Monday, January 31, 2011

The Believer, by Stephanie Black


I've been missing the Cold War. It was such a great era for exciting movies, books, etc. Don't get me wrong; I don't care for the thought of Mutually Assured Destruction brought on by tense diplomatic relations. However, the stories of the oppression coming from behind the Iron Curtain made for great reading, a la 1984.

This book doesn't showcase an exact Orwellian society, but it does depict a world carved out of America in which religion is not only marginalized but criminalized. How does a government that does not hold itself accountable to any higher power, or even the people it governs, operate. Ms. Black's speculative work provides food for thought on such a question.

Ian Roshek is a history professor in a New England town which is part of New America. A sort-of civil war, a conflict where the citizens of the United States decided to let a few states break off in an effort to avoid bloodshed, gives birth to a government of a supreme council that encourages law enforcement through Neighborhood Watch committees that have the power to blacklist noncomforming citizens. Healthcare is not only rationed, but if the cost of a patient outweighs that patient's usefulness to society, the Euthanasia Center stands ready to relieve society of the burden of continued care.

Roshek is subject to an academic committee that must approve the material in his lectures. He cannot explain or lecture on any of the prior history of the United States of America because the ideas in the old constitution might give people ideas that they shouldn't have. Religious books have been destroyed and are contraband that bring the reader/possessor a criminal deserving of death.

Ian has such a book. A Book of Mormon. He believes in the book but tries to continue to live under the radar. He doesn't even let his sister know about it.

One day when Ian is walking home, campus watchers are searching all the people on campus for contraband. When a student protests that a certain pamphlet found in her backpack is not hers, the surrounding student body metamorphose into a mob and begin beating her. Knowing he shouldn't do anything to stop the abuse, Ian's conscience prods him into trying to deflect the anger of the mob. He is arrested along with the now bleeding young woman. After a mentally grueling interrogation session, Ian is released with a healthy sense of paranoia that the police have only released him in order to watch him.

The story that follows describes Ian getting deeper into trouble until only escape to the United States is his only option for survival. I won't give away the ending here.

This story makes you think about government and how much, or how little, it should really be involved in the lives of its citizens. What price would one pay for "peace and security" and can there be either in the absence of religion or some moral code?
What is morality if there is no religion to quantify it?

I feel this would make an excellent book to discuss with teenagers. Despite the Book of Mormon angle, the plot doesn't come off like the typical LDS novel. The Bible could have easily been substituted for the Book of Mormon and the story would still have worked. The violence that's portrayed isn't graphically detailed, I don't remember any profanity but if there was it wasn't the f-bomb, and there is no sex depicted or even implied.

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