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The Second Coming
John Dalmas
Baen, 312 pages

The Second Coming
John Dalmas
John Dalmas has worked as a farm worker, parachute infantryman, army medic, stevedore, coal-heaver on the Great Lakes, logger, smoke jumper, district forester, technical writer and free-lance editor. He started college at 24, and began fiction writing as a student at Michigan State University, where his stories appeared regularly in the monthly college magazine. Other interests intervened and he didn't get around to writing fiction again until, in his 40s, he finally finished his Ph.D. Then he wrote and sold a novel, The Yngling and two novelettes to John W. Campbell at Analog. He and his wife, Gail, live in Spokane, Washington. They have two grown children and three grandchildren.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Otherwhens, Otherwheres
SF Site Review: Soldiers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Assigning me to review a book about the Second Coming of Christ is akin to asking the Pope to write a manual on gay parenting. The question isn't whether he would do it, but SHOULD he?

Nonetheless, here I go wading into treacherous seas with The Second Coming, a new novel by John Dalmas. And let me start out by tackling this one simply on its merits as an entertaining yarn.

Dalmas's near future United States features more of everything we fear -- more violence, poverty, hatred, pollution, apathy, corruption, economic depression and so forth. With millions out of work, Lee and Ben Shoreff are just another middle class couple facing foreclosure of their mortgage. When they are both offered good paying jobs and free education for their daughters in Colorado, Lee stifles her misgivings about their new employer, Millennium, a cult founded by new age guru Ngunda Aran.

The people living in the Millennium compound seem a pleasant, ordinary bunch rather than fanatical or deranged, but they nonetheless believe that Earth is ready for a new Messiah and Aran is the One. If Lee Shoreff is skeptical about that idea, fundamentalists of all religious stripes are infuriated. Soon it appears that the Shoreffs may have fled their decaying suburb only to be endangered by violent zealots who will stop at nothing to destroy Millennium.

Although Ngunda Aran is the pivotal character in The Second Coming, John Dalmas sensibly stays away from trying to portray a divinely inspired prophet, and instead uses over a dozen other viewpoints, spending the most time with Lee Shoreff and her family. Shoreff is very credible as a conventional woman afraid that her children will be inculcated into a cult, but she does not move the action in this story. In fact, none of the characters do. They are all swept along by events. The Second Coming is... well, coming, and people merely need to decide what they're going to do about it.

To keep the story moving (and to flesh out what is actually a pretty slight plot) Dalmas follows the machinations of various aspiring assassins -- Jewish zealots, Irish Catholic terrorists, and homegrown Aryan Nations wing-nuts. It soon becomes clear that it isn't so much a question of whether Aran will be killed but who will get there first. The only real suspense for the reader is deciding whether Dalmas's messiah is for real, and if so, what sort of religious upheaval the world is in for when he's resurrected.

Despite the many characters, settings, and minor plot threads, this is one of Dalmas's most focussed books. He uses short scenes to keep the pace moving briskly (almost cinematically) yet still manages to scatter little gems of characterization and background throughout the narrative. For instance, I particularly enjoyed his description of a sour bachelor grudgingly serving coffee to a guest, and his depiction of Jenny Buckels' Baptist family, with the bitter, fanatical mother and gentle, forgiving brother depicting the dark and light sides of institutionalized Christianity.

However, Dalmas's passion for detail sometimes gets out of hand. Characters recite data such as their telephone numbers or hotel room numbers, and we read much too much about what the Shoreff's eat each day (which doesn't further the plot, provide insight into the characters, demonstrate the future of food science, or even sound especially appetizing).

Still, Dalmas's narrative flows smoothly, there are a number of strong secondary characters, and the story kept me engaged from start to finish.

Now (deep breath) to the theme.

I have no idea how a religious reader might react to The Second Coming. Without question Dalmas has an eclectic spiritual viewpoint and borrows from wide-ranging sources, including Christianity, Buddhism and psychotherapy. I suspect that some adherents of traditional religions will take exception to some of his borrowings, but as far as I'm concerned, the credibility of any religious creed is based mostly on brand recognition and popularity, so I'm more inclined to admire Dalmas's willingness to explore diverse viewpoints and adopt interesting ideas wherever he finds them.

However, as an atheist I didn't find a lot to interest me in this book. First, the religious lectures are boring. If you're not interested in the product, it is tedious to have to sit through the sales pitch, especially since there's nothing to be gained by picking rational holes in irrational beliefs (like why does everybody seem to be on their tenth or fiftieth reincarnation when there are more people living on Earth right now than have existed in the entirety of human history?)

More serious is the lack of any strong skeptical viewpoint in this book. Although Dalmas focuses on Lee Shoreff's doubts about the cult she works for, Shoreff is merely a conservative woman who fears that this particular religion and its adherents are too flaky, rather than someone who entertains any genuine doubts about religion itself, or even about the second coming of Jesus Christ. The journalist, Duke Cochran, is supposed to be an objective skeptic, but he leaps abruptly from a position of examining evidence about Aran (a rational assessment of facts) to believing Aran is divine -- a position based on faith, not fact. As any SF reader should know, just because we don't understand a phenomenon doesn't make it "magic," but everyone in this novel seems to operate on the formula: Man + Apparent Miracles = God.

He's not a god I'd care for either, since he promises to kill millions of people and devastate large swaths of the planet with an asteroid impact, but there I go nitpicking again. The Christian god has a long track record of killing human beings horribly and he still gets billed as Pure Love, so go figure.

It's my guess that readers who have enjoyed novels like Robert Sawyer's Calculating God will find Dalmas's book both interesting and entertaining. And those, like me, who don't understand why anybody bothers with religion, will sensibly (unlike me) avoid a book entitled The Second Coming.

Copyright © 2004 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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