The Big God Network
J.C. McGowan
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Buy *The Big God Network* by J.C. McGowan

The Big God Network
J.C. McGowan
304 pages
October 2007
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Believe it or not, there are academic journals devoted to speculative fiction, one of which is named “Extrapolation.” The title refers to the practice of extrapolating futures from trends the author perceives in technology and society. Perception is, naturally, colored by one’s personal worldview (some might say “biases”), so speculative futures reflect the writer’s hopes, fears, or both. In the case of J. C. McGowan’s The Big God Network, it’s both: McGowan hopes the world will turn in one direction, and fears it will follow a different path – and thus his prediction places utopia and dystopia cheek by jowl.

The United States of America is no more: led by a coalition of social and fiscal conservatives, the center of the lower forty-eight shed the detested blue states along its edges and reconstituted itself as a bona fide Christian nation. Lest one be confused about what branch of Christianity considers itself top dog in the new country, New America established its White House in Colorado Springs, and instead of a Roosevelt Room it has a Dobson Room. The new country is bordered on the northeast by New England; on the southwest by Dinee; and on the west by Pacifica (erstwhile Northern California, Oregon, and Washington), whose center of power lies at the Green House in Portland. N’Am, as it’s called, has criminalized “anti-family” behavior such as homosexuality, pornography, and environmentalism, and done away with all governmental regulation of businesses. Yellowstone now belongs to McDonalds, and Yosemite to N’Am’s second largest church, which promptly carved Half Dome into a likeness of the new nation’s greatest hero, Ronald Reagan. It’s not certain whether N’Am’s largest church – The Big God Network – or The Bank - is the most powerful entity in the country. It’s not even certain that the two are not different faces of the same coin…

Pacificans Franz and Dolores, with their Japanese partner, Takeshi, make an entrepreneurial living with a sort of spiritual version of “You Are There!” Their webcast, Transmigrations, allows viewers to experience religious ceremonies around the world, from Appalachian snake-handlers to a Brazilian version of Santéria. Their current project is the “Galactus” celebration of Baba Ed’s Offworld congregation, tenets of whose faith include that sentience arises from a universal “Channel” and that greater beings than we are speaking to us if we can but learn to hear them. To that end, Ed and his team of scientists has secretly created the world’s most powerful AI, “the Resident,” which has the capacity to invade and control any network in the world – and to access the Luz Viva, communication from the furthest reaches of the universe.

Naturally, N’Am President Billy Bob Shepard would dearly love to get his hands on a Skuld, the human-Resident interface device. After all, with an omniscient, omnipresent AI in his corner, Shepard could easily invade Pacifica and bring some o’ that old-fashioned religion to the liberal pagans of the left coast. His government - mostly large corporations and the gigantic police force called the Department of Homeland Safety - will stop at nothing to gain the control he covets. Meanwhile, a few hardy souls are all that stand in the way of the mightiest nation on earth. They just may have an advantage, however: they have many gods, and N’Am only has one…

Any reader who comes away from The Big God Network uncertain of author J. C. McGowan’s personal politics simply wasn’t reading. The novel is plotted as if McGowan set out to counter-spin every assertion made in the entire Left Behind series within the pages of a single volume; and the resulting prose is every bit as exclusionary as the novels that came out of LaHaye and friends (and sometimes just about as purple). The citizens of N’Am are depicted as peckerwoods who channel repressed sexual urges into violence; many are hooked on a nightly “reality” show about prison escapees that includes a Daily Death - broadcast in high-def with quadraphonic sound. Along with the Reaganization of Half Dome, Yosemite has been clear-cut and strip-mined, and a hundred-foot-tall altar stands atop the rubble of the historic lodge. On the left hand, Pacifica has become a paradise full of happy people, clean and widely-available mass transportation, and personal freedom out the yin-yang. Figured out what causes dystopia in McGowan’s mind yet? I thought so…

All that animus toward the Religious Right and its sometimes unholy political meddling means that The Big God Network turns out to be cover-to-cover over the top, and that’s a shame. McGowan’s premise of a second U.S. Civil War driven by a schism between social conservatives and the folks they brand with the “L” word could have great legs in the hands of a writer who could press his or her political issues with greater subtlety. While this reviewer is more in agreement with the society of McGowan’s Pacifica than of his N’Am, the excess of caricature and stereotyping is enough to make me cringe, adding to societal polarization instead of opening dialog. Once more, that’s a shame, for his characters and his plot are above average for a first-time novelist, and his extrapolation of current technological and societal trends is highly believable.

An interesting concept that’s fairly well constructed and has an interesting cast, but ultimately suffers from McGowan’s lavish use of ridicule and stereotype.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Rex Allen, 2008

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