Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of Passion Play by Sean Stewart

There is very little cyberpunk which brings religion in as a major theme.  Its concerns largely technological, biological, existential, political, post-human, etc., most dystopian corporate futures seem to assume faith and belief-based systems have once and finally been drowned by ‘civilization’.  A peripheral element at best, it’s rare to see Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion defining the terms on which a cyberpunk novel is written.  (I’m aware there are works like George Alec Effinger’s Maid series which feature Islam heavily, but the religion appears for setting and plot backdrop alone.  Effinger does not go into the meaning of its system in a silicon world.)  This is certainly what makes Sean Stewart’s 1992 novel Passion Play so intriguing - and thankfully re-released in 2017 by Dover Publications.

It is the dark, corporate near-future, and a group of Christian fundamentalists, calling themselves The Redemptionists, have taken political power in the United States.  In the opening chapter, investigator Diane Fletcher is called to the scene of a brutal murder—a woman stabbed to death in her apartment for reasons unclear.  Fletcher a shaper (person who can glean hints of underlying emotion or thought from other people in conversation), she begins investigating the case, and quickly discovers that a local reverend, a radical Redemptionist, took matters into his own hands and elected to kill the woman for the sin of adultery.  With little time to ruminate on the reverend’s honesty, Fletcher packs the man away to prison and inevitable death sentence, and is then called to the scene of another murder, this time the actor Jonathan Mask, a man positioned high in Redemptionist circles.  The murder suspects limited in number, Fletcher begins interviewing them one by one, but ultimately, finds her questions facing in a surprising direction.

For the majority of Passion Play, the reader may ask: how can this storyline possibly resolve itself in anything but conventional fashion?  There is a high-profile murder, Fletcher investigates, and the crime is solved—regardless if some major plot twist occurs to make things interesting.  But Stewart does surprise.  In one fell, unanticipated swoop, a thick layer of introspective morality is uncovered that spins the story to face both Fletcher and the reader head-on.  And it asks an interesting, difficult question.  To ask that question here would spoil the story, but suffice to say the personal subjectivity of morality is the heights which the narrative achieves.  What had been a relatively standard murder investigation becomes a pointed thrust into the heart of how we as people think about right and wrong in a manner that transcends any particular belief or religion. 

In the end, Passion Play is a powerfully moralistic science fiction tale.  “Passion’ a reference to religion rather than romance, don’t be fooled.  And don’t assume it proselytizes either; wait for the ending.  It’s a relatively short novel, thus when the climax arrives, it feeds quickly and intensely back through the story,  For readers looking for a sharply defined cyberpunk world, simply put, look elsewhere; Stewart is not interested in product as much as he is telling a unique story that will make the reader truly pause without resorting to cheap tricks.  Passion Play is a debut novel, and must be considered as such when reading in terms of prose and technique, but for certain there are writers around for many years who have yet to produce something as good.

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