It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Look! A Book Haul!

I’ve not done one of these since, well, since the last one. And I’ve received a number of interesting books since then, books worth showing off. And here they are:

At the back to the right are a couple of NASA publications: Skylab, Our First Space Station, about, er, Skylab; and Where No Man Has Gone Before, a history of the “Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions”. They’re for the Space Books collection. To the right are three graphic novels. Two are by Warren Ellis (artwork by Gianluca Pagliarani and Facundo Percio, respectively) – Ignition City Volume 1 and Anna Mercury Volume 1: The Cutter. The third graphic novel is the final part of The Chimpanzee Complex trilogy, Civilisation, and I’ve yet to decide if the story works. I think I need to reread all three, one after the other. I shall probably do that and then write something about it.

In front of these are the six books of Brian Stableford’s 1970s Hooded Swan sextet. For reasons best known to some over-worked, under-paid and under-appreciated editor of the time, the first two books – Halcyon Drift and Rhapsody in Black – are subtitled “Adventures of STAR-PILOT GRAINGER”; while the remaining four books – Promised Land, The Paradise Game, The Fenris Device and Swan Song – are all subtitled “The ___ HOODED SWAN Adventure”. To be honest, showing all six books is a bit of a cheat as I only bought three of them recently. The other three I’ve had for a while. Finally, hiding to the left of Halcyon Drift is The Inward Animal, a collection of poetry by Terence Tiller from 1943. I like Tiller’s poetry, and now have several of his collections.

At the front are four first edition hardbacks. To the right are a pair of newly-published books: The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod; and the final book of Gary Gibson’s Giant Space Fish trilogy, Empire of Light. To the left, we have a signed edition of Carve the Sky, Alexander Jablokov’s debut novel; and a sf collection by Terry Dowling, Wormwood, which is also signed. I didn’t think Dowling’s story in the Eclipse 2 anthology, ‘Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose’, worked especially well, but I was intrigued enough by the universe in which it was set to hunt down this collection of stories also set in that universe. It was not an easy book to find. But I have a copy now, muahaha.


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Giving it away

If you look at the Fiction tab on this blog, you’ll see I’ve not sold a great number of short stories. Of those published stories, I’ve made three available online as PDF files – many months after they were originally published, of course. A fourth story, a flash fiction piece, I self-published on my Space Books blog as part of my Apollo 40 celebration (albeit somewhat delayed).

At the beginning of July, I decided to put copies of those four stories up on feedbooks.com, a site for free ebooks. You know, just to see. Would anyone read them? Would I get any comments?

The first has certainly happened. But not the second. No comments, but a large number of downloads. In fact, the respective popularities of the four stories has surprised me quite a bit…

Since the first of July, the stories have had the following number of downloads:

Black Rain has been the most popular by quite a margin – more than double The Amber Room. But if I had to rate my own personal satisfaction with the stories… then Black Rain is the one I’m least satisfied with. So I’m slightly boggled by the mismatch between my own expectations of a short story and readers’ responses to it. If I did something right in Black Rain, I don’t know what it is…

While I published my stories on feedbooks.com more as an intellectual exercise than as a serious self-publishing strategy, I’m happy with the results. I’ll to continue to re-publish my fiction there – a suitable length of time after each story was initially published, naturally.


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Vulcan Bombers in Space

Steampunk and dieselpunk have both entered mainstream culture. So they’re no longer cutting-edge, they’re now closer to blunt instrument. And that means it’s time for science fiction’s fertile minds to spunng! into creative action once again. We need a new movement, a new aesthetic, a new subgenre. And I have just the one. I call it:

Jetpunk

Hang on, I hear you say. Steampunk was alternate history, in which the world’s technology remained at Victorian levels. We have jets now. We have jets in the twenty-first century, we’ve had them for seventy years, in fact. What’s alternate about that? What’s sfnal about that? Well, yes, that’s true. But we don’t have all those amazing supersonic jets they had during the Cold War. Like, well, the Avro Vulcan Bomber. Or the Convair B-58 Hustler. North American XB-70 Valkyrie. TSR-2. Tupolev Tu-22. All those planned Supersonic Transports and spaceplanes.

(Source: BAe Systems, via avrovulcan.org.uk)

(Source: USAF, via wingweb.co.uk)

(Source: Carl Ehrlich, via The Space Review)

That was proper science fiction, that was. Not the pointy magic rockets they used to put in sf novels of the period. No, they were proper engineered aeroplanes made out of titanium that could fly at silly speeds like Mach 3.5. And jet-packs. Flying cars. Giant Computer Brains – er, giant mainframe computers in giant data processing centres. Jetpunk. It’s the future they were designing and building fifty years ago, when a base on the Moon by the end of the century looked like a very real prospect. It’s the future we might have had, the one where we wear silver jumpsuits and eat food-pills.

It was a time of progress and of austerity, of paranoia and of trust, of innocence and cynicism. And, let’s face, those supersonic jets and spaceplanes looked pretty damn cool. It’s not steam engine time, it’s jetpunk time.

So who’s going to write the first jetpunk sf story?


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Meme goes fantasy

When Gollancz began publishing their SF Masterworks series, they did the same for a Fantasy Masterworks series. But it stopped after fifty books. There was also a Crime Masterworks series, but I’m not sure how long that one lasted. Anyway, usual memetic rules apply: bold those you’ve read, italicise those you own but haven’t read… which would be all of them for me: I bought each one as they were published.

1 – The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw – Gene Wolfe
2 – Time and the Gods – Lord Dunsany
3 – The Worm Ouroboros – E.R. Eddison
4 – Tales of the Dying Earth – Jack Vance
5 – Little, Big – John Crowley
6 – The Chronicles of Amber – Roger Zelazny
7 – Viriconium – M. John Harrison
8 – The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle – Robert E. Howard
9 – The Land of Laughs – Jonathan Carroll
10 – The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea – L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

11 – Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees
12 – The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel – Gene Wolfe
13 – Fevre Dream – George R. R. Martin
14 – Beauty – Sheri S. Tepper
15 – The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany
16 – The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon – Robert E. Howard
17 – Elric – Michael Moorcock
18 – The First Book of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
19 – Riddle-Master – Patricia A. McKillip
20 – Time and Again – Jack Finney

21 – Mistress of Mistresses – E.R. Eddison
22 – Gloriana or the Unfulfill’d Queen – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Well of the Unicorn – Fletcher Pratt
24 – The Second Book of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
25 – Voice of Our Shadow – Jonathan Carroll
26 – The Emperor of Dreams – Clark Ashton Smith
27 – Lyonesse I: Suldrun’s Garden – Jack Vance
28 – Peace – Gene Wolfe
29 – The Dragon Waiting – John M. Ford
30 – Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe – Michael Moorcock

31 – Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams – C.L. Moore
32 – The Broken Sword – Poul Anderson
33 – The House on the Borderland and Other Novels – William Hope Hodgson
34 – The Drawing of the Dark – Tim Powers
35 – Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc – Jack Vance
36 – The History of Runestaff – Michael Moorcock
37 – A Voyage to Arcturus – David Lindsay
38 – Darker Than You Think – Jack Williamson
39 – The Mabinogion – Evangeline Walton
40 – Three Hearts & Three Lions – Poul Anderson

41 – Grendel – John Gardner
42 – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – Michael Swanwick
43 – WAS – Geoff Ryman
44 – Song of Kali – Dan Simmons
45 – Replay – Ken Grimwood
46 – Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories – Leigh Brackett
47 – The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers
48 – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld – Patricia A. McKillip
49 – Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
50 – The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales – Rudyard Kipling

Not such a good showing for me there, but then I do tend to read more sf than fantasy (and, in fact, more literary fiction than fantasy). Some of the books in the series I’d have said were sf not fantasy (Beauty, The Book of the New Sun), but it remains an excellent selection. I just need to read more of them…


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The Continuous DG Compton

The first book by David Guy Compton I read was Justice City back in 1996. I picked it as one of my ten best books that year, and described it then as “excellently written, believable characters, and a crime plot that depends on its political dimension as much as it does on the psychology of its cast”. It wasn’t until six years later that I read another Compton, Chronicules. While not a comforting book to read, I did review it (see here), and noted that the prose was “a joy to read”. Last year I read Scudder’s Game, and only last month The Electric Crocodile. The more of Compton’s novels I read, the more I appreciate his writing. Yes, they are grim and misanthropic, and most have a very 1970s atmosphere – but that, I suppose, is part of their appeal.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – also known as Death Watch and The Unsleeping Eye – is perhaps Compton’s best-known sf novel. It was originally published in 1974, and adapted into a film titled Death Watch by Bertrand Tavernier in 1980. I’ve not seen the film, although I certainly plan to find a copy. In the novel, the title character is diagnosed with “Gordon’s Syndrome” and told she has four weeks left to live. A successful television programme, Human Destiny, has found success broadcasting the final weeks of terminal patients, and they want Katherine to be a subject – for a large sum, of course. But she refuses. The producers of Human Destiny had been planning to try out some new technology on her: one of their reporters, Rod, has had his eyes replaced with television cameras. (His eyes still look the same, so Katherine would never know she was being filmed every moment.)

The novel is set in the future, and it’s a very 1970s future. I remarked on this in my capsule review of The Electric Crocodile and, I have to admit, it’s an aesthetic I find appealing – all that Brutalist architecture, the huge antiseptic data processing centres, the clunky technology… The society of Compton’s future is also a product of the book’s time of writing. It’s a future not much different from then, but not much like now. People live in huge blocks of flats, and die only of old age… except for notable exceptions, such as those who feature on Human Destiny. Mortenhoe works as an editor for a publisher – or rather, she manages a computer system which writes romance novels. Yet this old school Labour future also has its rich and privileged – everyone is provided for, but there’s still the fabulously wealthy. And from Compton’s characterisation of one such rich character in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, it’s plain where his sympathies lay.

In fact, if there’s one thing that stands out in Compton’s novels it’s his sympathies. The technology or technological innovation around which Compton bases his stories – in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, it’s Rod’s camera-eyes; in The Electric Crocodile, it was the supercomputer which allowed a self-proclaimed scientific “elite” to dictate the direction of human progress… It’s the misuse or abuse of this technology which is the plot-engine of the novels; and the fuel on which that engine runs is outrage. Rod’s camera-eyes represent an infringement of Katherine’s privacy of unthinkable levels. Every aspect of her life will be held up to public scrutiny and, possibly, probably, ridicule. She will have no secrets. Technology has robbed everyone of their secrets.

Much like the other Compton novels I’ve read, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a character study of its protagonists – the eponymous “heroine”, of course; and Rod the cameraman. The sections told from Rod’s viewpoint, however, are in the first person. As in The Electric Crocodile, Compton often repeats scenes from each character’s viewpoint, although the disconnect between what they experience is not so marked as it is in that earlier novel. While Rod is a bit of an everyman – he has a failed marriage in his back-history, and his ex-wife makes several appearances – Katherine is extremely well-drawn. She loves her current husband, but their marriage is perhaps best described as “comfortable”. She is not adventurous – but in order to escape the Human Destiny production team, she disguises herself as an indigent. And her decision to do so fits in wholly with her character. She is wholly ordinary, but extraordinary in small ways.

The writing, as in other Compton novels, is excellent. Of those British sf writers who were popular during the 1970s, Compton is perhaps the best prose stylist. Some may have been more popular, Bob Shaw, for example. Some of them may have had a steady career writing books for US publishers, such as EC Tubb or A Betram Chandler. But Compton was, I think, the best writer of the lot. Having said that, his books are very British, and very miserable. So it’s no surprise his novels have been mostly forgotten. Which is a shame. But I certainly plan to read more by him.


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A One-Man Job: Moon

I am, I admit, not much of a fan of science fiction films. Too many of them privilege visual spectacle over story, or characterisation, or rigour, or plot logic, or even anything approaching an intelligent take on their subject. So it’s more by accident than design that I find I’ve watched all but one of the films on this year’s Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form short list. For the record, the nominees are:

Avatar looked fantastic, but was “about forty years out of date – in plot and in its somewhat offensive sensibilities – and suffers from some dodgy logic and some even worse dialogue” (see here). District 9 I found very disappointing, and was not at all impressed (see here). Star Trek XI was monumentally stupid (see here). I’ve yet to see Up. But Moon, I watched only recently, and…

First of all, given the film’s $5 million budget Duncan Jones and his crew did an impressive job. Moon certainly doesn’t look cheap. Having said that, it makes an effort towards realism, but actually owes more to cinematic representations of the Moon than it does to the place visited and filmed by the Apollo astronauts. It’s not just that the gravity appears to be the same as Earth’s – although, bizarrely, star Sam Rockwell seems to move in slow motion when outside the moon base. The base itself resembles something designed for a movie, with its Syd Mead lines, and the fact that it’s so huge for just one person. There’s a famous photo of one of the Apollo astronauts seemingly embedded in machinery – that’s how cramped the Command/Service Module was. Putting mass on the Moon is expensive.

And yet, the reason there is a moon base on the far side of the Moon in the first place is good science. Sam Rockwell’s character, Sam Bell, is the supervisor of a number of robotic harvesters of Helium-3. In his book Return to the Moon, Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 presented an excellent case for mining Helium-3 from lunar regolith (see here). When, in Moon, one of the harvesters breaks down, Bell rides out in a rover to investigate the problem. Unfortunately, he’s not been feeling well of late, and his attention is distracted as he approaches the harvester… causing him to crash. There is no one else on the Moon and, thanks to a malfunctioning relay satellite, no way for Bell to call from the far side of the Moon to Earth. He is going to die. But then he wakes up back at the moon base. Except it’s not him. It’s a clone. This second Bell goes out and rescues the one who crashed. Resulting in two Sam Bells…

It’s a clever conceit – although Bell realises his true nature suspiciously quickly, as if the story needed to skip past the discovery phase in order to continue on with the resolution. In retrospect, the only problems I have with the film are niggles such as that. The lack of one-sixth gravity, the size of the moon base, the unnecessarily huge size of the moon rovers (and putting the hatch on top? that’s a terrible design for a vehicle to be used with spacesuits)… It’s a bit like those nuts who think the Apollo lunar landings were faked – when it costs more to maintain the fiction than it would have done to actually do it, then the conspiracy is plainly rubbish. And so with Moon – Lunar Industries, the movie’s fictional company, economises by using clones to run its Helium-3 mining operation, but then gives the clone an enormous moon base to live in…

I think this is worthy of comment because I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, because I’ve read a number of books, and seen a number of films, on the subject – witness my other blog A Space About Books About Space. Yet I also read science fiction (and review it and write it). I speak the language of science fiction, in other words. And that can operate sometimes like a reverse Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – as soon as a word is spoken, the concept behind it becomes obvious. Which means I’m likely to focus on the presentation of the conceit, rather than on how the conceit drives the plot…

Happily, Duncan Jones has disarmed most such criticism by consciously referencing other sf films. As you watch Moon, you find yourself going: “That’s from AlienOutland2001Silent Running…” Not to mention that much of the look of the film is a mix of Syd Mead, Ron Cobb and Gerry Anderson. Moon is a film which is very much in conversation with the genre. And it’s quite a loud conversation. The real-world science behind Helium-3 mining, the use of lunar scenery which actually looks like the real Moon… all these only make the conversation more compelling and interesting.

Will Moon make my best five films of the year? Unlikely. It’s the best of those I’ve seen so far on the Hugo shortlist without a doubt. It is, in fact, a good little film. But, like O2, I’m not overly fond of niggles.


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Cool. A meme. A list: SF Masterworks

I started buying these in, I think, their second year. I have all of the numbered series – that’s up to 73 – but I plan to buy the new ones in the relaunched series. Anyway, apparently, there’s a meme doing the rounds. It’s clearly come from the SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project (an excellent idea, by the way, chaps and chapesses), but a few others have picked it up. And I thought… why not? The ones in bold I’ve read. The ones in italics I have yet to buy.

II The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
V A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M Miller, Jr
X The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

1 The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
2 I Am Legend Richard, Matheson
3 Cities in Flight, James Blish
4 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
5 The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
6 Babel-17, Samuel R Delany
7 Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
8 The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe
9 Gateway, Frederik Pohl
10 The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
11 Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon
12 Earth Abides, George R Stewart
13 Martian Time-Slip, Philip K Dick
14 The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
15 Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
16 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin
17 The Drowned World, JG Ballard
18 The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
19 Emphyrio, Jack Vance
20 A Scanner Darkly, Philip K Dick
21 Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon
22 Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock
23 The Book of Skulls, Robert Silverberg
24 The War of the Worlds, HG Wells
25 Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
26 Ubik, Philip K Dick
27 Timescape, Gregory Benford
28 More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
29 Man Plus, Frederik Pohl
30 A Case of Conscience, James Blish
31 The Centauri Device, M John Harrison
32 Dr Bloodmoney, Philip K Dick
33 Non-Stop, Brian Aldiss
34 The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C Clarke
35 Pavane, Keith Roberts
36 Now Wait for Last Year, Philip K Dick
37 Nova, Samuel R Delany
38 The First Men in the Moon, HG Wells
39 The City and the Stars, Arthur C Clarke
40 Blood Music, Greg Bear
41 Jem, Frederik Pohl
42 Bring the Jubilee, Ward Moore
43 VALIS, Philip K Dick
44 The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin
45 The Complete Roderick, John Sladek
46 Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Philip K Dick
47 The Invisible Man, HG Wells
48 Grass, Sheri S Tepper
49 A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C Clarke
50 Eon, Greg Bear
51 The Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson
52 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick
53 The Dancers at the End of Time, Michael Moorcock
54 The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M Kornbluth
55 Time Out of Joint, Philip K Dick
56 Downward to the Earth, Robert Silverberg
57 The Simulacra, Philip K Dick
58 The Penultimate Truth, Philip K Dick
59 Dying Inside, Robert Silverberg
60 Ringworld, Larry Niven
61 The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman
62 Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
63 A Maze of Death, Philip K Dick
64 Tau Zero, Poul Anderson
65 Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C Clarke
66 Life During Wartime, Lucius Shepard
67 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm
68 Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 Dark Benediction, Walter M Miller, Jr
70 Mockingbird, Walter Tevis
71 Dune, Frank Herbert
72 The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A Heinlein
73 The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick
74 Inverted World, Christopher Priest
75 Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
76 The Island of Dr Moreau, HG Wells
77 Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
78 The Time Machine, HG Wells
79 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany
80 Helliconia, Brian Aldiss
81 Food of the Gods, HG Wells
82 The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
83 The Female Man, Joanna Russ
84 Arslan, MJ Engh


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Dune Mania

A few years ago, a madness came upon me and I wanted everything there was to be had about, and related to, Frank Herbert’s Dune and its sequels. The novel remains a favourite, although I don’t especially admire its prose (see here). Herbert’s other sf works have not entirely withstood the test of time, although I consider him the most thoughtful writer of his generation, and the most interesting in that regard. This peculiar madness struck me after Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson had begun hacking at the Dune corpus and, to be honest, having bought and waded through the House prequel trilogy I wasn’t much interested in their additions to the universe. Nonetheless, I did buy the Legends of Dune trilogy, and the two “sequels” to Chapterhouse Dune… But enough was enough. The books were getting worse and worse, and I had to give up in disgust.

I managed to find a whole bunch of stuff related to Frank Herbert and his Dune books – not to mention the merchandising associated with the David Lynch 1985 film adaptation.

The three attempts at adapting Dune have all been, for various reasons, near-misses. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never got beyond some concept art, and its story likely wouldn’t have been recognisable as Herbert’s novel, but it would have been a film worth seeing (some of Jodorowsky’s ideas were later used in his Incal comics series with Moebius). The “television version” of Lynch’s version gives some idea of what he was trying to do in his adaptation, but the studio butchered it and the end result was far from satisfactory. The Sci-Fi Channel (as was) mini-series was more faithful to the book, but the production design couldn’t compete with that of Lynch’s film. The sequel, Children Of Dune, was much better, however.

Anyway, below are the various bits and pieces I’ve managed to pick up for my collection of things Dune-related…

five editions of Dune – sadly, that middle one is not a true first edition, but a Book Club Edition

Frank Herbert’s Dune sequels

Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson’s two sequels, plus a collection of Dune-related, er, stuff

the House trilogy

the execrable Legends of Dune trilogy

three free chapbooks produced by Tor to publicise the BH & KJA Dune novels

God Emperor Of Dune, a signed and numbered limited edition (I’m a big fan of limited editions)

limited editions of God Emperor Of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune and Heretics of Dune; a first edition hardback of The Dune Encyclopedia

two books about adaptations of Dune, one on the “science” of the novel, and a collection of Herbert’s poetry

five books about Frank Herbert and his works

two study notes for Dune, and two boxes of the Dune CCG (I have two big boxes of the CCG cards on top of the bookcase)

two Wormhole Press signed editions of short fiction by BH & KJA set in the Dune universe

a book of the chapter headings from Dune (but… why?); and pop-up book from the film (but… why?)

strategy guides for the two computer games

the novelisation of the film (the book of the film of the book – a concept which never ceases to puzzle me); and the rule book for the aborted role-playing game

the Marvel comic of the film, the issue of Métal Hurlant containing concept art for Jodorowsky’s version (see below for a sample), and a collectible magazine

Moebius character designs for Jodorowsky’s film

activity books for the Dune film (but… why?)

LPs of Frank Herbert reading excerpts from his novels

the 1978 Dune calendar, with art by John Schoenherr

three special edition DVDs – UK, US and Germany (and yes, that’s a sandworm made of plaster)

the much-played Avalon Hill boardgame and its two expansion sets

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