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Rebel Sutra, Shariann Lewitt

June 6, 2011

Rebel Sutra, Shariann Lewitt (2000)
Review by Ian Sales

Shariann Lewitt’s first three novels were far-future semi-militaristic science fiction, with more of an emphasis on alien societies than on Big Guns, Fast Ships and Weapons of Mass Destruction. They were notable for being well put-together, slightly off-centre examples of a well-populated sub-genre. Blind Justice, however, the first of Lewitt’s books in a new mode, was something different. In that novel, Lewitt took as inspiration a society from present-day Earth and used it as backdrop for a solidly science fictional plot. In Blind Justice, it was French, or more accurately New Orleans French. Brazilian society featured in Songs Of Chaos. In Memento Mori, it was Viennese coffee-shop society; and in Interface Masque, it was Venice.

Lewitt’s last novel, Rebel Sutra, takes as its inspiration Indian mythology. Della is one of the Changed, a genetically-engineered elite which rules Maya, an inhospitable planet. They are the only segment of the world’s population which can interface with Maya’s controlling AI, the Exchange. They live in pampered seclusion in the Dome. Nearby is the city of Babelion, in which the bulk of Maya’s population live. They are basic human-stock. Each year, a group of gifted humans from Babelion are tested by the Changed to see if they can be admitted to the Elite. The test is meaningless: none of the humans ever pass. Arsen is one such human from Babelion. He meets Della. Despite the gap between them, they have an affair, and Anselm, their son, is born. After failing the test to join the Changed, Arsen returns to Babelion and foments rebellion. He is captured and executed by the Changed after leading a peaceful revolt against the Changed. Rebel Sutra then becomes Anselm’s story, as he leaves his mother and tries to pick up where his father left off.

Complicating this is a vast empire, wracked by civil war, in the story’s background. The Empress cloned herself generations ago, and avatars of her have successively ruled ever since. But a prince broke away from her rule, styled himself the Pretender, and attempted to take the Throne. He succeeded, and subsequently cloned himself. Clones of the Empress and the Pretender (who is on the throne during the period in which Rebel Sutra is set) have battled for supremacy ever since.

The links between Rebel Sutra‘s story and The Ramayana are plain, though Lewitt’s novel is by no means slaved to its template. If you consider the Empress and Pretender as gods, the Empire as heaven, and Maya as Earth, then… the events set in motion by Della and Arsen do, to some extent, mirror Rama’s adventures: Rama is the son of a king and the Earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu; Della is a hidden clone of the Empress. The temptations thrown in the way of Anselm also partly mirror those of Rama.

The society of Babelion in Rebel Sutra is very much Indian-inspired. The populace’s religion is Vedic. Even the world’s name, Maya, is the Sanskrit word for “illusion”. Anselm, after leaving the Dome, studies at a Vedic temple for several years. He has an informal affair with a devi, a priestess of the love goddess, Aditi. He applies the Vedic mind-set to subsequent events that occur during the story.

Rebel Sutra is structured as the journals of Della and Anselm. The first third is Della’s story and tells the story of her relationship with Arsen, and his revolt and execution. The remainder of the book is Anselm’s journal, and it is here that the bulk of the plot lies. Della’s journal is, in effect, back-story. Interspersed in these two journals are brief commentaries by Auntie Suu-Suu, leader of the Tinkers, which help explain the larger picture — ie, the Empire’s civil war. The Tinkers are the remnant staff of the Imperial Science Laboratory. They had hidden themselves after the capture of the Imperial capital by the Pretender. It is Auntie Suu-Suu who sets the entire plot in motion, and whose objectives the lives of Della and Anselm are subtly guided to meet.

An interesting twist to the entire story is that Della is a frankly unlikeable and unreliable narrator. Anselm says as much on several occasions. She lies and distorts the truth. He takes pains to point out that her account (her journal) cannot be considered a true chronicle of events. Auntie Suu-Suu’s commentaries also paint Della as an untrustworthy character.

Rebel Sutra is a very good novel. Its journal structure may be initially off-putting, but it works well, and filtering a story through a character often gives a story an interesting spin. The shadowy background of the Empire also adds a welcome dimension and lifts the book above others of its type.

This review originally appeared in a contribution to the Acnestis APA in 2001.

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