Dissension by Stacey Berg. ★★★★
I first heard of Dissension while sitting at home on the couch, next to my mother who was reading a magazine put out by the Houston medical center. She made a noise, and when I asked her what it was, she passed me the magazine, open to an article about a local doctor who wrote a science fiction novel starring a queer, female clone solider. My mother said, “It’s so you.” Turns out, she was right. Dissension fits squarely into what I want in my fiction.
Echo Hunter 367 is solider created to serve and protect the Church, the leader of the last known human settlement in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When she returns to the Church after a mission in the waste, she begins to realize that the Church is failing. Equipment is malfunctioning. The new batches of cloned soldiers are diverging farther and farther from the blueprint. And unrest is growing among the civilians in the city, some of whom think they no longer need the guidance of the Church. As doubt begins to grow inside Hunter, she’ll have to decide where her loyalties lie, and more than that who she is. What does it mean to have humanity?
Dissension has a tight focus on its protagonist. While there’s a larger story going on, just as important is Hunter’s own development and how she gradually learns to see herself as a person. In keeping with Hunter’s personality, there’s an emotional restraint to the writing. Dissension also includes a romantic relationship between Hunter and another woman, although romance was not at the forefront of the story. In fact, it was pretty low-key, which was perfect for my tastes. At the same time, I do think Hunter’s relationship with Lia, her love interest, could have been further developed.
I was fascinated by the world building of Dissension. Berg never explains or even hints at what caused the civilization ending catastrophe of four hundred years ago, and the lack of explanation never bothered me at all. It was enough to see where the city was in the present day, beginning to thrive among the ruins.
The idea of building something new out of ruins applies to the Church as well. Interestingly, it didn’t have much religion to it, or at least what I normally think of as religion. I noticed that for all the references to the Church, nuns, priests, tithing, ect, there was never any mention made of God or some other deity. At one point, it was out right said that the Church didn’t promote the idea of life after death. Instead, the Church seemed mainly like a scientific organization housed in an old cathedral and taking on the exterior trappings of Christianity.
Hunter’s treated as a cog in the machine by the Church, but that appears to be how the Church sees everyone. As far as I could tell, the priests are cloned copies too, although I don’t know what their specific enhancements are (something to make them smarter or somehow better scientists?). I do get the feeling that the Church might consider a single microscope to be more valuable than an individual priest… but the Church is also led by a priest. It’s like this huge, messed up system that doesn’t recognize anyone as actual people. I guess that’s what makes it different from similar organizations in other dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels. There’s not really an upper class of the Church that’s hugely benefiting from the system, and the leader himself, the Patri, doesn’t seem to have any special luxuries or treatment.
The picture I get is of an organization formed when human survival was incredibly in doubt and which decided to sacrifice basic humanity for the sake of survival. They’ve also changed very little in those four hundred years and are invested in doing things the way they’ve always been done because it’s the One Way to Survive. Only, it’s been four hundred years, things aren’t quite as bad, and the Church desperately needs to change.
And really, it wouldn’t take that much to fix some of the issues between the Church and the citizens of the city, but it’s also not surprising that the Church doesn’t do it. I don’t think it even occurs to them that they could change how they do things.
While I don’t think Dissension is a super action packed book, I had trouble putting it down all the same. The plot had some surprises in store, and while the ending wasn’t explicitly happy (heads up for fellow queer readers), there’s hope for the sequel.
Dissension sort of reminded me of Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer, a YA fantasy novel. Obviously, Dissension‘s sci-fi, but I think it’d appeal to the same sort of readers. Anyway, Dissension‘s a book I’d recommend to anyone looking for a post-apocalyptic story with a strong female lead.