TThe story takes place in a futuristic Puerto Rico, 2099, where narrator and hero , Juan Bautista Lorca is a member of the elite Soulsavers, charged with collecting SIDs, self-inflicted deaths or suicides, freezing them into Corpsicles in his FreezVan, and delivering them for resurrection. This is the Orwellian, overtly evangelistic world of the future, where death is temporary, salvation is just around the corner, and the end of the world is nigh.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? Along with the Romance genre, Science Fiction is the most specific of genres, one which rarely appeals to lovers of literary fiction. Is it possible to marry futuristic, fantasy writing with high levels of linguistic sophistication, original structures, complex characterisation, large themes, and unique, character driven plots? The work of Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and of course George Orwell at times hints at a science fiction theme, while still representing the best of literary fiction. James Stevens-Arce’s Soulsaver, while not in the class of Carey, Atwood, or Orwell, does have some pretensions to literature. The language is fairly rich, the plotline is unusual and interesting, and the story does hint at a larger theme. The story takes place in a futuristic Puerto Rico, 2099, where narrator and hero , Juan Bautista Lorca is a member of the elite Soulsavers, charged with collecting SIDs, self-inflicted deaths or suicides, freezing them into Corpsicles in his FreezVan, and delivering them for resurrection. This is the Orwellian, overtly evangelistic world of the future, where death is temporary, salvation is just around the corner, and the end of the world is nigh. While Juan doesn’t know much about the doublespeak of 1984, he has his own unique kiddy slang, “Tommy Terrific”, “Sally Silly”, “Kimmy Comfy”, “Howie Happy”, and “Nancy Naked”. Juan’s adventures in soulsaving with his gloomy colleague Fabiola, pitched against the backdrop of religious zeal gone haywire, make for interesting, and enjoyable reading. The plot is fast moving, and the story itself quite an interesting one, with an unusual, and well presented premise. The character of Juan is sympathetic, and well drawn, allowing the reader to follow his “coming of age”, as he begins to question his unswerving loyalty to the status quo, and religious leadership he finds himself living under.
While other characters such as Fabiola, the evangelical star of “Its Jimmy Divine Time”, the archbishop Tony Malpica, the beautiful Shepherdess, Juan’s intelligent and insightful wife Angela, and the Twin Redeemers, are all mildly humorous and provide an interesting backdrop to the story, none of them are as well drawn as Juan. While Juan tells us that Fabiola is serious and smart, we hardly get to know her, and her transition from his cranky but professional partner, to joyful and certain messenger from the other side is too quick to make much sense. Angela’s uncanny resemblance to Juan’s mother, combined with her continual acquiescence and unswerving loyalty could have provided an interesting twist, especially since Juan keeps a strange and tacky hologram of his young mother blowing him a kiss, but this potential Freudian complication is never developed, and only very lightly touched on with Divine’s cryptic comments. Since Angela speaks very little herself, and always in the affirmative, we can only see her as a cliched but fairly wooden doll for Juan. Certainly she experiences none of the anguish that Juan goes through as she moves from one form of faith to another with ease. As for the other characters, they are all merely stereotypes, from the excessively slimy Divine to the overtly “angelic” Shepherdess, whose revelation in the end again occurs too quickly and without enough characterisation to work.
Another problem with Soulsaver was the twist in the story, which feels forced, and is simply too wild and “over the top” to work. The story has so much promise, and it is therefore disappointing when the Redeemers begin their miracles and the true nature of Jimmy Divine is revealed, turning what is, up to that point, a very engrossing read into farce. As Soulsaver strains to make up the lost religious points, and redeem itself as a Christian work, it moves further away from the big themes it promises at the start. Of course the work is not meant to be believable. It is, after all, futuristic science fiction, in a different time and place, but I kept imagining a kind of Singing Detective scenerio, with Juan waking up in the hospital covered in burns; the whole thing a dream, or some real questioning of life’s meaning in a broad secular sense once you remove the certainty of an imposed, none of which happens. There is, however, a potential sequel with baby Lorca, but by this time there is no way a reader could identify Juan and his fears, since the miracles are too literal, and the scenerio too absurd.
Despite its literary faults, Soulsaver is a fun book, and it is perhaps unfair to try and critique it by the same standards as other high level literary fiction. As pure science fiction, Soulsaver is a cut above the usual, raising some interesting issues with respect to the evangelical direction of society in the USA, and providing a good laugh, and a relaxing, enjoyable read in an innovative and intelligent setting. For an easy, lighthearted read, which sidesteps the bigger issues, but doesn’t hesitate to raise them, a reader could do worse.
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