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Critique and Classification of Michael Ritchey's
Disoriented


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What kind of book is Disoriented?

Disoriented is published by Latter-day Saint publisher Cornerstone and marketed to the Latter-day Saint market. It is a novel which straddles a few traditional mainstream categories: it could be classified as a thriller, a science fiction novel, or even a romance. Clearly it is a religious novel, written by a Latter-day Saint author for a Latter-day Saint audience.

For the first half of the novel, Disoriented is very much a science fiction thriller/adventure. It is set in the near future (a few years from now) and features some speculative technology and some very mysterious yet scientifically observed phenomena. But although its science fiction elements are strong (including the use of two scientists as the primary protagonists and the significance of theoretical particle physics), Disoriented taken as a whole is not best classified as science fiction. Looking at the book within the context of speculative fiction as a whole, many might describe the novel as contemporary fantasy. But the "fantastic" elements are not intended to be fantastic in the sense used in mainstream fantasy literature (i.e., non-rationalized magic and such).

The "fantasy" elements of Disoriented are not derived purely from the author's imagination or from ancient mythology. Rather, they are extensions of contemporary Latter-day Saint theology as well as folk belief, especially the distinctive teachings regarding pre-mortal spirit life and life after death. These subjects have long been used as central plot elements in much of Latter-day Saint fiction. Disoriented might be classified as a "spiritual thriller." Specifically, it fits into a sub-genre one could call "Latter-day Saint spirit fiction". It is similar to the popular musical "Saturday's Warrior", the classic Samuel W. Taylor novel Heaven Knows Why, and less well known novels such as Kenny Kemp's I Hated Heaven, Arvin S. Gibson's Love's Eternal Legacy and Alice Morrey Bailey's Stellarian.

Plot and Critique

Set a few years in the future, Disoriented begins with a Mexican fisherman's encounter with a mysterious and deadly force which mangles his emotional state and then sucks the life out of him. This languid-turned-horrifying opening has an almost Delany-esque quality to its narrative voice. Oddly enough, this stylist's voice ends with the first chapter, and the rest of the novel utilizes straightforward storytelling, told from the point of view of a variety of characters.

We're quickly introduced to Tara, a generally together but emotionally isolated graduate ecology student doing research on ants in the Superstition Mountains near Mesa, Arizona. The world has suffered an accelerated ecological crisis for three or four years. Numerous plant and animal species have become extinct and topsoil erosion has increased tremendously. Tara's research of desert ant behavior is a longshot part of an international effort to determine the cause of the ecological crisis.

As it turns out, ants have nothing to do with the crisis, but Tara happens upon the real cause: Some force is causing matter to lose molecular cohesion and literally dissolve. Surrounding this effect is an invisible, layered boundary which alternatively induces fear, euphoria and nausea as one passes through it.

Tara recalls these discoveries as she flies to Dallas to attend an international conference on macroecology, convened to discuss the ecological crisis and its possible causes. Tara also reflects on the fact that she has for many years rejected God because, despite a happy Protestant upbringing, she found no comfort after the sudden deaths of both her high school best friend and later her college boyfriend. Hmmm...

Enter the second protagonist: Ryan McKay, a young particle physicist working for a private firm, Molecular Dynamics, in Denver, Colorado. Ryan is professionally and financially successful, a returned missionary and an active Latter-day Saint, but bemoans his single status and decreasing prospects of ever getting married.

By now anybody who has ever opened a Jack Weyland novel should suspect that Tara just might meet Ryan, join the Church, and marry him. These suspicions might be strengthened when Ryan barely escapes an assassination attempt and decides to leave early for a planned trip -- to the same scientific conference in Dallas that Tara is going to.

Does Tara meet Ryan, fall in love with him, have some objections to the Church he introduces her to, overcome those objections, and then marry him? Well, yes. But the surprising thing is that the "objections" last only about three minutes, the happy couple is married rather quickly, and one is still only one-third through the book. The nice thing is one realizes that the entire book isn't a retread of Charly. But what, one wonders, are Tara and Sam going to do for the rest of the book?

Fortunately, the rest of the book has some interesting premises explored, some engaging scenes, a few surprises, and significant character development for many secondary characters, including the assassin trying to kill Ryan. But for the two main characters around whom the plot revolves, the book offers little more than action after its first half.

The relative lack of development for these characters or their relationship seems particularly surprising considering the rather major change that happens in Ryan's life soon after he and Tara are married: he dies.

Only half-way through the book, Ryan and the assassin die. This comes as quite a shock, especially with so many pages left. The question about how the main character can die half way through the book is soon resolved as we realize that Ryan's spirit is still quite alive and well, and is able to tarry with Tara. Because of the extreme importance placed by the Powers That Be on resolving the causes of the ecological crisis, Ryan is given a special operating status that lets his spirit be with Tara continually. She can see him and talk to him, but without a body he can't touch her or anything else, and nobody else can see him or hear him.

Tara and "Ghost Husband," with the help of some family and friends, must find and stop the powerful, highly-placed people causing the ecological crisis for their own nefarious purposes. Tara has no training as a female James Bond, but having an invisible husband who can walk through walls and read people's surface thoughts comes in handy and helps in their mission.

In a way, Disoriented is very much two books. The strongest part is the first half, which combines a rather compelling science fiction mystery and the action and suspense of a thriller with a very readable romance between two likable and interesting characters. Perhaps my main complaint about the book is that this part is over too soon, and is followed by the weaker "Ghost Husband" half, which reads like a detective story road trip.

As mentioned before, there are some nice aspects in the book's second half, including some humorous scenes and lines resulting from Ryan's ghost status. There's even a surprising bit of sensuality between the untouchable Ryan and his corporeal wife. It's surprising because it's in the book at all, and also because it is executed in a fully G-rated way. It's like finding a bit of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land in a Chris Heimerdinger novel.

But although we learn much of the physical mechanics and parameters of Ryan's spirit/ghost existence, there is very little exploration of the impact his status has on his and Tara's psyches, their relationship, and those around them. It's handled too matter-of-factly, when this could have provided so many interesting ways to develop and reveal these characters. Instead we learn more about supporting characters who are having much less unusual experiences.

Ritchey has skill and talent as a writer. He was willing to open himself up and write what was inside him. Some people would not like or understand or believe what they see there, but it's genuine. Most people who would not like Ritchey's perspective won't bother to read Disoriented at all, or they won't be able to finish it. They'll think he's a Pollyanna or simply myopic. They'll say he's a bad writer, which he's not. They simply won't be able to tolerate the diversity represented by an author whose views are so radically different from their own. This is too bad, because there are at least a few layers to the book and its author that aren't revealed until the end.

The right readers for this book will love Disoriented. There is much in Disoriented to recommend it. The first half is fresh, interesting, breezy and original. The second half has some strong points, but suffers from the static nature of the main characters, along with decreased levels of suspense and wonder.

Disoriented seems to have missed several opportunities to go beyond simply scratching the surface of its premises and really exploring them. Still, it represents something of an untapped or barely tapped niche: an all-out science fiction thriller told from an entirely Latter-day Saint perspective. I hope Ritchey writes more fiction along these lines, but I hope he'll maintain better pacing and push himself to explore concepts more fully and with greater complexity.

Who should read Disoriented?

There's a select audience for this book.

This is Michael Ritchey's first novel. Like many Latter-day Saints, he is a fan of literature, especially fantasy and science fiction. Ritchey has essentially written something that he himself would enjoy reading. The novel attempts to fill a need for entertaining, thrilling science fiction/adventure which doesn't have offensive language, gratuitous sex, etc. and does have characters a Latter-day Saint reader (or Christian reader in general) can identify with.

To Ritchey's credit he writes unapologetically from his own perspective and he doesn't try to be something he's not. Disoriented is completely honest, unfiltered Latter-day Saint storytelling. Ritchey doesn't try to be "literary" or flowery. He isn't trying to mimic any type of mainstream "American style" of novel (although the book does embody elements of many genres). Nothing in Disoriented is left out or changed in anticipation of a non-Latter-day Saint audience. This makes the novel very "inside," similar to Dutcher's film "God's Army." For the non-Latter-day Saint reader, the results can be confusing, perplexing, or simply bizarre, but should definitely provide an unusual and unexpected experience.

Best of all, Disoriented is refreshingly non-prescriptive. The protagonists are moral; Ryan is a faithful member and Tara becomes one. (Even hiding out from a national conspiracy intent on killing them, they manage to attend church regularly.) But Ritchey is not trying to change the world, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its members, or people outside the church. He's telling an entertaining story for himself and his people. Latter-day Saint readers may find the book inspiring and very positive because it features likable, talented compatriots as protagonists and because the discoveries made by the characters reinforce the community's worldview. But if one views the novel within its cultural context and within the Latter-day Saint literary tradition, one realizes Disoriented is not at all didactic, and not even subversive.

(By the way, I think authors who are trying to change the world are wonderful. I appreciate the honesty of science fiction writers such as Card and Canada's Robert Sawyer who come right out and say that's what they want to do. But nobody should be subjected to a first-time novelist out to change the world. World-altering novelists should wait at least until they've honed their craft to the point that their pen doesn't look like a billy club.)

The reader who will probably most enjoy Disoriented is one who enjoys Latter-day Saint fiction, such as by Gerald Lund, Jack Weyland, or Rachel Ann Nunes. Plot-wise the book has some similarities to Weyland's A New Dawn crossed with the Whoopie Goldberg/Demi Moore movie "Ghost" (or maybe Bill Cosby's "Ghost Dad"). Readers are will probably like Disoriented if they enjoy thrillers such as Marcum's White Out as well as spirit novels such as Taylor's Heaven Knows Why. Disoriented is a successful mix of a thriller's fright, conspiracy and action with a romantic comedy's warmth, good nature and humor.

As stated before, Disoriented has nothing offensive in terms of language, sex, violence, etc. It's very clean. It is solidly rated PG, maybe even G. Readers who like the clean language and chaste stories of Asimov, Bradbury, and H. G. Wells, and who find even Wolverton or early Card too racy will certainly appreciate Disoriented.

Fans of mainstream (national market) science fiction authored by Latter-day Saint writers such as Card, Wolverton, Thornley, Henderson, Bell, F. Raymond Jones, etc. might enjoy Disoriented. But they might not. Ritchey doesn't match the sheer artistry and inventiveness of the best of these mainstream-published Latter-day Saint authors. But he exceeds them in choosing to write about characters and ideas which will be completely familiar to Latter-day Saint readers, yet with some interesting twists and adventurous application.

Science fiction readers well versed in the works of Orson Scott Card and top contemporary non-Latter-day Saint authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, C. J. Cherryh, Ben Bova, etc. should not approach Disoriented and similar novels expecting the same type of literature. This is the type of book that may not have broad appeal, but it will be immensely appreciated by its target audience, especially given the fact that there is so little that is similar.

A Latter-day Saint reader who is well versed in non-Latter-day Saint science fiction can enjoy Disoriented in the same way a person might read both Hugo-winning LeGuin or Zelazny, and a good "Star Trek" novel -- by understanding that these are different kinds of books and provide different kinds of experiences. The comfortable familiarity Star Trek fans have reading books featuring characters they enjoy watching on television is somewhat similar to the enjoyment Latter-day Saint readers might derive from books with familiar-seeming Latter-day Saint characters and themes. Neither the media tie-ins nor a first time author's Latter-day Saint market science fiction novel presume to be the literary equivalent of the best national science fiction. But all of these have their place in the overall market for literature and some readers enjoy both kinds. But if you're a Delany or Wolfe purist who would not be caught dead reading a media tie-in book (even the good ones like Peter David's Q-Squared or Wolverton's The Courtship of Princess Leia), then you will certainly hate Disoriented whether or not you are a Latter-day Saint.

Should Non-Latter-day Saint Readers Read Disoriented ?

Probably not. For one thing, few will be interested in it or will even hear about the novel, as it isn't being marketed to a general sf/f readership. Disoriented might be one of the few science fiction novels you'll find in some Latter-day Saint bookstores (depending on whether or not the store carries books from national publishers such as Tor). But it isn't a great first choice as a book for a non-Latter-day Saint science fiction fan who wants to read Latter-day Saint-authored sf featuring Latter-day Saint characters. Whether you're non-Latter-day Saint or considering a book to suggest to a non-Latter-day Saint science fiction fan, better choices would be Card's The Lost Boys or Folk of the Fringe, Hickman's The Immortals, Allred's "For the Strength of the Hills," or (sort of) Henderson's "People Stories." If you are just looking for Latter-day Saint-authored science fiction, and it doesn't need to feature Latter-day Saint characters, there's a vast number of choices, but you should at least read Card's Ender's Game, and after that might check out Parkin's Recommended Reading List.

Other than the few non-Latter-day Saint people with a peculiar desire to read comprehensively from the Latter-day Saint science fiction field, there is another type of non-Latter-day Saint reader who might really enjoy Disoriented. Readers who enjoy sampling foreign cultures will find Disoriented a rich look at one segment of Latter-day Saint culture and literature -- if one focuses on the writer and his assumptions and not just the characters in the novel (only one of whom is a Latter-day Saint). People who enjoy foreign films (the more foreign the better) or foreign/ethnic literature, such as is written by Orthodox Jews, Navajos, Sikhs, Basques, Catholics, Roma, Armenians, etc., may find this novel fascinating. Plus, there's the added bonus that they can read it in its original English rather than a translation (if they are English-speaking). An important caveat to this is that most "foreign" elements in the Latter-day Saint culture in this book are not overtly described, but run very deep, permeating philosophy and thought. Somebody for whom "foreign culture" simply means different foods and clothing will probably be unnerved by this book, because there are few surface differences described, but many differences in basic worldview encountered. The result could be, well, disorienting, even for a seasoned science fiction reader. But non-Latter-day Saint readers who have already read Latter-day Saint fiction will be used to all this and won't encounter anything unfamiliar.

Non-Latter-day Saint readers who will enjoy this book are the type of people who attend Catholic Midnight Mass, Jewish Passover dinner, Baha'i firesides, Latter-day Saint temple open houses, or Pentecostal revivals for fun. The reader from outside the culture can think of Disoriented as ethnographic literature. This is not because it accurately portrays the life of typical Latter-day Saint particle physicists (it doesn't), but because it lets you into the mind of an author who solidly represents a large segment of Latter-day Saint culture.

Also, readers who enjoy popular non-Latter-day Saint religious/spiritual science fiction such as the Left Behind novels by LaHaye and Jenkins may enjoy Disoriented, as both have the same respect for conservative Christian tastes regarding profanity, vulgarity, etc., and because they shares so many of the same spiritual and Biblical themes, set in near-future science fiction/thriller/adventure stories.

June 2000

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By the way, there's a typo on page 88. I'm mentioning it here so Cornerstone can fix it in future printings, as I don't have Cornerstone's or Ritchey's email address:
The members of his ward had been helpful after his parent's died...




Web page created 12 May 2000. Last modified 16 August 2000.