American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Harper Torch, 2001, 592 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78903-5

This is a protest review.

My formative years in reading Science-Fiction were shaped by a checklist of Hugo-winning novels. Whatever won, I read and in doing so, gained an appreciation for most of SF’s greatest works. Hence my somewhat sentimental belief that Hugos should be given to… wait for it… the best science-fiction novel of the year. Not horror. Not fantasy. Not pseudo-literary pretentious crap. True, honest, unabashed science-fiction.

In the past few years, I have often been disappointed in the collective judgement of Hugo voters. (Forever Peace? What the hell were they thinking?) It got worse in the past two years: Harry Potter? Why? Aren’t there World Fantasy Awards for this kind of stuff? I love the little wizard, but he’s clearly not starring in SF novels.

Then came American Gods. Folks, Neil Gaiman may be a god amongst writers, but this stuff isn’t SF. And yet, grudgingly, I came to accept (after a lengthy period of denial, anger, depression and bargaining) that sooner or later I’d have to read the novel for completion’s sake. So I held my nose, bought the paperback (I may be a spiteful purist, but I’m not a cheap spiteful purist) and read the darn thing.

It’s not a bad book at all.

But it’s not Science Fiction.

Oh, one almost hesitate at times. The story involves a gigantic battle between the gods (who are, incidentally, living among us under various disguises), pitting old deities against newer ones. Upon his release from prison, protagonist “Shadow” is hired as an assistant by one of the most influential gods and gets to see most of the struggle. Where American Gods is meaningful to the Hugos is in its all-too-brief depiction of the modern gods. We get a fleeting glimpse of technology replacing mysticism, but also of belief carrying over. When people stop praying, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less superstitious; who hasn’t felt a little frisson of simple belief when confronted to the incomprehensibility of modern technology? Don’t we worship what we don’t understand? For that matter, what is Science Fiction’s responsibility in creating those new gods/archetypes (aliens, AIs, cyberpunks or time-travellers) taking over the older ones?

Alas, that particular SF novel remains to be written, for Gaiman seems far more interested in dealing with the old gods in all of their bloodthirsty furor. The “opposing side” of technoweenies and Men in Black is teasingly mentioned when strictly necessary, creating unfulfilled expectations. While strictly speaking an urban contemporary fantasy novel, American Gods is too enamoured with old folklore to let go. This causes unnecessary lengths (the various passages describing the arrival of gods in America struck me as being particularly dull) and also locks the novel in an old-fashioned fantastic mentality. A science-fiction novel might have explored the relative merits of those newer gods and conveyed a more contemporary feel. (along with a lesson in memetic evolution, I bet)

We can only assume that this wasn’t Gaiman’s intention. But whenever I could let go of those assumptions and enjoy the story for what it was, American Gods proved to be enjoyable on its own terms. The protagonist is enough of a blank slate to be interesting (curiously enough) and Gaiman is adept at extracting some wonder out of today’s world. The writing is usually crisp and clear —with some intentional exceptions. At times scary and hilarious, profound without being inaccessible, this is an epic novel with a off-beat tone and a lot of affection for modern-day ordinary America.

In short, American Gods is a perfectly respectable piece of contemporary fantasy. I certainly don’t regret reading it and you can now even consider me as being mildly interested in Gaiman’s work. But—and you can certainly see this coming—it’s not science-fiction and I certainly regret its selection as the winner of the 2002 Best Novel Hugo Award. Science Fiction, dammit! I protest!

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