Last First Sentences – My Own Petard

This past week we’ve looked at more than a dozen story openings, and hopefully the exercise has been of some value to both the writers out there and the readers.  My thanks to all of the authors whose works were featured in Cirsova magazine, and my sincere hopes that they take my criticisms as constructive.  My interests lay with those working to build a better culture of fantasy of science-fiction, and if my efforts help improve anyone’s writing they will not have been in vain.

Before we get to the promise of this post’s title, let’s take a look at the first sentence of Cirosva Issue 9’s Editorial note, Notes from the Eagle’s Nest and see how well Mr. Alexander measures up against his authors:

404: Item not found

Well that’s disappointing.  This issue didn’t have a Notes from the Eagle’s Nest. Mr. Alexander must have known this was coming and used his Timeslip Contraption Mark III to erase his editorial from our timeline.  Clever bastard.  I’ll get you next time.

In the meantime, let’s look at a few of the opening sentences from my own works and see how they measure up!

From Sudden Rescue:

A staccato drumbeat on ringing metal caused Sudden to raise his eyes from the magazine he held.

It’s a name!  Curses!  Looking at this through fresh eyes it strikes me that I’m guilty of much of what I complained about this week.  “Ringing metal” makes little sense.  That magazine just kind of lays there flat.  I’d improve it thusly:

A staccato drumbeat rang off the metal hull of the Jade Rose, and Sudden’s startled reaction sent the magazine draped over his face tumbling to the deck of his ship.

That feels a lot better.  Hooks you in with a nice threat and a instant reaction by the titular character.

That was my first novel, so how does my latest measure up?

From Barbarian Emperor:

Barbarian Emperor, you name me.

It’s just a repeat of the title of the book!  How disappointing.  In my own defense, establishing the narrative framework of a first person recounting of the events that follow serves an important role that only becomes apparent much later on in the book.  Let’s look at a more classically told tale, A Moon Full of Stars:

It was a hard life.

Now that’s terse.  It has a grim stoicism to it that sets the mood of this post-apocalyptic tale nicely.  It establishes the characters to follow will be hard people capable of great feats.  It suffers a bit from the use of a passive verb – a sin that none of the works in Cirsova 9 committed, to their credit – but I think it also buys the main protagonists a lot of goodwill on the part of the reader, even before their village is destroyed by mutant slavers.

Let’s close out this moment of shame by looking at the first sentence in two of my published short stories, and see if those fare any better.  First up is the introduction to the superhero tale, Like Father, included in Paragons:

It was supposed to be a routine convenience story robbery.

That’s a lot better.  Again with the passive verb to kick things off, but at least this establishes setting and stakes, and simultaneously subverts them with the announcement that things are not what they seem.  That’s a strong hook that carries the weight of the passive verb on its back.

Although it’s vague and includes the dreaded NAME FIRST, I quite like the opening of Desert Hunt, included in the first issue of StoryHack Magazine:

A symphony of destruction sounded in Karl’s ears.

It just got real, yo.  That’s a heck of an opening statement to make.  Things are already in motion and falling apart.  If that sentence doesn’t make you want to find out what’s going on, then I don’t know what to tell you.  You’re reading the wrong blog.  Maybe hit up the cozy mystery section of the writersphere – they seem nice.

Thanks again to everyone for playing.  It’s been a fun and informative week for me, and hopefully for all of you as well.

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Third and Final First Sentences

First sentences matter.  People are judgy and they love to find reasons to reject your works.  Knowing the how and why people judge can help you writers make sales, and they can help you readers be better judges of whether what you’re reading can recover from its doldrums or just continue make for a painful read.

As with the last few days, we’re looking at the first sentences of every story in the most recent issue of Cirsova Magazine.

PC Bushi brings us this word picture from the opening of Antares:

In a system far from here, on a blue world much like ours, orbiting a sickly green sun, the city of Antares stood towering over a barren landscape.

We know we’re headed for a story of forbidding isolation.  The setting has clearly been established as not-of-this-earth, and one that suffers from a faintly nauseating green patina.  For the rest of the tale, my mind’s eye will view everything through a wan green filter.  As usual, I’d swap out the name for a few words of dscription, (i.e., “the graceful spires of an ancient city towered over a barren landscape).  That gives the picture a little more detail at no cost of words.  Throw the city name in later, when it becomes absolutely necessary – particularly given the title of the work, playing coy with the city name buys the author one more “aha!” moment on the part of the reader when they connect the story title to the city.  Those are cheap candies to throw at readers, and they work incredibly well at winning readers over, so never deny them even one chance at feeling smart by making obvious connections.

Bo Balder kicks off Cirque des Etoiles with a concise statement filled with hooks:

The first commissioner of A’a’a undulated into the circus ring.

Hey look, it’s another name to start things off, and this time a name paired with a rank in the bureaucracy.  And yet it works because the name is so alien, and gets paired with such an unusual verb, undulated, that it sets up a whole lot of story.  We’re going to read about an alien circus run by a creature that moves in ripples.  That’s a great hook that sells me on the rest of the story.  Bo knows when to break the rules, and knows how to break them in a way that you don’t care he broke them.  Well done.

My pet peeve crops up twice in the beginning to Robert Lang’s Hot Water in Wormtown:

“I don’t know why I ever listened to you,” said Lady Alexia FitzClarence to Foskin, her composite servitor, as they trudged abreast through the desert heat.

And I may have to abandon my pet peeve.  Two characters are presented in a bad situation complete with setting, and Lang manages to convey that we’re in for a humorous tale in which a proper Lady can berate her long suffering robo-butler even in the most dire of situations.  This feels like a set-up, and it makes the reader eager to get to the punchline.  How did they get here?  What did Foskin suggest?  Where are they going?  Where will they find water?  So many questions raised in such an economic manner makes for some good reading.

Also by Brink

Another light-hearted romp caps off Cirsova 9.  This one brought to you by J.D. Brink consists of the sequel to last issue’s Littermates, and it’s hard for me to pretend that I read this sentence with no awareness of the milieu previously established.  Nevertheless, we shall soldier on as:

We’d come all the way to Alpha Dog station and had not yet found the rest and relaxation bragged about upon the brochure (had there been one).

Whoever narrates this sounds exasperated.  He also sounds like he isn’t too disappointed to have found the action that surely follows such a self-aware and tongue-in-cheek introduction.  We get that Alpha Dog ain’t the best space station around, and that it’s probably even more seedy than Groot’s dandruff.  Most important of all, we know we are in for some drama.  Everything is perhaps a little too vague at this point for a proper pulp-style introduction, but Brink has bought himself enough goodwill with the humor inherent in the sentence to carry the reader far enough into the story that they won’t even notice.

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Second First Sentences

Happy All Saints Day!  Don’t forget to ask your favorite Saint to put in a good word for you with the man upstairs.  That’s what they’re here for!

Today we continue our look at the first sentences of stories you can find in the most recent issue of Cirsova Magazine.  If you’re a writer looking to make it through the slush pile, you’ve only got a few minutes to grab the attention of the editor.  Make those first words count.

Today’s first entry falls prey to the “I gotta get a name in there, STAT!” sickness, but recovers with the second half.  Paul Lucas probably knew what he was doing with All That Glitters when he wrote:

Just as he was about to enter the tavern, Theofian Nap was interrupted by his knives, which were talking to themselves.

Wait, what?  Talking knives make for a great hook.  The detail of the Tavern grounds the story in a medieval setting, and the knives announce plainly that we’re in the realm of fantasy.  They also present a mystery that draws the reader in.  That they interrupt their mount makes things all the more intriguing.  It would be nice if Theofian’s name had been swapped with a few details or short archetypal description instead – is he a weary traveler, wealthy aristocrat, or proud knight in armor – but that’s pale criticism in the face of how effective this sentence is.

Contrast with Xavier Lastra’s opening gambit in The Orb of Xarkax:

The local populace knew of that forgettable mountain only for its treacherous ledges and the old tales of bandit hideouts near the top.

Also by Lastra

Something about this sentence doesn’t work for me.  If the mountain is forgettable, why does it feature in old tales?  The treacherous ledges is a nice touch, as is the promise of bandits, but the overall effect is pretty lackluster.  The second sentence about two men standing warily before a doorway at the base of one treacherous cliff, exposed by a landslide, packs more punch than this first sentence.  Give me a shadowy opening first, a doorway into mysterious depths, and two shadowy figures about the challenge them, then fill in the surrounding details to increase the isolation and mystery.

Michael Tierney does the same thing in Jack’s Basement, but compounds the problem with an avalanche of descriptive text:

The psychologist shifted through the young man’s pile of artwork, each sheet filled with apocalyptic scenes of strange alien beings that were surrounded by dramatic explosions from the havoc and destruction they wreaked.

That’s a lot to pack into a single sentence.  It solves a mystery before that mystery was even introduced, and it spends a lot of time on extraneous details that don’t mesh well with the cold opening of “the psychologist”.  The phrase “strange alien” is repetitive.  It’s wordy, and not in a good way.  One way to give this opening more impact would be to describe the scribbles first, and then introduce the good doctor mulling them over.  Another would be to describe the emotion those scribbles evoke in the doctor first, and then describe the artwork.  Like so:

That scenes of alien creatures surrounded by the detonations of apocalyptic devastation wrought by their presence had been crafted in such loving detail by crayons gripped in a child’s hand troubled the weary psychologist.

There you have basically the same information, presented in a way that allows for the contrast between the horror of the pages and the innocence of childhood, and for the disconcerting effect they have on a beleaguered man of science.  Instead of an emotionless doctor, you’ve got a man both tired and concerned.  Hey reader – there’s something very strange going on here!  It lacks subtlety, to be sure, but it also works.

Also by Tierney

Let me back up a step here and openly admit that much of my analysis rests on a firm foundation of “in my opinion”.  More importantly, there’s a certain amount of hubris involved with judging an entire work based on one sentence.  Jack’s Basement is a fun story, and one I enjoyed.  The purpose of this exercise is to strip sentences down to the bare functionality.  Whenever you talk about things in isolation you lose the wider view, and in the wider view my criticisms of Tierney and Lactra’s work fall flat on their faces.  Both are talented writers who recover from their first sentence doldrums almost immediately.  You should definitely check out Cirsova and their works, because you’ll enjoy them.  They are, in fact, operating at a high level, and this nit-picking of mine is a close look at those few areas where they have room for improvement.



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No NaNoWriMo Fo Jo Mo

Nothing against it, just seems counterproductive for a writer in my position.

Writing a novel in a single month represents a considerable challenge for new and old writers alike.  Tapping into the inspirational support of a host of like minded writers can be a great help, especially when you add the psychological pressure of a hard and fast timeline like December 1.  It even helped me write my first long form fiction – a terrible screenplay, for the record – a decade ago.  It was a fun experiment, but didn’t have a lasting effect.

Now that I’ve got multiple novels under my belt and established a steady output of work dedicated a month to changing up a routine that already generates on average somewhere around 500 words per day.  Why run the risk of burning out or pressuring myself to forgo the usual juggling act between writing, reviewing, and recording audiobooks?  I’m on track to get my fourth or fifth audiobook out and the sequel to my Heroes Unleashed superhero novel submitted to Silver Empire by the end of the year.  That’s not gimmicky and it doesn’t let me tap into the vast NaNoWriMo community of sprinters.  On the other hand, my steady output should result in considerably more and better writing in the long run.

So best of luck to all of you taking up the 1700 words per day gauntlet.  Whatever your reasons and whatever your level, I wish you the best.  You never know when the next month’s effort might bear fruit.  My own experience took another decade to blossom into my nascent writing career.

So keep your fingers warm, your powder dry, and your spirits up.  I’m pulling for you.

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More First Sentences

Yesterday we looked at three opening sentences of classic pulp stories.  Today let’s take a closer look at three contemporary short stories published in Issue 9 of Cirsova Magazine.  One of the best of the current crop of short fiction periodicals, Cirsova makes for a great case study because it publishes a wide variety of genres, features some of the best unheralded talent working today, and because I’ve never published anything with them, so I can maintain a thin veneer of objectivity about the stories within.

The first first sentence comes from The Faerie Pool, by Edward McDermott:

The rutted road meandered through the woods, shaded by mighty oaks whose roots reached out to trip an unwary traveler.

The use of adjectives in this sentence works well.  Though the road is rutted (well traveled), it meanders (is in no hurry), shaded (and out of the cleansing light of the sun), and old (as evidenced by the mighty oaks.  The threat of the oaks demonstrates this is no place for the unwary, so we have an intimation of a threat right out of the gates.  That’s a good sign. Trouble ahead calls the reader forward.  A solid opening.

Next up is Our Lords, the Swine, by N.A. Roberts:

The Knight sought shelter for the evening, and when he saw the monastery on the hill above him, he turned his horse towards it.

Here’s a counter example that could have used a lot more descriptive words to paint the picture.  It violates the “show, don’t tell” rule, but we’ve got a limited number of words to use and a strong start demands unsubtle tactics.  You’ve got to come out swinging, not playing coy with the image you’re painting in the reader’s head.  Is the knight tired or proud?  What sort of monastery does he face?  It should loom over him if it houses a dark secret, or should beckon him with bright lights shining from every window.  Details are your friend at this stage, provided they are terse and provide some foreshadowing of what is to come.

I quite liked the story that followed, but this sentence does little more than confirm the setting and the genre.  To be fair, S.K. Inkslinger starts off the next tale, The Bejeweled Chest, with even less.

I was bleeding badly.

Does anybody bleed well?

Oh, shut up, Jon – this is no time for pedantic grammar Nazi-ing.  If you break a rule well, then you wrote well, full stop.  As a first sentence, this works fantastic.  It’s just four words, so you get through it almost too fast to realize what happened.  And yet in those four words a timer started ticking down to the detonation of the plot bomb.  We’re stuck in a tale with a protagonist who has already faced danger and lived, but there’s no telling how long he or she has to get out of trouble.  We don’t know the genre, we don’t know the mood.  All we know is that we have to move fast.  This is classic page-turning prose.  Well done.

One thing that I like about all three of these sentences is that they all eschew the all-too-common trope of “NAME VERBED.”  That’s an empty introduction to snoozeville.

Too many stories force a name into the first sentence.  There’s plenty of time for names once we’ve set up the gameboard.  Give the reader a picture first, set some stakes, get things in motion.  Once you’ve done that, then you can start affixing labels to personalities and places.  If you haven’t built the structure of the story, the labels have nothing to hold them – they just linger there in the mind, hanging in empty and weightless space.  With every passing moment, the reader’s interest in finding a post to stick them to will wane, so don’t give them an excuse.  Make them wonder who this guy is first, then give them the name.  Draw them in and make them ask for a name before you give it to them.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the next three sentences.  In the meantime, consider how the rules of first sentences can be used throughout your stories.  How every sentence can lead the reader onwards, rather than hang in space while it waits for necessary details to emerge later on in the narrative – even one sentence too late is still too late.

Oh, and Happy Halloween!  Here’s a Conan Pumpkin Stencil for your pulp pumpkin.

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First Sentences, Examples From the Pulps

In the interests of learning from the masters, here are a few examples of evocative first sentences taken from a random scattering of works.  As with yesterday’s assignment, consider how each sentence hooks your attention, declares stakes, identifies the mood and genre of the piece, and then take a look at the second list which presents the source of the work.

  1. When Miss Vine went to bed she was accompanied by her shadow thrown on the white marble wall.
  2. The fisherman loosened his knife in its scabbard.
  3. I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.

  4. I am a medical man specializing in neurology and diseases of the brain.
  5. It was June 25th in the year 2999, and Hugh Grimes, the robot, worked feverishly to perfect the synthetic brain he had made after thousands of experiments, in his secret laboratory beneath the Tombs of the Kings near ancient Thebes.

Given my predilections, and that these all survived not only the slushpile of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy – that would be the years before Damon Knight and Issac Asimov ruined the sci-fi culture for decades for those keeping score at home – but that they also survived decades of relative obscurity and passed into public domain where they were loved enough to have been posted in an easily searchable HTML format…it should be no surprise that they are all effective in their own way.

Once you’ve had a chance to think about them for a minute, let’s look at the source, the who, and the why they work.

  1. Put Out the Light, by Ethel Line White.  You thought I’d start with an easy one?  Miss White is a new name to me, one encountered while searching for easily cut-and-pasted HTML versions of first sentences.  She wrote primarily Weird Tales style horror, but I can’t say more than that until I’ve read more of her works.  The simple act of going to bed, pursued by one’s own shadow, becomes oddly sinister when she describes it this way.  It’s a nice lead in, even if it does suffer a bit from the “Name First” trope that generally turns me off.  Anybody out there have any experience with Miss Ethel?  How does her work hold up?
  2. The Devil in Iron, by Robert E. Howard.  Yes, this is a Conan story, and the fisherman is the first victim of a supernatural terror.  Note the implied menace that draws the reader into the next sentence.  Fisherman are tough old buzzards, so if this guy is nervous enough to check his knife and keep it ready, you can bet what happens next will be bloody.  I’ve never read this work – that needs to be corrected.
  3. Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  This one takes a bit to work through.  One the one hand, it’s a great way of hooking the reader, as it implies the fantastic tale to follow not only happened in the real world, but that no one is supposed to know about it. It hooks the reader by inviting him to join in a conspiracy of knowledge, and thereby works to stroke the reader’s ego with the faint hint of forbidden knowledge.  It also serves as a framing device for the action that follows.  We’re not reading from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, but reading a third hand tale passed down from one co-conspirator to the next!  That’s a lot to pack into such a short sentence.
  4. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt.  Hey, they can’t all be winners.  This sentence introduces the main character as an exceptionally intelligent protagonist, one not particularly squeamish, and perhaps one who is ultimately rational and given to science rather than the fantastic notions of magic and the occult.  It isn’t particularly gripping, but it does alert the reader to the first person viewpoint of the story that follows.
  5. The Iron World, by Otis Adelbert Kline.  Holy cats, now that’s how you start a story that begs to be read.  It’s a mouthful, to be sure, and it throws ideas at the reader with machine gun ruthlessness, almost daring one to rush ahead before one’s thoughts have processed that we’re in the distant future when a robot might strive to perfect a fake brain, and do so beneath the ancient tombs that litter the deserts surrounding Egypt.  And why does a brilliant robot like this have the prosaic name of Hugh Grimes?  How can you not keep reading after an introduction like that?
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First Sentences – An Exercise for Readers and Writers

First impressions matter, all the more so when you’re writing a short story.  Having just dropped three to twelve bucks on a novel, a reader might give you a few pages to correct for a rough opening.  When you’ve only got a few thousand words to get in, shake your literary money-maker, and get out, you have to strike fast.  That becomes all the more true when yours is just one of ten short works in a collection.  If it’s easier to turn to the next story than become invested in the current story, readers will do just that.

The master of pulp fantasy and sci-fi excelled at grabbing the reader by the collar and putting his attention in a headlock from the first word through the end of the tale.  As a thought experiment for you, dear blog reader, the following list presents the first sentence from each of the ten stories included in the most recent edition of Cirsova Magazine, presented sans attribution.  As you read, consider how each sentence hooks your attention, or fails to do so.  Also, consider how the sentence serves to set-up the mood of the piece that follows.  Can you guess from one sentence whether the story is fantasy, modern, or sci-fi?

  • The rutted road meandered through the woods, shaded by mighty oaks whose roots reached out to trip an unwary traveler.
  • The Knight sought shelter for the evening, and when he saw the monastery on the hill above him, he turned his horse towards it.
  • I was bleeding badly.
  • Just as he was about to enter the tavern, Theofian Nap was interrupted by his knives, which were talking to themselves.
  • The local populace knew of that forgettable mountain only for its treacherous ledges and the old tales of bandit hideouts near the top.
  • The psychologist shifted through the young man’s pile of artwork, each sheet filled with apocalyptic scenes of strange alien beings that were surrounded by dramatic explosions from the havoc and destruction they wreaked.
  • In a system far from here, on a blue world much like ours, orbiting a sickly green sun, the city of Antares stood towering over a barren landscape.
  • The first commissioner of A’a’a undulated into the circus ring.
  • “I don’t know why I ever listened to you,” said Lady Alexia FitzClarence to Foskin, her composite servitor, as they trudged abreast through the desert heat.
  • We’d come all the way to Alpha Dog station and had not yet found the rest and relaxation bragged about upon the brochure (had there been one).

That’s all for today.  Over the rest of the week, I’ll take a look at each sentence individually, tell you well it works both as a hook and as a lead-in to the story that follows, and give proper credit to the authors.

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A Light Review, “Lil Gotham”

Here’s a fun little number. My youngest wasn’t sure about this, but she’s learning how to read and we’ve been enjoying a little Lego Batman on the Xbox 360 lately (so retro!), so it seemed right up her alley.

Also, it was free.

Li’l Gotham is a promotional comic on the shelf at the local comic book shop that we found when hunting for the ever elusive Alterna Comics in the wild.

As a brief aside:  You can nab the Alterna game online, but it’s always more fun to find those diamonds you can grab for yourself amid the mounds and piles of rubbish.  My local shop deals with Diamond, so they mostly have the socially acceptable fare on order, but Diamond seems to throw a few rare copies of Alterna Comics their way.  You just have to be quick about it.  I did grab Zero Jumper #1 in the store, but had to order #2 and #3 online.  When #4 hits the shelves, I’ll cross my fingers and try to grab it there.

Support your local hobby shop…before it’s too late!

Something about the clean lines and understated hues of the water color style artwork appealed to me.  So I sat her down and rubbed her face in it, and am glad I did.  So is she.  The stories are light holiday fare.  The first shows Batman explaining Halloween to Robin – a Robin whose childhood was not as an acrobat, but whose parents where some sort of mad scientists.  Not sure which Robin that makes this, as I don’t follow mainline DC all that closely.  On page two Robin leaps at Batman’s rogues gallery and starts laying down a serious beating before Batman explains they are just kids in costumes.  Robin is unimpressed and thinks the beatings should continue just to be on the safe side.

My kind of kid.

The second story offers up a Thanksgiving story about…is Oswald Cobblepot the real name of The Penguin?  He wants to save the birds on Thanksgiving, and enlists the help of the penguins to set their people free.  Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of story that makes my daughter giggle, and exactly the kind of story I want in my kids’ comics.

Well written for the younger set, the drama rises almost to the level of a classic Archie comic, which is perfect.  The art features near Calvin and Hobbes level cuteness with just enough grit to grab hold of.  It’s also the proud owner of a mercifully low woke-quotient.  If you wanted to introduce Gotham to your littlest kids, you could do a lot worse than this fun little bit of swag.  I may just have to keep an eye out for

Giving money to DC?  I hate to give money to people that hate me, but there’s also some value in putting your money where your mouth is.  My bills on the counter are a strong indicator of, “More of this please,” and so long as they keep it light and kid-friendly, I won’t regret it.

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Thank You

Thank you to everyone who ordered a copy of Barbarian Emperor over the last few weeks.  It’s been trundling along in sales that represent a step-up from my last few offerings.  Your faith in my ability to keep you entertained for roughly 200-pages warms my heart, and I hope that my efforts have not gone in vain.

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Cirsova 8’s “Party Crashers” by Ken McGrath

 The cover story for Cirsova 8 brings us a near future, superhero tale dressed up in tech-noir trappings.  The two heroes of the piece, Haywire and Scramble, are hired guns ready to engage in a little corporate espionage or black-op counter-terrorism if the price is right.  The name of their little enterprise, Party Crashers, lends itself to the name of the story, which clips along at a nice pace.  Hired to protect a shady CEO from his eco-terrorist son, they have the advantage of bionic upgrades, called ‘augments’ in the story, that allow them to act in superhuman fashion.

As with the previous story in the issue, Only a Coward, the story suffers a bit for insufficient world building – or at least insufficient explanations of how the world works.  It’s not clear until late in the game that augments are common enough to elicit disdain from some seedy types, but rare enough to be a surprise when they pop up later.  It’s also not clear what the limitations on the technology are, leaving the world a little vague.  It might be a world just like ours, but with a light patina of high-tech, or it might be a full-on Blade Runner or Shadowrun sci-fantasy.  Were this story plugged into a longer tale, or just one of many adventures of Haywire and Scramble, that might hamper the visual appeal of the tale, but as a stand-alone meant that the movie in my own head lacked real substance or form.

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