Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD

Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD
Stewart Cowley

The Terran Trade Authority books are coffee table books for the 22nd Century. The first in the series, Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD, is a “non-fiction” presentation of spaceships from that century in the form of full page paintings, along with some background on their development and use. Cowley’s book from 1978 is superficially comparable to Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, another favorite of Two Dudes. However, while Barlowe’s features paintings of famous aliens from other authors’ books, Spacecraft is all from Cowley’s imagination. It appears that the TTA books are being reprinted for use in an RPG format, but for the originals, this site is best source of (slightly dated) information. (He writes about the difficulty involved in finding copies, which means that this HTML was coded sometime before Amazon took off.)

I came across the TTA when searching for a good book full of spaceship pictures that I could share with my son. Sure enough, this oversized book generally has full page illustrations accompanied by schematics and a description on the page facing. The ships are fun to look at and the quality of the art, to my untrained eye, is high. What surprised me though, was the history that Cowley creates with broad strokes in the ship descriptions. Because he’s writing this as a coffee table book, the assumption is that the reader already knows what happened during the 21st Century. Famous events are referred to, then dropped, battles are mentioned in passing, the final result of various conflicts is never in doubt, but somehow at the end, the reader has a sense of the grand sweep of future history. We watch as humanity takes its first steps into space, meets aliens at the nearby Centauri stars, falls into war, and ultimately triumphs.

The book is not meant to be taken as a serious novel, or as something to concentrate on for long periods of time. There is no message, no characters, and no suspense. Spacecraft is best enjoyed a few pages at a time, ogling the pictures and letting the history seep in slowly. I can only imagine the effect this book might have on the young and impressionable; had I come across it in early adolescence, I probably would have worn the book out and hung the pictures on my wall. Even though it is long out of print, I had no trouble getting a copy of this from the library, and there appear to be plenty available online. The Terran Trade Authority books are definitely worth checking out.

Rating: Youtube collections of the best goals. Not a lot of context or development, but non-stop eye candy.

NPR Top 100 Flowchart

Alert readers may remember that NPR released the results of their Top 100 all-time best ever SFF books a couple months ago. Opinions vary on how awesome or moronic the list is (ours is here), but people can probably all agree that the unannotated list is difficult to glean recommendations from. SFSignal to the rescue! Somebody with more time and graphic editing skills than anyone here at Two Dudes collated the entire list into one gigantic flowchart that will decide Your Next Book.

They have even included a printable version, for those needing an excessively nerdy wall hanging or checklist. While the chart doesn’t change my feelings about the list, it certainly makes it easier to figure out. Highly recommended.

Late Edit: “Prodigious Breeders” killed me.

Dream Park Sequels

The Barsoom Project
The California Voodoo Game
Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes

Leading up to the review of the newest book in the Dream Park series, I reread the first two sequels. This was actually a bit of a coincidence, as I started this project without knowing that a new book was coming. (We’re a bit out of the loop here at Two Dudes. It keeps us and our opinions pure.) When writing the first Dream Park review, I was just looking for a Niven post that I could bang out in short order, even though it’s been a few years since I read it. After that, it seemed like fun to reread the rest of the books, so I started requesting from the library. Lo and behold, a new book was slated to arrive soon. I knew in an instant that this was big news and Two Dudes had to be there for it.

All of the Dream Park books thus far follow the same basic structure: a fantasy-like game narrative wrapped in a science fiction mystery. Niven has mystery credibility, as he was writing Gil Hamilton stories back when John Campbell was still telling people that nobody would ever write a decent SF mystery. (This claim has puzzled me for a long time, because what is Hard SF but a mystery? Substitute a Big Mysterious Object for a murder and lab coats for trench coats; the end result is pretty much the same.) He is also comfortable in near-future Hard SF and his own brand of fantasy, so the genre hopping comes off as more of a game than a challenge. I suppose this is fitting, considering all the gaming going on anyway.

When I first read the original Dream Park, I was disappointed because they avoided a stereotypical high fantasy setting. (This was in my young and foolish days.) Reading it now, I’m glad they did. And I’m glad that the next two books followed the same pattern, letting Niven and Barnes go crazy with whatever mythology caught their fancy at the time. The Barsoom Project features an Inuit setting, while California Voodoo Game uses, wait for it, voodoo. Looking at all three, the Inuit narrative might be the most inventive and interesting. The Cargo Cults from the first book were new and crazy, and melding voodoo and a post-apocalyptic setting is also entertaining. As a game setting, though, I think the second book wins the prize.

Likewise with the mysteries, Barsoom gives the strongest foundation to the books. In the first Dream Park, the mystery feels a bit contrived and not entirely connected to the story. With Voodoo, there has to be a mystery, because there always is, but again it feels a bit like the book could have been entirely about the game, with no major loss. Barsoom, though, combines a multi-layered mystery to the ongoing game through several different threads; I think this is the most complete narrative of the bunch. Without the mystery, the game is somewhat flat; without the game, the mystery doesn’t mean a whole lot. This compared to the other two books, where the game feels more or less self-sufficient and the connections to the mystery are a touch arbitrary.

This may be a reflection of the games themselves. Dream Park is a wild ride, where the mere possibility of live action role playing on a grand scale is utterly intoxicating; the mystery is a bit of an afterthought to readers zestfully hoping that they may someday get to play. Voodoo pushes the game to a new level. Dream Park has acquired an entire abandoned arcology in the California desert, called in legendary game masters and top players, and planned an epic showdown in the vast building. There are other things going on, not the least of them a plan to colonize Mars, but the showcase here is clearly the game. Barsoom, however, is a run of the mill “Fat Ripper Special,” where overweight people run themselves ragged for a few days, eat only the healthy offerings provided by the game, and possibly learn some subliminal strategies for changing their lifestyles. No steaming hunks of venison here – only carrots for these brave warriors, please. The other games are massive productions with star players and appropriate theatrics, destined for multimedia franchises and mass consumption. With the more subdued game in Barsoom, the mystery elements assume greater importance and more plot cohesiveness.

And yet, Barsoom is in some ways the least satisfying of the books. I suspect I would feel differently if Voodoo didn’t exist. The reason? I’m a sucker for continuing sagas, epilogues, long explanations of how every character’s life passed, etc. (Note: this does not mean I’m reading George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan. That is entirely different.) Barsoom is mostly new dramatis personae. Aside from Alex Griffin, the Park security manager, and a couple of minor characters, everyone venturing into the Inuit mayhem is new. With Voodoo, many of the original gang are back for an even bigger, better game, and there is the satisfaction that comes from seeing familiar faces having a new adventure. A proper literary critic might flay me for giving in to sentiment like this, but so be it. I want to see all these imaginary people playing their imaginary characters be, at the very least, imaginarily happy.

These are Larry Niven books, with all that entails. Readers who don’t like him now will find little to change their minds. Niven has my number though, whatever his faults, and I can’t stop reading. I wouldn’t put the Dream Park books as high on the list as some of Known Space, but this is turning into a relatively major set of stories. The authors have a good feel for gamers, both as characters and as an audience. I can’t imagine any serious D&D people not getting a kick out of these and finding themselves with a faraway look in the eyes, wishing that someday, somehow, they too could whack away at holographic monsters with a virtually enhanced padded stick. The same goes for reformed gamers. I should know.

Rating: Football Manager. Just like not all of us can be powerful wizards or warriors with mighty thews, not everyone can take the reins of a fourth division Belgian team and guide it to the Champion’s League. That is why people go to Dream Park and why we play Football Manager.

Anime Philosophers

Anime Philosophers

By: Jose

I will be the first to say that rumors of my demise have been exaggerated.  Here at Two Dudes, there are many important things that have to be done behind the scenes (such as making sure that the attic is clean, the Mountain Dew has been restocked, and neckbeards reach the proper level of dishevelment), and one could say that I have been fighting the good fight for some time to make sure that high quality posts come to all four of our readers.

That said, certain rumblings of discontent from Pep have forced me to come out of my cave and make a post.  I’m under the impression that he thinks it’s quite important for continuing to grow our somewhat meager readership.   To that end, I will admit here, freely, under the cloud of complete anonymity, that I occasionally watch anime.  I will not point people towards the anime disclaimer, but rather simply state that I enjoy giant robots, explosions, and occasional bursts of “burning spirit.”  Like all things, it vacillates rather exceptionally in the quality presented. [1]

However, occasionally I come upon something so utterly and completely ridiculous that it makes me writhe in agony, drop to my knees, and scream “Japaaaaaan” in much the same voice that Darth Vader takes at the end of Episode Three.  In today’s case, it is the following:

To preface the following rant it must be noted that I was a philosophy major in college.  I spent nights agonizing over things like “world” and “being” and “truth.”  To this date, I’m unsure if this actually did anything for me other than give me a substance abuse problem, but there is something so utterly ridiculous about the philosophers being transposed into the bodies of magical teenage girls that it fills me with something vaguely between rage and agony.

I’m really rather annoyed at the way each of the philosophers are presented.  The sort of twin like mentality of Hume and Berkeley seems to be indicating some sort coherent identity between their philosophies.  In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Berkeley struggles with the existence of reality that is not directly perceived [his ultimate answer is that things don’t disappear because God is watching everything. QED], while Hume is much more concerned with direct assaults on the ivory tower of metaphysical thought.   While Hume’s philosophy is extremely well done, most of it is done in the way we think of more Critical Philosophy now-a-days.  He points out a foolish assumption [something like causation], identifies that we have no perception of it [i.e. we can’t perceive cause and effect], and then asserts that some fundamental frame work of our everyday existence is actually just a habit of mind.  While they’re both very concerned with the perception of existence, their interaction with the philosophy and the ultimate thrust of the empirical philosophy is completely different. [2]

Kant makes a certain amount of sense, but unless she’s got a weird sort of worship/hatred relationship with Hume, then it completely misses the point of what caused Kant to create the Critical Philosophy. [3]  Kant was originally a Leibnizian rationalist, but after reading Hume, basically fell apart and slowly put himself back together intellectually.  [This is a common occurrence after reading Hume for the first time.]  Hegel appears to have a giant rack.  I have no idea why.  And the fact that Spinoza is having a panty shot raises feelings of extreme ire.  [4]  Nietzsche looks rather angry, which I suppose is sort of correct, but one needs to realize that Nietzsche was in no way actually a nihilist.  He basically said it himself.  Rather, Nietzsche should be thought of as the Anti-Plato.

Descartes looks completely boring and in this sense is probably the most accurate, but I’m sure Japan will find a way to screw this up too.

tl;dr: Keep your damn anime out of my intellectualism.

[1] Unfortunately, anime often feels the need to provide things like fan service (which I find awkward at best, and downright weird at worst) and very warped representations of human relationships.  I’m sure Pep understands the reasoning behind all of it, but anime’s general idea of how people interact with one another often leaves me frothing and wanting to throw things.

[2] Berkeley is still very much in the tradition of the old metaphysicians– his primary concern has to do with God.  It makes sense, he is an Archbishop at the time of his writing.

[3] The Critical Philosophy is best expressed through his magnum opus: The Critique of Pure Reason.  Effectively, this is an attempt to save Metaphysical & Religious thought from what Kant thought was the damning thought of Hume.  Whether or not he saves it is a matter of some debate, but the Critical Philosophy forms the basis for pretty much all philosophy that comes after it.

[4] For those of you unawares, Spinoza was a philosopher who was SO God-Drunken that both the Jewish Faith and the Catholic Church found him rather odd and summarily kicked him out.  He basically lived as a lens grinder and wrote letters to various philosophers about how his geometric proofs, in fact, proved that we were all actual modal existences of God (don’t ask).

Servant of the Underworld

Servant of the Underworld
Aliette de Bodard

Full disclosure: I found out about this book when a link rolled into Two Dudes from Ms. de Bodard’s blog. I followed the trackback and discovered an author who seems like a pleasant, interesting person, writes interesting and challenging posts, who answered my comments, and who unknowingly convinced me to read her books. I went into Servant of the Underworld wanting to like it, so I could write a positive review, and this may have clouded my judgment. I have given good reviews to things written by people I never want to speak to, though, so who knows? The reader is welcome to take this review with a grain of salt, but I stand by my opinions.

De Bodard is a bit of a departure from the stereotypical SF writer. She is an American-born, French-Vietnamese engineer, who lives in Paris, speaks French as a first language, but writes her SFF in English. For whatever reason, she seems to favor Aztec or Chinese settings for her books, which seems like exactly the sort of thing Thomas Friedman would start a book about globalization with. I am puzzled only by the China bit, knowing how the Vietnamese generally feel about their giant neighbor, but don’t automatically assume that because one parent is Vietnamese, the author is a raving Vietnamese nationalist. (National and ethnic identity in the globalized world is a fascinating topic, but not something to delve into today.)

True to form, Servant of the Underworld is hardboiled Aztecs in the 15th Century. Tenochtitlan Noir, as it were. I’m not well-versed enough in Mysteries to promise that the tropes match one-to-one, but this is no locked-room, gentle intellectual exercise. Instead, there is much stalking through alleyways, corruption in high places, violence and physical confrontation, a cynical and jaded investigator, at least one doomed femme fatale, failed love, thwarted ambition and the like. Humphrey Bogart striding through Olde Mexico in a loincloth, cape and feathers is not quite the image I am trying to convey here, but the atmosphere certainly reminded me of the Los Angeles of Chandler or Elroy. Any mystery reader worth his salt will probably eviscerate my analysis, but I am unconcerned. I would simply demand an explanation of Dyson Spheres and mock his ignorance, because this is not pure mystery or historical fiction, this is Historical Fantasy!

Fantasy, because in this Aztec Empire, magic is very real. Also very gross. I will be keeping my budding zoologist daughter away from this one, since a staggering number of owls, rabbits and hummingbirds donate many pints of blood to the cause of magic. I don’t know if this has been optioned as a movie, but PETA would poop themselves during filming. Blood powers magic, which I assume is more or less what real life Aztecs believed, and human blood is the strongest. I’ve always wanted to be a wizard ala Gandalf or Belgarath, but I’ll take a pass on our hero’s life here. My life is painful enough, what with stubbed toes and soccer wounds, to spend putting thorns in my ears or slicing my hands. (Yes, I am a squeamish pansy. What of it?)

Acatl, our hero and viewpoint character, is made of sterner stuff than I am. He is the Head Priest of the god of the Underworld (thus the title), who is called into action to investigate a strange disappearance. We soon learn that Acatl has been called, not because of his reputation or job description, but because his brother was found at the scene of the crime, covered with the blood of the victim. While the book eases the reader gently into Aztec politics and mythology, the family dirty laundry is on display from Chapter One as Acatl and his brother natter on about failing marriages and disappointed parents. Acatl is tasked with solving the mystery while untangling complicated family issues, all as he is slowly drawn into a political quagmire in one world and a conflict of gods in another. Every time he pulls one thread to unravel, a larger part of the knot reveals itself. Exonerating his brother requires trips into the realms of the gods, interventions at the highest level of Aztec society, and delving into the past of his family and the victims. The resolution of all of this is satisfying, drawing as it does on divine motivations as much as human frailties.

Acatl is also a bit of an emo wanker. A well-drawn emo wanker, but an emo wanker nonetheless. He spends as much time buried in his memories and angst as he does knee deep in the mystery at hand. If Acatl was alive today, he would probably listen to Coldplay and write bad poetry about failed love instead of sacrificing parrots to the god of the Underworld. Fortunately, he and several other characters learn Important Life Lessons as the book progresses, which means that we don’t cheer for demons to devour his immortal soul. Or at least I didn’t. Most of the Lessons come at the hands of angry gods and their demonspawn, but some also come from his sister.

Servant of the Underworld is a page turner. Once the story crosses a certain line, it hurtles forward sleeplessly. The characters begin to transform under the stress of the investigation and the story itself slowly turns from historical mystery to Holy Crap The World Is Ending fantasy. Acatl has to stop moping about his parents’ lack of support long enough to prevent an angry god from destroying everything, not to mention figuring out why a magic jaguar carried off a lovely and seductive priestess and absolving his apparently guilty brother; things move along briskly and the book never fails to hold the reader’s attention.

My only real concern with the story is that this is the first of a series of three novels. The setting is rich enough to reward further exploration, but there is a limit to how many times the world can be threatened. Does this mean that the second and third books will be weaker for a comparative lack of drama? Or is the world close to destruction multiple times in a decade? I am interested how these things resolve themselves going forward, since the author has painted herself into a bit of a corner here. Other than that, this is an impressive first novel. It comes recommended by Two Dudes, especially to those looking for something different in their fantasy.

Rating: Club Deportivo Guadalajara, the most successful club in the Primera División de México.

Espy Pt. 2

Komatsu Sakyo

This is Part Two of our in depth look at Espy. Part One is here. Remember, if for some reason anyone is looking to avoid spoilers for this obscure Japanese novel, please stop now. Part One is more or less spoiler free.

As the story opens in Tokyo, “Good Guy” is sent on assignment to New York. He hops on a plane and, within paragraphs, has detected a bomb that mysteriously made its way into his luggage. Because Good Guy is more of a reader of minds than a mover of objects, this is a problem. He fights with the bomb for the duration of the flight, much to the confusion of the stewardesses who wonder why he is coated with sweat and gritting his teeth. Finally, he wrings out his last bit of power (get used to this, as he wrings out power an average of once per twenty pages) and defuses the bomb. When he arrives in New York, the bomb has inexplicably vanished, teleported in and out by a mysterious bad person. This is the kind of story we’re dealing with here.

Another fun indication of story content comes at the airport. Our hero is psychically contacted by the lovely Maria, another espy. She says he’s handsome, he peeps at her and compliments her naked form, and she telepathically slaps him. I don’t fully understand the mechanics of all of this, but we’ll take what comes to us here at Two Dudes. Anyway, everyone takes off to Long Island; that’s the last we’ll hear of boring yuppy havens again, because Yoshio (getting tired of writing Good Guy) and Maria are promptly shipped off to Turkey.

The flight to Turkey is eventful. Yoshio and Maria get it on without delay, but the afterglow is interrupted by Spanish fighter planes. Spain, still under Franco, demands that they land in Barcelona. Here, they are detained by members of the Spanish military that are in thrall to the mysterious, but very psychically powerful, bad guy. Rescue soon comes in the form of Basque separatists. They are motivated by freedom, revenge, and whatnot and are naturally quite magnificent. Yoshio comments on this magnificence throughout the book.

Once in Turkey, the fun really begins. A plot is afoot to assassinate the Soviet Premiere, apparently because he is on good terms with the US President and close to ending the Cold War. Yoshio’s merry band has grown and together they wander through Istanbul looking for clues. They bump into various spies and suspicious characters, a crucial source is killed by an ingenious long range sniper, and Maria vanishes. As they go in search of Maria, we reach what is probably the best part of the book.

Yoshio and his partner enter an opium den, because this is Turkey and of course there are opium dens in the back rooms of cafes. The cafe is full of Nazi war criminals, hit men, and Mafia members, but Yoshio has some secret thing that lets him in. (I was hazy on how that went down.) They slip past the opium addicts in the first secret room, and find themselves in an even more secret room. There is a stage here, where a drugged girl dances and morally questionable rich men watch. The head bad guy says something like, “So nice to see you Mr. Good Guy” and chains him to a chair in the front row. Who should emerge now, but Maria! (Dramatic and threatening music.) Maria is naturally naked, because there is no way that these men would tolerate a clothed woman on the stage, and she is soon joined by a prodigiously endowed black man. People are drugged out, drums are beating, the black man approaches Maria, Yoshio closes his eyes so he won’t see what happens to his beloved (that was fast) Maria, but it turns out he’s in an electric chair, so the bad guy can shock Yoshio whenever eye closing occurs, and this is just about the most terrible situation ever.

And then, Espy‘s crowning moment. Yoshio wrings out the last ounce of his power (again), telepathically grabs the black man who is now ravishing Maria in merciless fashion, and psychically BREAKS THE MAN’S WANG IN TWO.

Wow. I was ready to stop reading books forever, knowing that nothing will ever top this. I didn’t even know that such a thing was possible. But the story continues. In the ensuing chaos, everyone is rescued but Yoshio. He talks with the bad guy during the previously mentioned scene where Abdullah is flogged, then is tortured, put in a small cage, shipped out into the black sea, and dropped in. Fortunately, his boss arrives from Tokyo in a submarine, so Yoshio is fished out of the water. Good thing that sub was just hanging around, but I guess when one’s boss has telepathy, one is never really out of reach.

Off to Germany with them, to foil the plot. A number of strange things happen. Yoshio can now teleport himself, and Maria can make people spontaneously combust. Torment can have its rewards, apparently. We also learn that silver somehow turns off psychic power, as Yoshio is whisked away to a secret room with no door by a be-silvered woman. No worries here, though, since Maria can start her rival on fire and Yoshio can flee the conflagration. There is another scene involving the obligatory high rolling casino, where the bad guys again say too much. Now they are set up for the assassination attempt, which is almost as amazing as the Turkish opium den.

As everyone watches the Premiere give a dramatic speech, the espies frantically search for bad people. Suddenly, a missing espy appears in the sky and plummets to the earth. While everyone is watching this, a shot rings out and hits the Premiere. The espies have failed. Yoshio traces the bullet’s path, teleports his way to the assassin, and lands on top of the getaway driver. The other espies do what they must. Yoshio deduces that the assassin waited in that spot for the doomed man to appear in midair, then as soon as the bodyguards moved a bit, shot through the sudden opening into the Premiere’s now unprotected back. Yoshio then attempts to teleport with the assassin, but ends up leaving the poor man’s head behind. Sorry, assassin.

Now, for the weakness in this evil plot. Apparently, the assassin had ties to the CIA, which would be discovered upon his capture. (He was, of course, unaware that he was being set up.) The world would find out that someone with vague CIA connections had knocked off the Soviet leader, the world would immediately veer off the road to peace that it was on, and the evil group of super spies would somehow profit from all of this. We know this because the be-silvered woman’s twin sister revealed all in the high rolling casino. Why? I’m not certain. But back to the plot. Besides being convoluted, what would have happened had the bodyguards not moved? That’s a waste of an espy decoy right there. And what would happen if, however implausibly, a forewarned Russian were to wear a protective, bullet-proof vest? No head shots for Soviet leaders? As luck would have it, this is exactly what happens! The Premiere stands up, shaken and with a bruised back, but otherwise unharmed. The bad guys fail, the Russian lives, and the assassin that was to have touched off World War III (or something) lost his head in a teleportation void. Doh.

However! The head bad guy is still at large! We now reach my second favorite part of the book. Everyone rushes back to the casino, because this was a bad guy stronghold. The bad guys have all fled, but what should the espies find, but a portable nuclear reactor in the basement! Now, I’m not certain how our readers feel about this, but I would give a nuclear reactor a pretty wide berth. (I’m speaking as an Idaho native who is quite comfortable with the world’s first nuclear plant next door.) Our espies are made of sterner stuff, however, and their first response is, “Hey, let’s power this sucker up!” And so they BLINDLY SET ABOUT TURNING ON A NUCLEAR REACTOR. Right there in the room. “Hmm, let’s see what this switch does!” Holy cow. This activates some mysterious thing that sends Yoshio and Maria to South Africa, fortunately without blowing up West Berlin.

Awaiting them is a receiving station for a weather satellite. This turns out to have been a secret base, but the bad guys have fled. As they are giving up, Yoshio feels the probing psychic finger of The Bad Guy. After some consultation, they decide that he is on a formerly manned capsule that the Africans sent up some time ago. Yoshio promptly teleports himself out into space, into this capsule. (Not considering, I suppose, that it might be a vacuum or something. Fortunately, it is not.)

This is where the book takes a serious turn towards Weirdsville. Yoshio meets the disembodied presence of The Bad Guy, who reveals that he’s not really all that bad, he’s just observing and occasionally testing humanity. He also mentions that some really powerful beings used to live on Earth, but their continent sank into the ocean, and that The Bad Guy personally tested a charismatic religious leader who wandered into the desert to fast for forty days, oh, about two thousand years ago. Yoshio realizes that The Bad Guy is none other than … Satan.

They go on and on about the nature of evil and why people do bad things to each other. Finally, Satan says, “Well, it’s been nice talking, but I’m taking off. I’ll be testing you again later.” Yoshio is stuck on the capsule. Bad news for him, he is apparently too weak to teleport back to the Earth. (Should have thought about that before racing off to confront Satan, huh?) He can still talk to Maria though, who he loves desperately, so we stagger towards a (Satan-less) touching conclusion. Literally. His last request is to be allowed to, er, psychically fondle her. And does, as he once again wrings out his last ounce of power. In this world, teleporting yourself is one thing, but grabbing a telepathic handful is no problem at all. It’s a good thing for Yoshio that it is, too, (and that he’s apparently very good at it) because as Maria becomes, umm, excited by this virtual finger, her “burn people who surprise me” instinct suddenly kicks in. Yoshio is consumed by physic sexyflames, his own “get me out of danger now!” teleportation instinct returns, and he is suddenly (on fire) back in South Africa.

On this happy note, with Yoshio wrapped in bandages but very much in love, the espies realizing that their ultimate adversary is The Devil, and the book comes to a satisfying close.

Rating: I have no idea. This one is beyond my metaphoric powers.

The Club Dumas

[Ed. Note: We are pleased to once again welcome Brad to Two Dudes. We were initially skeptical about this review, falling more into “Fantastic Literature” than our usual purview. Brad convinced us, however, because Pep owes him favors and this is a fabulous book anyway. Enjoy.]

The Club Dumas
Arturo Perez-Reverte

I hadn’t planned on reviewing The Club Dumas for this inestimable blog.  Quite honestly, I’m not sure that it fits within Two Dudes’ stated purpose of providing “informed reviews, profound commentary, ribald and witty conversation, and insightful snark about all things Science Fiction and Fantasy.”  But people who know me (a mercifully tiny but highly exclusive group) also know of my deep and sincere admiration for Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte.  After Umberto Eco, the godfather of the “literary thriller,” Sr. Perez-Reverte is its foremost living practitioner.  Beginning in the late 1980s, highly literate, intelligent, tightly-constructed thrillers emerged from his pen about one every two years:  The Fencing Master, The Nautical Chart, The Flanders Panel, The Seville Communion (my personal favorite), The Queen of the South, The Painter of Battles, and the title reviewed, The Club Dumas.  Perez-Reverte has also produced an a more straightforward adventure series, set during the Thirty Years’ War in the Spanish Netherlands, whose protagonists are the war hero Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio, and his redoubtable sidekick Iñigo.  Not one of these titles is either science fiction or fantasy, although some of them, like The Club Dumas, deal with the fantastic.  Each one is superb.

Perez-Reverte’s work has an impeccable pedigree. In 1980, Umberto Eco released his great novel, The Name of the Rose; translated from the original Italian, it was published in its English version in 1983.  Haunting the pages of The Name of the Rose is another book—the supposedly lost second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics—for whose secrets a sinister group of Benedictine monks were willing to kill each other and anyone else who got in the way.

The book was a smashing success.  The big publishing houses suddenly discovered a segment of the reading public that thoroughly enjoyed books about books:  hidden books, secret books, lost books that had been found, suppressed books, books containing secret histories, books of magic, subversive books, books whose contents threatened civilization as we know it, books that could bring down Christianity, books to summon Satan himself.[1]  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in this way many authors “flattered” the great Professor Eco.  Needless to say, Eco’s imitators and spurious godchildren produced works of wildly varying quality.

We’re going to by-pass Dan Brownish mediocrity and head to the top of the authorial heap, right next to the Master himself, where we find the redoubtable Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverte.  I’ve read everything of his that I can get my hands on, both in English translation and in Perez-Reverte’s native Spanish.  It’s all good!  In fact, it’s all great (although I was slightly disappointed in The Flanders Panel—the ending was just a little too contrived, and it felt like Perez-Reverte was struggling just a bit).  First among equals are The Seville Communion and The Club Dumas.[2]

So let’s talk about The Club Dumas.  It has several plot lines that Perez-Reverte deftly weaves together:  The one from which the book’s title is taken involves a mysterious manuscript that may or may not be a missing Alexander Dumas autograph for a chapter in The Three Musketeers.  But the more fascinating plot line, one that  overshadows everything else, deals with a suppressed book—-The Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.[3]  This (fictional) book, published by an obscure Venetian in 1666, supposedly contained a ritual for summoning the Devil himself.  The author and publisher, Aristide Torchia, fell into the not-too-gentle hands of the Inquisition, was condemned as a sorcerer, and burned at the stake in 1667.  The Inquisition was thought to have destroyed all copies of The Nine Doors, but surprise!  Three copies survived; humanity still has within its grasp the infernal rituals to open forever the Kingdom of Shadows and unleash Ol’ Scratch Hisself on an unsuspecting world, if only somebody can decipher Torchia’s coded messages and inscrutable instructions.  Can I get an ominous-sounding chord here, along with a portentous tympani roll?

The protagonist, Lucas Corso, is a middle-aged rare book dealer and book detective, suitably weary, battered and bruised, careworn and cynical.  (Selling used books has a way of doing that—I should know!)  His client, Varo Borja, a multi-millionaire and unscrupulous book collector, has acquired one of the three surviving copies of The Nine Doors.  (Question:  Is Varo Borja a literary allusion to the great Argentinian writer/philosopher Jorge Luis Borges, who writes about the fantastic with such felicity and wit?  Or perhaps he’s the reincarnation of that dogmatic guardian of orthodoxy Jorge of Burgos, the villain in Eco’s Name of the Rose, which I have already praised to the heavens (and which makes a surprise appearance at The Club Dumas’ stunning conclusion)?  Little touches like this abound in Perez-Reverte’s jewel.) 

Borja, though not the most appealing character in the book, is no fool.  Through his network of book scouts and rare book dealers, he has discovered that of the three surviving copies of The Nine Doors, two may be forgeries, leaving only one of them as the authentic work—a label that immediately challenges the postmodern shibboleths of authorial intention and the independent life of the text.  So Borja’s request of Corso is straightforward:  Find the other two copies of The Nine Doors; acquire them for Borja by any means, fair or foul; and in the process determine which of the three copies is genuine.  And while you’re at it, Señor Corso, here’s a ton of money to throw at the problem to help you grease the skids just a bit.  Simple, no?  An afternoon’s stroll in the park.

Only, surprise . . . it isn’t so simple.  In fact, it nearly costs Corso much more than he’s willing to pay.

The result is one of the most sophisticated literary thrillers I have ever read.  It is, in every sense of the phrase, a tour de force.  Perez-Reverte recreates the seamy underside of the rare book world with skill and flair.  He patiently leads the reader along the primrose path to a plausible solution, and then when the reader’s guard is down, the author deftly stabs him (or her) in the back—a knife job that never felt so good.  In the process, the lines between reality and fantasy blur:  Corso may or may not have angelic help in his quest; he may or may not have a direct confrontation with infernal powers; Borja may or may not be who he seems, a foolish rich greed-head; or he may be something/someone else altogether—and altogether much more sinister.  The solution to this complex thriller is ingenious, it holds together, it doesn’t require an implausible deus ex machina, and it showcases Perez-Reverte’s skill as a story-teller and writer.

As a bonus, the book contains many cool visual representations that look like something between a classic Rider-Waite Tarot deck and Albrecht Durer engravings from the 15th and 16th centuries.  These add to the reading experience:  Not only does the reader participate in unpacking the contextual puzzles as Corso slowly sorts out the truth concerning the three competing versions of the Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows (an anti-Derridian notion if ever there was one), these engravings add to the otherworldly ambiance that Perez-Reverte’s prose induces and remind us there was a time and place when secret instructions for summoning Satan were not only taken seriously, the possession of the same could result in excruciating pain and death inflicted by the State at the Church’s behest.

My unqualified suggestion:  Beg, borrow, buy or steal a copy of this book.  Then read it.  (Sorry, that was two suggestions.  My bad.)  If, like me, you find yourself enthralled by Perez-Reverte’s story-telling skills, then read The Seville Communion for dessert.  (It’s about a little Roman Catholic church building in Seville that one-by-one, kills the very people who have been commissioned to tear the building down.  THAT’S an interesting idea!)

Rating: Barcelona with all cylinders firing against anyone else.  Really, the book is that good!  (P.S.  The movie is good, too.  It’s not exactly the book, but weaves a spell of its own.  Plus, it has Johnny Depp.  What more need I say?)

Musical assistance for this review:  For the initial write-up:  Swedish black metalers Watain, who are “Sworn to the Dark.”  For the re-write:  Austrian black metal-industrial Abigor’s CD “Channeling the Quintessence of Satan.”  There are Durer-like engravings and paintings throughout the booklet that comes with CD; they look very much like the art materials in The Club Dumas.  And Abigor’s subject matter complements The Nine Doors.  Who could ask for more from his black metal?

[1]H.P. Lovecraft is a generation earlier; his Necronomicon (the “Book of the Law of the Dead”) may have come to him in a dream in 1937, as he said.  On the other hand, there are many who are completely willing to believe the Necronomicon, the blasphemous book of the blackest magic, the fevered scribblings of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, is objectively real.  Numerous “editions” have been published.

[2]The Club Dumas was the basis for the Johnny Depp movie, The Ninth Gate, involving a renegade rare book dealer searching for the infernal book.  The movie more or less tracks the “magical book” plot line from the book The Club Dumas, although there are major differences.  Nonetheless, I recommend the movie whole-heartedly, partly because of Depp, partly because it’s a great entertainment, and partly because I want to expose Perez-Reverte’s writings to as broad an audience as possible.

[3]The Nine Doors is solely a product of the author’s fecund imagination!  Although there are many grimoires (books of ritual magic) that were in existence in the mid- to late-17th century, The Nine Doors isn’t one of them—it’s fictional!  If you want to know about grimoires that were around at the relevant time, check out Owen Davies, Grimoires:  A History of Magic Books (New York/Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009); or P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult in Mediaeval Europe, 500-1500:  A Documentary History (Basingstoke, UK:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Scholars of the occult Stephen Skinner and Joseph Peterson, working independently, have produced updated editions of many of the infamous grimoires in existence in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods.  Most of their editions are still available through the major on-line booksellers.  Older editions of some of these grimoires were produced by English occult scholar Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, acting alone or with the famous mage Aleister Crowley.  Practicing occultist Donald Tyson has specialized in the works of the late Renaissance mage Agrippa (Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim), whose Three Books of Occult Philosophy made their appearance in 1531, and were first translated into English in 1651, and whose Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy showed up in 1655.

The point of this lengthy footnote is that there were many, many, grimoires floating around at or about the time the fictional Nine Doors made its appearance.  The latter was distinctive, not for the fact it purported to be another book of magic, but because it didn’t beat around the bush.  It had one purpose only:  To summon up the Devil!