Title: The Megarothke
Author: Robert Ashcroft
Genre: Horror, science fiction
The Megarothke, the debut novel from author Robert Ashcroft, is billed as “Blade Runner meets Westworld via Resident Evil.” Rarely do I buy into publisher hyperbole concerning new books, but in this case I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. While the elevator pitch for The Megarothke gives you a taste of some of the flavors you can expect, it is far more personal and intimate than Blade Runner, more philosophical than even Westworld, and far more coherent than anything that starts with Resident Evil.
In the interest of full disclosure, I received a review copy from publisher Cinestate and distributor Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. With that out of the way, lets dive into the rich and frightening post-apocalyptic world of The Megarothke.
New Visions of the Post-Apocalypse
Act One of The Megarothke introduces us to post-Apocalyptic world where only 50,000 humans remain in the ruins of Los Angeles after a series of orbital bombardments and plagues referred to as “The Hollow War.” Our main character, Theodore “Theo” Adams, is introduced to us as a beat cop who survived the Hollow War and now has a similar job patrolling around outskirts and badlands that surround the final human settlement.
As he and his partner cruise the empty streets of LA we are introduced bit by bit to the new world that is unfolding and the terrifying creatures created by the Artificial Intelligence that started and ultimately won the Hollow War.
The world that Robert Ashcroft creates is rich and detailed, yet still mysterious because we are introduced to it through the eyes of someone who is, at least at the beginning, portrayed as a pretty ordinary survivor with a menial job. Theo’s job is important, but he is shut out of much of the larger politics and secrecy inside the final settlement- think of a soldier without a top-secret clearance. He executes his job, but is shut out of the larger machinations of his higher ups.
This book is an absolutely great example of world building, as Robert Ashcroft slowly and methodically lays down layer after layer of his vision until we are left with something that is not only new and interesting, but also feels lived in and real. Personally, this is what got me hooked and after the first two chapters couldn’t put this book down.
While the book starts in a pretty bleak and scary place, it only gets worse and worse and events unfold and Theo both literally and figuratively descends into horror. The horror themes run the gamut from body horror to man’s inherent inhumanity and many times the reader’s only reprieve are flashback chapters. However, as these chapters illustrate how the world descended into such darkness they only increase, rather than take away from, the growing feeling of dread and hopelessness this novel constantly ratchets up.
Gritty Action with and Eye Toward Detail
Just as the world of The Megarothke feels meticulously constructed, so are the action scenes. Ashcroft has clearly given quite a bit of time and thought to both the realism and visceral feeling of violence, as well as its aftereffects. Our characters are constantly communicating, moving, and planning with real determination and smarts. Of course, their plans often go crap, but such is the nature of combat.
The formula to the action, which the author uses time and time again, is both simple and spot on: a build up in tension and dread, a burst of action, then characters who have to live with the results they have done. The two best examples of this are the very first action scene where Theo’s partner seems to make a critical mistake and a later flashback of a pre-war hostage situation. Both show violence in a critical and horrific manner, but by focusing on the confusing run up and the psychological effects on the survivors rather than act itself, violence is not glorified.
The third act does become more of a shoot’em up, which is not really my taste, but after such smart and gritty action in the beginning I can’t really complain too much.
Transgender and Transhuman Themes
The Megarothke is a great example of world building and the action is engaging, but if that is was the end of it the novel would fall into the good but not great category. Where Ashcroft excels is his ability to weave philosophical themes into an already engaging and interesting narrative. This happens, in general, in three different yet interconnected threads.
First, he overtly references quite a bit of Nietzschean existential philosophy, quoting quite a few chapter introductions from Thus Spoke Zarathustra which sets a dark mood given Nietzsche’s themes of the will to power, the Übermensch, and in particular the religious style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I won’t belabor the point here, but many of Nietzsche’s themes can be interpreted as a dark current in another theme that Ashcroft explores, that of Transhumanism.
Seeking to transform humans and the human condition through technology, Transhumanism is at center stage in The Megarothke and it isn’t all together optimistic. We experience great technological change in daily life, and ultimately the destruction of any sort of normalcy, through the eyes of Theo who is more often than not being left behind as technology moves forward. Having a character left behind by the advance of technology is not a new concept, but the way that Theo struggles with and interprets the rapidly changing world is thought provoking and in many cases quite intense.
Into this rich mix of modern philosophy, Ashcroft introduces us to two transgender characters, both of which play very important roles in the plot and narrative. Where a poor writer might portray a transgender character as one dimensional, with the only trait of the character being their gender identity, a mediocre writer might find it too difficult to discuss gender identity and shy away from transgender characters altogether.
A good writer, like Ashcroft, engages with transgender characters in a meaningful and heartfelt way. Gender identity is, of course, a critical part of these characters but it is one of many characteristics that define them. Particularly the character of Mathew, who the reader learns the most about, has real agency, real thoughts, and real emotions.
The future the transgender community also has very important interactions and influences on the transhumanist movement and vice versa in Ashcroft’s fictional narrative. I will readily admit that I don’t have the personal knowledge or experience to be able to critically examine this particular intersection and I would really enjoy further analysis and discussion from other readers on that topic.
What I can say is that transgender characters and their thoughts are given real weight in the narrative and that is something that we need to see more of in our genres and our culture at large.
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
This is the first book in a long time that I couldn’t put down, it pulled me in at the beginning and didn’t let me go until the very end. With gripping characters, a horrific and detailed world, and plenty of philosophical ideas to keep you thinking after you have finished, The Megarothke is an absolute must read for fans of the post-apocalyptic, science fiction, or horror genres.
Robert Ashcroft’s future vision is both stunning and horrific, yet his character’s humanity is vivid and feels oh so real. Robert Ashcroft is an author worth keeping an eye on, as is his publisher Cinestate. Exceptional action, visceral horror, and philosophical themes that will keep you thinking long after you finish… can you ask for any more?
This guest review was contributed by Mike D. He writes about books, films, and podcasts at Signal Horizon, a website dedicated to horror and science fiction.