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.

This is a post-apocalyptic zombie book. I should state up front: I’ve never really cared for the whole zombie genre. I saw Night of the Living Dead as a teenager and it didn’t seem remotely scary. I’ve played many video games with zombie-like enemies, but I never relish the levels that involve fighting hordes of the undead. They just seem gross to me, not scary.

“Okay, Berthold; then why did you read this book?”

Well, I’ll tell you. But, as usual, in my own time. First, let’s meet some of the characters.

As you might surmise, one of the major characters is named Zach. Zach is a former marine who lost his wife early in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Shortly after that, he rescued a young girl named Abby from a zombie attack, and took her under his protection. Zach and Abby make a decent home for themselves in a cabin, but it soon comes under attack, forcing them to flee.

This leads to an episode that was rather tough for me. I don’t want to spoil it, even though it only occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, but it involved a trope that drives me nuts. Let’s just say it’s a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. Which, I guess, is probably one reason why I don’t read more post-apocalyptic zombie books. I don’t want to knock the book too much for this, since it may be a genre convention as much as anything.

Another reason I don’t read many post-apocalyptic zombie books is the intense violence. That’s not a criticism of the book, to be clear–I knew what I was letting myself in for by picking up a zombie apocalypse book–but some of the scenes were still pretty hard to take. I particularly don’t enjoy violence involving female characters, and there were some very brutal scenes of exactly that.

The first quarter of the book was tough going for me, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed what followed: first comes an extremely tense and well-paced episode at a military base, followed by Zach, Abby, and some new comrades they’ve met along the way discovering a town called “Little America,” which is seemingly a safe haven from the zombies and the gangs roving the wilderness.

Life is almost normal in Little America, and Zach and Abby find themselves living in near-peace. Abby starts going to school and making friends her own age, Zach makes a living as leader of the town militia. And both of them even find time for a little bit of romance–a boy from school for Abby, and for Zach, a woman named Amber, one of the people they met while trekking across the zombie-haunted wilds.

Up until Little America, His Name Was Zach is mostly a straightforward zombie story, but then there are three moments that stick out as unusual. 

The first is a scene where Zach sees a statue of George Washington and finds himself imagining a whole Revolutionary War battle going on around him. Some readers might find this passage a bit odd, but personally I loved it. First, because it’s offbeat and unexpected, which automatically makes it interesting, and second because I think it gives us a window into both Zach’s deep immersion in a timeless warrior ethos and his PTSD. It’s like it triggers a flashback to a war he wasn’t even in, but he feels a bond with those who fought in it all the same.

Actually, that’s something worth noting about this book: there’s a strange dissonance produced by the episodes of horrific violence–some of which is committed by Zach himself–and the serene, almost Andy Griffith-like wholesomeness of Little America, and Zach and Abby’s father-daughter relationship. It’s downright uncanny to conceive of a world that can contain sweet, beautiful things as well as disturbing, monstrous things. Yet, we know that the world–the actual, real-world, I mean–does in fact contain both, but our minds can’t really reconcile the two.

There have been books that I have abandoned because they are too relentlessly violent, too consistently bleak. Yet, in a strange way, unified bleakness is almost easier to think about than the jarring switch from soul-crushing horror to a world where things are, basically, all right. There were moments while reading His Name Was Zach that the letters “DNF” flashed across my mind, but it would always revert back to a more normal, almost pleasant tone–I say “almost” because the gnawing feeling of the horror lurking on the fringe would never quite go away.

This mirrors the personality of Zach himself. He describes it as a demon chained up within him, and when he is angered, that demon yanks at its chains and is capable of pushing him to terrifying extremes–but the rest of the time, he seems like any other normal guy, just trying to protect his loved ones and do his duty.

Speaking of which: eventually, Zach is sent outside of town on a mission, along with a group of the militia, in which they encounter one of the gangs, led by one of the most fascinating characters in the book–a drug-addled psychopath named Edmund, who is something of a cross between the Joker and Anton Chigurh.

And now, I’ll tell you why I read this book despite it being outside my reading comfort zone.

I’ve been very impressed by posts I’ve read on Martuneac’s blog. Like this one, where he argues that the reason Bilbo Baggins has such excellent luck in The Hobbit is because that’s how Tolkien saw life. Tolkien had survived World War I thanks to sheer luck, and so he had no problem having his characters survive due to the same.

I generally dislike plot contrivances that hinge on miraculous luck for the hero. But, Martuneac makes a strong case for them in that post. So much of life really is determined by chance, so why not have it be so in fiction as well? Fatalism born of seeing the random violence of war.

Edmund essentially embodies this concept. His encounter with Zach piles one strange coincidence on top of another. And I’ll admit, it’s the sort of thing I would complain about in fiction, but together with Martuneac’s reading of Tolkien, it takes on a nearly allegorical quality. It’s a statement about the bizarre, weird, freakish stuff that happens in life.

And that’s why I picked up this book: I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, because of insights like this one. When I find a writing blog I like, it’s generally only a matter of time before I try one of the author’s books, even if they are outside my usual genres.

The third moment that stood out to me comes about three-quarters in, when the authorial tone briefly changes to directly address the reader. The entire story is in third-person, but only once does it actually turn into the voice of someone conscious that they are telling a story. The omniscient narrator tells us not only that this is a story, but, broadly, what’s going to happen next.

I found this interesting, because it’s a call-back to a much older, and currently unfashionable, form of storytelling. Readers may love or hate it. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was different, and I like that.

There is one more section after that which I want to discuss: a part where Zach is forced to make a very difficult choice, It’s the sort of thing that veterans of Role-Playing Games will recognize, where one has to make a snap decision and either way will be forced to sacrifice something.

The amount of “time” spent on this was a little excessive. By “time,” I mean the way the scene was “paused” to allow the reader to read Zach’s internal monologue thinking through the implications of each choice.

Now, of course, as authors it’s our prerogative to mess with time in our stories however we like. We can make years go by in a single sentence, or spend a whole chapter on one single minute of existence.

My problem with this scene was that the consequences were already quite clear without needing to have spelled them out. I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I knew how serious the problem was without being told. And it happens in the middle of an action sequence, so it felt a bit jarring.

Finally, the end of the book. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: I guessed where it was going before it got there, but despite this, it still produced the effect the author was going for. Now, I am perhaps the most easily-manipulated reader in the world, so maybe that’s not saying that much. But, for what it’s worth, it worked on me even though I saw it coming.

This is the first book in a series, and the ending does a good job at simultaneously being a satisfying ending point while also setting up the next book. 

One technical note: the dialogue was at times a bit clunky–characters would say things that sounded more like speeches than spoken dialogue. I found myself wondering if the story could have been told with less dialogue, in keeping with the older style of omniscient storytelling that I alluded to above. (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, contain very little dialogue, often summarizing conversations instead of quoting them.) On the other hand, that might be just too weird for most modern readers.

And now, a word about zombies. 

I was actually pleased by how little the zombies featured in the story–they are mostly a “background menace,” used sparingly and for maximum effect. I liked this, but then since I am not a zombie fan, I would. People who just can’t get enough zombies may be disappointed. 

Also, for the record, they are the fast-moving, predatory zombies; not the the slow, shambling kind. They also have one curious trait I’ve not seen in other zombie stories, in that they are somewhat capable of responding to Pavlovian conditioning. 

I mention these things only because I know there are people out there who care deeply about the quality of their literary zombies, and connoisseurs will be upset if they find themselves reading a zombie book that features the wrong kind of walking corpses.

Wow, I really am going on, aren’t I? Normally when I write a post this long, it’s to complain about a Star Wars movie. But I have to say one more thing in closing, which is that His Name Was Zach isn’t really about the plot, or even the setting. This is a character-driven book, plain and simple, and it really all hinges on how the reader feels about Zach and Abby. The dynamic between them is what “makes” the story.

It’s probably not a book for everyone, in particular not the squeamish. Then again, it may be that there are no readers more squeamish than I am, and even I made it through. But if you can handle the violence, it’s worth a look, and Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.

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.

What I like best about Geoffrey Cooper’s thrillers are how they provide a window into the politics of research institutions. I’ve noted this about his earlier Brad and Karen novels, Nondisclosure and Forever, and if you enjoyed those novels as much as I did, you’ll be glad to know that Bad Medicine is more of the same.

Brad is requested–more like ordered–by the university president to chair a tenure committee at a medical research Institute in Maine. There are two candidates up for tenure: one is Mark Heller, a superstar researcher who appears to have made huge strides in cancer research, the other is Carolyn Gelman, whose work, while strong, lags behind her colleague and is unpopular with the faculty to boot.

The politics of tenure committees are bad enough, but soon, Brad finds evidence that something far more serious is going on: someone is sabotaging Gelman’s research. Beginning with the destruction of test drugs and escalating to far more serious crimes, Brad and Karen once again are drawn into a criminal conspiracy.

As usual, the pace is fast and the twists are numerous, but there are still moments for the characters to stop and catch their breath, and to sample some delicious New England cuisine, the descriptions of which are highly enjoyable.

The core of the book is the relationship between Brad and Karen, which ends up being tested in a surprising way. I liked the way this was handled, too–it makes sense that what happens would put some stress on them, but it doesn’t create needless drama or tension. Sometimes authors go too far in creating fissures in a relationship, in a way that feels forced. But that didn’t happen here.

If you enjoyed the other Brad and Karen books, you’re going to like this one. Besides being a good thriller, it’s another fascinating glimpse behind the curtain at the highest levels of medical research.  As soon as I finished it, I found myself hoping to read another one soon.

[Note: this review is based on an ARC. Bad Medicine releases today, February 17, 2021.]

This is a Regency romance. Regency romance is a super-popular genre, which is why I made it my business to find a lesser-known indie Regency romance with only a few reviews. Because that’s how we do things here at Ruined Chapel.

To be clear, this book is more in the Regency Historical sub-category, in that the characters use many modern expressions and tend to behave more in accordance with present-day attitudes, without much care for the mores of the actual Regency period.

In other words, this book has sex scenes. Don’t go in expecting Jane Austen. It’s raunchy and fast-paced. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it a Regency sex comedy. 

And that’s not all. Penelope, the impulsive, stubborn heroine, moonlights as a highwayman when she’s not flirting with Lord Westfield, Duke of Burwick. There’s a subplot with smugglers and kidnappers that culminates in a violent showdown.

The book is fast-paced. Sometimes, it was so fast-paced I found It difficult to keep track of all the characters were and their motivations. It’s probably a good idea to keep notes on characters as they are introduced. Also, it has a trope that’s common in romance novels: two characters who are obviously going to end up together refusing to just admit they’re in love for no particular reason. This drives me nuts; but it’s so frequently used I guess romance readers don’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to marry somebody whose attitude towards me seemed to vary by the hour, but hey; that’s just me. 

Despite this criticism, the book is enjoyable. I think I’m right in saying the author doesn’t mean for it to be taken too seriously; hence the “funny” in the subtitle. There are some over-the-top scenes of bawdy, farcical humor that are quite enjoyable. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s still an entertaining tale with a bit of naughtiness to it.

On a technical note: there are a few typos throughout the book. It didn’t really bother me that much, but some readers are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others.

And it has to be said: I’m not normally one to read Regency romances. I’m nowhere near the target market for this book. And even I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.  Regency romance fans who like their tales to err on the silly side are sure to find it a treat.

I have to start this review with some context: I started reading this book shortly after doing some beta reading for a friend of mine. The book I was beta reading was an extremely dark, harrowing story about terrorism.  While it’s a great story, it was nice to be able to turn from that world (not to mention real life news) into this book, which is a sweet, uplifting romance.

Not that there aren’t serious moments in Second Chance Romance. The female lead, Melanie Harper, has a major tragedy in her past. Trying to forget it, she’s immersed herself in her work as a divorce attorney in Washington D.C., but has come to the small town of Sweet Gum, Virginia to convince her Aunt Phoebe to abandon her little diner and move to D.C.

While there, Melanie has a car accident and is rescued by Jackson Daughtry, a single father raising his young daughter, Rebecca, after his wife left him.

After Melanie recovers from her accident, Phoebe suffers a stroke, rendering her unable to run her business, and forcing Melanie and Jackson to work together to keep the diner running. At first, the big-city lawyer and the small-town paramedic clash, but soon–it’s a romance, after all–they begin to develop feelings for each other.

Not that it’s smooth sailing even then. Jackson and Melanie still disagree over her plan to close the diner and move her aunt to D.C. And to make matters even more difficult, Jackson’s ex-wife shows up again.

I should mention that this is a Love Inspired book, which is an imprint that publishes Christian fiction. So there are a few references to characters praying and facing struggles with their faith throughout the book. It never comes across as strident or preachy, however; and largely seemed right for the characters.

All in all, it’s a very sweet story. There are no big surprises or shocking twists, and there shouldn’t be in a book like this. It’s a feel-good book. And while it’s not the sort of thing I often read, it’s quite enjoyable. There is a place in every art form for both the Rockwell-esque and the Goya-esque. Though my own tastes skew towards the latter, I can still respect the former. 

This is a perfect book for anyone who wants to enjoy a light and uplifting romance in a pleasant small-town atmosphere.

Who doesn’t love a good dystopia? To read about, I mean.

The country (maybe more of a city-state) of Deres-Thorm is a bizarre, surreal nightmare, evocative of North Korea, East Berlin, and every other totalitarian dystopia. The unsuspecting narrator, Horus Blassingame, is thrown from one bizarre obstacle to another, whether it’s from the constantly changing street and building names, the two distinct dialects, or the constant paranoia of the security forces.

The book is darkly comic, with an emphasis on the dark. There are some scenes that are not too far off of Room 101 from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Still, the narrator remains relatively upbeat, despite the torturous conditions he often finds himself in.

It’s a very funny satire on the kinds of horrors that can occur in a Stalinist bureaucracy. I’d call it Kafkaesque, although I’ve never read Kafka, so I may be wrong. But it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I’ve heard people call “Kafkaesque.” (And, well, it says so on the cover.) It also called to mind G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, with its surreal and simultaneously funny and disturbing takes on political theory.

I like the book a lot, so I don’t want the following complaints to be misconstrued as reasons not to read it. But I have to put them out there all the same.

First, the only named female character (not counting the genderless Th’pugga) is a prostitute. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I swear, so much modern fiction gives you the idea that prostitution is always and everywhere running rampant. Yes, yes, I know; “world’s oldest profession” and all that; but really.

The second point isn’t even really a criticism, but more of an observation. The most significant exchange in the book, which sums up the entire philosophy governing Deres-Thorm, is when the main antagonist, Pokska, explains that citizens are bound by the laws of their own countries while in Deres-Thorm, just as all citizens of Deres-Thorm are bound by their laws no matter where they are in the world. The logic behind this, he elaborates, is that “the citizen is the property of the State.”

This is pretty horrifying, right? It’s close to a re-formulation of Mussolini’s “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state.” It’s basically the central concept of totalitarianism, and the reader is not slow in seeing how it can lead to exactly the kinds of horrors depicted in this book–not to mention in real life.

But, wait. What is the state? The state is legalized violence, because the state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. (Don’t take my word for it, take Max Weber’s, one of the founders of modern sociology.) In governments structured as liberal democracies and constitutional republics, the people consent to authorize the state to use violence. We issue them a badge, as it were. In other, more brutal forms of government, the state doesn’t need to show the people any stinkin’ badges.

This is an important difference, and I don’t want to minimize it. But… even in liberal democracies… the state still has the authority to deprive us of our freedoms, if it has some reason to do so. Theoretically, at least, the people can hold the state accountable so that it will use its terrible powers only for good. Theoretically. But it has terrible powers, all the same…

My point is, the state kind of does own the citizen, by definition.  It can pretend it doesn’t; it can put all sorts of accountability measures and checks and balances in place–and it should, and it does. But still.

And yet, not every state is a hellish Orwellian nightmare. So the state owns the people. So what? Just because you own something doesn’t mean you’ll destroy or mistreat it. Generally the opposite, actually. The problem is when the machinery of the state is controlled by psychopaths. Which, admittedly, happens alarmingly often. And even once is too often. Obviously, the power of the state is alluring to psychopaths, with results like those seen in A True Map of the City.

What I’m driving at here, in my usual roundabout way, is that the book seems to be trying to determine what it is that makes a government go insane and stop serving its people, and instead become a simple exercise in power for power’s sake; to preserve by any means necessary the status of the ruling class.

What we’re really trying to figure out is, “what is the root of tyrannical government?” To determine exactly how creeps like Pokska and Th’pugga came to be running the show in Deres-Thorm.

In an early draft of this review, I had a much longer section on this question, referencing Lord Acton and Plato’s Republic and lots of other stuff like that on the origins of tyranny. But I cut that, because it was wandering too far from the topic at hand. I didn’t want to do that to you. (Again.) But I hope I’ve at least convinced you that there are lots of big ideas in this little book. Maybe some powerful mind will do a truly cogent interpretation of it, like Christopher Hitchens on Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But as of right now it only has one review on Amazon, (5 stars, of course) so I think I can safely say it needs more readers.

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.

“Aamrgan?” you say. “What kind of title is that?” Well, it’s an anagram of anagram. Nifty concept, isn’t it? It’s a good brain-teaser that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Aamrgan is a short book, but it contains huge ideas. It was originally going to be a novel, until the author began contemplating the backward time travel paradox, and so instead wrote this short but fascinating work of metaphysical puzzles.

When I was in college I took a class in logic offered by the Philosophy department. I did okay in the class, but I always felt like there was something about it that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Maybe my mind isn’t great at grasping abstract concepts. I got the same vibe reading this–like I was stretching my mental muscles in a way they weren’t used to moving. 

Don’t be fooled; while the book is 34 pages long, it’ll keep you thinking about it for way longer than it takes to read it. It’s different; it makes you think about things you may have taken for granted in entirely new ways. It’s a good book to start off the year, too; what better way to start a new year than with a new perspective?