In conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn’s debut novel, the barbarians are at the gate. In fact, technically speaking, the barbarians—in the form of rabid Islamist fundamentalists—are well beyond the gate, having achieved world domination, defeated the U.S. military, occupied the White House, and sent the President packing.
A “fictional projection of what could well be ahead if the United States loses the Global War against Islamist Terrorism,” the novel intends to remedy our “epidemic of amnesia, [during which] America has forgotten how we achieved victory in one war [World War II] and defeat in another [Vietnam].” Given these profound challenges, it comes as a palpable letdown that the novel’s strategy turns out to be “augmented reality through a digital mask.” Although the mechanism of this innovative strategy is kept mysteriously hidden, its resonance in present political rhetoric is consistent with Herschensohn’s primary message, which is to say that the United States should stay its present course.
By any measure Above Empyrean fails completely as a work of fiction or even as convincing fable cum historical essay. The near-silent enemy never mounts any palpable threat the reader is permitted to experience. The good guys can’t muster the depth of paper dolls—hunkered down in an underground city outside Washington, D.C., called Sebotus (Surviving Executive Branch of the United States), the caricature cast has little to do but listen to the interesting theories of political warhorse Eli Jared, who is acting POTUS while President Wadsworth is AWOL, perhaps captured, or perhaps hunkered down himself elsewhere.
For a novel intended to cure amnesia, its memory is pathologically confined to the short term. Jared lectures his audience on the last 50 years of history, as if to suggest that those particular tea leaves contain the source of the present dilemma. His recollections are selective and revisionist, as might be expected. Worse, however, is that such navel-gazing overlooks the rich and colorful friction between Islam and Christendom that extends 1,300 years beyond the horizon of Jared’s myopia. But an extended conservative riff on such history would’ve made only for a longer and more painful volume. As it is, Herschensohn’s 200 pages represent a mere fleeting narrative of cloudy thinking, surely crafted well above empyrean.