As usual, there will be spoilers. Don’t read if you don’t want to know what happens. But that’s probably not what’s going to turn off most of my readers. No, the hard part is going to be persuading those who have no interest in yet another superhero movie that it’s worthwhile to spend more than two seconds thinking about one.

Well, who can say what is a worthy subject for discussion in the world of fiction? Or any world for that matter? But I’ll do my best to make the case for why it might be.

The film begins with an intro sequence showing a young Diana competing in a race on Paradise Island. Yeah, yeah; I know it’s called “Themyscira” now, but if “Paradise Island” was good enough for Lynda Carter in the 1970s, it’s good enough for me.

After this, there is another intro sequence that shows the grown-up Diana as Wonder Woman in (duh) 1984, foiling an attempted theft at a shopping mall. Yes, that’s right–there are two intro sequences, one after the other! One of the rules of writing that people throw around is to eschew prologues. I disagree with this, but I think avoiding two successive prologues is probably fair advice for filmmaking.

Anyway, then the story gets going: Diana Prince works at the Smithsonian, studying ancient artifacts. Another scientist, Dr. Barbara Minerva arrives, and the two begin studying a mysterious stone that the thieves from the second intro sequence had been attempting to steal.

Dr. Minerva is nervous, shy and awkward, and she admires Diana’s cool confidence. Diana, it seems to her, is the woman who has everything. But Diana does not, in fact, have everything. We see she is desperately lonely; still mourning her lover, Steve Trevor, who perished nobly in the first Wonder Woman movie.

Anyway, that stone that Diana and Dr. Minerva are studying is also sought by businessman Maxwell Lord, a charismatic TV personality whose gaudy lifestyle and brash persona masks the fact that his company is on the brink of financial collapse.

He wants the stone because, as legend has it, touching the stone and making a wish will grant the holder’s request. We quickly see several demonstrations of this–Minerva held the stone and wished to be like Diana, and immediately became more confident and charismatic. And Diana has touched the stone and unconsciously wished to have Steve back. And suddenly, he is somehow restored to life, inhabiting the body of some random guest at a party that Diana is attending. To Diana, he appears as her old flame from 1917, and the two waste no time picking up where they left off.

Meanwhile, Lord meets Dr. Minerva, plays upon her craving for attention, and wheedles his way into making her give him the stone. He then makes a wish to make himself the stone, taking on its power and allowing him to grant people’s wishes, in exchange for taking something from them.

Chaos ensues, as Lord amasses greater wealth and power for himself. People wish to fulfill their selfish desires, sacrificing in the process something of theirs that Lord wants.

Diana and Steve eventually realize, given the stone’s malevolent nature and origins, that it will lead to an apocalyptic collapse of civilization. Dr. Minerva also realizes this, but sees that attempting to thwart Lord and end the spell will mean she loses all the physical powers she gained since making her wish, and she is not going to let that happen. So she joins forces with Lord, who by this point has managed to secure the powers of the Presidency itself, and in the process pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Steve finally convinces Diana that she must renounce her wish, and allow him to return to being nothing but a bittersweet memory. Once she accepts this, Diana is strong enough to pursue Lord and Minerva to a remote military installation, where the former has taken over an experimental global broadcast network, allowing him to tempt the entire planet with his dark powers of wish-granting.

After a fight with Dr. Minerva, who has transformed into a half-human, half-cheetah hybrid, Diana is able to stop Lord. I apologize for being vague on this point, but I actually did not understand how she did it, except by somehow appealing to the whole world to renounce their wishes. Then, moved by concern for his son Alistair, Lord renounces his own wish, and the total annihilation of the Earth is narrowly averted.

If you played “Deus Ex” this will surely remind you of Bob Page.

I omitted some details here and there–this movie has a lot of filler. Not that it’s bad material exactly, but many scenes go on for longer than they need to. The opening 15 minutes, with its two cool-but-superfluous opening sequences, sets the tone. Wonder Woman 1984 is many things, but “spare” is not one of them.

The cinematography started off really nice. The second opening sequence, in particular, features a full range of vibrant colors, but by the end it was back to the now-standard Hollywood palette of orange and blue.

On the other hand, I liked all the performances. Gal Gadot is a great Wonder Woman, and as in the first film, her chemistry with Chris Pine make their scenes together the best ones in the movie. Pedro Pascal is excellent as the smarmy con man who nonetheless has a really sympathetic side to him. And Kristen Wiig does a fantastic job portraying the rather tragic arc of Dr. Minerva’s transformation from an awkward, introverted woman driven by her desire for acceptance and respect to become a vindictive sadist.

So, what did I think of the movie? Well, for one thing, more than once while watching it, I said to myself “Patty Jenkins is the female George Lucas.” Interpret that as you will.

But my dominant impression on seeing the film, which coalesced in my mind while the faux-1980s static-filled credits were still rolling, was “That was the perfect film for 2020.”

I don’t mean that it was a perfect film. I’m not sure if there is any such thing as a perfect film, but if there is, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t it. It’s frankly kind of a mess. How is Steve possessing the body of some random guy? Why did Diana and Steve steal a jet to fly to Egypt? How could Steve fly it? How did they get back? How did Dr. Minerva know Diana would be at the White House? Where was Alistair’s mother while her ex was becoming a famous megalomaniacal cult leader?

In the words of Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, “By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense.”

Of course, things don’t always make sense even in real life, but people will accept inexplicable things in real life more readily than they will in fiction. When something totally bizarre happens in real life, we say, “well, c’est la vie!” Whereas when it happens in fiction, we can’t help but feel that some writer somewhere is trying to cheat us.

Well, what we writers do is make up elaborate falsehoods. Speaking of falsehoods, this is a good place to begin with studying the themes in this movie. There are lot of lines in it about truth, such as Diana’s:

Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.

And during the final showdown with Lord, she says:

This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful. So look at this world, and look at what your wish is costing it. You must be the hero. Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you want to save this world.

Ah, yes–the wish. It’s the magic wish-granting stone that’s causing all this trouble, after all. And, we are informed, it was a creation of the god Dolos, later known as the Duke of Deception, a character who first appeared in Wonder Woman Issue #2 in 1942.

Yeah, that’s cool. But my thinking runs more towards the mythopoetic. When I hear about some notorious liar purporting to grant wishes, there’s only one thing I think of: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

All right, admittedly that’s Marlowe’s title, and when we think of Faust, we usually think of Goethe’s Faust. But it’s an old legend that predates them both and has survived them both. As Wikipedia says, “‘Faust’ and the adjective ‘Faustian’ imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a limited term.”

Basically, the magic stone is the Devil. It grants wishes, but the wishes are based on lies, and in the end they have a cost. Everyone is seduced by the tempting lies of the stone, even the wise and powerful Wonder Woman.

And everyone makes their wishes for the most noble-sounding reasons. Diana wants to have her lover back. Lord wants to build a better life for his son. Dr. Minerva wants to be treated with respect. Even minor characters, like the Emir who wants to secure his nation’s sovereignty or the President who wants to force the Russians to the negotiating table, have good reasons for wishing what they wish.

There’s some old saying about good intentions and roads… I can’t quite remember it, though…

I have a scale for evaluating superhero movies. At the top is Thor, which in my opinion is everything a superhero movie can aspire to be. It was directed by Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who imbued it with all the dramatic power we might expect from a student of the Bard. It’s about an arrogant young nobleman, forced to prove himself worthy of his family’s throne.

At the other end of the scale is… Thor: The Dark World. It is some nonsense related to Dark Elves or some such folderol. Aside from a few funny lines, it’s pretty weak stuff. (Coincidentally, Patty Jenkins was originally supposed to direct it.)

Wonder Woman 1984 is closer to Thor than to The Dark World. It’s not just a lot of special effects and mindless banter. It has a strong thematic core to it, even if it sometimes makes no logical sense at all. You know, at the risk of offending Goethe’s rabid fanboys, Faust doesn’t make total sense either. But we’re still talking about it, aren’t we?

“Yes, Berthold, that’s all very well,” you say. “But you still haven’t explained why you think this was ‘the perfect movie for 2020.’ Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

I promise, we’re getting there. Like Wonder Woman 1984 itself, I like to take my time about these things. Feel free to go to the lobby for more popcorn while I’m padding out this exposition.

Ever since I heard of the title, I wondered why this movie was set in 1984. Was it some sort of Orwell reference? Or maybe it’s because we are approximately the same number of years removed from 1984 as the original 1970s Wonder Woman TV show was from its 1940s setting? Or just a blatant appeal to nostalgia?

Well, I’m sure the studio loved the nostalgia angle. There’s always a market for nostalgia. There’s only one thing that sells better than it. The fact that the time gap is the same as with World War II in the original series is probably just a coincidence–although I really like the film’s nods to that show. Don’t miss this fantastic trailer, done in the retro comic-book style of the TV show’s credits. Honestly, they should have incorporated that aesthetic into the movie.

That leaves Orwell. Is there any way in which this silly superhero movie ties together with the bleak vision of a totalitarian surveillance state imagined by a disillusioned 20th-century socialist?

Hmm… well, the villains don’t work for the Ministry of Love. There’s no mention of the Thought Police. In fact, the government is generally portrayed as hapless bystanders, from the police at the mall all the way up to the feeble and bewildered President. I’m not seeing any Orwell parallels. (Orwellels?)

But there is one thing… remember that Lord takes over a top-secret satellite communications network that allows him to reach the entire world at once with his seductive message. This does remind me a bit of the tele-screens in Orwell’s novel, and the constantly looming presence of Big Brother.

It’s also a complete anachronism. The idea of a worldwide network conveying a message to everyone across the globe at once was pretty far-fetched in 1984. At best, you could reach every TV and radio. It’s not like everyone had some portable device, all connected to the same network.

In 2020, of course, this is everyday reality. Moreover, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that it has in fact driven the world completely mad. And it has done this how? By tempting us with things that we want. Like, frankly, the ability to propound our eccentric theories about movies to people everywhere, for one thing.

The magic stone’s spell is only broken when Wonder Woman, having renounced her own wish, is able to convince others to give up theirs, and ultimately Lord recants to save his son. Diana’s and Steve’s love for one another, and Lord’s love for his son, are what ultimately overpower the stone.

Thematically, Wonder Woman 1984 exemplifies one of the most fundamental themes in all of literature: love conquers all. Yes, even a diabolical wish-fulfillment network that spans the globe and tempts people with fantasies of conquering death and defeating age. Accepting death and rejecting power are some of the oldest ideas in mythology.  Probably because these are some of the hardest things to do.

When I think about it in these terms, I want to say it’s a great movie. But it’s not. It is, as I said, kind of a mess. There are so many things that are bizarre and inexplicable. And above all, it’s way too long. All the same points applied to 2020 also.

It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.

So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.

My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.

I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.

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.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. It’s a romance, but obviously in a sci-fi setting. The premise is that a company has created a lottery, the winner of which will receive a trip to Mars.

Recent divorcee Katrina buys one ticket, largely to appease her daughter Francesca. Francesca has been lobbying her to buy it chiefly because Francesca’s father, Katrina’s ex-husband Doug, is a spokesman for the lottery, and Francesa hopes that if Katrina wins, it might spark a reconciliation.

Both Katrina and Doug still have some lingering feelings for each other, although there’s no doubt they have major differences too. They are sort of an “odd couple,” with Katrina being super-organized and fastidious about cleanliness, while Doug is a spontaneous, rough-and-tumble outdoorsman.

And, fairly early on in the book, both Kat and Doug meet attractive romantic prospects. Ariel Anderson, a wealthy and influential woman, who guides Doug and Francesca on a trip to a horse ranch in Montana, is practically flinging herself at Doug. Meanwhile, when her robot maid, Minnie, begins behaving strangely, Katrina meets a handsome and eager young robot repair technician.

You probably won’t be surprised that Katrina wins that trip to Mars, but that’s only the beginning–from there follows a hilarious chain of events during the long voyage to the Red Planet. From a mystery involving a plan to breed horses on Mars, to the hilarious antics of Minnie the robot, to the rom-com hijinks as Doug and Katrina try to sort out their feelings, the book goes from one hilarious episode to another. There were quite a few moments where I laughed out loud.

And, incredibly, despite it being such a wild and unlikely set of occurrences, the underlying plot is actually a tight thriller. The climax caught me by surprise, but it felt satisfying and tied things up well.

Basically, this book was way better than I was expecting. It was funny, sweet, and clever. The characters are all well-written and enjoyable. If there was any flaw, it was that the antagonist’s motives were a little vague. But, it really didn’t bother me; the main thing is the satisfying resolution of Katrina and Doug’s arcs. Also, while the extremely-human behavior of some of the robots was something that might not normally sit well with me, I found it worked here. I think it’s because this is a comedy, and taking it in that spirit, the robots’ antics are some of the funniest scenes in the book.

Mars Madness is a delightful romantic comedy, with great characters and a wonderful premise. I recommend it highly.

[Part I is here.]

You all know I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman. I had a crush on Senator Amidala when I was 12 years old, and so I’ve seen a bunch of her movies. Someday maybe I’ll do a definitive ranking of them, although that would require watching Song to Song, which I have no mind to do, so maybe not. But I’m sure I have a better-than-average knowledge of her filmography.

Why am I rambling on about this? What does this have to do with fin de siècle?

Well, I saw a film of Portman’s called Vox Lux in 2018, which grossed over $400 million dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations.

Oh, wait; no, it didn’t. That would be A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both are films about an up-and-coming singer trying to make it in the music industry. Vox Lux wasn’t 1/100th as popular as A Star is Born, mostly because A Star is Born is a love story and Vox Lux is a weird and unsettling meditation on the depravity of modern culture. You can guess which one I’d gravitate towards, even if La Portman were not involved.

I won’t go on at length about Vox Lux here. If you want that, you can read my review here. Otherwise, just look at this picture from the film:

Now, I know it’s tough to see. But this ominous hooded figure is wearing a golden mask. Do hooded, masked figures make you think of anything from our last discussion? A drop of King in Yellow, a pinch of Red Death, a little Tower Headsman to taste, and before you know it you’ve got a piping hot Symbol of Death. As it should be, because this hooded character in Vox Lux is a terrorist. (See, I told you it was weird…)

Of course, one costume using a fairly common trope to communicate “scary” doesn’t prove anything. I would never dream of saying Vox Lux is the modern-day King in Yellow on such a flimsy basis.

Don’t worry, Vox Lux‘s connections to our old friends from the 1890s run deep. My review contains the full accounting if you want it, although you’ll have to tolerate a bit of redundancy with things I’ve said in this series. Otherwise, we can make do with a couple of images.

But wait. Might this all be a red herring? After all, didn’t I just say Vox Lux wasn’t nearly as popular as A Star is Born?  So who cares what it says about our culture? It’s not widely-known enough to even matter.

Here’s my counter-argument: the art that we associate with the fin de siècle movement wasn’t necessarily the popular entertainment of the day. The Grand Duke flopped. The King in Yellow was far from a hit. These kinds of artistic movements are always a little bit off, a bit outside of “normal” people’s tastes. But the fact that it exists at all is telling.

The Victorian era is famous for its rigid morality. This was a time of modest dress, traditional families, and a conservative culture. “Repressed” is a word you’ll often see thrown around, although of course the Victorians would never have described themselves as such.

But it’s clear that this cultural tradition was eroding by the late 1800s. Much of the shocking art and literature of the decadent period would simply have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.

Curiously, we can perceive a very similar period of changing cultural mores in more recent history. Just as Jude the Obscure would have so not been published in 1860, Vox Lux could so not have been made in 1960. Actually, almost none of our modern day movies could have been made in the era between 1930 and 1960, and not just for technical reasons. Or at least, not made in America.

So, is there just some immutable cycle where, at the end of every century, people start to feel a sense of oppressive ennui, of creeping apathy, and retreat into decadent and strange arts that would seem perverse to their more straitlaced ancestors? Maybe, although no such feeling appears to have existed in, for instance, the 1790s in America.

To me, what can most easily explain these related aesthetics is that these are phases in the lifecycle of a global hegemon. When a superpower arises, it initially is buoyed by a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for creating new institutions. Over time, however, these institutions grow stale, corrupt, and oppressive, causing people to lose faith in them. 

This gradual loss of faith is a hallmark of decadence. In such periods of decline, alienation is the norm, and the fabric of society decays, leading to social upheaval, rebellion and a general feeling of collapse.

This brings me to the phrase which I used for the title of this post, which is a quote from Warren Spector describing the creation of the 2000 video game Deus Ex. I love “millennial weirdness,” partly because, although it actually refers to the epoch, it can also sound like a description of my generation, but mostly because it’s the perfect modern American rendering of fin de siècle.

Here’s one reason I feel justified in saying Vox Lux and Deus Ex share an aesthetic. Check out their respective covers:

Seriously, if you knew nothing else about these two things, wouldn’t you guess they were somehow related? Not only do they share this weird day-for-night color palette, but they also both have a Latin phrase for the title. To me, it seems clear that these two images have the same mood.

In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, Vox Lux and Deus Ex are not related at all. They’re not the same medium, nor the same genre, nor do they, as far as I know, have any cast or crew in common. As for audience, well, it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who has both played Deus Ex and watched Vox Lux. What does this suggest, if not some some strange memetic propagation of this mood across the culture?

But these are just single images. We can’t judge a film by its poster, or a game by its cover. It could just be a weird coincidence. After all, we know a poster’s vibe need not match the thing its advertising. What else do we know about Deus Ex and its atmosphere of “millennial weirdness”?

I’ve never formally reviewed Deus Ex for one reason: because Ross Scott did it better than I ever could. If you want a masterclass in reviewing, Scott is your man. Gamers reading this should absolutely check out his videos on Deus Ex.

But, for the purpose of my larger argument, let me try to fill you in on the details of Deus Ex, knowing all the while that I stand on the shoulders of a giant.

Deus Ex is set in a dystopian future of, as Wikipedia describes it: “a world ravaged by inequality and a deadly plague.” It begins in New York City. The game was made in 2000, but because of texture issues, they had to eliminate the World Trade Center from the background. They justified it in-game by saying it had been destroyed in a terrorist attack.

Are you thinking back to our earlier discussion of Repairer of Reputations and getting a little deja vu yet? Why do these nightmarish dystopias always feel so familiar?

In the world of Deus Ex, every conspiracy you can imagine is true. The Illuminati, Area 51, global plutocrats ruling over the rest of us, and super-intelligent Artificial Intelligences. All these things exist, and are gradually uncovered by the player’s character, J.C. Denton.

It’s a world of shadowy cabals, distrust and justified paranoia. (There are also robot soldiers and mechs. It’s still a video game.) I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex‘s imagined future is one in which faith in institutions is not rewarded. Conspiracy theories are typically the product of an age in which trust in the established order is very low.

Beyond that, there is the omnipresent sense of decay and the feeling that the rotten husk of the ancien regime is giving way to something else. In Deus Ex, the player gets a choice in what that is; whether it’s continued manipulation by a sinister oligarchy, rule by a machine intelligence known as Helios, or simply burning it all down, and returning to a simpler time, when life was hard but people were free.

Deus Ex is a deeply philosophical game. There are tons of dialogues about personal freedom vs. order, the morality of power, and so on. It’s simply too massive for me to discuss each example at length. Watch the intro cinematic and see what you think. Don’t worry if it seems a little incoherent; it should. No one is supposed to know what’s going on in Deus Ex when they start.

By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “there’s something happening here” even if “what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I’ve used the two examples of Vox Lux and Deus Ex–two separate works, in separate media, nearly two decades apart, to try to demonstrate that this aesthetic exists in modern culture.

But we’re not finished yet. After all, I still need to find some indication that this decadent zeitgeist is related to the 1890s and the original fin de siècle. Ideally, something stronger than “I dunno, they just, like, seem the same to me, man.” (Although true, this is a weak argument, and one to which skeptical readers would be entitled to reply in kind.)

Throughout Deus Ex, there are lots of documents, books, newspapers, magazines, tablets etc. that the player can pick up and read. This is mostly optional; it’s just a way to add to the atmosphere and do a little extra world-building.

Among these texts are scattered excerpts from The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel by G.K. Chesterton. Here’s one of the excerpts quoted in Deus Ex:

…First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”

“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”

“And Right and Left,” said Syme with a simple eagerness, “I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me…”

It’s true that The Man Who Was Thursday was published in 1908, and therefore is not, in the literal sense, fin de siècle. But most historians would say that this period really extended until the start of World War I in 1914, so we’ll go ahead and grandfather it in. If so, we now have discovered a missing link between our two aesthetics. The anarchistic philosophy of mass collapse that permeated fin de siècle Europe and the cynical alienation and paranoia that existed at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, though separated by a massive gulf in technology, fit neatly with one another, the way South America and Africa, now a hemisphere apart, were once clearly connected.

I hope I’ve persuaded you to see things my way, dear reader. If not, I humbly apologize. You see, I’m so confident that my thesis is correct that if I’ve failed to convince you, it can only be because I’ve argued my case very poorly, which is the worst thing someone seeking to persuade can do.   It’s one thing to have an incorrect premise and not be clever enough to make people buy into it, but to have a correct premise and still botch the selling of it is just inexcusable.

But, assuming that what I’ve asserted here is correct, and that there does indeed exist some inherited tradition of a strange, alienated, cynical and decadent aesthetic that flourished both at the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the question remains: what should we do with this information?

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.

Let me start by making something very clear: I have nothing but respect and admiration for Paul Graham. I’ve read most of his essays multiple times. A few of them have completely changed the way I look at the world. He is, in my opinion, nothing short of a modern Renaissance man. So please don’t think I’m attacking him or trying to tear him down. Not that I could even if I wanted to, but I would never want to. Nevertheless, he has made a claim I disagree with, and I want to examine it.

Graham recently posted an essay entitled “Write Simply.” It’s a subject he’s written about before, especially in “Write Like You Talk.” You should read these essays before reading this post.

There’s always been something about “Write Like You Talk” that bothers me, and I got the same feeling from “Write Simply.” But it was hard for me to figure out what it was, because generally it seems like sound advice. There was nothing in them I could point at and say, “That’s wrong.”

But I think I’ve finally figured out what nags at me: it’s that most famous writers through history clearly didn’t write this way.

Let’s look at some examples. Here is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand “under the shelter of the wall,” as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions.

Is this simple? I don’t think so. Here is a rewritten version that contains basically the same ideas.

The best thing about Socialism is that it would allow everyone to have more independence. There have been a few gifted people who have had this independence in the past, and who have done great things that benefited society, but not many.

Does this mean I’m a better writer than Wilde? Seems unlikely. Nor is Wilde’s style unusual for his time. Read anything written in English during the Victorian period. I’ll bet that the language is more complex, the sentences more intricate, than an equivalent piece of writing today. Whether you compare Oscar Wilde to Paul Graham or Varney the Vampire to Twilight, you will see this pattern.

What explains this difference? I can think of a few possible explanations:

  • Writers today are smarter than those fussy Victorians, and use simplified language to make our point clear.
  • The Victorians were smarter than writers today, and could handle more complex language.
  • Victorian writers and modern writers are, in the aggregate, equally smart, but fashions have changed.

There are probably good arguments to be made for each, though I tend to favor the last one. In particular, Victorian writers were writing because they knew they had to justify publishing their writing in some physical form, which meant a higher word count. With some exceptions, writers today face no such requirement. Maybe that is sufficient to explain it.

But let’s look at another famous writer, from a more recent period:

I have before me a bibliography of P. G. Wodehouse’s works. It names round about fifty books, but is certainly incomplete. It is as well to be honest, and I ought to start by admitting that there are many books by Wodehouse – perhaps a quarter or a third of the total – which I have not read. It is not, indeed, easy to read the whole output of a popular writer who is normally published in cheap editions. But I have followed his work fairly closely since 1911, when I was eight years old, and am well acquainted with its peculiar mental atmosphere – an atmosphere which has not, of course, remained completely unchanged, but shows little alteration since about 1925. 

This is from George Orwell’s 1945 essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse.” I can make a lot of cuts to this:

I have not read all of Wodehouse’s books, but am familiar enough with them to say that his style has changed little since 1925.

Doesn’t this communicate the same point? And might not Orwell himself approve, since he also once wrote in another essay, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” I think Graham and Orwell would agree on this rule.

On the other hand, Orwell also wrote the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian government systematically eliminates words from the language in order to make certain thoughts unthinkable. In the appendix to the novel, there is an example of how this works:

Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation — that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.

And this is what I find scary about writing simply: there is a fine line between writing so simply that you get your ideas across, as Graham advises, and writing so simply that your ideas become too simplified.

Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In fact, he didn’t say this. What he said was, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” But, amusingly, someone decided it was better if it was made simpler. And they were right, in this case–but it’s still worth knowing the real quote.

If there’s one point in all of Graham’s essays where I just don’t see things his way at all, it’s this from “Write Like You Talk”:

But just imagine calling Picasso “the mercurial Spaniard” when talking to a friend. Even one sentence of this would raise eyebrows in conversation. 

I love the phrase “mercurial Spaniard.” It’s been stuck in my mind ever since reading that essay. (I haven’t read the book Graham references.) It just has a nice feel to it. I admit I’m unusual in this regard–both my mother and her father loved unusual turns of phrases like this, and that’s probably where I picked it up. Would I say that in conversation with just anyone? No. Would I say it in conversation with a friend who loved it as much as I do? Absolutely.

Graham asserts that, “The gap between most writing and pure ideas is not filled with poetry.” I think that it used to be. Or, if not poetry, then clever and original prose. Of course, this doesn’t mean the ideas were good. But if they were bad, at least you still had some poetry. What do we have now?

Graham’s method is to convey his ideas as cleanly and precisely as possible. The old method was to communicate ideas with some ornament, some extravagance, in order to make them not only interesting, but aesthetically pleasing.

It’s true that bad ideas can be disguised with clever language. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the history of communication. But my fear is that good ideas can also be eroded through oversimplified language. The great writers of past eras were distinguished by their love for language, and their ability to use it in its most complex and most basic forms.

Graham says, “Write simply.” If I’m going to dispute this, I’d better offer some kind of counter-advice. Here’s my suggestion: write memorably. But understand that nine times out of ten, writing memorably is writing simply. Complexity is usually ugly, except when it’s necessary. But when it is necessary, be sure you can do it.

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.