It's 2109. Humanity has colonized the moon and Mars, but all is not well in space, or on Earth, for that matter. War rages between the Universal Islamic Nation and a Western Christian, capitalist alliance known as the Universal Trade Zone. It all started with the destruction of Jerusalem in 2041, and "after Mecca was destroyed in 2070 there was no turning back." The Muslims' latest target is the Vatican, seat of a new unified church that calls itself "catholic" with a small C and rivals the Catholic Church of the Renaissance for intrigues and skullduggery.
Sound like a dire extrapolation from the events of the past five years, dramatizing what historians like to call the "clash of civilizations" -- with a dash of The Da Vinci Code's now-fashionable, unorthodox approach to Christianity thrown in? It's actually the premise of Mike Luoma's self-published novel Vatican Assassin. The author is best known locally as an afternoon drive-time DJ and assistant program director at classic rock station WIZN-FM.
Luoma says his science-fiction novel isn't a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- in fact, he conceived it 12 years ago, along with an elaborate future-history timeline. After September 11, "I left the project alone for six to eight months," says Luoma, 40. "I freaked myself out. Then it made me more determined than ever to tell the story. I wasn't surprised by 9/11 as much as I was by how soon it came. I just kept extrapolating, and I just saw that happening. Unlike in the "Star Trek" universe, I don't think human nature is going to improve that much."
The protagonist of Vatican Assassin is just what the title suggests. Father Bernard Campion wears a priestly collar, but he's actually a hit man who takes his orders from the pope and can't perform a liturgy to save his life. A wisecracking Han Solo-type character, he got into the religion racket as a tax-free cover for a smuggling operation, only to be recruited for service as a ruthless anti-Muslim operative.
One major motor for the novel was Luoma's long-standing interest in religion, particularly early Christianity. He's also just self-published a polemic in comic-book format -- a "graphic-thingy," as he calls it -- with the provocative title of Holy Shit: Or . . . Pat Robertson Is the Anti-Christ. Rather than a personal attack on Robertson, the book is an exposition of early Christian beliefs designed to prove that modern fundamentalism directly contradicts Jesus' message of universal love. The last page cites a host of academic Biblical scholars, such as Bart D. Ehrman, author of Lost Christianities.
Luoma knows his way around Roman Catholicism better than the "priest" in his novel: He was an altar boy and, in high school, a eucharistic and liturgical minister. As an undergraduate taking required religion courses at Saint Michael's College, he found himself questioning and then rejecting the doctrine. "I still feel that I'm a Christian," Luoma says. "What Jesus taught was pretty cool and pretty beautiful and pretty progressive, but it's been screwed up by the organization in place these days."
As Luoma depicts them in Vatican Assassin, neither side in the "clash of civilizations" stands for much that's holy. We see a glimpse of an alternative when Campion is taken captive on a remote space station by a "cult leader" who calls himself the Light. Doped up on hallucinogens, he has a conversation with a mysterious voice who may or may not be the actual Jesus. The Lord grouses about people who use His name as a cover for everything, even murder. "If I'm God, do you think I need people doing stuff for me? If I'm God, 'Thy will be done,' you know, it's done! . . . I'm thinking of changing my name, you know? Maybe to something like Ted."
Vatican Assassin is the first book in a trilogy; Luoma is revising the third volume now. He tried to sell the novel to publishers and agents for two years but found it "hard to get any access," he says. Then Luoma came across the Internet-based print-on-demand publisher Lulu.com, which he calls "an eye-opener and a cool discovery in itself . . . It's very grassroots." Unlike some print-on-demand outfits, no-frills Lulu has no up-front costs and doesn't make authors sign away the rights to their work.
Luoma has bought some copies of each book and made them available at local stores: Holy Shit can be found at Burlington's Earth Prime Comics, and Vatican Assassin at Borders, also in Burlington, as well as the Book Rack & Children's Pages in Essex. He's also bought time on WIZN and aired an ad for Vatican Assassin that's designed "like a movie trailer," he says.
So far Luoma has received more responses to Holy Shit than to his novel. An anonymous reviewer from the popular website Ain't It Cool News found the comic book a bit too preachy -- ironically -- for his taste. Still, he concluded, "In this book, there is potential. It is a bold message stated in strong words. The art is choppy, but shows promise. And there's that passion I keep coming back to."
Both those elements -- choppy prose technique and a passion for ideas -- are also evident in Vatican Assassin, along with some snappy dialogue. Luoma hopes more people will check out the novel, but he already has reason to welcome its appearance in print. He was able to show the book's dedication -- "to my Dad, who has always believed in me . . ." -- to his father before he passed away in February. "That meant a lot," Luoma says.
When you think Lamoille County, you may not think contemporary Latina fiction. But think again. Morrisville writer Ann Hagman Cardinal is getting some major exposure. This Thursday, USA Today will feature an interview with her and the two women with whom she co-authored Sister Chicas, a novel told in the voices of three young Latinas growing up in Chicago. Cardinal met Lisa Alvarado and Jane Alberdeston Coralin six years ago when they were adult students in the undergraduate program at Vermont College. Though they initially connected in Montpelier, their literary collaboration has been long-distance from start to finish: Alvarado lives in Chicago, and Coralin is studying at SUNY Binghamton. Penguin released the novel on April 4, and Cardinal will read and sign copies on April 29 on the Vermont College campus.
At the Burlington Literary Festival last fall there were poets on soapboxes; now the rhymers and free-versifiers plan to take to the streets. Susan Weiss of Burlington City Arts is "looking for literature-loving, dedicated people to get involved in organizing a poetry parade happening May 27." The daylong poetry celebration is part of a new series of "literary days . . . tentatively titled Off the Page," she says. They're among the programs sponsored by the Write Place at Burlington's Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts.
A more sober event at the Firehouse is the Soapbox Reading for Human Rights and Against Torture, coming up this Saturday. Participants -- who should sign up in advance -- are invited to "read [their] own writing or the writing of someone else that somehow touches on our basic human right to be treated humanely and with dignity." Texts will be available for those who want to read but don't have appropriate material of their own.
One of the human rights we grant to most prisoners in this country is access to books -- a priceless resource for famous prison autodidacts like Malcolm X. But what about prisoners' kids, who generally see their incarcerated parents only in the sterile, forbidding atmosphere of a family visiting room? What if inmates had the opportunity to read to their children during visiting hours? That's the idea behind the Children's Literacy Foundation's gift of $2500 worth of new hardcovers to South Burlington's Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. A "storytelling celebration" at the facility this Saturday will inaugurate the program, which establishes a library in the visiting room, gives the children books to take home, and offers the prisoners guidance in "making reading with their children fun, even if they have trouble reading themselves," according to the Foundation's press release.