Note: in this review, I avoid specific spoilers beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb. I discuss my reaction to the ending, but none of the specific events.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I chose to read Pandemonium because it was the book club selection for a book club meeting I failed to attend (sigh, moving). I devoured this book in less than 48 hours and I really enjoyed the process of reading it. For two reasons, this book forced me to contemplate the nature of science fiction versus fantasy: 1) because the book explicitly calls out the artificiality of the separation and 2) because I myself strongly tilt towards science fiction.
Pandemonium is set in a world where demonic possessions happen. They come in many flavors; there’s the Captain, who possesses soldiers and performs acts of bravery and there’s the Little Angel, who possesses little girls and releases old people from the pain of the world. Del Pierce was possessed as a child, and now as an adult he suspects that the demon never entirely left him.
Science wants to understand these possessions as much as it wants to understand cancer in our own world. Del wants to be freed of his demon, by science or otherwise. He’s damaged by what he’s endured. He talks to scientists and to their less-scientific groupies. Del’s condition isn’t considered possible by science, and he’s exasperated by the limitations of science. The characters criticize the way the scientific community regards the demonic possessions. It felt like the tired criticisms of our scientific process. Perhaps, as a scientist, I’m over-sensitive to such things.
People separate fantasy and scifi in different ways, and here’s my separation: fantasy is about exceptions to the rules and scifi is about inevitable outcomes of the rules. Harry Potter is an exceptional member of an exceptional class of people. Piers Anthony’s Xanth stories are about the people with the best magical powers. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is about one of many sentient programs that through a unique set of circumstances becomes something more. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain is about the first products of genetic engineering. Both genres often focus on exceptional characters, but in scifi the character is exceptional due to circumstances and in fantasy the character is inherently exceptional in some way that cannot be explained.
In arguing a lack of separation between science fiction and fantasy, Pandemonium has the trappings of fantasy but makes several explicit science fiction references. Early in the book, a character (named Valis) quotes Philip K. Dick and asserts that “you cannot separate science fiction from fantasy.” There are references to AE van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. I made a mental footnote to expect something genre-defying at the end.
After the book argued for the lack of distinction between the genres, the ending didn’t challenge my definition of fantasy. For me, this was a book about demons and possession and the human psyche. Which is fine. But like Chekov’s gun, after a lot of discussion about the blurred lines between two genres, you expect to partake in a book with blurred lines. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t feel affected by it either. I flew through the book, finished it, and shrugged.
Pandemonium is a lovely read. As a mild scifi snob, I am out of its core audience, and I can’t say how those with different genre sensibilities might feel about it. For me it just felt insubstantial, like a book that will fade from my memory.