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Faith begins with the kind of opening sentence that grabs readers by the throat and demands their attention: "His pregnancy convulsions dragged him out of unconsciousness." It becomes clear shortly afterwards that we are in the future, in a period that is never exactly specified, and that humans have expanded beyond Earth to form an interplanetary Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has absorbed several non-human civilizations, including the asexual, monogender Sakhrans, who were once an interplanetary empire in their own right. It is a Sakhran named Sarabt we follow through the novel's tense and gripping opening section, as he attempts to survive a crash landing, a dangerous solitary journey through a desert strewn with predators, and a premature childbirth, in order to deliver a message to the nearest Commonwealth outpost—a message about Faith.

What, then, is Faith? That very question drives most of the novel's action. In simple terms, Faith is a mysterious ship, always referred to as "She" with a capital S. Faith is unaffiliated and vastly powerful; She visits interplanetary civilizations at unpredictable intervals, attacks their ships and colonies, destroys them, and leaves the civilizations to die slowly. The decline is not due merely to the physical damage She causes, but something more subtle and harder to fight. There is something about Faith that destroys civilizations from within:

Three hundred years ago the same unidentified ship had visited Sakhra, and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognised what the ship was, and wrote the Book of Srahr, and when they read it they turned away from each other. The Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline, and was later absorbed by the Commonwealth. Sakhrans were mostly agnostic, and they called the ship Faith out of self-mockery. Faith was something they didn’t understand and didn’t want; it had come to them suddenly and without invitation; it would not be denied; and when it left them, which it did as suddenly as it came, they were ruined. They would never recover.

On balance, Faith seemed a good name. (p. 4)

Knowing what he knows about Faith, Sarabt wishes to prevent her from doing to the Commonwealth what she did to Sakhra, though he has little hope of succeeding. For Faith's devastating effects are not solely due to her superior weapons and engines, but stem as much or more from her ability to predict, mirror, and counter all her opponents' actions, as well as acting herself in a way that no Commonwealth ship can predict, mirror, or counter. A battle with Faith is always more psychological than physical, and reveals weaknesses her opponents didn't even realize they had. That revelation alone can be deadly. Thus there are echoes in Faith of Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17, or the Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker's Guide books. Love's story suggests that there is a kind of knowledge that can be dangerous to the people who learn it—a kind of knowledge that can rewrite a person's view of the universe in such a way as to make life intolerable.

The bulk of the novel concerns a single prolonged battle between Faith and a Commonwealth ship, the Charles Manson. The Charles Manson is a peculiar ship in several respects. It is a member of the Outsider class, so called because they are not formally part of the Commonwealth military but report directly to the euphemistically named "Department of Administrative Affairs" (a sly tip of the hat to Yes, Minister), but also because they are crewed exclusively by outsiders. Just as the Charles Manson is named after a famous murderer, its crew are (with two exceptions) murderers themselves.

The commander of the ship is Aaron Foord, orphaned in childhood and raised in a bleak, authoritarian orphanage—not that this trauma is presented as an excuse or even an explanation for his cold, implacable personality, or the crimes in his past. His second in command is a Sakhran named Thahl, who has committed no crimes, and whose presence on the Charles Manson—and his loyalty and friendship with Foord—is never fully explained, if he even knows the reason for it himself. Foord's weapons officer is a coldly brilliant woman named Susanna Cyr, a serial rapist with a taste for inflicting pain; where Cyr is concerned, Foord alternates between disgust and attraction, and the interplay between them is one part courtship to two parts dominance battle. The ensemble is rounded out by the engineer Smithson, a multi-limbed alien with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue, and Kaang, a freakishly gifted pilot with no other characteristics whatsoever.

Kaang's lack of characteristics is, oddly, not a failure of characterization on Love's part: it is explicitly stated, many times, both by Kaang and by Foord, that there is nothing to Kaang, apart from her skill as a pilot. Both Kaang's blankness and her skill are clues to the ultimate nature of Faith, and key elements in Foord's plan to defeat her—though that plan must constantly shift and mutate, as Faith herself counters every action Foord and his crew can devise, always finding new and unexpected ways to shift the ground under their feet and turn the game they are playing into something altogether different.

The back and forth exchange of tactics takes up more than half of the novel, and in a less skilful author's hands, it would quickly become dull—but Love makes the battle consistently gripping and thrilling, even in the stretches between engagements when very little is happening. The philosophical issues raised by Faith's abilities infuse every moment in which the characters have a chance to draw breath, lending significance to all their actions and a kind of desperate poignancy to their bafflement, especially since the only character who ultimately comes to understand Faith is Foord, who is adamant throughout that he does not care what Faith is so long as he can defeat her.

This is one of many ironies in the novel, which returns and returns to the Sakhran symbol known as the srahr—a sign that means both zero and infinity. Nothing is straightforward in this universe; nothing is as it seems. Over and over again, the established narrative of how things are "supposed" to work turns out to be false or incomplete. The expected outcome does not occur, and the characters are left scrambling to react in a useful way, struggling to understand what has happened and what might happen next. In order to defeat Faith, it is necessary not so much to rethink as to unthink: to detach from old ideas, and think the unthinkable. I am hesitant to discuss the ultimate truth of Faith's nature in detail, since it comes so late in the novel and is very far from obvious when it does come. It must suffice to say that it manages both to be unexpected and, if not precisely the only logical consequence of what has come before, it is in harmony with everything we have already seen and learned. There is space for multiple interpretations—Foord may not be absolutely correct in his view—and the ending is the kind that invites the reader to go back and re-read earlier chapters in the light of the final revelation.

Faith is by no means flawless. The characters are, by design, neither sympathetic nor likeable, and although this is not in itself a flaw, it does lend the novel a certain coldness that may put some readers off. Further, Love has a penchant for scatological imagery, both literal and metaphorical; one of Faith's attacks involves sucking up the contents of a city's sewage system and spraying it evenly all over the city, which is only the most blatant example. The motif is startling and vivid in its first few appearances, but it quickly grows stale. Another stylistic quirk that Love seems dependent on (and is definitely prone to overuse) is the Significant Emphatic Capitalization of Selected Words. If this were a quirk of Foord's diction it might be forgivable, but all the characters fall into it sooner or later, and the narration is littered with it, so that at times the novel feels like one of those 1960s superhero comic books where every other word is bold and every sentence ends with an exclamation mark. More seriously, there are times when the novel trumpets its ideas a little too loudly, using dialogue to telegraph themes that are already embedded in the story, as if Love doesn't always trust his readers to see what he's driving at without explicit instructions.

Despite these problems, on the whole, Faith succeeds both as a purely visceral, exciting story and as a meditation on the place of humanity in the universe. For all the coldness of its characters, there is a kind of passionate wonder on display here that makes Faith exhilarating to read, a novel that demands and rewards the reader's attention from the first sentence to the last.

Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.

Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.
2 comments on “Faith by John Love”
Jeff VanderMeer

Faith being such a commonly used word/name, do you think it's possible its usage here has no connection to either Delany or Douglas Adams?

Christina Nordlander

I think you misunderstand. The reviewer didn't say that the name Faith was a reference to Delany or Adams, but, I quote, "there are echoes in Faith of Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17, or the Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker's Guide books".

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