Volume 18, Number 2, June, 2000

Small Press Reviews

Treachery on the Dark Side

By Steven Burgauer

zero-g press, 2000

Vampire Nation

By Thomas M. Sipos

Xlibris Corporation, 1998
Reviewed by William H Stoddard June 2000

In the previous issue of Prometheus, I offered to review any books or other works published via the small press that were submitted in time for this issue. The two works above are what reached me. For those interested in looking at either book, this review ends with contact information.

Since it seems likely that these are both ventures in self-publication, I was intents to see what production quality they would attain. Both are competently produced trade paperbacks. Burgauer's cover art is a fairly standard moonscape with a rising Earth on the horizon. Sipos's cover is more imaginative, showing a gold Lenin medal with blood running from the mouth under a title in mock Cyrillic lettering (the letters are roman, but with a few reversed for visual effect); this nicely captures the author's central conceit of communism as vampirism.

Burgauer's writing appears to have been influenced by the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s; his prose recalls that of the Lensman series or the Doc Savage books. f Regrettably, he lacks E. E. Smith's flexibility of idiom; most of the characters even the Chinese warlord in a future Hong Kong and the economics professor, talk a film noir gangster cant. References to the warlord as a Chinaman have a particularly old-fashioned effect; that expression has not been in reputable use for decades. The language is slightly awkward in general-it would have benefited from the services of a copy editor to remove the occasional dangling participle. Sipos's prose is significantly more skilled, though I found myself bemused by a reference on p. 87 to the Communist emblem of the hammer and cycle.

Burgauer's plot rests on numerous science fictional ideas: a new method of converting the energy from radioactive wastes, an unexpected new natural law under which an object that exceeds 5% of the speed of lights suddenly faces far less resistance to further acceleration; an evolutionary process in which stress gives rise to numerous drastic mutations, a few of which are favorable; the emergence of a small number of human mutants with advanced cognitive abilities. This last idea provides the basis for a Boy Meets Girl plot, which is interwoven with the struggle of the Boy to exploit his new power source and with elaborate intrigues among political authorities seeking to gain control of it. The setting for these intrigues is a future history in which the United States has been destroyed by the envy of other major nations. In short, this book presents a great variety of technological and social ideas. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be unified by any one underlying concern. Nor does the rapidity with which they are piled up allow space for full development of their implications.

Vampire Nation seemingly ought to produce the same effect; it combines elements of political dystopia, horror, espionage thriller, and black comedy in a space no greater than that of Treachery on the Dark Side. Sipos even suggests a Boy Meets Girl story. But surprisingly enough, all of these elements hold together. The binding force is a single central ideal vampirism as the ultimate of communism, in which blood is redistributed from producers to parasites. Romania in the last days of the Ceausescu regime provides exactly the right setting for this trope; Sipos even has a cameo part for the ghost of Vlad Tepes, the medieval tyrant on whom Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula. A hallucinatory sequence near the end sketches a larger historical context in which all the great tyrannical regimes were actually run by monsters, with the French Revolution and Stalinism linked to vampirism and Nazism to lycanthropy.

The treatment of horror in this book is distinctly odd. Stephen King categorized three basic effects of this genre: terror, horror, and the gross out. Sipos has devised a fourth, disgust—the emotion one feels on being served unclean food in a restaurant, for example. The disgust is perhaps overdone, and the action-adventure has a few too many improbabilities; Sipos's explicit identification of his novel as a work of political satire demonstrates good literary judgment as to the genre where all these improbabilities can be made to work.

Unfortunately, the satire may not carry much conviction for anyone who doesn't already share Sipos's distaste for socialism. A bit too much of the equation of socialism with vampirism is conveyed in lectures and speeches, rather than dramatized. In fact the effect is to undermine the reader's belief in the revolting details of life under Romanian communism, by raising doubts as to how much is observed and how much is invented for the purpose of satire.

Even so, I find myself more convinced by Sipos's setting than by Burgauer's. And the same is true of the two writers' characters. It was sheer coincidence that I read the scene where Burgauer's hero, Fornax Nehrengel, tries to sell a brilliant economist and investor on his invention only a few days after reading Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction, which cautions against Burgauer's approach to dialogue as undercutting the characterization of a protagonist; but I found the similarity disturbing. Sipos's characterization is not his strongest element, either—he really only has two characters, the American naif in Bucharest and the Vergil of his trip through hell the (perhaps anagrammatically named?) Russian countess Anya (or perhaps she is his unattainable Beatrice)—and their actions are not always convincing. But there is a clear sense of continuity of motivation. It helps that Sipos envisions his characters' detestation of statism as the natural human response, which only self-induced hallucination could blunt, whereas Burgauer's central figures are shown to be mutant "newhumans" whose individualism reflects their unique genetic destiny that other human beings cannot share.

On the other side of the ledger, Burgauer's villains treat evil as a consciously assumed role, particularly the incestuous father-daughter assassin couple who seem to be an ironic minor of the economist and his geneticist daughter. The actions of Sipos's villains are often equally broadly drawn and sometimes equally hard to believe, but they don't play out a melodramatic script; their actions appear as a wild exaggeration of the way people who hunger for power really think.

In the final-judgment these novels aren't compelling advertisements for the strength of self-publishing and small press ventures. (Which doesn't mean that no such ventures have any merit; Kings of the High Frontier was a much more substantial piece of work, for example.) But Sipos's work, at least is exactly the sort of material that small presses are meant for—a little rough in spots but with some real substance. Anyone who likes political satire might find it worth a look. I'm not so sure who should be sent to look at Burgauer's project—I'm a fan of l930s pulp fiction, but Burgauer's emulation of that sort of adventure story didn't succeed in capturing my interest. Perhaps the difficulty is the characterization; what made pulp fiction work was the larger than life quality of its heroes (and for that matter its villains), a quality that Burgauer doesn't succeed in conveying in this book.

Anyone interested in reading these or other novels by these two authors may contact them through the following address:

zero-g press,
6605 N Rustic Oak Court,
Peoria, IL 61614,
SCIFI20@prodigy.net

Xlibris Corporation,
Orders@xlibris.com.

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