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.

This is a hard science-fiction novel about an expedition to settle on Mars in the year 2075. The novel begins on a dystopian Earth, where society is collapsing and the super-rich leaders of large corporations live sheltered lives, away from the rest of the desperate populations.

David Gill is head of a food production company, and is enlisted by his business partner, Robbie Newall, to join the mission to Mars. Gill and Newall are incredibly badly-suited to working together, however–Gill is an honest engineer, while Newall is more of a businessman. And not an ethical one, either. He’s always hatching increasingly complicated schemes to enrich himself through morally-dubious means. This is a constant source of tension between the two.

Because the venture includes multiple corporations, as well as the military leadership, there are all sorts of factions jockeying for power on the newly-settled planet. Gill, who has something of the Heinlein hero about him, constantly finds himself getting involved in these power struggles, even as though he really cares about is getting his settlement up and running. It reminded me a little of Pat Prescott’s Fan Plan books, where industry power struggles don’t stop just because of extremely harsh environmental threats.

I have to admit, at times I struggled to follow all the different schemes and corporate machinations. That’s not to say they were poorly written–in fact, I suspect the author gave them a great deal of thought–but dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a businessman! If I understood how to make a killing by floating junk bonds… well, I dunno what I’d do. But the point is, I don’t.

There are definitely some moments when I got a strong feeling that I was just not smart enough to understand this book. In addition to the business wheeling-and-dealing, there are long passages of heavy science, as one might expect in a novel about settling Mars. These are, again, well-written, but a lot of it was over my head.

Even with all that said, I enjoyed this book. There are still plenty of action scenes and interesting plot twists to keep an uninformed reader like me interested. If I have a criticism, it’s that the characters tolerated Newall’s increasingly outrageous behavior way too long. In an environment like this, I find it hard to imagine people would put up with the things he does.

Actually, that’s an overarching issue: characters would feud, apologize, then feud again. It seemed sometimes like they just… didn’t remember things. It wasn’t a lack of continuity, exactly–the plot is actually pretty tight–but it was odd. People didn’t have the emotions that one would expect them to. But they weren’t bad characters; don’t think I’m saying that. Besides Gill, I especially liked the expedition’s commander Adrienne Shepherd, the clueless empty corporate suit Graeme Cherrington, and the plucky anti-corporation pilot Jacqui.

Part of it is, it’s a long book, with a ton of world-building and huge scientific concepts throughout. At times I found it hard to picture what was going on, but that’s understandable given the sheer scope of the setting and the amount of technical description involved.

This review sounds more negative than it should. Because despite all the ways I struggled with it, I really liked this book. It reminded me of some of the cult-classic video games of the late ’90s, where the ambition of the designers exceeded the technical capabilities of game machines. The result is sometimes a bit clunky, but that shouldn’t detract from the sheer scope of the story that is being told.

I was hooked on the story and couldn’t wait to find out how it would all end. There’s so much information here, it can be a little bit overwhelming at times, but it’s also an incredibly daring attempt at a thriller set in a plausible, carefully thought-out Martian colony. It’s a big time investment, but it’s worth it.

They say not to judge a book by its cover. In general, this is probably good advice. But when the author of the book is also a gifted painter who creates his own covers, I believe it is necessary to make an exception to this rule. For in this case, the cover is not just some bit of packaging a publisher slapped on the text; it is the product of the same imagination that created the world of the story.

Look at this cover! What does it evoke to you? A fantastic rock formation, perhaps? I encourage you to think for a moment about this before you read on.

It is a “Martian castle,” which is a term for the abandoned grain elevators of a terraformed Mars in the distant future Litka imagines. Most interesting to me is Litka’s description, where he says he envisions his futuristic Mars as being like Nebraska. I love this idea. 

Don’t you feel a little as if you’re gazing at it across some open plain, where the chilly breeze whips against you and the weak light of the sun–paler than on our own planet–throws blue shadows down across the barren desolation? You can almost hear the echoing horn of the train at the elevator’s base as it rolls along.

At least, I can. Maybe I’m biased, because I grew up in a rural midwestern town where the biggest landmark was a grain elevator with a railway beside it. The Mars of this book is a Mars that I can easily relate to.

On to the text itself: the book’s protagonist, Gy Mons, has awakened after some 700 years of stasis in a Martian facility. While he and his wife, Keiree Tulla, had slumbered in their pods, a plague devastated the solar system, more or less wiping out colonies on Earth and the Jovian moons.

Gy soon learns that Keiree’s pod was stored elsewhere, and so she was not awakened along with his group. So he–and his genetically modified silka cat, Molly–set off to find her, at every step discovering how Mars has changed while he was in stasis.

There’s a fascinating temporal parallax that occurs for Gy as he searches his and Keiree’s old neighborhoods on Mars. For him, it feels as though it’s only been a few weeks since he’s been in these places, though in fact centuries have elapsed. If you’ve ever come back to your old hometown after being away for years, imagine that, only multiplied by 700.

This book is, obviously from the setting, sci-fi. And yet, I’d say it’s really what is often called “literary fiction.” As I read it, I kept thinking of Mark Paxson’s novella The Irrepairable Past, which is not at all sci-fi, but which also deals with someone reflecting on bittersweet memories. Both books are about something deep in the human psyche, and Keiree feels every bit as emotionally relevant and powerful as if it were set on present-day Earth.

This is why I dislike the distinction between literary and genre fiction. We write books to make people feel a certain way. Whether they are set in the distant past, the present-day, or an imagined future, is secondary to their true purpose of evoking a feeling in the reader. And Keiree does evoke many feelings. So what if these characters are living on Mars, many centuries from now? They are still people, and Litka treats them as such.

Well, except of course Molly, who is a cat. A genetically-modified one, but in ways that if anything only accentuate her fundamental “cat-ness.” Anyone who ever owned a cat will know instantly what I mean.

Keiree is a wonderful novella, and I recommend it highly. Everyone, whether they like sci-fi or not, should go visit Litka’s gorgeous vision of Mars.

Okay, I cheated a little on my plan to broaden my reading horizons this month. This is a science fiction book, which is very much my standard fare. But it’s also a romance; trust me! And it’s something of a milestone because it’s the first book I’ve ever bought because of an ad. For years I’ve seen a link to it on the Amazon page for one of my books. So when I needed to find another romance book, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m glad I did.

The setting is Union Station, a sort of hub space station where races from all across the universe meet. (I kept picturing the Citadel presidium from the Mass Effect series.) The station is run by super-intelligent artificial intelligence beings known as the Stryx, who monitor everything and generally keep order.

The Stryx also run a dating service, which purports to be able to find the perfect match for someone due to the telepathic abilities of the intelligence. Kelly Frank, the EarthCent ambassador, who receives a gift subscription to the Stryx’s matchmaking service.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she hopes–Kelly ends up having a series of bad dates, some of which lead to bizarre adventures, but none of which result in her finding a good partner.

Much the same story holds for Joe McAllister, a former mercenary spacer turned junk dealer who has also decided to take advantage of the dating service. He too has quite a range of experiences–but he just can’t seem to find that special someone.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s still an enjoyable ride, thanks largely to Foner’s first-rate world-building. Kelly and Joe’s bad dates show us glimpses of the wider universe–and what a rich universe it is, populated by all kinds of interesting characters. There’s a royal house in need of a champion, a criminal kidnapping ring, and robot trying to pass itself off as human. Then there are the subplots involving cheating at competitive gaming, a couple of flower girls profiting off of the dating scene, and a bazaar teeming with counterfeit goods.

All of it feels so organic and interesting–not to mention really funny. It’s a lighthearted book, and each vignette ends on an amusing note. There’s plenty of conflict, but of the purely PG-rated variety. There’s nothing too dark here; it’s a romp.

Sci-fi fans should absolutely check this book out. Even if you’re not into romance, don’t worry–there’s a lot more going on here. I have only one complaint about this book, which is that the last chapter felt a bit rushed. I would have liked to see it come to a more leisurely conclusion. But hey, if your biggest complaint is that the ride ended too soon, you know it’s good.

Admittedly, I’m late to the party on this one. This book has over a thousand reviews, so it’s fairly well known, as such an enjoyable book deserves to be. Perhaps it’s proving me wrong about ads after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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