Fanfiction – Moving Sci-Fi MLP Oneshot Fics

While I do try to minimize the amount of MLP fic I post here, rather than in my recommendations group, I just re-read a couple of short fics that really go above and beyond.

One of the interesting details about the MLP fandom is that, as far as I (and various other commenting readers) can tell, it has a higher than average proportion of authors who are also into science fiction (and the proportion of those who are into more than just the most common pop sci-fi like Star Trek, Star Wars, Mass Effect, etc.).

I could write an entire blog post about great crossover fics like The Maretian or elegant non-crossover first-contact fics like Arrow 18, or even stuff that barely got started, but is noteworthy just for existing, like The Long Trot but, today, I felt like talking about fics that give you the feels.

For this, I’ve chosen two which cross over with real life, so to speak. They’re quite short and their impact is the sort of thing that is best experienced fresh, so I’ll be brief in my descriptions this time:

Voyage’s End by The DM
This is a little 7,205-word story which could be thought of as two oneshots, each with a “punchline” designed to make you tear up. In the first one, Equestrian ponies catch one of the Voyager probes as it serendipitously passes through their solar system and then discover the golden record. In the second one, they follow the “map” on the record cover back to Earth.
One small step
In this 4,262-word story, written as a memorial to Neil Armstrong, contact has already come and gone (I’d assume, via trans-dimensional means) and Rainbow Dash is used as a vehicle to try to bring some of the wonder and emotion of the Apollo 11 mission to a generation who grew up reading it as history like any other.
It helps that the author embedded illustrations of the launch to drive the experience home further (one of the benefits of posting a fic to a site other than Fanfiction.net), but there’s a minor detail which could easily have been left out which spoils the second chapter for me. Thankfully, the first chapter was written to stand alone.

I think the first is the most powerful, but I’m not sure I can remember running into anything that hit me this hard in other fandoms… I’m sure that’s partly because I’m unmoved by the more personal, more TV-like means authors in other fandoms tend to prefer.

(Though there is one very un-TV-like fic in another fandom which I’d likewise recommend for its very distinctive style: A Ranma ½ oneshot named Elegy for a Golden Youth by Reid Carson. It’s been years but, if I remember correctly, it was inspired by Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.)

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An Improved QPlainTextEdit for PyQt5

TL;DR: Code here

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is a proper replacement for the hacky way I handle desktop notes and “scratch paper”. (Abusing Leafpad windows as pseudo-sticky notes so I have things which are proper windows which show up in the taskbar because I almost never see my desktop.)

Well, one thing that I’ve always wanted was as-you-type spell checking in my stickies and scratch spaces, so I got to Googling and found this bit of code for PyQt4 by John Schember.

I liked where it was going, but realized I could do much better. (eg. It shouldn’t be meddling with the visible cursor and selection to do background processing.)

The changes I made as of this post are as follows:

  • Brought the declaration of MIT license terms up to my standards.
  • Reformatted it to satisfy PEP8 and match my preferred code style.
  • Ported it to Python 3.x and PyQt5
  • Refactored the code to be cleaner (Both the fix from Jonas F. Jensen’s comment on the original and many fixes of my own.)
  • Reworked things so the user’s cursor and selection are left un-touched. (Qt supports having additional ones which aren’t shown to the user.)
  • Switched to using PyEnchant’s tokenizer for both highlighting and generation of spelling suggestions to minimize false positives.
  • Reworked the API to better support dropping this code into a larger application, unmodified, rather than using it as a starting-point to be copy-pasted.
  • Added context submenus to allow changing the spelling language or ignoring HTML tags.
  • Enabled the PyEnchant tokenizer’s URL filter to avoid false positives.
  • Added a workaround for a cursor-focus bug I observed in Qt 5.2.1.

It’s not yet perfect, but I think this is as far as I’ll go with the MIT-licensed version. (eg. I’m using a version of PyEnchant which doesn’t yet include an implementation of levenshtein distance, I don’t feel like writing one from scratch, and none of the ready-made ones I could embed have MIT-compatible licenses.)

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A Musical Sampling of Subcultures With Feels All Their Own

There are various subcultures I’ve dipped my toes into, but not all are created equal. Some have that “wherever you go, there you are” feel about them (eg. the otherwise excellent fan-music scene for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), but then some produce cultural artifacts that have a strong, distinctive feel all their own.

…so I decided, why not give a sampling of songs which were not only produced by a distinctive subculture, but manage to evoke such feelings in me:

Pushin’ the Speed of Light by Julia Ecklar & Anne Prather
This song evokes a feel that I associate with sci-fi from the middle of the 20th century. Maybe the 1940s through the early 1980s. New enough to have evolved beyond “cowboys in space”, yet old enough to not have lost the adventuresome spirit embodied in books like Niven’s Ringworld and the poignant humanity so well embodied in the song. (I also like the fact that it’s a minstrel ballad.)
Sam Jones by Leslie Fish is another song which evokes this sort of feeling in me. (For comparison, The Horse Tamer’s Daughter is an amazing ballad from the same subculture and it checks off the boxes necessary to be called an epic, but, if anything, it evokes feelings of Darkover, rather than the subculture the novels existed in.)
Sadly, I suspect that the essence of what I love exists only as fading wisps and the only place I’d be able to truly experience it was a 1980s sci-fi convention where the original casette tape releases of these songs were sold.
307 Ale by Tom Smith
This song about sci-fi booze speaks to me because it feels like it carries a lingering trace of a subculture I caught the tail end of in amateur fiction. It’s the distinctive style I recognize from various authors in places I wandered into during the early 2000s. For example, the archive for the rec.arts.anime.creative Usenet group and Sapphire’s Place.
I also get the impression that I’ll find more of it once I have time to get into some of the old Infocom and Legend Entertainment adventure games I’ve picked up. (It’s been a long time, but I seem to remember the Ditch Day Drifter game included as an example with TADS having at least a whiff of the feel to it.)
For that reason, I suspect that what I’m picking up on was the college nerd/geek culture of the 1980s and 1990s, and that it’s also long gone.
Various anime intro songs (and a few endings)
Back in the early and mid 2000s, I spent several years obsessed with anime and manga and, despite my interests having shifted over the years, I think I’m entitled to eulogize the market shift away from what I loved so much.
Back in the 80s and 90s, TV animation both in North America and Japan experienced a boom and, discovering anime in the early 2000s, it seemed like, no matter where I looked, Japan had done something that appealed to me, where they now drive me away.
I could check out weird and cheesy things targeted at teenage males, like Maze: The Megaburst Space or Steel Angel Kurumi, without learning just how many different excuses the production company could find to sell softcore pornography to teenage males. (And, in some cases, I’d be surprised at how much work was actually put into giving the female characters depth in a “harem” anime.)
Likewise, what was popular seemed to line up more with my tastes, with series like the original Neon Genesis Evangelion, .hack//SIGN, and Slayers (2) as opposed to things like Attack on Titan, Fairy Tail, the later seasons of Naruto. (Regardless of the quality of their intro songs.)
In fact, I can do one better. I can provide a glaring comparison of how much the industry chased the lowest common denominator in one of the genres I loved:
In the 1980s, Rumiko Takahashi gained a ton of acclaim. Two of her biggest successes were romantic comedies named Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½. In Urusei Yatsura, a candidate for the world’s most lecherous teen winds up with an unwanted suitor who is an alien oni girl in a tigerskin bikini. In Ranma ½, the main character is a macho jock who’s cursed to turn into a girl and has an unwanted engagement set up by his buffoon of a father. (Ranma ½ is noteworthy in that some issues of the manga and the corresponding anime episodes have fanservice-y scenes involving bare breasts, but they’re implemented by finding a reasonable excuse to set an otherwise ordinary scene in a location where nudity is expected.)
In 2009, To Love-Ru came out (a pun on how both that and “Trouble” turn into “Toraburu” within the limitations of the Japanese writing system). It’s a rehash of the Urusei Yatsura concept, with the lead picking up a troublesome suitor who is an alien devil girl instead of an alien oni girl, and, on more than one occasion, a story arc revolves around one of her gizmos leaving the main character stuck as a girl for long enough for titillating mishaps to occur. Where Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½ tactfully couched their fanservice in terms of “Well, it’s relevant to the plot, so keep filming”, this… well… watch the intro. Tactless and blatant fanservice galore and the broadcast version required the addition of glows and steam clouds to censor things in some scenes.
It may not be the same kind of fall from grace that western animation experienced, with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic being the exception that proves the rule, but it fell at least as far, if not more so.
Gentle Arms of Eden by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
This one’s a bit more of an anomaly, because I get the impression that what appeals in it is less a fandom and more a community… something which I’ll have to clarify.
For the fandoms, yes they’re communities, but they’re communities which exist and survive in a distributed fashion. You can make and keep friends online, with the occasional visit to a convention or a local meeting place and you’re not missing out on anything because that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Here, it feels more like I’m picking up on what Americans mean when they say they moved to states like California or Oregon or Washington “for the culture”… a sense of “wouldn’t it be refreshing to live in a place with more of this mindset floating around?” …and I’m not in a position or mindset to do something as drastic as moving for something as nebulous and un-guaranteed as this.
That said, it’s still a shame that we seem to have moved away from this kind of folk music in a more general sense. So many of my favourite songs are either by the folk and folk-inspired bands of the mid 20th century (Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Chad and Jeremy, etc.) or their covers of earlier folk songs (eg. Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn [1] [2] and Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda.)
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Thoughts on National Anthems in the 21st Century

While I was adding I Am Australian to my list of songs that moved me, I got to thinking about the sentiment by many Australians that it would make a much better anthem than Advance Australia Fair and, in the process, I got to thinking about what would actually make a good national anthem in the 21st century.

Well, what is the purpose of a national anthem to begin with? According to Wikipedia, it’s a patriotic song which “evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions, and struggles of its people”.

In other words, it’s a song which embodies the nature of the nation and evokes a sense of national identity and loyalty.

The problem is that, when I look at national anthems and how they’re used, it feels like they’re products of their time to the point where, in the 21st century, that adherence to tradition is becoming detrimental to their core function.

As a Canadian, I suppose it would be most appropriate for me to break down O Canada, but I don’t have a more effective alternative to contrast it with, and that would really weaken the communicative power of my argument.

Since this post started with “I Am Australian”, let’s look at “Advance Australia Fair”. It’s a beautiful song, but it was written in the latter half of the 19th century (first performed in 1878) and it’s very much a product of its time.

It’s an ode (in the relaxed sense of the word) to the virtues of the nation, written in the characteristic musical style of its time period and meant to be sung with the kind of decorum that was common in high society of the period.

While that’s all well and good, I argue that it has the same flaw as the school systems which we inherited from that time, designed to train factory workers: It inculcates obedience and duty on the promise that “you’ll discover its relevance later” and is incredibly “leaky”. (I don’t have a citation handy, but I remember reading that students tend to retain only about 5% of what they are taught in school and have a problem with sandboxing knowledge, such that they never try to apply teachings from one class to the next class of the day.)

If your primary goal is to teach knowledge, rather than to teach conformity and obedience, experts agree that the most effective approach is to give relevance first, then give knowledge. This is a specific instance of a more general pattern which also comes into play with national anthems.

In short, make people value their nation and true respect will come, rather than commanding the trappings of respect and trying to inculcate it through some pavlovian response.

I’ll come back to that when I get to how anthems are used but, first, I’d like to talk about the content of the anthem.

The Song

One of the our biggest social problems at the beginning of the 21st century is a pathological lack of empathy, which the homophilic effects of social networking sites exacerbate. Anthems traditionally haven’t helped here, because this problem is the remnants of cultural trends which were even stronger in the past. Segregation, apartheid, class warfare, slavery, etc.

While “Advance Australia Fair” certainly salutes the beautiful attributes of the Australian land, with passages such as “with boundless plains to share”, it does nothing to counter the tendency among some to believe that they are worthy of that beauty, but others are not… and why should it? It was written by a white man, born in the British Isles in the 19th century. He was a product of his culture and wrote a song which embodied that.

In fact, it explicitly says that the aforementioned boundless plains are for “those who’ve come across the seas” and speaks of the bounties of the lands as gifts to be used.

Now, let’s compare “I Am Australian”.

Right from the offset, it respectfully and poetically acknowledges the culture of the aboriginal people and their original claim to the land. It then adds to (not replaces) the atmospheric music from that first passage with the more European strumming of a guitar. Before the lyrics can say a thing about it, the instrumental lines are already expressing the hybrid origins of what Australia became. The second passage then speaks from the perspective of Australian settlers: Convicts and farmers. People who worked hard to earn their place in Australia and who became Australian. Again, focusing not on the virtues of the land, or the joys of the cultural identity, but on the relatable, historical reasons that these people have earned their place in the cultural milieu.

It then moves to the daughter of a digger (in context, one who “sought the motherlode”, but also Australian and New Zealand slang for a soldier which carries a connotation of “egalitarian mateship”) and, in a twist of lyrics which can evoke both a personal journey and a metaphor for the nation itself, “the girl became a woman, on the long and dusty road”. Then, as a bridge into the chorus of the song, she is joined by a chorus of voices as they sing together that “I’m a bushy, I’m a battler. I am Australian.”

Taking the song in this direction may also have a less overt benefit: By encouraging people to focus on the aspects of their identity that can never be taken from them, it may make conservatives more open to the unfamiliar.

Finally, we get to the chorus. “We are one… but we are many. And from all the lands on earth we come. We’ll share a dream… and sing with one voice. I am. You are. We are Australian.” Not only is this a powerful thing to encourage a crowd to join in singing, but, again, it focuses on what unites everyone in the nation, be they aborigine, settler’s descendant, or recent immigrant and whether they’re at home or abroad: Having and pursuing a dream for a better future. (Rather than scarce resources which one might want to hoard.)

…but the song’s elegance as a potential anthem doesn’t stop there. I don’t know whether it was an intentional effort to check off each thing an anthem aims to do, but the second verse is focused on extending the “I am …” pattern to various Australian historical figures, including Albert Namatjira (a pioneer in popularizing the art of his disadvantaged minority) and Ned Kelly (A murderous outlaw who became seen as folk hero for opposing the government… which I think is a good choice as, depending on how you look at it, it’s either an inclusion of another folk hero, or an implication that your status as “one of us” is not something decided by the state).

The second half of the second verse finally starts to describe the land itself and I love the sense of priority that implies. Our own struggles, then our history, and then our lands. Of course, this still isn’t Advance Australia Fair. No bland serenade to the gifts given to the Australian people. I’ll quote this entire stanza verbatim:

I’m the hot wind from the desert
I’m the black soil of the plain
I’m the mountains and the valleys
I’m the drought and flooding rains
I am the rock
I am the sky
The rivers when they run
The spirit of this great land
I am Australian

Two things stand out to me about this assessment of the land:

First, it has shifted from the 19th-century Christian view that all around us has been placed here for us to exploit, to a more poetic, more aboriginal perspective that we and the land are part of the same connected whole and that, like doctors, we are duty-bound to preserve its health. (Not a surprise, given that the song was written in the late 1980s when other songs like “We Are The World” were also being written.)

Second, while Advance Australia Fair focuses on the good things, I Am Australian embraces the land for what it is, both good and bad. If the former is teenage infatuation, then the latter is adult love. To quote My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, “You don’t love someone because they’re perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they’re not.”

Finally, the note they end on. Both songs end on a variation of their title… and what message would you want to leave the people of your country with? “Strive” (which is a pretty instinctual thing anyway) or a message of unity and inclusion (which has to be learned, because of our in-group/out-group instincts)?

The Usage

Now, let’s look at how anthems are actually used and how that can help or hinder their purpose.

I didn’t grow up in Australia, but, here in Canada, we were required to stand while our anthem was played over the school’s P.A. system every morning before classes. Judging by what I’ve seen of American and U.K. culture, that seems to be a safe thing to assume as a minimum for mandatory participation… at least for sake of argument.

This is another decision which seems counter-productive to me. If the purpose of your anthem is to engender unity, loyalty, and appreciation for the nation, you want to work with human instincts, not against them.

When I was in school, students (myself included) didn’t really feel much respect. We saw standing for the anthem as a chore to be gotten out of the way. Likewise, the students in charge of announcements tried their best to find various different recordings of O Canada to avoid us getting completely and utterly fed up with it. (Contrast that with the “Stop the Bop” fundraiser they did, where they played the same recording of Hanson’s Mmmbop every morning to annoy people into meeting their fundraising goals.)

In fact, I once read that the reason you hear so many Christian choral pieces in music by composers like Beethoven is that, having heard them every Sunday for their entire lives, the audience would tune out the meaning of the words and focus more on the acoustics of the voices and how they interacted with the music.

Humans like novelty within our comfort zones. That’s why we love fireworks on national holidays and going out to special events. We also like to be engaged. That’s why you see things such as bands encouraging concert-goers to take a turn singing the chorus of a song.

…so, if the goal is no longer to inculcate human robots to obediently work in factories and fight wars for the privileged classes, why in the heck are you forcing people to merely tolerate their national anthem, when singing along to it should be a treat, like fireworks on the day your country was founded or a half-time show at a football game?

(And who knows. Maybe singing a song with lines like “We are [insert country name]” before a team sport might tweak the audience’s mindset enough to measurably reduce the chances of fans rioting afterward.)

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Relaxing My Schedule For Fanfiction

My apologies to readers, but I’m going to have to stop releasing a review every week.

Things I want to do more have been piling up over the last couple of months and re-reading fics I know to meet my standards for this blog is starting to feel like a real chore when it takes up leisure time I’d rather spend…

  • Catching up to all of the professional-quality print sci-fi and fantasy that has accumulated on my TODO list while I was hooked on fanfiction.
  • Playing various computer and console games that I wanted as a kid but never owned.
  • Reading various non-fiction books.
  • Programming useful utilities, such as a free alternative to Scrivener and a DOS installer builder for retro-hobbyists.
  • Reading new fanfics that may or may not be worth reviewing here when I’m too tired to feel like taking notes.

I do still have fics on my “to review” list, and I’ll also try to review the print novels I read, but getting back into reviews began as just polishing up notes I was taking for my own reference, and and obligating myself to do it (especially on a schedule) has been draining the enjoyment out of my leisure time.

That said, I do have a Harry Potter review about half done right now, so I’ll try to get that done before I move on to reading something else.

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Fanfiction – Cheaters Prosper

Well, it’s been a very busy week and my reading schedule slipped a little too much, so I had to just dig something up quickly.

Cheaters Prosper by drakensis

This is another fun little comedy oneshot which asks a simple question: What might happen if Uzumaki Naruto took the idea to heart that to be a good ninja is to cheat.

I don’t want to spoil things too much, so I’ll just give one amusing little sampling of the phrasing and secondary humour:

“One of the genin has demonstrated a creative, if not technically illegal, perspective on the rules,” the Hokage explained. “It’s certainly a good sign that he’s ready to be promoted, but not the sort of thing to share with outsiders. However, with all these guards, I’m sure that nothing will go wrong. If anyone so much as tries to form a genjutsu my ANBU will be onto them in an instant. And as for sneaking in under a henge… no, nothing like that will be permitted.”

“How reassuring,” Orochimaru said, although the words tasted like ashes in his mouth as he started making covert ‘abort’ signals to Kabuto and his other minions.

I’d say it’s a good 4.5 out of 5. It’s got some clever ideas, and some amusing lines… but there’s still room for improvement.

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Fanfiction – Transcendant Humanity

OK, back to Mass Effect fanfiction.

Transcendant Humanity by Solaris242

One of the things I really enjoy is first-contact scenarios, because they have so much potential for interesting explorations of the societies involved… especially if one or both of the species have never met anything like each other before. After all, if you want “reaction to the unexpected”, first contact is hard to top.

The problem is that, if you check a list like the Alternate First Contact War C2 on Fanfiction.net, you’ll find that far too many of them are focused on either the on-the-ground experiences of the soldiers, or how a different humanity can curb-stomp the Turians. (Not that it’s surprising. Writing a really good contact fic requires out-of-the-box thinking that school tends not to teach, and Mass Effect is a mainstream fandom.)

Obviously, you can do nuance and subterfuge, but that’s a fic for another review. Transcendant Humanity is more of a Humanity, F*k Yeah! story, done well.

The basic premise is that, instead of leaving behind eezo, the Protheans left behind only a warning… leaving humanity without FTL travel and united in their fear of a cryptic, genocidal force from out among the stars. Instead of expanding outward, humanity turned to transhumanism.

Now, this is where canon timelines get fudged a bit, but definitely for the good of the story.

Without eezo, and with humanity turning our effort and our intellect toward dealing with ever-increasing population density and a long-term plan to fortify Sol, Charon spends two millennia ignored as too uninteresting for mining purposes and another decade as the subject of study by a humanity that still remembers to “Trust not the Gates”.

When a means is developed to send exploratory ships without using eezo, they wind up on the wrong side of a Turian patrol fleet and the first chapter ends on one of the most distinctive cliffhangers I’ve ever read:

The Turians expected a young race, just reaching the stars. They feared that humanity was another potential Krogan, or Rachni. Upon exiting the Sol Gate, their entire fleet is frozen by the sight before them.

Thousands of ships that the Turians had believed to be ‘dreadnoughts’. Tens of thousands of frigates. A hundred true dreadnoughts, and dozens of super-carriers almost ten kilometres across; spawning truly uncountable swarms of fighters and drones.

And behind the defensive fleet, the true power of humanity. An occluded star, a supercomputer larger than worlds, filled with a trillion minds. Transcendent Humanity speaks as one, the force of their voice ripping through firewalls, absorbing language and codex, booming from every device capable aboard the Turian ships.

This is Sol, the home of humanity. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.

Now, admittedly, the first chapter is an exposition dump. A reasonably good example of one and having one for the first chapter (or even just a point-form timeline) is a tradition in these sorts of fics, but it’s an exposition dump nonetheless.

Chapter 2 puts the story into a narrative that’s much more normal, accounting for the context of a humanity who consider bodies optional.

It’s the kind of story where it’s difficult for me to give much detail on the plot, because the plot is merely a framework tying together creative and novel scenes. I’ve seen first contact done a million times before. What makes this story work is the fresh world and interesting character experiences that it brings to the table.

The moment I find most memorable is probably when the “Ghosts” (bodiless human infiltrators) who make their way into the Citadel’s systems wind up bringing home an ambassadorial cluster of Geth runtimes, who are struck dumb by the experience of downloading into a “home body” and then experiencing the taste of food.

It’s also an amusingly nostalgic reminder of the early days of the Internet when one of them, making an observation about the Citadel network, comments that “This place is like 75% Asari porn.”

At the same time, it’s refreshing to see a story where, unlike so many Alternate First Contact War fics, the Shanxi assault is averted entirely and it’s satisfying to see a story where humanity is a walking middle finger to the concept of circumscribing and outlawing A.I.

On the character side, there’s one scene which truly captures what makes this story so special. During the initial meetings on the Citadel, a more likeable Donnel Udina visits a café, where, as the first organic human to ever set foot in Council space, he has a conversation with the proprietress… another kind of first contact and an elegant way to insert fresh new content into events I’ve read countless times over.

It’s the use of that imaginativeness on scales both large and small which makes the story what it is. (Wait until you see how they get a cyber-attack into a fleet that’s prepared for it and the crafty solution they come up with for outwitting the Treaty of Farixen.)

Unfortunately, the story stands incomplete at 40,604 words and the update pattern suggests it’s unlikely to be finished, but I’m glad to have what we got. (Not to mention, the author also started another fic, in which the Turians’ first contact with humanity is as survivors of Sol having being consumed by a black hole… though that has made even less progress through its story arc.)

All in all, there’s no other Mass Effect fic quite like Transcendant Humanity and, when I think about it, that’s kind of sad. It’s not wonderously well-written and it’s not a particularly novel concept (I’d give it a 4.5 out of 5). What makes it special is that it manages to evoke some wisp of that era when the space program had sparked a curiosity in the world and the sci-fi new releases didn’t feel so glutted with thrillers, dystopic projections of corporate overreach, and other aspirants to movie adaptation… and isn’t that what an alternate history story should aspire to do?

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