Rewatching MI-5

There are few shows I’ve watched more compulsively than the epic BBC spy series MI-5 (2002-2011). A few months ago I casually backgrounded a couple of early episodes only to find myself getting sucked into a full-run marathon. It was an interesting rewatch, holding up both worse and better than I remember it: worse in that its earliest seasons aren’t quite as strong as I remembered, better in that its later ones aren’t quite as disappointing. One opinion that didn’t change, though, is that the series’ sixth season is its best – an astonishingly late peak that colors my impression of both the show’s earliest steps and final moments.

Harry Ros

The series revolves around “Section D” of the British Home Security Services, MI-5, a team of crack agents tasked with the protection of the British homeland from external threats. In every episode, Section D – led by its scheming leader Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) – thwart terrorist threats, analyze intelligence, work sources in the field, respond to political events, and more. The structure throughout is very “crisis-of-the-week,” with each episode focused on resolving an urgent situation, but it’s also an evolving series, each mission contributing to a larger story: characters change, the makeup of the team shifts, reputations are built or destroyed, and series lore accumulates. It’s a fine balancing act of the familiar and the novel, the lure of a comfortable milieu tinged with the ever-present threat of drastic disruptions – which come, as it happens, on a regular basis.

Danny & Zoe

The original, core team consists of promising young section chief Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), viperous senior analyst Tessa Phillips (Jenny Agutter), and two junior case officers, Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes) and Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo), as well as a bevy of administrative and support officers, the most notable of which is surely the avuncular technical genius Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon). This crew – which should probably include brilliant analyst Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), introduced in season two – is perhaps the series’ most accessible and human. In retrospect, the early seasons seem much more interested in integrating the high stakes suspense of security work with the troubled personal lives of the agents, especially Tom, Zoe, and Danny. In these years, Hawes and Oyelowo are both particularly likeable as idealistic young hotshots, trying to balance their better natures against the ugly realities of the business – a conflict that comes to a powerful head in the superb season three outing “Love and Death.” The human element makes this team the warmest, but perhaps also the series’ least formidable – more prone to emotional lapses and rookie mistakes than some of the badasses and daredevils that would follow in their wake.

Season one starts well, but doesn’t really catch fire until the fourth episode, “Traitor’s Gate,” a terrific espionage puzzler surrounding a possible rogue agent named Peter Salter (Anthony Stewart Head). Here the show reveals itself as something more than just “the British 24,” incorporating more classic espionage elements – politics and personalities in the vein of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Sandbaggers. At its best, MI-5 balances action, intrigue, politics, and personalities in a careful blend, and “Traitor’s Gate” – the episode that secured my addiction – gets the mix just right.


The first time around, I remember lamenting the individual departures of Tom, Zoe, and Danny in season three. On the rewatch, though, I found myself looking forward. The introduction of a more charismatic, traditional leading man in Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) – a character I originally resisted – would end up being the first building block of an MI-5 “dream team,” which starts to come together in seasons four and five with the arrival of new junior officers Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey) and Jo Portman (Miranda Raison). (Jo’s recruitment episode, “The Book,” is probaby my favorite single episode – and the beginning of my not-very-secret love affair with this character, who serves as the heart of the team for much of its run.) The cast is further strengthened in season five with the arrival of the venomous Ros Myers (Hermione Norris), who enters the series as a love-to-hate character. Indeed, she’s so potently unlikeable at first that her later evolution into an essential element of team chemistry comes as a gradual surprise. With Harry, Ruth, Adam, Ros, Zaf, Jo, and Malcolm minding the store through much of seasons four and five, the series grows stronger and stronger.


Then in season six, everything gets turned up a notch. Without quite abandoning its crisis-of-the-week roots, the sixth yer threads its weekly setpiece episodes together with a complex, season-long throughline involving threats from Iran. Season six throws itself headlong into episode-to-episode continuity, and its more urgent timetables, more integrated storylines, and the earned goodwill of the roster all combine to take the show to another level. Its ten episodes are rife with compelling aspects: the mystery of Zaf’s disappearance, Adam’s reckless afair with an asset, Malcolm’s first field mission, Ros’ dangerous involvement with a sinister international organization, the gradual recruitment of a new agent named Ben Kaplan (Alex Lanipekun) and the return to the fold of an old one, Connie James (Gemma Jones) – all these elements integrate smoothly and seamlessly, and the results are brilliant.


Of course, having such a memorable peak year makes the subsequent ones suffer in comparison, and the series begins a gradual decline in its last four years. When Adam Carter departs the show early in season seven, he’s just the first of many characters inadequately replaced – although Lucas North (Richard Armitage) is a good and interesting try. He starts well, and Armitage certainly has the chops for the role, but Lucas is a colder, darker presence that’s somewhat harder to invest in. As other characters leave the show and more pressure is placed on Norris and Armitage to carry the action, the series loses some of its warmth and continuity. The death knell for team chemistry comes early in season eight, when both Malcolm and Jo are written out. The newcomers slotted in to fill out the cast in seasons nine and ten are adequate enough performers, but they’re not nearly as developed, and we never really get to know them. Nor do the season-long arcs of these later years hold up compared to the Iranian plot in season six.


That said, there are plenty of bright spots winding down the run. Excellent individual episodes are present right up into season ten, and if the casting changes seem more arbitrary and unplanned than usual, they continue to contribute story material. Season nine’s spark comes from newcomer Beth Bailey (Sophia Myles), a snarky operative from the private sector who reapplies to MI-5 to wash the blood off her hands. Beth is a promising new presence on the team who is unfortunately dispensed with offscreen at the end of one season. In season ten, a cocky new wiseguy tech shows up named Calum Reed (Geoffrey Streatfield) – a character I appreciated more this time than during my first watch, when he felt like just another replacement. He’s hardly around long enough to explore, but he flavors the proceedings nicely with jerky sarcasm.

Harry Ruth

Even so, by season ten, familiar faces are hard to come by, and Section D’s grid feels like a ghost impression of its former self. Harry and Ruth are left to carry much of the emotional load in the final, six-episode arc, and they do an admirable job of it, in a modest wind-down that caps off the series and brings it some closure.

MI-5 is by no means a perfect series. It’s prone to melodrama and infodumps, and in order to generate tension it over-relies on shocking reveals, dark twists, and far too many mistakes from the team . But even as I saw its flaws more clearly, I came away from this rewatch loving the series more than ever. It’s an ambitious, intelligent, and challenging show, gutsy and stylish, well produced and chock full of memorable characters. It’s a singular blend of suspenseful action, creeping intrigue, thorny politics, and fraught workplace drama, and surely one of television’s best spy series.

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“Videoville” Is Out!

Asimov1214When you wait twenty years for something, it’s hard not to savor the moment. I’ve just received my author’s copies of the December 2014 Asimov’s Science Fiction, which features my story “Videoville” – and also, unexpectedly, my name on the cover!

I’m so thrilled about this I can’t even really describe it. Instead I’ll just thank all the friends and fellow writers over the years who helped me keep the faith and improve my work – especially Jenn, without whom this story would surely not exist. All of your advice, support, and friendship has not gone unnoticed. I’m over the moon!

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TV: Transparent (Season 1)

Normally when describing a new show, I’ll just compare it to similar shows. Jill Soloway’s Transparent defies that easy strategy; it’s simply too different. With the deft hand of a committed auteur behind it, Transparent is a very impressive season of television – a triumph, really. (And more evidence, perhaps, that groundbreaking TV is starting to migrate away from the cable giants to instant streaming.)

It’s a comedy-drama set in the weathy hills of Pacific Palisades, and follows the lives of the Pfefferman family – a combative, disfunctional clan with a history of awkward, fraught interactions. The focus is on three children: Sarah (Amy Landecker), the “normal one,” married with children and well off; Josh (Jay Duplass), a highly successful music producer with promiscuity issues; and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), the girl most likely to succeed…who didn’t. Together they’re all crass smiles and competitive banter, but underneath they’ve all got issues: secrets and problems they can’t acknowledge to each other, let alone themselves. Their lives are thrown into further turmoil when their professorial father Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) gradually comes out as Maura.

With its quirky, indie ambience, its relaxed, semi-improvisational style, and its unusual focus on a major transgender character, Transparent is a bold, unflinching, funny, and moving series. Without being preachy, it handles touchy issues with both sensitivity and realism: reveling in the awkwardness of the family’s experience, but also making it sympathetic and relatable. The Pfeffermans aren’t exactly likeable – indeed, they’re generally quite unlikeable. But their knee-jerk sniping and intolerance is part of the point. Compared to her children, Maura, while hardly perfect, is the show’s most sensible and sympathetic figure. Her children’s issues are more hidden than hers, but they’re also bottled up, toxic and troubling. The show fights against stigmas to show the universal, underlying humanity in us all, and the message – even couched as it in such awkward, sometimes ugly interaction – is ultimately uplifting.

As Ali, Hoffman owns the series, an unconventional lead who throws herself fearlessly into raw emotional situations. And Tambor has never been better as Maura. But the entire cast is terrific, and it’s filled with great support very much in keeping with the quirky, indie production vibe. Judith Light, Kathryn Hahn, Rob Huebel, Melora Hardin, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Brownstein, and Michaela Watkins all stand out in nuanced and entertaining supporting roles.

Transparent is a one-of-a-kind series that goes where other shows won’t go, to say things that need to be said. Fantastic.

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Novel: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Each new novel by Lauren Beukes has propelled her closer to the top of my “To Read ASAP” list. Broken Monsters (2014) may have just landed her at the very top. If Beukes’ early novels categorized her as a masterful tinker of recombinant genre fiction, The Shining Girls showed signs that her work might be breaking away from the more traditional stomping grounds of fantasy and science fiction to a different, wider readership. I think Broken Monsters is further proof of this restless evolution, a tale of urban horror that both honors its genre roots and reaches beyond them into new places.

Set in Detroit, and making great use of its notoriously decaying urban landscape, the story revolves around a grisly and horrifying murder: a young boy is found dead, his torso fused with the body and legs of a deer. Placed in charge of this high-profile investigation is Detective Gabrielle Versado, a tough, competent cop still struggling with divorce and single motherhood. Her search for the killer propels the mystery, but a roster of other well defined and memorable characters orbits that central throughline. Gabrielle’s daughter Layla is adjusting awkwardly to a new school, buoyed only by her friendship with the mysterious, charistmatic Cas. Then there’s Jonno Haim, a starry-eyed and self-centered journalist, who has come to Detroit to start over and make a name for himself. Finally there’s T.K., a homeless man and a casualty of Detroit’s mean streets, struggling to transcend a dark past and make a difference. All of them, in their own way, are negotiating the ruins of the American dream – even as their fates are intertwined with the brutal acts of the killer, who is just as corrupted by his deranged need for fame and fortune.

On its surface, Broken Monsters is a gripping, terrifying mystery – a gritty police procedural tinged with cosmic horror. Its narrative is bracing and confident, and deftly weaves together its viewpoints and subplots in building to a thrilling, scary climax full of eyeball kicks and jaw-dropping WTF moments. But part of what makes it so horrifying is how realistic and timely the subject matter is, its otherworldly horrors rooted so deeply in the every-day horrors of contemporary reality. America on the way down, it suggests, is a terrifying place, and Broken Monsters addresses its problems brilliantly in a patchwork mosaic of astute social commentary. The heedless pursuit of wealth, celebrity, and social media notoriety informs and distorts the lives of everyone involved: the desire to make a mark, to avert a controversy, to break out big. It’s the American dream as toxic, behavior-warping delusion, even as these surfacey motives distract from the larger problems: the ugly undercurrents of racism, sexism, misogyny, corruption, and class warfare bubbling along underneath it all, largely unnoticed, or if so, unchecked. This subject matter is dealt with frankly, and may be triggery in places for some, but in a world in which our intolerance and injustice is regularly exposed by things like Ferguson and Gamergate, it seems only too timely.

Through it all, the characters, flawed as they may be, remain accessible and sympathetic in the face of the increasing horror. Beukes never loses sight of providing engaging, compelling story-telling, even as the passages resonate powerfully with insight about the modern world’s systemic problems. It’s a fine balancing act of compelling entertainment and scathing critique, and, ultimately, a dark and timely work of art.

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Film: The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem (2013) is easily Terry Gilliam’s most accomplished film since 12 Monkeys, and it’s probably my favorite since Brazil – a film with which it bears a certain stylistic resemblance. The screen is busy with cockamamie, googly-eyed effects and set design, the usual visionary antics for which Gilliam has become famous, as fun to watch as ever…and this time, not at the expense of coherent narrative. Despite all these strengths, though, it’s still a qualified success, sadly disfigured by its unsophisticated gender politics.

Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a number-crunching cog in the machine of Mancom, a nebulous megacorporation with a nebulous mission in a nebulous quasi-future. Qohen is, basically, an existential crisis in human form, a reclusive man who’s spent decades waiting for a mysterious phone call to give his life purpose. Qohen’s work-from-home request is finally granted when Management (Matt Damon) decides to assign him to solving the Zero Theorem, his job being to find incontrovertible proof of human existence’s meaninglessness. Qohen agrees to take the job, provided the company promises to help him receive his fateful Call. But in the course of working through the problem, he finds meaning in entirely unexpected ways.

While I’ve seen this film described as futuristic SF, I disagree that it’s even set in the future. Like Brazil, The Zero Theorem is a story out of time, pure metaphor; in fact I see it as something of a companion-piece to Brazil, its twenty-first century counterpart. Like much of Gilliam’s work there’s a lot of meta going on, the director inscribing his artistic dilemma into the fabric of his narrative. But for all the existential, if not nihilistic, philosophy underlying its core allegory, there are kernels of hope embedded in the tale, particulary through the human interaction. That’s what gives the film its crucial heart, and what makes the story cohere. Quite deliberately, Waltz is a central cipher, a stand-in for Gilliam and perhaps for the viewer. His personal journey is full of bleak revelations, but just enough hope is subtly encoded in his relationships to make the struggle bearable. Chiefly, there’s his awkward friendship with supervisor Joby (David Thewlis, enacting a role that Michael Palin probably would have played in the old days); a young hotshot computer hacker named Bob (Lucas Hedges); and a beautiful, somewhat over-friendly young woman named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), with whom he embarks on a quirky relationship.

It’s in this relationship – and in its gender politics generally – that the film falls on its face. Bainsley is pretty much the quintessentially problematic female character: a token feminine presence, treated with immature male-gazey lust, who serves as a catalyst for, and is inexplicably interested in, a blasé leading man who never earns that interest. Fortunately Waltz and Thierry are both good enough to sell it, but even well played it’s glaring. The characters’ childish ogling of women, played for comic relief, is a marring problem in any case, but particularly in this kind of film, which tailors its elements to be vague and “universal” stand-ins for its philosophical discussion. By objectifying and marginalizing the tiny female portion of the cast, it conveys the impression that Qohen’s deep, intense, artistic struggle Does Not Apply to the female subset of humanity – it’s an Important Male Thing . Whether this is a failure of Gilliam the director or Pat Rushin the screenwriter isn’t entirely clear. But it makes for an uncomfortable stain on an otherwise fascinating and visually arresting film, and Gilliam’s most assured and interesting work in a long time.

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Collection: Kabu-Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

An attractive collection from Prime, Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu-Kabu (2013) is my first exposure to the author’s work. I found it an interesting and refreshingly different read, twenty-one intriguing short pieces of varying quality but a singular sensibility.

Okorafor is Nigerian-American, and the stories here draw heavily on that background, primarily based in Africa. She writes beautifully and accessibly about the unfamiliar, blending SF, fantasy, and horror tropes with West African history and culture. Her prose is characterized by a clear and authentic voice; there’s something quite inviting about it.

Two of my favorite stories here were futuristic: “Spider the Artist,” a near-future tale of a woman who finds solace in music shared with a sentient robot, and “Tumaki,” a very interesting science-fantasy about an area of Niger where the laws of physics have broken down and empowered metahumans have resulted. Of the fantasy pieces, “The Winds of Hamattan,” a spellbinding fable about a woman with the ability to control the wind, was a standout. Still others defy easy categorization, like “Icon,” a short, sharp piece about a journalist’s ill-fated interview with terrifying West African rebels; “The Baboon War,” a bracing little allegory of three young girls who find a treacherous shortcut to school; and the title piece, “Kabu-Kabu,” a vivid, bracing collaboration with Alan Dean Foster about a woman’s magical journey from the US to Nigeria.

While I found the above stories effortlessly read and quite immersive, elsewhere in the collection the storybook writing style is a bit distancing. Many of the selections are novel excerpts or early, previously unpublished efforts, which made me wonder if this was an odd starting point for the gateway reader – perhaps it’s more for afficionados or completists than for brand new Okorafor readers? Overall, though, this suspicion didn’t overwhelm my generally positive impression of the work, and I’m curious to see more.

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Novel: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) is a police procedural from Denmark, dark “Nordic Noir” with an quirky sense of humor. It’s also the first in a series about “Department Q,” a new police unit based in Copenhagen formed for tackling high-profile, closed cases. Placed in charge of this new unit is Carl Mørck, a homicide detective still reeling from a disastrous case that cost him his team – a trauma that’s made him so unpleasant, nobody wants to work with him. With the formation Department Q, Mørck’s superiors see a perfect opportunity: they put him in charge of it, stick him in a basement office, and channel most of the funds earmarked for the new section into their budget. Mørck, who has enough trouble waking up in the morning, is happy to be buried and neglected. But when an enthusiastic, Syrian civilian aide named Assad joins his section, Mørck finally decides to start justifying his paycheck. He picks up the threads on a missing persons case: five years ago, an ambitious young politician named Merete Lynggaard disappeared on her way to Germany with her brother. It was assumed that she went overboard, but the case was never solved, and with the surprisingly resourceful Assad driving him, Mørck gradually, reluctantly unravels the case.

This book was a nice change of pace, a getaway from my usual SF and spy fiction stomping grounds. It took me several chapters to acclimate to the peculiar rhythms of the translation, but eventually the voice captured me. Alas, Mørck is kind of a sexist prick, which made him difficult to get behind at first. But ultimately he’s an interesting sexist prick – snarky, shrewd, traumatized, and more fragile than he’ll admit. His unlikeable qualities seem specific to his character, and don’t infect the other major players – specifically Assad, Mørck’s mysterious “assistant” (who in fact carries most of the caseload), and Merete, whose horrible predicament is described in flashback. Adler-Olsen weaves these plot threads slowly, methodically together to a satisfying and well earned climax – and while sometimes the pace is slowed by the incredibly detailed casework, I found that careful detail intricate and compelling. I could see Department Q making for a good Scandinavian crime series in the vein of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and suspect I’ll read further in the series.

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Spy 100, #10: Notorious

The top ten countdown begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s noir romance Notorious (1946), a dark and smoldering affair produced and set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The title refers to the seedy reputation of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a Miami party girl with a penchant for too much drink and too many men. Alicia’s father is a German-American war criminal with connections to certain at-large Nazis in South America – a connection not lost on American intelligence. Enter Agent Devlin (Cary Grant), sent by his superiors to recruit Alicia as an undercover agent. Smeared by her father’s treachery and her own sordid past, Alicia lights up when Devlin shows faith in her patriotism, and agrees to the work for them – not knowing that the mission involves seducing an old family friend, Alexander Sebastien (Claude Rains). By the time the nature of the mission comes to light, alas, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love, but he’s too buttoned-down and pig-headed to dissuade her from taking the assignment, and she’s too scarred by her past to walk away. Their tragic miscommunication plays out in a high-stakes love triangle, when Alicia goes above and beyond the call of duty to infiltrate Sebastien’s nefarious organization.

Notorious is an elegantly structured, low-key espionage caper that banks – smartly – on instant chemistry between the luminous Bergman and Grant. Indeed, the instant romance feels a little forced: Alicia is an emotional wreck, and Devlin is a perfect shit, and the icky gender politics of their early encounters don’t exactly grease the wheels of their attraction. In the end, though, sheer, charismatic star power sells it, and everything falls into place thereafter. Hardly a high-octane thriller, it positively boils with subtle tension and suspense, and while it lacks flashy setpieces it makes up for it with plenty of Hitchcock’s trademark visual story-telling. Beyond that, it lets Ben Hecht’s loaded dialogue do the heavy lifting. The fraught emotional baggage within the love triangle – which renders the dastardly Sebastien at least as sympathetic as his enemies – contrasts chillingly with the smiling, backpatting coldness of the intelligence officials overseeing the operation. Bergman is at her vulnerable best, here. Dated in places, but definitely a classic.

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Theater: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Last night, a rare outing to the theater: we saw The Mystery of Edwin Drood in Hollywood, at the Crossley Theater. While I can’t claim to be a particularly astute critic of theater in general, or musicals in particular, I enjoyed the hell out of this performance. It’s based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, but this is Dickens spun for laughs: a comedic whodunit that’s also a play-within-a-play, wherein all the members of the cast aren’t just playing their roles, but they’re playing the actors who are playing those roles. It’s all very meta and infectiously silly, full of clever lyrics, quick humor, and spirited musical numbers.

The Crossley is a small theater-in-the-round, and we were in the front row, which meant the cast was right on top of us, frequently dancing, strutting, and singing just inches away. (And when I say “on top of us,” I mean it literally — I had an actress in my lap at the act break!) The close proximity, combined with the cast’s in-character mingling with the audience before and during the show, made the performance incredibly intimate and engaging; it was neat hearing the individual singing voices and seeing costumes up close and personal. The script is so full of meta moments that it was difficult to tell the “scripted improv” from the actual improv, but there was a fair amount of both as the actors surprised each other, interacted with the crowd, and occasionally cracked each other up. Particularly responsible for this Whose Line? atmosphere was Peter Allen Vogt, who played the Chairman and narrated the mystery with energy and spontaneity. The cast was full of absurdly talented singers and comedians, and I feel a little guilty leaving anybody else out, but for me it was Gina D’Acciaro who really stood out as the scene-stealing Princess Puffer.

At the conclusion, the actors poll the audience to decide the ending of this unfinished mystery, which the actors then perform based on a number of possible scenarios. Audience participation of this kind normally makes me cringe, but for some reason I got really into it this time, even singing the choruses when prompted. Really, really fun show at a very nice little theater. Los Angeles folks, it’s still playing for a few more weeks!

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Non-Fiction: Nested Scrolls by Rudy Rucker

Rudy Rucker’s Nested Scrolls (2011) is an insightful autobiography, and for me it also proved to be an entertaining reminder of how massively influential his work was to me as a young writer. Like his fiction, this book is a breezy, effortless read with a relaxed, gonzo sensibility, full of ideas, wit and wisdom. The text charts Rucker’s life from his youth in rural Kentucky up to his sixties in California, documenting family life, travels, friendships, memorable encounters, and most centrally his varied and interesting careers.

Of course, I was most interested in his exploits as a writer working his way onto the science fiction scene; Rucker was an early pioneer of the cyberpunk movement, and later went on to coin the phrase “transrealism,” a subgenre of crossover fiction which I think is a useful concept for writers to keep in their arsenal. But Rucker also writes compellingly of his other careers, in mathematics, education, computer programming, non-fiction-writing, and more. Fans of Rucker’s work will find much to treasure in this behind-the-scenes glimpse at his life experience. It left me charged up to re-read Software and White Light and Transreal!, and to follow the advice of his freestyle motto: “Write like yourself, only more so.”

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