If that’s not a glowing recommendation I’m not sure what is.

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The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanReview: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking Press, 2009)

Okay, let me get this off my chest first – and trust me, the reference is almost obligatory when reviewing this book. It’s not that I dislike JK Rowling and Harry Potter per se. Despite her opposition to Scottish independence I’m sure she deserves some credit for enticing legions of kids to pick up books. And I’ve been assured that the later books in the series are rather ‘dark’, although having seen the final movies I can only assume this means dark in the same sense as a particularly upsetting episode of Scooby Doo. It’s just that something really irritated me about seeing hordes of adults with their noses buried in the latest of the Hogwarts chronicles, all buoyed up and pretending to be part of some kind of reliving-our-childhood club. Just stop. They’re kid’s books. Young Adult I can handle, and even enjoy, but these are for children. Little ‘uns. Proto-humans. By wasting weeks on them (yes, it boggles my mind that it could take so long), people blocked themselves off forever from works far more fulfilling, squandering time which would never be given back.

And I was a little jealous.

Because I loved magic. I grew up immersed in everything from Pratchett’s Discworld series to the futuristic scientific magic of Asimov. Secretly I wanted in on the act but my principles, better known to others as stubbornness, got in the way. The only direction was forward, I could not risk regress in my tastes for fear of missing something new, something shiny. The urge to be part of the water-cooler conversation wasn’t strong enough to overcome my literary snobbishness until, thankfully, Lev Grossman happened.

The Magicians has garnered a lot of praise and that has inevitably been garnished with generous helpings of Potter references. It’s easy to see why. The first act of the story follows a group of unassuming yet precociously intelligent teenagers who, upon applying to various universities, find themselves spirited away to Brakebills Academy, a hidden school of magic lurking behind alchemical camouflage in the Maine countryside. Quentin Coldwater is a withdrawn prodigy, previously unaware of the very real existence of magic and wrestling with an unfortunate combination of bewilderment at his new circumstances and the general malaise toted by every discerning late teen.

Soon Quentin allies himself with a cadre of fellow gifted rejects and they begin their rigorous training in the ways of the wand (although such relics are looked upon with condescending mirth by mystical sophisticates). What follows is a warm coming of age story as Quentin comes to terms with his abilities and failings while those around him struggle to do the same and, y’know, quests happen. The usual puberty stuff.

Key to the success of The Magicians is the fiction-within-a-fiction series of Fillory novels, a Narnia-esque children’s series with which all characters in the book are intimately familiar.  At first I found the books, a tale of children wandering through the looking glass to become kings and queens of a far-away realm, to be something of an irritatingly twee concept but as the plot progresses it becomes more tightly wound up with events and eventually part of The Magicians itself. Meta-fictions when done correctly can really add flavour to a story and this one is no exception, despite its saccharine ultra-Englishness feeling markedly out of step with the real novel’s more gritty consistency.

The writing itself is handled particularly well. Lev Grossman has a pretty wicked with and a wonderful way with language. His description of a “single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning” had me salivating at my work desk and desperately trying to identify the particular dram he was talking about. Another great surprise in The Magicians is the manner in which it effortlessly switches styles between sections. One minute you’re in pseudo-Hogwarts and the next it’s gone all Bret Easton Ellis meets Hubert Selby Jr in a magic shop. Then suddenly you’re playing D&D with Alsan. While this kind of transformation might unsettle some, I found it kept the pace up and made sure the story stayed fresh even during its inevitable periods of downtime.

With the following two books in the trilogy already loaded onto my ereader I’m totally sold on Grossman’s series. It’s the Harry Potter I never allowed myself to have but it’s also so much more. It’s a darker look at the fantasy kid-takes-on-the-world trope with the added bonus of containing an exceedingly honest, no-holds-barred look at the incredible rush and harsh dangers of young love. Whether you’re a Potter/Narnia fan, can’t stand them or just love good story-telling, go grab this one. Now.

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Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters by Lauren BeukesReview: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Collins, 2014)

It’s easy to gush praise for Lauren Beukes. Sounds sycophantic but it’s just plain true. First she gave us the wonderfully grim and gritty broken slab of cyberpunk that was Moxyland. Then she went all weird animal spirit and missing persons with Zoo City. Then, just to show off, she went and wrote Shining Girls, one of my favourite urban fantasy/horror/crime stories ever. In fact my girlfriend just finished reading the Mandarin translation, taking a good while to complete it due to it being “too exciting to read before sleeping”. So when I heard her latest, Broken Monsters, had hit the bookshelves I was into the virtual library like a shot and racing to my ebook reader with a brand new bundle of 1s and 0s.

And my first thought was, “Why am I reading a police procedural novel?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of crime fiction done well. It’s just that based on past form I was expecting something altogether more fantastic than what seemed to be on offer here. Broken Monsters kicks off in heavy disguise, looking for all the world like a more artistic Silence Of The Lambs. A twisted killer with a penchant for animals and art is stalking the streets of abandoned and broken Detroit. Earnestly trying to both track down the culprit while caring for an increasingly wayward teenage daughter is Detective Versado and a wonderfully fleshed-out assortment of Detroit’s finest.

If there was nothing more to Broken Monsters than a cat-and-mouse then there would be little to lift it above the ranks of airport crime novels but this is Lauren Beukes. The narrative is fragmented into a handful of different viewpoints. Not only do we get to ride along with Versado, her daughter and the killer but we get to experience the viewpoint of some other spanners in the works. First there is the washed-up journalist/author trying to get his career back on track after burning every bridge he could lay his hands on. Thanks to his newly-acquired and ever-so-hip and young DJ girlfriend he’s soon tuned into ‘new media’ and the horde of eyeballs waiting on the other side of a YouTube channel. And then there is the human wreckage of Detroit, represented by a band of homeless friends scraping a living by scouring abandoned buildings for anything salvageable. Inevitably their paths collide in a rather spectacular manner.

One of the key thread in Broken Monsters, alongside the ode to Detroit and the countless other magnificent living ruins in our midst, is the exploration of media sensationalism and the potential for our fascination and hunger to fuel the darker sides of our natures. This isn’t meant in the sense of the patently ridiculous ‘video games and horror movies will turn your children psycho’ trope. Rather it’s about the very real violence we gorge ourselves on every time we turn on the news or open a paper. Living in Taiwan this strikes a very real chord, being surrounded by news stories of teens and young adults going on knife-wielding rampages. Every murder is pored over in sickening detail by every news channel. The pictures run constantly: the bodies; the wailing family; the scornful politicians; the shocked friends. And yet the carnage continues at an ever greater pace. Makes you think…

And of course it wouldn’t be Lauren Beukes unless there was something going on behind the scenes. As soon as you get the sense that this is no ordinary killer, not just a man with a simple screw loose, the novel is elevated from a particularly gripping thriller to an unnerving almost-ghost story, one which refuses to allow simple categories to pin it down. It’s tempting to label it as horror but it is so much more because the horror comes from revealing what is worst about the world around us rather than relying on the unreal elements to bring the dread. Elements from her previous two books are very obvious here (indeed she admitted that she was originally worried that she was just re-writing Shining Girls) but they are melded together with crucial new strands which make this book a logical progression from what she has accomplished before. Shining Girls managed to gather her a pretty sizeable following but hopefully this will be the title which will lead to the acclaim she deserves.

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Filed under Crime, Horror, Supernatural, Thriller, Urban Fantasy

The Girl With All The Gifts

The Girl With All The Gifts by MR CareyReview: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (Orbit, 2014)

Warning – not for the mycophobic…

Seems not so long ago I was bemoaning the lack of decent zombie fiction and now the genre has exploded like a decaying bladder full of decompolicious gasses. Unfortunately in this post-World War Z literary graveyard there is a new problem. We’re suddenly knee-deep in fetid tales of undead carnage but Sturgeon’s Law dictates that 90% of everything is crud. In a blooming genre that’s a lot of entrails to sort through before you get to the brains. Thankfully for us all, people like M.R. Carey exist. People who, like Max Brooks, dare to take a baseball bat to the chewed-off face of the genre and start re-arranging things. When they do it right, the results can be glorious.

Melanie is a young schoolgirl who spends her days struggling to maintain her spot at the top of the class and idolising her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau. She daydreams about ancient myths and legends and her precocious mind is filled information on a truly esoteric range of subjects. She’s not normal though. At the end of the day she’s strapped into her chair and wheeled back into her cell by armed men, shackled for the safety of all those around her. Melanie is, you see, what we could best describe as a highly-functioning zombie.

Unknown to Melanie and her classmates, the world outside their cell walls is devastated, reeling from an epidemic which has turned much of mankind into mindless killers. The rest is split into those fighting to regain a hold on civilisation and those who have gone feral. In the former camp are scientists like the chilling Dr. Caldwell who have been forced to ditch any sentimental attachment to individual humans (or humanlike beings) in order to save the masses from further suffering. In the latter are those disaffected who have shirked off any notion of society and wish merely to destroy. Unfortunately for Melanie and Miss Justineau the local balance of power has invisibly shifted and they are about to be thrust into the harsh reality of the new world.

There are many reasons why The Girl With All The Gifts stands out above its peers but I’m going to focus on two to save this review going on for pages. First up is the origins story. Get any slavering pack of die-hard zombie fans together and you can expect a lengthy, detailed discussion of their favourite cause or transmission vector., be it radiation, illness or alien possession. MR Carey manages to pull off something truly original here, something not only rooted in actual science but also so stomach-churning that it gave me genuine shivers to read about, no mean feat. If you’re not familiar with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis then you’re lucky. I first encountered it in Carl Zimmer’s utterly wonderful Parasite Rex and now it’s back to haunt me. Long story short, it’s a fungus whose spores infects the body of an ant, seize control of its nervous system and force it to climb to the highest point of a tree where it will remain frozen until the parasite bursts from its head and releases more spores onto the forest floor, allowing Cordy (yes, I give cutesy pet names to icky fungi) to carry on its life cycle. Now imagine that in a human. And imagine it trying to spread by biting other humans instead of climbing trees. Sweet dreams. I can’t stress enough how much this concept simultaneously thrills and repulses me but I can only hope it does the same to you.

Helping The Girl With All The Gifts really strike home is the very human touch which Carey brings to his characters, even the technically non-human Melanie and the token-bad-guy doctor. It makes you truly invest in the key players which makes it hurt all the more when the darker side of the story inevitably rears its head time and again. The play-off between Melanie’s innocence and the unremitting harshness of the world around her forms a major thread of the book and builds the atmosphere for many a gut-punch to come. Oh, and talking of gut-punches – best ending ever. In my opinion anyway. My hat’s off to you Mr Carey, I didn’t see it coming at all and it, well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoilage.

Anyway, that’s all I’m saying for now. I could ramble on for pages but you shouldn’t be reading this, you should be running out and buying the book itself. Go discover some fungal zombie mayhem. Get squeamish. Watch a world fall apart in the most tragic way. Just go easy on the mushroom soup next time…

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Filed under Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction

Sequel City Part 4 – The End Is Now

The End Is Now by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Now by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey (ed.) (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

First off, apologies for the brief hiatus. I was first interrupted from my reading reverie by the fact that my countrymen, in a dazzling display of cowardice, naivety and gullibility, rejected the chance to decide their own future and decided instead to be ruled from another country by a party which the entire country has outright rejected for the past three decades. It was kinda like being in a sci-fi movie actually, a whole week of “Did that actually just happen…?” before I even began to come to terms with the enormity of it. And then there was the diving. I’m now officially a Rescue Diver which means if any of you happen to find yourself in trouble on the high seas you just have to holler, I’ll drag you out and CPR you back to life. Two week where my only reading companion was the PADI Rescue Diver manual. Anyways, back to business as usual so on with the show…

Rounding off the current spate of wonderful and eagerly awaited sequels in my reading pile has been The End Is Now, follow up to the stellar The End Is Nigh and midway point of the Apocalypse Triptych. Ably curated by anthology maestro John Joseph Adams and current post-apoc-fic darling Hugh Howey, the series shifts from impending armageddons to works in progress. Almost every story in the book is a continuation from the first installment but worry not, there’s just enough exposition and background to fill in new readers without annoying those already up to speed.

My review of the previous book was glowing to say the least so did the authors manage to keep up the pace for round two? The answer is a mighty hell yes. The majority of the stories pick up exactly where their predecessors left off, meaning with some you’re pushed straight into the action without a pause for breath. For example, reading Scott ‘Infected‘ Sigler’s The Sixth Day Of Deer Camp feels as though you just put the preceding chapter down yesterday. You’re right back in the same freezing North American cabin, with the same group of semi-drunk hunters and the same crashed alien vessel in the woods outside. The invasion is in progress and this gaggle of everyday Joes have to figure out whether to brave the snowbound road to the nearest town (if it’s still there), bunker down and hope it all blows over or go on the offensive. They’re Americans. They have guns. Guess which one they choose…

That tale in particular exemplifies one of the overarching themes which seems to have manifested in many of these, a focus on the humanity, loss and sadness rather than the gratuitous carnage which reduces much of the rest of the genre to Schumacher-esque pastiche. What starts out as a rather insane push for mankind’s survival turns into a deeply upsetting realisation that the fearsome, inhuman invaders are not all that different from us. I really didn’t expect the turn this one took and it’s all the better for it. Another winner in this field was Annie Bellet’s touching Goodnight Stars, one of the more down-to-earth tales (kinda literally) which opts for a heart-breaking family angle and absolutely nails it.

The rest of the book is a wonderful mixture of destruction, disease and death in all its splendour. Special mention for insanity goes to Charlie Jane ‘io9’ Anders’s Rock Manning Can’t Hear You. I have no idea where this idea came from or where it’s going but there sure isn’t another apocalypse like it out there. However, cream of the crop must surely Fruiting Bodies by Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant. I’d like to state here and now that fungal fiction is definitely the ickiest, most flesh-creeping idea ever to crawl out of anyone’s warped mind. Between Seanan’s series and The Girl With All The Gifts (to be reviewed in a few days) I’d be happy never to eat a mushroom again. Or touch anything. Or even breathe. Seriously. Fruiting Bodies manages to combine an utterly revolting concept of a genetically engineered fungi gone wrong with a tragic tale of a mother and daughter fighting to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. I didn’t know whether to puke or cry.

While you may want to check out the first book before jumping in – and you really, really should – The End Is Now is a fun ride for anyone who just wants to see the whole word burn. Adams and Howey gave a shitload of matches and gasoline to some of the finest genre authors of today. Boy, do they know how to use them.

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Filed under Anthology, Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Sequel City Part 3 – The Southern Reach Trilogy

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerReview: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Dammit, all good things have to come to an end. First it was the brooding yet uplifting Last Policeman series and now, I am sorry to say, Jeff VanderMeer’s dark, unsettling and gleefully weird Southern Reach trilogy. A prolific anthologist of strange tales and accomplished author in his own right, VanderMeer has a knack for knowing exactly what is going to send shivers up your spine and have you not quite reaching for the light switch so much as wondering what potential consequences such a seemingly innocent act might entail. The first two books of the series seemed to distill this ability into the crafting of a wonderfully original mythos, one which lurks in the most primitive parts of your brain long after the book is consigned to the freezer. A swift recap is in order…

In Annihilation we were introduced to Area X, a mysterious stretch of coastland on America’s eastern seaboard. Cut off from the surrounding world by an invisible barrier with only one entrance, the zone is the subject of intense study. Groups of explorers are sent to chart the disturbance but few return. Those who do are not the same, suffering from memory loss, personality changes and incurable tumours. Their reports, where they exist at all, are patchy at best and edging towards hallucinatory. We join the action as the twelfth expedition begins their journey. Known only by their job titles the group enters Area X and finds themselves in a thoroughly twisted world full of abandoned dwellings, a ghostly lighthouse, strange noises and an unearthly creature, the crawler. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Part two, Authority, took us back outside Area X to the Southern Reach, a government agency charged with investigating the anomaly. Despite the bizarre disturbance being left behind the weirdness is ratcheted up a few notches both by the impersonal and paranoid aspect of the Southern Reach and by the thoroughly transformed biologist from the ill-fated twelfth expedition. Under interrogation by the agency and now calling herself Ghost Bird, she is a link to Area X which seems to draw its warping influence ever closer to the outside world.

And so to Acceptance. Once more VanderMeer manages to pull on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of imagination and pushes the unease factor to maximum levels. We’re now caught jumping between times as we are filled in on the back story of the lighthouse keeper and the Southern Reach’s former director who, it transpires, was one of the twelfth expedition’s members. In present day we find ourselves following Control (the current director), Ghost Bird and Grace, the former director’s assistant as they make a final journey into Area X. By cutting up the narrative between five widely varying viewpoints and three distinct times we are never given a chance to settle down and recover our nerves. As the fractured narrative unfolds revelation is piled upon revelation, always threatening to throw some light on exactly what is going on, but only teasing and then shrouding everything in yet more darkness.

It’s impossible to read these books out of sequence, it’s best to get that straight right away. However, when consumed as intended they add up to a transcendent literary experience. You learn to trust nothing you are being told and to expect anything. In this receptive state of mind VanderMeer has a ball restructuring your psyche and twisting your thoughts back on themselves. Each installment has its own distinct flavour and is terrifying and unnerving in an entirely different way, but they roll together utterly seamlessly. Storytelling like this doesn’t happen very often. I can only urge you in the strongest terms to get on board right now.

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Filed under Bizarro, Fantasy, First Contact, Science Fiction