It’s one of the great tragedies of contemporary speculative fiction that grand, sweeping authorial vision so infrequently finds expression through the exacting attention to detail and painstaking sentence-level struggle necessary to wrap the bones of ambition with the flesh of believability. The creation of a secondary world is no simple task; not only must it be new, but it must also feel old, as though it’s had just as much time to develop quirks and accumulate baggage as that world in which we exist. In order to suspend our disbelief, speculative fiction must read like the nonfiction of a place or period we’ve never known.
Kerry Nietz understands this. Not only does his far-future epic of interstellar travel, social upheaval, and spiritual awakening knife through the skies on a pylon-strung zipline of heady, barely-contained ambition, but the narrow streets over which it soars have been assembled with meticulous savvy.
That’s not to say it’s especially accessible. The DarkTrench Saga is anything but a breezy read. With dense, clipped, jargon-laced prose reminiscent of Vernor Vinge, Nietz plunges headlong into a fully-realized dystopia: a globe-strangling Shiite caliphate, established and maintained through the appropriation of technology and experienced through the eyes of a human internet connection. Oh, and did I mention the whole thing’s delivered in present-tense, fourth-wall-spurning first-person? That, coupled with the steady barrage of fictional slang in reference to fictional customs and devices, makes for a potent cocktail. Rails intense, freehead, especially for Easy Impact.
What follows are three successive reviews which together assess the DarkTrench trilogy. Commence with the first review, but don’t read on until you’ve finished the corresponding novel, lest you encounter spoilers. Spoilers are bad. Bad spoilers!
In the DarkTrench trilogy’s first installment, the beautifully-titled A Star Curiously Singing, Nietz introduces us to Data Relocator 63, aka Sandfly, a level-twelve debugger living in the economically-stratified City of Temples. Debuggers — humans whose brains have been implanted with computer chips, allowing them to communicate with the ever-present data stream — are employed by the Islamic aristocracy in the development and maintenance of robots ranging from the massive to the microscopic, some of which seem disconcertingly self-aware. But a debugger’s implant imparts far more than bionic abilities; it also acts as an artificial conscience, regulating behavior by meting out electrochemical punishment for every intention of the mind noncompliant with sharia law. A necessary tyranny, as a debugger’s power is great; his duties necessitate that he be afforded the freedom to indulge curiosity and creativity. To think outside the box, diagnose problems, imagine solutions, troubleshoot, reprogram. Without an automated shock-collar ensconced in his brain, such usefulness could become a threat to those in power. He is both the epitome of Islamic legalism and its glaring chink: outwardly a shoo-in for Paradise, inwardly a repressed slave estranged from the human race.
The story begins when our debugger, the lovably sardonic Sandfly, a mysophobe who resents authority and uses the names of by-now-ancient sci-fi authors as expletives (“clarke and crichton!”), receives orders to investigate the apparent malfunction of an android recently returned from an interstellar journey aboard the faster-than-light DarkTrench vessel and quarantined, along with the ship’s crew, on an orbital research station. At first the mission seems oddly straightforward. But as the hours lengthen and his investigation uncovers anomaly after anomaly, Sandfly gradually realizes that he’s trapped in an out-of-control situation he doesn’t comprehend, one which is hurtling toward a frenetic crescendo of wonder, terror, and emotional resonance.
I loved this book. Not only does it sell its characters and environment, but it impels them on a collision course with theme. Nietz’s Islamic earth is a godless void — a drab, fearful, lonely place. How can the Spirit of God possibly reintroduce the Truth to such a wasteland? How can God glorify Himself when the Enemy, by all appearances, has already won? Such are the questions confronted by this novel.
Admittedly, the answers come in the form of several whopping deus ex machina events. While such a lack of plot ingenuity would normally disappoint me, A Star Curiously Singing is one of those rare books which believes so passionately in its own sense of awe, and which delivers that awe with such stirring style and flair, that I found myself completely disarmed, my spine tingling as the story really committed to its message before my eyes. As it climaxed, I heard the song Nietz was singing through his prose. It’s a song of glory and wonder, a song of power and joy. But it’s also a humble, gentle song — the song of a God Who stoops, setting even dead worlds alight with life.
Volume Two of Nietz’s DarkTrench Saga follows Sandfly and HardCandy — Sandfly’s one-of-a-kind female debugger compatriot — through the folded void of interstellar space to Bait al-Jauza, the colossal and erratic star formerly known as Betelgeuse, in pursuit of that mysterious superlative stream which reprogrammed Sandfly’s soul. But when Sand and Hard discover a highly advanced civilization beneath the surface of an alien planet, they begin accumulating more questions than answers.
Along the way, flashbacks and archived memories flesh out our heroes’ motivations. We witness Sandfly’s apprenticeship as a rookie debugger, and watch as HardCandy escapes trauma and oppression on her pioneering path to the implant. And in the present, as Sand spends more and more time in the company of Hard and DarkTrench, a ship so advanced it has a personality, he begins tentatively developing genuine relationships in a process that’s understated yet touching. Even though he’s just a “skin,” Sand’s now responsible for far more than just his own skin. Whether he’ll actually shoulder that responsibility remains to be determined.
The trilogy’s second installment is its weakest. In the sketchy tradition of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, it’s basically one long setup to the payoffs awaiting in Volume Three, and thus rather difficult to assess as a discrete work. Apart from the resolution offered by Freeheads, Superlative’s action feels truncated and its themes underdeveloped. The novel has a plot arc, to be sure — a very distinct one. But it’s the arc of a digression, a there-and-back-again episode which only tangentially informs the larger story. The whole time I was reading it, my expectation that there’d be some kind of incredible reveal which would transform seemingly disparate and nonsensical plot elements into cleverly relevant analogies rose to a fever pitch, only to be denied. Why had the SpokesJinn taken the names of Noah’s sons? What were the tripeds, if indeed there were more than one, and why could only Sandfly see them? Whence came the titular stream? These are riddles for which there are no clear solutions. As a huge fan of mystery arcs and unexplained details of setting, I was irritated by the persistent ambiguity. I felt the book promised far more than it delivered.
It’s here that tropes I found tolerable in A Star Curiously Singing began to grow tiresome — for example, all those Bible verses that keep popping into Sandfly’s mind in moments of doubt or need. Not only does it seem implausible to me that the Holy Spirit would be unwilling to convey old truths with new diction when speaking audibly to a believer who’s never even seen a Bible, but such a tactic for injecting truth into the mind of one deprived thereof left me with the impression that Nietz just didn’t want to risk putting original words in God’s mouth — an odd sentiment for an author portraying God as a character in a work of fiction, and oddly similar in its apparent timidity to the way in which, according to the story-world’s opaque-to-no-one terminology, “Abduls” worship “A” and face “M” when they pray, as commanded by “the founder.”
On a positive note, however, the alien civilization encountered by our protagonists is wonderfully unsettling. With their sufficiently-advanced-technology-indistinguishable-from-magic, their worldview of materialistic naturalism, and their supremely self-confident mien, the inhabitants of Jannah are the worst nightmare of anyone searching for God. Though the reader is — unfortunately — never left in any real doubt as to their sinister nature, Nietz relies on subtlety to make them “look fair and feel foul,” and it’s here that his propensity for ambiguity is put to effective use.
But ultimately, since there’s no concerted attempt to snooker the reader with red-herring reasoning, I spent the majority of The Superlative Stream feeling intellectually superior to Sandfly. I mean, sure, the aliens’ atheistic philosophy and communistic pragmatism has coherence and a certain pseudoscientific appeal, but the only question that really matters is whether they were the source of the stream which shut down Sandfly’s internal stops. And when the only evidence thereof with which we’re provided is the aliens’ own word on the matter, and when the still, small voice in Sandfly’s head keeps issuing dire warnings straight from scripture, who can doubt that duplicity’s afoot? The result is a series of facepalm-inducing moments of lowered guard that’ll have the reader begging Sandfly to wake up and smell the customized reek.
All in all, The Superlative Stream constitutes a mildly intriguing foray into a cool new setting — a kind of interstellar time-out from the larger story established by A Star Curiously Singing. Fortunately, the DarkTrench trilogy’s not over. And it’s only in the final installment that we’ll realize why half the stuff in Superlative even happened.
Fleeing Bait al-Jauza and its totalitarian Jinn, Sandfly and HardCandy emerge from their interstellar flip aboard a strangely glitchy DarkTrench to discover the world has changed. An accident or act of sabotage has thrown them off course not in space but in time, returning them to earth a full forty years after their departure. Now, struggling to proclaim their message of redemption to a planet they no longer understand, Sand and Hard must confront their deepest fears and inmost desires if the Truth is to triumph over a cunning, pitiless adversary.
Freeheads is a return to form for The DarkTrench Saga and a worthy conclusion to one of the most innovative Christian sci-fi series I’ve ever read. Though it takes its sweet time to accumulate momentum, Volume Three engaged me almost immediately, if for no other reason than that it finally picked up all those plot threads left dangling after A Star Curiously Singing. We’ve put the bizarre reaches of space behind us and are back in the thick of it now, back where Sandfly’s comrades vowed to kindle revolution, back on an earth still dishearteningly in thrall to Islam. Or at least that’s what we all suppose before the moon intervenes and the plot’s moral dilemmas bleed onto the grayscale. What I mean by that — aside from the odd lunar reference, which you’ll have to decipher for yourself by reading the book — is that the thematic narrative begins to encompass more than just the straightforward Good vs. Evil motif; Sandfly must now grapple with the implications of the manner in which he opposes Evil. There’s more than one option, now. And a Good vs. Good dilemma, which it turns out that Freeheads explores, is always more interesting than one which the reader can effortlessly parse.
By this point in the series, Nietz’s staccato prose has mellowed somewhat. There’s more description, more explanation, and less first-person attitude. I found myself missing the old Sandfly, the feisty, antisocial debugger I couldn’t even understand half the time. Perhaps his newfound geniality is just a symptom of all that time spent with HardCandy. But regardless of the shift toward a more objective viewpoint, the dialog — both internal and external — remains as brisk and organic as ever. At no point during the series is dialog used as a plot device. Talk flows naturally and even wittily along, each character’s voice contributing a distinct timbre to the unfolding conversational score. The protagonists constantly question their circumstances — if only in their heads — and lampshade anything that seems out-of-place. Sandfly often addresses snide asides directly to the reader. This consistency of character voice and fourth-wall porousness serves to acknowledge the reader’s scrutiny and respect his or her intelligence. Though the series’ overarching plot, especially in the middle installment, sometimes appears unfocused, Nietz always remembers to get the details right.
The DarkTrench Saga is quality sci-fi. In the subgenre of Christian speculative fiction, it’s of the highest quality. But does it achieve true greatness? Well, that depends. Are you a Christian? If so, then this series is definitely worth your time. Are you a nonbeliever just looking for thematically deep entertainment? Then don’t bother; DarkTrench wasn’t written for you.
Oh, the sociological extrapolation that is Nietz’s imagining of a technologically-buttressed Islamic hegemony is relevant and insightful enough, but its antithetical alternative — the powerful grace of Cubed, secret hope of Sandfly, delivered via superlative stream — is nebulous at best. The narration presupposes a great deal of reader knowledge. Yes, God stoops, but how exactly? We’re not told. The story of Christ — or Isa, in the Arabic — though of life-altering import to our hero, is glossed over, taken for granted. Due to the paucity of actual details contained in the text’s allusions to the historical stooping of God, a paucity which stands out from its surroundings, the DarkTrench series is fully appreciable only by Christians who already know what Sandfly’s talking about when he references his delight in gaining access to a long-lost Bible. It’s all preaching to the choir.
But that’s okay. I’m one happy choirboy.