GossamerThis is the sequel to The Gossamer Globe, which I reviewed here. It’s a fantastic book, and I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum because I would not want to spoil the first book. Gossamer Power follows Lucia, Kailani, Ms. Battenbox, Jevan and other characters from Globe, as well as introducing some terrific new ones, including the handsome Sebastian, who is irresistibly fascinating to almost everyone, and a character known simply as “Glorious Leader” or to use his full name, “Oh Great Glorious Leader.”

All the things I loved about the first book are present here as well: the humor, the sword-fighting, the political intrigue. I was worried this installment wouldn’t live up to the high bar set by the first, but I enjoyed this one almost as much. I say “almost” because this one ends on a cliffhanger, so it doesn’t have a totally satisfying ending. Tonally, it’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Gossamer Globe’s A New Hope. 

So much of what makes these books wonderful are the little things, as in when, on having traveled by airship to his native land, the Glorious Leader shows Jevan and Lucia the flying carriages of his home, commenting that the people who clamored for them had no “regard for the fact that an airship is, essentially, a flying carriage. They already existed.” And indeed, how many times have you heard people talk about not having flying cars when in fact that’s basically what an airplane is?

The book is full of little moments like this. Ms. Battenbox isn’t in it much, which is kind of a pity, since she was one of my favorites from the first book, but her keen mind for strategy and her biting wit are still in evidence during her few scenes. At one point, she remarks, “There are many state secrets this sham government will never know about… How stupid are you commoners to think you could imprison me in it?”

In addition to being a bawdy, swashbuckling adventure, Gossamer Power, like its predecessor is also a clever satire, touching on many everything from the “Internet of Things” to the modern surveillance state. Like any good fantasy, for all its outlandish elements, there are some things that really ring true.

It’s a worthy sequel, and I can’t wait for the next one!

A lot of the art and literature that I enjoy is broadly described as part of “nerd culture.” Science-fiction in general, a number of modern video games, H.P. Lovecraft and his literary ancestors and descendants… all these things are pretty common examples of things that nerds like. But “nerd” has always seemed like a rotten word to me. I understand the logic of defeating an insult by claiming it proudly, but it’s still inherently ugly.

The best you can say about “nerd” is that it isn’t the word “geek,” which I haven’t liked since Pat Prescott told me about the word’s origins in the horrific world of traveling 19th-century freak shows. (Caution: there is some truly disturbing stuff in the Harlan Ellison quote Pat uses to describe a geek.)

The other problem with “nerd” is that it’s come to be synonymous with “enthusiast.” People describe themselves as “word nerds,” “biology nerds,” “computer nerds,” etc. etc. etc. If you wanted to be really specific, you would probably call me a “sci-fi nerd,” although that feels close to redundant.  Pretty much any pursuit that seems even slightly intellectual has fans who describe themselves as “X nerds.”

But “nerd stuff” is a convenient shorthand for describing the things I write about. So if I’m going to complain about it, I’d better have an alternative to propose. I need a way of describing the aesthetic that’s more specific than “nerdy things.” Because the sort of thing I’m talking about here is more than just general sci-fi; it needs a more precise name.

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Poster for “Le Chat Noir” (1896)

I’ve thought about this a lot, and what I came up with was Techno-Decadentism. Let me explain how I hit on that term. Decadence was the name adopted (again, originally from an insult) by a movement of writers and artists in the late 19th-century. The movement is closely associated with Symbolism and Gothic literature. I first learned about it through Robert W. Chambers’ short story collection, The King in Yellow. The first four stories in the collection are a weird blend of Poe-like Gothic horror and H.G. Wells-ish futurism. Most of the stories in the collection deal with artists living in Paris, one of the hubs of the Decadent movement.

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Poster for “The Grand Duke” (1896)

Decadence has a negative connotation, since it means “decay.” And indeed there was a general feeling in Europe at the end of 19th century of pessimism and decline. This feeling has a name: Fin de sièclewhich literally means “end of the century,” but also refers specifically to the cultural mood in late-1800s Europe.

Techno-Decadentist art will also have a similar mood, though modernized. Warren Spector, the creator of the game Deus Ex, called this mood “millennial weirdness.” A fitting term, in more ways than one. It could be my taste for this is partly due to being a member of the millennial generation in the United States. Born in a global hegemon, at a moment of near-total peace and dominance, it may be I feel an instinctive sense that there is nowhere to go but down. But we’ll leave that kind of philosophizing to the Edward Gibbons of the world.

But this does not mean that all Techno-Decadent art is inherently pessimistic, only that it usually takes place in a world “on the brink of social and economic collapse,” as Chris Avellone once described the setting of Knights of the Old Republic II.

Oscar Wilde, one of the most enduring writers from the decadent movement, supposedly said that “Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts.” I can’t find a source for this, but whether he actually said it or not, it’s a good quote. It illustrates a key point about the underlying philosophy of Decadentism, which is very individualistic and unconcerned with themes like Idealism or Romanticism.

That’s the reasoning for the use of Decadentism, but what about Techno?  Well, I was inspired to use the term by the “techno-warlords” in Lorinda Taylor’s The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars novels. It’s necessary to specify this because most of the art I’m talking about here involves futuristic technologies. Typically, “nerd culture” refers to both sci-fi and traditional fantasy. My own tastes lean much, much more strongly towards sci-fi; especially cyberpunk, dystopias, and retro-futurism. While there can be an overlap in themes with sci-fi, I’d argue that fantasy fiction and art is clearly carrying on the tradition of classic mythology, and therefore deserves to be seen as a distinct artistic movement.

So when anyone asks me if there is a unifying theme to the kinds of things I tend to write about, that’s what I’m going to answer. I assume most people will shrug, say to themselves, “That’s awfully pretentious,” and continue to think of me as a guy who writes about nerd stuff. But at least I’ll have a term that describes my taste and style to my own satisfaction.

All of the above are works and art styles that I associate with Techno-Decadentism

TEThis is a departure from the kind of book I normally review. I mostly focus on reviewing modern indie books. This book was published in 1974, and while it isn’t exactly a famous book, it’s reasonably well-known. (375 ratings on Goodreads.)

So, why am I reviewing it? Well, I picked it up on a lark after seeing the cover and decided to give it a try. It’s sci-fi, which I like, and it follows a team of researchers exploring a distant planet.

The protagonist is researcher Ian Macauley, an introverted and extremely intelligent man who is part of the new rotation of scientists journeying to the world of Sigma Draconis. Supervising the team is General Ordoñez-Vico, an authoritarian martinet with little appreciation for science and a great deal of paranoia. Ordoñez-Vico is authorized to make a recommendation to the Earth authorities on whether the mission should continue, and all the science team walks on eggshells to avoid enraging him.

This makes their already difficult task more complicated, as they are facing the incredible challenge of reasoning out what befell the race of beings known as the Draconians, an intelligent race which went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a very short period of time–and then to extinction shortly thereafter.

The science team is an international coalition of researchers–brilliant people from various fields and all different backgrounds. And even so, they all find themselves turning to Ian for inspiration, as his brilliant, empathic mind–which he likens to a “haunted house”–tries to unravel the mystery.

The characters are well fleshed-out and believable. There’s a romantic subplot between Ian and Cathy, another member of the team, and it doesn’t feel tacked on at all; it seems completely believable and emotionally consistent.

There isn’t much “conflict” in the typical sense; it’s really a mystery. The main plot is centered on uncovering what happened to the Draconians. Some readers might find the middle section of the book a bit talky–it’s a fairly realistic depiction of scholars arguing over theories–but personally, I liked it. It made for a compelling intellectual exercise, and while it’s sometimes a bit verbose, it makes sense that scientists would have discussions like this.

Another terrific concept is the method Ian uses to try to get “in the minds” of the extinct race. I won’t spoil it, but it really is ingenious.

Something else I won’t spoil is the answer to how the Draconians went extinct. The ending of the book does explain that, in a way I found satisfying and logical. And there is a resolution for the human characters’ storylines as well. Though here I’ll risk a little bit of spoilage to note that readers should be warned: this isn’t an upbeat book. I won’t say too much, but don’t expect the sort of sci-fi story that ends with a victory parade and a medal ceremony, let’s just leave it at that.

There are a lot of elements of the horror genre in Total Eclipse. The premise of a team of scientists researching alien life in a remote and forbidding setting is a classic horror concept that runs from At The Mountains of Madness through Who Goes There? up to the Alien prequel Prometheus. Yet, this isn’t a horror novel, or at least not in a monster story kind of way. There is horror, but of a more subtle, realistic kind, and blended very closely with the wonder of exploring a new world, utterly different from our own.

The horror and the wonder mingle together to produce a profoundly weird and memorable mood. It’s something close to the feeling of sublime terror that the literary Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to evoke with Gothic fiction, and yet at no point does it suggest there are magical or supernatural elements at work. The “science” in “science fiction” is definitely emphasized throughout.

And now–even though I promised I would try to stop doing this–a word about the cover. Or rather the covers.

The cover for the Kindle edition that I have is just whatever. It fulfills the minimum requirement of having the author’s name and the title displayed clearly and legibly, but other than that, has no artistic merit whatsoever.

The cover for the paperback edition, pictured above, is a major reason I bought this book. I saw it on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and I fell in love at once. Look at it–it’s beautiful. Mysterious, evocative and intriguing. To me, the style of art that went on the covers of these classic sci-fi tales was something of a high point for cover design. Modern photo editing software allows cover designers to create wonderfully realistic images, but these often fail to capture that unique blend of star-gazing romanticism and gritty reality that these older covers do.