Sky Songs
Steve Stanton

Morality: D
Writing: D

“Not since the days of Nostradamus has a collection such as this been offered to the reading public,” declares the foreword to Sky Songs; and while the claim is perhaps overblown, there are certainly some interesting and original ideas presented in this anthology of Christian fantasy and science fiction. Alas, the execution is severely lacking; none of the stories have professional-quality writing, and some have simply hideous prose. Furthermore, while most of them have decent (if somewhat bland) messages, a few are seriously problematic. It is beyond the scope of this review to discuss all twenty-five stories in detail, but I will highlight those which seem to exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of the anthology.

“Comprehending It Not,” by Cherith Baldry, is interestingly written: the narrative is interlaced with quotes from newspaper articles and the reflections of a character. This structure is surprisingly effective, and gives the story more power than the author’s lackluster style would lead you to expect. However, its attempt to explore ideas is deeply flawed. The basic premise is that androids have been invented and are being used as slaves. The hero of the story, a a young priest, clashes with an older bishop when he maintains that the androids are people and gives them the sacraments. The stage seems to be set for an exploration of the nature of souls, sentience, and humanity; but the author never addresses the issue in any depth. Worse, in the course of the story it’s reveal that androids are “constructed in a nutrient vat designed to be as close as possible to a human mother’s womb” and that they’re capable of interbreeding with humans. In other words, they’re not androids–they’re clones. This completely undercuts the conflict of the story, because today everyone agrees that clones would be completely human, and the author doesn’t bother to construct a world where such a change of attitude has taken place.

“Breathe On These Dry Bones,” by Vincent Strahan, also deals with the issue of whether or not androids are human, and also begs begs the question. Unlike “Comprehending It Not,” the androids are real robots; another difference is that its resolution contains serious moral problems. Jim Thorton, a police officer, has an android partner named Tony who becomes a Christian. After the people at Jim’s Bible study reject him, Tony decides that he must be born again by activating his self-destruct. “Jesus said he that would save his life would lose it, and he that would lose his life for His sake would find it,” Tony declares. “I need to find that life.” Despite Jim’s attempt to stop him, he succeeds in killing himself; he is then raised from the dead and turned into a human. Tony and Jim then happily go off to church together, and the story ends. Look, your faith may be great enough to move mountains; but suicide is not a way to God.

Another problematic story is “Father Nichols’ Exorcism,” by Frederick J. McGavran. The story is set in an alternate present-day Earth where heart attacks are caused by demons and surgery is attended by priests who exorcise the demons once they are extracted. The idea struck me as quite engaging; unfortunately, the story is not up to par. The main character is Father Nichols, a Catholic priest who exorcises demons. He is tormented with jealousy because an Episcopalian priest, Mother Stephanie, has discovered a way to cast out demons without surgery; Father Nichols is worried that he will lose his job to the new method, and he is also resentful of the fact that Mother Stephanie is ordained. His jealousy allows an opening for a demon to come into his heart and nearly kill him; however, at the last minute Mother Stephanie comes in and saves him. Father Nichols is awakened to the joy of Christ and he resolves to work with Mother Stephanie.

Now, it’s quite possible for someone to have jealousy or hatred towards someone who is doing wrong, and sin by doing so. But the author isn’t interested in such a complex moral situation; instead, he seems to be writing about how lovely women priests are. Anyone who opposes women’s ordination will probably find this story annoying at best. There’s also a combined moral/dramatic problem when the author says that demons “like holy places . . . many times they’re found in the sacristy or hiding under an altar cloth.” This is a moral problem because demons are evil, and I really doubt that they enjoy holy places. It’s also a dramatic problem because every single story ever dealing with demons has made them absolutely abhore holy things. True, it’s just one sentence; but it really did a lot to undermine the world that the author had constructed.

“The Passing of the Eclipse,” by Donna Farley, involves a post-cataclysmic world where faces are taboo and people must wear masks at all times, even when alone with their spouses. The hero, Angelo, believes himself a pervert because he longs to see other people’s faces. Eventually he falls in with a group of Zabbadines, the garbage collecter caste, who are secret Christians and unmask during their gatherings. Again it’s an interesting idea, and again it’s poorly executed. For one thing, Angelo spends most of his time bewailing his fate. For another, the author failed to convincingly portray the face taboo. The people believe that baring one’s face is the ultimate perversion, but they keep and admire a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Supposedly the Cataclysm made their faces hideously ugly, and that is why they wear masks–but it seems to me that such a strong taboo would have to be motivated by something more than “we don’t look good.” Furthermore, the explanation breaks down when you consider the logistics of the situation: babies would be born without masks, and they’d have to have their masks changed for them by others until they were several years old. Surely someone would notice that they weren’t the epitome of ugliness.

Unfortunately, these are among the better stories in the collection. “Fall Guy,” by Michael Vance, looks like it’s an allegory but is simply incomprehensible. “The Zoo,” by the same author, is not only incomprehensible but also contains hideously purple prose: “Her lithe muscles beneath the mock silk moved like a cat as she padded noiselessly down the hall.” Possibly the worst story is “Judas,” by W. Mark Snowden, which involves Judas’s long removed descendent (in the year 2025) sharing Judas’s suicide note with the world. Any merit the idea might have had is completely obliterated by the suicide note, which reads like this:

“Come to think of it, who was the guy who arranged payment for the colt on the triumphant entry into Jerusalem? It took skill!”

“My guilt! My heavy heart was sagging through my body. Everything had been going so well, too! Now this. This darkness. This anguish. Oow!”

And so on. There are many other stories in this anthology, some of them better but none of them anywhere near professional quality. Combined with moral messages that are banal, problematic, or simply not there (a few stories had no religious content that I could observe), the result is that I simply cannot recommend this book.

I’ve already voiced my reservations about the moral quality of this book. Content-wise it’s mostly inoffensive, though some of them have a bit of bad language and one has a scene of attempted seduction which is definitely at least PG-13.

Posted by Rose | September 2, 2003

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