Who doesn’t love a good dystopia? To read about, I mean.

The country (maybe more of a city-state) of Deres-Thorm is a bizarre, surreal nightmare, evocative of North Korea, East Berlin, and every other totalitarian dystopia. The unsuspecting narrator, Horus Blassingame, is thrown from one bizarre obstacle to another, whether it’s from the constantly changing street and building names, the two distinct dialects, or the constant paranoia of the security forces.

The book is darkly comic, with an emphasis on the dark. There are some scenes that are not too far off of Room 101 from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, the narrator remains relatively upbeat, despite the torturous conditions he often finds himself in.

It’s a very funny satire on the kinds of horrors that can occur in a Stalinist bureaucracy. I’d call it Kafkaesque, although I’ve never read Kafka, so I may be wrong. But it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I’ve heard people call “Kafkaesque.” (And, well, it says so on the cover.) It also called to mind G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, with its surreal and simultaneously funny and disturbing takes on political theory.

I like the book a lot, so I don’t want the following complaints to be misconstrued as reasons not to read it. But I have to put them out there all the same.

First, the only named female character (not counting the genderless Th’pugga) is a prostitute. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I swear, so much modern fiction gives you the idea that prostitution is always and everywhere running rampant. Yes, yes, I know; “world’s oldest profession” and all that; but really.

The second point isn’t even really a criticism, but more of an observation. The most significant exchange in the book, which sums up the entire philosophy governing Deres-Thorm, is when the main antagonist, Pokska, explains that citizens are bound by the laws of their own countries while in Deres-Thorm, just as all citizens of Deres-Thorm are bound by their laws no matter where they are in the world. The logic behind this, he elaborates, is that “the citizen is the property of the State.”

This is pretty horrifying, right? It’s close to a re-formulation of Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state.” It’s basically the central concept of totalitarianism, and the reader is not slow in seeing how it can lead to exactly the kinds of horrors depicted in this book–not to mention in real life.

But, wait. What is the state? The state is legalized violence, because the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. (Don’t take my word for it, take Max Weber’s, one of the founders of modern sociology.) In governments structured as liberal democracies and constitutional republics, the people consent to authorize the state to use violence. We issue them a badge, as it were. In other, more brutal forms of government, the state doesn’t need to show the people any stinkin’ badges.

This is an important difference, and I don’t want to minimize it. But… even in liberal democracies… the state still has the authority to deprive us of our freedoms, if it has some reason to do so. Theoretically, at least, the people can hold the state accountable so that it will use its terrible powers only for good. Theoretically. But it has terrible powers, all the same…

My point is, the state kind of does own the citizen, by definition.  It can pretend it doesn’t; it can put all sorts of accountability measures and checks and balances in place–and it should, and it does. But still.

And yet, not every state is a hellish Orwellian nightmare. So the state owns the people. So what? Just because you own something doesn’t mean you’ll destroy or mistreat it. Generally the opposite, actually. The problem is when the machinery of the state is controlled by psychopaths. Which, admittedly, happens alarmingly often. And even once is too often. Obviously, the power of the state is alluring to psychopaths, with results like those seen in A True Map of the City.

What I’m driving at here, in my usual roundabout way, is that the book seems to be trying to determine what it is that makes a government go insane and stop serving its people, and instead become a simple exercise in power for power’s sake; to preserve by any means necessary the status of the ruling class.

What we’re really trying to figure out is, “what is the root of tyrannical government?” To determine exactly how creeps like Pokska and Th’pugga came to be running the show in Deres-Thorm.

In an early draft of this review, I had a much longer section on this question, referencing Lord Acton and Plato’s Republic and lots of other stuff like that on the origins of tyranny. But I cut that, because it was wandering too far from the topic at hand. I didn’t want to do that to you. (Again.) But I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there are lots of big ideas in this little book. Maybe some powerful mind will do a truly cogent interpretation of it, like Christopher Hitchens on Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But as of right now it only has one review on Amazon, (5 stars, of course) so I think I can safely say it needs more readers.

I’m not sure where to begin with this book. Perhaps a good way to start would be to define what kind of book it is, but you see, there are layers to it. You could approach it in a number of different ways.

One avenue would be to say it’s a romance. The protagonist, Dr. Alasandr Say, is in love with a fellow physicist named Penny. Only that’s not the romance. That’s backstory. Dr. Say goes to a remote village in Scotland as his first post-doctoral research assignment. He has been hired by the foul-tempered Lord Learmonte to transcribe notes taken by an ancestor of the latter, a mysterious scientist whose own research produced a number of bizarre results.

You see though, already I’m getting off-track, because I haven’t gotten to the romance part. Dr. Say strikes up a friendship with Nesta, Lord Learmonte’s daughter, who is being pressured by her father into an arranged marriage with an old family friend.

It’s a classic Victorian romance, or comedy of manners–a drama about engagements made for reasons of family business competing with the desires of the heart. It’s full of well-mannered upper-class society folks holding gatherings, with ladies in dresses and men in suits, all set against the backdrop of a dreamy glen in Scotland. Dr. Say even gallantly assists Nesta after she falls into a river, in a scene straight out of Victorian literature that is charming in its modesty.

Except… it’s not set in the 1800s.  Rather, it takes place in a future where much of modern technology has been rendered useless by sun-storms–bursts of energy from the sun that wrought catastrophic damage on the modern world, which is still recovering. The reason for the revival of the old-time fashions is to cover people’s skin against the powerful solar rays. This is retro-futuristic world-building at its finest.

And what is Dr. Say researching, exactly, while on his romantic summer retreat into a dreamy wilderness? It has something to do with the powerful electrical storms that well up nightly, originating from the site of Lord Learmonte’s ancestor’s laboratory. Storms which may be somehow connected to the solar anomalies of decades past, and which local superstition maintains are connected with supernatural forces–such as the glowing will-o’-the-wisps that appear late at night, known as the “Riders” from the “Otherworld.”

You see? I told you this book had layers. Sometimes I felt like I was reading Austen or even Wodehouse; other times it felt closer to something by Jeff Vandermeer.  The closest analogue I can think of is Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, a book that combined interpersonal drama with scientific research and a dash of pure magical fantasy. Not many books give you romance, magic, mystery, and glimpses into the politics of scientific research funding, but Ocean Echoes does, and A Summer in Amber does too.

I could go on more about how much I enjoyed this book, but it seems better to let you discover the mysteries and bewitching atmosphere of Glen Lonon and Maig Glen for yourself. It’s a marvelous place. Be sure to check out some of the supplemental material, such as maps etc., on the author’s blog.

Writers Supporting Writers is a new blog run by Mark Paxson, Audrey Driscoll, Susan Nicholls, Trent Lewin, and yours truly. You can find posts and video chats about all sorts of indie writing matters there. Go check it out, and please feel free to comment. 

One of the greatest things about the indie writing community is how indie authors continually support one another. We occasionally say it feels like the only people who read our books are other authors–but by my lights, that’s a good thing. It’s better to get feedback from people who actually have a handle on how tough writing is. 

My hope is that this site will be a place where indie authors can gather to discuss our experiences. I’ve already met one indie author thanks to this site–C. Litka. I’ll be reviewing one of his books later this week.

So visit Writers Supporting Writers; read some posts, make some comments, and maybe discover some new indie authors!

This is a cover for a 1980 edition. There are many like it–and many un-like it–but this one is my favorite.

Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.

The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.

Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.

Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.

Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”

Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”

There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.

So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?

Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.

Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.

Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!

Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless.  But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…

Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.

That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.

But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.

The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.

It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.

Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:

“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.)  The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.

Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.

To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.

There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.

That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?

Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”

And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.

In that regard, Starship Troopers certainly offers plenty of food for thought, and it’s easy to see why Heinlein chose to put such an austere message in the form of a science-fiction story, at a time when the United States, as a prosperous superpower, was beginning to focus on the possibility of traveling into space. As President Kennedy said in 1962, three years after the publication of Starship Troopers:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 

…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…

Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.

“Aamrgan?” you say. “What kind of title is that?” Well, it’s an anagram of anagram. Nifty concept, isn’t it? It’s a good brain-teaser that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Aamrgan is a short book, but it contains huge ideas. It was originally going to be a novel, until the author began contemplating the backward time travel paradox, and so instead wrote this short but fascinating work of metaphysical puzzles.

When I was in college I took a class in logic offered by the Philosophy department. I did okay in the class, but I always felt like there was something about it that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Maybe my mind isn’t great at grasping abstract concepts. I got the same vibe reading this–like I was stretching my mental muscles in a way they weren’t used to moving. 

Don’t be fooled; while the book is 34 pages long, it’ll keep you thinking about it for way longer than it takes to read it. It’s different; it makes you think about things you may have taken for granted in entirely new ways. It’s a good book to start off the year, too; what better way to start a new year than with a new perspective?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all! I started this year with the goal of posting a book review every Friday, and as this is the last Friday of the year, I’m going to recap them all. Since many of these are available as e-books that can be instantly delivered, you might find a truly last-minute gift on here! The covers are in the slideshow above.

In January I reviewed Joy Spicer’s coming-of-age fantasy novel The Cursed Gift, a story full of adventure and magic. Next was part two of Lorinda J. Taylor’s epic science-fiction series The Man Who Found Birds Among The Stars, Wounded Eagle. More sci-fi followed with The Secha by Dawn Trowell Jones and The First Protectors by Victor Godinez. (For Vintage Sci-Fi Month, I also reviewed Asimov’s classic Caves of Steel.) The month finished up with Kevin Brennan’s Eternity Began Tomorrow, a novel which presented an alternate vision of 2020 that ended up being less bizarre and more logical than the real one.

February kicked off with Shady Acres, a collection of short stories by Mark Paxson. For Valentine’s Day, I reviewed Isabella Norse’s medieval fantasy romance Assassin’s Heart, and followed that up with A.C. Flory’s science-fiction novel Vokhtah and volume two of Nicky Drayden’s Delightfully Twisted Tales.

In March I first went with more sci-fi with G.J. Scobie’s Small Print and then delved into a mad world of disturbing, madcap weirdness with the hilarious, unsettling and profoundly unusual Hyperlink from Hell by Lindy Moone. To try and reacquaint myself with sanity, I next reviewed Jackson Banks’ humorous non-fiction I Put Pants on for This? and then more sci-fi with L.E. Henderson’s Binary Boy.

April started off with C.S. Boyack’s weird western adventure Panama and Jason Abbott’s short story Harvest. (For those keeping score, Harvest was a non-Friday review, allowing me to maintain an average of one review per Friday.) Because I’d been leaning heavily on sci-fi and fantasy, I varied things with a review of Jennifer Kelland Perry’s literary drama, Calmer Girls. After that, a trip to the world of mythology with Tammie Painter’s short story Testing the Waters and a humorous mystery novel, Sweet and Sour by T.L. Dyer.

For May 1st–a date with some spiritual significance in folklore–I reviewed Joy Spicer’s Moon Goddess, a book that teems with references to mythology and mysticism. After that, Laurie Boris’ dramedy The Joke’s on Me, and Geoffrey Cooper’s latest Brad and Karen medical thriller Forever. Then–because I can never stay away from sci-fi too long–Henry Vogel’s sword and planet adventure Scout’s Honor and the science-fiction/fantasy conspiracy YA thriller, The Adventures of Sarah Ann Lewis and the Memory Thieves by Joshua C. Carroll.

June saw me review Abbie Evans’ glorious swashbuckling comic fantasy The Gossamer Globe, a truly clever book which is still free on Kindle! Next was the compelling philosophical short story IHU by Cliff Hays and then more Henry Vogel with The Fugitive Heir, before concluding the month with Tammie Painter’s macabre and darkly comic A Feast for Sight.

July began with a bang–specifically, Meteor Strike, the first book in Pat Prescott’s re-released Fan Plan series. As a bonus, I did a Wednesday review of another Henry Vogel book, Hart for Adventure, before proceeding on to the delightful cozy mystery The Cruise Ship Lost My Daughter by Morgan Mayer. Since I tend to favor fiction over non-fiction when it comes to what I review, I again varied things by reviewing the non-fiction Close to Perfect, which is a transcription of a conversation among three indie authors: Kevin Brennan, Dan DeLong and Karen Choi. (Sadly no longer available.) I then reviewed John Brunner’s 1974 novel Total Eclipse, which is not an indie book but is still very interesting. The month closed with the fast-paced horror adventure Hannah the Huntress by Saul Bishop.

For August, I realized I had been giving short shrift to the romance genre, and attempted to atone by reviewing Sha Renée’s Forbidden Kisses. That was followed by the long-awaited second book in the wonderful Carrie Rubin’s Ben Oris series, The Bone Hunger, a pulse-pounding medical thriller. A weird western, Terror Beneath Cactus Flats by Seth Tucker was next, followed by Lydia Schoch’s Tumble. I closed the month out with a review of the ancient Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, volume one.

September began with yet more sci-fi in E.A. Wicklund’s The Huralon Incident, and then Joy Spicer’s fairytale re-telling The Spellbound Spindle. Since summer officially ends in September, I had to review Em Leonard’s collection of weird stories set in amusement parks, Summer’s Over before returning to check in on Lorinda Taylor’s Capt. Nikalishin in part three of the series, Bird of Prey.

October is, of course, my favorite month, and I’d done enough reviews that I could pause and kick-off the month with some recommendations for the Halloween season. The rest of the month, I dedicated to Halloween-themed books, beginning with Alex Vorkov’s excellent sci-fi horror adventure All the Colors of The Deadfollowed by Mae Clair’s evocative mystery set in the Mothman-haunted river town of Point Pleasant A Thousand Yesteryears. Jason H. Abbott’s Angel: A Short Story of the Un-Dead was next, and I was delighted to be able to cap my favorite month with a review of Audrey Driscoll’s sublime collection of weird fiction Tales from the Annexe, a true must-read for any fan of horror.

November began with a return to Abbie Evans’ Gossamer series with The Gossamer Power. For Friday the 13th I reviewed Hank Bruce’s book of western stories with ironic twists, Cowboy Karma. For Thanksgiving I reviewed George Plimpton’s classic football book Paper Lion and finished the month off with D. Wallace Peach’s fantasy novel Liars and Thieves.

For December, I took an imaginary trip to 19th century South America with Tom Williams’ Napoleonic spy novel Burke in the Land of Silver, followed by Noah Goats’ collection of speculative short stories An Assortment of Rejected Futures and finally Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune, which I reviewed on the day when the upcoming film adaptation was originally scheduled to debut.

I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had reading all these books, and even more reading your comments on my reviews. I’ve even been lucky enough to hear from some readers who checked them out on my recommendation. It always makes me happy to hear that someone enjoyed a book they learned about through this site.

Most of these are indie books, which I find are the most fun to review, because they are different, and because fewer people have heard of them. And after all, how can I reasonably expect anyone to try my books, if I’m not willing to try indie books myself?

Looking back over this list, I realized that I do tend to lean towards sci-fi more than I had really been aware. I’ll try to be more balanced in the future. 

Although… January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month… so no promises. 🙂

But for now–Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and here’s to a Happy New Year!

Oh, and one more thing: my long short story 1NG4 is free on Kindle today. I came up with the idea for it on Christmas two years ago, so it seemed like a good way to celebrate. 

This is one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies. It’s not a Hallmark or Lifetime movie, but it’s the same kind of thing. There’s an over-the-air channel that shows nothing but these kind of films during December. I can’t stand most of them; they tend to all hew closely to a formula that goes like this: the prince of some non-existent country meets a woman with a regular job, they fall in love, they have some sort of absurdly contrived misunderstanding and break up, and then they reconcile in the last five minutes.

Also, the writing tends to be dull, the acting usually isn’t anything special (sometimes the “villains,” like jealous sisters or whatnot, are good) and it’s just generally unmemorable.

Christmas Crush is different. The premise is that the protagonist, a young woman named Addie (Cindy Sampson), makes a wish after a friend tells her wishes can come true at Christmas. Addie wishes for her next-door neighbor to fall in love with her.

She’s thinking of the shy but charming Sam. (Robin Dunne.) But she doesn’t know that an old acquaintance of hers from school, Pete Larson, (Chris Violette) has just moved into the other apartment next to hers. And when her wish comes true, it’s Pete who falls in love with her, becoming obsessed, following her around, bringing her unwanted gifts, and even breaking up with his actual fiancée to propose to Addie. Naturally, all this ruins her attempts to go out with Sam, since from his perspective, Addie appears to have been simultaneously dating an engaged man.

Now, it’s true: a supernatural magical Christmas wish is an even more outlandish premise than the prince-traveling-incognito plot I complained about above. Princes at least actually do exist. But it’s the details that matter. This is a modern version of Victorian dramatist W.S. Gilbert’s classic “lozenge plot,” in which a magical device causes some sort of upheaval to the social order. He used this most famously in The Sorcerer, a comic opera in which a magical love potion causes everyone to fall in love with the wrong person.

Gilbert got his start writing pantomimes. These were entertainment staples of Victorian Christmas, and featured similar outlandish plot conceits. They featured stock characters and generally relied more on spectacle than writing to wow an audience, but there’s a clear line of descent from the craziness of Christmas pantomimes to Gilbert’s signature topsy-turvy satires. (And to be honest, it goes all the way back to Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival during which traditional social norms were temporarily suspended.)

What made Gilbert’s impossible supernatural devices work so well is that they were the only impossible element. Gilbert would create one bizarre, fantastic concept, and then have everything else proceed with perfect logic and consistency from there.

The same thing is going on here. Addie, Sam and Pete all behave logically and consistently given the one absurd premise. The characters’ personalities don’t change on a dime for the sake of the plot. The entire story is based on watching the hilarious consequences of Addie’s non-specific wish play out.

That’s the other thing about this movie: it’s funny. The script is snappy and clever. There’s an extended scene with Addie trying to talk to Pete’s ex-fiancée in a Christmas store that makes me laugh out loud. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances of the supporting cast: Konstantina Mantelos as Pete’s jilted fiancée is great, as is Erica Deutschman as Addie’s friend Drea. It was nice to see the two female leads working together as friends, instead of being rivals for the same guy.

There is also the character of Mr. Donner (I couldn’t find the actor’s name.) He is an important client of the firm Addie and Drea work for, and there is a subplot with them planning a Christmas event for him. There’s a running joke where someone will call it “the Donner party” and someone will quickly correct it to “the Donner event.”

Donner never speaks throughout the film. His performance is purely in his expressions. I loved this touch. Screenwriters take note: less can be more.

The film culminates with the Donner event, which includes an impromptu song by Pete in another over-the-top effort to woo Addie. Addie then gives a speech about the power of Christmas wishes. I won’t say more, even though it’s not really the kind of movie you can spoil. I mean, we all know what the ending will be.

And yes, I guess there is a last-five-minutes reconciliation with Addie and Sam, too. But again, it’s how it’s done that matters. Addie’s wish wasn’t to marry a prince, or a millionaire, or even to get married at all. She just wants to go on a date with a guy she likes.

This movie is fun. Everything about it is a cut above the usual Christmas TV movie fare. The writing is wittier, the acting is better, even the set design is more believable. Normally, people in these movies live in fabulous winter estates. But these characters just live in apartments, albeit very decorated ones.

It’s easy to make fun of feel-good holiday movies because most of them are bad. But you could say the same of most big budget Hollywood movies, actually. Most instances of every form of entertainment are fairly forgettable, to be honest. The fun is in finding the ones where the people who worked on it went the extra mile to make it good. Christmas Crush is one of those.

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
There are many different covers for Dune, none of them totally adequate, IMO. This is a good image, but the fonts… ugh.

Dune is such a weird book. As almost everyone knows, it’s about a young nobleman named Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who are taking control of the barren desert planet Arrakis.

Almost immediately, they are faced with political machinations among various factions, including the rival House of Harkonnen, the smugglers of valuable spice that can be found only on Arrakis, the natives of the planet–the mysterious Fremen, a reclusive desert people–and the Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of witches, of which Jessica herself is a member.

Early on, I was struck by how likable many of the characters are. Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are genuinely in love with each other and care about ruling well and raising their son. Paul’s mentors, including Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat all are earnest loyal members of House Atreides. I feel like many modern stories would go right for the grimdark by having everyone be a jerk. But in Dune, there’s only one character who is obviously evil right from the start, and that’s Baron Harkonnen.

Of course, he is successful in his scheming against House Atreides, and quickly ends the Duke’s reign, forcing Paul and his mother to flee into the desert wilderness of Arrakis. And an inhospitable world it is–an endless sea of sand, populated by the monstrous worms that seethe beneath its surface.

Paul and Jessica soon make contact with the Fremen, the indigenous tribe who, thanks to Bene Gesserit of a bygone era, believe Paul to be a messianic figure. This is helped by the fact he has all sorts of strange second-sight abilities as a result of a Bene Gesserit breeding program designed to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, which means “the one who can be many places at once” or, in the language of fictional tropes, “the chosen one.”

Yes, this is a “our-hero-is-the-chosen-one-from-the-prohecy” story. Normally, I can’t stand those, but I’ll give Herbert credit, he manages to do it in a way that pretty much works. Part of that is just due to the obvious care and effort he put in to building every aspect of this world–each character, each faction, is carefully described and thought out, all with their own motives and plans. Herbert clearly put a lot of work into the worldbuilding here, which is maybe why there are so many scenes of Paul and Jessica having hallucinogenic experiences where they glimpse different possible futures–there are any number of ways this story could go at any moment.

Speaking of Jessica, I really liked her. She’s a good mother, a good wife, and a brilliant strategist and a genius at political maneuvering. Classic science fiction is not necessarily a genre where you find a lot of strong, believable female characters, but Jessica is certainly that.

Most of the characters are very good–in fact, if there’s a weak link, it’s Paul himself. His mind is so weird that he can be a little hard to relate to at times. I guess that’s the idea, since he has achieved some sort of near-omniscient consciousness.

It’s not news to observe that Paul is clearly modeled on T.E. Lawrence, an Englishman who led Bedouin guerrilla forces against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and who had quite a complex psyche himself. Dune is loaded with quasi-Islamic terms and concepts, and it seems quite likely that Herbert was influenced by Lawrence’s portrait of the culture depicted in his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (Paul Atreides is referenced as writing a book called “The Pillars of the Universe” in Dune.)

Lawrence was also the subject of the film Lawrence of Arabia, which was released to near-universal acclaim three years before Herbert published Dune. I can’t imagine it didn’t influence him. I even wonder if the idea of the effect spice has on people’s eye color was inspired by Peter O’Toole’s baby blues in the film. 

The big difference is that Paul’s revolution succeeds, and he ultimately brings both the House of Harkonnen and even the Emperor himself to their knees, forcing the Great Powers to bargain with him. T.E. Lawrence, um, didn’t. I think Lawrence’s story is actually more dramatic, but Herbert was telling a mythopoetic saga in the grand tradition of heroic legend. The Hero with a Thousand Faces can’t be overruled by the Politician with Only Two, even if that is more true to life.

Dune totally follows the path laid out in Joseph Campbell’s book. It’s practically the archetypical heroic myth. Small wonder the book has had such influence. The desert world, with its “spice” and its “sandcrawlers” and its “dew collectors.” Not to mention its quasi-religious order of people with superhuman powers… it all reminds me of something. Hmm, what could it be?

Yeah, the Tatooine portion of the original Star Wars has some serious overlap with Dune. I’ve even heard it said that the Krayt dragon skeleton C-3PO sees is meant to resemble a sandworm. I’m not so sure about that (worms wouldn’t have endoskeletons.), but there’s no doubt somebody had Dune on their mind while making Star Wars.

I’d argue that The Phantom Menace is also weirdly like Dune. It’s about a young ruler who loses their throne thanks to the machinations of a sinister trade guild, flees to a harsh desert world, develops a keen head for political and military maneuvering, and leads an army of indigenous warriors to take back their throne.  Yes, Padmé Amidala is the female Paul Atreides. They even have the same initials! And here they thought some kid who could drive fast cars was the Chosen One.

All right, I’ll quit re-litigating The Phantom Menace. (For now.) The point is, Dune had a massive influence on the world of science fiction and fantasy. It’s weird, but here at Ruined Chapel, we like weird. Like Paul Graham, we believe that good design is strange. This is why you can’t have strict rules for writing. As I discussed with Mark Paxson a while back, Dune breaks writing rules, and well it should, because it is in service of creating a memorable world and telling an interesting story.

Note this should not be confused with the 2005 film of the same name starring Matthew McConaughey, or the 1943 film starring Humphrey Bogart, or the 1995 remake of the same, or either of two Bollywood films.

Whew! That’s a lot of films named after the desert. But we are presently concerned with the one that stars Brooke Shields as a young heiress named Dale Gordon whose dying father asks her to race his custom sports car in the 1927 Trans-African Auto Race, composed of racers representing all the major European stereotypes–snooty French, goofy Brits, and of course, evil Germans.

But Dale has another problem: the stuffy upper-class twits who run the race won’t allow a woman to participate. So she disguises herself as a man right up to the starting gun. Not until she is safely off on the race does she remove her disguise.

Unfortunately, the desert which Dale has to cross is also the battlefield in a war between two Bedouin tribes. She and her two crewmen are kidnapped by a member of one tribe as she tries to take a shortcut, and dragged to his tent. She escapes from his clutches and wanders out into the desert, but is shortly recaptured.

One of the tribe leaders intends to force himself upon her, but he is stopped by his nephew, Sheikh Jafar, who is the leader of the tribe, I guess. It’s sort of unclear whether he or his uncle is really in charge. I guess Jafar is technically the boss, but he’s a young guy, and obviously he defers to his uncle’s wisdom and experience.

Uh, except… all his uncle wants to do is assault their new captive. Jafar is not okay with that, and so outmaneuvers his uncle by marrying Dale. However, she doesn’t want to marry him, and soon they are interrupted when an enemy tribe attacks the camp, using an armored car provided to them by the German racer.

Dale has sticks of dynamite in her car for some reason, and runs out in the middle of a machine-gun battle to place the sticks in the path of the enemy vehicle. This is miraculous enough, but she then runs back behind friendly lines, picks up a rifle and shoots the sand-colored sticks of dynamite, causing them to explode just as the car drives past!

If a script wants us to believe something like that, they need to establish that a character is an expert sharpshooter first. Even then, it’s a bit hard to believe. But I find it impossible to accept that someone could pick up a rifle they’d never fired before and make those kinds of shots.

Anyway, after fending off the attack, Dale has won the respect of the tribe, and she marries Jafar after all. Then, after a night of passion, she remembers that she came here to fulfill her dying father’s wish and win the stupid race, so she sneaks off to her car and drives off into the desert, accompanied by Cambridge, an Englishman and former member of the faculty at the university of the same name, who is now living among the Bedouin for some reason.

Things seem to be looking up, but then unfortunately Dale is once again kidnapped, this time by the chief of the other tribe.

Seriously? This is the third time in this movie that she gets kidnapped. This is lazy scriptwriting if ever I saw it.

Naturally, Jafar leads a party of war to raid the enemy village and get her back. After initially refusing, his uncle agrees to take his faction of the tribe along. Dale meanwhile fights back against her captors–she’s getting to be an old pro at fighting kidnappers–and so, as Jafar’s men attack them, the tribe decides to dispose of her, and obviously the most efficient way of doing that is to FEED HER TO THE LEOPARDS.

Yes, they have an execution pit, dug inside of a cave, with leopards in it. And there’s even a central sacrificial pillar and everything. Clearly, these desert nomads have not been wandering far if they have time to make an investment like this.

But Jafar arrives and rescues Dale from the leopard pit. His uncle perishes in the fighting, and I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for him?

So, Dale gets back into her car and rejoins the race. As fortune would have it, her shortcut was so much faster that even with all the delays, she’s back on track at the same time as the other drivers are closing in on the homestretch.

Naturally, it comes down to her vs. the evil German racer in a final dash for the finish line. It’s neck-and-neck when the German’s wheel pops off, and Dale pulls ahead.

Having fulfilled her father’s dying wish, Dale goes back to Jafar and rides off to live as his wife, thus ensuring that her entire plot arc is defined by men, lest anyone get concerned that she might be independent or something.

All right; I’m sorry. That’s awfully snarky, isn’t it? Look, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these plot elements–either the fulfilling her father’s dream, or the romance. It’s just… Dale doesn’t seem like a character. She seems like a plot device. Everything she does is reactive. It’s a little thing, but it would have been much more satisfying if Jafar had come to be with her at the end, rather than her going back to him.

Part of the issue, admittedly, is the acting. Brooke Shields “won” two Razzie awards for worst actress for this movie. Frankly, I think that’s a bit harsh. She’s actually decent in the first few scenes; it’s only once she gets to the desert that her performance starts to fall flat.

Brooke Shields is a good actress, and for the most part, the other performances are equally weak. (The exception is Sir John Mills as Cambridge.) So to me, that suggests this is on the director, Andrew McLaglen, more than the cast. Originally, Guy Hamilton, the director of several Bond flicks including Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, had been hired to direct. I suspect he would have been better. Hamilton’s sometimes campy humor, while in my opinion too over-the-top in the world of 007, would have been perfect for this movie.

Sahara sometimes seems almost like it’s going to be a comic adventure, but it never quite gets there. It’s missing something–that wink to the audience that great adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or the 1999 edition of The Mummy have.

So, how did I hear about this movie, and why am I talking about it?

I saw the poster on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and had to check it out. And while it was in many respects not nearly as good as it could have been, it did have some gorgeous desert scenes. I just cannot get enough of these barren landscapes. Brooke Shields is no Peter O’Toole, and Andrew McLaglen was definitely no David Lean, but even so there are are some shots in this movie that evoked the sweeping sandy expanse of Lawrence of Arabia. (There was one shot in particular that I’m pretty sure was a deliberate homage to that great desert epic.) And the music is by Ennio Morricone, so you know it’s good.

I’m normally against re-making films. (See my review of Tank Girl.) But this is a rare film that could use a remake. As John Huston–who would have been another good choice to direct this script–once said, the films that should really be remade are not the hits, but the ones that fail. There’s a lot of potential in this movie, but so much of it was wasted.

Of course, a remake should probably have a different title, since as we have seen, “Sahara” is overused. It needs to be something pulpy–how about Dale Gordon and the Great Trans-African Auto Race? Then get Rian Johnson to direct and Gal Gadot to star. You’re welcome, Hollywood. This one’s free, but any more ideas will cost you.

This is a collection of short speculative fiction stories that deal with complex concepts–the existence of God, the nature of reality, human relationships–as approached by everyday people. Goats has a knack for writing characters who are instantly relatable. Although this is in many ways a stylistic departure from his earlier books, which are primarily comic novels and crime thrillers, the thing they all have in common is the intelligent and humane voice of the narrator.

Even in “Snowlight,” which is one of my favorite short stories ever, and is probably the darkest one in the collection, the protagonist has a basic decency and pathos to him that makes the reader sympathetic, even when he does something that is objectively quite shocking. The characters always feel like humans–even when they’re not. There is a religious robot in one story, and a man who thinks everybody is a robot in another. Philosophy and humor are mixed frequently; as in the case of Zetoxis the philosopher, of whom it is said, “the wise man and the fool reside in the same body.”

Many of the stories suggest a moral or logical question for the reader to ponder. Some of them just let you look at the world in a different way through revolutionary technology, as in “Sentenced to Hard Empathy,” or “The Big Punch-Out,” the latter of which creates a dystopian world reminiscent of the imaginings of early 20th-century futurists. Sometimes this is blended with satire, most notably in “The Obscurators.”

The longest stories, “Alone” and “Fact of Existence” present concepts that could fill whole novels. “Alone” reminded me of John Brunner’s novel Total Eclipse with its depiction of being stranded on a desolate alien world. “Fact of Existence” is a fascinating exploration of consciousness and religion, in the context of a science-fiction mystery. This is everything that science fiction should be–a great story that gives the reader something to ponder. The whole collection is like that, as Goats riffs on the same themes from a variety of different perspectives.

The only problem I have with this book is a purely technical one specific to the Kindle version. It has no table of contents. That’s not a big deal in a novel or novella, but in an ebook of short stories, it’s a hassle to have to scroll through it to find the one you want. As a workaround, I bookmarked the start of each story. Yes, I’m lazy. What can I say?

Still, it’s a small price for being able to read these stories. And we are lucky to be able to read them, for as Goats explains in his afterword, all but “The Big Punch-Out” were rejected for publication. This lack of taste on the part of literary website editors is to our advantage, as these tales might have ended up scattered behind a Balkanized array of paywalls. But you can get them all, now, for $0.99. (Or if you don’t want to deal with the ToC issue alluded to above, it’s worth it to spring for the paperback version.)

I highly recommend this book. I could go on about all the reasons why, but it’s really best if you just go check it out and lose yourself in a world of madmen, robots, wanderers and philosophers, all with different ways of looking at the universe and its mysteries.