Secret societies and superheroes with ties to an ancient, alien power battle a fanatical right-wing Christian dictatorship in 21st-century America.
In 2033, Clay Bradley is an ex-cartoonist languishing in a torture cell in a Kansas prison (named for Jerry Falwell). A fascist dictatorship assumed power after a coup by militant Gospel-pounders and right-wingers replaced the U.S. government with a rogue Christian police state. Bradley is visited, granted superior powers and a “Star Dagger,” and liberated by swashbuckling Frederick Dixon, an authentic Tuskegee Airman who underwent a similar transformation during his own jail ordeal in the Jim Crow 1950s. In a manner not unlike DC Comics’ Green Lantern Corps, an ancient alien entity called Cronus, directing human progress from the moon, periodically assigns exceptional and persecuted males to be “Bringers” (as in bringers of justice)—Knights of Cronus do-gooders with enhanced life spans and perceptions and physical/mental prowess that seem to defy physics. Bringers work in concert (and sometimes in love) with “Nurses,” a female secret society (or two) also dating back to antiquity. Over centuries, their deeds were distorted by church bigotry and superstition. Debut author Hughes’ sci-fi/fantasy dystopia novel—combining comics-style avengers with a nightmarish future fundamentalist America—shouldn’t hang together as well as it does. Initially, the author seems to be aiming for Rabelaisian satire or at least the tongue-in-cheek flavor of Robert Anton Wilson or Kurt Vonnegut (recipient of a shoutout). But the happenings get grimly transfixing as the author introduces the Bringers’ new foe, the fanatic “Dominionist” Jesus-centric ruling political junta. Their sins include female genital mutilation and sundry oppression of women; public stonings of abortionists and ex–porn stars; destruction of the Mount Rushmore monument as idolatry; widespread cigarette smoking (big tobacco being backers of the theocracy); a revived Confederacy, with Jehovah-approved slavery on the table; incompetent handling of the economy; and so on. (Readers might ponder whether Islam also gets routinely pilloried in similar literary terms. All we hear of American Muslims here is that Dominionists banished them to “their cold Michigan ghettos.”)
Hughes' work makes S. Andrew Offut’s virulently anti-clerical, very similar sci-fi novel Evil Is Live Spelled Backwards (1970) read like the Chronicles of Narnia, and one wonders whether this novel would have worked better minus a gee-whiz paranormal angle (as Offut did it). But the way-out stuff does allow an extremely imaginative tangent with the colorful narrative within the narrative of “the Hun,” a rebellious Knight of Cronus from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hughes has a flair not only for history, but also bigger-than-life storytelling and characterizations, though expository dialogue tends to get top-heavy. Additional matters, such as invisible “demons” that feed on human suffering and a scantly described opposition cult of evil mystics are not dwelt upon and are presumably fodder for sequels. The author warns against real-life religious conservatives in government in a brief afterword.
An implausible mix of Planet Krypton heroics with a condemnation of barbarous arch-conservative misrule works well enough that one might call it a small miracle.