“L.A. Devotee”: An Unusual Critique of Hollywood

Panic! at the Disco isn’t my kind of band, but their video for “L.A. Devotee” caught my attention. It’s a song about a boy being tortured and brainwashed by the band’s lead singer, and it seems to be a critique of Hollywood and how the media brainwashes kids into worshiping their favorite stars. And what a coup to use Noah Schnapp from Stranger Things. It’s rather appropriate since the character of Will Byers was also abducted (by the Demogorgon) and imprisoned (in the Upside Down).

In this video his captivity is more reminiscent of the Hostel films. He’s strapped to a chair in what looks like a torture cellar, with a video camera recording him. He sings the lyrics to the song — one moment like an automaton, the next hysterical — while the band’s singer is projected on a screen in front of him looking perversely gleeful. At the end, the kid gets treated to brutal doses of electroshock therapy, with the final frame hinting at… what, exactly? What does the singer intend to do to him?

Click on the image to watch.

L.A. Devotee (Click for Video)

There is a good analysis of the video over at Vigilant Citizen: “While the song ‘L.A. Devotee’ is your typical uptempo-radio-friendly tune with a catchy chorus, the video is a dark, troubling experience. Indeed, the lead singer Brendon Urie is seen taking pleasure in torturing a child in an all-out, satanic brainwashing session. Preying on children, taking pleasure in making them suffer, brainwashing them, black magic rituals: All of the occult elite’s favorite things are crammed in.”

The chorus paints its damning description of Los Angeles.

The black magic of Mulholland Drive
Swimming pools under desert skies
Drinking white wine in the blushing light
Just another LA Devotee
Sunsets on the evil eye
Invisible to the Hollywood shrine
Always on the hunt for a little more time
Just another LA Devotee

Not surprisingly, it evokes Mulholland Drive, a nod to David Lynch’s film in which the lead character is tormented by wish-fulfillment fantasies while strapped in a prison of guilt and self-loathing. As for “white wine”, it could be what the girl makes the boy drink — probably drugged to facilitate hallucinations and trauma. L.A. devotees seem to be those who succumb to the warped reality of the city, depicted in this video as a thoroughly sick environment. Kudos, Noah, for giving the Upside Down a run for its money.

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The Finest Hours in Game of Thrones

Seven seasons. 67 episodes. Here are the best. Seven are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, two from season 5, five from season 6, and three from season 7. And then an honorable mention from season 5, and a dishonorable mention from season 7. That’s a total of 30 episodes plus the two special cases.

As far as the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 3 > 6 > 4 > 5 > 2. Season 1 remains the strongest by far. The overall pacing, narrative payoff, and rewatch value is pretty much beyond criticism. Season 3 is a close second. It would be premature to rank season 7 (though I rank individual episodes below) since it’s only a half-season, and it’s a rather mixed bag. Some of the long overdue payoffs are grand (episodes 4 and 7 are fantastic), but they come at the expense of a half-baked plot device to get there: the quest for a wight to prove to Cersei that the undead are real. As if that could possibly make her an ally, which of course it doesn’t.

I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes were for the better. Yes it’s a weaker season by comparison to the others, but not nearly as bad as people complain about, and in particular the outcries over Ramsay’s rape of Sansa are absurd. It was a necessary move for Sansa’s story arc, and I give that episode an honorable mention at the end. But the Dorne plot is admittedly silly, especially as it deteriorates into the “adventures of Jaime and Bronn”.

Season 2 is weakest, mostly for its lack of focus, but also for involving the worst adaptation of all: the kidnapping of Dany’s dragons and political revolt in Qarth. It was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot. What makes it worse is that the book version of events are perfect as they stand. In A Clash of Kings Dany enters the House of the Undying, not on a Dirty-Harry rescue mission for her dragons, but to receive her prophecy from which we learn the identity of her nephew Aegon (“his is the song of ice and fire”), and from which she barely escapes with her life. That drama is strong enough without the artificial supplements of conniving politics and dragon-stealing. And to top it off by having the first “Dracarys” event in the House diminishes Drogon’s seminal moment in Astapor.


1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. The defining episode of Game of Thrones is the rare masterpiece that acquires instant legendary status — the equivalent of Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and Hannibal’s Mizumono, drama that is perfectly calibrated for maximum emotional effect. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution seem banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes innocent victims like Robb’s pregnant wife, and the backstabbing comes from even allies as the Boltons turn on their liege lord. The episode also has the best Bran scene before season 6: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the wildling attack — great wolf action from both Ghost and Summer. The Red Wedding is the reason Benioff and Weiss wanted to make the TV series and they did complete justice to it.

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2. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, it offers even stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. It’s amazing how so many scenes in this episode resonate in hindsight in the wake of season 7. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya a sword to practice with. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s a lot of wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s wolf ends up paying the price for it. In Lord of the Rings, the breaking of the fellowship comes long after the hobbits leave the Shire. In Game of Thrones, the breaking of the Stark family is the initial departure from home, and many of these terrific characters will die and never see each other again. It’s a precious episode that gets better each year as you look back on it and see how far the characters have come (if they are still alive). I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.

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3. The Spoils of War. Season 7, Episode 4. There are three episodes that represent what the series has been building to from the start: Hardhome in season 5, The Door in season 6, and this one, The Spoils of War, in season 7. Dany, against the advice of Tyrion and Jon, decides she’s not messing around and goes Aegon on the Lannister army. Watching the Dothraki decimate the Lannisters is incredible enough, but seeing Drogon channel Balerion the Black Dread is completely staggering. I get battle fatigue easily, but this is a battle I have watched many times, and there’s great stuff even before that. Jon shows Dany the cave drawings of the Forest Children allied with men against the White Walkers. Arya comes home to Winterfell and sword-practices with Brienne. The surviving Stark kids catch up under the weirwood tree, and it’s simply amazing how far they’ve come since their separation in The Kingsroad.

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4. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. In the number two critical episode, Bran emerges as the greenseer-warg who can manipulate time. He wargs into Hodor to escape the white walkers, but he does so while he’s observing Winterfell in the past, which creates a psychic link between the two Hodors: past-Hodor becomes warged too and hears Meera yelling “hold the door” from the future, which he starts repeating until his mind snaps. So Bran is responsible for traumatizing Hodor and creating his mentally challenged state, which leaves open all sorts of possibilities (will Bran “become” his ancestor Bran the Builder and raise the Wall himself 8000 years ago?). The white walker assault on the Weir Tree is quite a sequence, and this where Summer dies defending Bran. The episode also has the best Ironborn scene, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.

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5. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. The number three critical episode is a drastic departure from the novels, because it gets to the point in a way that Martin stalled on for too long. The undead threat beyond the Wall is what Game of Thrones is about. While everyone contends for the Iron Throne, believing that political rule of Westeros is the most important question, they are oblivious to the real threat. That the walkers have made few appearances has been a strength, to be sure; this is a patient series not given to cheap thrills. But by the fifth book, a dramatic outing was overdue, and the show writers rectified this deficiency. The battle is incredible enough as it is, but when the Night King at the end slowly raises his arms, and every fallen member of both sides of the battle rises as a wight, the look on Jon’s face as the screen fades to black is one of the most powerful in the series. Also overdue was the hookup of Tyrion and Dany, and their disputing where and how Dany should rule; it’s a great interaction.

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6. Battle of the Bastards. Season 6, Episode 9. It’s no exaggeration to say that the battle for Winterfell is one of the most incredibly choreographed battles ever done, and certainly the most impressive done for a TV series. It was only strengthened by the need to go off-script and cheat due to budget and time constraints; for example, the claustrophobic terror of Jon being trampled ended up being one of the most effective scenes. Even more than the Pelennor Fields in Jackson’s Return of the King, it immerses the viewer in the chaos and random carnage as seen from the ground. This is the long overdue payback for the Red Wedding, where the good guys actually win for a change. And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet at Mereen.

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7. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. A visual masterpiece, which for whatever reason isn’t a big favorite among fans. Ramsay’s prolonged torture of Theon is too much for some people, but that doesn’t subtract from The Climb being one of the best directed episodes of the series. I was sweating when the Wall defended itself and sent the wildlings falling to their screaming demise. Jon and Ygritte’s precious moment at the top is well earned. Tyrion and Cersei have their best moment (finding common cause in grief over the marriages they’ve been shafted with), as do Tywin and Olenna (who sling mud at each other over the homosexual/incestuous inclinations of the other’s children). The best part, however, is Littlefinger’s monologue about his own “climb” of the ladder of life. He glorifies the ruthless who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, which plays over the ugly death of Ros. It’s the coldest speech of the series and steals the show.

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8. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. This is a densely packed episode with constant dramatic tension. War is foreshadowed when Robert (after punching Cersei in the face) refuses to allow Ned to step down as the Hand. He gets more than he bargained for when Ned sits the Iron Throne and summons Tywin Lannister to court on pain of treason, precipitating awful events. Meanwhile, over in the Vale, Tyrion is championed by Bronn, and the duel is a ripper. Still further east, Dany gets carnivorous with the horse heart — without question the best cross-cultural scene of the series — and Viserys is “rewarded” by Drogo with a molten gold crown. His death is so disturbing that it almost plays like fantasy snuff. The Kingsroad will always be my favorite of season 1, but this one is a close second.

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9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is the best one-on-one fight sequence to date. It’s so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite his relatively small size (compared to the Mountain), he looks entirely believable as the most lethal warrior of Dorne; his acrobatics with the spear are hypnotic. This episode also features a stellar performance from Sansa, as she tearfully recounts Lysa’s “suicide” to the nobles of the Vale — both exposing and concealing Petyr’s deceptions, and finally taking control of her miserable life. Here she shows the potential for becoming dangerous like Petyr and shrewd like her mother.


10. Garden of Bones. Season 2, Episode 4. Possibly the most underrated episode and certainly one of the nastiest. Joffrey has Sansa beaten in front of spectators in the throne room. Joffrey forces Ros to beat another whore bloody. The Mountain and his men torture young prisoners at Harrenhal. Most spectacularly, after Stannis and Renly trade public insults, Melisandre gives hideous birth to a shadow creature. It’s one demented act after another, and was scripted by Vanessa Taylor, whose other season-2 episode places on this list (The Old Gods and the New). She should have written a lot more for the series. If not for her, I wonder if anything from season 2 other than Blackwater would appear on my list. She has a gift for squeezing out dramatic tension even in the most subdued moments. Garden of Bones is a serious artistic achievement.


11. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. The first 20 minutes are a crowning directorial achievement, ending in the mass murder of just about everyone at King’s Landing — the High Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Lancel, Mace Tyrell, Kevan Lannister included. In terms of sheer numbers, Cersie’s terrorist bomb kills more people than the Freys did at the Red Wedding. Whether or not that makes the entire episode worthy of the #1 slot (as many believe) is another matter. Winds of Winter is a set-up episode above all, moving all pieces into play for the final act: the Bastard King of the North, the Mad Queen in the South, the Dragon Queen sailing on Westeros — while the Night King, as we know, waits for them all. We get the supreme bonus of Faceless Arya assassinating the Freys, and finally get to see Oldtown which is incredibly gorgeous. It’s a fantastic episode and the best season finale of the series, but I don’t think it merits the #1 slot.

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12. The Dragon and the Wolf. Season 7, Episode 7. After a weak penultimate episode (see my dishonorable mention at the bottom), the half-season finale delivers as it should, with long character moments that remind us what we love so much about Game of Thrones. The council at King’s Landing is extremely well played, though I had a bad moment when Cersei announced her willingness to fight alongside Jon and Dany against the dead. It turns out she’s lying, of course, but I had my doubts given the silly decisions made by characters in the previous two episodes. Littlefinger’s end in Winterfell is very satisfying, and Bran is becoming rather unnerving when he quotes dialogue from people long dead (like his father) with his ability to see into the past. Sansa and Arya share a quiet, awesome moment on top of the walls of Winterfell that is well earned. The final act is best of all, as we watch Viserion used abominably to bring down the Wall — unquestionably the most epic scene of the series to date.


13. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. The title refers to Lord Mormont, who is killed by his own men at Craster’s Keep. That’s explosive enough. But the real explosion comes overseas in Slaver’s Bay, where Dany comes into her own and roasts the city of Astapor. The “Dracarys” moment is almost as powerful as in the book — I say almost because of the liberties taken back in the House of the Undying, where the dragons made their first “Dracarys” kill with Pyat Pree. (The Qarth thread of season 2 has been the weakest adaptation to date.) But it doesn’t end up mattering much. This is a truly glorious episode.


14. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. Drogon’s flame strike in Daznak’s Pit is the main feature, but before that comes another and more outrageous fire, and possibly the most upsetting scene of the series: Stannis sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. Back to back we witness the burning-at-the-stake of a completely innocent child, and then the glory of a queen reclaiming her destiny, as her untamed baby, now of monstrous size, roasts her attackers in the arena. I’m hard pressed to say which scene is more powerful, and it’s brilliant how the “Dance of Dragons” theme weaves through both; Stannis and Shireen’s discussion of the ancient dragons is so tenderly played, and a heartbreaking prelude to a father’s despicable decision.

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15. Baelor. Season 1, Episode 9. The death of Ned Stark showed that no one is safe in Westeros, that the more you grow attached to Martin’s characters, the more likely they will be unexpectedly and unfairly slain. It’s an instant classic for good reason, though a bit overrated by those who rank it up with The Rains of Castamere. The episode on whole isn’t that strong, though certainly excellent, for in the east Dany faces the impending deaths of Drogo and Rhaego: the horse ritual that kills her husband and baby is hideous. Walder Frey makes an appropriate first appearance, negotiating with Catelyn for terms that Robb will fail to keep, precipitating his own treacherous downfall.


16. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. A lot happens in this episode, and it was written by Martin himself. Drogo is challenged by one of his men when Dany refuses to allow war captives to be raped, and Drogo rewards him by ripping his tongue out of his throat. At Kings’ Landing, Arya kills a stable boy in the chaos following Ned’s imprisonment — and after watching Syrio Forell clobber the shit out of four Lannister knights with a wooden training sword before dying under Ser Meryn’s blade. In the north, the Greatjon challenges Robb’s right to lead the clans, and Grey Wind leaps over the dinner table and bites his finger off. At the Wall, Jon kills a reanimated wight. This one gets your blood up, and is a surprisingly underrated episode; I think it about ties with Baelor.

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17. The Laws of Gods and Men. Season 4, Episode 6. Tyrion’s mummer trial, his “confession” before the court, and demand for a trial by combat harks back to his imprisonment in the Eyrie, but this time the drama is more stirring. When even Shae testifies against him with lies, his reaction to the crowd’s laughter is spot on: “I saved you all — all your worthless lives.” He confesses to the crime of simply being a dwarf, for which he’s been on trial all his bloody life. “I didn’t kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. I wish I had enough poison for you all. I wish I was the monster you think I am.” This pivotal scene is true to the book, and without question my favorite Tyrion scene to date.

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18. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. Theon’s notorious capture of Winterfell. When he executes Rodrik in front of Bran, it’s a brutal hack job that takes four goddamn swings (a far cry from the single clean strokes of the Starks). In a way it’s as upsetting as Ned Stark’s beheading, because the fall of Winterfell represents the evaporation of Ned’s entire house. Things also get rough at Kings Landing, as Joffrey and his retinue are attacked by a starving mob, and Sansa nearly raped until rescued by the Hound. Meanwhile, Arya has become Tywin’s cupbearer at Harrenhal, and they have some of the best character moments in the series. Up north Ygritte makes her debut: Jon is unable to kill her, and she begins tormenting him with lewd come-ons.


19. Kissed by Fire. Season 3, Episode 5. Jon and Ygritte’s love-play in the cave pool is the heart of the episode, resonating with foreordained tragedy. Ygritte means it when she says she wishes they could stay there forever, though certainly not because she fears war. On an unacknowledged level, they both know their romance can’t last. Then there is the Karstark fiasco that cements Robb’s own doom. If breaking his marriage-oath to Walder Frey was the unforgivable offense, executing Karstark and alienating his men is what will make the Red Wedding possible. Last but not least is the duel between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion.

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20. Winter is Coming. Season 1, Episode 1. The premiere hooks you on the series whether fantasy is your thing or not. The prologue establishes the threat beyond the Wall, and the bulk of the episode showcases the Stark and Lannister characters we’ll come to love and hate. The Stark kids claiming their wolf pups is the best part. Bran climbing the tower walls and getting pushed off by Jaime is a close second, and promises that Game of Thrones won’t be generic fantasy: George Martin plays hardball.

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21. Fire and Blood. Season 1, Episode 10.  The first season finale is an aftermath that sees everyone coping with Ned’s death. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father’s head displayed on the castle walls, and Ser Meryn beating her face bloody, is especially heartbreaking, and Sansa’s true gateway to a hell that will last until the end of season 5. But Dany’s side of the story upstages this as she copes with Drogo’s death, the question of her fate among the Dothraki, and finally of course, the amazing birth of her dragons. It’s an excellent season finale; usually the tenth episodes try doing too much and too superficially, but Fire and Blood is focused and transcendent.

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22. Book of the Stranger. Season 6, Episode 4. In a replay of Fire and Blood, Dany emerges from an inferno to stand naked before a horde of Dothraki. It feels less like a repeat than coming full circle, since the first time was sort of a false start, taking her east instead of west and then to her crusade in Slaver’s Bay. Now she has the political gumption (and a much huger horde) to make her move. Her insulting speech is great: she calls the khals small men, and says she would make a better leader of the Dothraki than any of them; they laugh of course and threaten to rape her to death, and she looses the fire on them. There is also the precious reunion of Jon and Sansa at the Wall. After five seasons of hell Sansa deserves this relief, and I started tearing up when she begged Jon to forgive her for treating him so awfully when they were kids.

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23. The Queen’s Justice. Season 7, Episode 3. The long-awaited meet between Jon and Dany is perfectly scripted. They hold to their autonomy, hardly realizing how similar they are. And I’m not even talking about Jon’s Targaryen blood. They command the sincere love of their people, and have done the unthinkable — Dany by bringing the Dothraki to Westeros, Jon by making common cause with the Wildlings. Both have suffered for their strength of character. Dany’s crusade in Slaver’s Bay ended up collapsing around her ears, while Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings was treason which got him killed. There’s other good stuff, notably Bran’s return to Winterfell and reunion with Sansa, Cersei giving Euron command of the royal fleet, and the death of Olenna Tyrell who tells Jaime she killed Joffrey — a wonderful parting blow.

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24. Blackwater. Season 2, Episode 9. The next two are a bit overrated. They are great battles but don’t deserve top ten slots. The claustrophobic focus at King’s Landing is effective. Like the characters we feel caged inside the Red Keep, with no hint as to what’s going on elsewhere, and just because they’re Lannisters doesn’t mean we don’t feel for them. Tyrion owns the spotlight, as his cunning plans to save the city explode with an emerald vengeance. The wildfire on the river is quite a spectacle, and you don’t know whether to cheer or cringe as Stannis’ men burn like auto-de-fés. Tyrion’s reward is a sliced face, and his come-late father who will take all the credit.

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25. The Watchers on the Wall. Season 4, Episode 9. Another bottle episode and battle epic that tends to be overpraised. I will say the battle for the Wall is more impressive than Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s Two Towers. It’s faithful to the book’s imagery, some of it exactly how I imagined. There are giants, a mammoth, and exploding barrels of oil; wall-scaling; the breaching of the gate. Alliser Thorne is in fine vulgar form. The deaths of Pyp and Grenn are moving. And of course Ygritte’s even more so.

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26. The Children. Season 4, Episode 10. The pivotal scene in this finale is Bran’s arrival at the weir-tree of the Three-Eyed Raven, and it’s prefaced by an undead attack sequence that sees the death of Jojen Reed and Bran warging. Then there is Dany’s dragon horror, as she finds out that Drogon roasted some poor Merenese child. Tyrion shooting his father with a crossbow is another priceless climax: Tywin is on the toilet when it happens. Shae gets her due as well. Like Tyrion, Arya sails for the east — after watching Brienne beat the Hound within an inch of his life. Only half of the season finales make this cut, and this is one of them; it exceeds expectations for an episode 10.

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27. Second Sons. Season 3, Episode 8. The theme of protective second sons plays everywhere. Mercenaries by that name rally to support Dany. Tyrion weds Sansa, and defends her against Joffrey’s bullying. Sam protects Gilly, and in a major heroic moment kills a White Walker. But the best part is at Dragonstone, where Stannis (the realm’s “protector”) leeches the deaths of the “usurper” kings. It’s creepy as hell, and implies that he and Melisandre are the true assassins of Robb and Joffrey, working their regicides through supernatural forces; Walder Frey and Lady Olenna would appear to be mere proxy killers in the grander scheme of things.

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28. Oathbreaker. Season 6, Episode 3. The episode is defined by Jon’s leaving the Night’s Watch (though of course his resurrection means that technically he did give his life to the Watch) after executing his brothers who broke their own oaths by killing him. But the best scenes are owned by Bran and Arya. Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy is a special treat: Arthur Dayne is outnumbered by Ned Stark and his men, smashes most of them to smithereens anyway, and is finally killed not by Ned (as Bran had been taught) but rather Howland Reed who stabs him from behind. Meanwhile, Arya finishes her blind training, drinks the Kool-aid, and becomes an assassin. Tommen has a particularly good scene with the High Sparrow.

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29. The Wolf and the Lion. Season 1, Episode 5. Here we get the catalyst for the War of the Five Kings: Catelyn’s rash abduction of Tyrion. The Eyrie is spectacular, the sky cells terrifying, and young Prince Robin a piece of work. True to the book, he suckles his mother’s breast at the age of eight, and is sadistic like Joffrey. At Kings Landing there’s some intense drama: the Mountain gets thrown from his horse and chops its head off; Ned resigns as Hand when Robert condones Dany’s assassination; then he’s ambushed by Jaime, who has his men slaughtered. From here on out Westeros won’t be the same.


30. The Lion and the Rose. Season 4, Episode 2. The Purple Wedding is very overrated in my opinion, though Joffrey’s death is obviously satisfying to watch. He is poisoned by Lady Olenna, who wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros but won’t stand for her granddaughter suffering Joff’s sadism. I also like the midgets’ courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings. But no, The Lion and the Rose does not belong in the top five or top ten as some lists would have it. It’s not that good, for Christ’s sake.

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HONORABLE MENTION: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. Season 5, Episode 6. Many lists rank this episode as the worst of the series, which is absurd. It is both a very good and bad episode, and the bad part is admittedly why it doesn’t make my cut. The gardens of Dorne scene is the silliest of the series, as Jaime and Bronn appear to rescue Myrcella and are ambushed by the Sand Snakes. The entire rescue operation is a laughable excuse to give Jaime something to do. But the scenes involving Arya and Sansa are excellent. Arya reaches the point in her training where she must learn to lie convincingly, and is whacked repeatedly for her transparencies by the waif and Jaqen. Sansa receives a much more severe whacking by Ramsay, and viewers were so angry about the rape that they threatened to stop watching the series. I wish they had stopped. If they can’t handle things like rapes and Red Weddings, they’re watching the wrong show. There is nothing gratuitous about Sansa’s assault. It is something Ramsay would do, and it’s something we need to see for Sansa’s character arc. Rape is the one thing Joffrey never did to her (I suspect because he was impotent), and it’s because Sansa has been made to suffer so unbearably under the Lannisters and Boltons that her liberation in season 6 pays off so well.

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DISHONORABLE MENTION: Beyond the Wall. Season 7, Episode 6. This one should have been the glorious moment we’d been waiting for, but for two problems. The first is the contrived reason for going beyond the Wall. In order to convince Cersei that the army of the dead is real, Jon takes a small suicide expedition north to capture a wight and bring it back to King’s Landing. Somehow Tyrion thinks this will convince his sister to see reason and stop fighting against Dany. But he, like everyone, knows that Cersei is so irrational, vindictive, and narcissistic that she wouldn’t care two shits about the threat of the dead — indeed that if anything she would view the white walkers as a godsend to oppose her northern enemies. The second problem are the cheap rescue operations. Gendry somehow manages to haul his ass all the way back to the Wall and send a raven to Dany at Dragonstone, who then flies her dragons up to lift everyone away from the wight attack just in the nick of time. When Jon gets separated from that rescue mission, Benjen Stark suddenly appears out of nowhere to save him. Beyond the Wall could have been a masterpiece — the Night King slaying Viserion and then resurrecting him as an ice dragon is epic — but it’s so poorly executed it’s impossible to take seriously.

The Pre-Modern Presidents: From Washington to Cleveland

Back in February I ranked the U.S. presidents who served during my lifetime. Today I use the same criteria to rank the 18th-19th century presidents.

To review, most historians rank presidents by an implied criteria which I will call the ECA — the “Effectiveness”, “Charisma”, and “Activism” biases. This, to me, is astonishing. Effective presidents may be successful at accomplishing their goals, but those goals could be terrible, and they often are. Scoring a president high for his effectiveness amounts to little more than praising him for his management style. Charismatic leaders may inspire us with speeches, but that’s meaningless. Some of the worst leaders in history have been charismatics. Presidents who respond actively to crises may be overreaching their executive purview, and even when they are not, historians seldom note that the crisis in question could have been averted if the president had done something different or nothing at all.

I am unaware of any other field of study where such superficial criteria are used as primary indices of good leadership. Do scholars rate the emperors of Rome this way? The kings and queens of England? Leaders should be judged on the basis of their policies and programs — in other words, what they actually did for their constituents.

Against the ECA criteria, historian Ivan Eland uses the best criteria I’ve seen in his book Recarving Rushmore. He ranks the presidents based on what they do for causes of “Peace”, “Prosperity”, and “Liberty” (PPL). After all, these were the prime objectives of the American founders, and most people when asked say they want to live safe lives, be able to provide for themselves, and enjoy freedom. Management skills and charisma may be nice bonuses, but they do not factor in Eland’s rankings. This is his 60-point system, based on a potential of 20 each for peace, prosperity, and liberty:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious

Following Eland’s assessments, but with some differences, I rank the 20 presidents from George Washington to Grover Cleveland. (William McKinley in 1897 marked a new era in the presidency, laying the foundations for the United States becoming a trans-world empire; I’ll cover the modern presidents in a future post.) I exclude three presidents from consideration because they served less than half a single term: William Henry Harrison (the 9th), Zachary Taylor (the 12th), and James Garfield (the 20th).

 

1. George Washington. 1st President (1789-1797). Peace (17), Prosperity (16), Liberty (20); Bonus (+5); Total score = 58/60 = Excellent.

— Stayed out of foreign wars and overseas alliances that would tangle the new nation in conflicts. Broke alliance with France when it declared war on Britain. Suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion without killing anyone, and then pardoned the rioters. Was a respecter of all faiths (wrote to a rabbi: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”). Was firmly committed to respecting the checks and balances of the government. Deferred to Congress on most legislation, and used his veto power only when he believed a bill was unconstitutional. Recommended the Bill of Rights, one of the most important contributions to American thought. Refused to become a king, by stepping down and setting the precedent for maximum two-year service. In sum, for ensuring the survival of the new constitutional system, he earns bonus points and the #1 slot for getting this new system of liberty through a rocky stage.

2. John Tyler. 10th President (1841-1845). Peace (19), Prosperity (20), Liberty (17); Total score = 56/60 = Excellent.

— Fought his own party (the Whigs) to preserve the limited role of government, which ruined his chances for a second term. Stood against the Whigs continually and vetoed bills on many important issues, especially high tariffs. Ended the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history (the Second Seminole War) by allowing several hundred Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida instead of being sent to lands west of the Mississippi. Cut the number of troops in the American army by 33% (from 12,000 to 8,0000). Used military restraint in dealing the Rhode Island rebellion, which resulted in an improvement over the status quo without more violence. Reached an agreement with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on slave trade. In sum, a hugely underrated leader with no serious presidential flaws.

3. Rutherford Hayes. 19th President (1877-1881). Peace (16), Prosperity (20), Liberty (17); Total score = 53/60 = Excellent.

— Had a remarkably progressive attitude towards the Native American Indians, particularly after the 1876 disaster of Custer at the Bighorn. Pushed for the assimilation of Indians into mainstream America, irrespective of racial barriers that prevented this. Fought against the anti-Chinese racism that was building in the country, and vetoed a bill restricting Chinese immigration. Defeated congressional attempts to force him to remove voting rights from African Americans. Took a hammer to political corruption in government employment, and began the move to a nonpartisan civil service. Pursued other civil service reforms. Favored a hard money policy that limited inflation. Fulfilled his constitutional obligation to protect states against domestic violence when they asked for help, but refused to intervene in violent railroad strikes, believing those issues to be under the jurisdiction of governors and mayors. On his watch federal troops didn’t suppress rioters or wound or kill a single person. By far the best post-Civil War president before the 20th century.

4. John Quincy Adams. 6th President (1825-1829). Peace (18), Prosperity (13), Liberty (19); Total score = 50/60 = Good.

— Fought inflation and reached several commercial agreements with European and Latin American neighbors. Refused to hand out spoils to fellow party members, and appointed people to federal positions on the basis of merit. Opposed slavery, and single-handedly led the fight to lift the gag rule that prohibited discussion of slavery on the House floor. Had surprisingly enlightened views on the Native American Indians for his time. Wanted to guarantee Indian rights in the west, but was rejected by Congress; his successor Andrew Jackson would set the trend of ethnic cleansing policies promoted by Thomas Jefferson. Was not hostile to Muslim peoples, but called out Islam (rightly) as an inherently dangerous religion. An underappreciated president who tends to get buried under the more famous (and bad) ones, because he “didn’t do much” (the activist bias). Restraint is more often than not the wise course in preserving peace, prosperity, and liberty, and Quincy Adams understood this better than most.

5. Grover Cleveland. 22nd & 24th President (1885-1889; 1893-1897). Peace (15), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 47/60 = Good.

— Used admirable restraint in all things — reducing government spending, staying out of foreign affairs, and vetoing unconstitutional bills more often than any other president up to that point. Known for saying, “I did not come to legislate.” Crusaded for the gold standard, and restored it during his second term, to guarantee a stable currency. His tight money policies pulled the country out of the recession caused by his predecessor Benjamin Harrison. Tried to protect native American land in Indian Territory (today Oklahoma), with some success. Gave Indians citizenship and reservation land to farm, with mixed results; he meant well, but the act did allow whites to get control of millions of acres of Indian land. In his slight disfavor, he smashed the Pullman Strike with an unconstitutional use of military force, continued the naval build up of Harrison, and risked war with Britain over a minor Venezuelan dispute.

6. Martin Van Buren. 8th President (1837-1841). Peace (19), Prosperity (20), Liberty (5); Total score = 44/60 = Good.

— Established the best banking system in U.S. history. Established an independent federal treasury to replace Andrew Jackson’s federal deposits in state-chartered private banks. Also established the Independent Treasury, which led to deregulation and had the effect of gradually centralizing financial power in the federal government; and which also led to the Federal Reserve System, a quasi-central bank. Avoided several potential wars, and diffused hostilities over the clashes with Britain over Canada. Also avoided war with Mexico, unlike the later Polk. He would be one of the best presidents of all time (in the excellent category) if not for his shameful policies towards the Native American Indians. The forced Indian march to Oklahoma in 1838-39 was the worst the Cherokee nation experienced, and the horrendous Second Seminole War was underway when he took office and still going on when he left.

7. James Monroe. 5th President (1817-1825). Peace (13), Prosperity (17), Liberty (11); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

— Steered the country out of the depression of 1819-20 and into prosperity. Reduced the national debt. On the downside, drifted away from the republican ideal by increasing the nation’s military and laying the first seeds of an American empire. Created the Monroe Doctrine, which intended to keep new colonies in North America and Latin America free from European intervention. Eland comes down hard on Monroe for some of these things (rating Monroe as a bad president with 22 points total), and I think unjustifiably. Monroe wasn’t that bad. His two term period was known as the Era of Good Feelings for good reason, as American citizens could finally afford to be more isolationist and worry less about European political and military affairs. On the other hand, Monroe is not the great president praised by some historians; thus my average rating.

8. Chester Arthur. 21st President (1881-1885). Peace (12), Prosperity (18), Liberty (10); Total score = 40/60 = Average.

— Had good economic policies, and signed the Pendleton Act which created a commission to hire civil servants on the basis of merit, rather than whoever the ruling class proposed regardless of qualifications. In addition, the act gave civil servants job security. On the downside, converted the defensive American navy into an offensive one. For this he is known as the “Father of the U.S. Navy”, which is a strike against him in the peace category. Without his efforts, William McKinley would probably not have had the means to attack the Spanish in 1898 and lay the foundations for the 20th century imperial presidency. Had mediocre records on policies towards minorities.

9. Benjamin Harrison. 23rd President (1889-1893). Peace (11), Prosperity (11), Liberty (15); Total score = 37/60 = Average.

— Often considered the best president between Lincoln and the 20th century, because he “did the most” in this period. This shows the activist bias of many historians. Just because an executive does a lot doesn’t mean it’s good, and in Harrison’s case, his deeds are fairly overrated. He enlarged the navy even more than Chester Arthur, making the first U.S. imperial strike under William McKinley (the Spanish-American War of 1898) now a near guarantee. Set mediocre monetary policies. The presidential records of Hayes, Arthur, and Cleveland are more impressive than that of Harrison. He was pretty much the definition of average.

10. Millard Fillmore. 13th President (1850-1853). Peace (17), Prosperity (13), Liberty (6); Total score = 36/60 = Average.

— Avoided an earlier Civil War and preserved peace by signing the Compromise of 1850, but at a cost, for the compromise contained the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that escaped slaves had to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. If that provision had been avoided, the North could have (would have) become a haven and depleted the South of slaves. Ordered Commodore Matthew Perry to take his fleet to Japan and intimidate the Japanese into trade. On the plus side, improved relations with Latin America (which James Polk had shattered) and Mexico as well.

11. Andrew Johnson. 17th President (1865-1869). Peace (9), Prosperity (17), Liberty (7); Total score = 33/60 = Poor.

— A racist to the core, but was correct in warning that the harshness of northern military rule would cause a backlash against southern blacks after the Civil War. Advised the use of federal civilians in the South instead of the military. Johnson’s voice of reason is to be commended, but his racism got the better of him, as he was unwilling to compromise with the Republicans by giving blacks any limited rights. (Johnson basically thought it was more important to reintegrate the South back into the nation than to integrate African Americans whom he thought unfit for full citizenship.) As a result, instead of approving a civilian presence, the Republicans unleashed a harsh unconstitutional military occupation. Johnson was good, however, on economic policy. Some economists rank him as one of the top three presidents for the way national productivity climbed exponentially as he transferred resources from the government back to the private sector.

12. Ulysses Grant. 18th President (1869-1877). Peace (9), Prosperity (17), Liberty (5); Total score = 31/60 = Poor.

— The inverse of Johnson: a staunch supporter for the rights of African Americans (for which he should be commended), but by using an unconstitutional military rule to guarantee the blacks’ new rights in the South after the Civil War, he made things worse for them. This is what happens when “nation building at gunpoint” is attempted anywhere — like in Vietnam and Iraq. When an outside power tries to change the culture of an unenlightened region using brute force, it’s bound to fail and produce a backlash. Thanks to the harsh Reconstruction efforts (1865-1877) of Grant and Republicans before him, the South got the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and the remedy would not come until the Civil Rights Movement a century later. Like Johnson, Grant has a good prosperity rating and is ranked extremely high by some economists for reducing the national debt accrued through the Civil War. Lincoln had financed the war by printing greenbacks which caused runaway inflation; Grant paid down the national debt in gold, vetoing greenback bills to Congress’ fury, with the result that America prospered with a hard money policy for decades.

13. James Buchanan. 15th President (1857-1861). Peace (8), Prosperity (9), Liberty (9); Total score = 26/60 = Poor.

— Like his predecessor Pierce, a doughface, who personally opposed slavery but believed that abolitionists were to blame for the strife that was tearing apart the country. Often regarded as one of the worst presidents in history for not preventing the Civil War and actually helping to cause it. Both charges are true to an extent, but he gets too much blame for a crisis that had been brewing since the dawn of the nation, and for happening to be the last president before it came to a head. His principle fault is that when secession became inevitable, he didn’t carry his pro-South beliefs to their logical conclusion and let the South secede in peace. Instead he went for half-assed measures, allowing the South time to arm itself and take over federal arsenals and forts. By stalling and then dumping the mess on Lincoln — who would prove to be belligerent and catastrophic in the worst ways — Buchanan created a very bad situation. Supported the illegitimate pro-slavery government in Lecompton Kansas (who were outnumbered by the anti-slave faction 4 to 1) and used bribes and threats to get Congress to approve it (the Senate passed it but the House voted it down). Fiscally irresponsible, increasing federal expenditures by 15%.

14. Franklin Pierce. 14th President (1853-1857). Peace (8), Prosperity (10), Liberty (7); Total score = 25/60 = Poor.

— A doughface (a northerner who stuck up for the South and slavery). Endorsed the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the two territories to determine whether they would be slave or free states, even though they were above the lattitude which by rights made them free. Even worse, tried to pervert the territories’ decision-making process by allowing pro-slavery border ruffians to cross into Kansas from Missouri and set up a pro-slavery government, which he then approved. Repeatedly appointed pro-slavery governors in the Kansas and Nebraska territories, angering the anti-slave majorities in these territories and triggering a mini civil war in Kansas before the actual Civil War began. Used federal troops to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which his predecessor Fillmore only threatened to do. Had it not been enforced, the North could have become a runaway haven for slaves. Supported the coerced trade deal with Japan in 1854, which Commodore Perry had intimidated the Japanese into signing under Fillmore’s orders.

15. John Adams. 2nd President (1797-1801). Peace (15), Prosperity (9), Liberty (0); Total score = 24/60 = Bad.

— Created one of the worst threats to constitutionally guaranteed liberties in U.S. history, with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The four acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act); allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), or to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act); and then criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act). These were supposedly “security measures” because the nation was engaged in a semi-naval war with France, but in reality were all domestic measures; Adams was simply trying to insulate his Federalist Party and crush all opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. Punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences. All of this alone qualifies him as one of the worst presidents of all time; what saves him somewhat is the way he sacrificed his political career to avoid a war with France that America was not equipped to fight (thus a high peace rating).

16. Thomas Jefferson. 3rd President (1801-1809). Peace (12), Prosperity (7), Liberty (2); Total score = 21/60 = Bad.

— Did great things in his early career (wrote the Declaration of Independence), but as a president was horrible. Was a vocal proponent of limited government but never practiced what he preached, wielding executive power all over the place. Placed an embargo on U.S. international commerce and coastal U.S. trade in response to British and French violations of U.S. neutrality in the Naploeonic wars — devastating the American economy while having virtually no effect on the British and French. American exports dropped 80% and imports dropped 60%, resulting in massive unemployment and Americans starving. It’s rare in American history that the population has starved due to government policy, and this alone makes Jefferson one of the worst presidents of all time. On top of that, the Embargo Act placed the entire country under military rule, which led to searches, seizures, and arrests without warrants and with the slightest suspicion of someone exporting goods. (Irony being that while Jefferson ended the persecution of free speech under the Alien and Sedition Acts during the Adams administration, he committed just as many violations of civil liberties on his own watch.) Set the ugly precedent for ethnic cleansing, arguing that if the Native American Indians would not assimilate into white society, they had to be removed from their ancestral homelands and relocated to less desirable land further west. This would not be implemented on a large scale until Andrew Jackson, but it is Jefferson we have to thank for it.

17. James Madison. 4th President (1809-1817). Peace (0), Prosperity (8), Liberty (12); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

— Like Jefferson, did great things prior to becoming president (created the blueprint for the Constitution), but as a president was a disaster. Took a new and weak nation into a completely unnecessary war with the British naval superpower, for no other reason than pride, resulting in the only time in history a foreign power invaded the U.S. (and on top of that burned Washington D.C.). Disregarded the ideals of the republic by enlarging the army and drafting men into the militia, and creating a national bank to finance the war debt. Though many historians call the War of 1812 a draw, or even a U.S. victory, that’s laughable — it only resulted in the invasion of American soil without any change in relations with Britain. The only victorious outcome of the war was that the British stopped supporting Native American Indians in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to stay out of Canada. In other words, the War of 1812 ensured that American whites would be able to steal Indian land with impunity. So if the War of 1812 was a victory it was a poisonous one. To his credit, Madison did not restrict civil liberties during the war, which is highly unusual during wars in American history, but that’s certainly not enough to rescue his overall bad rating.

18. James Polk. 11th President (1845-1849). Peace (0), Prosperity (7), Liberty (8); Total score = 15/60 = Bad.

— Often considered a great president, because he accomplished his stated goals. Using this logic, any leader who succeeds in implementing a program, no matter how bad (like Stalin), is a great leader. And yet this is repeatedly how American presidents are evaluated by mainstream historians (the effectiveness bias). Polk started the Mexican War just to steal territory from a weaker country, in the name of manifest destiny. The desertion rate was 8%, the highest for any foreign war in American history. Antiwar sentiments built as the war dragged on without conclusion, and after two years Congress passed a resolution that condemned Polk for “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the president”. More than 12,000 Americans died in Mexico, one of the highest casualty rates in American wartime history. In the process of his belligerent land-grabbing, Polk expanded presidential power beyond what the founders envisioned, and used that power to effectively remove the power to declare war from Congress. Like Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson before him, Polk paid lip-service to a restricted role for the federal government but in practice deviated from that so widely and set such terrible precedents that he’s in fact one of the worst presidents. To his credit, he did promote policies which fought inflation, and he followed the Constitution in maintaining that tariffs should be used only to raise revenues for the government and not protect industries (especially when tariffs tend to be regressive taxes that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor). Unfortunately his obscene war effort sucked most of the prosperity out of these policies, as war efforts do.

19. Andrew Jackson. 7th President (1829-1837). Peace (5), Prosperity (5), Liberty (4); Total score = 14/60 = Bad.

— Responded belligerently to the nullification crisis in South Carolina. Shamelessly abused the veto power of the president, rejecting bills not because they were unconstitutional but because they conflicted with his personal views. (His 12 vetoes were more than the vetoes of all previous presidents combined.) Implemented Jefferson’s ethnic-cleansing policy on a grand scale: got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, driving Indians off lands that had been guaranteed to them by more than ninety treaties, using state militia to evict them from their homes, and sending them out on the infamous Trail of Tears, to die by the thousands en route to their new homes in the west. Made presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today, and is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny (witness the election of a president like Donald Trump); the American Founders believed democracy could be a threat to liberty, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically by the American citizens.

20. Abraham Lincoln. 16th President (1861-1865). Peace (3), Prosperity (2), Liberty (6); Total score = 11/60 = Bad.

— Maneuvered the South into starting the Civil War which devastated the country, killing 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans. If Lincoln wanted to preserve the union (which he did: it was his main reason for the war), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery. Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of Jim Crow laws and organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act would heal these wounds. Lincoln seized one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. Cheated the Sioux out their lands and afterwards signed off on the largest mass execution of Indians (or anyone) in U.S. history. Arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, threw them into prison, and closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, even deporting an opposing congressman (only Woodrow Wilson showed more flagrant contempt for free speech than Lincoln). Physically attacked and removed a peace movement. Disappeared citizens without arrest warrants, forbidding them the right to challenge their detention, a violation of habeas corpus (George W. Bush was the only other president to do this). His liberty rating would be an absolute zero if not for the fact that he was fighting for the slaves’ liberation. By far the worst president of the 18th-19th centuries, and yet praised by many as the best. For my full explanation why apologists for Lincoln are as wrong as Confederate revisionists, see here.

Appendix

Here are my rankings compared to Eland’s in Recarving Rushmore. He and I are pretty close. The only two we disagree about significantly are Washington and Monroe. Mainstream historians would invert many of our rankings. Our Big Bads (in brown) — especially Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, and Lincoln — are usually ranked at the top.

Rosson Eland
1. George Washington

2. John Tyler

3. Rutherford Hayes

4. John Quincy Adams

5. Grover Cleveland

6. Martin Van Buren

7. James Monroe

8. Chester Arthur

9. Benjamin Harrison

10. Millard Fillmore

11. Andrew Johnson

12. Ulysses Grant

13. James Buchanan

14. Franklin Pierce

15. John Adams

16. Thomas Jefferson

17. James Madison

18. James Polk

19. Andrew Jackson

20. Abraham Lincoln

1. John Tyler

2. Grover Cleveland

3. Martin Van Buren

4. Rutherford Hayes

5. Chester Arthur

6. George Washington

7. John Quincy Adams

8. Millard Fillmore

9. Benjamin Harrison

10. Andrew Johnson

11. Ulysses Grant

12. John Adams

13. James Buchanan

14. Franklin Pierce

15. James Monroe

16. Thomas Jefferson

17. Andrew Jackson

18. James Madison

19. Abraham Lincoln

20. James Polk

Stranger Things “’80s Posters”

What a neat idea. The official Stranger Things Twitter account is promoting #StrangerThursdays, which involves a rewatch of each episode of the first season on every Thursday, live tweets with commentary, and behind the scenes details. The best part is that they start each episode by revealing a new Stranger Things poster inspired by an ’80s film that influenced the show. I’ll update this post as the posters roll out each Thursday.

“Stand by Us” (August 3)

Modeled on Stand by Me.

“A Nightmare on Mirkwood” (August 10)

Derived from Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Don’t walk. Run.” (August 17)

From The Running Man.

“No One Can Hear You Scream.” (August 24)

From of course Alien.

“Normal in every way but one.” (August 31)

From Firestarter.

“The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Curiosity.” (September 7)

From the smashing Evil Dead.

“Don’t Go In the Void” (September 14)

From Jaws. (“Don’t go in the water”)

“Join the Adventure.” (September 21)

From The Goonies.

Science Fiction Pick List

To complement my eight fantasy picks, here are my sci-fic choices. I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to sci-fic. You won’t find anything by Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven here.

dune

1. Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The sequels aren’t so impressive. Only the first book makes my list.

2. The Gap Cycle, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse hell to achieve justice. No one has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane; the narrative crescendos enough to give you panic attacks. I was hyperventilating during the race to escape Thanatos Minor. Every corner of that planetoid remains burned in my mind’s eye, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I love the central character of Angus. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of free will I feel for him. The Gap Cycle is a brilliant space opera about evil authorities, and terrifying aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. I doubt I’ll read anything like it again.

3. Cluster & Chaining the Lady, Piers Anthony. 1977, 1978. No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and it needs rescuing from obscurity. It’s better than many of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. The premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances, safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows Anthony protagonists (Flint in Cluster, Melody in Chaining the Lady) whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess. The first two novels are the ones that make my cut. In Cluster Flint shags his way across the Milky Way, experiencing a rich variety of alien sex, and his mission ends on a murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the reveal. In Chaining the Lady the Andromeda Galaxy acquires the capability of forced possession, and Melody must go undercover on a battle ship to find out who the involuntary hosts are before their possessors take over the Milky Way. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details.

4. Ubik, Philip Dick. 1969. Only recently have I been turned on to Philip Dick, and Ubik is his best work, set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik is a pure mind fuck, and while it may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

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5. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. 2011. This novel will give you an orgasm if you grew up in the ’80s playing D&D and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of reality. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. The virtual recreation of the Tomb of Horrors is for me one of the most gratifying chapters I’ve read in a novel.

6. Hyperion-Endymion, Dan Simmons. 1989-1997. The four books are almost equally good while stylistically different. Hyperion is a Canterbury Tales-like recounting of six stories, told by each of the Shrike pilgrims. The Fall of Hyperion takes these strands and runs them into a single blistering narrative as the fabric of the universe is torn apart. Endymion picks up centuries later, in a regressed universe ruled by the Catholic church, and consists of a river chase through portals to different planets, reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The Rise of Endymion involves the defeat of the church and a woman’s sacrifice to the Inquisition. My favorite is The Fall of Hyperion — Simmons never takes his foot off the gas in that book — but they all make this cut. I could never fully understand the Shrike, the spiked humanoid that seems to be a force for good as much as evil. He impales victims on his Tree of Pain, and gives them the “Merlin sickness” (a reverse aging process by which after being touched, every morning you wake up a day younger with no memory of the lost days nor anything that had happened since being touched; to the horror and pain of family and friends who have to explain every morning what happened to you, as you regress back to a teen to a kid to a baby). It seems to be a program designed to ensure the evolution of the AIs while also keeping them in check, and it helps people as as often as it hurts them depending on its perceived goal.

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7. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are top-notch survivalist sci-fic. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.

8. The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold. 1973. It’s surprising how good this book is considering the skeleton narrative. It’s a novella with a single character (aside from the brief appearance of a lawyer) and has a rather staged feeling to it. But it takes on enormous themes — time travel, paradoxes, free will — as the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. And it’s a love story at heart, as the man falls in love with himself in various time streams. He starts as most people would do if they suddenly acquired a time-traveling device: betting on sports events he already knows the outcome to, making himself a millionaire. But as he becomes gradually bored by wealth, he decides that he wants to have sex with his past and future selves, including mass orgies with himselves from different time streams. Eventually, as he changes events in so many time streams he creates a female version of himself, with whom he has a child. It turns out to be a very powerful narrative of a man searching for self and meaning, not to mention coming to terms with his homoerotic desires, which in 1973 was an unusual move in a novel. I was once asked the five things I would do if I could go back in time, and indeed the two at the top of my list were to make more money for myself, and to bang myself.

Retrospective: Cluster

“In Canopus I learned that to be humanoid was not to be superior; in Spica I found three sides to any question; in Polaris I appreciated circularity.” (Flint of Outworld)

No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and for the life of me I don’t get it. It’s better than a lot of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. Some of the ideas went over my 12-year old head and surprised me on the reread 40 years later. I suspect the name of Piers Anthony puts people off, and understandably. His Xanth series has gotten out of hand and was never that good to begin with. But the ’70s were his golden age, and the Cluster trilogy needs rescuing from obscurity. The three books are Cluster (1977), Chaining the Lady (1978), and Kirlian Quest (1978), and this retrospective honors the first for its 40th anniversary.

The premise of the series is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel given the problems of every other method. Teleportation is too expensive (costing up to trillions of dollars per person), freezer ships too dangerous (1 in 3 lifeforms perish en route), and lifeships too slow (decades have passed by the time passengers disembark). Spiritual transfer allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances — safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. That’s a bold premise for science fiction, and it allows Anthony protagonists whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess.

In Cluster that protagonist is Flint, a Solarian (human) recruited by his government to bring the secret of spirit transfer to the other spheres in the Milky Way. (See image left: sphere Sol is the galaxy’s human sphere, which contains “our” solar system.) The mission is to liberate the spheres from isolationism and unite them in cause against the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda already has the technology for spiritual transfer, and is plotting to steal the Milky Way’s energy sources. Flint’s soul is sent to various spheres, and he is chased by the soul of an Andromeda agent who is also in the disguise of native hosts. The result is an unusual space thriller featuring a reckless hero unsure of himself, as he finds himself hostage to the views, impulses, and feelings of his host bodies. He has a particularly grand time shagging his way through the Cluster.

Shag hero?

That’s sort of what Flint is. In three spheres (Spica, Polaris, and Mintaka) he engages in sex, and in the case of Spica he becomes a rapist, forcing himself on others not once or even twice, but an outrageous three times. The Spicans are fin-propelled humanoids who live on water planets, and their species consists of three genders: Impacts, Undulants, and Sibilants. Sexual intercourse is a three-way affair, impossible with two, but compulsive the moment a third appears, and so most areas on the planets are zoned so that only two genders are allowed together at any time. The presence of three makes sex literally impossible to resist for all members, as one takes the role of the sire (“father”), another the parent (“mother”), and another the catalyst. Intercourse involves the merging of the chests/torsos of all three, initiated by the catalyst who throws itself at the other two, so that the flesh of all three mesh and heave and overlap. When sex is completed, a chunk of flesh breaks off mostly from the sire, and some from the parent, producing the offspring who is nurtured by the parent. What’s interesting is that the genders don’t determine the sire, parent, and catalyst; it’s rather the position of each and the manner in which they come together. An Impact can be a sire just as easily as a parent or a catalyst, and same for Undulants and Sibilants.

Flint, in the body of an Impact, comes upon an Undulant and Sibilant, and is assaulted by urges he can barely comprehend. He instinctively assumes the role of the catalyst, launching himself at the other two, merging and sucking their flesh into his, and in the end leaves the Sibilant (the parent) with a child. That’s his first rape. He is later arrested for his crime by two Impact officials, and evades them by doing the unspeakable in that culture – having sex with two individuals of like gender. Here’s how that rape is described:

“Whereupon he invoked the most disgusting crime of which a Spican sapient is capable. He fushed [homosexually raped] them. He visualized them as a Sibilant and an Undulant, himself as the catalyst, and puffed out his body perimeter to intersect theirs. He overlapped them both, then contracted, hauling them together inside his flesh. The act was appalling. Only in the filthiest of jokes was it even conceivable. A wave of intense revulsion almost overwhelmed the mind of his host. This was despicable homosexual rape! But Flint, desperate, forced the two to intersect each other. Then he expelled them violently, firing them through the water, linked to each other. Both Impacts were unconscious, overcome by sheer shock and horror. And Flint was now twice guilty of a capital offense. His Impact brain urged immediate penance in the form of suicide. He hated himself, but he swam on.”

It’s worth noting that in the Cluster spheres homosexuality seems to be a universal taboo, and while some have claimed this reflects a homophobia on the part of Piers Anthony, it makes perfect sense regardless. The primary drive of every species is to reproduce; same-gendered sex would be reviled as abnormal by at least many intelligent lifeforms who can form concepts, at least until they evolve by more open-minded concepts.

As if that weren’t enough, Flint rapes a third time, when he discovers an Undulant named Llynana whom he suspects is possessed by a kirlian transfer like himself — and that she is the same entity who had followed him to sphere Canopus and tried to kill him. He drags her to an area where they find a Sibilant, and positions himself so that the Sibilant is forced to be the catalyst, himself the sire, and she the parent:

“The throes of mergence were upon them. Llyana was struggling. ‘This — this — I am being violated!’ she protested. ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’

” ‘I am Sissix the Sibliant,’ the catalyst replied. ‘Let the inquest show that I did not seek this union. Nevertheless I do not protest it; you are both handsome specimens.’ Actually the catalyst had little reason to protest; catalysm was as close to completely free pleasure as the world provided. The parent was responsible for the offspring, and the sire gave a healthy chunk of his flesh. The catalyst experienced the same triple orgasm but without penalty.

” ‘Your motions only enhance the interaction,’ Flint told Llyana, knowing this was like telling the victim of ongoing rape not to struggle.

” ‘This — this is mating!’ she screamed, shocked. They were all now overlapping each others’ nervous systems. Flint had never before experienced such extreme pleasure. In the human body, the joys and pains of various experiences were actually self-generated. No actual transfer of sensation occurred, merely external stimulus. But here there was the enveloping joy of literal mergence, of becoming one with one’s species. Sissix and Llyana pooled their nervous impulses with Flint’s to make a symphonic unity of amazing depth and intensity. In his first rape, when he had been the inadvertent catalyst, he had been too revolted by the concept to appreciate the pleasure; now he relished it.”

And because the literal fusion of Spican intercourse is spiritual as much as biological, Flint is able to ascertain that Llyana’s soul has indeed been supplanted by that of an alien agent, later confirmed to be from the Andromeda galaxy. But even more: his rape of Andromeda/Llyana carries a devastating consequence. Forcing a child on her, the Andromeda agent becomes hostage to the emotional bond between her host body and the child, which prohibits her chasing after Flint’s soul to another planet. To her outrage, she feels compelled to stay inside Llyana on the Spican planet and nurture this undesired child. This shows how risky possession is: the hard-wired instincts of the unconscious host can override the will of the possessor.

Flint is a bastard in his parting blow. “Enjoy your motherhood,” he tells Andromeda, who can only swear at him furiously (to which he amusingly scolds her, “Please, not in front of the child”). Rape heroes are rare these days in sci-fic and fantasy, having gone out of fashion since the pulp years. While rapists have become more common as lead characters since Game of Thrones, they are usually understood to be vile. Flint is more like Conan than Jaime Lannister, someone you thrill to, and that sort of protagonist tends to be resented today.

Sexual debt

In the sphere of Polaris things go the consensual way. Flint is learning to discipline his foreign impulses, but he is also greeted by the tender Polarian whose life he saved at the start of the novel. She saved his life too (they were attacked by a wild beast on his home planet), and in Polarian culture, mutual aid escalates debt rather than cancels it, requiring an abatement through the act of sex. That was impossible on Flint’s planet, since Tsopi had physically traveled there as a Polarian, and obviously different species can’t cross-breed. With Flint now inside a Polarian host, Tsopi makes her claim on him.

“You and I saved each other’s lives, and so we owe each other our lives. A mutual debt, very hard to repay. Now, in your thrust culture [Solarian], you would call that self-canceling. Equal and opposite forces. But in our circular culture [Polarian], it starts quite a spiral. Equal and opposite thrusts applied to two sides of a wheel and make it roll twice as fast.”

The “circular” mindset mirrors the Polarian physiology. They look like huge dinosaur droppings at first blush (see image below), with wheels on the bottom and small communication balls on top of their trunks. They roll, not walk, and their thinking is less straightforward, their attitudes as a result more open-minded. Tsopi explains how Polarians live through cycles of relationships rather than lasting ones:

“You [Solarians] are an expansive, extroverted species, but also strongly introverted, alienophobic. Your mating pattern reflects this. You seek a stranger for the purpose of procreation, then establish lifelong liaison with that stranger. To us that seems extreme. We [Polarians] prefer familiar matings, but we form no restrictive relation. Our love is intense while it endures. At the end, there is a child, and all debts have been expiated by that act of creation. The chapter is finished; we never mate again with the same partners.”

Flint, moved by this, agrees to satisfy the debt between them. Here is the sex scene:

“Tsopi laid down her provocative taste, and Flint augmented it with his own. The two trails fed off each other, building up the mood layer by layer as the two wheels spiraled inward toward the center. At last they met. Flint’s trunk and Tsopi’s tail twined together, and their two balls touched each other in an electrifying spinning kiss. Flint found that his body needed no instruction. As with Solarians and all other species both sapient and animal, nature sufficed. Yet the steps of it astonished the human fragments of his mind. For at the height of his passion, Flint lay down and released his wheel. He had not realized that this was possible; he had supposed it was an inseparable part of his anatomy. Now it rolled slowly across the floor away from him leaving him lame.

“She lay down opposite him and moved close. Flint took the exposed portion of her wheel into his vacant wheel chamber. The sensations were intensified excruciatingly, for they were direct; her secretions with his without being diluted by an intervening surface. Trunk and tail reached around to twine together, drawing the connection tight.

“Now the real action began. The rim of Flint’s torso met the rim of Tsopi’s, sealing all the way around their mutual sphere, so that none of it was exposed to the air. The two of them spun it, rapidly. More rapidly than possible in any individual situation, for the wheel controlling mechanisms of both parties were operating in tandem. The wheel spun so fast in grew warm, then hot. Both Flint and Tsopi excreted extra fluid to bathe that sphere in its sealed chamber and alleviate friction, but still the heat increased. At last something within the wheel reacted. There was an electrochemical shift, as of a fire flaring up. It was the climax, that first stirring of buried animation. There was an instant of almost unbearable rapture as the shock went through the mass, then exhaustion.

“Flint and Tsopi fell apart. The wheel rolled free of both of them, steaming. And while they struggled to regain their strength, complicated by the absence of their wheels, through which they normally ate, respired, and eliminated, the loose mass began to shake and flex as though something inside were trying to get out. It did not break open like a hatched egg; it elongated and unfolded, stage by stage, until it emerged complete, sculpted by the hand or wheel of nature: a young Polarian.”

Flint then reclaims his wheel, while Tsopi, now wheel-less, removes his communication ball. In Polarian sex the male becomes mute afterwards (until he grows another communication ball), while the female suffers confinement: the removed communication ball is inserted down below to become her new wheel, that she can barely be upright on until it grows to full size. There’s a biological symmetry to this — the seed starts with the male’s communication ball and eventually becomes a female’s new wheel, varying the gene pool, since the same couples never mate twice.

The Polarians seem to be Anthony’s secret heroes — Tsopi in Cluster and Llume (especially) in Chaining the Lady. I like the idea of circular thought culture and wish the author had developed it more. It’s noted for example how sex-debt is alien to humans like the concept of voting makes no sense to a Polarians, for whom the interests of a single individual take precedence over the will of the majority. When Flint counters how stupid that is — that government must be democratic and serve the good of the greatest number — Tsopi explains that Polarians have a natural inclination to overcoming disagreement through accommodation and mutual respect. It’s a great idea to run with, but it’s kept in the abstract.

Genre blending

After being mired on Spica for months (thanks to Flint raping her and giving her a child), the Andromeda agent is able to break free of her host and continue her mission against the Milky Way — this time as an impersonator rather than a possessor. When the Nathian government discovers an ancient site of technology on the planet of Hyades, the Milky Way governments send representatives to investigate — from Canopus, Sol, Polaris, Antares, Spica, Nath, Mirzam, and Mintaka. Flint is the Sol rep, and they are in their true forms, having been teleported rather than soul-transferred. When they arrive, the Mirzamite is found slain, and the mission turns into a murder mystery. It’s clear the killer has to be one of them since there are no life forms on Hyades. But who of the seven and why?

It’s good genre blending and keeps you guessing until the reveal. The seven members cross-examine each other, querying alibis, testing their knowledge of the species they claim to represent. Later the Antarean is found dead, and it still looks like anyone could be the killer. The Mintakan finally slips by saying “concurrence”, which is the term used by Andromedans to voice agreement — as Flint knows, having dealt with the agent before — and it dawns on him that the Mirzamite was killed right away because Mirzamites are the only species who know what Mintakans really look like (because their spheres border each other). The “Mintakan” is none other than the Andromedan agent in its true form. Challenged at last, she dishes out some serious whup-ass, taking down the Spican, Polarian, Nathian, and Flint himself before the insectoid Canopian — the only remaining survivor — is able to destroy her.

That’s not the end though. In the final chapter we get to see what Mintakans really look like, as Flint wakes up inside the body of one. He died in the Hyades showdown, but the activated technology beamed his soul to the (supposed) world of his killer — his last dying thought. The Mintakans are by far Anthony’s most memorable creation, amalgams of musical instruments; they speak with music, create it as they move, open doors with song, and exude it like Solarians exhale carbon dioxide.

“His body was astonishing. Whenever he moved, he jangled, beeped, and boomed. His several feet were little clappers, supporting a triple web of taut wires like three harps. Fitted within the inner curves of these were tiers of drum diaphragms. Strong tubular framing provided resonance for moving air with reeds. In short, he was an animate orchestra. He had some kind or sonar/radar perception, and used it to orient himself. This had to be a Mintakan host. The ancient arena had really been a transfer station whose destination was controlled by the thought of the transferee. He was thinking of Mintaka as he died — and here he was. His human body had been blasted apart, and no one at home would know what had really happened to him. He had, in his fashion, gone to heaven.”

Except that the devil has ridden his coat tails. The Andromeda agent is there right beside him, also having been killed in the Hyades battle and soul-transferred. As they argue with each other, their hatred lessens, partly in the knowledge their souls will soon die since their native bodies have, but also as they become attracted to each other in the Mintakan form:

“As he played his comment, she accompanied with a haunting tune of agreement. The sheer beauty of the impromptu startled him. When Mintakans communicated, they really did make music together. It was far superior to the human forms, both as dialogue and music. In that affinity of sound, he realized how lovely she could be when she chose.”

And with that, in the final pages, Flint and his nemesis come to an understanding. They agree the ancient secrets they discovered are too dangerous in the hands of either galaxy. Before dying, they mate — consensually this time — and produce an offspring who will become the ancestor of Melody of Mintaka, the protagonist of Chaining the Lady. What fails in trashy Harlequin romances (women who reconcile or fall in love with their rapists) works in a context of inter-species hosting, where biochemical thought patterns are radically altered.

Verdict

Take Cluster off your shelf and relive Flint’s galactic mission. It’s a great novel for its interrogation of inter-species perspective, the premise of spirit possession, and arresting portrayals of alien sex. Throw in an explosive murder mystery, and you have a mighty damn good story.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.