|I met Dennis Knotts at this year's San Diego Comic-Fest, both of us chatting away like fanboys with the grandson of A Arnold Gillespie, the effects wizard of MGM. Authors inevitably talk about their books though, and he promised to send me a copy of his novel, 'The Rapture Syndrome,' for review and I'm very happy he did because it's that curious sort of book that would never be published by a major publisher but has plenty of value nonetheless to someone with an open mind.
It's one of those genre-hopping stories that would drive anyone who likes their fiction easily pigeonholed completely bonkers. It could easily be marketed in about half a dozen completely different ways, but it does what it does with coherence and a surprising openness, given the subject matter.
At its heart, it's a story about the Tribulation. That's the time that certain fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the Rapture, when a large proportion of the world's population will literally vanish into thin air to be one with the Lord but the rest are left behind (as the famous rapture novel phrased it) to work through truly apocalyptic times on the way to getting one more chance to turn to God.
Now, you might have a whole bunch of preconceived notions about the book after reading that paragraph, but I'm happy to say that whatever message Knotts feels that he needs to fictionalize does not overwhelm his story, which doesn't come across remotely like a door-to-door cultist asking us if our souls are saved.
There's a wise maxim that it's dangerous to talk politics and religion in good company and I certainly wouldn't do that with most of my more religious-minded friends and colleagues. But I wouldn't hesitate to talk both at once with Knotts; as I get the impression, both from this book itself and the fascinating Author's Notes that end it, that whatever common ground we may or may not have wouldn't affect a memorable discussion that would end without either of us trying to kill the other.
So why should anyone who isn't a fundamentalist Christian want to read a book about the Tribulation? Well, for the very same reasons we might want to read the 'Narnia' series of C S Lewis. At heart that's just a seven volume adaptation of the story of Jesus for children, but it's also a lot more than that and it's not important at the end of book seven whether you believe any more than you did when you began book one.
As its title suggests, 'The Rapture Syndrome' aims to be that unholy mixture of religion and science. The very first chapter is set in space, as a trio of astronauts attempt to repair the ozone layer by creating thunderstorms in the upper atmosphere, though there's a strong tone of conspiracy theory in how their purpose and their failure are explained to them. Their return sparks the Rapture and suddenly we're in thriller territory.
For a little while, we struggle to find our feet because the book sprouts ideas in a hundred directions all at once. We're not sure if we're about to get sunk into a religious thriller, a science fiction thriller, a post-apocalyptic thriller or a military thriller. Our problem is that we expect one of those things when it's really going to be all four and more besides. Certainly parts of it venture into horror, spy and disaster territory. It's much easy to say what it isn't than what it is. It's not a Regency romance, that's for sure. Everything else is probably in here somewhere.
The key words in that paragraph are 'sunk into' because this isn't a light read, even though it's far from a stodgy one. I blitzed through this in a few evenings and never felt bogged down once, but it's one of the most information-dense novels I've ever read. Many chapters unfold in long conversations to let us in on what's going on by having characters attempt to figure out the latest state of affairs. Once they do, we skip forward to the next stage and begin the conversations afresh.
There is a little character building, but it's restricted to a few people in a large and very male-centric cast. It's almost not worth bringing up the characters, because they're far less important than what they live through. If there's a lead, it's Major Jim Brown of the US Army, a security expert with an open mind. Ninety pages in we're introduced to his brother Ted, also a military man in security but working for the New Alliance.
Yes, ninety pages in we're already in a new world order with a new global political framework. This book has a heck of a lot of ground to cover and it doesn't hold back with its paradigm shifts forward in world politics. Sometimes it felt like reading the entire 'Lensman' series, with all its massive leaps forward, in a single volume.
By the fourth chapter Knotts has already wiped out millions of people, then brings in extra-dimensional beings who carefully explain how they've been guiding us for centuries; that Jesus was a deviant, Christians are the enemy, everyone is gay and immortality is just a gene switch away. In any other book, this would venture wildly into spoiler territory, but here we're still introducing concepts into a book that has a long, long way to go.
I really appreciated the way that Knotts handled deception. Jim and Ted are brothers, but he plays them deliberately like the angel and devil sitting on his shoulder, as if the entire plot is a temptation right in front of him and he's exploring how he should respond. Each of the brothers have a path to follow and they're both strong enough to do so. What we have to figure out is which one is moving in the right direction. That's the mystery at the heart of the story.
The more you like to argue politics and religion, the more you will get a kick out of this book. That remains true even if you stand for the very opposite of what Knotts clearly believes, because everything in it is a conversation starter rather than being mere fundamentalist propaganda; however, some factions might want to sentence him to death in absentia for heresy.
Every chapter here brings up new points of discussion, firstly political as countries fall and leaders rise, but eventually religious too, as deceptions fall away and the reasons behind everything start to come clear. There's so much going on in this book that discussions could sprout out of single chapters, single paragraphs or even single sentences. There's so much in play that, even if we disagree with details, we're still kept in motion, speeding through the assumptions that follow those details and the details that follow them.
That means that any reviewer can pull out a hundred things to reinforce and a hundred to tear apart, but each reviewer would pick different material. The concept I had the biggest problem with is how the book begins with the Rapture and proceeds into every disaster event imaginable, layering its apocalypses, yet the infrastructures of industry, communication, finance, you name it, somehow continue on unabated. Sure, there are a bunch of new world orders and those extra-dimensional beings pulling our strings, but it seems to me that things would fall notably apart right at the point that millions of people evaporate into thin air. Knotts is apparently more of an optimist than I am.
You'll never see 'The Rapture Syndrome' in a major bookstore or adapted into a motion picture, but it's a real trip to venture into such a conspiracy minded, genre-hopping exploration of a religious prophecy. While some authors build brave new worlds in their fiction, Knotts happily tears our existing one apart, but he does so with the attention to detail of a preacher, a journalist and a lunatic, all wrapped into one, and all three approaches came very much to mind while reading, often at once.
'The Rapture Syndrome' is meticulously fictionalized prophecy, exploring how the Rapture and the Tribulation would happen in thoroughly well-defined detail. Its conspiracy theory pointed the other way; instead of looking backwards and redefining the past from particular assumptions, it extrapolates forwards the entirety of global politics shoehorned, both transparently and overtly in turn, into the framework set down by prophecy.
I had a blast here, but I'm still not sure what made me grin the most. It's certainly not the manifesto behind it all, but that never offended. I think it's because this is such a grand vindication of the uniqueness that can only come from a small press or a self publisher. Authors who go this far out there into personal mission have a tendency to be utterly unreadable.
However, Knotts is immensely readable, even if he doesn't write the sort of prose that we expect to read. At the micro level, it's shockingly unconventional, with the majority of the book unfolding in explanatory dialogue, where we never really know what anyone looks like and often guess at who might still be alive on the next page. Yet, at the macro level, it's highly thought out, carefully constructed and always knows where it's going to go next and how it's going to get there.
Putting the two together makes it a mindblast, good for years of half-drunken discussion at parties you want to get kicked out of for bringing up politics and religion just to wind up the hosts. It's a great choice for people with opinions on everything but who aren't opinionated enough to decry others for their different ones. If that makes sense, leap on in. ~~ Hal C F Astell