How Like a God, Brenda W. Clough

Tor, 1997, 287 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86263-6

While “superpowers” are usually the province of comic book superheroes, Science Fiction also touches on the subject from time to time, usually from a much more “realistic” perspective. Compare Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside to any issue of the X-Men for a good shock.

Brenda W. Clough seemed to be aware of this as she wrote How Like a God. It’s the story of an ordinary husband, father and computer programmer named Rob Lewis who suddenly acquires the power to read and shape minds. Clough’s protagonist makes several explicit references to the numerous comic books he had read at a younger age, while undergoing a descent through the lowest levels of society.

Unfortunately, How Like a God combines attempts a science-fiction sensibility with comic-book plotting to create a book that’s pleasantly readable, but also disappointing in its unevenness.

For instance, there is almost no scepticism about the powers of Rob Lewis. Even he seems to arrive fairly easily to the conclusion he’s a super human. People around him also seem to believe him quite easily.

The psychology of the characters seems suspect. When Rob’s wife starts sprouting presidential ambitions, when Rob callously leaves his family, when Edwin Barbarossa starts helping a strange-looking hobo, when Rob almost assaults a young girl… they all seem like forced choices.

Which brings us to the numerous coincidences that make up most of How like a God‘s plot. The two worst are the meeting of Barbarossa and Lewis, and the fire that destroys Lewis’ workplace. No explanation is provided. These two things simply happen. While worse fault have been seen elsewhere, there are ways of bringing coincidences in a story in an acceptable manner. (This reviewer’s favourite example is in Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, where twenty pages are devoted to explaining how a beam of solid American wood comes in contact with the screw of a nuclear-powered submarine in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Amazingly, it works.)

The Atlantic City passage is also incredibly weak. Couldn’t Lewis just try his hand at poker instead of blackjack?

Then there’s the last third of the book, which abandons all pretence of scientific verisimilitude, and goes full-throttle in magical fantasy-land where Gilgamesh (yes, that Gilgamesh) is a full-featured character. The novel drags on for another fifty pages after what should have been the final confrontation and has the gall to end on the steps of what should have been the book’s most powerful scene!

Is there anything else to say? Well, the title alone is a source of countless nanoseconds of fun: Apart from the obvious parodies (How? Like a God!, How Like a Dog, How so Very Very Much Like a God, How to Like a God, Show Like a God, How Licks a God?, etc…), you can spend some time trying to find ways of saying “How Like a God” in normal, everyday conversations.

The cover illustration by Rick Berry is oddly attractive, suggesting both personal power, pain and transcendence. (That ugly mug in the upper right corner has to go, though!) [September 1998: The ugly mug is gone from the paperback edition, although the resulting illustration loses some power.]

Nevertheless, How Like a God isn’t nearly as bad as the above might presuppose. The writing is brisk, and the story flows along at an acceptable pace once you accept the succession of coincidences. Not one of SF’s shining releases for 1997, but reasonable entertainment as long as you don’t spend too much money on it.

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