Monday, August 25, 2008

August Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour: Broken Angel



And now for the dissenting view.

Broken Angel by Sigmund Brouwer. Waterbrook Press (Colorado Springs): 2008. 243 pages. $19.99. ISBN: 978-1-4000-7032-9.

See Sigmund Brouwer's website, CoolReading.com.

Sometime in the near future, America's religious right has implausibly gathered together in the Appalachians to follow a fascist dictator who calls himself Bar Elohim. Seceding from the rest of the country, Appalachia leaves America to fend for itself (and some, no doubt, would say good riddance). A man named Jordan, protecting a young girl named Caitlyn from the American government, which would apparently like to cut her up for a science project, sneaks her into Appalachia.

Now Caitlyn has grown up and Jordan decides he'd better sneak her back out. Problem is, Appalachia jealously guards its borders, and Bar Elohim has cut a deal with the government "Outside" to capture Caitlyn and extract some of her organs, for the purpose of which he dispatches Mason Lee, who's something like a cross between a Grand Inquisitor and a serial killer. Separated from Jordan, Caitlyn has to make her way through Appalachia's rugged valleys in order to find the elusive Clan, a band of rebels who, according to rumor, help people trying to get Outside. Along the way, Caitlyn acquires faithful companions and encounters conniving villains. You might think of the whole thing as a sort of White Mountains, except with Christian hicks instead of alien tripods.

The reason evil government bodies are looking for Caitlyn is because, as Alfred Bester might put it, she has some mysterious mutant strain in her makeup which it makes her different. Early on, we learn she has an unusually small and lightweight body, along with large, peculiarly structured bulges on her back. It's only fair that I insert a spoiler alert here, but you know as well as I do that before the book is over, she's going to sprout wings and either a) become a superhero like Angel from The X-Men, b) become a blood-drinking bad&$$ like Carnival from Scar Night, c) have an overwrought teen romance and then nuke the world like Chise from Saikano, or else d) fly away as a symbol of her maturity and independence, accompanied by a Cindy Morgan song. I'll let you guess which.

Since evil governments always want to exterminate and/or experiment on unusual people, the only real question is why exactly Caitlyn has wings. Presumably, she's a natural mutant, the result of genetic experimentation, an extraterrestrial, or, if the book takes a supernatural route, an actual angel. On both the questions of what Caitlyn is and why she's being hunted, Brouwer does a fine job of bleeding out information little by little at a good pace without giving away too much or being overly cryptic. Through most of the book, the only certain thing is that Caitlyn will sprout wings and maybe e) sing hymns that heal people and then get caught up in a demonic civil war like Azmaria from Chrono Crusade, or perhaps f) battle evil mutants with other winged teenagers like Maximum Ride from, um, Maximum Ride. But even though it builds anticipation, Broken Angel ends up explaining Caitlyn's origins in a cursory manner. The revelation turns out to be unspectacular and unimportant. I'm inclined to think Brouwer would have done better to give her the wings right off the bat instead of making us wait for them to appear so Caitlyn can finally do whatever she needs to do, which may or may not include g) having her memories sucked into parallel universes like Sakura in Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle.

The real centerpiece of the novel is not Caitlyn, but the dystopia of Appalachia, a Christian fascist dictatorship. Since Brouwer is an Evangelical, he is in a sense criticizing his own religion, which suggests some interesting possibilities. Margaret Atwood creates a similar dystopia in The Handmaid's Tale, but she ends up with something like a cartoonishly depicted Islamist state with some Christian elements tacked on. It doesn't look like the kind of world America's radical Christian Fundamentalists might actually try to build for themselves. Brouwer, writing as a Christian insider, has a chance to produce something better, but instead he is content to crib from other dystopias: in Appalachia, no one is allowed to read, as in Fahrenheit 451, and the novel makes several nods to 1984: everyone is forced to carry a device called a "vidpod," which is basically a portable viewscreen; the character of Bar Elohim is a one-dimensional Big Brother figure; and the torture methods of the story's chief villain include opening cages of hungry rats on the softer parts of his victims' anatomy. Nothing about Appalachia makes it memorable or distinct, except perhaps the setting, though a reader can find the same setting for a religious dystopia in Lon Prater's 2005 short story, "Deadglass."

The origins of Appalachia are never clearly outlined. Somehow or other, the U.S. ended up in a civil war; a group of Christians took advantage of that, gathered together, formed their own nation, and seceded. The novel indicates that most or all of America's conservative Christians moved into Appalachia, which stretches my suspension of disbelief past the breaking point; I have a tough time picturing America's Evangelicals and right-leaning Catholics uniting behind a creepy guy who calls himself Bar Elohim, of all things. If America's Christians did decide to secede, already an unlikely scenario, they'd probably start arguing about what the Bible really means and end up with a few hundred different miniature Appalachias.

Although the dystopian setting is standard fare, and though the plot follows predictable lines, Brouwer certainly knows how to pace a novel well and how to fill it with an interesting cast. He draws his characters quickly, but their personalities are distinct and their motives believable. Probably Brouwer's wisest move is his avoidance of religiously fanatical characters. The characters who serve the state in Appalachia do so for personal gain, and most have found ways to work the system. The novel could have been an entirely uninteresting story about one-dimensional religious bigots chasing a mutant girl because she's "unnatural," but Brower apparently knows better.

Brouwer's solid characterization and good (if not great) worldbuilding break down toward the end. Throughout, Caitlyn and her steadily growing cast of allies are trying to reach a valley where they can find an elusive and mysterious group called the Clan, which helps escapees get out of Appalachia. But most of the Clan members have no personalities; they are the author's mouthpieces. They are dislikable goody-two-shoes, a bunch of cardboard figures who contrast sharply with the well-drawn characters in the rest of the novel. This is even more unbearable because these mouthpieces have nothing substantial to say: "I learned that God is different than [sic] the church," says one (p. 141), but no character in the book says otherwise. The statement does not come across as a revelation either in the real world or in the world of the novel.

When the Clan is finally, fully revealed, it proves to be an imaginary group of Evangelicals who somehow live in perfect peace, love, and harmony, apparently because its members have none of the faults of real human beings. The Clan is not the least believable. It also wrecks the novel's potential: until the Clan appears, the book appears to be a confession, an admittance that Christians can go too far, can be bad people, can seriously screw things up. Since Christian characters in today's Christian fiction have a bad habit of being irritating self-righteous prigs, this got me rather excited; I thought I was seeing a Christian novel willing to show that we Christians do indeed have our darker side--but then the self-righteous prigs show up. Mea culpa, Broken Angel seems to cry, but it's only a tease. In the end, the novel falls back into the same old claim, "Hey, we're not the bad ones! It's those other guys who cause all the problems!" This is most unfortunate: self-accusation is an important Christian activity, and I wouldn't mind seeing more Christian novels engaged in it. I am inclined to see this weakness in the novel as stemming from its Protestantism; Broken Angel cannot envision a Church containing both good and bad people: it can only envision an utterly corrupt Church and the perfect people who have left it in schism, schism being a typical Protestant method of dealing with problems.

Such are my initial impressions; however, it is arguable that the Clan is a little nastier and darker or at least better rounded than I have gathered. First of all, the Clan uses Caitlyn to accomplish its own ends, and though the novel depicts a Clan member musing about all the good he'll be able to do as a result, Caitlyn herself is clearly displeased with the situation. Also, probably the novel's most unbelievable element, there is a band of robbers living between Appalachia and the valley of the Clan. These robbers lay out certain moral tests for travelers, such as piles of money abandoned on the riverbank or a voluptuous maiden offering favors. Any potential escapee from Appalachia who succumbs to these temptations is robbed, murdered, and thrown in the river, but anyone who overcomes is allowed to travel on to the Clan. I have a hard time believing a band of cutthroats would operate in this manner, but what really chills the marrow is the Clan's glib acceptance of these robbers who, as far as the Clan is concerned, winnow out the riff-raff. Problem is, the novel never hints that this is a negative thing, but instead treats the robbers as if they're performing an important social service.

If the Clan is supposed to represent some kind of True Christian Church, that true church is apparently a gathering place of the (self-)righteous and not a refuge where sinners can come to be cleansed. Perhaps Broken Angel is suggesting we should keep vile temptations (and executioners) at our church doors to keep all the bad people out. That would be more interesting, I suppose, than those yardsticks for skirt length that some churches have. We could have slinky young women lounging against the doorposts. Such a practice could lead to some interesting conversations before the worship service:

"Hey, big boy, want I show you a good time?"

"It's tempting, baby, but I got a date with Jesus."

Yeah, guess I'll go to confession for writing that; after all, a little self-accusation never hurts. Anyway, the robbers' little tests would be more effective at catching stupidity than sinfulness; anyone with common sense could tell those sex kittens and abandoned wallets are tricks.

And incidentally, why is it called the Clan? If you want to depict good Christians in America's backwoods, you really should pick a different word.

All this begs the question, if the Clan is the "True Church," then who exactly are the Appalachians, those other guys who aren't the real Christians? It's hard to say, since Appalachia doesn't look like a natural extension of any real-world Christian sect, at least that I know of. If the character quoted above is any indication, Broken Angel embraces the trendy distaste for "organized" religion, though I've never been able to figure out the difference between organized religion and the other kind, nor, for that matter, have I ever encountered a religion without some level of organization. The Clan is certainly organized and must have somebody giving the orders if it's able to accomplish what it does.

I'm inclined to speculate that Appalachia is a cartoonish depiction of the fallback Protestant bogeyman--the Catholic Church. A few curious artifacts suggest that is intended. One of Bar Elohim's fortresses is called a "papal compound" (p. 161), even though Bar Elohim is nowhere called pope. Also, the practice of communion is called "Eucharist," a word not normally heard in Evangelical circles, at least in my experience. The mention of the Eucharist is also one of the novel's biggest disappointments: we learn that the Appalachian government actually spikes the communion wafers with opium in order to keep people addicted to church. That is a great idea for a novel, but Broken Angel does nothing with it, merely throws it out there, a casual aside about Appalachia's evil deeds. John C. Wright and G. K. Chesterton have both pointed out that blasphemy is an artistic effect, and that nobody can blaspheme better than a Christian; an opium-laced communion wafer is some serious blasphemy, and in Broken Angel, it's also a serious missed opportunity. It's hard to say why this detail is in the novel at all; perhaps the book is attacking the practice of weekly communion (a strange thing for a Christian book to attack), or maybe it's just enjoying a little Marxist irony, imagining a world where religion is literally the opiate of the people.

In probability, however, my guesses are reading too much into the book. I wrote most of the above before discovering Brouwer's Amazon blog where he briefly discusses the novel's themes. His post indicates he is trying to criticize any Christians who attempt to use religion as a justification for political power-playing, and not any specific sect. He writes:


In contrast to the Christian right, Jesus, who knew God best, did not invoke his Father’s name to impose moral imperatives on the secular society around him--Greeks and Romans who lived far more hedonistically and with far less regard for human life than today’s ‘Hollywood’. Unlike Christian boycotters, Jesus did not expect a secular world to live by biblical standards. The irony is that the institution Jesus did criticize and hold to those standards was the religious establishment that eventually slaughtered him. Why? For asserting that it had failed God miserably in pursuit of politics and power. [more...]

Furthermore, he says, "...Jesus and his teachings continue to transform individuals, while Rome is an ancient fallen empire, and the leaders of his day are dust, forgotten except as history lessons." Not entirely true; the mark of the Roman Empire remains on our culture, and Brouwer forgets that Christianity took over that empire. Brouwer also writes, "[Jesus] knew too, the pitfalls of grasping that sword, used so literally in his name during the Crusades...." That's true, but everyone seems to forget that the Crusades were attempts to win back Christian lands, and to prevent invaders from taking more Christian lands. Brouwer writes again:

...[Jesus] transformed society by transforming individuals, not by transforming legislation. He offered hope and inner peace, leaving his followers a simple directive to feed the hungry and cloth the poor, asking them to give love and to accept suffering and sacrifice. [more...]

That is also true, but Christ gave his followers other moral imperatives as well, and it is a logical extension of that to assume that Christians must adhere to those imperatives--including the ones about feeding the hungry and clothing the poor--when dealing with political matters, which means that Christians must allow their Christianity to inform the way they legislate and the way they vote.

Brouwer speaks passionately about Christ's power to transform individuals, which Christ indeed has, but Brouwer has nothing concrete to say about what this means for society. He probably has a good point if he means that Christians ought not to wed themselves to a single political party or platform (especially when the choices are so thin as in this country), but clearly we must stand firm on serious moral issues such as abortion, which is also a political issue. When we do, it is inevitable that we will be accused of "imposing" morality on the secular culture, something Brouwer apparently fears. But if we do not impose morality by vocally standing against immorality, then immorality will win. Although Brouwer is no doubt correct in some of his criticisms of the so-called Culture War, he offers nothing as an alternative, either in his blog post or in his novel.

After reading his blog post, I had to go back and revise my assessment of Broken Angel. It is possible that my reading comprehension skills are simply poor, but I'm inclined to think Broken Angel says the exact opposite of what Brouwer intends. My impression of Appalachia is of a society created by world-weary Christians so sick of the Culture War that they have withdrawn completely from American politics (reminiscent of the Christian sf subgenre, perhaps?), but Brouwer's complaint is about Christians who engage too much in politics. Furthermore, if he is trying to prevent Christianity from becoming an "exclusionary group," as he says on his blog, he makes a decidedly poor show of it when he slaughters all the easily tempted people who try to reach the Clan.

In the final analysis, Sigmund Brouwer's Broken Angel is a competent and entertaining thriller, well paced and well written. Its characters are interesting, if not particularly memorable. It is a good, fast read. But it has a lot less to say than it thinks it does, and seems to say it in the worst manner possible. Fortunately, since it is not a particularly preachy book, this is only a slight wound rather than a mortal one. Ultimately, it's just an entertaining novel about a girl who grows some wings and then, maybe, possibly, depending on where things go, h) gets reincarnated as a dude who's sexually attracted to his own sister, like Alexiel from Angel Sanctuary. (But let's hope not.)

Content Advisory: Contains some violence and brief descriptions of torture.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Broken Angel:

Myth Level: Medium (reasonably good as an adventure story)

Quality: Medium-High (well constructed and well paced, but doesn't live up to its potential)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (no objectionable content, interesting use of religious themes)


And now for your broken yet angelic Blog Tour:

Brandon Barr
Justin Boyer
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Beth Goddard
Mark Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Todd Michael Greene
Katie Hart
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Magma
Terri Main
Magma
Margaret
Shannon McNear
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Deena Peterson
Steve Rice
Cheryl Russel
Ashley Rutherford
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Laura Williams
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