H.R.R. Gorman has a wonderful book review site I recently discovered. I urge my readers to check it out, because Gorman reviews all sorts of books, including lots of indie titles.
Gorman has also written a novel, American Chimera. I am reviewing it here, and you will note I am doing it in a slightly different style–that is, I am following the typical format Gorman uses for reviews. I’m doing this partly for fun and partly as a respectful tribute to what is quickly becoming a favorite book review site. If the author happens to read this, I want to make it clear that this is intended purely in the spirit of an homage from a fan.
On to the book itself.
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
Available for free at the author’s blog here.
And before we even dive in to the story, I have to pause to talk about the cover. What a masterful piece this! You know, perhaps, that I love yellow/gold on book covers, and combined with the lovely Art Deco aesthetic, it made me instantly interested. That this is a science-fiction book set in the future makes me like the retro-futuristic touch all the more. For that alone, this belongs to the canon of what I call early 21st-century techno-decadent art.
American Chimera is set in 2087 in the aftermath of a horrific war. It combines the elements of multiple genres, including sci-fi, horror, political thriller and a healthy dose of dark comedy. It is also told in an unusual style–much of the story comes in the form of the testimony from prisoners held at a secure government facility, relating their own perspectives on what happened as a result of a remarkable discovery a couple of them made one day.
Like all dystopian sci-fi, American Chimera uses its surreal premise to explore political and philosophical issues. There are dark themes woven throughout the story: prejudice, militarism, religion, climate change and more are all addressed in these pages. Most prominent of all are the ethics of experimentation on living beings: the central premise of the story has to do with bio-engineered super soldiers, in a world where populations are already suppressed through forced sterilizations. This book takes the reader to some dark, dark places.
But it’s never done in a heavy-handed way. The characters in this book, (with one minor exception) all feel like real people. Even the ones who appear at first impossible to relate to–from the seemingly-soulless government interrogator to the central character, who is the product of a perverse experiment–all become human and relatable as they tell their stories. At times, the book has a Rashomon-like quality, as the same events are told from different perspectives, revealing different facets and details.
The plot moves along nicely and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. There were a few sub-plots I wished could have been tied up more neatly, mostly because I loved the characters so much I wanted to hear more about what happened to them, but nevertheless, the overall story comes to a definite resolution.
Ah, now this is a feature of Gorman’s reviews that I don’t use: a numeric rating system. It would be a step too far to appropriate Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale. There’s a fine line between paying admiring homage and shameless copycattery, but that would cross it.
And yet… the form does demand a number be assigned, even though that’s not my usual style on this blog. I struggle to reduce my feelings for a book to quantitative terms. I would give both The King in Yellow and Right Ho, Jeeves five out of five stars or whatever, and yet this does not imply that I think anyone who enjoys the one would necessarily enjoy the other.
Besides, is there any such thing as a perfect book (5/5), or a perfectly imperfect book (0/5)? I had a few minor quibbles with American Chimera (see below)–what implications should that hold for its numerical score? While every single element in the book might not be exactly what I’d choose, the overall impression is of a magisterial, brilliant, thrilling and surprisingly poignant work of genius that quickly proved impossible to put down. What score, exactly, reflects that?
Enough of this navel-gazing! “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius said. As a special, one-night-only event–my rating, in classically Gambrellian terms:
The story begins with two poor rural people discovering a mysterious egg that has fallen out of the back of a truck. The couple, Brett and Janie, are under the influence of some mind-altering substances, and suppose that what they’ve found is a dragon’s egg. However, it soon hatches, revealing not a dragon, but a gigantic spider–a spider that wails like a human baby.
Desperate for help, they take the creature to the local vet, who, against her better judgment, helps them treat the being they ultimately name Daenerys–Dani, for short.
Dani soon makes it clear that she has the mind of a human girl trapped inside the body of a spider. Brett and Janie do their best to raise her by painstakingly convincing the local community of her friendliness. It helps that Dani is a sweet, good-natured soul–but even that doesn’t win over everyone, such as the local preacher.
All this is told through the framing device of a government interrogator, bringing each of the witnesses in for questioning at a remote government prison in Nevada. Brett, Janie, the veterinarian, the preacher, Dani’s best friend Stacy and more are all questioned about how this remarkable series of events occurred.
It’s a critical problem, because the United States has recently emerged from a war known as the Chimera War, in which North Korea created monstrous ape-like chimera super soldiers. The war ended with a treaty banning such abominations, but of course–as always happens–governments carried out such research anyway. After all, there could always be a “chimera gap.” However, if such research became widely known, it would inevitably spark another war.
What stuck out to me most is how real the characters are. Everyone feels so believable and so interesting. And, with a few exceptions, most of them are basically good people. Sometimes they do awful things, but it feels like they are doing them because this monstrous system they are in forces them to do it.
The best illustration I can think of is a scene where Stacy’s aunt Jen is returning home from the war. Stacy and Dani have gone to greet her, but when Jen sees the spider-girl, she is horrified; knowing it’s a chimera, and realizing that after all she suffered, all her comrades died for, their own government has cynically betrayed everything they thought they were fighting for.
What’s astonishing about this part is how you can empathize with both sides–Dani, who is after all just a normal person trapped in a fiendish form, feels bad that she’s perceived as a monster. And yet it makes sense Jen would react the way she does.
All the characters are like this, leading to a world that feels incredibly well-realized and believable.
Well, I should say almost all the characters. There’s one fairly minor character, a football player at Dani and Stacy’s high school, who is kind of flat.
I understand why he’s in the story, because on his own, he’s quite funny in a sad sort of way. He’s a completely self-absorbed narcissist who can’t even manage to reveal useful information when subjected to interrogation, simply because he’s so oblivious to anything outside himself. And there’s no question, many of his lines are grimly amusing.
It’s just that he feels like a caricature. An entertaining caricature, to be sure, but in a book otherwise populated by real people, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
That’s one of two minor criticisms. The other is that the ending–while extremely effective and generally satisfying–felt a little bit rushed and didn’t tie-up all the other characters arcs as much as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like this doesn’t come to a satisfying end, because it absolutely does, but, because all the characters were so good, I would have liked to hear more from them. But maybe that would be true no matter how long the book was.
It’s funny–I’ve written quite a bit here, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes this book so interesting. There are so many layers, I feel like I could write a whole review focusing on just one aspect of it. So many deep themes, so little time.
It’s a dark, disturbing and violent book. Not for the faint of heart, as the disclaimer at the beginning makes clear. And yet, at the same time, I think everyone should give it a try. This is one of those supremely strange but incredibly good books you find sometimes, like The Master and Margarita or Hyperlink from Hell. Above all, don’t be put off just because one character is a giant spider. I am a card-carrying arachnophobe myself, but even I ended up rooting for Dani.
And the book is free to read on the author’s blog! Let me repeat: free! Can anyone doubt the sheer love of writing an author must have, to weave such a magnificent tale and put it out into the world for free? Oh, read it already, my friends! For this is the art of storytelling in its purest form, and should not go unrecognized. If you like sci-fi, or dystopias, or horror, or political thrillers, or just plain good fiction, please read American Chimera.