Jack Vance

Space Opera

Space Opera

Space Opera – Jack Vance; Pyramid Books, 1965

Space Opera by Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) was published in 1965. I read it this December and it is the sixth Vance novel I have read. I am also pleased that the first review of the year (and for Vintage Science Fiction Month) is a work by Vance.  I really like starting off the new year with the Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.  Usually, I only get two or three reviews posted; maybe this year I’ll do better?

Sadly, I cannot give this novel a glowing five-star big hearts sort of rating. Trust me, it pains me to give a Vance novel such a low rating. Nevertheless, in the vein of one of the main characters of this novel, we must not allow mere sentimentality to get in the way of our overarching efforts and goals.

I read the Pyramid Books 1965 edition. The cover art is by John Schoenherr and I think it is the best of the editions of this book. I love the dark red background.  Anyway, the title is a play on words.  ‘Space opera’ being one of those not clear or distinct subcategories of science fiction literature.  The term has a long and varied history full of opinions and redefining. It is a fluid concept that is, really, in existence mainly to give people something to endlessly discuss over coffee. Vance uses the term as the title of this novel in a more literal manner. He rather does mean space opera, i.e. off-planet musical performance.

vintage-sf-badgeVance was an intelligent fellow. It was not possible for him to keep his intelligence out of his novels – and we would not have wanted him to do that. However, this means that sometimes his novels lose an ounce of fun and entertainment as a sacrifice on the altar of wisdom and intelligence. I am totally okay with this. Some readers dislike this.  For example, The Languages of Pao (1958) is really good; I gave it five stars. Many readers found it to be a slog, which I understand – linguistics/language can be very, very boring. (Yeah, Kripke and Salmon, we are lookin’ at you fellas!)

For Space Opera, Vance has come up with an awesome idea. I am really impressed and enthused and tickled by this.  The writing skill is also there – this is intelligently written with generally well-moving mechanics and structure.  There is also an unstated, but obvious, perspective on imperialism.  For this, too, Vance deserves praise because he did not succumb to a violent, aggressive, bitter tone about the dark evils of imperialism.  Instead, he just leaves it almost unstated and lets the reader have a laugh at the expense of the frustrated imperialist.  Tactful and witty, Jack.

Basically, a very wealthy older woman, Dame Isabel Grayce, has decided to gather up the best musicians (singers, orchestra, etc.) and pack everyone into a spaceship and go forth into the galaxies on a musical tour. Her motives are, mainly, arrogant and obnoxious. However, some mitigation is due her because she is quite honest. She is absolutely ignorant of her arrogance and her imperialism.  Her goals – in her mind – are to undertake a musical tour, bringing the expert performances of the human race upon earth to a variety of lesser-equipped, unfortunate, and less-advanced cultures/species.  This, in essence, for Dame Isabel, is a magnanimous gift which will enhance the lives of the foreign species and, minimally, open the channels of diplomacy and public relations to other planets/cultures.

Of course, in her mind, the other cultures/species cannot fail to be awed by the greatness and expertise of the opera company she has assembled. She admits, due to the backwardness of some of these cultures, they may not be able to fully appreciate the performances. Yet, she fully expects this tour to be a massive success. To her credit, she is neither quitter, nor lazy.

Naturally, the reader is generally repulsed by such blatant imperialism. They are supposed to be – but this is not a serious book, at heart. There is no debate that sort of imperialism is horrible. The reader should understand that Vance is setting it up not so he can knock it down (which would be too obvious and heavy-handed), but rather to amuse the reader endlessly with this operatic farce.  The fact that Dame Isabel takes the whole thing so seriously is part of the laugh – because it is that absurd!

It is important to share here that Vance knows his stuff, too. He does not fudge and fluff the details of this novel. He actually has Dame Isabel select specific operas and her company debate the best selection for their audience, etc.  And Vance is not just rattling off the titles of operas – he actually has put valid reasoning into the pieces mentioned or performed. Indeed, every time, I considered the proposed options and debated with myself about the pieces. Vance was intelligent and thank God for that! Needless to say, the reader familiar with operas is going to get more out of these details than the reader who cannot name a Wagnerian piece.

So,why did I give this novel such a low rating?  Execution.  There are a number of aggravating “side threads” that instead of enhancing the overall plot, actually compete with it.  For example, Gondar’s motives, or anything involving the girl Roswyn. Further, while Vance had opportunity to really make for some colorful and outlandish silliness (as would be expected in a farce) whenever the Tour meets a new culture, he drops the ball. The actual scenes are a bit stagnant and dull. This really sucks because these are the moments for the humor and the morality and the absurdity and the creativity to flourish. Finally, the novel ends without much resolution, with the plot having become somewhat stalled and repetitive, and the characters really just flatlining. Dame Isabel is as ignorant as when the tour began. The last chapter is stupidly focused on the very minor romantic subplot.

Overall, I can only give this two stars. I truly appreciate Vance’s intelligence and effort, but in order to make this work, it needed to be far more vibrant and creative.  It stalls out and gets boring in places. I wish it were better executed, because the idea is awesome.

2 stars

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The Blue World

The Blue World - Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World – Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World by Jack Vance was published in 1966.  I read the 1977 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover artwork. Frankly, of all the editions of this novel, I like this artwork the best.  Anyway, this novel was nominated for the 1967 Nebula Award.  It is the fifth novel by Jack Vance that I have read.

This was an average-rated read for me.  It falls right in the mix with To Live Forever and Big Planet.  I have definitely seen Vance do better.  Though there are numerous things to like about this novel, it just does not reach the level of greatness that The Languages of Pao and Star King reached.  Like Big Planet, this is an adventure novel.  In the past, many readers have considered it an example of a novel about social freedom, some suggesting that it be considered a Libertarian novel. I think that making such an assertion about this novel can be supported by some evidence, but I think it is too strong an assertion.  Just because there is an individual who disagrees with some of the fundamentals of the social society he finds himself in, does not mean he falls under some category of social system. In other words, because one character questions society and has moments where he champions freedom I do not think this is some special novel, nor do I think it is a prime example of Libertarian doctrine.

Blue world is a waterworld.  Its inhabitants are descendants (beyond tenth generation) of humans who arrived on the planet via “star ship.”  The writings of the Firsts (those who came on the ship) are treated as pseudo-religious/philosophical texts and much of what the inhabitants know is derived from such texts.  One of the main circumstances of this planet is that there is no metal ore.  So, the dwellings, clothes, tools, and other artefacts are made largely from items from the sea.  Living space is confined to the “lily pads” of giant plant stalks that rise from the bottom of the sea.  Food is derived from the sea and drink from plants.  It seems like every possible use of the plants and sea creatures is utilized to its maximum.

Also living on this planet are kragens.  Kraken? Anyway, these sea monsters are something like huge octopi or kraken of old sea-stories.  Society has developed on the Floats in such a way as to reverence these kragen – one in particular, nicknamed King Kragen.

True to all of Vance’s novels, the architecture, props, and mechanics are the highlight of the book.  I really like the idea of the setting:  a waterworld wherein resources are limited and scientific knowledge is at a minimum.  One of the things that this society developed is semaphore communications.  Basically, a structure of some sort is setup on each of the main lily pads and using a signalling system, news and information can be relatively quickly sent along the Floats.  There is a class system in this society, each class is assigned to a specific labor.  Those who maintain this semaphore system are the “Hoodwinks.”  Throughout the novel, Vance also treats the reader to explanations and descriptions of various mechanics and scientific experiments.  He won’t just tell you that they built a weapon – the reader is going to build it alongside the characters.  And this can be annoying to some readers, but once you get used to Vance, you come to expect this emphasis on building and mechanics.

This is a straightforward storyline.  The main character, Sklar Hast, decides that he has had enough pandering and submitting to the idea that one of these kragen can consume so much resource from the Float society.  He decides there is nothing “religious” or “superstitious” about these kragen – they are merely destructive sea beasts.  Of course, Sklar’s ideas at first cause surprise and curiosity in the Floats.  Then there is a division among the people. Finally, the dissenters are sent away.  Yet, we see the development of retribution and jealousy.  Finally, there are instances of tyranny.  However, all of this is somewhat overstating the plot of the novel.  The characters are very face-value and the storyline is not very imaginative.  More or less, what you think is going to happen, is what happens.

The pacing is quite slow and the storyline is a bit repetitive. Afterall, while setting the novel on a waterworld provides a neat challenge for characters, it also limits the possibilities for the author, too.  For a writer who doesn’t focus on character development, Vance seemed to write himself into a corner in places with this story.  One of the things that I noticed many times was that the Float scholars had language skills (i.e. had signifiers and signified) but an odd distribution of this knowledge. Float members struggle with words like “glass” or “protons” but they comfortably use words like “electricity” and “engine” and “iconoclast.”

I would suggest this book to people who want a really low-key, low-excitement novel. Also for Vance fans. But I think others may safely skip this novel.

3 stars

Star King

Star King – Jack Vance; DAW 1978

I finished Star King by Jack Vance yesterday.  It is the fourth Vance novel that I have read and it is the first in his Demon Princes series of novels.  I read the DAW edition (No. 305) from 1978 with cover by Gino D’Achille.  I was not too excited to read this – because I am not feeling like reading a series.  Plus, the tagline “The first of the Demon Princes novels” doesn’t really do much for me.  The cover of my edition is rather amusing – the chubby diaper-wearing dude swinging a lance at spaceman is just silly.

Each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of some “excerpt” from a book, magazine, report, etc. that is given to explain or give background to some aspect of the storyline.  Some readers did not like this.  I don’t mind it.  It is like data-dumping and being honest about it.  You need to know this, but the author doesn’t want to waste a chapter droning about it. Read these preface pieces and move on with the story.

Anyway, the book begins fairly interestingly.  Smade’s Tavern is a pretty neat thing.  The only building on an entire (rather inhospitable) planet is a tavern/inn where anyone is welcome and there is somewhat of an uneasy truce held.  I have to admit, for better or worse, I kept imagining the Inn of the Last Home and the innkeeper Otik from the Dragonlance series.  I know that that is just offensive to true science fiction/Vance-fans. Sorry.  Anyway, here we meet the main character, he is given his problematic, and introduced to his foes.

The novel feels like a cross between 007 and Clue if it took place in space and presents theories on revenge/vengeance.  The novel does have somewhat of a sluggish start.  I feel like it takes a little bit of patience to read the first two chapters.  And one of my biggest issues of this book is just what the hell the main character Kirth Gersen does/is.  He first says he is a “locator.” Then he says he is not.  Does he or does he not have some connection to the IPCC?  Then we are told he was trained and developed by his grandfather, who wished Kirth to be some sort of roaming anti-hero outlaw-revenger.  But Kirth did get formal training, too, at some institutions.  So, after all of this, I just want some straight answer on this point.

One of the best things about Vance’s writing, particularly in this novel, is the absolute ease with which he moves through his galaxy.  A lot of space opera science fiction novels seem to struggle and really work at trying to get their picture of the galaxy across to us.  Some authors really want to hammer out the “map” and they seem to be working just as hard to remind themselves what the galaxy looks like, too.  Vance does this effortlessly.  He has a whole galaxy mapped out and we move smoothly through it to various points.

It is a really well-written novel.  I like the somewhat wry and flirtatious interlude with Kirth and Pallis.  I like the neat way Kirth deals with the assassin Suthiro.  Vance also writes a very good “mystery” – he also wrote actual mystery novels, even using the famous “Ellery Queen” penname.  So, it is rather interesting to follow along with Kirth Gersen as he “interviews” the other characters and tries to piece together the background.  Finally, I like the carefully-handled science fiction elements.  I liked the projectile weapons, I liked the concept and design of the “Star Kings,” and I really liked the idea of the planet which is a burned-out sun.

Now, there are things that I found odd or disliked. The Stockholm Syndrome weirdness with Robin Rampold and Dasce is a bit…. weird.  It amuses me that Dasce calls himself “Mr. Spock.”  I was glad we got to meet a bunch of characters one-on-one with Kirth, but I was disappointed with how Tristano was dealt with.  A minor complaint.  Finally, Kirth is both adept and skilled, but also gets sucker-punched and fails sometimes.  Maybe this makes him a good all-around character – he possesses flaws as well as skills.  But there’s something about this that seems slightly off-balance.  He gets ambushed by the assassins, but on the other hand manages to pilot a ship with a variety of very difficult persons on it.  I don’t know how familiar you are with road trips, but I can barely go down the street without a measure of pandemonium in the vehicle.  And I like everyone in the car!

Finally, we are constantly told how bad Malagate the Woe is… but when we find out his motive for this particular situation Kirth is dealing with – it is not so “evil,” I guess.  And Vance just gives the reason to us, we nod, and then we move on. I feel like we could have explored this a little bit further without detriment.

Overall, I can see some readers being bored by this.  Maybe too much mystery and too much rumination on the ends of revenge.  However, there is a whole lot of good writing and originality to be found in this novel.  I do want to read onward in the series and I think this was well worth my time.

4 stars

The Languages of Pao

The Languages of PaoThe Languages of Pao is one of Jack Vance’s earlier works, published in 1958.  It is the third Vance novel that I have read, and probably the best so far.  I really enjoyed this novel and am going to give it a high rating.  However, I can see where some readers may not fancy this sort of novel.

This is science fiction for smart people.  In other words, it takes a bit of aptitude to read this and enjoy it for what it is.  If a reader comes to this novel thinking it is something else, they will be aggravated.  The Languages of Pao is not an action novel.  There are, really, only three characters in the novel.  Reader who are used to “growing up with” characters who reside in 10-tome epic fantasies, may find these characters underdeveloped.  I would disagree; they are just not rendered with tedious detail.  Finally, this novel only has the smallest amount of scientific detail.  So, readers who are used to high-tech, mecha stuff might be disappointed.

There is a concept that Vance utilizes in this novel that provides the overarching theme.  Wikipedia proudly proclaims this the linguistic Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This particular “hypothesis” was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.  I cannot speak for how familiar our author was regarding these linguistic theories.  I, frankly, am not too familiar with them, although I’ve run across the names of these fellows plenty; particularly in philosophy of language and anthropology.  Humboldt generally comes up in reference to political philosophy.

Anyway, you may be chomping at the bit for me to explain what this Sapir-Whorf concept is.  Well, I’m not going to.  Because that’s what Vance’s book does.  On the planet Pao with main character Beran Panasper.  Let me then, simply, boil this whole thing down to one question:   “What role does language (organic or artificial) play in a social group’s understanding of reality? In other words, how does it shape their lives, nation, and outlook?”

It is okay to admit that the above paragraphs bored you to tears and you have already decided this novel is not for you.  However, understand that Vance is dealing with that linguistic question by working in the science fiction genre.  So, Vance selects three main facets of society (represented by the Paonese, the Breakness, and the Brumbos) to cause havoc on the planet Pao.  All of this gets situated within the political scheming/intrigue of the ambitious characters.  It is like Dune – without all of the sandworms, blue-eyes, and crazy witches.  But nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two novels.  And the “villain” is not really a bad guy from all perspectives.  Plus, he’s the one that comes with the neat “modifications” – (surgical enhancements to his person).

I love Vance’s use of vocabulary.  I appreciate how he works with a linguistic concept without making his novel overlong or bludgeoning the reader (Mieville, looking at you, son).  I neither loved nor hated the characters, but I was interested to see what happened.  And maybe this is not the most exciting read in science fiction, but it surely is one of the more intelligent and well-written.  The only complaint is that it seems set up too artificially, almost as a too-carefully controlled experiment.  But on the other hand, what author doesn’t do this?

5 stars

Big Planet

Big PlanetI finished Big Planet by Jack Vance tonight.  January is Vintage Science Fiction month – as sponsored and encouraged by Little Red Reviewer on her blog.  This is the second Vance novel I have read.  Big Planet was first published in 1957 by Avalon/Ace.   The novel had some revisions and whatnot and was re-released in 1978.  The copy that I read was the TOR 1989 edition.  I took an actual photo (with my phone) of my two copies – the Ace 1967 and the TOR 1989.  I owned the Ace and then found the TOR for only $2 so decided to use that as my “reading copy.”  The cover art for the Ace is by Ed Emshwiller (very famous) and the TOR art is by David Hardy.  Since it’s Vintage Science Fiction month, I thought I’d read this novel because it’s quite vintage and well known.

Overall, this is a rather ridiculous novel.  It does show it’s age.  There are a couple of interesting moments, but overall it’s nothing fantastic.  I say this having read the novel in 2013.  I don’t know how this read to someone in 1960, let’s say.   The main complaints are as follows:  characters are flat and empty, viewpoint regarding women is decidedly not feminist, and the story reads like an extended Star Trek “away team mission.”

Big Planet – a horribly heavy-handed name which states the obvious – is a planet that absorbed the diaspora of cultures from Earth; cultures that were exiled or unwilling to accept Government Rule.  After hundreds of years, the original “culture groups” that arrived on Big Planet spread out, intermingled, and developed.  Thus, the inhabitants are earth-like cultures, but yet they are scattered and have no singular ruling body governing them.  Instead, there is an Earth Enclave, which is presumably a base of some sort where Earth periodically sends commissions to interact with Big Planet and its cultures.  An embassy of sorts, I suppose.

The novel begins with a commission en route to Big Planet.  We meet the characters rapidly and without any finesse.  The ship is attacked (from within) and brought down far from its destination at Earth Enclave.  The survivors find themselves stranded in a village.  It is estimated that they are at least 40,000 miles from Earth Enclave.  Big Planet has many resources, but metal (ore) is not one of them.  Therefore, at least to start, the survivors are relatively wealthy.  However, without much further ado, they all agree to trek off to Earth Enclave.  This is obviously just to get the story moving forth – but let’s consider this further.  Stranded (after a crash landing) in a primitive culture 40,000 miles away from base, with very little in the way of supplies or implements, this group of eight fellas decides that it is a good idea to head out. And, interestingly, the main character, Claude Glystra just assumes command.  He suddenly becomes the leader of the band and not one of the others really even questions this.  We aren’t even given any background on Glystra to help with this.  Perhaps he is ex-military or something – but we get nothing to assist with the suddenness of his command-taking.

So the group sets off. And right away there is this tag-a-long girl who seems really naive and helpless.  Make that a count of nine.  But then not too long after, adventures begin because this group is attacked. Basically, its all a big plot to take down this commission by some dude named Charley Lysidder.  Lysidder employs armies, spies, and religious-types to help him recapture Glystra.  I highly doubt Glystra is really that big of a threat.  Why go to all this trouble? Even if this guy makes it 40,000 battling the natural and exotic perils, what can he possibly do then besides complain to Earth about Big Planet? Ultimately, Big Planet is really beyond the scope of Earth’s rule, anyway. And what does Glystra care?  A moral code is about the only reason he has to stop Lysidder, at first. Finally, a sense of revenge or personal justice plays in.  Basically, the whole premiss of the novel is a bit forced and stretched.

There is one interesting culture that we meet in the novel.  The Kirstendale city is maintained by an interesting populace.  They keep their wherewithal a secret and it takes Glystra awhile to piece it altogether. Nevertheless, it’s an opulent city full of manufactured intrigue and facade.  Ultimately, it would be interesting to investigate this city and expand this into a series of stories or something.  It’s about the only thing creative in the novel, to be honest.

Anyway, Glystra’s group’s numbers dwindle as they deal with threats and peril. Most of the time they are riding on six-legged beasts called zipangotes.  These are like dinosaur, horse, panther things.  They can be used to ride or as pack-animals.  Generally, the “nomadic” races use them to ride around on and raid and terrorize everyone else on the planet.  The other way the group travels is by monoline.  One of the things Vance does in this novel is periodically give us rather intense descriptions of mechanical things.  He uses fairly technical terms and describes them just as if one were seeing them with one’s own sight. Unfortunately, I was unable to really get a picture of any of these things in my mind. I don’t know if I wasn’t focused or if I just could not get the words sorted out. Anyway, Vance clearly had something in mind and tried to get us to understand these mechanical things, too. The monoline is like a trolley that ports people by sail and gravity by “air” across a huge stretch of land. Traders use it, too, and knowing this, the monoline gets attacked a lot by hostiles.

The ending was predictable and the villain was obnoxious and yucky.  I am glad I read the novel, because I love reading and I love science fiction.  However, there is not a whole lot in here that can be recommended to readers in 2013.  It’s a short read. Not very sweet.

3 stars

To Live Forever

To Live ForeverTo Live Forever by Jack Vance was first published in 1956.  I think it can be considered Vance’s first “real” novel.  I found my copy for $1 at a comic book store, of all places.  My copy is the second edition 1976 by Ballantine Books.  The cover art was by Dean Ellis.  It is also the first Vance novel that I have read.

This novel is another dystopian story.  Overall, I found the book a good, average read.  And this is pretty good, because I was concerned that the first novel of this author might not be great and also that the story would be dated and tedious.  However, it really does not seem dated at all and as a early novel by the author, it’s a solid entry.  There are problems, though. For one thing, there just was not “enough” science in the science fiction.  There seemed like there might be – particularly in the first half of the novel when the main character finds a way to manipulate his memories, but then the science disappears.  Another reason that I only give this novel three stars is because the relict/clone/surrogate scheme is never really fully explained – or, I suppose, I was too dense to figure it out.

In this dystopian future society, the highest class of citizens have clones.  How many, by what real means, etc. was a little confusing and a bit sketchy.  Maybe other readers will have a better time of it than I did.  I get the general concept and I shrug my shoulders at any attempt to figure it out further. So there’s clones. Okay – moving on. The whole point of the novel is that a stratified society of classes has been developed.  This is not an organic development, but an artificial one that is the society’s official policy.  It was instituted presumably to avoid Malthusian catastrophe; specifically the problems arising from overpopulation.

The classes of the society are a form of meritocracy wherein the “slope” of one’s life is measured and ranked.  There are several strata – and each individual can progress, via striving, to a higher level.  The goal is to reach the highest level:  Amaranth.  As one progresses upward through the strata, one’s life is extended by medical procedures.  Instead of making the procedures to extend life available to all – it is granted based on the striving/slope merit of the individual.  The top level, Amaranth, is reached by the fewest members of society and one is awarded immortality (life through a number of clones, etc.).

Although this meritocracy of classes was instituted in order to save the population from a lack of resources and to provide order, it is really a sham.  The ratio that governs the population and promotion is hindering.  Also, it is not entirely “fair” because those in power have more say in the matter than they ought to.  Finally, this ordered policy was to reduce stress and misery in society, however it has had the opposite effect.  A very high percentage of the population suffers from mental breakdowns due to the stress of their striving/slope efforts.

The main character is Grayven Warlock/Gavin Waylock.  I think on the back of the book it even reads Garven Waylock.  So, basically, it gets a bit unsteady.  The main character is a “glark” – which is a person who is not participating in the official Fair-Play policy.  This amounts to about a fifth of the population.  Glarks do not strive and are much like the Other-Outsider class of the system.  The individual Grayven Warlock, however, had reached Amaranth and was involved in a criminal situation and therefore was forced to escape by becoming part of the glark segment of population.

Glarks live in Carnevalle – an almost lawless eudaemonia wherein the citizens of Clarges come to play, act-out, and otherwise blow off the stresses of their striving.  Waylock begins his quest to once again reach Amaranth after running into an Amaranth named Jacynth Martin while in Carnevalle.   Needless to say, Waylock ends up causing a revolution.  The latent frustration at the official system that runs deep in the lower classes of the society is expressed in certain groups like the Witherers, but Waylock does not align himself with any group.  He is self-centered and seems almost completely amoral.

As you can see, Vance really developed an interesting dystopian society.  The novel itself is heavy on presenting the difficulties of striving/slope/fairness.  It indirectly calls into question the fairness and ethics of characters individually and as a whole.  In the end, it even suggests that such a system is full of artificial and meaningless striving, which has stifled any real creativity and striving that is inherent in humans.  Throughout we meet various characters that represent different views of the society.

This is a very good novel to be read in a political philosophy class, a comparative literature class, and even as representative of the anti-hero archetype.  However, as a science fiction novel, I can only give it three stars.  I feel the overall pacing of the novel was slow, fast, slow, fast, slow fast…. in other words, it had moments where things picked up and were very intense, but then things always fell down and plodded along again.  The characters are not really developed much. Jacynth Martin seems really bizarre, but Vance does attempt to explain her motivations.  Waylock, overall, did not strike me as any more amoral or monstrous than other characters, he just seemed to be a lot more luckier than he should be.  I would have liked a little more about the cloning-situation.

3 stars