Suspense Takes Back Seat As Family Agenda Steers Story

James Dobson’s and Kurt Bruner’s second dystopian novel raises important questions but suffers from a weak plot.
| Oct 14, 2013 | 3 comments |

cover_childlessDr. James Dobson added the title “novelist” to his resume in January of this year when his first novel, Fatherless was released (with co-author Kurt Bruner), the first of a trilogy of novels set in the 2040s and showing what America might look like if current demographic and cultural trends continue unabated.

Dobson and Bruner take us to a future where America’s population is in decline, the cost of eldercare is tanking the economy, and America has an ever-growing number of vacant homes and vacant playgrounds. Falling fertility, a society that views marriage as optional, and frowns on families with more than two children all help to feed the decline. To stop the bleeding, the Fiscal Conservative Party introduces the Youth Initiative, which legalizes the establishment of Transition clinics that allow people who are viewed as a drain on society (derisively referred to as “debits”) to end their lives. Pressure to do so comes from society as well as from heirs wanting to be relieved of the “burden” of caring for them and collect money from the estate.

Childless, the second novel of the series, was released this month from Faithwords. The 400+ page book has some great highlights but also some major flaws. The book follows two very different lines: one is that of the “thriller” the series was advertised as being. The main plot involves a federal judge receiving threats over his decision in a case related to the Transition industry. The other line is a book is about the human and family relationships of the characters as they interact with the consequences of this world.

Perhaps the best way to look at the book is to contrast its strong points with its weaknesses:

Reasonable and plausible premise

One great problem with much of dystopian literature is that scenarios are often so far-fetched as to be unbelievable based on our current circumstances. In this way, Childless stands above its competition. The demographic trends the authors cite are most probably where America is going in the next thirty years and indeed many Asian and European countries are already further down the road than we are. If anything, their future is a tad optimistic as they portray republican forms of government and most liberties continuing to survive as they are today.

The story world’s overall familiarity makes it work as a cautionary tale. There is still much that can be done to prevent or mitigate the problems that Dobson and Bruner pick up on, and they give readers food for thought. Childless asks us to consider not just short-term benefits, but how the decisions made today may impact the future of the country as well as our own. For example, in the book, “Reverend Grandpa,” a former minister in his seventies, regrets that he and his wife only had one child because now that one child has to carry the entire economic load of his declining health. If she’d had siblings, the burden would be spread out and more manageable. It counters the societal message that extols the virtues of having no children or just one child by pointing out long-term drawbacks.

Solid Portrayals of Family and Relationship Dynamics

The character of Julia Davidson-Simmons continues to be a series highlight even though she’s not a believer and doesn’t become one by the end of Childless. She’s much more of a seeker and on a journey. She’s smart, resourceful, and compassionate. She is probably the best-developed character in the story. In this book, she’s married Troy Simmons, the Chief of Staff to Congressman Kevin Tolbert, after a lifetime as a single feminist. She is still adjusting to being a wife and struggles with the question of motherhood.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a book associated with James Dobson would have a lot of scenes centered around family relationships, but these scenes really were extremely well done. They felt emotionally real and often times have raw moments where people dealt with the realities of life in 2040s America. While the book had a plausible picture of the math of our current demographic trends, it never made the mistake of forgetting the real impact that these trends would have on real people. The emotional impact of transitions, absent fathers, and all the abuse in society is never lost on the authors. Indeed, if the whole book had centered around these sort of situations, this would have been a superb book. The only weak relationship scene was the final one, which used too much psychiatrist-speak to exposit the change in the character’s attitude.

Kingdom Values

The book extols an entirely different set of values from what our world and the popular culture of the 2040s advocate. Pop culture advocates a world of self-actualization where you focus on making yourself happy. A life without strings, a life unencumbered by caring for children or aging parents, and a life where relationships continue only as long as you want it is an ideal one by those standards.

Childless exposes the ultimate shallowness of this view by reminding us of the words of Jesus, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) Childless illustrates how God will use the sacrifices we make for family to mature us, to make us more like Him, to bring us joy, and to benefit the world around us.

The negatives of the book come from the fact that it’s supposed to be a political thriller and the “thriller” aspect takes up about half the book with decidedly poor results. That accounts for most of the book’s problems.

The Stakes are Too Low

If you read the first book and wonder what has happened with the state of play in the political plotline, the answer is nothing whatsoever for the most part.

Indeed, much of what happens in Childless feels like an exact rerun of what happened in Fatherless. Tolbert again pushes his “bright spots” initiative at a meeting of a committee to deal with the economic crisis, a rather modest proposal to increase fertility while decreasing transitions and the first part gains support from Senator Franklin, the party’s front-running candidate for President, but reducing the number of transitions is a no-go. Senator Franklin supported the initiative that created the transition industry and insists that the short-term savings from transitions are fiscally necessary. In the course of this, there’s speculation that Tolbert may be chosen for Vice-President on Franklin’s ticket.

This was most of the basic plot of Fatherless. The book unintentionally raises many questions, such as why Tolbert continues to ally himself with Franklin. Is there anyone else in the Party who he could ally with as an alternative to Franklin since he’s so unreceptive? It feels like as much as these characters are billed as political geniuses, they don’t really have any great vision or foresight to be able to impact the course of events at all.

Perhaps this is realistic, but it’s also boring, particularly the second time around.

Equally un-engaging was the big time bomb of, “Someone’s going to kill a federal judge if our detective can’t catch the person who is sending threatening letters.” Throughout most of the book, we knew, or thought we knew, who had been sending the letters. We knew there was no risk from this person.

Even if there had been as big a deal as they make over it, killing an appeals court judge about to rule as part of a three-judge panel really only delays proceedings. You’ll have to wait several months for a new panel to be set and in most circuits there’s a chance that you’ll get an even less receptive panel than before. In addition, after a three-judge panel rules, there are still a couple of other appeals, one to the full circuit and one to the Supreme Court. The only reason to care about the judge is if you connect to and relate to his family. It means very little to the actual issue of the transitions.

This plot against the judge could have been a good story with the right amount of suspense and mystery thrown in. Unfortunately that brings us to another problem.

Tyler Caine: Lousy Detective

Tyler Caine is perhaps the worst detective I’ve encountered in fiction who wasn’t intended as comic relief. Caine is a former police officer turned private detective and in his fifties. He is hired to investigate threatening notes sent through the mail to Judge Santiago of the Court of Appeals. He’s given envelopes with postmarks that show where the letter was sent. The first two letters came from Boulder, famous for being home of the University of Colorado. The other one came from Denver. The person sending the letter identified himself as “A Manichean,” named after the fourth century Gnostic school of thought. There’s a professor at the University of Colorado who has written a book on Manichaeism. Caine quickly discovers that Manichean refers to an adherent to the religious sect but ignores this and doesn’t even look into it any further.

Instead, Caine flounces around pointlessly from interview to interview, and his performance bares no resemblance whatsoever to an actual investigation. Caine’s plan for snuffing out the author of the notes: looking in the eyes of the person when they’re reading the notes and hoping it’ll reveal their guilt. This is the totality of his investigative strategy. Worse, he digitizes the threatening notes in order to see the look in the eyes of a man he’s talking to remotely. His client strictly forbid him from digitizing the notes. This is what we get from a veteran homicide detective who was born in the 1990s?

When the threats become serious, Tyler does get down to business. After a few minutes searching the Internet, he discovers something he should have found days before and buys himself a drink to celebrate his success. At least he doesn’t suffer low self-esteem.

Then an actual murder results from Caine’s conduct of the investigation—a murder that doesn’t make any more sense than the rest of the thriller portions, and Caine has no clue as to who did it. The truth of what happened would have occurred to any half-way competent detective but it doesn’t occur to Caine.

This character is unbelievable, unlikable, and poorly crafted. His incompetence was over the top and ruined what was billed as the book’s central conflict.

This is a frustrating book. On one hand, artistic errors like head-hopping and technical gaffes like continuity errors were strewn throughout the story, and the Tyler Caine plot generated literal face-palm moments. On the other hand, the book had a solid message reflecting the glories of the family as God created it and showing what happens when a society loses respect for human life while also including some solid emotional scenes. This could have been a great book had the authors created a believable plot, or let the political/legal plot fall into the background while focusing on the human relations stuff. Instead, the result is mediocre at best.

In the end, Childless is not the type of book you’d read just to see its dystopian elements. There’s very little new in that regards that wasn’t covered in the first novel, Fatherless, which was a better book. I can only recommend this book for readers of Fatherless who want to see how the characters of Julia Davidson and Matthew Adams develop and are willing to endure some weak writing to do it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0.

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3 Comments on "Suspense Takes Back Seat As Family Agenda Steers Story"

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notleia
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I guess we can all point to CS Lewis and his “Christian art doesn’t come from bishops[…]in their spare time.” Dobson could probably expound on the decline of “the family” in his sleep, but I’d guess that he doesn’t know how thrillers work.

E. Stephen Burnett
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That is exactly the quote that came to my mind, notleia.

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