Phobos: Mayan Fear by Steve Alten

It is the habit of innovative writers to push the envelope in the first book in a series. Having created an audience that knows what’s going on, they push it a bit farther in the second book. Assuming they have kept at least some of their readers with them, they are free to go even further in later publications. Unfortunately, sometimes they go too far, and leave everybody behind.

In a nutshell (and I use the term advisedly) this book is an incomprehensible olio of everything that the World Cataclysm/Mayan Prophesy/Pseudo-Religion/Time Travel/Chariots of the Gods/Conspiracy Theory genres can come up with. All so mixed together that the reader has a great deal of difficulty following what is happening.


As near as I can gather, the story involves people from 2047 coming back in time through alternate realities to stop the 2012 Mayan calendar cataclysm, in this case precipitated by a singularity created by atoms colliding in a linear accelerator.

Complexity Upon Complexity

In the process, the author drags in: the World Trade Centre attack, a spaceship under a Mexican pyramid, Nazca desert line drawings, the caldera under Yellowstone park, the Bermuda triangle, ETs and UFOs in Area 51, and Doomsday hideaways built for the elite at vast taxpayer expense. And that’s only the settings. Philosophically, besides the Mayan Prediction, we have: reincarnation and the channeling of past lives, Adam and Eve, the Jewish Cabala, The Bible (of course), mental telepathy, crystal skulls from Mesoamerica, and that old Conspiracy Theory standby: an organization that is a “transnational government unto itself, acting outside the law, with influence reaching into many governments, agencies, corporations, media, and financial interests,” funded by billions of dollars of “black budget” government money.


There are so many settings, and so much background required for each setting, that about a third of the book consists of backstory. For example, Chapter 17: six pages of exposition of new characters and places, two pages of Mayan myth/history, two pages describing Mexican human trafficking, three pages of action. End of chapter.


It seems that the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy isn’t about asteroids or earthquakes. It’s about man’s out-of-control ego. Greed, corruption, hatred, negativity, the elite one percent continuing its dominance over the ninety-nine percent. Corrupt political leaders, Big Oil, the banks, the military-industrial complex. Does any of this sound familiar?


There are so many characters it’s difficult to remember them, and even if you get to know a character, then you have to know which incarnation you’re facing at any given time, with several thousand years’ worth of possibilities to choose from.


There is always a problem with time travel stories, because it really cuts into the suspense when the reader knows that if anything goes wrong, the author can jump us around in time and fix it. Likewise with reincarnation. At one point a character is about to be torn asunder from her soul mate, and she is simply advised to wait until their next incarnation, when they will be together again. Great advice for a bereaved spouse, but not so good for creating empathy and sorrow in the reader, since the next incarnation may take place on the following page.

As I told the librarian when I was checking out this book, I review a wide range of efforts from independent writers, so I regularly “cleanse my palate” by reading books by well-known authors who are supported by all the resources of reputable traditional publishers: the gatekeepers who protect the quality of our reading material. And I am reminded that sometimes this system completely falls down at its job. It is a common suspicion among readers that any work that is too complex and erudite to understand might be a parody, perpetrated by the artist to make fun of people who believe in the sort of nonsense portrayed. I find no evidence to make me believe otherwise about this novel.

This book may have had a certain cachet in 2011 when it was published. Post-2012, I cannot recommend it to anyone except die-hard Steve Alten fans who are well versed in this sort of writing, who enjoy feeling awash in a sea of overused concepts. From the Amazon reviews, I get the feeling that a lot of these people are disappointed as well. If I hadn’t been writing a review, I never would have finished reading this book.

About the Author: Gordon Long

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