The Martian–Andy Weir

TheMartian2“Commander,” Beck radioed.  “You need to get to the ship now.”

“Agreed,” Martinez radioed.  “He’s gone, ma’am.  Watney’s gone.”

The four crewmates awaited their commander’s response.

“Copy,” she finally replied. “On my way.”

Source: Netgalley (Review Copy)

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Publication Date: February 11, 2014

When a sandstorm compels NASA to abort the Ares 3 expedition on Mars six days into their month long stay, the team is forced to leave behind a fully functioning habitat, two martian land rovers, millions of dollars of pre-positioned equipment, fifty days of freeze dried food for a crew of six (including fresh potatoes for their Thanksgiving dinner) and one dead astronaut.  Last anyone saw of Mark Watney, flight engineer and team botanist, both he and his EVA suit were compromised, impaled by a communications antenna, tumbling off into the storm with his biometric sensors flat-lined.  Forced by their grave situation to abandon the search for his body, the team leader makes the call and the Martian Ascent Vehicle (MAV) launches, leaving Watney to his fate. 

Fate, living up to its reputation for being fickle, has other plans for Mark Watney.  Against the odds, he survives the suit puncture and impalement and manages to retreat to the expedition’s habitat, which weathered the storm intact.  He’s alive and relatively uninjured.  He has oxygen, water, and food for the next 300 days.  Too bad Ares 4 won’t arrive for another four years, and then around 3200 kilometers from Watney’s refuge. It’s up to him to make his own fate and live to be there when Ares 4 lands.  Watney’s got three things going for him: his ingenuity, his sense of humour in the face of death, and those six potatoes. Thus begins an extraordinary tale of resourcefulness and survival in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, albeit in a place where everything can kill you.

I first read of Andy Weir’s The Martian early last year while browsing an on-line review.  At the time he was an independent author, and I downloaded a sample with every intention of buying a copy if it proved any good.  Months later, I came across another article mentioning that Weir’s book had been picked up by a mainstream publisher and would be published in February of 2014.  In the meantime, the e-book had become “unavailable” for purchase, a situation which left me somewhat miffed.  However, the publisher was looking for reviewers on Netgalley, so I managed to snag a copy and dug in.

Written from several points of view, the majority being epistolary journal entries by our stranded engineer/botanist, The Martian introduces us to Mark Watney, a thoroughly likeable and extremely resilient character for whom the reader cannot help but root.  He’s no shrinking violet, bemoaning his fate and waiting for the inevitable, but rather your typical “can do” NASA type, working the problem methodically until he achieves one of two results: life; or death.  Throughout the journal, Watney faces many life threatening situations (and some are doozies) and deals with them from an engineering perspective, true to form as…well…an engineer. With this emphasis on problem solving, The Martian is definitely a novel for lovers of hard science fiction, but Weir also develops a character for whom we feel a great deal of empathy, ensuring that the techno-babble doesn’t detract from the story.  The addition of quite a bit of, “you have to laugh or you’ll end up crying,” levity on the part of Watney  helps guarantee the novel not become too dreary. 

One worry I had while reading The Martian was that a novel with a single point of view can limit the author’s ability to build a picture of what’s going on in the greater world (or solar system, in this case).  I wanted to know what the crew were thinking when they presumed Watney dead—and how they dealt with the guilt of leaving a crewmember not just behind, but behind on another planet.  What was going on back at mission control?  How was his family dealing with the loss of their son?   These are all questions that would be impossible to answer had Weir stuck with the epistolary format, so it was satisfying to see him branch out from Watney’s tale and explore those very things.  Transitioning back and forth from Watney’s journal to scenes of his crewmates and people back home gave greater depth to the story than showcasing his tale alone. 

I find generally these days while reading or viewing a movie that it’s hard to get invested in the welfare of the character because you just know that the writer (unless it’s G.R.R. Martin) is not going to do anything too drastic, like kill off the main character.  Knowing that the author won’t take that risk tends to detract from the reader feeling any real investment in a story, but Weir deftly manages to avoid this pitfall.  Every situation Mark Watney faces is written in a way that feels “life or death” in an Apollo 13 sort of way, and until the last few pages of the novel I was unsure as to how things would pan out.  The ingenuity with which Watney, his former crewmates, and the people back on Earth tackle his predicament lends an air of optimism to a novel that could very well have lost itself in the malaise of a man bereft of hope.  Lucky for us, this is not that type of novel.

The Martian is one of those books that you’ll want to read in one or two sittings, maybe even burning a little midnight oil as you follow a lone Martian’s quest to become an Earthling once again.

The Martian will be released by Crown Publishing on February 11, 2014.

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Fly me to the Moon.

Apollomoonlanding

Between July 16, 1969 and December 7, 1972, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) managed to land six missions on the Moon.  Apollo 13 was, of course, famously aborted when an on-board explosion crippled the vehicle and the astronauts relied on the lunar module as a lifeboat for their return.  With the successful completion of the Apollo 17 mission, manned exploration of the Moon came to an end, but 41 years later authors are still chronicling the missions, speculating about the future of man’s conquest of the moon and writing alternate history based on speculation about lunar missions.

I was born just shortly before the last Apollo mission, so missed the excitement involved with lunar exploration.  As a child I witnessed the Space Shuttle program from inception to eventual retirement and have always held the exploration of space in great regard.  Lately, lunar missions (either real or speculative) have been on my mind, so today’s post is dedicated to three books regarding the Moon, one historical and two speculative.

Rocket Men-Craig NelsonRocketMen

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Viking Press

Publication Date: June 30, 2009

First on the list is Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, a biography of the United States space program, culminating in a description of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon.  From the closing days of the Second World War, Nelson traces the history of manned space flight to NASA’s defining achievement of a man on the Moon.  It’s a fascinating look at the race between the United States and the Soviet Union, one in which the Soviet Union took an early lead and the United States focused their efforts to catch and surpass their cold war foes, eventually culminating in the Apollo program.  I’m only about half way through but find myself captivated by his account of the formation of NASA and their counterparts in the Soviet Union.  I feel confident in recommending Nelson’s biography of the program (after all, I already know how it ends) for anyone who has an interest  in the subject.  Looking around on the internet, Nelson has been criticized for a few technical errors in his account, but, like most of the populace, I’m not a rocket scientist and a few quibbles do not detract from a wonderful account of the early days of space-flight.

Back to the Moon-Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Backtothemoon

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Baen Books

Publication Date: December 27, 2011

Back to the Moon is a nice piece of speculative fiction by Les Johnson and Travis Taylor, who also wrote a neat novel (with John Ringo) about the invasion of Earth by a multitude of Von Neumann machines in the 2008 novel, Von Neumann’s War. Back to the Moon tells the a story of the near future in which the United States has finally refocused the mission of NASA on returning to the Moon.  Using a modified vision of the Constellation Program, the United States has once again embarked on a manned moon mission, but they have competition from the private sector in the form of a Virgin Galactic inspired space-plane/lunar orbiter by the name of Dreamscape.  Gary Childers, president of Space Excursions, is an entrepreneur in the mould of Richard Branson and also interested in bringing the experience of space flight and lunar excursions to the common man (well, those who can afford the fee).  Space Excursions is also interested in beating NASA to the Moon, although they aren’t prepared for a landing.  Meanwhile, China has become the successor of the defunct Soviet Union and is also striving to beat the Americans back to the Moon.

When Childer’s Dreamscape vehicle manages to orbit the Moon in advance of NASA’s efforts, the pilot and civilian crew are astonished to receive a distress signal from a crew of Chinese Taikonauts.  They’ve beaten the Americans to the Moon using stolen technology (ironically, from both NASA and Space Excursions) but flubbed the landing.  Once discovered, it becomes a race against time for NASA to launch a recovery mission before the Chinese succumb to their circumstances.

Now I suppose naysayers could nitpick this novel by calling it a “rah-rah” America first bit of fluff, but I found it a fun, pulpy read.  Taylor knows his stuff, after all, he is an actual rocket scientist, and while I would never describe his work as “literary” in the classical sense, he tells a compelling story in an accessible manner.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains-Ian Sales

Adriftontheseaofrains

Source: Bought copy (Kindle)

Publisher: Whippleshield Books

Publication Date: April, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains, is the first in a quartet of proposed novels by U.K. novelist Ian Sales and can be characterized as both speculative fiction and alternate history.  It concerns a group of astronauts who become stranded on a lunar base after a nuclear exchange by the Soviet Union and United States.  Their only hope for rescue is a salvaged Nazi Wunderwaffe, a “torsion-field” generator that can allow them passage through alternate universes, in hope of finding one where the Earth has not been destroyed.  Complicating their situation is the problem of how to get home in the event they find an Earth to return to.

Now in all honesty, I haven’t read this book yet.  It’s on my intent to read list, but having perused the first chapter, I have little doubt that it’s going to be a compelling, although possibly dismal, novel.  Ian Sales appears to have taken a more literary road with regard to his writing style and it shows. His characters are maudlin (granted, you would be too if you’d witnessed the destruction of the Earth and faced a slow death on a desolate rock) and somewhat nihilistic. He’s also managed to win the 2012 BSFA (British Science Fiction Award) for short fiction.

I realize I’m not doing justice to his novella in this brief description, but want to inform you of a talent that has recently come upon my alternate history radar.  I hope to give you a more detailed report once able to spend some time with what appears to be an emerging talent.

 

Ack-Ack Macaque–Gareth L. Powell

AckAckMacaque“Do you know what you have to do?”

Ack-Ack Macaque grinned, exposing his teeth.

“Same as I always do, right?”  He snapped the reloaded Colt back together and spun the barrel.

“Blow shit up and hurt people.”

Last week, as I sat on a picnic table during a break at work, a co-worker strolled by and saw the title of my latest read, Ack-Ack Macaque, at which point he derisively exclaimed, “Ack-Ack Macaque?  What the hell is that?”  My reply was oh so very NSFW (not safe for work) and involved a bad pun about sucking “Macaque.”  We both groaned at that lame response and went about our business.  I’m not relating this story just to prove my ability to come up with horrible puns, but that little incident made me think about how we choose the books we choose to read and how sometimes it simply comes down to a good cover or an amusing title.  Frankly, the title Ack-Ack Macaque was what prompted me to read the back cover of Gareth L. Powell’s futuristic novel about a monkey flying ace with attitude.  I’ve always been fascinated with flying and fighter pilots—throw in a monkey and some German ninja parachutists—and you have something I just HAVE to read, even if it turns out to be ridiculous.

And then something funny happened—and I don’t mean, funny “ha-ha.”  Here I was, reading a book with a monkey in a flying cap wielding a couple of six-shooters on the cover and discovering a book that was more William Gibson than Terry Pratchet.  So, a quick synopsis:

Set in the year 2059, Ack-Ack Macaque is in reality three intertwined stories that merge into one narrative by the climax of the novel.  The first story is that of Victoria Valois, a former correspondent recuperating from an accident which resulted in the majority of her brain matter being replaced by a synthetic version known as “gelware.”  She’s come to London to bury her estranged husband, and possibly investigate the unusual events surrounding his death.  Not only was Paul murdered, but during the course of the crime the culprit removed his brain, and with that, his soulcatcher, a piece of hardware implanted in every citizen to create a recording of their personality that lives on for a short time after death.  After coming face to face with the killer—and in the process having her own soulcatcher stolen (kidnapped?)—Victoria discovers that Paul’s death is in some way connected with his employer, Céleste Industries.

The second story involves His Royal Highness, Prince Merovich, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France—the two countries having been merged for a century—who gets tangled up with the illicit activities of his girlfriend Julie.  She’s a rights activist, and with a small cohort of friends, they are about to raid Céleste Industries in the hopes of freeing what they believe to be the first sentient artificial intelligence, that of a pistol packing, spitfire flying, whiskey drinking Macaque by the name of Ack-Ack who is the central character of an on-line virtual reality game.  Merovich is crucial to Julie’s plan, by way of his being the son of Céleste Industries owner, her Grace Alyssa Célestine, herself Regent of the combined commonwealth due to a terrorist act that left the King incapacitated.  Merovich also has a connection to Valois in the shared accident that resulted in her augmentation.

The third story is of what—or rather who–Merovich and Julie find when they infiltrate the facility.  I think by now you may have an idea about who that might be.  Together, they uncover the sinister plot of a cult known as the “Undying” involving androids, the first terraforming probe to Mars and possibly the end of the world through nuclear annihilation, unless Victoria, Merovich, Julie and a seriously pissed off macaque named Ack-Ack can find a way to stop them.

With Ack-Ack Macaque, Powell has proved himself an adept world builder, creating a convincing near future world in which the idea of a sentient monkey is not so far-fetched, which, to my mind is a pretty tall order.  He’s also added Steampunk elements to an alternate history novel that is not necessarily Steampunk, but will appeal to fans of the genre.  The ubiquitous skyliners (modified zeppelins) are there, but updated to be more demonstrative of real world technology.  No steam–all nuclear, and a realistic look at the direction technology can take us.  Artificial intelligence, huge leaps in medical technology, the idea of a back-up consciousness housed in a cranial hard drive, seamlessly blended into the background of a world that could very well be mistaken for our own—just projected another fifty years or so down the road.  The idea of a history in which France and England merged into a larger commonwealth with a shared monarchy does not seem an unrealistic possibility either.

As for the characters, Powell manages to capture Victoria Valois’ frustration and determination in the face of what was a debilitating accident, and her dogged resolve to solve Paul’s murder and bring the culprits to justice.  Merovich is a smart, yet somewhat naïve young man, rashly allowing his girlfriend to lead him into situations that an older man might think twice about, but with the wisdom to recognize when the situation calls for a more serious approach, likely the result of his experience in the incident that maimed Valois.  Julie comes across as a true believer with her own rigid moral code, willing to risk her own safety to free an independent intelligence that may only exist on a flash drive, while Ack-Ack—well, let’s just say he’s got a mean disposition and a very good reason to want to blow some shit up.

Actually, there’s more to Ack-Ack Macaque than just a grumpy monkey.  Here’s a character that has to contend with the knowledge that everything he’s ever accomplished, the people he has cared for, are simply part of a computer simulation.  In other words—he has to deal with knowing his life has been a lie.  In learning the truth, he’s also been set free to pursue bloody vengeance against those who treated him as a toy.

If there’s any complaint to be had with Ack-Ack Macaque, it’s that we don’t really get to see the villain fully fleshed out.  It’s evident early on in the novel who their common foe is, but without a narrative from the villain’s point of view, I found myself wanting to understand their motivation a little better.  The opponent is mentioned many times and the protagonists deal with the villain’s minions on several occasions, but when the reader finally meets the antagonist, it’s so brief they feel like a plot device rather than an important character.  Having said that, this lack of motivational description doesn’t detract from the novels best features, namely a bunch of wounded characters (literally and figuratively) pressed together by circumstance to accomplish the same goal.  You know—saving the world.

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Gareth L. Powell is the author of Ack-Ack Macaque and its forthcoming sequel Hive Monkey.  He maintains a website at www.garethlpowell.com and both Gareth and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found on twitter, engaging in hilarious conversations.

Memories of Futures Past

“To the Moon, Alice!”

Ever wanted to read some classic Science Fiction yet been unable to find a copy of your favourite author’s work?  I myself have been fruitlessly looking for a copy of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series for a while now.  Or, say you’re a fan of Murray Leinster.  His works are out there, but few and far between.

Well, someone’s decided to make sure that visions of future past don’t disappear into history. The good people over at engadget have a nice little profile of a bookstore in New York (Brooklyn to be specific) whose proprietors have dedicated themselves to bringing lost and out of copyright Science Fiction back into the mainstream.

Singularity&Co have dedicated themselves to:

Save the SCIFI!

Singularity&Co. is a team of time traveling archivists longing for futures past. 

Each month, our subscribers help us choose a vintage, out of print scifi book to rescue (with the rightsholders’ permission).  We’re bringing forgotten 20th century scifi into the 21st.

They’ve dedicated themselves to scanning rare and classic Science Fiction books into a digital format and then releasing them as ebooks.  If you’re an  aficionado of classic SciFi, these are the people to watch!

(Thanks to Mat Smith at engadget)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the eBook Revolution

It seems like you couldn’t look at a book blog the past week without seeing a post on Amazon’s recent press release, noting that they’re now selling more Kindle books than print books. From their  May 19, 2011 press release:

  • Since April 1, for every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books. This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
  • So far in 2011, the tremendous growth of Kindle book sales, combined with the continued growth in Amazon’s print book sales, have resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business, in both units and dollars, in over 10 years. This includes books in all formats, print and digital. Free books are excluded in the calculation of growth rates.
  • In the five weeks since its introduction, Kindle with Special Offers for only $114 is already the bestselling member of the Kindle family in the U.S.
  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010.
  • Less than one year after introducing the UK Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, even as hardcover sales continue to grow. Since April 1, Amazon.co.uk customers are purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than 2 to 1.

Pretty amazing, considering the Kindle has only been around since 2007.  Revolutionary even.  Of course, every revolution has its casualties and the eBook revolution looks to continue that trend.  There will be repercussions for the publishing industry, retailers, and eventually the consumer.  Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the rise of the ebook.

The Good:

  • Ebooks look like they’re here to stay, either in physical format (Kindle, Nook, Kobo et al) or as apps on other platforms such as the Apple iPad or Blackberry Playbook.  Great news for those of us who jumped on the bandwagon early.  No more worries about “niche” markets or disappearing fads.
  • Now that eBooks are no longer unproven technology to publishers, maybe they’ll take a look through the back catalogs and transfer some if not all of their out of print titles to digital format.  It’s always frustrating to hear of a good book only to find that you’ll have to pay through the nose to acquire a rare copy or to find that only selected books in a series have been translated to digital format.  Just recently I was looking for Flashman by George MacDonald Frasier and discovered that the original is not available on Kindle but Flashman and the Tiger is.  (Book eleven?  Really?!)
  • eBooks are discounted in comparison to physical print.  Generally, a new release hardcover costs the same as a pocket novel when bought in eBook format.  The consumer gets a break, and the publisher certainly doesn’t have the overhead that they would with print and shipping costs.
  • It’s much easier for anyone to publish a book.  No more book agents, rejection letters, etc.  Simply write your book, pay your fees to have it digitized, set your price and go.  eBooks could lead to greater variety at lower prices.

The Bad:

  • It’s much easier for anyone to publish a book.  Think about that for a second.  Bad writing, bad or nonexistent editing, spelling errors–publishers have editors work with aspiring and established writers for a reason.  Sifting through a lot of crap to find that rare gem is not something to look forward to.
  •  How is this going to affect editors, literary agents and publishers as a whole?  They’ll still be working with authors to bring product to market, but many authors will forgo their services and self publish in hope of garnering a greater return.  After all, why take a percentage when you can take the whole thing (minus your own minimal costs)?  Furthermore, will literary agents become redundant?  Remember, it was only a few years ago that travel agents were a real thing. (Okay, technically they’re still around.  Used one lately?)

The Ugly:

  • Now that retailers such as Amazon have a foothold on the market, will they (and the publishers) still feel the need to sell eBooks at a reduced price?  One of the biggest draws of eBooks (for me) is their affordability, but as eBooks proliferate the market, what’s to stop the prices from slowly increasing until they are comparable to physical print?
  • Physical print–with the increased pressure of eBook sales and diminished interest in a physical product–will book prices increase?  Will print runs become shorter (and therefore more expensive) due to reduced demand?  Who’s going to pick up that greater expense?
  • What of brick and mortar book stores?  Are they going to go the route of the video store?
  • Technically, you don’t own an eBook, you lease it.  Libraries have already run into problems with publishers who want them to pay up again (re-“lease” their titles) after a certain number of reads.
  • Finally, how long will retailers maintain your eBook catalog?  Say Amazon has a couple of bad years and ends up in bankruptcy.  Then what?

This is all conjecture for the moment.  The industry is too new and the numbers too fluid to make anything but predictions, however, just like any revolution, the eBook revolution will radically transform the publishing industry in a very short period of time. 

 *For further reading on the subject, try John Steele Gordon’s article, ” The End of the Book?”  at the American or a really interesting article by Narasu Rebbapragada at PC World entitled, “E-Book Prices Fuel Outrage–and Innovation.”

Kobo Ereader gets a Touch of Fidelity

Kobo eReader Touch

Awhile back I read through Kevin Maney’s Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t, an interesting discussion of the conflicting forces that either spell success or failure of a new product or service.  It all comes down to the battle between fidelity (the quality of a consumer’s experience) and convenience (ease of use and price point).  With Kobo’s launch of their new Kobo eReader Touch, they look to be attempting both an eReader  that surpasses the Amazon Kindle in fidelity,or “coolness factor,” while retaining a convenient price point.  Engadget has a nice little review here.

So, advantage Kobo, right?

Well, hang on a second.  You wouldn’t assume the people at Amazon are snoozing at the wheel, would you?  Rumours persist that Amazon is poised to launch their own nifty new touch screen device in the form of a Tablet later this year.   Technology Review has some neat talking points about what the screen might be like and Daemon’s Books has a brief post on how they might market it. 

Getting back to the fidelity vs. convenience argument, the question remains, will Amazon try to trump Kobo (and hey, maybe take a run at the Blackberry Playbook and Apple iPad?) or create a touch screen just slightly cooler than Kobo’s at a similar price with maybe an App or two thrown in?

The Manual Typewriter: 1870-2011?

 

The end of an era?
 
 
When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of Stephen King novels, and one always stood out in my mind.  Misery, the story of Paul Sheldon, held against his will by the crazed Annie Wilkes and forced to resurrect the main character of a series of novels that have, shall we say, “held her attention” for a long time.  During the course of his detention, he taps out Misery’s Return, and (spoiler alert) when he gets the chance, clocks her with the aforementioned typewriter.  Try doing that with a laptop and doing any significant damage.
 
The point I took away from the story wasn’t so much that typewriters can be used as lethal weapons, but rather that I’d like to be a writer, pecking out the great Canadian novel (alas, the great American novel is beyond me, both by way of birthplace and temperament) on one of those nifty manuals, whipping out sheet after sheet of brilliant prose and leaving them in a pile to be edited later with a nice red pen.  It didn’t seem too unrealistic a dream either. I’m not too young to remember manual typewriters, having been exposed to them in grade school.  No power assisted key-strokes, just good old-fashioned manual labour.  If you’ve ever tried to make your mark with one of these leviathans, you’ll know what I mean.
 
Eventually, time and progress overtook the manual typewriter.  First it was the electric typewriter, later simple word processors, and finally in recent years, the laptop.  I can even remember when the name “typing class” went out of fashion.  Suddenly, we were taking “keyboarding” lessons, and not only the manuals, but the electrics, were quickly phased out of the local high school.
 
There is irony in nostalgia, however. 
 
After all, today’s word processing programs make writing and editing so much easier than back in the day.  No more reams of wasted paper, no more fiddling with either ink or eraser ribbon, not even that one letter that always seemed to rise slightly above the type. The reality is this: today it is a much easier world in which to be a word smith.  Just a tap of a button and your revision is done.  So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to read that the last maker of manual typewriters has finally stopped production. 
 

     “Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd. has shuttered its facility in Mumbai, India, where as recently as 2009 the company was making 12,000 mechanical typewriters a year.”

 
 
So, is that all she wrote for the typewriter?
 
Well, not exactly.  The key word here is, “manual.”  The good people at the Chicago Tribune have looked further into the matter and for what it’s worth–the typewriter may be in its death throes, but it’s still got a bit of life left.
 
So maybe my dream of sitting in front of an old Underwood with a pile of fresh paper on one side and that great novel on the other, celebratory bottle of whiskey off to the side for the moment I declare my work done, isn’t quite a pipe-dream yet.  Perhaps it’s time to browse eBay.