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Wildside’s seventeenth “double” collection – packaged just like the old Ace Doubles, with two novels back-to-back, and two front covers – includes a post-apocalyptic tale by W. C. Bamberger and a dystopian novel by Robert Reginald. The two stories couldn’t be further apart in tone, though they are thematically linked: each concerns the trials and travails of ordinary people trying to cope with, and survive, the destruction of their societies.

Mild plot spoilers follow for the two novels.

1434435105.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_A LLULL IN THE COMPASS: A Science Fiction Novel, by W. C. Bamberger: Something very strange has begun happening across the world. More and more people have been disappearing, leaving behind small puddles of goo. Unknown objects have begun appearing in the skies, but burn up before reaching the ground. A small group of people, randomly thrown together, now wander aimlessly across the American landscape. Scared that purposeful movements bring about the disappearances, they select their path by following an improvised “Llull Machine” that randomly dictates where they will travel next. They also, perhaps most importantly, are trying to figure out what is going on in order to save their own lives and halt the collapse of civilization.

As I was reading A LLULL IN THE COMPASS, I was reminded of the film Stalker, loosely based on ROADSIDE PICNIC by the Strugatsky brothers, about three men who wander around in an area once visited by aliens where the laws of physics aren’t always quite what we would expect. I have to admit that I don’t read a lot of what has been described as the “New Weird” (stories like those penned by China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Bamberger’s novella. I also wasn’t sure what the “Llull” in the title referenced, so I had to research the interesting history of Ramon Llull and his strange machines. (Do yourself a favor and do a quick Google search on Llull.) Despite some uncertainties about plot, I enjoyed Bamberger’s novel even while I didn’t always know exactly what was going on; I think that’s probably part of the fun here.

academentiaACADEMENTIA: A Future Dystopia, by Robert Reginald: Near-future America is no longer a liberal democracy. A religious zealot named Dr. Theo Fell has instituted a new political regime that intrusively surveils the personal activities of all citizens, stifles free speech, tortures and kills dissidents, and becomes steadily more oppressive. (Sound at all familiar?) Our nameless narrator begins as a harmless academic but soon advances through the administrative hierarchy of the “California Saints University” system as his bosses are executed or dragged off to the re-education camps one by one. Life in such a dystopic state begins to take a toll on our narrator’s sanity as he struggles to not just survive but to overthrow Dr. Fell’s regime.

For me, ACADEMENTIA was made all the more enjoyable because of Reginald’s undoubtedly quasi-autobiographical elements inserted from his lengthy career as an academic. This is a dark, dark tale, and like almost all dystopias, has some important things to teach us. I should say that as grim as the story is, it is also blackly comedic at times, which makes it all the more entertaining and makes it a little easier to digest as a reader. Let’s face it: a story like 1984 (one of my favorite books of all time) is powerful, but it’s also a bit of a hard slog because of its unrelentingly bleak outlook and prospects. Reginald’s writing is excellent as always; he manages to capture just the right tone balancing the darkness with just enough whimsy and absurdity.

Despite how different in tone the two novels are, I heartily recommend this collection, especially for fans of dystopias. I thought that ACADEMENTIA was especially strong and easily worth the price of admission alone (other readers might prefer A LLULL IN THE COMPASS, though it was slightly out of my comfort zone in terms of its level of weirdness). As an academic myself, ACADEMENTIA really hit home with me for reasons it’s probably better I not go into. I hope that ACADEMENTIA garners greater attention – we can all use more warnings about the dangers of oppressive institutions and compromises to free speech.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers