Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review of We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

There is no doubt the past two or three decades have highlighted the seemingly ever increasing disparity between classic religions and an expanding sense of global liberalization. While a major component of ongoing culture wars, nothing is as simple as left vs right, however. Religion as wide open to interpretation as liberalism, there are certainly degrees of separation. For dramatic fiction, however, none may be more powerful than extreme versions of religion. Enter Andrew Kelly Stewart's We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep (2021).

Alternate Cold War history, We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep is set in a version of the 1980s where the nukes went off, killing millions and scattering civilization. A group of Catholic zealots able to steal the last nuclear submarine, the Leviathan, they enforce a draconian version of Catholicism upon their haggard, all-male crew, holding the world hostage with the last remaining nuclear warhead as they wait for the Second Coming. Remy is a teen chorister onboard the Leviathan, and in an early chapter of the novella is secretly given responsibility of the key which unlocks the warhead. With surface groups trying to locate and stop the Leviathan, things start to get dicey for Remy and the crew when a hostage—a hostage unlike Remy has ever seen—is taken aboard. It spells the beginning of the end.

We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep tells a relatively suspenseful tale. Viewpoint limited to Remy's underwater view to the “world”, Stewart does a good job keeping the reader wondering at the real happenings on the surface and in other parts of the sub. Raids and attacks happen, but with Remy a member of the chorus, she plays a minimal role in these activities, and must use hearsay and impressions to guess what's going on—a good storytelling touch.

Yes, a 'she'. Remy is the only girl aboard the Leviathan, a secret she must keep from everybody for fear of being ejected like a torpedo—a fact made easier given all boys are castrated as teens to preserve their angelic voices. Naturally, Remy's secret is part of the drama of the story. But beyond this I cannot find a significant reason she is not a boy, save perhaps to capitalize on the current market trend toward gender conflicts. Overall, Remy being female makes no difference to the thematic concerns of war, dogma, and religious zealotry in the story. Being a boy would have delivered the same message upon the conclusion.

While a generally enjoyable read, We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep has one major, major missed opportunity: atmosphere. Given one of the themes is the oppressive nature of the religion, the reader could easily expect Stewart to deploy the claustrophobia of life inside a submarine as a complementary element of storytelling. Alas, readers get only a minimal sense of setting. With the exception of sounds traveling through the water, life inside the sub is portrayed as practically normal. Stewart pulls the punch. Had he capitalized on narrow corridors, tiny sleeping compartments, and tight, shared spaces, I can't help but feel the novella would leave a stronger mark on the reader's imagination and impressions. The only reason I can come up with to explain this is Remy's sneaking around the sub at night—not as easy when the walls are close.

I wonder about the timing of the novella's major theme: extreme religion, as presented via Catholicism. I wonder because, it's quite easy to argue that the Catholic church today is more liberal than the version described in the story. Combine this with the fact the novella's primary audience is Western leads to the question: what was Stewart trying to show beyond the obvious? Forgive the pun, but in a lot of ways its preaching to the choir. The majority of Westerners today have an aversion to oppressive religion. Reminders of the dangers of such extreme zealotry are well and good, but not as relevant to the West as, for example, more contemporary issues like xenophobia

We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep is, in many ways, a classic tale. A young person with a limited view to reality has bought into the ideology surrounding them, but through a series of chance encounters learns to decide for themselves not only what their reality is, but what their place in it is. There is a missed opportunity with setting, and it's unclear why Remy is a girl save drama, but otherwise the novella does a good job with story, keeping the reader interested in Remy's plight and the outside world, as well as highlighting why religious extremism is not precisely aligned with humanity's best interests.

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