The Nobody People, by Bob Proehl (Review)

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The Nobody People
by Bob Proehl

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 496 Pages

Release date: September 3, 2019

Publisher: Del Rey Books

Synopsis: 

After decades in hiding, a group of outcasts with extraordinary abilities clashes with a world that is threatened by their power.

When Avi Hirsch learns that his daughter Emmeline has special abilities, he tries to shield her against an increasingly hostile society. Carrie Norris can become invisible, but all she wants is to be seen by the people she loves. Fahima Deeb has faced prejudice her entire life, but her uncanny connection to machines offers her the opportunity to level the playing field. These are just a few of the ordinary nobodies with astonishing gifts who must now band together against bigotry and fear, even as one of their own actively works to destroy a fragile peace. Will their combined talents spark a much-needed revolution–or an apocalypse?

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey Books for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Nobody People was a bit of a lukewarm read for me. I love superhero stories, but the concept has been done to death at this point, making it really difficult to write one that doesn’t feel stale. There needs to be an interesting twist, super engaging characters, or just… something new to say. Unfortunately, The Nobody People felt just a bit too cookie-cutter for me.

As other reviewers have noted, one of the bigger flaws of the novel is that it feels like someone has taken a four or five book series and tried to cram it all into a novel. Proehl is trying to do a lot of interesting things with his varied cast of characters, and the book has a bit of a long timeline. In the end, it was too much for one book, and none of it got explored with the depth needed to actually engage readers. Avi, for example, who is one of the major characters, has to come to terms with a crumbling marriage and essentially losing his super-powered daughter as she finds a sense of community with others like herself. All of this ends up feeling very surface level, as there is simply too much going on with the many other characters at the same time.

With super-powered humans going to a school and living largely segregated from regular humans, the novel with inevitably draw comparisons to X-Men. One thing I did like about this book was that it took a lot of the things that were purely allegorical in X-Men (i.e., parallels between the civil rights movement, the fight for gay rights, etc.) and brings them to forefront of the novel. Prejudice against super-powered people doesn’t suddenly mean your garden variety racism has been forgotten, and some of the characters in Proehl’s novels are dealing with intersecting levels of marginalization due to their status as, for example, immigrants, mix-race people, or members of the LGBTQ community, making their experiences more complex.

All in all, this was an okay book, but not necessarily one I’d recommend to anyone. If superhero stories are your speed, there are much better ones out there to read. Some of my favorites are the books in the Reckoners series, by Brandon Sanderson, which takes the interesting angle of making all the super-powered humans villains and giving us a cast of ordinary people fighting back.

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Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire


Middlegame
by Seanan McGuire

Genre: Fantasy

Length: 528 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Tor.com

Synopsis: 

New York Times bestselling and Alex, Nebula, and Hugo-Award-winning author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

ratingfour

My thanks to NetGalley and Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Middlegame is a deliciously dark and fun adult fantasy novel. Imagine one day finding out there was more than a grain of truth in the fairy tales you grew up reading. Roger and Dodger grew up in a world where a series of books about the “Up-and-Under,” written by Asphodel Baker, were hiding alchemical truths under a thin layer of fantasy. These two almost-twins find out that there is a lot more to the world and to themselves than they ever imagined.

While the story itself is a lot of fun (full of psychic links, time travel, and danger), the absolute high point of this book for me was exploring the relationship between Roger and Dodger. They meet for the first time in their own heads, with a seven-year-old Roger trying to convince himself that the girl’s voice in his head is just a new imaginary friend he’s dreamed up. Except… she knows things he doesn’t, mainly how to do the math homework he’s been totally failing to comprehend.

Roger and Dodger are polar opposites in a lot of ways; Roger lives for books and words, and Dodger lives for the straight-forward world of math. But they’re also two sides of the same coin, with their weird ability to see into each other’s minds and a strange sense of not truly belonging. They love one another fiercely and their bond really jumps off the page.

If I have any complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing can feel a bit off at times. At over 500 pages, it is a bit long, but for the most part is very engrossing. Given the sheer size of the book, it also seems odd that the rules of the universe don’t feel entirely pinned down, although perhaps this will vary from reader to reader, as I’m only passably familiar with a lot of the things McGuire employs in this book, like the Doctrine of Ethos, alchemy, and other vaguely magical concepts.

Middlegame is a highly ambitious novel and a perfect choice for those of us who like our books a bit on the weird side. Great for fans of books like The Seven 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton), The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson), and Dark Matter (Blake Crouch).

**content warning: suicide attempt, violence, mild gore**

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Thank you for reading! This was my first Seanan McGuire book and I’ll definitely be checking out more of her work. Tell me about an author you’ve recently discovered in the comments!

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American War, by Omar El Akkad (Review)

52861895_316834162517377_5928037333659025408_nAmerican War
by Omar El Akkad

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: April 4, 2017

Synopsis: 

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.”

rating

three

“This country has a long history of defining its generations by the conflicts that should have killed them.” 

I had really mixed feelings towards this book, and I feel like it’s one of those stories I like more in concept than in execution. American War is a science fiction novel set in a future where America has been ravaged by climate change, disease, and violence. While the author has done a good job of choosing timely issues to explore, particularly in regards to climate change and clinging to outdated ideals in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, something about the world building felt rather hollow to me.

While excessive info-dumping can surely kill a novel, this one seemed to suffer from a lack of substance in its back story. The American history of Sarat’s world is in a lot of ways a big, gaping blank. There are tidbits thrown into the narrative throughout the book, often in the form of quasi-historical documents, interviews with soldiers, etc., but they focus mainly on the war itself and not how the country got to that point.

Sarat makes for a bit of a thorny protagonist, although necessarily so. This story is in large part about radicalization and how circumstances can poke and prod an ordinary person into becoming a terrorist. “For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple. The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled,” El Akkad writes.

The Sarat of the latter half of the book is violent and unforgiving, driven by vengeance. She has been through unimaginable things to make her this way, but still, it makes it difficult to connect with her while reading. Nevertheless, she makes for a very interesting character study and exploration of how victimization and isolation can lead to radicalization under the right circumstances. It’s very easy for the reader to see why Sarat was targeted as a recruit, but less so for her in her young and vulnerable state. Seeds are planted in Sarat’s youth which don’t fully come to fruition until the end of the novel.

American War sometimes felt tonally awkward for me as a reader, with excessively stereotypical depictions of southerners. With the number of years between present day and Sarat’s story (the war begins in 2074, for reference) surely attitudes, slang, etc. would have shifted more in the amount of time? Inventing slang for a futuristic society can be dicey and easily end up sounding cheesy, but with more than half a century between our time and Sarat’s, the fact that their speech patterns so closely mirror the modern stereotypical southern feels like a wasted opportunity to bring some flavor to the world building.

My final issue with this book was that a major spark of the conflict (fossil fuels) didn’t feel entirely believable. Yes, this is a point of contention in the real world, but it is taken to such a ridiculous extreme in this novel that I found it difficult to buy into it. Late in the novel, Sarat has solar cells which are used part time at her home, but she continues to unnecessarily use outlawed fuel… on principal, I guess? A strange hill to die on, but okay.

Given what has preceded this point, Sarat’s continued animosity makes sense. However, it seems like it would be based more on the deaths of friends and family members, to the point where emotional ties to fossil fuels no longer make sense as a factor, particularly given the advances in technology in our modern times, which will make clean energy more and more accessible as time goes on. This is not a woman using outlawed fuel because she needs it or because it’s more efficient than the alternative. This is a woman using outlawed fuel because “eff the north,” full stop.

Overall, this book was just a very mixed bag. Sarat’s slow progression as she became sucked into extremist ways of thinking was well done in a lot of ways, but the overall story suffered from a rather thin backstory and clunky world building. A somewhat enjoyable read, but for all the literary awards and hype, I was expecting more.

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Review – The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas

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The Psychology of Time Travel
by Kate Mascarenhas

Genre: Science Fiction, Mystery

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Synopsis:

1967: Four young female scientists invent a time travel machine in their remote lab in Cumbria. They become known as the pioneers: the women who led the world to a future where no knowledge is unattainable.

2016: Ruby Rebello knows that her beloved grandmother was one of the pioneers, but she refuses to talk about her past. Ruby’s curiosity soon turns to fear however, when a newspaper clipping from four months in the future arrives in the post. The clipping reports the brutal murder of an unnamed elderly lady.

Could the woman be her Granny Bee?

rating

five

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for the review copy. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher.

Mascarenhas’ debut novel is so delightfully fun! Reading the blurb, you’d expect the mystery to be the main thrust of this novel, and while it is certainly a major focal point, there’s so much else going on that the mystery ends up feeling like a bonus. The novel has several POV characters in several different timelines, but Mascarenhas has made it fairly easy for the reader to keep the various characters straight.

The story begins with Ruby’s “Granny Bee,” or Barbara, in the 1960’s as she and her colleagues are putting the finishing touches on their newly developed time travel technology. Barbara suffers a mental health crisis which seemed to have been triggered by time travel, and she is ousted from the group to prevent bad PR. If the public at large gets wind of a link between mental illness and time travel this early in the game, their careers will be over before they’ve truly begun. Barbara’s contributions are swept under the rug and her colleagues rush onward to fame and fortune without her.

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Fast forward to modern day, and the Conclave founded by Granny Bee’s former friends now operates on its own terms, outside the laws of the land. The logic for this is that laws change over the years and that a time travel organization necessarily needs a constant set of a rules. Sound logic, perhaps, but an organization policing itself is dicey at best. The Psychology of Time Travel is as much about the corrupt politics of the Conclave and the twisted mindsets of long-term time travelers as it is about the mystery.

Mascarenhas asks what death would mean to a seasoned time traveler and explores that in this novel. If your father dies, but you can hop into a time machine and go on visiting him anyway, does he seem dead to you? Why should he seem any more or less alive than any other person if you can travel hundreds of years into the future and then pop back to 1973 later on that day? What happens to you when the only death that truly feels final is your own? And what happens if you already know the date and circumstances of that death?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a science fiction story wrapped in a thought experiment and tied together with a murder mystery. It features multiple female scientists as prominent characters and gives great attention to diversity. The world building is phenomenal and the story is infinitely engaging. I look forward to seeing what Mascarenhas writes next!

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About the Author

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Kate Mascarenhas is a writer.

Born in 1980, she is of mixed heritage (white Irish father, brown British mother) and has family in Ireland and the Republic of Seychelles.

She studied English at Oxford and Applied Psychology at Derby. Her PhD, in literary studies and psychology, was completed at Worcester.

Since 2017 Kate has been a chartered psychologist. Previously she has been an advertising copywriter, bookbinder, and doll’s house maker. She lives in the English midlands with her partner.

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Wildcard, by Marie Lu (Review)


Wildcard
by Marie Lu

Genre: YA, Science Fiction

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Synopsis: 

Emika Chen barely made it out of the Warcross Championships alive. Now that she knows the truth behind Hideo’s new NeuroLink algorithm, she can no longer trust the one person she’s always looked up to, who she once thought was on her side.

Determined to put a stop to Hideo’s grim plans, Emika and the Phoenix Riders band together, only to find a new threat lurking on the neon-lit streets of Tokyo. Someone’s put a bounty on Emika’s head, and her sole chance for survival lies with Zero and the Blackcoats, his ruthless crew. But Emika soon learns that Zero isn’t all that he seems–and his protection comes at a price.

Caught in a web of betrayal, with the future of free will at risk, just how far will Emika go to take down the man she loves?

rating

two

*Minor spoilers included in this review.*

Oh, Wildcard,  I wanted to like you. I gave Warcross a three star review, so it was solid but not super impressive in my eyes, but I was intrigued enough by the end to want to continue the series. I should not have bothered.

Let me start with the positive; this book is trying to do a lot of interesting stuff thematically. Through Hideo’s character, Lu explores how practically limitless power, unresolved past trauma, and technology can intersect with disastrous consequences. The abuse of power through advanced tech is not a remotely new theme in sci-fi, but Wu’s futuristic society in this series does provide an interesting platform to explore it.

Also, Emika mentions her “rainbow hair” probably at least 50% less in this book than she did in the first one, so that was a plus. (Seriously, that phrase was used so often in Warcross that I think it may forever make my eye twitch when I hear it.)

That being said, I had a lot of problems with this book. Complex villains are good, but I wasn’t super thrilled about how Hideo’s character arc was handled, particularly in relation to Emika. She is horrified by what he’s done but can’t seem to shake her feelings for him. I’m not into the dynamic there; if you’re into shipping Kylo Ren and Rey, you’ll probably like it a lot more than I did. Emika spends a lot of time sympathizing with Hideo and thinking about how the loss of his brother has driven him down the path to becoming essentially a super villain. People die due to Hideo’s manipulation of the tech he’s tricked them into using. We all lose people, buddy. Most of us don’t resort to attempting mind control over the entire population of the earth over it.

Overall, it just feels like Wu wants us to view Hideo as a redeemable character, and I don’t see him that way at all. Your mileage may vary.

But on a broader note, I just had a hard time connecting with any of the characters in this at all. They all felt a bit flat and I had trouble keeping Emika’s teammates straight for a good bit of the book. Even Emika never really jumped off the page for me, and she’s the protagonist. She seems like she sometimes veers into that “bland MC who can’t be too much of a character because the author wants you to be able to picture yourself in their role” kind of territory.

Wildcard also features one major plot twist, and maybe it’s a product of being outside of the target audience for YA novels, but it did not take me remotely by surprise. It was an interesting development, but it seems like Lu was laying on the foreshadowing a bit too thick for it to have the punch that she wanted it to.

Finally, it feels very disconnected from the book that came before it in a way I can’t quite articulate. A lot of other reviewers have stated that they almost felt like it took place in a separate universe from the first installment, and I can definitely understand that assessment. Warcross as a game also plays a much smaller role in this book, and I think that also contributes to a totally different vibe.

Basically, there was a lot of potential in this book, but it felt a bit squandered. I don’t know if Lu is planning another installment of this series, but regardless, I’m saying goodbye forever to Emika and her rainbow colored hair.

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Thank you for reading! What’s your favorite story that explores the relationships between power, technology, and morality? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Review – Severance, by Ling Ma


Severance
by Ling Ma

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: August 14, 2018

Synopsis: 

An offbeat office novel turns apocalyptic satire as a young woman transforms from orphan to worker bee to survivor

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.

So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?

A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.

rating

three

Severance feels like a zombie story that very much does not want to call itself a zombie story. While the people infected with Shen Fever don’t go around trying to eat brains, there is a very zombie-like quality to their mindless repetition of rote tasks. Then again, the narrator has a bit of a zombie-like quality to her as well, as do a lot of the work-obsessed people huddled together in New York City before the fever breaks out. (And, my God, does Ling Ma hammer that point home. The parallels between the meaningless rate race and the actual zombies are brought up so many times it seems like the author was afraid the readers would miss it.)

The overall tone of the novel may be best described as “sleepy,” which is an interesting choice for an apocalyptic novel, but I suppose it meshes well with the characterization of Candace. Prior to the fever breaking out, she was whiling away her youth in an office job she had more or less fallen into and didn’t particularly enjoy, but endured for the stability it offered.

Structurally, the novel bounces around a lot in time, which was somewhat disorienting at times. For the most part, it switches back and forth between Candace’s time working in her office and her later travels with a small band of remaining survivors. At one point, it switches without warning to give the backstory of her parents, detailing their coming to America from China and her mother’s struggle to adjust.

I think that the cultural aspects of the novel were one of its major strengths. Candace’s status as an immigrant is important to the story in a lot of ways, and her experience as someone who came to America as a child contrasted sharply with that of her parents. China would always be home to them. Despite being born there, Candace felt less connection, and struggling to speak Mandarin on an adult level became a source of embarrassment for her. I always find stories of first generation immigrants interesting, particularly the exploration of what it’s like to be essentially sandwiched between to cultures, and I thought this was something Ling Ma handled very well.

Overall, I enjoyed Severance, but found it somewhat lacking in terms of plot. The lack of structure in terms of timelines left things feeling somewhat disconnected, and it began to get very repetitive when it came to the point of drawing parallels between the drone-like qualities of both the fevered and healthy people in the story.

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Review – The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker

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The Dreamers 
by Karen Thompson Walker

Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: January 15, 2019

Publisher: Random House

Synopsis: 

A mesmerizing novel about a college town transformed by a strange illness that locks victims in a perpetual sleep and triggers life-altering dreams—by the bestselling author of The Age of Miracles, for fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

rating

four

My thanks to Random House for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

If you like stories which answer all of your questions by the end and wrap everything up in a neat little bow, The Dreamers may not be for you. However, if dreamy, evocative prose and heartfelt relationships between characters are what make a novel worthwhile for you, I definitely recommend giving The Dreamers a chance.

The Dreamers alternates between the perspectives of multiple characters in the aftermath of the outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. Sufferers fall into a REM-like sleep and cannot be awoken, but appear for all intents and purposes to be otherwise healthy. The science fiction aspect of the story remains in the background, while the reactions of people both on an individual level and as a group are the focus of the novel.

Facing rising panic in the community as the disease remains a total mystery and continues to spread, we get to know the young daughter of a doomsday prepper who never envisioned this particular possibility, the father of a newborn who is struggling with the danger to which is child is now exposed, the roommate of patient zero who feels guilty for not noticing and trying to help sooner, and a psychiatrist working to solve the mystery of the sleeping sickness. Pressure slowly mounts as a quarantine is put into place and each of these characters spends day after day in fear.

This rising tide of panic provides some of the most interesting passages in The Dreamers. The story is deeply psychological, pushing each character to their limits, often coming back to the same question: will you help when it becomes difficult, when it’s scary, when it can come at great personal cost? What is your breaking point? What if you would put your loved ones at risk in addition to yourself? With the constant threat of spreading this mystery contagion, some characters will step up and some will run for cover. At each step of the way, we are called to sympathize with them for these choices, whether or not we agree with them.

As I said, The Dreamers may not be for you if you need all of your questions answered by the final page of the novel. Despite thoroughly enjoying the process of reading this, I felt at the end that there was a lack of resolution. I wanted more answers. I wanted closure and a concrete sense that those who remained were forever changed by the experience. This lack of resolution kept this from being a five star book for me, but Karen Thompson Walker’s gorgeous prose and exploration of human emotions were well worth the time invested in this novel.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read The Dreamers? What were your thoughts? Do you prefer science fiction where the deviations from the real world are front and center, or consigned to the background and used solely as a catalyst to explore what it means to be human? Discuss in the comments!

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