Note the title of this post does not include the word “review.” This isn’t a review in the typical sense. It’s long and rambling, even by my standards. But I promised Trent Lewin that I would share my thoughts on it when I finally saw it. (You can read Trent’s take here.) So, here goes.

The Book

I reviewed the book Dune here, on what was originally going to be the release date for the movie. I won’t bother rehashing everything I said there. Instead, I’ll just say that Frank Herbert went to write an article about sand dunes in Oregon, got fascinated with ecology and messianic leaders, and did a bunch of magic mushrooms. The resulting book is about what you would expect. It is interesting, multifaceted, and more than a bit bizarre. In some superficial ways, it’s just a good ol’ fashioned Sword and Planet adventure, with a hero who defeats his enemies, claims his birthright, and marries a princess… but if you’re expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn, your reaction is likely to be “WTF did I just read?”

Actually, that will probably be your reaction no matter what. It was mine, and I even (mostly) liked the book. It’s different, and I respect that. My biggest problem with the book is also a problem with the movie, so I’ll hold off on discussing that until later.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

In the early 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt the book into an epic film. The project never got off the ground, but did result in a sprawling collection of interesting storyboards and concept art, which you can see here. The artists appear to have taken the magic mushroom elements and run with them. The project spawned a documentary, which I have not seen, but which Josh Sawyer describes the ending of as follows:

“Alejandro says that in the end the actual making of the film would have ruined it, because it was absolutely perfect in his mind.”

Remember this.

Lynch’s Dune

After Jodorowsky’s attempt failed, Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights, and hired David Lynch to direct an adaptation, released in 1984. This film is a cult classic, but in my opinion, it’s a mess. The worst part is the constant voice-overs used to convey characters’ thoughts. This is in keeping with Herbert’s writing style, but it just goes to show you what worked on the page won’t work in a movie.

All that said, the film does have a unique and unsettling aesthetic, which is probably the most essential quality for any Dune adaptation. There’s no doubt Lynch had a vision, though it was a weird and probably not mass-marketable one. Not to mention that the special FX of the ’80s were just not up to creating the stuff he was trying to portray.

Villeneuve‘s Dune 

Psych! First, I have to talk about some other Villeneuve movies. This is the third one of his I’ve seen, the others being Arrival, which was pretty good, and Blade Runner 2049, which was turgid. It’s hard to make something cyberpunk that I don’t like, and yet 2049 managed to do it. So, I can’t say I was super-optimistic going into Dune.

But I watched it. I even got the “limited edition pain box” version, because, well, how could I not, with a name like that?

So what is the deal with this movie? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Come to that, what is it supposed to do?

Uh oh. It looks like we’ve run into a problem before we’ve even started. We can’t analyze Dune without understanding what a movie adaptation should be doing. So I guess more work is needed. Hold the phone, everybody!

Lean’s Dune?

Before Lynch, even before Jodorowsky, Sir David Lean was offered a chance at directing Dune, but he turned it down.

I sort of understand this, because Lean wasn’t a science fiction guy. But nevertheless, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Because Lean was the director most qualified to direct Dune. Of course, I should stipulate that he would need his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.

Lean and Bolt created one of the greatest desert epics ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. If you read my review of the Dune novel above, you know my thoughts on Lawrence‘s influence on the entire Dune universe as Herbert conceived it. It’s profound. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible adaptation of an extremely complex book, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, it’s pretty much the gold standard by which I judge all other cinematic adaptations.

It’s a completely faithful adaptation, but not in the sense that Bolt took every single thing in the book and included it in his script. That would be impossible. Rather, it’s faithful in the sense that it captures everything Lawrence records in his memoir: his initial hopes for a grand future for the Arab revolt, his own conflicted psychological turmoil, and his ultimate disillusionment at the cynical manipulation of himself and the men he led by the generals and politicians of the Great Powers. You feel all of it in the final scene as the broken Lawrence rides off to return to England, a motorcycle engine growling ominously nearby as the screen fades to black.

Ultimately, Lawrence of Arabia is about how an introverted, troubled, brilliant officer tried to accomplish something great by playing the role of a leader that deep down, he knew he never could be. And Dune, as a series, is about much the same thing. Frank Herbert said:

“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

“Lawrence of Arabia” was a hero. “Paul Muad’dib,” the “Kwisatz Haderach,” is a hero. But at some level, T.E. Lawrence and Paul Atreides know, more than anyone else, that it’s just a role; a story created to fit a preconceived pattern in the minds of the masses.

In a sense, Dune itself is an adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia, just in space, with psychic witches and sandworms.

On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Okay, I’m cheating now. That’s a book by Thomas Carlyle, which I have not read, although my understanding is it’s a series of essays about historical figures like Cromwell, Napoleon, etc. who rose to power. I suppose I should have picked a more creative title for this section, but what I actually want to talk about is hero-worship.

It so happens I’m reading Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic by George MacCaulay Trevelyan at the moment. It’s pretty much the definition of a hagiography, as Trevelyan makes no effort whatsoever to hide his blind adoration of Garibaldi.

Garibaldi is an interesting figure, with his own parallels to Paul Atreides. He too led a guerrilla war that battled great dynasties and inspired an impressive cult following in England with tales of his heroics. Indeed, he is one of those romantic figures of Mediterranean politics that should, I think, inform any interpretation of Dune, because Dune is heavily influenced by a powerful strain of Machiavellian political theory in its depiction of warring aristocratic houses and shifting family alliances.

Really, almost everything in Dune has some analogue in actual, if mostly forgotten history; which I suspect is why its world is one that so many people get absorbed in. It has echoes of things dimly remembered, or not even remembered, but somehow with a feeling of eminent plausibility, like having a dream that you think you’ve had before.

Villeneuve‘s Dune (For Real This Time)

Having established all that, we are now finally prepared to attack the question of whether the new Dune movie is any good or not. The answer will ride on whether or not it conveys the theme and mood of its source material.

The answer is… well, sorta.

Dune gets most of the little things right. The art direction is excellent. The acting is good. The atmosphere generally feels alien. Almost everything shown is a scene depicted in the book. Not only does it copy the things I liked about the book, but it even conveys the things I didn’t like. One of these is that I find Paul unlikable in the book, and I find him unlikable in the movies. Now, given the Herbert quote above, I think that may be deliberate. Because Paul isn’t a hero, but everybody worships him as such, you come away with the feeling that he’s a fraud. In every depiction, Leto is so much better and more interesting, and in both book and film, I feel like the story starts running out of steam at the point where he dies.

That makes the story weaker in my opinion, but I’m willing to give the movie a pass on this since I have the same problem with the book.

More significantly, though, there are places where Dune still feels like a product of the cinematic fads of the 2020s. One example is the damned washed-out lens filter. The scene that highlights this most is when Duke Leto and Gurney Halleck are looking over their newly-acquired holdings on Arrakis. Halleck tells Leto the sun is getting too high, and they can’t stay out. And sure, you can see there’s some sun, and imagine it’s probably hot.

But you don’t feel the heat. You don’t viscerally sense the sun beating down on you. In Lawrence of Arabia, you do.

This is the feeling I had throughout the movie. It’s good, it’s solid, but it’s also just not quite willing to take that extra step that propels it into timelessness. And timelessness is a very important quality for Dune.

If there’s one place where Lynch’s Dune has an advantage, it’s that the aesthetic is so weird it creates a uniquely alien vibe that really does convey the feeling that you’re in another world. I’m not saying that it’s a better film. It’s seriously not; it’s kind of a 1980s cheesefest if I’m being honest. But I am saying, Dune, more than most films, is one where a sense of aesthetics is incredibly important.

This is probably a little bit harsh on my part, I’ll admit. Every movie is of course a product of its time. Even Lawrence of Arabia, for as well as it holds up overall, has a few elements that date it as a 1960s Epic Motion Picture, like Maurice Jarre’s occasionally over-the-top soundtrack. If the problem could be reduced to a matter of lens filters, I wouldn’t complain about it. (Much.)

No, the problem here goes even deeper. And it goes right to the heart of what the core appeal of Dune is.

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”

The universe of Dune is effectively a post-Enlightenment society. It’s not a coincidence that much of the book draws inspiration from pre-Enlightenment societies. In fact, the central idea of Dune is the rejection of rationality, from the Butlerian Jihad that destroyed Artificial Intelligences to the heavy emphasis on mind-altering drugs and visions. There is no evidence of Enlightenment concepts like “constitutional government” or “individual liberty.”

In my opinion, this is why the whole thing feels so weird and foreign. We are a society based on Reason, and on encountering a society that is not based on Reason, but on instinct, superstition, heredity and above all else, power, we feel like we have stepped into another universe altogether. (Although, if you think about it, considering the Enlightenment began in the 16th century, such societies are actually the norm, and we are the exception.)

This comes through very clearly in the book, which is one reason there are things in the book that, to be blunt, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.  They’re not supposed to. Remember: magic mushrooms.

This movie, although it has no shortage of visions, hallucinations and other weirdness, doesn’t convey that. I’m not sure exactly why. Arrival did a good job of messing with the viewer’s mind to the point that if you want to understand the plot, you have to perceive time as a Möbius strip, which is also basically the state Paul is in by the time he meets the Fremen. Yet, I never got that feeling of otherworldly eeriness that’s so integral to the Dune experience.

Actually, no. There was one scene where I did get it. The creepy chant that plays while the Sardaukar soldiers are gearing up to attack Arrakis gave me the uncanny feeling of witnessing something completely alien to my own perception of reality. I liked that scene a lot.

Otherwise, though… it was an unremarkable movie. Not bad by any means, and with some enjoyable visuals and interesting shots. It just felt hollow and meaningless, which is in a way tragic because it tried so hard to be faithful to its source material that it lacked the boldness to do something truly unusual… which, paradoxically, is exactly what made its source material good to begin with.

But recall the words of Jodorowsky paraphrased above. Perhaps there can never be a perfect Dune adaptation because the universe of Dune can only be formed in the mind of the reader. And for every reader, it compiles slightly differently, as a unique and fragile structure, and to try and preserve or share this creation is a fool’s errand.

If you’re like me, you know C.S. Lewis mainly as “that guy who wrote the Narnia books.” Most people probably remember them fondly from childhood. I was unusual (what else is new?) in that I really didn’t care for them. I was about nine years old and I couldn’t stand The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I thought it was just weird. My dad agreed with me; I remember him saying that the author of these books “must have been on drugs.” (My dad has never been a big fan of the fantasy genre.)

But I was interested to learn recently that Lewis had also written science fiction. That Hideous Strength is the third book in his “Space Trilogy,” but in the foreword Lewis promises that it can be read without reading the other two books. I have chosen to test this assertion, for reasons which I hope will become apparent.

And, of course, this is Vintage Science Fiction Month! What a perfect excuse to review a relatively obscure book by a relatively famous author. I hope that if nothing else it piques your curiosity. If you’re new to this site, please forgive my rather long-winded reviewing style; I tend to go on at length about books that I find interesting. And I’m afraid I’m usually unable to refrain from discussing plot spoilers. Normally I don’t feel so bad about that, since I’m reviewing older, classic books, but since you may not have read this one before, please be forewarned that I’ll be giving away the ending.

That Hideous Strength follows a couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in Edgestow, England. He has been busy with college business, and Jane has a sense that she and her husband are drifting apart, as he spends nearly all his time on his work. Jane is also troubled by strange dreams, such as a vision of the disembodied head of a recently-guillotined criminal named Alcasan.

The college business that Mark is involved with has to do with a scientific outfit called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., which is in the process of purchasing land from Bracton College. N.I.C.E. is a prestigious and powerful body of scientists, and Mark is delighted when a colleague recommends him for a job there. Mark eagerly goes to the N.I.C.E. headquarters in Belbury.

Meanwhile, Jane goes to a town called St. Anne’s seeking treatment for her dreams. However, she is told that her dreams are in fact visions of real events, and that she is a seer. The people at St. Anne’s are a mysterious and mystical bunch, whose chief is a man called “Mr. Fisher-King” and who has a wound in his foot.

This is a reference to the Fisher King of Arthurian legend. The whole St. Anne’s group is very much associated with the legends of King Arthur and his court. Mr. Fisher-King, whose real name turns out to be “Ransom,” is himself the “Pendragon,” which, if you are familiar with Arthurian legend, effectively means belonging to the family of King Arthur.

I, by the way, am not really familiar with Arthurian legend, but I got something of a crash course in it by reading this book. Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, so I guess he’s a good source.

Anyway, if you think that’s weird, wait until you find out what’s happening at Belbury. In addition to the office political jockeying that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about academia, the N.I.C.E. has its own private police force, headed up by Major Fairy Hardcastle. We have to pause to talk about Miss Hardcastle.

On the one hand, she’s clearly meant to represent a type of “modern” woman that Lewis dislikes. She smokes, she swears, and she even <gasp!> sits with her legs uncrossed. I think just by telling us these facts, Lewis felt he had adequately communicated that she is a Bad Woman.

So, not a whole lot of feminism going on here. On the other hand, I have to give Lewis some credit because she’s probably my favorite character in the whole thing. I don’t mean she’s likable. Not at all. She’s unquestionably a villain, as shown by the sadistic pleasure she takes in tormenting captives brought in by the N.I.C.E. police. But she’s memorable. It’s the same way Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but who could deny he’s the most iconic character to come out of Star Wars?

“The Fairy,” as she is sometimes called, also has most of the best lines. Like this, when she’s ordering Mark to write newspaper articles to polish N.I.C.E.’s image, and he wonders if they’re to appear in the Right or the Left-wing papers:

“‘Both, honey, both,’ said Miss Hardcastle. ‘Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.'”

She has a coarse, slangy way of speaking that, again, I think Lewis meant to show how evil she is, but this makes her scenes some of the most vibrant, especially the way Hardcastle’s bluntness contrasts with Mr. Wither, the Deputy Director of N.I.C.E., who speaks in a mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy fashion, always trying to avoid committing himself too far to anything.

To get back to the synopsis, Mark gradually realizes that he is being manipulated and coerced into staying at N.I.C.E. This is not difficult, as Mark is not a steadfast or resolute type, and his cravenness makes him easy for them to play upon.

The book bounces back and forth between Jane at St. Anne’s, where Ransom and his assistants are interpreting her visions to discover what their enemies are doing, and Belbury, where the scientists of N.I.C.E. are shown engaging in increasingly depraved practices as part of their plot to conquer the world.

Ultimately, it comes out that both groups are attempting to capture the re-awakened wizard Merlin. The land that N.I.C.E. was buying at the beginning of the book housed his resting place where, (rather like Cthulhu), he has lain in a state of suspended animation, waiting until the time is right to rise again. That time comes about halfway through the book, and from there, the rival groups are fighting to recruit him.

This is where I question what Lewis said about it not being necessary to read the other books in the series. The story gets seriously bizarre at this point, bringing up stuff that Ransom did on other planets, and something called “eldila” that are basically angels and devils. Also, there’s a bear named Mr. Bultitude. I hadn’t thought about it for decades, but after reading the third act of this, what my father jokingly suggested about Lewis’s use of drugs seemed quite plausible.

The ending is a mess. Merlin works his magic during a banquet scene at Belbury that feels incongruously comical. It’s not quite Gussie Fink-Nottle at the Market Snodsbury prize-giving, but it’s close. And while that works in a light comedy, here it’s just… odd. It feels unsatisfying and anti-climactic. I guess the best way to say it is that Merlin is very deus ex machina.

And speaking of Deus Ex… well, before that, here’s a bit of dialogue from some N.I.C.E. personnel:

“And so,” said Straik, “the lessons you learned at your mother’s knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment.”
“God?” said Mark. “How does He come into it? I don’t believe in God.”
“But, my friend,” said Filostrato, “does it follow that because there was no God in the past there will be no God also in the future?”
“Don’t you see,” said Straik, “that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first sketch of the real God. It is a man–or a being made by man–who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever.”

And here’s the last line of the intro to the 2000 video game, Deus Ex:

We’ve had to endure much you and I, but soon, there will be order again. A new age! Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill; soon that city will be a reality, and we will be crowned its kings. Or better than kings… Gods!

This isn’t just some freak coincidence, either. Both That Hideous Strength and Deus Ex are about evil, quasi-mystical conspiracies by shadowy organizations of madmen bent on achieving superhuman powers.

More fun facts: Deus Ex includes multiple passages from G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday. A contemporary reviewer for the Manchester Evening News wrote that

“In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, [That Hideous Strength] rather resembles G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday.’ Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.”

Indeed, a major focus of the book is how the scientists at Belbury, mad with power, are trying to create a new, scientifically efficient world. For example, they see World War II as an excellent blueprint to follow:

“[E]very advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required. A large, unintelligent population is now becoming a deadweight. The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad: it was the superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.” 

And their schemes aren’t confined to massive wars of annihilation. They’re out to remake every aspect of life. As one of them says, even the trees are going to have to go:

“At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently, we find a chemical substitute. And then, why *any* natural trees? I foresee nothing but the *art* tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
“Do you mean,” put in a man called Gould, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
“Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.”
“I wonder what the birds will make of it.”
“I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
“It sounds,” said Mark. “like abolishing pretty well all organic life.”
“And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, ‘Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,’ and then drop it?”

Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis clearly loved the folkish and organic, and hated the mechanical and the industrial. Speaking of Tolkien, there are also references in the book to “Numinor,” which, Lewis mentions in the foreword, will be discussed further in a forthcoming manuscript by Tolkien. (Does anyone know if that ever got published? ;))

The Manchester Evening News reviewer, though generally favorable about the book, agrees with me on the ending, writing:

The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed.

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.

Even this kind of understates it, in my opinion. The book would have been more satisfying if God Himself appeared and said, “I condemn all you evildoers of Belbury to eternal Hellfire.” That might have been predictable, but it would feel less random and bizarre than all this rigmarole about Merlin.

I remember reading once that Frank Herbert said of his novel Dune that the book had many layers, such that the reader could re-read it multiple times and each time find a different layer to follow. I think the same could be said of That Hideous Strength. There are at least three different threads to it:

  • Mark and Jane trying to save their failing marriage.
  • N.I.C.E.’s conspiracy to create a scientistic dystopia.
  • Whatever this stuff about Merlin is.

The first two layers fit together nicely. The third feels like it’s part of some other book and clumsily tacked on.

I’m serious, there are parts of this book where I have no idea what is even happening. Some of the visions Jane has towards the end are just too bizarre, and I have trouble understanding what they’re supposed to mean. There’s clearly some sort of symbolism going on, but it’s over my head.

On a more basic level, I just didn’t feel that Mark had grown enough over the course of the story to deserve Jane. Yes, he kind of redeems himself, in that he’s not the complete wimp he was at the beginning, but he’s still far from a truly brave or heroic character.

Actually, maybe that’s what the book is really lacking: an actual hero; someone who counter-balances the gleeful villainy of Miss Hardcastle & coMerlin isn’t one; he’s just a plot device. Ransom is implied to be heroic, but he never really does anything; just gives speeches. Mark is right out. Jane seems like she could be heroic, but she never gets much of a chance. The most heroic character is Mr. Bultitude. Yes, that’s right: the bear.

The result is that the ultimate victory never feels earned. The show just goes on until the climax, when everyone transforms into who they’re supposed to be, like a bloody harlequinade.

I’ve been withholding some information from you, though. Our reviewer from the Manchester Evening News is not just some random critic. He’s George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame. The review was written in 1945, when Orwell had just begun work on what would become the quintessential dystopian novel. I wonder if That Hideous Strength influenced him at all. Some of the interrogation scenes reminded me of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, I guess the use of the acronym N.I.C.E. to describe the malevolent organization is itself what would come to be called an “Orwellian” phrase.

It’s surprising to me how positive Orwell’s review is, and how many similarities there are between Nineteen Eighty-Four and That Hideous Strength. After all, Lewis was a Christian conservative and Orwell was an atheist socialist. But clearly, both of them must have seen some of the same trends in the world they lived in. Namely, the rise of what James Burnham called “the managerial class.”

On balance, I’m with Orwell that the book would have been stronger if the supernatural element were toned down. I wouldn’t be in favor of removing it entirely, but I’d have liked it better as a subtle thing, lurking in the background.

Still, there are some effective occult horror scenes in here. Like this description of the art that is used to gradually indoctrinate people into the inner-circle of N.I.C.E:

There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel the hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried.

Isn’t that creepy? I like this much better than if it had just been a scene of something mindlessly horrific. It’s just a touch off, and so it sticks with you more.

Okay, now we come to the big question, which I’ve been putting off as long as I can: is this book any good or not?

Well… it’s a mixed bag. A seriously mixed bag. Apart from the supernatural stuff and Arthurian legendry that just doesn’t fit with the rest, there are also some really slow stretches. There were parts that were just one committee meeting after another. This is probably an accurate depiction of an academic institute, but it doesn’t make it any more entertaining to read.

But then there are other things that seem strikingly fresh. Indeed, some scenes hit harder than most modern dystopias do. Also, while he seems like he wandered in from Narnia, I really do like some of the parts about Mr. Bultitude. Lewis tries to write him as a truly non-human character, with a whole way of perceiving the world that is unlike our own, but with which the reader can still empathize. I liked that.

And of course, Fairy Hardcastle. Everyone should read this just for the Fairy alone. Of course, if that actually happens and she becomes popular enough, the next thing we know, she’ll be getting her own spinoff prequel movie series starring Emma Stone. Oh, well; it’s just a chance we’ll have to take.

Like a lot of old sci-fi books, this didn’t strike me as an outstanding book, and at times it’s slow moving and old-fashioned. But also like a lot of old sci-fi books, it does contain plenty of interesting ideas for the reader to chew on. I can understand both why someone might love this book and why they might hate it, but either way, I think it’s worth reading.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

One thing that has flummoxed me in writing this review is that I don’t know how well known this show is. It has cult status in some circles, but is unknown in others. It only ran for two seasons, and the second season is so wildly different from the first it may as well have been a different series. As a result, I’m not sure how much background material readers may require. Briefly: it was a 1970s show based on a 1920s sci-fi adventure novella, about an astronaut, Buck Rogers, (Gil Gerard) who is transported 500 years into the future. There, he joins the Earth Defense Directorate, led by Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor) and under the direct command of Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and they have various space-faring adventures.

The show is incredibly cheesy, and generally, the best episodes are the ones where they camp it up to the max. Recurring villain Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) was the best at this, but alas, she’s not in this episode.

Buck and Wilma have gone to Theta Station to repair their ambuquad. (Which sounds even lamer than going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters.) But they scarcely have arrived when another ship comes in. A derelict vessel called the IS Demeter collides with the station. All the crew aboard appear to be dead of a virus called EL-7, and the authorities on the station declare a quarantine so Buck and Wilma are unable to leave.

But Buck and Wilma aren’t convinced that’s really what’s going on. And the station’s medical officer has his doubts as well. He tells Buck that the crew of the Demeter doesn’t appear to be dead. Not that they’re alive either; but rather that the life force has been drained from them.

It all gives Wilma the creeps. As she tells Buck, while they were searching through the Demeter, “for the first time in my life, I could feel Death as a tangible presence.”

Buck learns from Dr. Huer that the Demeter had been carrying a passenger, a bounty hunter named Helsin, who had been trying to track down the thing that killed his family; a monster known as a “Vorvon.”

Buck finds security footage from Helsin’s room, which clearly shows him being attacked by some sort of invisible force.  Soon after, Buck is attacked by the undead crew of the Demeter, during which the Vorvon reveals itself to him. He is able to ward it off, but Theta Station’s commander still refuses to believe him or Wilma. Buck realizes the Vorvon will need to steal his ship to escape the station, and so rigs its autopilot to fly into a nearby star.

Meanwhile, the Vorvon appears again to Wilma, and explains that she is the only one he wants. She surrenders herself to him, on the condition that he not harm Buck or the others. Under the Vorvon’s control, she goes to Buck’s room, with the intention of feeding on him, but Buck fends her off.

Wilma and the Vorvon then leave aboard the ship Buck reprogrammed. Buck gives chase in a fighter from the station. When the ship goes through the Stargate and emerges in front of a blazing sun, the Vorvon disintegrates, freeing Wilma from his spell and enabling her to escape with Buck. All the Vorvon’s victims return to life upon his demise, and in the end the only casualty was a houseplant Buck left in the care of Dr. Huer.

This is generally one of the better episodes of this series. It ought to be, since the plot is cribbed from Stoker. So cribbed, in fact, that it completely messes up the character of Colonel Deering. She’s a space colonel! It makes no sense for her to be shivering and screaming like a frightened Victorian maiden. Sure, the by-the-numbers vampire plot calls for a screaming maiden, but it really feels out of character for Wilma. I know, I know; I really do sound like Comic Book Guy.

The other thing that annoys me about this show is that they had a perfect actor to play a Van Helsing type of character in Tim O’Connor. I’ve only seen O’Connor on this show and in a few episodes of the Wonder Woman TV series, but he’s really good in both parts. He had a melancholy gravitas to him, that made him seem very warm, yet authoritative.

But of course, they waste him on some stupid comic relief subplot where he’s supposed to be taking care of a plant Buck left him, and failing at it.

This episode came out the year after the movie Alien, and I strongly suspect they were trying to cash in on the popularity of that film’s combination of horror and sci-fi. And it might have worked too, if they had remembered who their characters were. Wilma Deering was normally much closer to Ellen Ripley than Mina Harker anyway, so had they simply made her act like it, the episode could have been really good. Actually, if the whole series had just been Wilma Deering in the 25th Century, having adventures under the command of Dr. Huer, it would have been a better show altogether.

But, anyway! You are here to learn about the continuing popularity of the vampire myth, not read my Wilma Deering fanfiction. And what does it say about the vampire myth that it is so adaptable? We’ve already seen it go from foggy Victorian England, to the swamps of New Orleans, to the deserts of New Mexico, and now to outer space in the 25th century. It is nothing if not versatile.

What does this mean? Is it simply that the plot of “a monster arrives and messes things up” is infinitely malleable? What does it say about us?

You might well say I’m overthinking this. And I undoubtedly am. What is a blog for, if not for overthinking? Perhaps it is just a good story, and nothing more needs to be said.

Well, maybe so, maybe so… but, like a cynical detective in a pulp mystery, I narrow my eyes behind my dark glasses, clench a cigarette between my teeth, and growl, “I don’t like it… it’s too simple. Too easy. There is something bigger going on here, but I can’t put all the pieces together yet. Come on, Jenkins; let’s get back to the lab and see if those eggheads have dug up anything.”

Or something like that. Next week, we will post guards at every door, assemble all the guests in the drawing room, and see what we can make of it all.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a fast-paced thriller. It starts out as a police procedural muder mystery set in the near future, when technology has begun to dominate our lives even more than it does today; a world where the sky is thick with drones and almost all cars are operated by AI.

Officer Dan Harper and his partner Domingo “Dom” Delgado are investigating a body found at an abandoned quarry. Despite all their high-tech police gadgetry, they are unable to ID the victim, even with the help of Dan’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Natasha Hendrickson, a forensic pathologist.

Returning to the crime scene, Dan and Dom find themselves in a shootout with a gang of mysterious thugs who seem to appear out of nowhere. After sustaining injuries in the fight, the two officers are sent to the hospital. However, another attack, this time by a huge drone gunship, makes them realize that they have stumbled on to something big.

From there begins a globe-trotting adventure in which the two officers flee from their mysterious pursuers while trying to figure out who is behind it all. Gradually, they uncover an incredible conspiracy and a powerful technology that is controlled by power-hungry maniacs.

The book is gripping and suspenseful. I won’t give away too much about the technology, but let’s just say that the nature of it means nowhere is truly safe. The action scenes are frequent and thrilling, but there is also plenty of time for character development, especially when Dan and Natasha are forced to work together again.

Lurking underneath all the shootouts and chases, though, is a thought-provoking take on how technology changes us, and changes society. The surveillance state it has created, the way we’ve become dependent upon it for almsot everything, and most of all how its unforeseen consequences can shape our very minds. This is a thriller that leaves you with things to ponder after you close the book.

In summary, it’s really, really good. The blending of old-fashioned police work with advanced technology reminded me of one of my favorite mystery novels, Surreality, and the plot is full of twists and turns. It’s a longish book, but I quickly found I couldn’t put it down. It mixes philosophical musings on scientific ethics with pulse-pounding action very nicely.

Pick it up. Heck, maybe even go ahead and get the paperback version… you’ll understand why after you read it. 🙂

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a deeply strange book. It is set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire still exists, and has evolved into a starfaring civilization. There is also a strong mystical element involving something called the Godstream, which is evidently some powerful, magical energy which grants great power.

And of course, as in the original Roman Empire, there are political machinations aplenty as various noblemen and women scheme for power. There are betrayals heaped upon betrayals, and ever-shifting alliances.

The first half of the book I admit was pretty dense, with lots of world-building I found hard to understand. It may just be my own literal mindedness; but I initially struggled to form a clear picture of what was happening. I did get strong Dune vibes, though, which is on balance a good thing. (Maybe with the exception of imitating Frank Herbert’s technique of frequent italicized thoughts to deliver exposition. But hey, if it worked for Herbert, it can’t be all bad.)

The second half of the book turned into more of a classic adventure type story. If not for the occasional references to philosophy and mysticism, I practically would have thought I was reading a Henry Vogel novel. There is a brave hero fleeing from two competing groups of villains, a beautiful slave woman he rescues in the process, and a wild battle in a gladiatorial arena.

This gladiator scene was the highlight of the book for me. The star is the gladiator Deimos. It’s the only chapter he’s in out of the entire book, but he has a complete story arc in that one chapter.

After that, there’s more mysticism, although it seems less esoteric this time, and more intrigue, back-stabbing, and a final battle. The ending feels satisfying, even though there were still some things I didn’t fully grok.

What to make of this book? Well, at times it was heavy-going. Partly, that’s because of all the Latin terms the author uses to create the setting. I liked this, but at the same time, it made it hard to keep track of who was who. Those more familiar with Roman naming customs may not find this to be a problem.

Then there’s also the mysticism element. I think the author was trying to make a point about philosophy, or maybe even about the nature of divinity, but I admit I couldn’t tell what it was. Again, that might be indicative of my own lack of understanding rather than a problem with the book.

Overall, I found it a tough but ultimately rewarding read. If you like deep sci-fi, with some adventure elements thrown in, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a classic space-opera style adventure. The protagonist, a starfarer or “starfer” named Riel Dunbar finds himself with a night of leave on his homeworld of Isvalar, a world home to an active nightlife. He meets up with another starfer, an adventurous soul named Cera Marn, and is quickly swept up with the roguish Marn into one wild escapade after another.

Basically, if you’ve enjoyed the other Litka books I’ve reviewed, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this one. There are fights with gangs of thugs reminiscent of Keiree, and Marn herself reminded me more than a little of Ren Loh, the daring, often inconsiderate and rebellious noblewoman from Beneath the Lanterns. She even uses Loh’s signature line, “Pff!” when dismissing our more risk-averse protagonist’s concerns. And of course, against his better judgment, he goes along with her. I can’t blame him; I’d do the same.

At times, I found the action a little hard to follow. There are so many new worlds, characters, and technologies packed into such a short book that it made my head spin a bit. But, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the overall tale. I liked Marn a lot, and she’s really what makes this story flow. Even if she turns out to be not quite what she appeared at first, I found her an entertaining character.

This is a novella, originally published on Kindle Vella, and the ending leaves room for plenty more adventures. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the world Litka has created here, with its inter-gang turf wars and neuro-blade fights. It’s just a good old fashioned throwback to Golden Age sci-fi.

[Audio version of this post available here.]

This is a science fiction adventure story, but not the sort that Vogel usually writes. Most of his books, such as his Scout series, feature upstanding, chivalrous heroes on noble adventures. Fortune’s Fool is different. It’s darker and grittier, and less romantic. (In the literary sense.) Whereas most of Vogel’s protagonists are honorable, duty-bound types, Mark Fortune is more of an anti-hero. Think James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or Han Solo early on, before his mercenary heart softens.

Actually, the first Star Wars is a good comparison for this book in more ways than one. In addition to a ragtag band including a scoundrel, his powerful, lumbering sidekick, and a beautiful woman with an acerbic wit, there’s a huge floating fortress they need to destroy.

The book is fast-paced and violent. There’s a lot of banter in combat, which is not necessarily something I’m a fan of, although I will admit some of the lines made me chuckle. Sometimes the action moves so fast, it was hard to keep track of where it was all taking place. But it was certainly intense and exciting. I especially enjoyed Fortune’s reliance on an archaic firearm instead of an energy blaster.

In broad outlines, it’s not too different from a Scout book: hero finds himself on a strange world, and must fight to survive and save a beautiful woman. But the devil is in the details. One can’t imagine the hero of a Scout book speaking to a princess the way Fortune speaks to Alis. Moreover, Fortune is quite ruthless and definitely not one to fight fair, although there are signs that he’s not quite as brutal as he would like people to believe.

Then of course there are the villains, who are an altogether nasty bunch of folks. The main antagonist, Maelon, definitely deserves to have someone like Fortune opposing him.

All told, it’s a fast-paced and exciting story. I enjoyed it for the most part, although there’s no denying some parts were quite dark. Vogel was well aware this book is a departure from his usual style, so much so that it was initially published under a pen name. I can understand this, as it would be a shock for fans of his lighter works to find themselves in this world of cruelty, cynicism, and a good many four-letter words. But as long as you’re prepared for that, Fortune’s Fool is a good read.

Murder on Eridanos starts off with a bang. Aetherwave serial star Halcyon Helen is murdered at the Grand Colonial Hotel, just before she was due to unveil Rizzo’s new drink, Spectrum Brown. Naturally, the player character is hired to investigate the murder.

The gameplay is familiar to anyone who has played vanilla Outer Worlds, although there is the wonderful addition of the Discrepancy Amplifier–an AI magnifying glass that picks up on unusual items, footprints etc. to aid the player in finding clues.

Also, one of my few gripes about the first DLC, Peril on Gorgon, has been addressed here: the new weapons are better and more distinctive. The player even gets a chance to wield Helen’s iconic pistol, the Needler, which I’d been dying to do since seeing it in this in-game poster:

Speaking of Halycon Helen, she’s a great character, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the game starts with her being killed off, before we even have a chance to meet her. No spoilers, but in the end it made sense.

Ah, well, okay–I am going to give a little bit of a spoiler. It’s not giving everything away, but you might want to skip it if you like to be surprised. My only criticism of this DLC is that its formula is about the same as Peril on Gorgon‘s: player is hired to investigate something, then the party which hired the player is revealed to have hidden ulterior motives.

However, the overall story was different enough that it worked. I liked Murder on Eridanos much better than Peril on Gorgon. (And to be clear, I liked Peril on Gorgon a lot!) This is saying something, because there are few faster ways to turn me off a work of fiction than by having it start off with a woman being murdered. It’s such an old trope, but Obsidian has built up enough goodwill over the years that I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

Murder on Eridanos does what all DLC should do: reinforces the overarching theme of the main game. In keeping with the rest of The Outer Worlds, it centers around a plot by a corporation to sell harmful products disguised with saccharine marketing. The corporate propaganda art, always an amusing element of the game, reaches new heights in Murder on Eridanos.

Misleading advertising is one of the core themes of Outer Worlds, right down to the loading screens that report the players’ actions from the perspective of the corporations. The whole game is a satire on the dehumanizing effect large organizations have on the individuals they control.

Halcyon Helen is a perfect example of this–as more than one character observes, she is not a person, but a brand. Most characters speak of “Halcyon Helen,” not the actress who plays her, Ruth Bellamy. Helen is a symbol, and the corporations know it.

Murder on Eridanos is a fitting capstone to The Outer Worlds in another respect: it’s a very deliberate homage to the tropes of pulp detective stories. Pulpiness is at the heart of the game’s aesthetic, and a detective investigating the death of a serial star is about as pulp-y as it gets.

I say “capstone” because apparently this will be the last DLC for Outer Worlds. That’s a pity; the game’s potential seems endless. But as this is the end of the line, I’ll use this review to provide a retrospective on the game as a whole.

A while back, I used the term “techno-decadence” to describe a particular type of science fiction. I have to say, it was playing The Outer Worlds that made it crystallize in my mind. The game strives for a retro-futuristic aesthetic in everything, from the Art Deco architecture and graphic design to the state of the in-game entertainment industry, with its deliberate parody of Old Hollywood, right down to the many references to classic sci-fi.

This is, I think, more than just a stylistic choice. The Outer Worlds’ retro vibe speaks to nostalgia, a longing for bygone… dare I say it? Yes, I think so… halcyon days. Even the in-game sport of tossball, with its devoted fans, colorful players and collectible cards is a throwback to the Golden Age of baseball.

That the game happened to be released just after Obsidian Entertainment was acquired by Microsoft makes its themes all the more interesting. While Obsidian was joining the ranks of the consolidated corporate behemoths, it was also producing a sharp critique of modern oligopolies. A rebellion against the modern formulas of gaming, with their endless sequels and multiplayer modes and pay-to-win content models and other general malevolence practiced by the industry’s largest companies.

And the aesthetic is part of the rebellion, I’m convinced of that. Compare the soulless graphics of Call of Duty to the inspired art of Outer Worlds and you’ll see what I mean. The reason The Outer Worlds is beautiful and Call of Duty isn’t is the same reason Call of Duty has an online death-match mode and The Outer Worlds doesn’t: because The Outer Worlds is for aesthetes who want immersion in a new world.

My friends, the central question of gaming is also the question at the heart of modern civilization: do we rule the tech, or does it rule us? More precisely, are these games nothing but elaborate demonstrations of the latest machines, or are they vehicles for telling stories, with which the machines are needed to assist?

After all, a corporation is a kind of machine–a system, in which the individuals it comprises are meant to carry out the purpose of the whole unit. And so we see at the resort on Eridanos a system that is meant to deliver happiness, and therefore mandates happiness to all its employees.

Of course, mandated happiness is not happiness at all. To experience joy, people must also be able to feel sorrow, fear, etc. The human experience is a gestalt of all these things. But that’s not exactly a message that makes people want to go shopping, which is why Rizzo’s goes to some extreme lengths to deliver “happiness.”

I promised not to spoil Murder on Eridanos, and I’ll keep that promise. Just know that these ideas are present if you look for them, and the difference between being human and being a symbol for a corporate initiative are explored in-depth–and all in the context of a terrific game.

The power of games is the power to transport us to simulated worlds. The best of them let us return from these ventures with something new, like the protagonist of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey–a new perspective on reality, achieved by contrasting it with the in-game universe. The Outer Worlds allows the player to do just that, and so I say again what I said back in 2019–not really that long ago, and yet in some ways it feels even further away than the Halcyon cluster–The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.  

This is a short story I heard about thanks to Lydia Schoch’s weekly list of free speculative fiction stories. The cover caught my eye immediately. Look at that beauty!

Anyway, the story itself is very short. It’s about a ten-minute read. But Turpeinen packs a lot into those ten minutes. It begins with the title character transporting a captured killer. The killer tries to flee, causing their small plane to crash in the middle of the desert. They make their way to a ghost town, where the criminal begins having strange visions.

I won’t spoil the rest, but as it’s so short, and you don’t have to pay for it, there’s no reason not to give this book a try. I love weird westerns, and I love sci-fi, and this story contains a blend of both. It makes for a wonderful setting.

Now, obviously, the nature of the story precludes any major character development. The author openly admits that this was written as an experiment, and the book ends with a request to readers for feedback on whether it should be expanded into a longer story. My answer: yes, it absolutely should. There’s so much potential here; it is just crying out to be made into a fully-fleshed out world.

Read it for yourself. It won’t take long, and it’s a fun story.

My three pieces of feedback for the author are these: first, I see from his bio that he is a pilot. Very cool! Given that, it would be nice to have a longer scene with the bounty hunter and the criminal on the plane. I’m sure Turpeinen knows all sorts of details about flying that could make that into a really gripping part of the story.

Second… and this is a pet peeve of mine, but I see it all the time, including in books by big name authors and Hollywood movies. I may have even made this mistake myself, early in my writing career. But, when talking about firearms:

clip ≠ magazine

Now, I know–sometimes you want a short, one-syllable word, not a mouthful like magazine. In that case, I suggest “mag.”

That’s a super nit-pick, of course, but it’s something that always jumps out at me.

And finally, my last piece of feedback is simply “MORE!” I want to read more about these characters and this world. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating: this could be built upon in all sorts of ways, and there are a ton of interesting concepts teased here. I would be thrilled to read a novel or short story collection in this setting.

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.

THE BOOK

American Chimera
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
2020
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.

NON-SPOILER REVIEW

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.

MY RATING

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:

5/5 Jack-o’-lanterns

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

SPOILER REVIEW

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.