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Soulsaver
James Stevens-Arce
Harcourt Books, 360 pages

Soulsaver
James Stevens-Arce
James Stevens-Arce works as a writer/producer/director of film and video in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Asimov's and Aboriginal Science Fiction. The novella version of Soulsaver shared the 1997 UPC Price for Science Fiction.

James Stevens-Arce Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Excerpt from Soulsaver

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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Juan Bautista Lorca and his partner Fabiola Muñoz are soulsavers: they drive a FreezVan for the Suicide Prevention Corps of America. In the USA of 2099, where the separation of church and state is a thing of the past and the Christian Alliance rules from Washington, District of Christ, suicide has become the ultimate violation of God's Law ("The life God makes only God can take"). But a person must be alive in order to be punished -- and so SPCA drivers freeze suicides on the spot in their cryogenically-equipped vans and rush them to resurrection centres, so they can be brought back to life and placed on trial for their crimes.

In this polluted, overcrowded, poverty-ridden environment, where the oceans are brown with sewage and families live 20 to a one-bedroom apartment, there are a lot of suicides, and Juan and Fabiola are kept very busy. This suits Juan, who's a good Godfearing Christian and really believes in what he's doing. But his unthinking acceptance of the world he lives in is about to be tested. Fabiola, it turns out, is a member of the heretical New Christer cult, which has just been outlawed by the Shepherdess, charismatic leader of the Christian Alliance. When Juan, dutifully, reports Fabiola to the authorities, he's recruited to spy on the New Christers.

Eager to assist at first, Juan becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the duplicity of his role. Eventually he's summoned to meet the leaders of the New Christers, the so-called Twin Messiahs; in this powerful encounter, all his certainties and assumptions are shattered. Torn between his old loyalties and the new understandings awakening within him, Juan must face a terrible choice: to take on the role of Judas, and betray the Twin Messiahs to the Christian Alliance, or to accept the Twins' divinity and become a heretic himself.

Stevens-Arce creates a compelling vision of a far-future America in which official Christian platitudes and the easy faith of the privileged are countered on every side by decay, violence, poverty, and despair. Juan goes home at night to his luxury Christian dorm, where he can read a passage or two from The Newer Testament, plunk down six dollars for a tub of O Little Town of Bethlehem Giant Kernel Popcorn, and watch Hallelujah Wrestling on TV, where biblically-named wrestlers symbolically re-enact the victory of Good over Evil. Meanwhile, in the vast, teeming, garbage-heaped slums and housing projects, people are starving to death; for them, religion is very cold comfort. Juan, a classic unreliable narrator, sees all of this and none of it; Stevens-Arce is extremely skillful in the way he enables the reader to perceive, through Juan's devout Christian eyes, the real horror of the world around him.

Stevens-Arce doesn't spend much time on the underpinnings of his setting -- the mechanics of such a vast political/social transformation, for instance, or the whys and hows of Christian Alliance doctrine, which sometimes seems Catholic, with its priests and confessionals, and sometimes Protestant charismatic, with its televangelists and faith healings. This is OK: Soulsaver isn't social commentary, like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (to which it's been widely -- and in my opinion misleadingly -- compared), but satire, and as such less dependent upon the literal realities of world building than upon the figurative power of ideas, and the sharpness with which they skew/reflect a particular reality. And Stevens-Arce's ideas do this very well indeed, provoking thought not only about the hypocrisy of present-day Christian fundamentalism, but the historical hypocrisy of the Christian Church as a whole, where concern for the welfare of a soul hasn't always implied concern for the welfare of the human being to whom the soul belongs.

Soulsaver -- which is written in a lean, punchy style, and moves with jump-cut swiftness from one scene to the next -- undergoes a major shift in tone toward the end. The satire dims, and the story becomes a supernatural extravaganza, complete with miracles, resurrections, and an appearance by the Adversary himself. To my mind, this doesn't entirely work: the political machinations thus exposed are a bit too predictable, the reversals of fortune a bit too pat, the sudden conversions a bit too easy, and the Shepherdess's guilt-ridden confession just plain hokey. But this oddly ineffective finish doesn't diminish the powerful satirical charge of the book's first two-thirds, making Soulsaver a rewarding reading experience even for those who, like me, might have wished for a more ironic ending.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.


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