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Andy Weir and the Artemis Book Launch at the USS Intrepid

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, readers!

I have a very exciting update. This past Tuesday, my fiancee Anastasia and I took a trip to New York City. We had two main goals: belatedly celebrate our one year engagement anniversary and to meet Andy Weir, author of The Martian, at the launch event of his new book Artemis. I am happy to say that we accomplished both!

The first thing we did upon our arrival in New York was to grab a taxi and get to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. This was where I had proposed to Anastasia last October. We wanted to visit the museum again because, let’s face it, being on an aircraft carrier is freakin’ awesome and the Space Shuttle Enterprise is always worth a visit when you’re in New York.

The special exhibit for the museum was about Drones, and I really recommend it if you find yourself in New York and have an interest in the history and possible future of drone technology. It’s not a large exhibit, but as part of the whole museum it’s a great add-on.

Here we are, looking at Drones, with Ana taking a bunch of selfies. Look at that huge white hair in my beard, just taunting me.

They had some really impressive displays in the exhibit, including the Navy’s Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH).

My hopes that with would be an awesome exhibit were not DASH-ed. *Crickets* I’m here all week.

After touring the exhibit on drones, we made our way into the Intrepid to get up to the flight deck, because why take an elevator when you can get lost in a massive ship with winding hallways and narrow stairs? The way up to the flight deck through the ship takes you past some really cool pieces, such as old gun placements.

On the flight deck. The weather was much the same as it was the day I proposed–rainy and cold. The good thing is that this time Ana remembered to bring her own jacket.

Of course, you also have to spend time appreciating the planes that the museum has on the flight deck. In the picture above you can see the A-12–the black plane–behind an F-16 Fighting Falcon. I especially like the A-12, a spy plane which is the forerunner to the SR-71 Blackbird.

I don’t like what they were designed for, but I do like the engineering and science behind them.

I think what I really like about the museum is that it just sits on the pier in the Hudson River, giving you a great view of Manhattan. To be honest, every time I go to New York my jaw still drops at just how huge the city is, so I’m pretty much amazed at any view of the city. I’m a country bumpkin.

Seriously, how can you not love this?

There’s also a storage company across the street from the pier, and it has some really clever advertisements. A lot of the attraction of the museum is the space component, which you can find in the space shuttle pavilion where they store the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

That’s some really clever marketing.

After we spent some time in the space shuttle pavilion, marveling at the Enterprise (and after Ana purchased a glow-in-the-dark “Caturn” t-shirt), we hopped in a cab and set out to visit the main branch of the New York Public Library. I had wanted to visit for some time, and we had some time to do it before the Andy Weir book launch. It’s a really special place, and if I were ever in New York City for some time I would definitely find myself in one of the reading rooms.

Afterward, we stopped at the gift shop to marvel at some of the trinkets, including these Einstein statues with little moving hands.

He knows something, doesn’t he?

Of course, we both started to get hungry. Ana was set on getting tea, so we walked a few blocks to Maison Kayser, a french Boulangerie. The food was delicious, the staff was friendly and efficient, and the setting was intimate. We hunkered down there and ate at a leisure pace.

Mmm…A french version of a club sandwich. Includes everything an American club sandwich has, plus an egg.

We arrived back at the Intrepid museum complex just as they were opening the doors to get in. Since we already had our tickets we were able to get in fairly quickly. We were ushered into an elevator to get to the flight deck strait away as the event was being held in the space shuttle pavilion. As we reached the top, and the elevator doors opened, a prerecorded voice said, “going down,” of course just an automated message played when the elevator moves. One of the people in the elevator with us said, “that’s not something you want to hear on an aircraft carrier.” Laughs were had by all.

We picked our seats by the stage where Andy would be interviewed, and Ana got a free beer from 212 Brewing Company. It was a pale ale, both hoppy and delicious. It wasn’t long before Andy arrived in the pavilion, and he was generous with his time in interacting with his fans. Ana asked him a question about The Martian, and he provided an answer that was thoughtful and not rushed. She also mentioned it was our anniversary (though he called us liars–jokingly, of course!–because it wasn’t really our anniversary).

The Belarussian, the Martian, and the Author.

After he met with the fans, he conducted a short interview for a podcast (I’m not sure which one).

I didn’t hear the interview, but I expect it was sufficiently nerdy.

I really liked the entire scene. Ana and I sat under the left wing of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, on the deck of the USS Intrepid, to listen to Andy Weir talk about his writing process, Artemis, and a host of other interesting details relating to being a writer, getting published, and the science behind the books. Two things which I really appreciated: 1) his remarks about world-building in his stories, and how it’s vital to them. In fact, he explained that Artemis started as him building the world in the novel, and then writing the story around that. 2) The fact that he described the perspective of his books as being “first-person smartass.” A man after my own heart, but also very practical; people are much more tolerant of exposition when it comes from a voice that they like. Andy has a talent for that, as he very easily slides science into the narrative without you really knowing that you’re being SCIENCED!

The shuttle itself is actually much bigger than the picture would suggest. (I tried to rewrite this statement several times and failed to make it not suggestive.)

Finally, after the talk was over, we got in line to get our books autographed.

According to Ana, I’m a pushover.

Andy, as always, we friendly and gracious. He even remembered us from earlier, and wished us a happy anniversary. Ana showed him her beat-up copy of The Martian, which, as she readily explains, she took to the top of a volcano in Hawaii to read. Apparently it provided a really neat setting for the book and provided a certain level of immersion in it. Andy, of course, said he loved books that were “well-loved,” while pretending to crack the spine of my book which was in pristine shape (I am…obsessive about keeping my books in good condition). I jokingly said, “that’s a good way to get the table flipped over,” which he laughed at, providing me no small relief because it could have been received wrong.

It was a very great anniversary, and I can’t imagine that I would ever do something as nerdy and fantastic as this with anyone other than Ana. I look forward to the many more geeky adventures with her, the woman I first met in a science fiction literature class.

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On Lectures

November 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m listening to a lecture on Frankenstein at the Rosenbach Library. It’s an interesting enough lecture, with some really interesting facts and ideas, but I’m starting to realize that I’ve not really been ythat open to the lecture format of learning since I left the University of Michigan.

Part of that is because the lectures that I attend now are those that I find interest in, not because I’m looking for a good grade or working toward a degree. I like more interactive methods of learning, which is probably why I did better in science class than I did in literature classes. Strange, then, that I chose o get a degree in English and not in science.

And this makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me. It’s true that I’m fascinated with the context and conteent of the lecture, but I’m incredibly bored. I suppose part of it is that it feels like I have little expertise on the life of Mary Shelley and not much to contribute.

I’d like to think of myself as a life-long learner–someone who has a voracious apetite for knowledge. But my mind wanders. I can’t summon the energy to maintain a constant focus on the speaker. I looked at my phone, I day-dreamed. I brought a notebook to takes notes in, but before long I close it because I had nothing to write.

Am I losing my edge? Am I losing my drive to learn? I really hope not. Much of my identity is tied up in the idea that I’ll always have an open mind–that I’ll always take in new perspectives and learn new things. And yet, here I am, writing this and splitting my attention.

Maybe I’be just head all of this before? This topic–of Frankenstein–is not new to me. I’ve studied it before, and talked about it at length. I’ve even had arguments wwith Ana about it. That’s got to be it, right?

Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

October 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, readers!

As promised, this is going to be my longer review of David Walton‘s new book The Genius Plague, just released on October 3rd. My previous review was a short advance preview of the book that covered the basics and recommend it to readers of science fiction and general audiences, with 4 out of 5 stars. I had the privilege to meet Walton at the science fiction conference in Washington, D.C., Escape Velocity, in August. He’s a kind, interesting person with a deep well of knowledge, and he’s very generous with his time. I look forward to seeing him at the upcoming PhilCon conference this weekend.

As you’ll see in this review, I have since decided to upgrade the book to 5 out of 5 stars, based on a more thorough examination of my notes, as well as thinking more on what the book actually does.

A note on the text before I get into the review: I read from an Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy, so I likely do not have the final version of the novel. It is expected that there will be certain kinds of errors in the manuscript, and that’s okay. This review will take that into account and focus on the content of the story, the writing style, and other technical aspects that wouldn’t really be effected by the particular edition of the book I read.

This is a long review because I think there’s a lot to unpack in this novel. I’ve left a lot of stuff out for the sake of actually getting a finished review out in time for PhilCon, and I may write more about my thoughts later.

As always, there will be spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned! If you’d still like to read on, click “Read More” right below.

Read more…

Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 1 comment

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I haven’t reviewed many science fiction books on this blog (with the notable exception of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, an excellent read), but I have a treat today.

I have a UAC (Uncorrected Advanced Reading Copy) of The Genius Plague by David Walton. The books official release is on October 3, 2017, and I highly suggest that you spare the $14.95 list price (though I’m sure Amazon has it cheaper) to read this book. It’s published by Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy, an outfit that has been producing some really great work by amazing authors.

I’ll provide a much more in-depth review of the book when it is released, but for now I want to give a shorter advance review. So, first off, I want to say that Walton does an excellent job highlighting real science involved with mycology, as the book is about the spread of a fungus from the Amazon that enhances the intelligence of the people that it infects. In nature, this is seen in species of fungus like cordyceps, which Walton references without naming. Incidentally, the video game The Last of Us features zombies created by cordyceps infection in humans.

Walton obviously writes from a place of deep knowledge, and where he doesn’t have specialized knowledge, he does a fairly decent job with researching. The scientific aspects of the book are believable, as are the sections involving the NSA and Alzheimer’s. I won’t lie: by the time you get to the halfway point of the book, you’re turning pages without being aware of it. Walton has a gift for pacing and knowing how to construct a narrative such that you’re sucked into the novel and reading with increased fervor the deeper into the story you get.

He also has a talent for writing believable characters, for the most part (I’ll talk about some of the issues in the longer review). The dialogue he writes is often engaging, with such gems as “Good to know there’s someone waiting in the wings in case I turn into a fungus zombie.” I laughed out loudly at that line. Another thing that I like about the book is how cryptography plays a role in the action, and Walton does an interesting job of making that fresh.

The Genius Plague is a quick, but excellent read, and deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of science fiction literature. Tentatively, I rate if 4 out of 5 stars (for reasons which I’ll explain in my expanded review).

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States 1492-2001 by Howard Zinn

August 17, 2017 Leave a comment

After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody, and the somebody was us.

History, as the old saw goes, is written by the victors. It is inexorably a subjective enterprise, based on perspectives and biases the authors of history cannot completely shake. In an effort on my part to get a more complete view of American history, as well as to question some of my own perceptions and notions, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The book covers American history from 1492 to 2001, discussing important events and developments as you might expect, but it eschews the practice of following the “great and powerful” and instead focuses on the poor, the oppressed, and the average. Or, to be short, everyone from the slave to the proletarian. This perspective is refreshing, and it causes one to read the text critically and to question it. Zinn welcomes such a reading, and offers sources and citations to back up many of his claims.

He constructs a new narrative of American history with this book, and paints a stark picture of manipulation, control, and loathing of the people from those in power. Do not, however, think that this book is anti-American. Such a conclusion of its content is both a disservice to the study of history and to an honest appraisal of America’s legacy. I believe, rather, that it is loyal to the enlightenment liberal philosophy that the United States is founded on and is on display in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. While this challenging of traditional historical narratives is good and welcome, the book isn’t without its own problems.

Zinn himself acknowledges his own bias, but he also admits that he is not troubled by that because he sees his work as a counterbalance to other narratives, which are as biased or more biased. This impressed me, because authors don’t often admit that they’ve crafted a narrative with a specific agenda in mind. To be sure, I disagree with a number of Zinn’s conclusions. However, his vital work proposes something radical:  what about the people we don’t hear about? What about the voices that history doesn’t amplify? What about the soldiers, the farmers, the settlers, or the slaves?

A People’s History of the United States is a lengthy book with many themes, far more than I could possibly hope to cover in one short review. I would like to focus on three specific areas: the people, resistance, and power.

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between the rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless ‘reforms’ that changed little.

I could rattle off a list of modern problems related to prison and analyze each one: for-profit prisons with inmate quotas, the school-to-prison pipeline, judges found guilty of taking bribes for sending young Americans to these for-profit prisons, the lack of public defenders for poor defendants, accusations of modern slavery in forced prison labor that is a billion dollar industry, and the so-called “affluenza” and the differences in treatment between the haves and have-nots that the Ethan Couch case brought to the public’s attention.

What we see today are but links in the long chain of injustices. The prisons, as Zinn writes, are microcosms of the American system for many people. Poverty is a trap, and clawing out of it grows increasingly difficult. The divide between the wealthy and the rest of us grows, posing a threat to our government. Many people are aware of the recent study that attempted to demonstrate that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy. Corruption, control, and manipulation (for instance, false news implanted to muddy the waters of vital current issues and facts) are things we deal with day-to-day. Zinn’s book weaves issues like this into a narrative that starts before this country’s founding to the present, where the threads are still being tied.

Past problems are being reignited as dark forces gather in American cities, spewing dangerous philosophies of violence and racial supremacy. Voting rights are under attack and being rolled back, sometimes with implicit racial motivations. It’s impossible to read Zinn’s book and not connect it to current events, and consume it from our present perspective. And I think that this is one of his goals: he wants us to understand the living history of the country, and connect the events of the past to the struggles of today.

As part of that, Zinn writes on how voting and access to the ballot were methods of control, in some way. It’s hard to argue against his case, the basic premise of which is that it channels energy that might be spent in a more active resistance toward the act of voting and the process of elections. Sure, there is power there and we do get remarkable outcomes, such as the election of Barack Obama to the Office of the President of the United States. However, that power has limits: purging of voter rolls, gerrymandered districts that water-down the power of certain voting cohorts in favor of one political party, etc. A common theme throughout his book is that more active resistance–marching, picketing, strikes, unionizing–result in greater change.

…their condition would not be changed by law, but by protest, organization, resistance, the creation of their own culture, their own literature, the building of links with people…”

At it’s heart, A People’s History of the United States is about how the faceless people of history banded together to affect change. It wasn’t through legal means, like courts, though that may have codified things later (like this legislature, it’s reactionary). It also didn’t occur through legislation or voting. The name of the game was protest, resistance, and creating common cause among forward-thinking and decent people. People are stronger together than they are individually, and this was exemplified by the gains made by organized labor, civil rights groups, and others in the face of overwhelming power.

The Civil Rights movement won important victories in courts, legislatures, and through the ballot box, but those victories wouldn’t have been possible about the whirlwind of pressure that the movement brought to bear. I suspect that Zinn would write similarly of the LGBT movement for marriage equality and civil rights protections. Protests, marches, and sit-ins were the most visible aspects of advancing the agenda, but underlying that was a culture, literature, and an active community that supported the people within it.

Those in power were not so much at the forefront of the great events of American history so much as captured by them. We know of Lincoln’s reticence to free the slaves, but the inexorable pressures of his time forced his hand. You’re left to wonder just how much outside pressure–such as those brought by oppressed peoples–forced the action of other leaders, and how less progress we might have made if it weren’t for the people who made the necessary sacrifices to change things.

We owe Saddam a favor. He saved us from the peace dividend.

Another theme that you see repeated throughout the book is this idea that those in power have a kind of loathing for the common man. And it’s not hard to see such loathing when it comes or our spending priorities or the ways in which we abuse people. You don’t have to reach far into the past for such examples: abuses at the Standing Rock protests and Jim Crow spring to mind. But when you do look farther back you see the Trail of Tears and you see chattel slavery. Zinn approaches these subjects unflinchingly, and doesn’t try to apologize of downplay the long term harm of these policies.

The quote above refers specifically to the concept of the peace dividend, a supposed increase in domestic spending as a result of cuts to defense spending that was originally to occur after the end of the cold war. There’s an argument as to whether or not it happened, but if you look at defense spending after the collapse of the Soviet Union compared with defense spending in the mid-1990’s and even today, you see a sharp increase.

And to keep that spending intact while simultaneously lowering taxes, we cut domestic spending. We slash welfare, healthcare assistance, important services, and infrastructure spending. Our roads and bridges are crumbling to nothing while private defense contractors rake in record profits. Even with all of that, politicians campaign on increasing defense and military spending. Zinn points out that this has been a pattern in our domestic policy for decades, and the most vulnerable among us suffer.

Just recently, a story was published on the website Mother Jones, detailing how one hundred thousand students in New York City public schools were homeless. That’s 100,000 kids. How can a country as wealthy as the United States–a country that spends more than any other country on bombs, bullets, guns, and gigantic $18 billion aircraft carriers–allow that many kids in a single city to be homeless?

And indeed, the books paints a portrait of a country suffering from such economic disparity for almost as long as its founding. But it’s not all criticism and doom-and-gloom. Zinn also writes about the rich cultures produced by common struggle, and writes that our history of pushing forward, no matter what, gives us hope for the future. And that’s an important message to hear, especially after recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This review wasn’t a true book review so much as it was my own thoughts about how this book relates to current events. Like I said before, I think this is one of Zinn’s goals. It’s a well-research, well-cited book that weaves a complicated narrative of history from the perspective of those not in power. I would ask that if you do read it, you approach it with an open mind, and to try to question your own notions about American history.

I give the book 5 out of 5, and acknowledge its flaws while recognizing its status as a vital must-read for any fan of history.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

Read more…

Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

February 3, 2017 1 comment

“I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic Designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a novel that is particularly concerned with two important questions: 1) Who are we? and 2) What if? Like any good science fiction novel, it uses science (in this case some really abstract concepts from quantum physics) to explore not possible consequences of the science, but the ways in which it impacts humanity. Basically, science fiction explores how these concepts relate to us.

The novel opens with Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela, and their son Charlie in their home on family night. Jason contemplates the choices he’s made in life leading him to this point–having a wife, a son, and a mediocre job as a small college physics professor–when he could have stuck with his career and made world-changing discoveries. There’s regret, yes, but I also suspect resignation on the part of himself and Daniela, who also gave up her dreams for her family.

Jason goes out to congratulate an old friend, Ryan, at a local bar for winning the Pavia Prize, awarded to people who make breakthroughs in science. On the way back home, he’s held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned power plant where a mysterious man drugs him. He awakens in a hangar he doesn’t recognize, surrounded by people who are familiar with him but who he doesn’t know, and later learns that he invented a kind of machine that allows a person to travel between different universes (along the lines of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).

“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”

What I appreciate most about this novel is how it takes complicated ideas and weaves them seamlessly into an extremely compelling narrative, following Jason (or the Jason that is the most familiar to us), as he deals with the situation he is unwillingly thrust into. The complicated ideas don’t weigh the novel down or make it hard to understand; it flows naturally from the characters’ dialogue. In this, Crouch creates a novel that is, at its core, a thought experiment. Given the idea that for every decision we make universes split off to encompass every possible outcome, and given a kind of technology that allows people to travel to these other universes, how might humans use this technology and how might they interact with it?

In a word: badly. But Crouch’s exploration is deeply illuminating because it shines a light on us. When Jason explores “his” house in another universe, he takes stock of the many differences between that house and the house he actually lived in. “In my house…” sets up a contrast between what he knows and what he’s currently experiencing. He wonders if he’s going mad, or if someone’s playing a prank on him, but he cannot square his knowledge with his current experience.

As the novel progresses, Jason visits different universes where he sees several different versions of himself, of Daniela, and of Chicago. He acknowledges that, the more he travels, the less he thinks he understands about himself. “As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.” In one universe, another Jason drops money into this Jason’s collection box, and narrates, “There’s no danger. I’m unrecognizable.” If there are an infinite number of other universes, with infinite other Jasons, what do you really know about yourself? Throughout the novel there’s this theme that your decisions make you who you are; the Jason we’re familiar with made certain decisions that made him a family man, and the Jason that invented the device that allows travel to other universes made other decisions. So which Jason is the “real” Jason?

There’s probably no way to answer that question, because the question itself is absurd. They’re all the real Jason, but they come from different contexts and they have different histories. They’re not only the result of decisions that they make, but of the history and developments in their universes that are different than our universes. None of them have any kind of priority over any other, and this fact assaults our sense of self and the idea that we all hold that we’re special and unique. Jason has to come face-to-face with the fact that there are versions of himself that are capable of great evils in desperate circumstances.

Further, it turns out the being able to travel the universes depends on your own conscious and subconscious mind. Essentially, your thoughts and emotions direct your travel in the space between dimensions. In effect, by exploring the multiverse, you’re actually exploring yourself.

I suppose we’re just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.

Dark Matter has an interesting structure. Most of the narrative is first-person perspective in the present tense, from the point-of-view of Jason. However, the story shifts to third-person when we move to the original Daniela and her time with “Jason2,” which is an interesting shift that makes Jason2 feel really alien–like an altogether different person. Jason’s narration has a very stream-of-conscious feel to it, which reinforces the present-tense, and really makes you as a reader feel the emotions, fear, or sense of panic that the character feels.

Crouch’s writing style is descriptive without being too detail-oriented. It’s original and engaging, and unlike Inferno, it uses ellipses and dashes sparingly and only when they’re called for. The way he describes characters is fresh and real. For instance, “Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible.” His writing style also has hints of a wry sense of humor, such as the following sentence: “Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela–a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.”

The pace of the novel almost never falters, and I found myself losing track of time as I turned the pages. You really lose yourself in the story, and in the images that Crouch draws through witty writing and a profound imagination. During Jason’s travels through the universes, Crouch uses what I call the “ampoule countdown,” tracking the number of trips Jason has left to make. That combined with the truly infinite nature of the multiverse creates a sense of utter hopelessness, especially as we see Jason struggle to figure out how to tune his mind and emotions so that he can find his way home (and fail desperately).

Overall, Dark Matter has a solid story, excellent writing, characters that are fleshed-out and real, and an original idea with a fantastic twist ending. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and by the end of the story you find yourself questioning your own sense of identity.

I give Dark Matter a 5 out of 5, and highly recommend it to anyone who lives mind-benders, techno-thrillers, or science fiction.