The Expanse: Intelligent space opera you should check out

1-ice-miningLast night, I watched the pilot episode to the new science fiction TV series, ‘The Expanse‘.  It’s based on a series of novels by a writing team that goes by the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, the first of which I reviewed a while back.  I’ve read all the books in the series and enjoyed them immensely.  In broad strokes, it’s about an interplanetary civilization becoming an interstellar one, with most of the action focused on the crew of a small Firefly type ship.

The production values of the pilot are impressive.  There are lots of zero gravity scenes, which are expensive to shoot, and the sets and special effects seem pretty first rate.

I’m also impressed by how intelligent the show is.  I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the show had sacrificed the commitment that the books had toward the ships moving around in a realistic Newtonian fashion, but the show seems to have mostly stuck with it.  Characters are in zero gravity when the ships are just coasting, and have weight when they’re accelerating.  And ships are shown flipping around to decelerate.

So far, the show seems to be following the first book pretty closely.  Most of the pilot story comes from the opening chapters of ‘Leviathan Wakes‘, except for the introduction of Chrisjen Avasarala, a character that doesn’t show up until the second book.  It appears that the show is going to follow the ‘Game of Thrones’ formula by doing a season per book, at least to start.

ExpanseCrew_0My only real beef with the show, and it’s not a major one, is that the actors all seemed a bit too  young compared to the descriptions of the characters in the books, or maybe in just a little too good a shape to be believable as the burnouts they are presented to be.  The actor that plays the main character, Jim Holden, looks like someone who spends hours a day in the gym, rather than the coffee inhaling guy who muddles through the books.  But then, this is TV and I guess some compromises have to be made.

One of my friends was bothered by the characters using magnetic boots in most of the zero gravity scenes, pointing out that they aren’t used in the books and wouldn’t be used in real life, but that doesn’t particularly bother me.  Filming zero gravity scenes is difficult and expensive (I’m impressed the show had as many as they did), and at least the magnetic boots are a concession to the reality of zero-g in space.  It seems like a reasonable compromise for a weekly show, a much better one than the typical solution of just ignoring it, or positing artificial gravity systems that never go out, even in derelict ships.

So I’m pretty excited with this new series.  It looks like its going to very intelligent, and will hopefully raise the standard for space opera shows.  I recommend checking it out.  I watched it on Amazon (for free), but it’s also available on the SyFy site, Hulu, and a lot of other places.

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46 Responses to The Expanse: Intelligent space opera you should check out

  1. john zande says:

    You’re a lifesaver! I finished my last (available) Robert Reed book 2 days ago and have been frantic to find something good to start. Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book 1), here i come!

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  2. Ignostic Dave says:

    I’m not finding it on Amazon

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  3. ratamacue0 says:

    Did someone say Firefly? 😉

    BTW, IIRC you were the one who posted about Black Sails – that show is fantastic.

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    • I did post on Black Sails and very much agree that it’s a fantastic show. Glad you’re enjoying it!

      One note: the characters in the pilot aren’t on the Rocinante yet, the rough equivalent to the Serenity ship on Firefly. It will come into the story in a future episode. (Assuming they continue to follow the book.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Morris says:

    Maybe this will be the first book I buy for my hotly-anticipated Kindle Paperwhite 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. James Pailly says:

    I’ll have to check that out. Free on Amazon is a great price.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Given your fascination with the solar system, I think you’d enjoy the books. The authors make no assertion that they’re hard science fiction, but I haven’t noticed any glaring violations from known scientific laws, at least not with any human technologies. (Very advanced mysterious alien technologies hide behind Clarke’s third law.)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I know what you mean about the young well-built actors. I don’t see that many good-looking people all in one place in real life! Unless that’s part of the story, I find it so irritating.

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    • I do think film and TV have a burden that literature doesn’t. A book can describe someone as plain or ugly, and the reader, privy to their inner feelings, can still be attracted to them. But when your impressions of the character are primarily visual, it probably helps if they are physically attractive, even if they’re playing a character that isn’t. This show is definitely not the worst offender in this regard.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s possible—and better—to have a physically unattractive actor play the part, but I suppose I’m the minority. Of course, the actor would have to be a good one.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I tend to agree, but a lot of people judge based on appearances. There’s a reason the heroes are usually the attractive ones and the villains the ugly ones. That said, a lot of foreign films don’t seem to have the hangups on this that American ones do. I suspect this is another case of the American film industry underestimating the audience. (Of course, the audience they’re typically aiming for is 15-25 year olds, so maybe not.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • “I suspect this is another case of the American film industry underestimating the audience.” I really hope so!

            Liked by 2 people

          • Steve Morris says:

            I think it is a very American thing. In Europe we tend to prefer “character” actors. Same thing in comedy. The typical British comedian is ugly and dysfunctional. American comedians are often beautiful and successful. What’s funny about that?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Humor is notoriously culture specific, although American comedies used to have no problem portraying homeliness and dysfunction; consider ‘All in the Family’ (admittedly inspired by the UK series ‘Till Death Us Do Part’) or ‘Roseanne’.

            But American media does seem to prefer beautiful actors. I loved the Swedish version of ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. The American version, while still decent, felt the need to star Daniel Craig in the male role. Essentially having James Bond in that role felt like it weakened the sense of jeopardy in the violent scenes, at least in my opinion.

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          • I’ve noticed that. Maybe that’s why I watch so many British shows (the newer ones anyway). I notice that the same actors appear again and again, and then you get to see them in a completely different role. Of course, the British are known for their great actors, and I’m always amazed by the “character” actors and their ability to transition into a radically different role.

            (Although, Doc Martin will always be Doc Martin in my mind. When Martin Clunes does some other role, I find it startling, especially when he smiles. A part of me says, “No, no nononononoo you can’t do that.”)

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  7. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I watched it last night and was underwhelmed. In fact, I turned it off at the 15 minute mark for being so derivative and cliche. Then I thought, well, I should give it more of a chance, and watched the rest. At the end, I hadn’t met a single character I found interesting, let alone worth caring about. I thought the writing was bad — poorly structured and comic book dialog — and, as pilots go, this one didn’t do anything to generate the least interest to see more.

    Weightless sequences? We’ve been doing that just fine since at least 1969, and nothing will ever top the actual weightlessness in Apollo 13. (And did you notice how, once they turned on the magic boots, nearly all signs of being in a weightless environment disappeared unless they were making a “hey, look at this” effort — the hair, the bird.) So they go no points at all from me on that score.

    Or, for instance: A captain of a vessel thinks he can ignore a distress call and that no one in the crew will ever spill the beans? (Obviously not.) That he can possibly get away with that? Or that a log entry can even be deleted in the first place (not on my ship, buddy!), and apparently having been deleted can be easily retrieved (so what was the point of deleting it).

    That was just one of many sequences I thought were pretty stupid, so to me this isn’t intelligent storytelling, but the same visceral largely mindless, but great CGI, crap that passes as science fiction these days. Maybe it’ll get better down the road, but I didn’t see any sign that would lead me to think so. Could your love of the books be urging you to give this more of a pass than it deserves?

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    • Steve Morris says:

      Don’t hold back, Wyrd. Tell us what you really thought. Don’t spare Mike’s feelings 😉

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    • Wow, sorry you found it so wanting.

      I think comparing a weekly TV show to the weightless scenes of a $50 million film (in 1995 dollars) that could afford to shoot those scenes in a plane doing zero gravity dives, isn’t really fair.

      “A captain of a vessel thinks he can ignore a distress call and that no one in the crew will ever spill the beans?”
      That actually didn’t happen in the book. In the original, Holden briefly contemplated how easy it would be for the captain to purge the logs, but then realized he wouldn’t even have had the discussion on the bridge if he were considering it. Since the show couldn’t give us Holden’s thoughts, they had to externalize it. While I’ll agree that it could have been done better, I don’t see it as the blight that you do.

      “Could your love of the books be urging you to give this more of a pass than it deserves?”
      I don’t think so, but of course I can’t rule it out. I was actually prepared for it to have a lot more compromises than it did. If you found it that terrible, I suspect you should steer clear of the books.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “I think comparing a weekly TV show to the weightless scenes of a $50 million film (in 1995 dollars) that could afford to shoot those scenes in a plane doing zero gravity dives, isn’t really fair.”

        My only point is that it’s nothing new and not a selling point to me. I only noticed because you’d mentioned it. I’ve been away from the film business a long time, but I’m not sure using a wire harness and under-cranking the camera really involves all that much in the way of production costs (compared to, say, sets and costumes and such), and it (as far as know) is pretty old hat.

        I did wonder how much of the floating hair was CGI. (Did you know that a lot of the open flame, fires, and even explosions you see in film and TV these days are CGI? No actual flames!)

        The reason more shows don’t do it may have more to do with that it never looks right unless you really are in a weightless environment. Worse, with the availability of all that ISS footage, we all have a very good idea what it should look like.

        “In the original, Holden briefly contemplated how easy it would be for the captain to purge the logs,”

        Which is my first complaint. If you were designing a ship’s log system, would purging or deleting entries be at all an option? Not in any system I’d design. (We already use that idea in existing systems. Log entries must be indelible! Burn them into ROM. If you need a correction, it’s applied as a new log entry.)

        Secondly the tired cliche of the greedy ship captain and the company breaking the worker’s backs. When did our science fiction become so utterly joyless? I miss Gene’s vision.

        “While I’ll agree that it could have been done better, I don’t see it as the blight that you do.”

        Since the captain’s plan is immediately foiled and they explore the ship anyway, I’m not sure what the scene accomplishes other than to demonstrate that the captain doesn’t deserve his command (and his XO obviously didn’t — little “space madness” there). My problem was the entire episode had stuff that I found equally off-putting (and very little to commend it).

        “If you found it that terrible, I suspect you should steer clear of the books.”

        If it is, in fact, the same pop-SF visceral soap-opera stuff as in most TV SF these days then I absolutely will. But given the SyFy channel’s track record with me, and the usual gap between written material and film (let alone TV), it’s quite possible I’d like them (or at least find them engaging).

        I was a fan of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series (and other works), and there are other authors who were famous for their space opera (or Conan-like series), so being space opera isn’t the DQ. Being cliched and unoriginal, though… that is a huge DQ, and sadly that’s all I found in that episode.

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        • I wondered the same thing about the hair. Maybe they filmed her in a pool to get the hair shape right. Didn’t know that about flames, but I can see it.

          “When did our science fiction become so utterly joyless? I miss Gene’s vision.”
          The Expanse universe is definitely not a Roddenberry utopia. It’s been called “Game of Thrones in space”, which I know won’t be a plus for you. 🙂

          “I’m not sure what the scene accomplishes other than to demonstrate that the captain doesn’t deserve his command”
          I think the whole thing was set up so that we could see Holden hear the plea and decide to help, to show that despite how much of a burnout he is, that he’s still a good guy. Again, this was all accomplished with internal dialog in the book, but the show can’t really convey it that way. It comes at the cost of turning the captain into a douche, but given he’s not a major character, I’m sure the producers (who include the book authors) saw it as an easy trade off.

          “I was a fan of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series”
          I missed the boat on E.E. “Doc” Smith as a kid. By the time I tried to read him, I was an adult and found his stuff too cartoonish, although I probably would have loved it as a boy. Many people consider the Expanse old fashioned space opera in the Lensman tradition.

          What is “DQ”? A search coughed up things like “Dairy Queen”, “dragon quest”, and “drag queen”, none of which strikes me as likely. Maybe “dashboard quit” as in leaving an online game mid-play?

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “It’s been called ‘Game of Thrones in space’, which I know won’t be a plus for you.”

            Heh, yeah, I saw that, and no, it’s not. 🙂

            The comparison is apt and my antipathy in both cases is based on similar objections.

            “It comes at the cost of turning the captain into a douche”

            Yeah, and to what end? It’s lazy writing. With a little effort the scene could be very interesting, even exciting (they feel duty-bound to assist, of course, but doing so is somehow dangerous… too much debris in the area, maybe, so you get a really exciting ride in).

            There’s what I think of as “first level” writing. When a scene follows the most obvious narrative. When you can predict lines before characters say them, or predict outcomes of scenes.

            Second level writing finds new ways to tell the plot. Plot threads take unexpected turns. You can’t predict. Doing this well is hard because doing it poorly results in the “I’m so random” white noise that often masquerades as texture in pop culture. (As usual, there’s a perfect xkcd for this.)

            When it’s done well, it feels fresh and natural. (Stephen R. Donaldson is good at this. Or Leonard Elmore. Quentin Tarentino is a good example of a filmmaker who does this well. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are both masterworks, I think.)

            If a writer really takes things to a new level, really finds a new approach, I’ll even call that third level writing! (Writing like that, the writing alone makes you smile with appreciation. It’s rare. And those guys I just mentioned… some of their stuff is that good, I think.)

            My point is, greedy, craven ship’s captains and greedy, devious corporations are so first level. And the Lucasian grungy beat up future has also become a first level cliche. And to my point of view, all the worse because they are so joyless. I don’t need utopia, but I’m getting so weary of dystopia.

            “Many people consider the Expanse old fashioned space opera in the Lensman tradition.”

            As you say the “Doc” Smith stuff is pretty corny. It has historical value in being a defining work, but they are very comic book. The sheer multi-galaxy scope of the Lensmen series is engaging as is Smith’s imagination for alien races. But the pulp just oozes out. 😀

            I have a growing idea that comic book stuff can work in comic books, and sometimes even in novels, but translating it to screen successfully is very hard. The realism of the screen elevates what really is preposterous fantasy into the real world, and it’s very hard to pull that off. The trick seems to be a strong element of whimsy and humor and joy (Ironman is a good example).

            At bottom, honestly, I’m just increasingly sick to death of joyless storytelling and overly humanly flawed characters with crappy value systems and lots of viscera and vitriol. I believe that part of the success of Star Wars is due to its exuberance and sheer joy. It was fun!

            “What is ‘DQ’?”

            Disqualifier (or disqualified). Maybe it’s particular to certain forms of competition. (I picked it up during a brief stint participating in IPSC. There all sorts of things related to gun safety can get you DQ’ed. Which means you’re done for the day! They take that stuff really seriously. So much so that people who thought they knew how to handle guns have had rude awakenings about true safety.)

            ((As an aside, the screen image of the character running around gun in hand finger on the trigger seems to have faded. More and more I see the proper method: finger off the trigger along side the gun. The rule is: You don’t put your finger on the trigger until you intend to fire the weapon. They way they used to run around drove my IPSC friends crazy, cause that’s a DQ. 😀 ))

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          • Wyrd, remind me never to have you critique my writing. I’m pretty sure I’d never meet your standards 🙂

            I wouldn’t necessarily call the Expanse world a dystopia. It’s definitely a world with problems, much like ours. One of the reasons most sci-fi doesn’t happen in utopias is that they’re boring. To have a story, it must take place outside of or on the fringes of the utopia (like most of Star Trek), or there must be a problem that threatens the whole society, or the utopia has to be a false one, etc. A world with problems is a much richer canvas for conflict. The worlds of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are not dystopias but they are filled with problems.

            But I suspect what you really dislike about GoT and The Expanse is that you perceive them to be noir. I personally dislike noir myself, because it gives the message that there are no good guys, that everyone is corrupt and selfish. I don’t think The Expanse is noir, at least not the books. There are definite good guys in it, although I can see how that might be hard to see from the pilot.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Steve Morris says:

            Suggestion: in the past I have taken part in review exchanges with another author. We reviewed each other’s writing using the following formula. First, we did a positive review, highlighting everything that was good. Then we did a negative review, highlighting problems, issues and suggesting improvements. This formula worked well. The positive review lessened the emotional hurt of having your masterpiece shredded; and it also enabled the negative review to be truly honest and brutal, and therefore more helpful.

            Liked by 1 person

          • That sounds like an excellent system. I’m sure knowing that the other person will also be reviewing the critic’s work also helps to keep the criticism constructive.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I go with “Working/not working + suggestions,” keeping in mind that the “positive” is not meant to stroke an ego, but to help everyone involved pinpoint techniques that they might want to use sometime. In my writing group, we’ve all gotten so familiar and trusting with each other that we sometimes forget to value the “positive.” (And oddly, I’ve found that even in large classroom settings in which people didn’t know each other, the “positive” never came up as empty praise. The odd thing was that often times the entire room had exactly the same “positive” thing to say, and these they came up with independently.)

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          • I think you did an excellent job critiquing my stuff, which I’m still grateful for.

            Critiquing well, it seems to me, is hard. To do it right, you have to separate what the author is trying to accomplish, and your feelings about that, from how well or poorly they’re accomplishing it. You also have to recognize that there are multiple paths to success and be careful not to impose yours.

            The Writing Excuses podcast team described how it took them years to find the right writing group. Until they did, getting good feedback was apparently pretty difficult. The process they described made me despair that I’d ever be able to find the right group where I live.

            Have either of you ever looked at wattpad?

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          • Steve Morris says:

            Getting feedback from the wrong person can leave you tearing your hair out in frustration and questioning your own judgement! Been there, done that, not doing it again.
            Wattpad? My impression is that a lot of people there are very inexperienced.

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          • Yeah, that seems like one of the chief dangers of getting feedback. Ultimately the feedback that’s going to matter is whether casual readers enjoy it. Write for readers, not for other writers. The difficulty is that it’s difficult to know how objective we’re being in assessing our own work.

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          • Thanks, any time!

            Critiquing is difficult, and it’s definitely a different skill set. On the other hand, as a writer, I take critiques in a democratic fashion. It’s true that some are better than others, but I force myself to find value in them all. I find it’s much better to put the burden on myself rather than on them.

            Don’t despair! The podcasters may have made things seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that bad. What did they say that made it seem so impossible where you live?

            I haven’t checked out wattpad. It sounds interesting. Have you written anything there?

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          • On the podcasters, I don’t recall the exact number but they described how they had to set up something like eight successive writing groups before they finally had one that worked. All of the earliest ones apparently had people who either weren’t into their genre, critiqued either cruelly or too lightly, or just couldn’t make the separations I mentioned above.

            I despaired because the only groups I’ve found where I live are romance or Christian inspiration writers, not exactly a good fit for me. There was a science fiction one but it appears to have withered.

            I haven’t put anything on wattpad. That would require, like, actually writing something. 🙂 All I’ve written recently were those short stories you read. My productivity is great once I know where the story is going, but coming up with that is turning out to be a major stumbling block. Maybe I’ll have to discovery-write whether I want to or not.

            wattpad interested me because it seems like a place to get a lot of feedback. But like Steve, I’m a little concerned about the quality of the critiques, although really I would see people there as more beta readers than anything.

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          • On writing groups, have you tried a literary group? (By that I mean people who don’t necessarily write genre fiction?) That might be a good fit. I noticed a handful of writers in my class were doing Sci-Fi/Fantasy. It worked out just fine.

            “Maybe I’ll have to discovery-write whether I want to or not.”

            I think a lot of authors do this, at least at first. Doing so helps you generate ideas, and from there you can go back to planning.

            I checked out wattpad. I’d be concerned about someone stealing my writing. Maybe I’d put something up there that had been published, but at that point, it more than likely would have been critiqued by a lot of people. Still, it does seem like a fun way to get your writing out there. And yeah, I wouldn’t expect quality critiques, but it could be an interesting survey.

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          • There is a literary group in a neighboring town that I might try. It’d be a drive, but it’s probably worth attending at least one meeting. Although I’d prefer to have something written before I do that.

            On wattpad, yeah, I’m a little nervous about that myself. I don’t know if I would put an entire novel out there. There are people who would take someone else’s decent rough draft and throw it up in a Kindle book under a fake name. (They already get caught doing it from time to time with other people’s published work.)

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Heh, yeah, I do have very high standards. I wish more people did!

            “I wouldn’t necessarily call the Expanse world a dystopia.”

            And I don’t mean to imply it is. Just that it’s a very common mode these days. It didn’t used to be.

            “One of the reasons most sci-fi doesn’t happen in utopias is that they’re boring.”

            There does have to be some source of conflict to drive a story, but there are many sources of conflict. (I’ve enjoyed how Madame Secretary struggles with moral conflicts; so few shows even look that direction.)

            There’s no such thing as utopia, really, and most stories that posit it actually show that it was false (Brave New World is kind of the canonical example there) or an illusion or something we wouldn’t actually enjoy if we could get it (too boring).

            As you say, there can be generally positive contexts (such as Star Trek) or generally negative ones (such as various dystopias). I’ve noticed a lack of positive contexts in the last decade or so, and I wonder if it reflects a pessimism or cynicism (or fear) in society. (I’ve been glued to the TV for the last 24 hours watching coverage of the shootings in CA… you can certainly see why people might view the world through a dark glass these days.)

            To take this back to The Expanse, what that “delete the log entry” scene really shows us is that belter society is fundamentally corrupt. That a captain of a presumably representative example of their society can casually decide to ignore an SOS in favor of making his berth speaks to an ugly kind of society. (And more to the point, not one in which I’d want to spend time.)

            “But I suspect what you really dislike about GoT and The Expanse is that you perceive them to be noir.”

            Sorry, but no. I generally like noir (it might be more accurate to say there is no genre I disdain). Remember, I’m a big fan of both Tarantino and Elmore Leonard, and I’ve always been a fan of crime fiction. (Ever read any of the Lawrence Block “Bernie the Burglar” books? They’re a hoot!)

            I wouldn’t classify GoT as noir. I don’t like it because it’s derivative and simplistic and, in almost all parts, ugly. I’m not interested in the Medieval setting or the machinations of kings or wars of any kind. Betrayal just depresses me. Nor do I care much about dragons or zombies. It’s visceral, and it’s ugly, and it’s boring (to me). That’s why I don’t like it.

            I don’t like The Expanse because so far the show (I can’t speak about the books) is badly written and offers nothing that appeals to me.

            “I don’t think The Expanse is noir, at least not the books.”

            The books are still on the list of Things I May Check Out Some Day. (The Martin books most definitely are not! 🙂 I couldn’t be less interested.)

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          • Oh well, different strokes for different folks. It’s the job of fiction to deliver a satisfactory emotional experience and it doesn’t sound like The Expanse did it for you. You might want to take our variance in taste into account when you see my future fiction recommendations 🙂

            I hate to say it, since I know it’s horrible for everyone involved, but I’ve become too fatigued with news of mass shootings to watch the non-stop coverage anymore. For these last few, I periodically check the latest online and leave it at that.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I can certainly appreciate the sense of burnout “yet another shooting” engenders. This one turned out to be a new chapter, but that wasn’t apparent when it started. I got sucked in more because I was still taking a bit of a blog break and had been in TV watching mode anyway. I’m still finding it hard to turn away…

            “Oh well, different strokes for different folks.”

            Totally. I have enough bizarre tastes that I generally can’t point any fingers about the taste of others! 😄

            (In fact, it was already clear to me that our tastes in SF diverge a little. I wasn’t very impressed by The Martian and I know you’re not a fan of Sunshine. Definite data point! 😀 )

            Liked by 1 person

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