A psychic Catholic priest joins a government project to train dolphins in O’Doran’s debut SF novel.
In what appears to be the late 21st century, rising seas have devastated humankind, and among the societies thrown into turmoil is the United States, now merged with Mexico as MEXUS. The plague- and poverty-stricken MEXUS is under the political spell of TV evangelist and murderer Amos Bilby, who captivates masses with a “Prosperity Gospel” message that Jesus wants everyone to be rich. This version of Christianity also abhors any animals that aren’t exploitable as food or labor. (Yet, paradoxically, readers are told that ape language has been deciphered and that a kind of telepathic internet has enhanced human-to-animal communication.) In the Pacific Northwest, the MEXUS military has been trying to train cloned porpoises to guard the nation’s submerged mining resources. Completing the project requires the Bilby-dominated president to cooperate with the widely hated Catholic Church for the unique services of the Rev. Dr. Liam Jamieson. This scientist/priest has extreme psychic empathy; touching people is emotionally overwhelming for him, and touching animals led him to publish the heretical opinion that beasts have souls and deserve the same rights as humans. At MEXUS’ United Forces Center for Biological Research, Liam has a positive working relationship with Kate Mendoza, a project manager who’s also a member of a burka-wearing, quasi-Catholic sisterhood that protects animals. Mendoza’s work with the dolphins takes a fateful turn with the unforeseen capture of a distressed bottlenose dolphin; the team’s discoveries point to the possibility that sea mammals are not only intelligent, but also have their own religion.
This SF tale swims in the sizable wakes of Robert Merle’s 1967 novel Day of the Dolphin and the 1986 hit movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the latter of which featured singing humpback whales that know a bit more about the universe than mankind does. One may also hear echoes of the 1993 film Free Willy as well as the subgenre of novels about ruggedly handsome Catholic priests struggling with sexual desires and yearning for redemption, exemplified by Colleen McCullough’s 1977 bestseller The Thorn Birds and the works of Andrew M. Greeley. Despite this mulligan stew of antecedents, once the author gets past the initial, complex setup—a familiar exploration of the future as a nasty, waterlogged climate change dystopia—the narrative is surprisingly coherent and effective and rendered in a lyrical prose style. The ending doesn’t cheapen the story by leaning on formula; instead, it offers a compelling cast of complex and emotionally stranded characters betrayed by their institutions of government and religion, and their tale, overall, is a haunting one. Readers who agree with the work’s animal rights message and philosophy of sustainability, however, may note that despite the lead characters’ preference for animals over treacherous and greedy humans, none of them seems to have embraced a vegan diet—at least, not yet.
A spiritual SF eco-drama that serves up considerable food for thought after an overly complicated setup.