The Lonesome Journey of Isobel Lemont
I have a new novel coming out in September, and as ever, all I can do at this point is lay my offerings at the altar of the goddess Fortuna and pray that what I’ve written will ‘resonate’ with at least a handful of those who still actually read novels. MINISTRY began as a short story, a Christmas gift for my daughters in a year when I was—to use an antiquated expression—poor as a churchmouse and couldn’t give them anything else. Its genesis lay in the conviction (or maybe the fond hope) that the bond between father and daughter could survive even the bleakest imaginable of circumstances, providing that parent passed something of real and enduring value to child. I tried to imagine a dystopian landscape of the all-too-near future as Charles Dickens might have imagined it, with the father nursing flame from the last sputtering candle of human wisdom and passing it to his daughter, who I called Isobel, in hopes that she might carry it forward into a world in which the survival of the race was anything but certain. I gave the story’s voice to Isobel.
Now the reason that I felt a brief distillation of the novel’s themes might have a place on this particular Substack, which traffics in ‘contemporary heresies,’ is that Isobel herself is an apostate, orphaned at thirteen (her father dies in the soot-black snow while fetching food for her on the coldest night of the year) and forced to seek sanctuary in a world that offers almost none. The planet has gone off the rails, figuratively and quite literally; two-thirds of its population has perished, and the poisoned soil will yield no crops. The libraries are gone, along with all the books they once held, and the collected store of human knowledge has been digitized and is accessible only to a tech aristocracy ruled by an Oz-like figure called The Architect and his demiurgic creation, a seemingly all-powerful AI known to the remnants of authentic humanity as the Basilisk. Outside the walled bastions of the few extant cities, where the new post-human doctrine holds, Earth is the Grail King’s wasteland, and the herd of genetic human beings is being thinned, little by little, down to nothing. God is dead, not just declared so, but proven so by the suprahuman logic of the Baslilisk’s neural network, and only those who convert to the new order are offered protection in the cities—though it is a protection that comes at great price.
Isobel Lemont will not convert. She is revolutionary naif. She has the knowledge.
Into this desertified land she goes like a mendicant monk, a waif in a tattered red raincoat and shoes two sizes too big, with no protection save for her wits and the knowledge given her by her father and by “the big book,” an encyclopedia he guarded like the Ark of the Covenant. This knowledge is the constitution of her faith, and the seeding of it across the wide swath of prairie and dust bowl she travels will be her ministry. She will find allies in the most unusual places, and eventually, apostles. “Stay alive,” she tells them, and in the beginning, this is enough. As she grows into young womanhood, her doctrine matures into an idiosyncratic kind of natural theology born entirely of experience, but as history has shown us, such things can end empires.
In writing MINISTRY, I wanted first to tell a good tale, a spiritual adventure, even a kind of romance in the old way, picaresque, earthy, and full of sly and colorful characters. But on a thematic level, I was driven by a single question: is there something we can truly call ‘natural religion?’ A bequest from the cosmos—a genuine perennial wisdom. If everything were taken from us, if there were no schools, no churches or temples, no ‘influencers’ and no experts, no books and no sources of information save for experience, would humankind find its way back to an uncorrupted spiritual well? Would we rediscover God in the midst of nothing? And if so, what kind of God might it be? I took the notion of “a little child will lead them” quite literally (Isobel never gets much beyond twenty), and tried to imagine, in a world stripped of all order, all comfort, all safety, what form a new world saint might take.
MINISTRY, published in hardcover by TouchPoint Press. Due in September 2022.