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.

Oh, my sci-fi loving friends, what a treat we have today! I hardly know where to begin. Should I start with the excellent cast of main characters? Maybe so. There’s Viekko Spade, the Martian warrior with a white hat and a long braid, and two 1911 pistols. He’s a classic pulp protagonist–a hard-drinking, hard-living, rough-hewn tough guy. I love his gruff way of speaking and his habit of swearing in Martian.

Then there’s Althea Fallon, Viekko’s former lover, the highly competent medical officer who does her best to manage Viekko’s dangerous addictions, and Cronus, a computer expert who lacks the martial talents of the others, but makes up for it with his skill with computers.

The team is led by Isra Jicarrio, a hard-driving, powerful and often stubborn woman, who tries her best to control them, which is no easy task.

But maybe it doesn’t make sense to introduce the whole crowd without talking about the situation they’re in. Yes, I should have started with that–they are exploring Titan, the moon of Saturn, which is now a wasteland left behind in the desolation of a massive civilizational collapse. There, they find two warring factions, fighting over the remnants of what was once a mighty empire.

Speaking of that mighty empire–did I mention that every chapter starts with an epigraph from a fictional text about the collapse of the empires? Here’s a quote from the first one: “It could be that civilization is an inherently destructive force. A kind of virus that consumes and destroys everything around it and, when it can no longer sustain itself, commits suicide.”

I love, love, love it when authors use fictional texts as a world-building device. It’s practically like getting two books in one, at least when it’s done well. And is it ever done well here.

So there are two native groups fighting each other on Titan, and throw into that mix a mega-corporation that intends to conquer Titan to exploit its resources. This is the fraught environment in which the four protagonists must try to survive against dangers of every imaginable sort.

This book is everything I look for in sci-fi. Deep philosophical concepts mix with exciting action sequences. (The climax of the book in particular is a pulse-pounding page-turner, but even then, there’s a brief pause to reflect on the meaning of history. Just amazing stuff.) There’s even a tinge of horror in the scenes involving the Venganto–winged demonic figures that patrol the night skies of Titan.

The plot is perfectly paced and the writing is crisp–the characters each have distinctive ways of speaking, from Viekko’s hardboiled drawl to Cronus’s techno-philosophical flights of oratory. More than once, I stopped to savor a particularly well-turned phrase, both in dialogue and in description.

This is science-fiction at its best. Reading it felt kind of like how it must have felt to see Star Wars in 1977, or read Dune in 1965. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, you say to yourself.

Except they do. This book was published in 2018. Maybe someday it will get popular enough they will make a movie out of it. I’d love to watch it. In the meantime, though, you need to read this book. This isn’t quite the end of the review, but we’re at the part now where I’m going to nit-pick and rant about my personal hobbyhorses, so you might as well bail out and nab this book before reading the rest of this.

Right, so first of all, at one point they call a weapon’s magazine a “clip.” This is super-common. But it drives me nuts. There is such a thing as a clip, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when someone says “clip,” they mean “magazine.” See Peter Martuneac’s blog for a visual clarification.

Second thing: covers. The cover above is seemingly the most recent and therefore “official” cover for this book.  But it’s not the cover that made me buy this book when I saw it on Goodreads. No, that would be this:

Now, it’s true, these covers aren’t that different. To the extent they are, the new one is more polished. But I like the unpolished-ness of the yellow one better. Directly I saw it, I said “Wow, that looks like a 1930s pulp cover!” The top one is a fine cover, but it doesn’t radiate that vibe that says, “You are looking at a treasure from a bygone era.”

But you know what they say about books and covers and judging. Of course, we all do it anyway. I judged this book by its cover, and thought it looked pretty cool. And I was right. If anything, I under-estimated just how cool it was. This is a fantastic novel that could have easily been from the Golden Age of sci-fi. I take my hat off to Mr. Jones, because he’s created something really, really special here, and his work deserves to be widely read.

Lost in the Red Hills of Mars is an adventure book. The protagonist, Celine Red Cloud, is a teenaged girl born in a Martian colony. Her father is missing and presumed dead on an expedition in the Red Hills on the other side of a huge crater.

Celine and her Earthside grandmother both sense that her father is alive, but no one else in the colony believes her, including her mother, who is about to remarry a military scientist named Morg.

However, when Alex Rittenhouse, a teenage heartthrob who stars in a popular adventure show arrives on Mars, Celine enlists his help to go on an expedition to her father’s last known location.

There are a lot of plot elements in this book, from the mysterious “brain booster” shots that doctors administer to Celine, to the apparent greed of Alex’s “father” (more precisely, the man he is cloned from) for Martian resources, to a recurring thread of magical realism. Celine is of Cherokee descent, and there are repeated references to Cherokee beliefs and culture, particularly in her discussions with her grandmother, which help her on her journey.

I liked all this, as well as the detailed descriptions of the Martian landscape and the process of rock-climbing. As Alex explains while teaching Celine, it’s not as easy as it looks.

On the other hand, I struggled with the characters. Many of them seemed kind of… inconsistent. I think Alex was the one who was most unpredictable–sometimes he seems genuinely helpful, other times like an arrogant, greedy, spoiled celebrity. And there’s no reason he can’t have both elements in his personality–indeed, it makes sense that he would–but what makes it awkward is the way he goes back and forth between the two almost instantaneously.

It doesn’t help that his and Celine’s relationship becomes similarly unpredictable as a result–one minute they’re fighting, the next saying how much they appreciate each other.

Other characters also behave in odd ways. Like, when the two teenagers run away from the colony, it doesn’t feel right that Alex’s father would apparently just throw up his hands and say, “Oh well.” He seems like the type of guy who would spare no expense in finding his son–not only because he cares about him, but also as a point of pride. He struck me as one of those proud businessmen whose ego would compel him to prove that he is the master of all he surveys and nobody runs away from him; hostile alien landscape or not!

In other words, the character was set up very well, but then it seemed like we didn’t get the follow-through.

Also, while the overall plot is well-paced and enjoyable, there are some subplots that never get resolved. It may be that the author is planning to write a sequel.

Despite these issues, I still enjoyed the story and of course I loved the detailed presentation of the Martian setting. I also liked the way Celine grew as a character over the course of the book.

This is a YA book, but don’t let that put you off. Admittedly, I don’t read much YA anymore, but this was one of the better ones I’ve read. It felt less formulaic than most YA. I guess the only problem was the total lack of swearing. Not that every book should have swearing–I hate it when writers use gratuitous profanity to make something “gritty.” But, all the same, I have a hard time believing a veteran military officer, when something goes badly wrong in a high-stakes situation, would say “darn.” Of course, in YA, you can’t write out what he actually would say, but I’d just use something vague, like “he swore angrily.” That’s a minor point, though.

All in all, this is a fun book for anyone who enjoys Martian adventure stories. Despite my gripes about some of the characters, I still encourage sci-fi fans to give it a try.