In the cyber-novel Archangel Protocol, Twin Cities writer Lyda Morehouse sets a religious quest in a science fiction background, with some interesting results. We're in a New York City of the near future, whose denizens spend much of their time on-line in an ultimate internet ("the LINK") controlled by the government. No need to fire up the PC here--surgical implants allow you to be wired in 24-7, and navigate by mere thought. And most New Yorkers choose to spend their time in the chatrooms and entertainment venues on the LINK, probably because a recent war turned much of their city into glass, and the streets are haunted by mutants and mafioso. Typical cyber-novel fare. Except for the angelic visitations. They've been witnessed by millions of LINK viewers, who not only saw the angels in cyberspace, but felt them. This is very troubling to agnostics and other religious doubters, among them our hero, Deidre McMannus.
Deidre is an ex-cop and wire junkie who, having run afoul the her old employers, has started her own detective agency. The book opens when a mysterious (and handsome) man named Michael visits her run-down office. The scene smacks over-much of Sam Spade and Perry Mason, right down to the name on the frosted glass of the door, but fortunately for us our heroine soon leaves her office and the detective schlock behind. Michael, as it turns out, is the actual archangel Michael, and he wants Deidre to help him expose the LINK angels for what they are--a hoax being perpetrated by someone with dark intentions.
Those who might be involved in the hoax include Mouse (a superhacker with his own internet), Deidre's old partner Daniel (in jail for assassinating the Pope), right-wing religious politician Letourneau (who has never been seen outside of cyberspace) and another angel--a trouble-maker named Morningstar (a.k.a. Lucifer). In between brief bouts of action, such as Deidre's escape from police headquarters, Archangel Protocol explores the nature of faith, divine intention, and the human penchant for seeing the world in totalitarian black and white. It also contains a subtle warning against addiction to the escapist worlds of cyberspace.
One thing I liked about this book is how Morehouse weaves articles from our current civilization into her near-future setting. And they are important to Deidre who, cut off by the government from the all-important LINK, uses them to keep her sanity:
I thought I'd get used to the emptiness in my head, but I didn't. I think that's part of why I loved this office. With the squeaky chair, the creaking hardwood, rattling windows, clanking of the radiator, and all the other tenants' muffled noises, it was never truly quiet here.
Sometime in the last hour it started raining. I strolled over to the window, my stocking feet sliding across the hardwood. The office was dark except for the clip-on desk lamp that hung precariously over the monitor.
And Morehouse also puts in tidbits that hearken back to current computer technology: she breaks into Mouse's domain using FTP, and things are described as being "blue-screen blue" (perhaps inspired by the Windows NT `blue screen of death'?). Science fiction writers are great at dreaming up new worlds and technologies; they are less adept at revealing old ones that are still living on--yet this is how our world really is, one century laid over another. The future will contain plenty of traces of the past, and Morehouse deserves credit for recognizing this.
I liked other aspects of the novel less well. The narrative is rather clumsy, as Deidre moves here and there quite randomly, bumbling into angels, FBI agents, and clues. And she spends much of the novel in the company of a Jewish rebel group called the Malachim, who do not seem to have any reason for being in the book. Some implausibilities also present themselves. For example, Deidre is a LINK celebrity and close friend of Mouse, a hacker of international importance--yet she's also a broke, small-time detective, barely able to pay rent. And, even though we readers realize Michael is a real angel by page 50, it takes our heroine most of the book to admit it to herself.
Still, Morehouse has important things to say, and she's not afraid of introducing grand themes. Deidre, our good natured `everywoman', is at heart a pessimist, and finds it much easier to believe in evil than good. When she is confronted by the latter in supernatural form, she's not willing to believe it, perhaps more afraid of a world run by divine intention than chaos itself:
Used by God. I let the words penetrate me, fill me. Air left my lungs in a long, emptying sigh. From the moment I forced myself to realize that Michael was an angel, I'd feared this revelation. Pressing my forehead against the knuckles of my hand, I leaned heavily into the desk. Everything was out of my control; my whole life was reduced to being a pawn in some cosmic game.
Perhaps not on the level of Tolstoy or André Gide, but it's refreshing to read a book that considers these questions. And it does so in a very ordinary, sensual way (ladies--ever done it with an angel before?). In the end I found Archangel Protocol to be a sort of cross between Gibson's Neuromancer and Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. It's a promising first novel for Morehouse, and an interesting variation on the cyberpunk theme.
- Joel Van Valin