Tag Archives: Fiction Satire


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pygmy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Chuck Palahniuk.

Palahniuk Pygmy

Not nearly in the running to be one of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk books, Pygmy still had the author’s twisted sense of humor in evidence. The first-person narrative voice — attributed to the protagonist, terrorist exchange-student infiltrator “Pygmy” — shuns standard English, which, if not a deal-breaker for me, makes it unlikely that I will enjoy a novel much. So I guess it succeeded in that uphill struggle. A representative sentence: “Horde scavenger feast at overflowing anus of world history” (146).

The whole story is over-the-top and not at all believable, but it scores a few obvious criticisms of American culture, while instating (on a more fundamental and tacit level) a defense of that same culture. It amplifies the cartoonish elements evident in earlier Palahniuk work like Survivor. I don’t regret having read it, but I can see how many readers would.

The Past is Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Past is Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catherynne M Valente.

Valente The Past is Red

This book reprints the story “The Future Is Blue” from the Drowned Worlds anthology, and follows it with a further novella “The Past Is Red.” The latter was written about four years later for the author Catherynne M. Valente (in late 2020) and ten years later for her protagonist Tetley Abednego (sometime after 2133).

Tetley is an irrepressible survivor and an unreliable narrator who hails from Garbagetown on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, evidently one of the largest of remaining human communities in the 22nd century. The first story accounts for her becoming a hated outcast by age 19, and the second gives the saga by which she matures into a “trash Plato” (138) in her third decade.

The Garbagetowners have an ambivalently hostile envy for their antediluvian ancestors (i.e. us), to whom they consistently refer as “Fuckwits.” In light of the current situation in US society, it’s not hard to read this sentiment as the Millennial/GenX view of Boomers writ large.

Valente herself compares Tetley to Voltaire’s Candide (148), and there’s a little of de Sade’s Justine there as well. But the tone here is not so satirical, and the concerns of the parable are remote from those of the philosophes. The afterword and the acknowledgements claim an independence for Tetley, whom her author has gradually come to know, and the character does have an engaging voice to draw the reader into and through her world, which is enchanting to her, and ultimately, only differently horrible than ours.

The whole book is wonderfully weird but sadly feasible cli-fi that I read in about three sittings: a speedy read and a satisfying one.

They listened, and they believed him. They had always believed him. It scared him, the way they believed, almost as if they were half asleep, or some part of them were missing. Truth be told, he, too, felt as if he were half asleep or half real.

Michael Poore, Up Jumps the Devil [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Poore Up Jumps the Devil listened believed always scared half asleep part missing truth told felt half real

The Blazing World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Blazing World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Margaret Cavendish, illo Rebekka Dunlap, introduction by Brooke Bolander.

Cavendish Dunlap Bolander The Blazing World

This peculiar story was written in the mid-seventeenth century by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. It features an unnamed female protagonist who is abducted and then escapes and is transported from her own “Philosophical World” to the “Blazing World” of the title, where she is hospitably received and becomes Empress.

The Blazing World is populated something like the planet Mongo, with bear-men, fox-men, fish-men, bird-men, spider-men, lice-men, and others besides. The Empress consults all of these according to their specialties, regarding natural history, physics, logic, and other “philosophical” topics, and this section of the book gets rather slow–especially with the small type of the Dover Thrift Edition I read. One highlight of this section, on the other hand, is Cavendish’s detailed set of character identifications for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a drame à clef regarding John Dee and Edward Kelly (35). This passage is connected with the Empress’ further ambition “to make a Cabbala” (46).

Turning from her various animal-men subjects to the world of incorporeal spirits, the Empress is next introduced to … the Duchess of Newcastle–that is, her author, with whom she develops a “platonic love.” The Duchess pleads for intervention with Fortune on behalf of her maligned husband the Duke, and this motive accounts for much of the remainder of the first and longer of the story’s two parts.

The second part is livelier on the whole, and involves the Empress receiving news that her home country in the Philosophical World is under threat. So she confers with the Duchess, and they develop and execute an intervention, by which they effect the military and political supremacy of the “King of EFSI,” the Empress’ former sovereign.

An epilogue in Cavendish’s own voice touts her accomplishment in world-creation, and boasts herself superior in that respect to the mere conquerors of great empires such as Alexander and Caesar. She also sets herself above Homer, in giving her characters grounds to resolve their conflicts without fatal violence. She generously extends to her readers the option of becoming her subjects in the Philosophical World, but allows that if they prefer to create their own worlds, they can and should do so.

While the style of The Blazing World is dated, its freedom from later literary conventions often lends it a great deal of charm. Persevering through some of the denser bits is genuinely worthwhile, as the whole text is not that long. It was originally published as a “work of fancy” bound together with her “serious” Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (ix). Her philosophical biases are decidedly modern, and while The Blazing World has been instanced as a forerunner of science fiction, it does hold up as an unusual source of instruction in the magick of cosmopoeia.

Ella Minnow Pea

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ella Minnow Pea [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mark Dunn.

Dunn Ella Minnow Pea

This fable of alphabetic elision seems more urgent now, I think, than even in in the burgeoning days of the so-called Global War on Terror when it was first published. So much of our discourse is now mediated and overruled by algorithms intended to incite and/or placate that a Bureau of Letter Enforcement seems superfluous–and yet we are more thoroughly surveilled than ever.

The happy ending of the story, while cleverly constructed, rings a Lyttle hollow.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Descent [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod Descent

This 2014 novel is the most recent Ken MacLeod book I’ve read, and it has some near-future optimism that has become dismayingly dated in the last seven years of climate catastrophe and global pandemic. But it’s not set in any particular year, and I guess the sort of sanguine pivot away from Neoliberal hell that it depicts is still imaginable.

The story is set firmly in MacLeod’s own Scotland throughout, and its central plotline involves a sort of phildickian epistemological struggle with ufology. It is recounted by the protagonist Ryan Sinclair, who begins (after telling of a recurrent dream) with his teenage close encounter. The book also involves a troubled love triangle of the sort that MacLeod has treated before in The Stone Canal, although this one is squared off more neatly.

The Orbit first edition hardcover I read made it seem like a much bigger book than it actually is, with heavy page stock and a generously-sized typeface. It’s a fast read, and entertaining throughout.