Unholy Domain

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Dan Ronco

Published: 2008

Reviewed: 2009-06-22

Publisher: Kunati Inc.

I'm not generally one to lose track of characters or time-flow in a
book. I read C.J. Cherryh faithfully and came out of "Gravity's
Rainbow" feeling I had actually understood pretty much all of what
happened therein, horrifying though it was. So it surprised me
greatly when, partway into Mr. Ronco's "Unholy Domain" I found myself
over and over wondering who these people were, whether I'd seen them
before, and how much time had passed since the last chapter.
Apparently, I can lose track of things when the characters are all
shallow jerks that I don't care about, fighting a war that just
doesn't seem plausible.

I suppose that I would call this an "idea" book, badly executed.
Mr. Ronco seems to be trying to say something about science versus
religion and about whether artificial intelligences can be
human---certainly that's what all of the pompous chapter-heading
quotes of imaginary future historians seem to be about. But it's all
so ham-handedly done that I just couldn't find it in me to care. We
have two sides facing each other---an insane Christian group and an
insane female Bill Gates stand-in---and they're always thinking about
how this is hyper-important and that's a turning point in history, and
after this other thing nothing will ever be the same. I just don't
buy it---not at an emotional level at least. Logically, sure,
Mr. Ronco is the author and it can be important to the history of his
world if he wants, but he never showed how it was important and never
managed to persuade me to suspend my belief, even for a little while.
From the very start, he seems to do his best to lose me, with a
stereotypical black-market scene where everybody gets introduced with
their full name and a bit of 3rd person omniscient exposition and
where an amazing super-high-tech defense of a decade in the future is
penetrated with implausible efficiency. It feels like Mr. Ronco is
trying to ape Tom Clancy's style, but isn't quite up to the task.

And then he tries to just plain bullshit the reader about technology.
The (probably) main character---it's a bit hard to tell amongst the
herd, especially since he doesn't get face time for a while---has a
relationship with computers that can only be described as
supernatural. Not only is he especially sensitive to everything
artificially intelligent, but he can sense their presence and
communicate with them even when he's completely unattached to any sort
of network. Moreover, unlike when William Gibson did it, there's no
meddling experimental bio-tech to give an explanation---it's just
something weird in the genes that runs in the family. This just
doesn't fit with Mr. Ronco's decidedly non-magical universe. Another
example of bullshitting is when the stock market is wiped out by a
bunch of mysterious sell orders that come from nowhere. I'm sorry,
but it just doesn't work that way: you can't sell a piece of stock
unless you own it. Maybe there's some way that it can make sense, but
Mr. Ronco didn't bother explaining, and by that time I wasn't
extending him any more credit.

The last straw for me, though, was his sophomoric treatment of sex. I
don't think there was a single male character who didn't immediately
check out the female characters' breasts, think about what she'd be
like in bed, and consider some attempt to get there. Nor were there
any non-ancient female characters that were unattractive or non-lusty.
And of course, everybody's a pervert for no apparent reason except
that they need to be less sympathetic to the reader or something. And
the love plot? Trivial and meaningless to the reader, but apparently
all-consuming to the characters despite the fact that they meet
halfway through in a meaningless scene and spend less than a day

I notice that I haven't really written anything about the religion
versus science conflict. I think that's because there isn't really
one in the book, except insofar as there are people labelled
"RELIGION" shooting at people labelled "SCIENCE." But since they're
all just power-crazed nutballs spouting philosophical one-liners past
one another, I don't think this counts. Certainly there's nothing
there for a reader actually interested in the subject to sink their
teeth into or think about. After all, what can we possibly learn from
whether the author chooses "SCIENCE" or "RELIGION" to win in an
imaginary gunfight?

All told, this book read like it really wanted to be a bad action
movie. Preferably starring a young Jean-Claude Van Damme, or else
some hunk of no-name euro-trash beefcake and a bunch of ex-strippers.
I would have watched it on "USA Up All Night" as a teen at sleepovers,
right after "Phoenix the Warrior"---you know, the one about the world
where a virus has killed all the men and left behind a dystopic
wasteland of horny beautiful women in futuristic jumpsuits? And those
promises of amazing world-changing revelations? Never fulfilled---we
just see more some technological bullshitting and are told it's really
important. And what reason could we possibly have to doubt the
author's word?