Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Review by Matt Neil Hill
Jordan A. Rothacker has written a holy lamb in wolf’s clothing with this short novel – on the surface we have a futuristic detective yarn centred on a gruesomely violent murder, but at its heart it’s a treatise on the destructive power of unfettered capitalism and the redemptive magic of faith on both a personal and community level.
There’s subversion in the method: we have the hardboiled trope of detectives after a killer, but the detectives are both respectful and devoutly religious, the narrating detective a woman without a nihilistic bone in her body. A crime has taken place, but it’s a crime committed in a brave new world, a world divided into the Sacred and the Profane, a world built on the ashes of our own, finally and inevitably destroyed by the great bank-note-green and blood-red god Kapitalism.
And, with that god dead, the world has opened its heart to gods of all religions, of ancestral belief systems and from cult works of fiction – worshippers of Greek and Roman Pantheons and the Abrahamic faiths happily rub shoulders with those of Tezcatlipoca and Hiuke and Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, with an open and devotional discussion between them all. Pop culture reference points such as Walter Benjamin and Trent Reznor (included here presumably for the sentiments expressed in Head Like a Hole rather than Heresy) have survived in the hive mentality for centuries as secular prophets of the evils of the ravenous free market. This is a world of henotheism: the worship of a god of one’s own choosing while not denying the existence of other gods. Hands up, I had to go to the dictionary for that one, but it’s the only system of faith that makes any sense for a sentient species trying not to destroy what’s left of the world.
The legendary (and cybernetically enhanced) Detective Rabbi Jakob ‘Thinkowitz’ Rabbinowitz of the Sacred arm of the police force (designated here as City Safety) is joined by his new partner Assistant Detective Edwina Casaubon, newly promoted from the suburb-hugging Profane part of the force, to solve the murder of the Cyborg Oracle of the title, modelled after the Oracle of Delphi. Casaubon is initially out of her league but a fast learner, and the taciturn Thinkowitz warms to her quickly as she shows herself open to his teachings and policing style. They investigate in a domed city erected on the ecologically traumatised graveyard of the world we’re in the process of destroying now, both of them haunted by potentially fatal dreams of survivor guilt common to every citizen.
The city felt to me like a space cross-pollinated from a museum, library and temple, its citizens, children wandering the protected streets eager to learn, to understand. They are there by grace of the RESURGA movement – a creed of “re-enchantment, safety in cooperation, and freedom,” and all who live there gratefully acknowledge their debt.
It’s hard to write a detailed review of a murder mystery without giving away clues. The detectives meet people from all walks of life, from the bottom of society to the top, every one of them (excluding a Nihilist cult, although even they worship the void) driven, saved and elevated by their faith. It’s a very thought-provoking world that Rothacker’s created – would the world’s many faiths and religions, divorced from the symbiotic parasites of war and greed, be capable of peaceful co-existence? The domed city has plentiful renewable energy, no real poverty, and its architecture spans styles from Tokyoesque neon modernism to (in the case of the Cyborg Oracle’s domain) a replicated mythological cave. And yet there is still violence here, still human frailty and error and rage, somehow made all the more tragic by the Utopian bubble in which humanity survives.
And the violence is the real tragedy here. With all its exploration of the sacred, the city is flawed by the presence of the humanity that created and sustains its existence, as if all the faith in the world can’t quite make up for our irreparably broken hearts. And yet there is, as always, hope. Thinkowitz and Casaubon never give up, determined to get to the root of the tragedy. And when they get there, closer to each other than when they began, they file it away and wait, patiently and in shared and private sorrows for the crimes that will inevitably follow.
At an early point in the novel, Casaubon writes in her journal – a journal addressed to an unknowable future – “They reminded me that even though they are far away, so far away that they might be dead already since sending that light, they are not gone. Something remains across millions of light years.
“Dead stars give me hope.”
And this is where the hope resides in Rothacker’s world: in the light from dead stars and the resurrected love for gods who both never and always were.
Matt Neil Hill lives in London, where he was a psych nurse for many years. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various publications including Vastarien, Weirdbook, 3AM, Splonk and Shotgun Honey. You can find him on Twitter @mattneilhill.