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Rebel Sutra
Shariann Lewitt
Tor Books, 352 pages


Tristan Elwell
Rebel Sutra
Shariann Lewitt
Shariann Lewitt is the author of Memento Mori and Interface Masque, among others. Using the byline S.N. Lewitt, she has written Cyberstealth, Dancing Vac, Blind Justice, Angel at Apogee, Cybernetic Jungle, and Songs of Chaos. With degrees in biology and drama, she lives in Boston and Washington, D.C.

IFSDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Interface Masque

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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Hostile, barren Maya is a backwater colony world, all but forgotten by the galactic Empire of which it is a part. The two races that have settled there -- an elite genetically-enhanced group known as the Changed, which lives a luxurious sheltered life in the artificially-controlled environment of the Dome, and a larger population of ordinary humans, who eke out a precarious existence in the teeming, dilapidated city of Babelion -- have lost knowledge of their origins. They believe the Empire perished in the violent social upheavals that long ago forced them to flee Earth and seek out a new home.

Every year, as a sop to the humans the Changed consider vastly inferior to themselves, a ceremony of selection is conducted, in which a group of human adolescents is allowed to test alongside the Changed for full citizenship within the Exchange, the artificial intelligence that runs Maya's infrastructure. The Changed know the ceremony is a fake: humans don't have the genetic enhancements that will allow them to interface with the Exchange. Still they keep the tradition, as a way to pacify the humans, and also to teach them their proper place.

Then one year a human boy named Arsen comes to the Dome for testing. Arsen is charismatic, gifted, and deeply committed to revolution. It's his belief that the Changed can and should be overthrown; for him, participation in the testing is a way to learn to know the enemy better. He gets more than he bargained for, in the form of Della, a Changed teenager with whom he has a brief affair. Della isn't like the rest of her people, in ways more significant and less obvious than her overtly rebellious nature. Their child, Anselm, inherits both his mother's secret genetic birthright and his father's passion for revolution -- a combination, ultimately, that will change everything, not just for Maya but for the Empire itself.

Rebel Sutra is an odd amalgamation of interstellar epic -- complete with cloned Empresses, despotic Pretenders, AI-driven starships, and galactic storm troopers -- and discursive memoir. The bulk of the book involves Anselm looking back over the course of his life, and dissecting his own inner journey; there's also a shorter memoir from Della. With the subtlety that's one of the novel's strengths, these accounts are highly relativistic: Anselm and Della possess not just different pieces of the puzzle, but very different views of the same things -- making both of them, on some level, unreliable, and leaving it to the reader to find the point where everything fits together.

Lewitt draws an effective parallel between the process by which Maya passes from its colonial isolation to a dawning comprehension of the larger galaxy, and Della's and Anselm's separate struggles to reach past the confines of their limited understandings to a wider view of self and universe. It's an absorbing story, even at its most digressive (Della's and Anselm's reminiscences are often very circular), with a complex setting and interesting, fully-realized characters. There's no particular explanation for why the dominant religion of the humans of Maya should be a variant of Hinduism; nevertheless, the discussions of spirituality are fascinating, and Anselm's ambiguous explorations of the numinous, through the medium of both flesh and spirit, are among the most striking portions of the book.

The interstellar story -- much of which is told in brief information-packed interludes by yet another first-person narrator, Auntie Suu Suu -- is good as well. The trouble is, Lewitt doesn't seem to have made up her mind as to whether she was writing a space adventure or a Bildungsroman. This is evident especially at the end, which reads more than a little like a Star Trek episode, and includes plot elements that give off a strong whiff of deus ex machina. I found this very jarring -- as indeed I did all the Auntie Suu-Suu interludes; interesting though their content is, they seem shoe-horned into the narrative. On the other hand, a reader with different biases might be thrilled with the adventure, and find the spiritual portions of the story tedious. The point is that these two aspects of the book never quite gel. Even the character of Anselm, who with his spiritual questing and genetic connection to the Empire is clearly meant to be a bridge, isn't enough to forge Rebel Sutra into a coherent whole.

In sum: a puzzling, frustrating, absorbing, and at times inspired novel, which despite its flaws is well worth reading.

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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