Passion Play, Sean Stewart

Tesseracts, 1992, 231 pages, C$?.?? mmpb, ISBN 0-88878-314-0

For a writer, one good way to ensure interest from the reader is to mix widely disparate elements in a single work. Some of the time, the result is a mish-mash of incongruous concepts. Most of the time, it seems like a fairly obvious gimmick (as Jurassic Park‘s mix of genetic engineering and chaos theory) Once in a while, though, the themes mesh well together and the result is often a classic.

In the field of Canadian Science-Fiction, Passion Play (Aurora and Edgar Award, 1992) is considered a minor classic and after reading it it’s easy to see why. Basically, it’s an endearing mix of science-fiction and crime story: the plot is about an investigator asked to solve the death of an actor.

So far, so accessible. Then the complications begin.

First, the setting. We’re a few years in the future, in an America dominated by a religious leadership (The Redemption Presidency, in a tone slightly similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale —another great Canadian SF novel.) The atmosphere is restrictive, oppressive and retrograde. Women’s right are in decline -if not almost gone-, as are most progressive ideas. Vigilantism is encouraged; the novel begins as a small mob kills a women for adultery—the leader of the mob being the husband.

Enters the protagonist; Diane Fletcher, a woman in a man’s world. Her precious talent: She can see and feel the emotions of others. This makes her useful to the official police force, who subcontracts a few cases to her. Fletcher is one of this novel’s biggest assets: Her narration is almost always impeccable, and her personality is fully developed. It is fortunate that the tale is told by her voice.

The victim of the crime isn’t ordinary either: Jonathan Mask is, at the beginning of the novel, the most famous actor—sorry, “communicator”—in America. And he’s also very, very dead, electrocuted inside his hi-tech suit he was wearing for his new teleplay. It might be an accident—but since this is a crime story, we can bet that it’s not.

Fortunately, Steward knows how to tell a tale. It gets muddled in the end (like most whodunits) and the end result is too dark to be cheered, but Passion Play is an impressive debut by the author who would later write the engrossing (but frustrating) Resurrection Man. Passion Play is slightly more enjoyable although the ending is unnecessarily grim. Too bad; this novel could have used an optimistic finale.

Still, this 1991 Tesseract book is well-worth tacking down. Stylish yet easy to read, complex but captivating, let’s hope that our future has a few more authors like Sean Stewart and books like Passion Play.

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