This ambitious debut novel unites themes of political and religious zealotry with mysticism in a near-future setting.
Biologist Psyche Hershenbaum begins the story adamantly opposed to organized religion. When her mother dies alone in a superstorm that ravages New York City, Psyche re-examines her life as a scientist for a government-funded laboratory, which she suspects is using her work to create an environmental sanctuary for America’s wealthy and powerful. Her suspicions prove correct, so she resolves to use her scientific knowledge—and her boyfriend Ira’s computer hacking skills—to create a sanctuary of her own. On a hilltop in the Pacific Northwest, she and Ira build a community that quickly grows into a stable, science-based society with her as leader. Meanwhile, the country’s remaining political and religious leaders retreat into the belly of a giant, genetically engineered amoebalike creature that acts as a living bio-dome. They’ve also engineered human-lizard hybrids to perform slave labor. The dome’s authoritarian regime quickly devolves into a pseudo-Christian religious cult, rife with corruption and sexual assault, while the forest-dwelling scientists embrace a peaceful kind of spirituality that resembles shamanism. A violent clash decides Psyche’s fate and that of her community. At first read, Siegel’s story of a young biologist struggling to survive in a United States decimated by disease and climate change comes across as typical post-apocalyptic fare. Had it been written more recently, its strong stance on the perils of political and religious extremism could have been seen as a reaction to today’s headlines. But the author, an artist and “psychic astrologer,” says that she wrote the story in the 1990s and let it languish in a drawer for a decade. Its deep look at issues of morality and corruption will particularly appeal to disillusioned young people in the 21st century. In one truly remarkable turn, the once-agnostic Psyche and others witness actual miracles that seem to confirm the existence of an afterlife—a move that turns some conventional sci-fi and fantasy tropes upside-down.
A violent, emotional story that will resonate with readers who are sensitive to the growing tension among science, religion, and politics today.