Book review: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can a story about a murderbot be funny, charming and even a tiny bit touching? Yes, it can.

In the short novel All Systems Red Martha Wells presents a story told from the point of view of a SecUnit–an android designed to protect humans who, in this case, are mapping out an unknown planet on behalf of their corporate masters. Events take a turn for the deadly when a neighboring habitat’s humans are found dead, victims of an unknown assault.

Despite the grim setting, Wells presents the partly-organic and sex organ-free (“If a construct has those it’s a sexbot”) android as a delightfully fretful being that really wants to protect its humans, even if it is kind of afraid of interacting with them (it prefers opaquing its helmet to avoid making eye contact).

The story, such as it is, is really just a stage for the murderbot to act on, and while it gets the opportunity to use its arm-mounted cannons, it spends most of its time consuming serials and other media it’s downloaded, and pondering what–or who–it is and what it wants to be.

It’s not as profound as it sounds. But it is consistently amusing, thanks to SecUnit’s droll telling of the tale.

My only real criticism is minor–the story ends a bit abruptly, setting up the next chapter of The Murderbot Diaries. Otherwise, very much recommended.

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Book review: The Fold

The FoldThe Fold by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d probably average the rating of The Fold to 3.5 stars if I could. Overall it tracks closer to 4, but parts of it bring it down a bit.

This is another “opening a portal to other dimensions maybe isn’t a good idea” story and I’m a sucker for them. The Fold is a quick, snarky romp filled with grouchy scientists, weird cockroaches and quantum donuts.

Anyone looking for a lot of hard science to chew on may be disappointed. The science, such as it is, is deliberately vague, even goofy. The main character is a high school teacher, not a scientist, albeit one with a genius-level IQ and eidetic memory (like photographic memory, but covering all senses, not just sight). Mike Erikson catalogues everything he experiences through metaphorical red and black ants that carry information back and forth, allowing him to essentially treat his mind as a computer with near limitless storage. This comes in incredibly handy as the story unfolds (no pun intended), though Erikson points out the downside to one of the scientists, namely that every horrible thing he witnesses also stays with him as vividly as if just happened.

Erikson is hired by a government friend to check out a secretive government-funded project working on a way to fold space and allow for instant travel over vast distances. Located outside San Diego, the small team of DARPA scientists working on what they call The Albuquerque Door treat Erikson as an interloper, though he assures them he is an impartial observer who would like to see them succeed. They assure him that The Door is very safe.

But things go wrong. Then they go very horribly wrong. Part of the fun in the second half of the novel comes from watching the team grapple with events spiraling out of their control and seeing how they react and adjust (or at least valiantly try to). Without getting into blatant spoilers, the story eventually heads off in a direction that feels more like fantasy, with the science feeling more like magic. It’s a little weird.

The banter between the characters is snappy and the pace never flags. There are no real subplots or distractions from the main event, so it’s an easy read to plow through.

Oddly, perhaps more than any book I’ve read in years, I kept imagining specific actors as the characters. The head of the project, a man named Arthur, brought to mind Morgan Freeman so vividly that I would confidently place a bet on Freeman playing the role in a movie adaptation. Or at least the casting director trying to nab him for the part.

Likewise, the engineer Sasha I saw as Sarah Douglas circa Superman II (1981). I’m not even sure why. The weirdest was probably the inevitable (and, IMO, unnecessary) romantic interest of Jamie, who made me think of Pam from the TV series Archer. Yes, she reminded me of a cartoon character.

The Fold is far from perfect, but the whole thing rolls along so smoothly it’s hard to get upset by what amounts to quibbles. As with most alternate dimension stories, it’s never too wise to spend a lot of time examining the plot, lest you find holes you could squeeze a mirror Earth through.

If you like these kinds of stories and you’re not fussed with the science being a bit flimsy, you’ll find The Fold well worth the ride.

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Book review: The Ways We End: Six Tales of Doom

The Ways We End: Six Tales of Doom (Dark Collections Book 1)The Ways We End: Six Tales of Doom by Ann Christy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The bland cover of The Ways We End (at least of the ebook edition) is unfortunate because it may turn away potential readers and they would miss out on a terrific collection of stories by Ann Christy that depict apocalyptic scenarios that deviate from or subvert the usual zombies/nuclear war/alien invasion tropes. Even the author’s notes at the end of each story are a delight, conveying the infectious joy Christy had in both writing the stories and their reception.

All six stories are well worth reading and are best without spoilers, so here’s some quick takes, in order:

“A Cottage of Hunger” puts together a rules-following protagonist, her quite mad mother and a lost teenage girl in a world where the sun is permanently blotted out in the sky. It raises interesting questions on how far some people might go to preserve a sense of order, believing they are doing the right–the proper–thing.

“The Mergans” is a story set in the far future, where descendants of Earth have formed a galactic “Peace Force” that uses its military might to intervene in corrupted cultures of planets colonized from seed ships, mostly by blasting everything to smithereens. The particular culture in “The Mergans” is especially ghastly in its treatment of women, but its liberators may not be quite what they seem, either.

“The Mountains of Five” follows the journey of a 12-year old girl exiled from her village and forced to find her way through a dystopian landscape. I found this story particularly evocative, its spare prose perfectly capturing both the spirit of the titular girl, Five, and her dangerous journey. There is a twist ending of sorts, but the astute reader will likely see it coming. It doesn’t make the story any less effective, though.

“The Bridge.” As Christy notes, this is a quick little “spooky campfire” story and it works nicely for what it is, but it is the slightest of the stories collected here. Still, trolls.

“Rock or Shell” is a time travel story that hints at larger mysteries while never fully revealing them, leaving the reader with a sense that there is a lot more to this depiction of a mist-like realm where thought alone can send someone off into nothingness, erasing them from time and space. Dashes of humor lighten the constant undercurrent of tension.

“A Mother So Beautiful” is probably the darkest and most disturbing tale of the collection. It eschews the body horror of “The Mergans” in favor of telling the story of a sociopath whose mother attempts to stamp out aggression through genetics and achieves horrific success. Watching the world disintegrate from the eyes of a profoundly unstable person is something that will stay with you well after the story ends.

Overall, a fine collection of doom, where some hope or happy endings are (usually) at hand. Recommended.

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Book review: All Our Wrong Todays

All Our Wrong TodaysAll Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for certain story types and time travel is one of them. The plots in time travel stories are almost always of the “pull one loose thread and the whole thing unravels” variety, with the science ranging from sounding possible to being completely silly.

All Our Wrong Todays is a sometimes odd combination of extremes, with its tone shifting from being very light to very dark and back again. And again. The science is presented with a veneer of plausibility, even as the framing device (which in this case is an actual device, a kind of perpetual motion machine that produces endless free energy) seems wildly unlikely.

But this is ultimately more a story about a person–in this case a shiftless 30-something named Tom Barren–coming to grips with who he is and what’s important to him than it is an action-packed time travel adventure.

Though there is action. And time travel adventure.

Told from a first person perspective, author Elan Mastai does an almost too-convincing job presenting Tom as an irredeemable loser. A nice guy, sure, but also an unambitious, inept, unthinking clod. Since it’s Tom himself describing these qualities, the self-loathing threatens to smother the reader. At one point I nearly put the book aside. I stuck with it, though, and things pick up as Tom is forced out of his somnolent existence after he screws up time in a big way. As in many time travel stories, messing up timelines is pretty easy while fixing them proves much trickier.

For a first novel, Mastai has done a terrific job crafting an entertaining yarn. Yes, the science is wonky but watching the different players interact across different timelines–including Tom engaging in an epic internal battle with his other selves–is worth the ride.

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Book review: From a Distant Star

From a Distant StarFrom a Distant Star by Karen McQuestion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some spoilers ahead but nothing that should detract much from the story.

From a Distant Star is one of those books I bought because it was on sale and the premise interested me. I otherwise had no idea about what to expect.

As it turns out, it’s a Young Adult adventure, something I wouldn’t normally read, but I was captivated by the opening scene from the family dog’s perspective. After that the story shifts mainly to a first person narrative as told by 17-year-old Emma Larson as she recalls how her boyfriend Lucas gets stricken with terminal cancer, miraculously recovers and then, along with Emma, gets caught up in a lot of hijinks involving sinister federal agents, a “witch” and people who are clearly not fans of Ancient Aliens. Or any aliens.

McQuestion capably channels the neuroses and exaggerated, still-developing emotions of Emma, presenting her as resilient, dedicated and resourceful, but still very much a teenager, prone to behavior that seems perfectly logical to a teenage mind and…less so to an adult one. Her utter devotion to her high school sweetheart at times feels like puppy love gone off the deep end, but then again, high school sweethearts sometimes do get married–and stay married.

The character of Scout, a kind of teenage Starman, is handled well. Watching him adapt to Lucas’s body, to Emma and to his human “family” is amusing and offers up numerous opportunities to hold up a mirror on how humans act–usually to our detriment.

The book shifts gears fairly abruptly around the midway point, going from a fish-out-of-water tale to a more conventional on-the-run thriller, but it stays tonally consistent and once the pace picks up it steams along to the conclusion.

I am left wondering if the character of Mrs Kokesh was actually needed. More than any other, she seemed to exist to service the plot, fading into the background until the plot required her again.

Conversely, Lucas’s younger brother Eric, wise beyond his 14 years, felt under-utilized.

These are minor flaws, though. Overall, this is a quick, light and at times adorable read. I can’t say what the intended audience would think of this story, but I found it a cute diversion and a nice change-up from my usual fare.

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Book review: Blind Lake

Blind LakeBlind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blind Lake is a near-future story that imagines a world where we have created powerful quantum computers without really understanding how they work or what, in fact, they might do. It also imagines that people will still print out copies of their email to read. :P

Author Robert Charles Wilson falls into the trap of trying to extrapolate near-future gadgetry and technology and having current technology (as of 2017) make the extrapolation look a little silly. While the quantum computers at the Blind Lake research facility that create video images of two distant worlds, one with sentient life, seem reasonably convincing–mainly because they are steeped in mystery–the references to “pocket servers” that all of the characters tote around feel outdated in a world overflowing with smartphones (the novel predates the iPhone by four years).

Still, the story, a combination of mystery and suspense on both human and cosmic scales, is well-told and builds convincingly toward a conclusion that slightly disappoints by feeling a bit disconnected, somewhat like most of the characters.

Those characters include a withdrawn eleven year old who sees a “Mirror Girl” that looks like her and may or may not exist only in her mind, Marguerite, the mother of the girl and a scientist who doubts herself and her ability to judge others after a failed marriage to a Ding Dong-munching and verbally abusive bully–who also happens to work at Blind Lake, a reporter named Chris who carries guilt over the role his book may have played in a person’s death. Nearly every character has some kind of emotional baggage and when the Blind Lake facility is sealed off from the outside world, with no explanation as to why, the various doubts, neuroses and obsessions escalate in parallel to the budding crisis caused by the quantum computers perhaps taking a little too much initiative.

In the end Blind Lake is a weirdly hopeful sort of story, albeit in an ambiguous way that may even lead to a sense of existential dread–as it does for at least one character. The detachment and relentless struggles of everyone is a bit wearying at time and Marguerite’s ex-husband Ray is an odd sort of pseudo-villain who never gets fleshed out enough to really resonate as well as he could.

Still, the escalation of tension and the unfolding mystery of both the observed alien race and just what the quantum computers might be doing, make Blind Lake worth visiting. Just be sure to leave before you feel the earth move. It’s definitely not romance.

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Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The novel of 2001 was written as the film was being shot and apart from the ultimate destination of Discovery being Saturn rather than Jupiter, it sticks close to the film’s plot (apparently they couldn’t get the look of Saturn’s rings quite right for the film).

The book is short, giving it more of a movie tie-in feel than one would normally expect in a Clarke novel. And–as Clarke admits in the foreword–the novel makes explicit a lot of what is otherwise left to the viewer to interpret in the film.

While I enjoyed the book, particularly the detailing of life aboard the Discovery before Hal goes bonkers, its brevity ultimately left it feeling a bit unfinished. That Clarke ultimately wrote a sequel (and then two more after) is not surprising, as the conclusion feels like the end of a first act.

As a companion piece to the film, it perhaps fares better, providing more explanation for those wanting it. The depiction of the enigmatic aliens helping to shape humanity is intriguing but again, cuts short at the end.

While this is not an essential work of Clarke’s, it’s still a solid read but may be best for those committing to the entire Odyssey quadrilogy or those interested in learning more about what was going on in the now-classic film.

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Book review: The Sentinel

The SentinelThe Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As always when reading older science fiction–this collection of stories dates from the early 1950s–it’s important to remember what we take for granted today, what actually transpired over the last 60+ years, and how attitudes have changed regarding the sexes.

Regarding the latter, one of the longer stories, “Holiday on the Moon”, is a sweet tale that ends with a girl who becomes so entranced by what she sees while visiting the moon with her family that she (secretly) decides to pursue a career in “the quest for the secret of the stars.”

Clarke usually couches his technology in sufficiently magic-like explanations but there are still amusing bits, like when a futuristic submarine relays important information to its pilot by way of a ticker-tape machine.

This particular collection–the middle of a trilogy–focuses most of its stories on space travel and the moon. The opening story “The Sentinel”, which ultimately led to 2001: A Space Odyssey is about the discovery of an obviously alien machine on the moon (not the famous monolith). My favorite part is how attempts to analyze the machine result in its destruction.

A number of stories highlight the dangers in creating and then trying to control new technology, ranging from machines that can record and playback thoughts, to others that can allow one to control another mind–provided the batteries hold out. Clarke offers a wry, not quite cynical take on the inventors and scientists in these stories, highlighting both the dangers of technology and the fallibility of humans.

The strong voice of the author–almost a narrator in some of the stories–may feel anachronistic today but it also gives the stories the feel of someone sharing a good yarn. You know, sitting by a cozy fire in a pub and hearing about that time two guys talked about parallel dimensions and then got devoured by a monstrous alien beast of some sort when they merely thought that in some dimension they’d be attacked by a tiger.

In the end, I enjoyed this collection for both the strength and imagination of Clarke’s writing and as a kind of time capsule that captures the prevailing moods of the early 1950s, when the threat of the atom bomb loomed over everything and the promise of space travel and all the possibilities it could open, was tantalizingly close.

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Book review: Dark Matter

Dark MatterDark Matter by Blake Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for multiverse stories.

And so are the other countless millions of versions of me. If they exist.
Dark Matter is at heart a simple story, about a man–in this case atomic scientist Jason Dessen–who reaches a crossroads in his life and has to choose between a great career or a great family. He chooses the family and 15 years later seems pretty content with the choice.

Then he gets abducted while returning from a pub one night and things start getting weird. He is injected with some kind of drug and wakes up in a lab he has no memory of, surrounded by people who say he has been gone for 14 months. He has accomplished fantastic things he can’t recall. He wonders if he is losing his mind.

From this starting point, Dark Matter merrily takes the reader on a breakneck journey across parallel worlds, some seemingly utopian, others the stuff of nightmares, as Dessen struggles to figure out what has happened to him and tries to reconnect with his wife and son.

The story effortlessly switches gears from intimate to weird and back again and although the mystery is naturally peeled away as the plot drives forward, author Blake Crouch keeps interest high by constantly ratcheting up the tension over what will happen next. With a multitude of worlds, the possibilities are literally endless.

I particularly like the exploration of the concept that once you choose a certain path, it can shape and change you in profound ways, not just in what you do or become, but fundamentally altering the person you are and the identity you assume.

There are car chases, too.

Some might balk a bit at Crouch’s prose–he is nearly channeling Hemingway here, with short, staccato sentences and single line paragraphs. But the economy of words emerges as a strength, sort of the equivalent of a well-made sketch that allows the viewer to easily fill in details.

As I said, I am a sucker for multiverse stories and Dark Matters scratched the itch for me in fine style. If you are at all interested in parallel universe fiction, Dark Matter is an easy recommendation.

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Book review: Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft

Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by MicrosoftFuture Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite its title, Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft is mercifully not about people making the world a better place with their Xboxes, Windows 10 and the HoloLens.

Instead it’s a collection of stories about future tech that sometimes hints at Microsoft products without naming them–such as the augmented reality glasses used in the graphic novel story “A Cop’s Eye” that could be the follow-up to the HoloLens, to various extrapolations on AI. We’ve come a long way since Clippy. The stories shift in tone from playful (the Dr. Doolittle-inspired “Hello, Hello”) to weird (Greg Bear’s mind-bending take on what happens when a quantum computer starts to successfully do its job in “The Machine Starts”) but never veers entirely toward the dark. These visions are sometimes tales of caution, such as Ann Leckie’s take on culture clash and mistranslation in “Another Word for World” but there is usually some hint of hope or redemption, no matter how bleak the situation may seem.

This book is available as a free download from major ebook retailers so the only investment made here is with your time. Given the brevity of the collection and the generally high quality of the work (none of the writers have phoned it in–perhaps why there’s no Lumia product placement) it’s an easy recommendation.

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Book review: The Songs of Distant Earth

The Songs Of Distant EarthThe Songs Of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Songs of Distant Earth uses “terabyte” as if it’s a near-impossibly huge amount of storage space, but other than being a bit dated tech-wise (it was published in 1986 and the genesis of the story began as a piece originally written in 1958), this short, brisk novel details events surrounding the improbable chance of two separate colony ships sent hundreds of years apart encountering each other light years away from Earth.

To be more precise, the first colony ship has already landed on the water world of Thalassa, its crew having settled there hundreds of years earlier, populating the three islands that form the entirety of land on the planet. One of the last ships to leave the doomed Earth centuries later stops by on its way to its own destination, the hostile but tameable world of Sagan Two. Choosing Thalassa in order to use its water to reconstitute a massive ice shield on the bow of their colony ship, the crew of the Magellan is surprised to find the planet inhabited (after losing contact due to a broken antenna on Thalassa, it was assumed its colony ship had never completed its journey), thus beginning a clash of cultures, ideas and philosophy, pitting the laidback Thalassans and their seeming Utopia against the crew of the Magellan, who still face a massive amount of work to make their chosen planet livable (an edict passed in the dying days of Earth forbids colony ships from colonizing worlds with any notable life, sort of a variant on Star Trek’s Prime Directive).

There is a lot of debate about what makes life worth living, with a fairly heavy hand directed against the alleged scourge of religion–the Thalassans are non-religious and live in a democratic society where procrastination and non-monogamous relationships are the norm. Clarke has characters from both the planet and the Magellan intermingle–on projects in and out of bed–to help illustrate the risk of “contamination” between the two groups. Complicating things further, the paradise-like nature of Thalassa leads a small number of Magellan’s crew to attempt mutiny.

The tension Clarke creates as these two peoples work and play together for the months it takes to rebuild the Magellan’s ice shield is low and never really threatens to boil over, but the discussions the characters have are filled with insights, dry humor and observations about humanity that feel authentic, if somewhat studied.

The Songs of Distant Earth sometimes feels a bit thin compared to denser works of science fiction, but Clarke does not so much skimp on detail as focus precisely on what he feels is most important to the story. In the end, the novel offers hope that humanity will mature and flourish among the stars, albeit not without some bumps along the way.

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Book review: Warday

WardayWarday by Whitley Strieber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book back in 1984 when the Cold War was still a legitimate threat–just before Gorbachev started the policy of Glasnost and Reagan was still joking about bombing the Russians. It left an indelible impression of how even a limited nuclear attack could have devastating, world-changing consequences that could stretch on for decades. Reading it now there is a certain sense of distance with the old U.S./USSR rivalry long dead, Putin’s efforts to turn back the clock notwithstanding, but the reality is most of these nuclear missiles still exist, with more than enough firepower to ruin your day and then some.

The book is written as a first person account of the effects of a limited nuclear war five years after the bombs fell. The authors, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, place themselves into this fictional scenario set in the year 1993, starting a journey across America that takes them to both coasts before heading back to their adopted hometown of Dallas, where they work as reporters.

The story opens in October 1988 with Strieber’s recollection of being on a bus in downtown New York when the bombs fall. New York is one of three cities targeted in the first volley (the other volleys do not follow due to U.S. retaliation disabling the Soviets’ ability to counter-attack), the other two being Washington and San Antonio. He survives because the bombs miss New York proper, landing over Brooklyn and off the coast. He still gets dosed with enough radiation that he is later classified under the triage system as not treatable, as the radiation is expected to kill him within years and those with better survivability are given priority.

Bombs exploded in the upper atmosphere create an EMP effect that blankets the country, disabling nearly all electronics, ranging from computers to vehicle ignitions and most forms of communication. The final blow comes in the form of volleys aimed at missile silos in the Dakotas and other states. Winds sweep the radiation from these blasts across the bread basket of the U.S., devastating crops and leading to widespread famine.

Against this grim backdrop–the book suggest 7 million die on the day the bombs fall and up to 60 million die from the effect in the following five years–the authors find that some places have prospered, others have become uninhabitable, and assistance has been offered from other nations, albeit with a price.

The bulk of the story captures Strieber’s and Kunetka’s journey from state to state–mostly by rail, as air travel is still rare five years after the attack–conducting interviews with government officials and ordinary folks, supplementing these accounts with official documentation of the effects of the war. The level of detail in these mock documents is impressive and help paint a picture of a country that has been split apart, where deflation has reduced most items to cents, gold is the favored currency and the federal government, now in L.A., is a stunted shadow of its former self.

The narrative works because it presents its fiction so plainly, even when specific scenarios seem absurd when taken out of context. At one point the authors are escaping authorities in California–which was spared attack but has emerged as a near police-state, locking down its borders–dressed as priests. They make a daring escape from a prison bus to continue their journey through the devastated heartland before heading to New York and then back to Texas. It sounds ridiculous and yet the details that are drawn of California, at once prosperous, yet cold, allow these occasional dramatic embellishments to at least seem plausible.

The bulk of the story is in the interviews, where survivors talk about living through famine and flu, abandoning cities and entire regions killed by radiation, some drifting, others settling, with a general sense that the people are banding together and helping each other where they can. International aid comes from the British and Japanese primarily, but both seem willing to only do so much, with a strong suggestion that the other nations of the world are not exactly eager to see the U.S. re-assert itself as a global power again.

One especially chilling interview is with a British naval officer who works as part of a crew of sub poppers, so-called because their job is to find nuclear-armed submarines that are still at sea–and thus presenting a threat–and disabling or destroying them. He recounts taking out subs with enough firepower on board to cause devastation many times greater than what happened on Warday itself, a grim reminder of how terrible and terribly effective nuclear weapons are.

Although the specific scenario of Warday is no longer plausible–the Soviets launch a first strike due to the U.S. being on the verge of putting together a seemingly indestructible space-based defense system (how Reagan would have approved!)–the story remains as powerful now as it was over 30 years ago, simply because nothing at all has changed regarding the almost incomprehensible effects of nuclear bombs, and as mentioned, there are still an awful lot of them sitting silent in their silos, one launch code away from unleashing their destruction.

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