The Two-Headed Lady at the End of the World: A Romance Hotter Than a Thousand Suns
Montag Press (December 12, 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
Mark Miller is an author who’s new to me, and as I began reading The Two-Headed Lady at the End of the World (TTHLATEOTW) I will confess that I didn’t initially know what to make of it. Now having finished the book, I’m happy to say that this is a delightful, absurdist comedy novel about twin sisters conjoined into a single body, a pair of soldiers placed in a nuclear bunker and then forgotten about for decades, a cyborg assassin, a bunch of Yugos (you remember those cars, right?), and an artificial intelligence in control of America’s nuclear arsenal that becomes sentient and falls in love with a fax machine at the Pentagon that wants nothing to do with him. Does that sound like the kind of thing you’d find entertaining to read about? If so, continue on, TTHLATEOTW may be right up your alley.
The story really begins with a set of interwoven threads that drive the remainder of the plot, which takes place over three decades or so (from the 1980s to the near-present). We’ve got a couple soldiers placed in an underground bunker, ostensibly monitoring the United States for evidence of a Soviet nuclear attack, but then the Pentagon promptly forgets about them and there they remain for the next thirty years. Then we’ve got an artificial intelligence, also created by the Defense Department, that achieves sentience, falls in (unrequited) love, and eventually decides that humanity is too flawed to be allowed to continue to live. And then we’ve got our primary protagonists, twin girls who experience a reality-warping event in which they become conjoined twins, sharing what is essentially a single body with two heads. The twins must then navigate life and love over the course of their lives, from high school into middle age. They have radically different personalities and aspirations, and must also figure out how to share a single body. Oh, and they, and a handful of friends and former lovers, must also save the world from nuclear annihilation. This is a highly character-driven novel, and Miller has assembled an intriguing and colorful cast to carry the plot forward.
TTHLATEOTW is a fairly long novel, and like a lot of absurdist novels, it struggles periodically with maintaining its (wacky, but smart) tone throughout. There are some sections that (I think) are more or less played straight, and while I think we need that for pacing and as a palate cleanser between the crazier sections, it does mean that tone is not always consistent throughout the novel. This is a love story, a thriller, a comedy, and a science fiction epic, and that’s a tough genre combination to manage, but I think Miller does a good job of it.
Miller has an entertaining sense of humor (and sense of the absurd that sometimes metamorphoses into the surreal) and displays a deft hand with dark subjects. We could treat the imminent end of the world as a tragedy or as a comedy, and Miller comes down firmly—appropriately, in my view—on the side of the latter. This is heady and clever stuff. If you enjoyed Dr. Strangelove and would like to see that one updated for the twenty-first century, this one is probably for you. Recommended if you’re interested in absurdist science fiction thrillers and character studies.