Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

Course No. 4112
Professor David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
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Course No. 4112
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how popular science fiction shows have tackled profound issues such as autonomy, sentience, pacifism, colonialism, racism, grief, morality, and much more.
  • Grasp the important distinctions between epistemology and metaphysics.
  • Looking at popular dystopian works, dive into the issues of capitalism, socialism, and balance to understand why an unregulated free market is a recipe for inequality.

Course Overview

The science fiction genre has become increasingly influential in mainstream popular culture, evolving into one of the most engaging storytelling tools we use to think about technology and consider the shape of the future. Along the way, it has also become one of the major lenses we use to explore important philosophical questions.

The origins of science fiction are most often thought to trace to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, a story born from a night of spooky tale-telling by the fireside that explores scientific, moral, and ethical questions that were of great concern in the 19th century—and that continue to resonate today. And, although novels and short stories built the foundations of science fiction, film and television have emerged as equally powerful, experimental, and enjoyable ways to experience the genre. Even as far back as the silent era, films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis have used science fiction to tell stories that explore many facets of human experience.

In Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, Professor of Philosophy David Kyle Johnson of King’s College takes you on a 24-lecture exploration of the final frontiers of philosophy across several decades of science fiction in film and television. From big-budget blockbusters to television series featuring aliens in rubber masks, Professor Johnson finds food for philosophical thought in a wide range of stories. By looking at serious questions through astonishing tales and astounding technologies, you will see how science fiction allows us to consider immense, vital—and sometimes controversial—ideas with a rare combination of engagement and critical distance.

The Future Is Now

Science fiction is often concerned with the future, being used not only as a tool of prediction—humans are notoriously bad at accurately predicting the future—but also as one of extrapolation and interrogation. Rather than simply asking what the future will look like, the futuristic visions of sci-fi TV, like Star Trek, Firefly, and even the animated comedy Futurama, offer compelling statements about humanity’s hopes, dreams, and fears. We can, therefore, use fictionalized futures to better understand today’s world.

Setting a story in the future—or in an alternate reality, or on a faraway planet—also allows sci-fi creators to open up the realm of possibility beyond what our current world offers, while also looking at very real scientific possibilities. As you look at sci-fi films like Arrival and Interstellar, Professor Johnson highlights the kinds of issues worth considering if contact with extraterrestrial life or time travel became part of our real-life experience. And even if these experiences remain in the realm of fiction, considering them still provides insight into important philosophical questions. Indeed, throughout the lectures of Sci-Phi, you will ponder many questions that have concerned philosophers for centuries, including:

  • Do humans truly have free will?
  • Could machines one day be conscious? Or be sentient?
  • Could we actually be living in a simulated world?
  • How will humanity confront a future of diminished resources and advancing technology?
  • Are science and religion compatible?
  • When, if ever, is war justified?
  • How do we know what information to trust and what to dismiss?

Exploring Reality through Fiction

Staples of science fiction like time travel, alternate universes, and extraterrestrial life are endlessly fascinating ideas to explore. Yet, despite the insights they can give us, they may not seem very relevant to everyday life. Even our conception of reality—what is real and what isn’t—can have little bearing on the more mundane aspects of living from day to day. But science fiction, for all its futurism and outlandish flourishes, is not limited to these theoretical concepts; it is also a window into crucial discussions about the here and now, questions concerning ethics, power, religion, tolerance, social justice, politics, and the many practical dimensions of living in a world that is constantly changing and forever presenting humans with fresh new dilemmas to solve. And by removing us from reality, sci-fi can also remove our biases and make us see such issues anew.

Indeed, as Professor Johnson makes clear, stories of simulated worlds and artificial intelligence can seem far-fetched, but they actually offer valuable insights into social and ethical issues that may be more immediate and relevant than they first appear. By looking at them through fiction, we can take a step back and get a clearer picture of the larger implications. For instance, by looking at characters like Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, we are forced to wonder: If we create artificial intelligence that achieves true sentience, how will we treat these man-made beings? Will we repeat the sins of the past by enslaving them or will we embrace them as our equals? If we are ever able to re-create a convincing version of the world via computers, as films like The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor suggest, do the lives lived in those simulations mean less than those in the “real” world? The answers to these questions—and many others—speak volumes about human values and, given our ever-evolving technology, may require answers sooner rather than later.

You may be surprised to see how often a science fiction story can “trick” you into thinking about questions and concepts you may have never considered. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror overtly present questions and issues for audiences to ponder. However, while other films and television shows may seem to focus more on the adventure and entertainment value of science fiction, they still often have deep philosophical dimensions. Consider the long-running British TV series Doctor Who. A beloved icon of science fiction, the show has always been framed as simply the exciting weekly adventures of a time-traveling alien; yet, throughout its decades on television, it has explored issues of autonomy, sentience, pacifism, colonialism, racism, grief, morality, and much more.

A Unique View of Philosophy

While each lecture of Sci-Phi focuses on a few key films or television episodes, you will also explore dozens of other movies and TV episodes along the way. Likewise, each philosophical concept you explore opens the door to further discovery. Throughout the lectures, you will be introduced to the ideas of great thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Turing, Baudrillard, and many others; and through these ideas, you will better understand the different ways philosophy examines the big questions, from metaphysics and epistemology to existentialism and ethics.

Fans of the genre will find their experience of sci-fi stories enriched by layers of philosophical inquiry that reveal each story to be much more than just entertainment. Similarly, those who are looking for a thrilling and accessible introduction to philosophy will be equally rewarded by Professor Johnson’s breadth of knowledge, as well as his deep and abiding love for both science fiction storytelling and philosophical exploration. As you engage with philosophy by way of sci-fi stories for screens both large and small, it is important to keep in mind that Professor Johnson will not shy away from revealing key plot points in many of the stories he explores throughout the lectures; so, although it is not required, watching the films and TV episodes at the heart of each lecture is recommended. Presented as a one-on-one conversation and enlivened by fun visual references to many of the stories you will encounter, Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy is a philosophy course unlike any other.

Whether telling stories of far-flung futures or investigating the here and now, science fiction is an invaluable source of intellectual and imaginative exploration. From the genre-defining classics like Star Wars, Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Twilight Zone to a new wave of speculative tales like Transcendence, Snowpiercer, Westworld, and The Hunger Games, sci-fi stories offer a uniquely engaging and incisive way to ask serious questions about the world we live in, even when those stories are set in a galaxy far, far away. Philosophy is the search for truth. Sometimes that truth is best revealed through fiction.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 34 minutes each
  • 1
    Inception and the Interpretation of Art
    Begin your journey with a look at why science fiction is one of the primary ways contemporary society engages with philosophical issues. Get an overview of the kinds of sci-fi media you will explore throughout the course and explore how you will address the interpretation of art with a look at the film Inception. x
  • 2
    The Matrix and the Value of Knowledge
    Which will you choose, the red pill or the blue? Look at different ideas concerning truth, knowledge, and reality through the film The Matrix, from Plato's definition of knowledge to the theories of Jean Baudrillard. Also, grasp the important distinctions between epistemology and metaphysics. x
  • 3
    The Matrix Sequels and Human Free Will
    Though panned by critics and science fiction fans alike, upon first release, the two sequels that followed The Matrix—Reloaded and Revolutions, respectively—provide surprisingly fertile ground for philosophical investigation surrounding the existence of free will. Compare multiple theories and see whether these oft-derided films can offer any answers. x
  • 4
    The Adjustment Bureau, the Force, and Fate
    Explore the concept of individual fate through the film The Adjustment Bureau and the larger concept of universal fate in Star Wars. Along the way, take a look at the ways conspiracy theories and supernatural claims invoke “fate” to explain real-world happenings and how philosophers handle these “explanations.” x
  • 5
    Contact: Science versus Religion
    Science communicator Carl Sagan believed science and religion could be compatible. But does Contact, the film based on his novel, prove his point or undermine it? Probe the many ways humans use personal experience to justify belief and whether or not such experiences can justify belief in the face of contrary scientific evidence. x
  • 6
    Arrival: Aliens and Radical Translation
    See how the 2016 film Arrival can help you examine the three questions that arise when discussing the possibility of alien life in the universe: How likely would a visitation be? What effect on society would it have? And, particularly pertinent to the film, would we be able to communicate with them once they're here? x
  • 7
    Interstellar: Is Time Travel Possible?
    This lecture will take a look at what metaphysics has to say about the possibility of time travel, focusing primarily on the film Interstellar. Along the way, you will also look at other influential time travel stories and the various theories they represent, like Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Planet of the Apes. x
  • 8
    Doctor Who and Time Travel Paradoxes
    Open with a look at a fan-favorite episode of Doctor Who and explore the nature of paradoxes in time travel. You will also see that science fiction doesn’t always have to take itself seriously to tell a great story—or to explore fascinating philosophical questions—when you turn your attention to the Futurama episode “Roswell That Ends Well.” x
  • 9
    Star Trek: TNG and Alternate Worlds
    What can quantum mechanics tell us about the likelihood of alternate worlds? Explore the multiverse theory with Lieutenant Worf in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Parallels” and see how science could support the idea of multiple worlds, while also grappling with the seeming untestable nature of such a theory. x
  • 10
    Dark City, Dollhouse, and Personal Identity
    The nature of personal identity is tied to numerous philosophical concerns: memory, consciousness, even the possibility of an afterlife. With films like Dark City and Moon and TV shows like Dollhouse, Professor Johnson guides you through the theories of great thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and their intellectual descendants. x
  • 11
    Westworld and A.I. Artificial Intelligence
    Sentient machines have been a staple of sci-fi for decades. Although here you will focus on a few key stories, you will also take a look at the long history of intelligent machines in film and TV—as well as get a glimpse into our very possible future—examining the ways we conceive of the mind and the implications of artificial intelligence. Machines can calculate, but could they one day be sentient? x
  • 12
    Transcendence and the Dangers of AI
    Science fiction has always been fascinated by the possibilities of artificial intelligence, with many storytellers focusing on the dangers of sentient machines. But human predictions of the future are often inaccurate, so here you will explore arguments both for and against the creation of AI through the film Transcendence, as well as through other iconic stories. x
  • 13
    The Thirteenth Floor: Are We Simulated?
    What is the likelihood that we are living in a simulated world right now? Some philosophers, using laws of subjective probability, would say it may actually be much higher than you might think. Examine the film The Thirteenth Floor and understand how creating a convincing simulated world could alter our conception of reality itself. x
  • 14
    The Orville, Orwell, and the “Black Mirror”
    The pervasive influence of social media makes life feel more performative than ever, yet it really just demonstrates an old dilemma heightened by new technology. Here, see how the anthology show Black Mirror and the Star Trek-influenced series The Orville offer episodes that examine extreme cases of objectification and mob mentality. Also, look back on a pre-internet example in George Orwell's much-adapted Nineteen Eighty-Four. x
  • 15
    Star Wars: Good versus Evil
    The original Star Wars trilogy is not morally ambiguous, but many other entries in the franchise present complicated gray areas when it comes to good versus evil. Professor Johnson demonstrates how the 21st-century films in the series, especially Rogue One, create a more complicated view of morality—and what Nietzsche can tell us about space politics. x
  • 16
    Firefly, Blake's 7, and Political Rebellion
    Many science fiction stories revolve around scrappy, sympathetic rebels and the overthrow of oppressive government powers. Here, look at how two series—Blake’s 7 and Firefly—take similar approaches to the experience of political oppression and individual defiance. Consider the implications of dissent within society and contemplate the perpetual dilemma of balancing freedom and social order. x
  • 17
    Starship Troopers, Doctor Who, and Just War
    From the overt (though satirical) militarism of Starship Troopers to the pacifism of the Doctor, examine how societies view war and the ways we are (or are not) able to justify it. As you compare and contrast two very different ways of confronting violence, you will also look at the middle ground via Just War Theory and ponder the difficulties of preserving life while sometimes having to cause harm. x
  • 18
    The Prime Directive and Postcolonialism
    What can science fiction tell us about the dangers of colonialism and moral relativism? Take a look at the Prime Directive—the rules that are supposed to prevent interference in other cultures—and the ethical ramifications of imposing one society’s values on another, as you plunge into several episodes from different iterations of Star Trek, including the classic series of the 1960s, The Next Generation, and Enterprise. x
  • 19
    Capitalism in Metropolis, Elysium, and Panem
    Capitalism is an economic philosophy as much as it is a practical system and, while it has many benefits, the capitalist system also has its share of pitfalls and ethical quandaries. Looking at the dystopian visions of the sci-fi films Metropolis, Elysium, and The Hunger Games, you will dive into the issue of balance and understand why an unregulated free market is a recipe for inequality. x
  • 20
    Snowpiercer and Climate Change
    Open this lecture with a look at how and why we get scientific information from experts (or don't) and why what we should conclude about climate change is as much of a philosophical issue as it is a scientific one. Then, through the film Snowpiercer, take a look at how a lukewarm approach to pressing issues can create narratives of false security and cast doubt on real dangers that will have consequences for the fate of humanity. x
  • 21
    Soylent Green: Overpopulation and Euthanasia
    When is it acceptable to end your own life? With the rising threat of overpopulation on Earth in the future, see what the 1970s film Soylent Green offers as a solution to dwindling space and resources. Also, consider other ways societies, in both science fiction and the real world, tackle the moral issues of euthanasia (both self-chosen and coerced) and population control. x
  • 22
    Gattaca and the Ethics of Reproduction
    Dive into the ethical questions of “designer babies,” genetic manipulation, and human evolution at the heart of the movie Gattaca, a film which NASA once considered one of the most plausible sci-fi films ever made. Then, turn your attention to a similar issue as you explore the philosophical and scientific ins and outs of cloning, via the Canadian TV show Orphan Black. x
  • 23
    The Handmaid's Tale: Feminism and Religion
    The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale offers a grim vision of a future in which religious fanaticism reshapes the United States into a misogynist totalitarian state. Professor Johnson provides a brief overview of the meaning(s) and different stages of feminism in the 20th century and examines what the disenfranchisement of women says about the uses and abuses of power. x
  • 24
    Kubrick’s 2001 and Nietzsche’s Übermensch
    Analyze one of the most famous—and possibly weirdest—sci-fi films of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Consider the imagery and ideas of Kubrick’s vision and determine whether, as some suggest, it reflects the concept of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Close with a brief glimpse of the science fiction worlds still waiting for you to explore them. x

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Your professor

David Kyle Johnson

About Your Professor

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award. In 2011, the American Philosophical Association’s committee on public philosophy gave him an award for his ability to make philosophy accessible...
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Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 64.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy Finished the first two lectures, but realized that I needed to have the sci-fi films clearly in mind to adequately follow this (very good) lecturer's points. (So far, no illustrations in the course to go on, so I am trying to get time to revisit the films on my own...)
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some good, some not so much This course was a mixture of some good, and some that wasn't. First off -- the sci-fi portion of the course really was limited to the 'pop culture' TV and movies, which unfortunately misses out on a much richer, and in many ways more sophisticated, literary sources. In some cases, the sci-fi tie-in is rather limited. On the subject of climate change, the bulk of the material seemed to be lecturing the listener that belief in climate change is the only acceptable position -- the sci-fi angle only serving to introduce the lecturing. Professor Johnson went to great lengths to challenge the credentials of those who challenge arguments favoring climate change, insisting if one was a "scientist" did not matter, that only the opinions of climatologists were relevant. But no similar standard seems to have been applied when discussing religious topics, where we are told the concensus of "academics" is that there is no "soul". But who are these "academics"? How many are theologians? Similarly, when faced with a choice as to whether to accept human causes for climate change, Professor Johnson says we should err on the side of caution, and act to minimize impact because it is possible the result will affect humanity's survival. But a similar argument could be made -- but isn't -- in the lecture that touches on abortion: if we are not sure if there is a life being destroyed, should we not act on the assumption there is one? And when making a passing reference to Heinlein's "Starship Troopers", the professor simply states that it is "overtly facist". On whose opinion is this based? The professor's? Some critics? Robert Heinlein's? The course does touch upon some interesting ideas, and has some value. But personally, I think that Professor Johnson's presentations involve too much lecturing on his beliefs than on examining how science fiction has explored different subjects.
Date published: 2019-08-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quirky Approach to Philosophy This course is a bit of a platypus: is it a course in philosophy, in literature, in film, or what? Yes, all of the above I guess. To best appreciate it you have to have at least some interest in both philosophy and science fiction. The lecturer is a professor of philosophy who happens to love science fiction (surprise!) and uses various sci-fi films and series episodes to draw out key debates about philosophical issues. My friend was somewhat disappointed as he hoped to see little clips from the various films and shows discussed, and this doesn't happen. The lecturer only describes generally what the show is about, and then how it illuminates a philosophical issue. I think I knew a little more philosophy than would be ideal for this, which is essentially an "introduction to philosophy for the non philosopher" kind of course. But I did find introductions to quite a few science fiction films and shows which I had never viewed before.
Date published: 2019-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enlightening! I had previously seen most of the movies and TV shows that were discussed in the course. Even though I had enjoyed the shows, only after taking this course did I realize, how little I had really understood the thoughts and the philosophy behind the shows. This was very enlightening!
Date published: 2019-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The title of the course intrigued me I finished this course a few months ago on DVD. I watched an episode a day with riding a stationary bike. I found the course very interesting and thought provoking. It made my exercise time fly because the lectures were so interesting. I enjoyed the recommended movies and the topic discussions. I am no science fiction aficionado but did not feel I had to be to be challenged by each lesson.
Date published: 2019-08-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Professor Suffers from Dunning-Kruger Johnson is crippled by a severe case of anti-religious-induced Dunning Kruger. He thinks he "knows" all sorts of things that he doesn't even understand. Some of these are even merely factual: E.g. In lecture 3 he asserts that Boethius in the 6th century was the first to discuss the incompatibility (perhaps) between God's foreknowledge and human free will. He's wrong. Rabbi Akiva (first century) addresses the exact issue in Mishna Avot, 3:15. "All is foreseen, but free will is granted." Johnson also fails to grasp that our experience of free will is prior to any conceivable empirical knowledge. If he can seriously believe that humans lack free will, he can "believe" anything, and therefore nothing. Unfortunately he seems more interested in introducing his pre-conceived notions and hanging them onto a work of science fiction than in seeing what the works themselves have to say. For example, his reading of Heinlein's Starship Troopers as "overtly pro-fascist" tells us far more about Johnson than it does about the book. Johnson seems confused about the difference between militarism and fascism. Merriam Webster tells us that fascism is " a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader." This is very different from the society Heinlein describes in Troopers, in which there is democracy (albeit without automatic universal franchise), universal property rights, equality among the sexes and races, etc. Militarism, says, Websters, is an "exaltation of military virtues and ideals." It is quite plausible to read Troopers as militaristic. It's one thing for casual observers to misread Troopers as fascistic, and it's quite common. But it is unforgivable for a person who holds himself out as a professor of philosophy to be so sloppy. It seems quite clear that Johnson is so far from objective that for practical purposes he's just offering his, largely unsupported, opinions.
Date published: 2019-06-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Delightful! An interesting and informative journey through the worlds is Sci-Fi from the point of view of Philosophy
Date published: 2019-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finding the Serious in Science Fiction I’ve loved science fiction since elementary school, when I watched Lost in Space and Star Trek reruns in black and white, not knowing that they were really in color. Soon there was Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Logan’s Run. Now Professor Johnson explains what attracts many of us to the genre. It’s not just the vision of possible future worlds, but also the serious, deep, philosophical thoughts within. Like an underwater creature, philosophy has tentacles everywhere, getting into questions about knowledge, mind, identity, linguistics, physics, economics, politics, demographics, reproduction, artificial intelligence and personal improvement. How do we know whether the world around us is real rather than a dream, illusion or simulation? What if we ourselves are merely illusions? Do we have free will or are our lives foreordained? Worry about these matters as you watch Inception, The Matrix, The Adjustment Bureau and The Thirteenth Floor. What happens in time travel? Is there just one universe or many? See Interstellar, Star Trek and of course Dr. Who. By what right can we rebel against the government? Watch Serenity and Star Wars. When is war justifiable? Sit through Starship Troopers. What should society do about extreme economic and class inequality? See Metropolis, Elysium and the Hunger Games. Can it ever be right for people to voluntarily end their lives? Watch Soylent Green. You will likely know a few philosophers covered here, including Plato, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, but most of them are moderns you probably have never heard of, like John Rawls, Judith Thomson, Alexander Vilenkin and Peter van Inwagen (I made a list as I went through the guidebook because I never heard of them either). Now philosophy is not a value-neutral discipline, and Professor Johnson certainly takes sides on some issues. He comes down hard on global warming deniers and on “lukewarmers” who agree that climate change is real while arguing that acting against it would be worse than doing nothing—the premise of the movie Snowpiercer. He praises Keynesian policies and labor unions as antidotes to the excesses of capitalism. He beats down all challenges to voluntary euthanasia, though he is too cautious to take a side about abortion. On the matter of Christianity, Johnson argues that you can’t be a fully scientific-minded person while believing that a crucified Jewish preacher rose from the dead 2000 years ago, and that if you do believe that, you can’t object to other people’s non-scientific beliefs. I find that last point too harsh, but in general I like his appreciation of empiricism, in contrast to postmodernist academics who have attacked empirical disciplines in recent decades. In a few cases I disagree with Johnson’s film interpretation. Metropolis isn’t an argument for labor unions, only for asking bosses to be humane—a pretty tame message for Weimar Germany. In “The Apple” Captain Kirk wasn’t just arrogantly destroying a native culture that he thought was inferior to his own, but also trying to save his ship and crew from destruction. He was also obeying a series-wide imperative to overthrow machine domination over people everywhere (see also “The Ultimate Computer,” “A Taste of Armageddon,” and “Return of the Archons”). Johnson strains too hard to find ambiguity in the Star Wars characters of Palpatine and Kylo Ren. Look, the one ordered the murder of a bunch of Jedi children and sponsored the construction of a genocidal planet-destroying machine, and the other murdered his fellow apprentices to Luke Skywalker and then his own father, Han Solo, as well as ordering the massacre of a village on Jakku. Both were consumed with selfish lust for power and domination over others and neither had any greater good in mind. What is ambiguous about that? On the positive side, Johnson has an impeccable speaking style, free of stammering and mistakes. There is also a cute gag in Lecture 8, when Professor Johnson argues with a video of himself on his laptop as to which episode of Dr. Who he is supposed to discuss. It almost makes up for the lack of photos and film clips during the lectures, which I assume might have caused copyright problems. Anyways, if you are a fan of either philosophy or science fiction or better yet both, you should definitely buy this series!
Date published: 2019-03-17
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