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by Sean Stewart
Published by Tesseract Books, 1992
Recommended by: Greg Slade
This is essentially a detective novel set about 30 years in the future. The protagonist is Diane Fletcher, a freelance "hunter" contracted by the police to solve murders and other crimes. She is also, unknown to most of those around her, a "shaper" blessed and cursed with the gift of being able to sense the emotions of others, even when they are no longer present. Blessed, because being a shaper gives her the ability to solve crimes which baffle others. Cursed, because she doesn't just read other people's emotions, she experiences them.
Nothing scares me more than insanity; every shaper wonders if it's contagious. How could I spend so much time with sickos and psychopaths and expect to escape? (p. 35)
The story revolves around Fletcher's investigation of the death of Jonathan Mask, the most famous actor in America. Mask was lying dead in costume in his dressing room, wearing a demon costume in which he was preparing to go onto the set of his latest film. Was it an accident, some horrible foul-up in the special effects built into the costume? Or was somebody trying to present a grisly message? Stewart builds the case with great panache, introducing various characters, clues and red herrings, and only making things clear at the very end.
What makes this work of interest to Christian fans is, unfortunately, the part which gave me the hardest time in reading it. Stewart's future setting involves an extreme right-wing religious movement called Redemption, which has come to dominate America and drive it into a new Dark Ages. The "Reds", as Fletcher calls them, are everything that Christian bashers like to portray conservative Christians as being: anti-technology, legalistic, repressive, and obsessed with executing people on the flimsiest excuse. They are also remarkably monolithic, without the faintest hint that there are any internal frictions within the movement. (I say this as a Baptist, that kind of Christian whose motto is, "When in doubt, have a schism.") The kind of fundamentalism which Stewart drew upon from his Texas upbringing is utterly alien to me, and includes one "Red" character having a crucifix hanging in his bedroom, even though the "Reds" had banned Roman Catholicism.
Stewart has told me that his goal in writing the book was not to tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting Republicans (and their friends in the religious right) into the White House:
In fact, I wanted a setting in which all the characters cared about, and could talk about, moral choice in a way my left/liberal University acquaintances singularly did not.
Certainly, others seem to have taken Stewart's writing and run with it. From the blurbs on the back of the book to the reviews on Amazon, the reaction seems to boil down to, "Woo-hoo! Let's bash some fundies!" However, I do not believe that what other people tell you this book is about should interfere with your own reading. Simply by raising the questions he does, Stewart deserves our attention, even if the answers do not quite satisfy. For myself, I plan to explore his other works, as this book marks him as a talent to watch. (January, 2005)
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