Thus far I’ve liked most of the books I’ve read for TBR, and even found things to admire in books I didn’t exactly enjoy, like Anna Kavan’s Ice. This one, though…I respect what it was trying to do? I found the basic plot fascinating. But I don’t tihnk I can actually recommend reading Deus Irae as anything other than a record of a very different time in SFF.
As I’ve mentioned, the idea with TBR Stack is that I’m literally pulling things down from my “to be read” shelf and diving in. Every once in a while there will be some external impetus (I’d been meaning to read The Confessions of Max Tivoli, so when author Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer a few weeks ago I figured that was a good nudge) but normally my selection process ranges anywhere from “random” to “haphazard.” Hence, Deus Irae. I don’t even remember buying it—it was just there, on the shelf.
The basic plot: about 15 years after civilization-ending world war, two religions vie for the souls of people in Charlottesvillle, Utah. One Is the fragments of pre-war Christianity, the other is SOW: “The Servants of Wrath” who worship one Carleton Lufteufel, the very man who created and triggered the bomb that ended most life on Earth. The SOWers believe that the war proves that Wrath is the only true faith, and that death means release from pain and suffering.
The plot kicks in when an “inc” (incomplete) named Tibor McMasters is commissioned to paint a “murch” (church mural) that incorporates Lufteufel’s face. Tibor agrees to a “Pilg” (Pilgrimage) to find the living Lufteufel so he can capture his divinity in the mural. The night before he leaves, however, he visits a pair of Christians, Pete Sands, and Pete’s girlfriend Lurine, as they play poker with their priest Dr. Abernathy. He allows that he’s terrified of his quest and that he might want to become Christian. Pages of theological banter later, he leaves, not realizing the Pete is following him.
You would think that the plot would be a roadtrip novel, a picaqesque, as Tibor travels toward Los Angeles where Lufteufel is rumored to live, meeting people, seeing the post-apocalyptic landscape, and maybe deciding between the two faiths that are vying for his adherence.
He gets a few miles out of town, gets stuck, yells until someone helps, and then this happens again. He often muses on the idea that he’s going to die alone in his cart, as though he’s never considered it. He does run into various post-apocalyptic creatures, but there’s usually no real apprehension in these meetings. Neither author seemed to want to describe the post-apocalyptic landscape, or really dig into how society had changed past the couple nods to religion and mutation. What we get instead are long circular arguments over which faith should win, or whether neither faith should win. There are a couple of genuinely good and interesting points on the pilg. For instance, shortly outside of town is an entity called The Great C—a sentient-ish pre-War computer that entraps ppl to feed off of their energy; apparently Dick’s short story about The Great C was the impetus for him wanting to write this full book. Later we meet an “autofac”—theoretically an auto repair shop—that doesn’t really follow directions and mangles most of its jobs while berating its customers. Our pilgrims run into herds of mutant bugs and bipedal lizards who wander the landscape on quests of their own. But each time the story seemed to be building up into a real narrative arc, things would break down. We veer off course and bog down in yet another musing about German literature. Pete Sands would repeat the exact same encounter with The Great C or the bugs that we had just seen with Tibor, and not only would the information and worldbuilding be repeated, but any tension that built up during the first such scene would just fizzle out. Basically this is a story about a spiritual war happening in the aftermath of a horrific physical war, yet there are no stakes.
I’ve always been interested in post-apocalyptic narratives, I think because my dad exposed me to the Mad Max series at a tender age. But to me the fun of a post-civilization-ending-event is seeing which pieces of culture survive, which blow away with the fallout, and which mutate into new forms. The politics in Alas Babylon, language in Riddley Walker, mythology of Cloud Atlas and Einstein Intersection, or, my personal favorite, the Catholicism of Canticle for Leibowitz. In each of these we see shards of the civilization we know, but refracted through terrible trauma. We can piece together the story of what happened to the world we know, seeing that the sacred texts of Leibowitz are 1960s-era blueprints, or that the sacred music of Einstein Intersection are pop songs by The Beatles. We can watch the bombs fall in Alas Babylon. We can see that the great holy site in Cloud Atlas is the old Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. But in Deus Irae we’re told that the war happened only fifteen years ago, not even a full generation, but the civilization has already changed in ways that make it unrecognizable. The language has shifted drastically, yet people are still able to go to a farmer’s market to buy tomatoes and beets. It’s implied that cities have been destroyed, yet the new religion SOW, has already entrenched itself and built a hierarchy. For the most part we’re not shown the grief and chaos that would follow such an event. We’re not shown the trauma of death on such a large scale. We’re not shown how the towns and pockets of civilization continue to roll forward with no real infrastructure.
Then there are the women… I don’t even know if there’s any point in writing about this. Often women in post-apocalyptic scenarios are brutalized, illustrating the idea that women only have rights and personhood as long as the thin veneer of civilization holds. In Deus Irae we get Ely, the wife of a priest who is furious and resentful of her role, and Lurine, who at first seems like an interesting voice of dissent. After listening to a priest of the SOW prattle on about her beauty and how women are somehow both inferior to men and also in touch with a Gnostic truth that men can never reach—you know, typical Dick—she tells the priest that she’s converting to Christianity, citing “freedom of conscience.” For an instant I thought we were going to get an interesting, complicated post-apocalyptic woman, but no: her resolve is immediately dismissed. The SOWers tell her she’s only converting because she’s sleeping with a Christian, and she soon caves under needling from the only other woman in the book, Ely. Her Christian fuckbuddy is Pete Sands, who’s soon revealed to be a typical Dickian hero, ingesting massive quantities of drugs in a search for direct experience of the Divine. Occasionally the drugs make him violent, which means he beats the crap out of Lurine, and when his priest challenges him to give up the drugs, he says he’ll quit sleeping with Lurine instead. And thus exits the only interesting woman in the book, as Pete soon leaves to follow Tibor McMasters.
There’s also a weird little crowd of “black” children who seem to be acolytes of SOW? But I couldn’t tell if the authors meant for these kids to read as African- or Caribbean-American, or if children born after the war simply have darker skin. Either way, it’s a troubling moment, because the kids swarm around like insects, but are given less character than the actual mutated insects we meet later on in the story. The presence of a mob of children just stirs up more questions about the society that neither author bothers to answer. As I say, I hesitate to even bring it up. But after reading so many books where women and queer characters and POC characters are written well and allowed to come to life on the page, Deus Irae was just so…boring in that regard. And I don’t expect boredom from these two authors.
So much of the drama is simply the characters musing on their own religious beliefs, or explaining history to other characters, rather than living lives that are shaped by their circumstance. And there is an interesting book in here about how religions are born, how art can can be used to solidify belief, and even how art can outlive the artist. But there are so many points where characters have to hit the brakes to explain who The Great C is, who Carleton Lufteufel is, without letting the reader learn from context clues. There are so many points where character living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland can quote Schiller and Goethe from memory, but make no reference to life in the decade before the war. I hate it when people chastise my writing for not being what they want it to be, so I try not to critique books for not living up to whatever expectation I bring to my reading. This time, though, I was really hoping for a book that dealt with the clash between a failing religion and a rising one, against a background of societal upheaval, and I think the book in my head was more engaging than what I ended up reading.
Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place. Come interrogate the apocalypse with her on Twitter!