You’ll think I’m joking if I don’t give some context. A couple of years ago, I was reading the blog of Mike Duran, Decompose. A frequent discussion was reoccurring. In Christian publishing it is difficult to get manuscript attention for anything ‘edgy.’ Or so it is said. Edgy doesn’t mean bad or obscene here, but some of us believe that even the Glad Tidings (gospel) can be (and should be) told with the grit of sin. And I would go to the Bible to make that case. The Bible–those collected stories, breathed through the Ruach HaKodesh–contains murder, graphic violence, sexual content, innuendo or suggestive language, nudity, and profanity. Sometimes different writers in different contexts, glossed over details; other times, they zoomed in. Take the book of Judges where a sword is plunged into a man, until the hilt disappears. That’s kind of graphic, right? For that matter the death of Yeshua, has flogging, striking, spitting, blasphemy, blood and guts.
But Christian publishing seem to hold to higher standards than the Bible, making it difficult for even conscientious writers to deal with anything other than the Amish. Needless to say for writers like myself (and Keith Nietz) who visit the realms of sci-fi or fantasy or ‘speculative’ scenarios, it’s even harder. But they will eat up anything Amish.
So on this blog, someone jokingly proposed that an edgy story could get in by framing itself like, Amish Vampires in Space. It was a joke, but as I can attest, a single turn of phrase can spark a story. So Keith Nietz saw an opportunity, and thus AVS was born.
Synopsis: Context aside, now onto the review. Despite the joking origin, the story is not told as parody, satire, or joke. It’s not over the top. Keith shoots it straight. So what is this serious stories where Amish, vampires, and space collide?
The opening is with a ‘stereotypical’ Amish, Jebediah who lives on a planet colonized by using the Amish–who are perfect for the job because they don’t use technology and the planets being colonized have no technology to depend on. Jeb’s just about everything you would expect from an Amish. I have frequent contact with the Amish and Mennonites (to an Englisher, they’re hard to tell apart, but there are differences), so I have some sense of authenticity on the subject. In fact through the course of my reading, I found out things I didn’t know and then asked my Amish contacts about them.
. . . I did leave out the fact my prompt was a book titled Amish Vampires in Space. I also omitted that for the character of Jebediah, I immediately pictured the particular Amish gentleman that I was asking the question.
So Jebediah has one thing that’s a bit different. A family heirloom of technology. He doesn’t know what it does, but was told when a future, unforeseen, catastrophic problem arises (like say, their local sun getting ready to eat their planet), he’s supposed to use it. He manages that, with considerable guilt because he’s a legit Amish. The machine turns out to be a beacon that summons a ship to pick them up and transplant them on another planet.
Unfortunately . . . the ship also has another package that turns out to be undead. The story then revolves around a growing vampire presence, and the tension between faith, religion, and need.
Thoughts: I won’t lie, I looked forward to this book. I wanted this book to be good because the premise, was my kind of premise. I love stories, where the author takes something normal and turns it askew. I mean, my first published novel is about killer trees. So when, I say that the book exceeded my expectations, then some of that could be my own placebo. But I found stuff wrong too, so I think that justifies what I found right.
What really shines in this story is actually the character conflicts; the vampire dynamic is just icing on the cake. Like any good story. You have some lesser conflicts; a developing romance between the captain (Seal) and the communications officer (Singer), complicated by Singer’s being a Christian, in a future setting where relationships are regulated by their government-company (not sure if they were separate or one and the same) and Christianity is seen as some, “Oh is that still around?” anomaly. To Seal this makes Singer akin to the Amish who of course look very weird to him.
Except she’s more attractive than they are. And I know this because the narrator tells me it. Several times. The story is written from the omniscient POV or at least semi-omniscient. Which is less popular, but it can be done, and it works. But the narrator should have some vocabulary. A voice all his own. And when the narrator is the one telling us how attractive each female character is, literally using the word attractive outside of dialogue, then he feels like a dude scoping out chicks, and also lazy. I would have preferred discerning from the details who was more or less attractive.
Back to the conflicts. Another is the loading supervisor who see the Amish as free-loaders, willing to let others go to hell for using technology or fighting wars, while they reap the benefits. Kind of made me think of Seven Samurai with the one samurai who used to be a country peasant.
But the conflict that really shines is Jebediah vs. the world and his own community. SPOILER!!! Using the beacon puts him in a state of sin before the community, which he is absolved of, but then ends up shunned because he stands against the leadership, who want to stay on the planet even though the sun appears to be dying—trusting God’s will. The community ends up going, but he remains shunned. Yet, of course, he thought he was saving the lives of everyone. So he didn’t want to not be Amish, didn’t want to use technology, but now he’s forced away from everyone else and surrounded by technology. But he wants to come back. Things only get worse, when Amish start getting vampirized, thus ‘proving’ that they should have stayed on the planet.
I read this in the present, where I am wrestling through the concept of community [yes, the series will continue, but it was suggested I talk to a particular brother/sister, and it’s proving hard to do]. And found it quite stirring in the subject. I firmly believe in the need to be willing to submit to leadership (so long as they are committed to faith in Yeshua and loving Him according to Torah), but I found myself immediately identifying with Jebediah, who was being shunned for not submitting to leadership. How does one navigate the waters, where they believe in submission (as Jebediah also did), but find their leadership is about to scuttle the ship? I’m still not sure, but I’m working on it, and I benefited by reading this story because it made me face the realness, of what some of my brothers and sisters are telling me: that ‘community’ may exact a steep price.
The setting is also quite creative, and real. I’m no expert in ‘hard’ sci-fi, probably because I’m not really a science major. I use science as many authors do, as a substitute for magic, to explain the abridgment of physical laws. Explaining, why I feel the need to not use ‘magic’ is a blog unto itself, but suffice to say the real problem is the substance, rather than the appearance—so even science can model the same sinfulness—but I strive in my narration to identify the real power as Elohim, not some spell or charm turned science. Why not just say ‘magic’ then, and let your narrator’s voice distinguish it as not the abhorrent thing? To that I ask, can you write a story about child molestation, but make the molestation ‘good’? “Yes, I know it says ‘child molestation’, but my narrator’s voice shows that its not the bad molestation, it’s the good . . . molestation.” See it doesn’t really work. In my opinion, when a believing author makes magic out to be ‘neutral’ they’re just revealing that they don’t understand it to be truly wrong. Which is understandable since the part of scripture that most clearly deals with the evil of magic, is the part that most Christians say is “done away with.”
But I was going to say that the setting feels real. There’s a log of ‘magic’ science in it, but there seems to be a logic behind it. Like at one point explaining that a screen and physically pressing controls was still the way of doing things rather than hand motions in the air, that lead to people smacking each other. Faster than light travel isn’t depicted as flying through a rainbow or a blinding meteor shower, but a monotonous gray fog. Not everything is glowy and shiny, but a lot of stuff is painted business like shades of blue and brown. It felt authentic, and this is a writer’s review so it was worth noting.
Unfortunately, the characterization was a little uneven. The characters were easily distinguishable from each other. No blending, not really stereotypes. Greels (the loading supervisor) was especially enjoyable, because I expected that he was going to go one way and become that sleezy, cowardly, weak-willed, type of antagonist—and he hits several of those notes—but instead turns out to have some redeeming qualities, even heroism when the chips are down.
But another main character, Seal, is a little bit flat. Probably a ‘good’ thing in that he makes Singer (who’s also a little flat) appear a little less flat. They’re not terrible, but they sometimes feel like their hitting their marks and don’t have a life of their own. For example, the ship is falling into the hands of vampires, the full extent of the threat is not known, but there’s enough going on that this storm front should have the captain’s full attention. But while dealing with that, he mentally segues into whether or not he might love Singer, and what to do about her religious weirdness. Are you kidding me?!?! You’re thinking about your relationship at a time like this? Or later, near the end, when the vampires have overrun the ship, and the Amish are refusing to fight because they believe in non-resistance even at the cost of their own lives, he ends up asking a group of unbelievers and obstinate religious believers to pray, but he himself has not had any ‘conversion’ experience.
Clarification on that last thought: I’m not saying there should have been some born-again scene. I’m perfectly fine with a fireworks-free ‘slide’ into faith. I don’t think you need to say a special prayer, but I would have liked to see some internal thought process, even if it was only a, “Well, maybe this prayer thing is worth a try.”
And there was a perfect opportunity [SPOILER!!!]. The Amish leaders have been increasingly condemning of Jebediah since it was his “saving” of the community that has turned most of them into ungodly vampires. And even he himself wonders if maybe he has lost his salvation. But Seal as captain has reason to believe the problem started with the other package that he picked up. And now part of the solution involves a pregnant woman who is only there because of Jebediah. Seal could see in that that his whole crew would be lost if not for this confluence of coincidence that lead a technology eschewing community onto his ship, where his people could be saved, along with the entire planet that the vampires are now targeting. That would have been a big prompt to why Seal should break out into a prayer marathon.
The Amish I actually found to be the strongest characters in the story. Who were dealt with both as being rigid, entrenched in their ordunung (order or sect), but also sincere. They’re not depicted as ignorant primitives, simply people who believe in somethings that aren’t entirely reason-able. And really, every sincere believer has to reach that place where they admit—no, I can’t prove my faith. I have some good reasons to believe what I do, but in the end, it is a choice, because I believe my faith offers the best answers to life.
Pace wise, the story is a page turner. You can stop early on, but the tension builds as things develop. Another thing I really liked was the way the vampires are dealt with. There is one scene where the first new vampire is ‘educating’ himself on his new powers and needs, that’s psychologically gruesome. Not really gory, but the whole scene didn’t seem necessary other than to show that he’s bad and gross. I don’t understand the appeal of going inside the villain’s development, unless its to show something relatable—as in the danger of what seduces someone to evil. Like seeing how David stumbled. But here, I didn’t feel like it moved the plot—other than providing exposition.
But what I did like were some of the creative vampire complications; such as vampire goats. And later mutations as the ‘infections’ take their course. It added tension because you thought you figured it all out, only to find that the good guys’ plans had become out of date.
Conclusion: I give it 4 out of 5 as a whole. There are some characterization weaknesses. But there are also some strengths. Coupled with a building pace, creativity in development, and authentic feel in setting, plus a few hints along the way, and by the end I was hoping for a sequel. And in lieu of a sequel, I just started reading the story again (being on vacation, I had that option).