A Theme In Search of a Plot

The Miracle InspectorThe Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The worst parts of human nature have been on display in literature since the very beginning. The cruelty of Agamemnon, the selfish envy of Cain, and the folly of Creon are three of the oldest impressions of human nature in the canon.

However, it took the progress of the twentieth century to take the darkest parts of our nature and make them the defining tenets of our future. Writers like George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury made us wonder what the world would actually turn into if the same forces that brought us the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, mustard gas, and the pogrom were given free reign to run the world.

These writers brought us tales about the settlement of Mars, life under the constant surveillance of Big Brother, a society in which all of us were segregated into different biological and psychological groups from birth, and a new America in which women were assigned as property, rather than free agents in their own existence. The works of these writers shocked their readers — first, by their writings; second, by the elements of their tales that would come true, in their own way.

Dystopia now, of course, is still popular. If you turn on the program “Supernatural” or “Revolution” or “Fringe” — if you go see movies like “The Box” or “The Adjustment Bureau — you can see that we still enjoy looking at how awful we could become.

The problem with dystopian literature is that it loses its shock value over time. Helen Smith’s “The Miracle Inspector” would have been an amazing story in 1960, or even in 1980. Lucas is the Miracle Inspector, in charge of going out into London, after an apocalyptic series of attacks that has seen the world partitioned and under tight UN control, to verify the existence of miracles. Usually these take the form of religious images appearing in odd places, like recently baked cakes. His wife is Angela, who is chafing under the burden of being forced to stay at home all day, all the jobs having been reserved for men, in order to eliminate unemployment. She is not sure what she wants in life, because she has never thought to want anything more than what she has. She and Lucas both have a vague desire to leave London and go to Cornwall which, in their minds, is an oasis where there would be none of the oppression, none of the randomly disappearing men — just a place to start a family.

But then Lucas comes across Maureen, and her daughter, Christina. Whether you view the miracle girl, with her name a letter away from representing one of the world’s major religions, as a picture of the ideal or not is strictly up to you. Maureen did nominate her daughter as a miracle, but other than an ability to smile when someone she likes is in the room, it is unclear why Maureen nominated her daughter; other than the fact that she is a child, it is unclear why Angela feels such an attachment to the two of them. Given that Lucas is trying to sneak himself and his wife out of London, it is also unclear why Lucas would take the dangerous step of taking his wife on a forbidden trip to visit Maureen every day.

The interrogations to which Lucas is necessarily subjected (this IS a dystopian novel, after all, in which the government operates a bunch of shadowy ministries) have the finality of Orwell’s Room 101, but none of the thematic resonance. We do not know why Lucas’ world is the way it is; we just know that we never want to end up in a prison like his. The beauty of the novel comes in its final chapters, and in the epilogue, even as the plot winds up in a way that is as unpredictable and inexplicable as it is lyric.

This novel is written on an interesting idea — namely, that the governments of the world’s superpowers are slowly discrediting anyone who opposes them, and that it is only a matter of time until the blanket of oppression covers us all, especially since the blanket is of our own knitting. However, the idea never populates the spirits of its characters to the point where they have a new story to tell us. Yes, we can be depraved; yes, we will do awful things to one another. Orwell had the advantage of surprise, though, when he told us this; before, we hadn’t quite thought of it. For new dystopian works to be worth our time, though, they must plumb new ground. They must, in other words, confront the miracle — not simply drag us through the same sandboxes that the writers before them have already plundered.

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