More Christian fiction, because it’s a niche less occupied. A Star Curiously Singing is the first book of the DarkTrench series by Kerry Nietz.
Kerry Nietz seems like a pretty cool dude, from what I’ve seen of him on Speculative Faith. I mean, he wrote a book called Amish Vampires in Space, even if he took it seriously and didn’t write straight-up camp (which I’m kinda sad about, but the idea of the pacifist Amish up against a violent horror is an interesting one to explore seriously).
Apparently he started out his money-making life as a code monkey, and it shows to advantage. A Star Curiously Singing‘s protagonist is a futuristic code monkey who works on robots. These code monkeys, or “debuggers,” are equipped with chips in their heads that allow them to connect to Future Wi-Fi Internet and also serve as thought-controllers. They’re also social pariahs in a world conquered by Muslims and completely under sharia law.
Yeah, that “dystopian sharia world” part made me cautious, but it’s mostly not as awful as it could be. You could actually swap it out with super-conservative Christianity and, like, 90% of the story would still be intact. If I had actually read The Handmaid’s Tale instead of just a synopsis, I’m sure I could write a detailed compare/contrast of dystopian Islam and dystopian Christianity, but basically it comes down to supremely controlling, hierarchical societies where women have all the status of animate sex toys.
Though I really wish Nietz hadn’t given even vague support to the “Muslims are trying to conquer us all” and “They’re going to outbreed us, we must make more white babies” paranoia. I’m surrounded by too many people who harbor those notions.
But anyway, the plot is about a debugger named SandFly who is chosen to go on a super-high-clearance job to an orbiting spaceship to work on a robot that went nuts during the deep-space mission. It’s easy to feel the frustration SandFly has with bureaucratic red tape and with those kinds of people who don’t understand how computers work and that you can’t magically make them better. At some points, the conspiracy angle felt a little heavy, but the detective-ish parts were the best parts of the book.
But I have a sneaking suspicion that Nietz just can’t write women. I haven’t yet read any other of his books to confirm this theory, but I get the same feeling I get from Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, that women to him are alien creatures from the planet Trope. We only have one female character with much screen time, the female debugger HardCandy (which is a pretty kickass name, actually). It’s a super-big deal that she’s female, because of course in this society women are inferior and stupid, and HardCandy is the only female debugger in the world. And she gets stuffed in the goddamn fridge.
When she first shows up, SandFly saves her from sexual assault, which is a decent illustration of the hierarchical society where women are on the bottom, but I have mixed feelings about the White Knight trope. She serves as a means to a plot point, showing SandFly a weak spot in the control matrix of the Future Wi-Fi, so that he can get a taste of mental freedom. SandFly gets kinda obsessed with her, because debuggers are forbidden from marriage and pretty much any female contact, though they still have urges. I’m not sure if I find this creepy or pretty much realistic, though the insta-cementing of his affections feels a little unnatural to me. Or just unhealthy.
But the thing that really pissed me off is when HardCandy is brought to the spaceship as a hostage to keep SandFly in line. She doesn’t do a damn thing besides being vulnerable and necessary to protect. They keep her in pain to try to control SandFly, and that sound you hear is her foot knocking against the crisper drawer.
She is eventually given some agency in choosing to be with SandFly, but I hope to hell that the sequels give her something to do besides being SandFly’s helpmeet (I feel skeeved out just typing that word. Thanks for nothing, Michael and Debbi Pearl).
But honestly, the treatment of HardCandy is the only major change I would make to this book if I had the power. The rest of it is solid work. Good worldbuilding, decent characters (except for my disappointment in HardCandy), decent plot.