Said it before — I'll say it again. Though I'm an atheist, I have no problem enjoying, or even admiring, an SF novel that employs religious themes. But the following statement, taken from Morehouse's bio printed inside the back cover of Archangel Protocol, made me go Uh-oh: "Although raised in the traditions of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, Lyda Morehouse has since moved away from the strictly rational and now takes more things on faith." Oh. Great. A writer who describes herself as irrational. Is this someone qualified to write good SF? Am I about to take the Happy Bus to Deepak Chopra Land?
Thankfully, Archangel Protocol isn't nearly that dire. Though the novel's central conceit — that the mere appearance of beings that seemed angelic would be taken by nearly all of humanity as final proof of God's existence — is a reach, to put it politely. A high-tech fantasy set in 2076 New York City, it's faithful to the formulas of hard-boiled detective fiction and mid-80's cyberpunk, but with a metaphysical monkey wrench thrown into the works. Morehouse's homages are sometimes ham-handed. Yet the book holds your interest pretty solidly for most of its length. Morehouse does some smart things. She's turned in an interesting bit of speculative SF about what the world might actually be like were angels and gods real. (Whether she intended it or not, it's a nightmarish place.) But the book disappoints in the end by turning into another post-apocalyptic rebels-vs-the-corrupt-government action potboiler that squanders its potential to be taken seriously on a philosophical level. What a shame.
Deidre McMannus is an ex-cop living in a future world that has become almost entirely theocratic. Minds are linked worldwide through the LINK, but Diedre lives the desperate hand-to-mouth existence of one cut off from this global neural network. Her former partner is in prison for killing the Pope while the two of them were investigating a biotech firm. She, a former Catholic, has been excommunicated and severed from the LINK for life, even though she was in no way complicit in her partner's actions and doesn't even understand why he did what he did.
Now scraping together a meager living as a private eye, Deidre meets a most unusual client. In a role reversal scene straight out of an old Bogie movie, she is visited in her office by a studmuffin cop who claims to have some serious dirt on a presidential candidate some are touting as the Second Coming of Christ himself. Among those doing the touting are mysterious beings called LINK-angels, entities of unknown — and, most believe, divine origin — that exist within the LINK itself. Morehouse concocts an interesting reason why these beings are thought to be real angels by so many. It's nonsense, but it's the kind of nonsense a gullible person might actually consider solid empirical evidence. For someone who claims to disdain rationality, Morehouse has a pretty sound understanding of the psychology of the true believer. Maybe because she is one?
The cop, one Michael Angelucci (gee, lay it on a little thicker), wants Deidre's help in exposing the candidate and revealing to the world that the LINK-angels are in fact a spectacular hoax. But, as always happens in hard-boiled detective yarns, the deeper our heroine gets, the deeper she gets. It's immediately obvious that there's More Than Meets The Eye where Michael's concerned. But as N. Lee Wood did in Looking for the Mahdi, to which Archangel Protocol bears a considerable resemblance, Morehouse keeps the focus squarely on her heroine. Her story retains a healthy forward momentum that carries you over the hackneyed bits.
Morehouse lacks Wood's satirical savvy. Her social commentary is overt. Each chapter ends with a news report or something like it, fleshing out Morehouse's future in big broad strokes. And a "surprise" ending is telegraphed halfway through the book with about as much subtlety as an Oral Roberts sermon. In fact, a number of not-all-that-surprising surprises begin to pop up in the last 60 pages or so, and the effect is somewhat chaotic.
But the depiction of a theocratic America is chillingly convincing. Interestingly, Christianity isn't automatically favored. One must simply be theistic at all to enjoy citizenship benefits. The government doesn't hound infidels and atheists to their doom. It's simply, cold-bloodedly content to let them starve, without LINK access. (Ironically, this seems exactly the scenario that some fundamentalist Christians fear will happen to them when, they believe, no one who lacks the mark of the Beast will be allowed to trade, and so on.) Naturally, politics are divided sharply upon faith-based lines, with candidates sparring even more nastily than before. Elected officials have titles like Rabbi-Senator. If I were writing a dystopian SF novel about a future theocracy, I don't know if I could have come up with one as scary and grim. One element of the book has a particular post-9/11 creepiness: the Bronx has been leveled by a massive bomb, and Morehouse refers to the area as "ground zero." Coupled with the religious thrust of the story, Archangel Protocol has an undeniable relevance now that it didn't upon its release four months before the attack.
Still, this is, in the end, an escapist future-noir technothriller with the element of the Bronx bomb that's turned everything to glass adding apocalyptic ambience. Deidre's allies include a Jewish resistance/terrorist group whose female commander talks in slogans ("Lots of people lose the faith. It's never easy to die for a cause."), and a super-hacker named Mouse, who's able to go anywhere on the LINK with almost omnipotent ease. (Morehouse actually explains his skills convincingly, though.) Morehouse cobbles together influences from different genres with wild abandon, like a bargain hunter at a garage sale. Many scenes are total Hollywood. Characters meet in secret only to be interrupted by the untimely arrival of evil government helicopters. That kind of thing. In one unintentionally hilarious bit, Deidre runs into a firefight to rescue — not a comrade, not a child, not a dog — but a Bible!
Morehouse did convince me she has a promising career as a novelist ahead of her, however, even if she didn't quite convince me there's, you know, a God. I think I'd be very impressed with the results if, next time, she gave her rational side the credit it deserves.