Review of Trope-ing the Light Fantastic for Tangent

Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction is a collection of sixteen articles by science and science fiction writer Edward M. Lerner. They were originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact from 2011 to 2016 and have been “integrated, expanded…, and updated” for this book….

Full review at Tangent: Trope-ing the Light Fantastic.

(I reviewed this a month and a half ago but it’s just being published now.)

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Review: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities

Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures

VVEV_Cover_500

Edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich
Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
(December) 2017
347 page PDF, available in other formats including Print-on-Demand

“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

(Apologies for the odd style and lateness of this review—I didn’t originally intend to cover this at all and then the coverage took place in several confused and expanding chunks of reading and writing over a long period of time.)

This book includes seven stories, with pairs set in low earth orbit, Mars, and the asteroids, ending with a single indirectly interstellar story. Each story has a beautifully done illustration and is followed by one or two essays by other authors (nine essays, plus an opening pair and closing trio) which I’m not going to get into much beyond saying that, unlike the art and unusually for me and science non-fiction, I didn’t feel they added much value. None really address the quality of the fiction as fiction, simply taking the stories as given unless some implausibility is pointed out. They aren’t intended to be literary critiques, but it undercuts the connection of the essay to the story and sometimes brings to mind people insisting the emperor, in fact, has clothes, undercutting a sense of credibility. Further, few even address the science (physics, chemistry, etc.) of the stories, which I would think was to the point, but are more interested in the social aspects. Perhaps most strikingly, while not speaking with one voice and being ostensibly created through the efforts of Arizona State University with a grant from NASA (that is, you, the taxpayer), they mostly promulgate a pro-corporate “higher education as vo-tech,” “NASA as free corporate R&D” view to the point that I wondered if this was sponsored by a university or by corporations through a university as a form of “idea-laundering,” though hopefully that’s an unjustified suspicion.

“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz

The protagonist is sent out by his corporate overlord to steal a small, old satellite, which the plutocrat really does want, but the job is primarily a way to clear witnesses away from his weaponizing of space. How the protagonist reacts is supposed to be the crux of the drama but, as written, there is no drama in this essentially plotless, albeit idea-filled, story. Despite being chosen for a “year’s best,” I wasn’t particularly impressed by this, aside from its researched, thought-out, hard SF nature.

“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes

Michael “Meek” Prouder is a smart kid with an interest in gene modding plants but lacks the resources and social infrastructure to maximize his talents. This has left him with a shady past, a bizarre condition, and difficulty trying to realize his dream of going to space. He hopes things may start going better for him when he learns of a contest with a prize that would get him to space but things become complicated when he actually enters it.

This seems to be partly a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and is mostly very effective at portraying the main character and addressing his plight in a way that will resonate for some readers (including this one, in ways). My only real problems with the story are that the character seems too smart to be so dense or vice versa and the plot seems a little too coincidental (both issues making the fiction as strange as truth), and that the big reveal may be too telegraphed and involves an element that has been done before, though I can’t recall the story (or stories) that did it. That was mostly outweighed by how engaged I was with the character and the story and how rewarding they were.

“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder

A woman who is feeding a bunch of time-displaced “Martians” comes up with an idea to transform the human race’s economy, method of governing itself, and its expansion into space, so heads off to the U.N. to explain it to the Powers That Be. The setup for this is that some humans who are among the legions of unemployed have begun “prospecting” on Mars, creating the infrastructure of a colony remotely by VR (we’re assured the time-lag isn’t a problem). But this is only due to the “no claims” space treaty and the corporate sponsors are really just waiting for all this to fail so the treaty can be torn up and the real gold rush can begin.

The colonization-by-VR feels fairly novel but it probably hasn’t been used much because it isn’t very workable. The “Martian Timeslip” or “Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” isn’t so fresh, nor is the way it makes interplanetary colonization dull and mundane and mires it all in a socio-politico-economic treatise thinly wrapped in fiction. Schroeder’s fiction is generally very wonky but in a very cool way and is much better than this particular example.

“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby

Part of the rationale for an all-female crew on a proto-colonization mission to Mars includes a social-bonding experiment and that bonding is stressed when it is revealed that one of the women has known she’s dying and lied about it. It is further tested when a man is shipped in (alone) on an emergency flight to help with some problems.

This story is very nearly crippled by a serious early flaw and a milder later flaw, but manages to barely survive both. The first is that almost any human will be sympathetic to almost any depiction of death but the specific agonies of the dying woman and her distraught crew are not things we can actually share because, for example, this paragraph—

Donna was dying. Donna, who had calmly helped her slide the rods into the sleeves as they pitched tents in Alberta one dark night while the wolves howled and the thermometer dropped to 30 below. Donna, who had said, “Of course you can do it. That’s not the question,” when Khalidah reached between the cots during isolation week and asked Donna if the older woman thought she was really tough enough to do the job. Donna, without whom Khalidah might have quit at any time.

—comes in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. We don’t know Donna or Khalidah or the others when Donna’s imminent death is revealed and the emoting begins. The second problem is that, once we are up to speed and emotionally involved in the tale, it has many valid insights and feelings (such as how one death seems to raise all previous deaths a person has experienced right back to the present) and seems genuine but then pushes it a hair too far, giving a taste of saccharine sentimentality. (A third minor problem is that I don’t feel the sub-story of Khalidah and dad and the baseball is ever really “finished.”) All that said, this is another researched, hard SF tale whose character interactions eventually ring mostly true and which conveys some truths, such as how badly some things can be wanted and how badly they need to be wanted and what costs this can have. This has also been selected (twice) as a “Year’s Best” and, while I doubt it would have actually made that cut for me, I still recommend it.

“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam

A lone man working on an asteroid finds himself in a life and death situation when an inexplicable explosion breaks his tether and hurls him away.

This tries to be a good old-fashioned problem story but its “manned or unmanned” theme is too blatant, the idea that an unmanned mission would be retrofitted as a manned one at the last minute (for “PR”—to have a “face of the mission”) is virtually impossible and this is the second story I’ve read recently of a panicking astronaut, not to mention one who entertains for an instant the idea that a thrown roll of tape could counteract the force of an explosion that ripped a tether and his suit apart. Finally, the astronaut’s fate has nothing to do with his character. I did find this bit funny (in a sense), though:

The data center of the future would have just one man in it, Jimmy said, and one dog.

The man’s job was to feed the dog.

The dog’s job was to make sure the man didn’t touch anything.

“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn

A woman is working the “Night Shift,” monitoring an AI as it deploys the nanobots that will transform an asteroid into its valuable components. She reminds me of Ghostbusters‘ Egon (who “collects spores, molds, and fungus”) except that her thing is just slime molds which, with her hacking skills, she parlays into nanobots. Things get a little complicated when, due to her anthropomorphizing of “Seth,” she is initially unaware that “he” has disabled the killswitch which prevents uncontrolled replication.

This is a winning first-person narration and touches on “remote colonization” like “The Baker of Mars,” but more convincingly and handles the “is it human or Memorex?” quandary of “Shikasta” in a far superior way… at first. But then the story reaches a very mild and trivially solved crisis point, makes a little speech, and just stops. “That’s it?” is never a good reaction on turning the page and not finding any more story.

“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

A handful of good people (one of whom has been killed by bad people) did or do work on a crowd-funded starship mission to send an AI to the eponymous system where it interacts with a variation on the Horta of Star Trek‘s “The Devil in the Dark”—this one is a sort of magnetic wind creature.

This radically over-long, dull, and implausible story is inelegantly exposed and is the worst sort of clumsy combo of “the Two Cultures” with a lot of subjective navel-gazing combined with hard SF infodumps. Also, speaking of two cultures, if this were written in the same way by a Westerner about Eastern cultures, it would be roundly condemned. All that said, it’s in a “year’s best” so I may well be in the minority here.

Review of Infinity Wars for Tangent

Review of Infinity Wars, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Recommended:

  • “In Everlasting Wisdom” by Aliette de Bodard (SF short story *)
  • “Command and Control” by David D. Levine (SF short story *)
  • “Heavies” by Rich Larson (SF short story)
  • “Weather Girl” by E. J. Swift (SF novelette *)
  • “ZeroS” by Peter Watts (SF novelette)

Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean
Donning (Starblaze Editions), 1980, $4.95 trade paper (237pp) ISBN 0-915442-95-7

“The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
“The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
“Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
“Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
“The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
“Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
“The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
“These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
“Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
“Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
“The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
“The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

Review: Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Percival “Steve” Stevens is aboard the Inter-Plantetary Vessel Arcturus, as a “computer” who is checking on some navigational problems. These turn out to be the fault of some lazy “astronomers” who haven’t been correcting the position of their stations in the space lanes. That problem solved, he’s tasked with entertaining the daughter of the head of the Inter-Planetary Corporation. This turns out to be, not a little girl as he originally thought, but the young, intelligent lady golfer, Nadia. She and Steve, who is a burly swimmer/diver in addition to being a great scientist/mathematician, are a perfect match. He’s showing her the ship when, suddenly, he feels something amiss and learns that the Arcturus is being sliced apart by rays emanating from an alien ship. They end up in one of the many airtight sections of the ship which forms a little short-range ship of its own, but all are dragged off to Jupiter in the aliens’ tractor beams. Finally, Steve and Nadia make their break when the time is right and end up on a habitable Ganymede where they play Robinson Crusoe together and Steve must rebuild civilization from scratch in order to produce a communications device with which to contact Earth, turning into a Herculean Hephaestus. Meanwhile, Nadia also develops “amazingly in musculature” and becomes the huntress Artemis, bringing home the bacon (or “boiled warple,” anyway) while her man does his work at the base. With part of the necessary fundamentals complete, they go off to a comet for metals and meet the enemy again, but also a new group of aliens (from Saturn’s moon, Titan) who turn out to be human, like ourselves, but much mutated. Working together, the two strains of humanity manage to fight off the enemy and help each other out in other ways. Finally, Steve sends out the signal and can convey to “Tellus” (Earth) the knowledge of what happened, and what the IPV Sirius will face and how to soup it up so that it can deal with the alien challenge. At this point, the view shifts and the milieu recomplicates as more ships and races and angles of combat are introduced, culminating in the overwhelming appearance of the Vorkuls: generally isolationist flying snake-things of South Jupiter with their omnipresent motif of seven-pointed stars and mega-ships. Their planetary and space combat with the intrinsically violent North Jovian hexans (who have been our enemy all along) forms the climax (which humans helped trigger but don’t really participate in), followed by a more human-centered denouement.

This novel is about 86,000 words and first appeared in three 1931 issues of Amazing before being published in book form by Fantasy Press in 1947. As Smith is mostly known for his Skylark and Lensman series, I was hoping it would be an unjustly neglected gem but its secondary status turns out to be fair. Those who are not fans of Smith or 30s SF or space opera would almost certainly have no interest in this while even those who are might not be fully satisfied with it. I enjoyed it, overall, but it has problems, mostly in the POV-shifts and time overlaps of the second half. Its main points deal with the “complementariness” of genders and multiple races of humanity (Martians, “Venerians,” and the people of the Jovian and Saturnian moons) and the idea of omni-competent people being pro-survival, being able to wage “a war of applied physics” (despite earlier saying that earth had united under one government “so that wars could no longer interfere with progress”). A further element in this war is that friendly interaction or isolationism each have their virtues but intrinsic aggression is unacceptable and must be met with greater, albeit momentary, aggression. For an urban American in 1931, some of the details in attitudes were remarkably “advanced” though they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with today’s ideologists. In this, Smith is much like Heinlein and, indeed, this is probably the book where Smith’s influence on Heinlein comes through most clearly. Much of the Steve-and-Nadia portion reminds me irresistibly of Heinlein.

In “Larger Than Life,” a 1979 essay on Smith, written at the request of Smith’s daughter (and the dedicatee of Spacehounds of IPC), Verna, on the occasion of MosCon I which was dedicated to him, Heinlein made the point that Smith was, himself, omni-competent, honest, hospitable, and “the perfect gallant knight” and that all this was “reflected in his stories.” He goes on to mention various attacks on Smith by the critics of that time and proceeds to defend his style (even dialog), love scenes, plots, and social values (Good and Evil, inequality of men (and women)). While the love scenes of IPC are certainly chaste and in keeping with the slang-filled general dialog, they’re actually not all that painful. The rest would certainly give some of today’s audience problems but Heinlein’s defenses are mostly reasonable. Smith actually does write proper English in a consistent and oddly effective way in narrative voice and his dialog may be “all x, no fooling!” but it contributes to a gee-whiz-bang feel blended with the, “Say, Bob…” old-style movie feel in everything from The Thing to even 2001. Heinlein gives Smith too much credit for plotting originality in terms of dynamics (and, in a different sense, the uneven plotting is my major problem with this particular book), but it is true that Smith basically invented the space opera and any critique of what came to be its cliches is, in Smith’s case, historically naive and backwards. As I touched on before, the social values are a curious mix. In 1931, they might have been seen as liberal and/or radical while, today, they would be seen as hopelessly incorrect. The hexans are not so much evil as just bad, like a plague of locusts, and the humans in all their strains are good as groups. Between those good groups, however, the question of whether they’ve diverged so much that they are no longer interfertile isn’t clear but interplanetary romance isn’t seen as acceptable by the hero. (The question as to whether this should be taken literally in science fictional terms or symbolically is also open.) Within these groups, men (and women) are not treated equally. The hero is better than the lazy navigational bums and certainly better than his enemies. While Nadia is smart, athletic, muscled, and hunts for their food and the two form a pair from the start, the hero is more mathematically and scientifically skilled than the heroine and the heroes certainly outnumber the heroines. There is also a question about whether Nadia will turn out to be a “spacehound” (able to handle zero-G and the general environment of space) or a “weight-fiend” (a landlubber), but she does turn out to be as spaceworthy as Steve or anyone else. These things will strongly affect those of any stripe who read SF primarily as social symbolism, although in different ways.

What most affected me were the “complementary intelligences” and “war of applied physics” concepts. For the first, the Tellurians (as Smith calls us), Venerians, and Martians work together to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts (as do men and women) and this motif is played out again when we meet the people of both the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. For the second, curiosity, intelligence, and an engagement with the actual physical world is seen as providing the keys to the kingdom. There is a remarkable blend of far-out super-science and nitty-gritty plausible engineering. There are wonderful perspective shifts such as a reference to the natives of Titan and their relation to Saturn’s rings and, of course, to Tellurians in relation to the various moonfolk. There are amazing set pieces such as the descriptions of the city and race of the Vorkuls and their war with the hexans. For people who respond primarily to such things and fun, super-science epics, Spacehounds of IPC may appeal.

Review of Little Green Men–Attack! for Tangent

In this, Michelle Ristuccia reviews the first half of the book and I review the second:

Review of Little Green Men—Attack!, edited by Robin Wayne Bailey & Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Recommended: no originals (but it was mostly quite readable; the Cato, Steele, and Ball would be honorable mentions or close to it; and the reprint of Robert Silverberg’s “Hannibal’s Elephants” (1988) is highly recommended.)