March 30, 2021

Review: We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novella is a post-apocalyptic alternate history that the blurbs compare to A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Hunt for Red October. I haven't read either, although that description sounds more like something made for Hollywood. I daresay this would make a good movie, but it would definitely need a discerning, nuanced script. This story deals with faith and religion, from the viewpoint of a young person raised in an apocalyptic death cult, the vaguely Catholic, monkish Brotherhood, waiting to carry out the Last Judgment. Our protagonist, Remy, is a woman--young girl, rather; she's about thirteen or fourteen--aboard one of the last surviving nuclear submarines, the Leviathan.The Leviathan patrols the oceans twenty-three years after World War III, waiting to launch its one remaining nuclear missile. An act that the cult members are told will send them to heaven and make the sea give up the dead bodies of their comrades. (And, unfortunately, there are a lot of bodies for the sea to give up, as for the past twenty years the Leviathan has been kidnapping young boys to prop up the cult and feed into the rear section of the boat, where the nuclear reactor that powers the ship soon irradiates them.)

The most notable thing about this book is its atmosphere: it's dripping with claustrophobia and paranoia. The author has nailed the feelings and sensations of being trapped in a submarine, with the bulkheads pressing close on every side, and never seeing the sun or sky. Remy has even more to hide aboard this boat full of secrets--because no one knows she is female, with the exception of the "caplain" (the cult's term, a blending of captain and chaplain) who rescued her from the Topside, the poisoned surface world, years before. She was saved because of her beautiful singing voice, which lands her a spot with the Choristers, the young boys who sing the hymns that keep the Brotherhood on the straight and narrow.

But Remy's faith has begun to crack. Her best friend, Lazlo, was drafted for a Topsider raid, and in the process watched his fellow Brothers slaughter nearly everyone aboard the ship they boarded. He heard these people begging for their lives, saying the war was over and the surface wasn't all poisoned, and those aboard the Leviathan don't have to live the way they are living. For his doubts he is sent to the rear of the submarine, consigned to the reactor room as one of the Forgotten. Remy is deeply shaken by this, so much so she sneaks away to talk to the prisoner the caplain has brought on board ship, the woman he hopes to force to fix his last missile's broken targeting system.

This is the story of Remy's taking charge of her life and breaking the terrible shackles of the cult of the Brotherhood, and eventually leading her friends in a rebellion to escape from the submarine as it prepares to carry out the Last Judgment. I do wish the worldbuilding was fleshed out a bit more--this is a novella, of course, so we don't have room for a lot of backstory. There is a bit of necessary infodumping in the middle of the story, as the Topside prisoner explains the state of the world to Remy as best she can. (Short version: this is an alternate 1986 where the Cuban Missile Crisis led to World War III, and Australia is now the world's superpower, or what remains of the world.) The ending is also ambiguous: after Remy and six others escape from the submarine as it goes down, they are afloat on a life raft, waiting for rescue. The implication is that they will be rescued, but we just don't know.

Nevertheless, this is a well-paced story, an exploration of faith (and even at the end, Remy still seems to have faith, even though she's now free of the cult). I hope there is a sequel. Exploring what happens to these characters in the new world they have been abruptly thrust into would be fascinating.

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