Review: The Punishments by J.B. Winsor
When I got the opportunity to receive a free copy of The Punishments from J.B. Winsor in exchange for a fair and honest review, I told the author that "I read a lot of dystopian fiction, some YA and some aimed at adults, so I doubt if it's too dark for me. However, I may BE one of those single-minded wackos Tom [another reviewer] mentioned..."
I don't know if I'm the same type of wacko Tom meant, but it was difficult for me to enjoy the novel. It wasn't the dark nature of the story (although public beheadings and torture, star-chamber arrests and executions, and a unilateral revision of the U.S. Constitution are plenty dark), but shortcuts in the story action, and the simplistic good/evil nature of the main characters that kept breaking my involvement.
Not to mention multiple grammatical and punctuation errors. I'm sorry, when it's consistent, it cannot be labeled a "typo."
But let's set that aside, and talk about the theme, which took over my reading list in an unexpected way last month: Religious regimes in science fiction. In The Punishments, the opposed main characters are both Republican politicians. The villain is the head of a new cabinet-level department, Virtue, Reverend John. The hero is Senator William Thatcher, a Christian with a wife who had served as a lawyer for Planned Parenthood until the election of an ultra-right Christian President brought the rule of Religion to replace the Bill of Rights in America.
Within the first few pages of the novel, Thatcher sees another senator, one who had voted for his bill opposing the imposition of Biblical law, gassed in a "routine security test." He then watches as a new figure atop the Capitol is unveiled:
In 1863 former slaves hoisted the 15,000-pound, 19-foot-tall Statue of Freedom to the top of the Capitol Dome. Last week, in the secrecy of night, Virtue removed Freedom. ... [Its replacement, t]he neo-cross was fifteen feet higher than the cupola: the spiritual symbol taller than its temporal base. Its pointed base was a dagger about to thrust into the Capitol Building...
One of the tenets of science fiction is to take your "what-if" scenario, and begin describing it, then share as the story proceeds the way it began, or how it was permitted to happen. Winsor has avoided the dreaded narrative explanation by simply ignoring it. We are given one or two clues, but—and this is an important reason why the story could not engage me—Winsor assumes that the reader shares his interpretation of current real events as a causative path for the resultant future he envisions. I don't.
Further, I can't accept the characters he describes as real. Most of the minor characters are outright stereotypes, and the "good" Republicans don't resemble anyone so much as Democrats. It also doesn't help that Bill-of-Rights abrogations in the present day are more commonly supported or urged by Democrats than by Republicans. (The Patriot Act of 2001 is the main exception, and a proposal to extend its powers failed last week in the majority-Republican House.)
On the other hand, the story as a horror novel—exempt from science fiction's rules of creating an alternate reality—was engrossing and thrilling. For that reason, I gave it back one of the stars I had taken away for the reasons listed above. Read it for the fictional chills this tale has in abundance, but don't expect too much in the way of political prediction.
- A better bet for a chilling prediction of religion driving repression in a civil regime is Tom Kratman's Caliphate, which I reviewed in September 2015.
- The casual horror of everyday life in Winsor's America kept reminding me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. While not about a religious political regime per se, its vision of the future society shares a similar repression of alternate sexual mores and other faiths.