James Stevens-Arce

Harcourt Brace / 320 pages / September 2000

ISBN: 0151004722

Satirizing religion can be such a thankless job. If reality is anything to judge by, some people have no sense of humour about such things. Some people have no sense of humour whatsoever, but that’s beside the point. For those who aren’t narrow-minded, there is a wealth of entertainment out there — start out with a dose of Soulsaver.

Stevens-Arce takes the reader in, lights blazing and siren blaring, to a Puerto Rico the likes of which as never been seen, in a nightmare of a world that, hopefully, will never come to pass.

Welcome to Christian America. Settle in and rock out with the Gospel Maniacs, coming to you over your favourite station, WGOD. Rest easy knowing that the Shepherdess is watching out for you, even as she puts a hold on the Bill of Rights. Don’t worry if it starts to get to you. You won’t kill yourself; the Soulsavers won’t let you succeed.

Certainly, you aren’t worrying if you are Juan Bautista Lorca. Your faith is unshakeable. Your job as a soulsaver with the Suicide Prevention Corps of America gives you fresh evidence daily that the Shepherdess is right.

But you might become a bit uncomfortable when you notice your partner is starting to act…well…unchristian. You might even begin to suspect that she is following the Twin Messiahs. Blasphemy! Felony! What if it’s contagious?!

This is a scary future Stevens-Arce has created — scary and absurd. Really, how seriously can you take a society where the sign-off code is “Amen”? Why would any sane community pay the exorbitant costs to revive and rehabilitate people who simply want to escape the overcrowded hell of Christian America? And who would ever accept being barracked in male-only and female-only dorms? (Past college, that is.)

Of course, there is never the suggestion that this is a sane environment. The author brings every detail of the fanatic setting to life — from the privileged existence of the Shepherdess’ faithful, to the poverty of the rest of the island’s population.

Whichever side of the gap one falls on, the advantages of suicide are easy to see.

Lorca is a perfect protagonist in this cry-til-you-laugh world. It would be almost impossible to find a more malleable young man to absorb all the propaganda blasting citizens from every side. He goes from enthusiastic cheerleader to confused stumbler. It’s tough on a man who has never had to think for himself, but the author handles the transition gently and realistically.

Stevens-Arce takes intimidating characters and beats them mercilessly down to size, leaving them more preposterous than dangerous. He breaks down the multifarious plots into their weak and corrupt parts and leaves readers wondering just who, if anybody, is “right.” Because there is danger here; the trouble is finding out which neon halo it is under.

Don’t expect any straight answers in Soulsaver. The last thing Stevens-Arce intends to do is hand readers a solution on a silver salver. The ending may leave you with more confused than ever. But, isn’t that the best part of speculation?