by James Stevens-Arce
Published by Harcourt
264 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
It's 2099 and the world will end on New Year's Eve, live on It's Jimmy Divine Time! The Special Edition! -- or so claims the all-powerful Christian American Church. Capitalism and Christianity are comfortably married, giving rise to appellations such as "Washington, District of Christ," "J.C. Cola" and "Christian American Capsule News Network (CACNN)." W.G.O.D. is a pop music radio station that boasts 'Round-the-Clock Top Hot Gospel. The USA is now the Christian American nation and its borders have expanded to include Puerto Rico, where Soulsaver, James Stevens-Arce's first novel, takes place. Needless to say, adherence to officially-sanctioned Christianity is compulsory.
Soulsaver's protagonist is Juan Bautista Lorca, a wet-behind-the-ears recruit of the SPCA -- the Suicide Prevention Corps of America. In this Christian dystopia, overpopulation and oppression are high while choice and welfare are low -- resulting in an epidemic spread of suicide, which, according to Christian dogma, is a sin. The SPCA patrols the streets and its agents are quickly dispatched to suicide scenes. They freeze the freshly dead corpses so the sinners can be painfully resurrected (thanks to state-of-the-art medicine) and judged for their crime. The sentence: the resurrected sinners are sent back to the lives from which they vainly tried to escape, knowing firsthand the pain and humiliation that awaits them should they attempt to kill themselves again.
There's plenty of material here for juicy satire (unfortunately a little underexploited) and the novel speeds along at a brisk pace, teasingly peppered with 2099 pop culture references and youth lingo. Stevens-Arce skillfully arranges it so that many of the more ludicrous (and funny) details of his premise not only avoid undermining the suspense but contribute to it. For the most part, it's a fun, if somewhat light, read. Sadly, it collapses at the end.
Stevens-Arce spends much of the book deriding the hypocrisies of organized religions and profit-driven preachers. He attacks the patriarchal woman-hating, sex-fearing tenets of Christianity's Biblical exegesis. But in the end, he pulls his punches. Or perhaps it's more a case of his punches missing the mark and flying into empty air.
It turns out that the Earthly Church is masterminded by Satan -- a point that flirts with Gnostic belief, i.e., Satan is the Lord of the material and illusory world and God is Lord of the spiritual and true realm. And yet, Gnosticism, just like Stevens-Arce's evil theocracy, preaches that sensuality is evil -- a point of view ridiculed in this book. Also, Stevens-Arce, through the story of the Shepherdess, the manipulated, objectified and abused victim of patriarchal authority, decries the misogyny of patriarchal Christianity. When he comes to Satan (a.k.a Lucifer), who, according to Judeo-Christian myth (and according to this book's cosmology), was also abused by the divine patriarch for refusing to obey. If Eve and Lilith are symbols of the patriarchal oppression of women, then surely Satan can be seen as a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of children. Nevertheless, with no justification or question, he is depicted as pure evil while the divine patriarch gets off the hook, also with no justification or question. A revisionist reading of Genesis that condemns its misogynist implications can't avoid reexamining Lucifer's role -- unless it wants to ignore the implications of revisiting the traditional view of the Lucifer/God and Evil/Good dichotomies.
In the final chapter, Satan, addressing his estranged son, says, "Give me the chance my Father never gave me." At that point I thought, Here's the payoff. Here's where we get to the subversive nitty-gritty. Alas, no. My heart went out to the misunderstood and maligned Lucifer, but that wasn't the author's intention. Satan's words are unambiguously presented as a ploy to manipulate and corrupt his God-worshipping son. After the "false Church" is exposed and Satan is banished to Hell, all the world's ills vanish and church attendance balloons as everyone is giddy over God's shatteringly, hmm, profound message, "Love one another." Unsaid: but you damn well better obey me -- look what I did to the women (Eve, Lilith) and my kid (Lucifer) when they got uppity.
Ultimately, the author comes off as yet another Christian apologist who, despite expressing revulsion for its most hateful tenets, feels compelled to demonstrate that, deep down, organized Christianity is a good thing. All we need to do is ignore the unpleasantness and concentrate on whatever makes us feel all warm inside. But that doesn't work. It never has and never will. Christianity is a belief system. For systems to change, they need to be rethought systematically, i.e., approached as a web of interconnected relationships. Soulsaver is a pop theology self-help book disguised as social satire.
James Stevens-Arce's dystopic satire has no teeth, only dentures that were removed so the bite wouldn't really hurt. So remember, Father knows best. Soulsaver is a sheep in wolf's clothing, thinking it stalks and attacks, but in reality following more blindly than it realizes. | October 2000
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.