Monday, January 03, 2005

The Devil's Business

One of the best books C S Lewis wrote in his exposition of the war between Good and Evil was "The Screwtape Letters", detailing the correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his apprentice, Wormwood. The author creates a near-perfect simile of Hell as bureaucracy, temptation as career advancement and vices as virtues.

One was reminded strongly of this book on reading "Sympathy For The Devil" by Holly Lisle. This book is available as a free download from the excellent Baen Free Books Library, which is itself a devilishly wonderful source of good writing from great SF authors.

"Sympathy For The Devil" is a semi-serious story of the efforts of the denizens of Hell, the Christian sort, to exceed their numbers, in a manner of speaking. Hell is depicted as a large, faceless corporation, with department heads responsible for increasing the intake of souls. Corporate infighting is part of the game, such as Agonistis, the head of Lust and Fornication lamenting that fornication is falling ever since the Disease and Pestilence department introduced AIDS, and himself striving to increase condom usage to make up his numbers. In fact, most earthly innovations such as miniskirts, sexual harrassment suits and computer porn are indicated as being straight from Hell, literally. Hell is full of marketing professionals and lawyers. Unfortunately, a good computer tech is hard to come by, even in Hell.

Into this potent mix comes Dayne Kuttner, a naive nurse from North Carolina, brought to tears by the travails of her patients. She prays to God in heaven, and in her anger, makes an earnest appeal for salvation for the denizens of Hell.

"You said ask and believe. So now I'm asking. Let them have the chance to repent, God. All of them. Every single soul in Hell. Let them have the chance to learn from the mistakes they made, let them into Heaven if they repent."

"Until you do this, you can consider me a conscientious objector, protesting the policies of Heaven. When I die, you can send me to Hell, because I won't go Heaven until every soul can find a way there. Every soul. No matter who they were, no matter what they did"

God, who happens to be in the Christian Sector of Heaven at the time, and is the prime practical joker, decides to grant her prayer in his own special way. He dictates that one percent of the population of North Carolina, about 58000 in all, demons and denizens of Hell be loosed on Earth to live and work their Hellish mischief within North Carolina, where "the roads of Charlotte were designed by Hell's minions", under specific earthbound rules. They will also have the chance to repent, should they choose to do so.

The Devil, decides to settle a few personal scores and sends Agonistis, his threatened second in command to lead the Hellspawn hordes. He sets a few conditions of his own, the most important being that Agonistis must earn a profit for Hell in the business and that he must acquire Dayne, the nurse's soul for Hell within 30 days.

The rest of the book is an amusing and exciting set of events that unravel in rapid succession. Deep philosophical questions are handled with verve and light humor. The effects of 58000 demons in the state of North Carolina are brought out effectively and with deathless humor. God appears a few more times, not always as the bearded dude, and it would not be giving too much away to say that for once, deus ex machina is the operative device in the climax.

In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is one who forgoes his or her own personal salvation to strive for the salvation of all others. Since everything in the universe is interconnected, and every cause has an effect, making a minute revolution within oneself, as Dayne Kuttner does, can change the destiny of the entire cosmos. The author herself, transmuted her own personal strivings into the essence of the book and maintains a blog with a Work In Progress meter for her books.

This book is the first in a trilogy, each as good as the other.

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader