Lyda Morehouse’s Archangel Protocol has been staring at me off the new racks of Uncle Hugo’s in Minneapolis, MN for several months now. Every time I went in, the book would be tempting me, but I could never quite bring myself to pay for it new. A couple weeks ago, though, it finally showed up used, and I snatched it up without a second thought.
A brief conceptual sketch: Archangel Protocol takes place in a fairly standard cyberpunk setting, with the uber-powerful corporations swapped out for theocracies. The main character is a private detective who, like all PIs in popular fiction, gets caught up in things far beyond her control: In this case, mysterious angels have been seen on the ‘net and recognized as official miracles by the various theocracies and most of the world’s population.
Let me be up front in saying that I didn’t do this book any favors by reading it immediately after Cyteen. But, on the other hand, the book didn’t do many favors for itself, either.
Morehouse’s writing is workman-like: Functional, with the occasional flourish – but just as frequently crude. Sometimes painfully crude. But for a first novel, the prose is solid and shows some promise.
One problem, though, is that Morehouse can’t let her characters just exist in a space. They constantly have to be doing something. Thus even the simplest of conversations is drawn out into a long affair of detailed stage business – coffee being consumed, cups being moved, chairs squeaking. The technique is frequently turned towards ‘subtle’ exposition, but the result in practice is usually a jackhammer mixed with out of character behavior.
For example, in the first couple of pages in the book the main character provides us with exposition about her current tech-poor situation. She wraps this up by moving into the first scene, starting out by talking to herself about her computer: “Not even a graphical interface any more.” The problem here is that the author has lost track of her past tense telling of the story and the events of the story itself: The line of dialogue only makes sense in the context of the exposition which has preceded it, and thus only makes sense if the character is somehow aware of her future self telling the story. Thus the moment is out of character, a false note, and a clumsy bit of writing.
The world-building also comes across as very hollow. The central conceit is that the entire world has turned away from science and become fanatically religious as a result of the Medusa bombs (like atom bombs, but with a different special effect) used to end World War III. Morehouse repeats this assertion several times, in the hope, I suppose, that it will become more convincing in the repetition. The details don’t hold together very well, either: The world has become fanatically religious to the point where it’s illegal to not belong to a religion… but not fanatical enough that people actually care which religion you belong to. Electric cars have been adopted due to the same shortage of oil which triggered World War III… but they use a huge infrastructure of electrified tubes rather than just running off of battery power.
Even the technical details are off, which is disconcerting because she likes to lay them on thick. For example, when a simple web search causes the “processors to start whirring”, I’m left a little baffled. For one thing, processors don’t whir. And I can’t figure out why either the cooling fans or a disk drive would start whirring as the result of a web search.
Another example: In a novel of theocracies and angelic visitations, its not too surprising that theology plays a major role in the novel. But, again, the handling is crude. Morehouse starts off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, by claiming that throwing a well-known Bible quotation (“let he who is without sin throw the first stone”) into a preacher’s face represents a cutting argument capable of shocking the preacher into mute silence for several minutes. In a more general sense, I just find Morehouse’s use of theology to be extraordinarily dull. With the great wealth of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu literature to draw upon, Morehouse seems perfectly content to remain complacently pedestrian.
And then there are the continuity glitches, which sap whatever strength the work might have like a biblical plague. For example, the main character has been receiving letters from her ex-partner. Early in the book we’re told that she hasn’t read the letters – in fact, she hasn’t even opened them. But the next time the letters come up, she has read them (despite the fact we’ve seen her every waking moment since being told she hadn’t read the letters).
In some cases, these continuity screw-ups are mind-numbingly clumsy. For example, at one point in the book two characters are setting up a meeting place. First, one character proposes Yankee Stadium and the other character voices some minor objections. Then, later on the same page, the other character proposes Yankee Stadium as if it had never been mentioned before.
Little flaws like that begin to add up to a lot of frustration.
To make matters worse, the plot is extremely predictable. I don’t think there’s a single thing that happens in the entire novel which isn’t clearly telegraphed at least a dozen pages earlier. Even the “surprise” ending gets telegraphed two pages before it happens.
Part of the reason for this is that the main character suffers from a severe case of Stupid Protagonist Syndrome(TM). On one page she can tell another character that she believes X may be true. Two pages later, when another character tells her that they believe X to be true, she can only think of them as insane. And she does this more than once. Oh, and here’s a hot tip: If you’re a wanted fugitive that the government has tracked down multiple times while on the run, returning to your private office for no particular reason is probably a really dumb idea.
And finally, at the end of the book, out of left field, we get a quick dose of sexism mixed with the magical superpowers of the menstrual cycle. Gah.
To the book’s favor, there are a lot of neat ideas packed between the covers: Technology, theology, mutation, psychology, sociology, and more are all played with in a variety of interesting ways. On top of that, the plot is intriguing and filled with a lot of promise.
But neither the ideas nor the plot are taken to that next level, and the execution is just painfully lacking. So the book gets a D in my mind – and its only getting that because the ideas have enough spark in them to make the book an edible piece of mediocre brain candy.
Cover Price: $6.99