Bernie and the Wizards, by Steve LeBel - 4 Stars

Bernie and the Wizards is an amiable tale that lets us know what it is like to build and run the ultimate train set – a planet and its native forms of life. This enticing idea is shown to us through the eyes of the space-faring race that creates and operates the architecture, then pops down and interacts with it; the gods. If suitably advanced technology becomes indivisible from magic (Arthur C Clarke), then an entity with suitably unlimited power becomes effectively a god when seen from a less capable perspective. It’s a place on the scale from amoeba to goldfish to our race to them, the world builders of this novel. Could we get closer to their end of the scale one day? Incrementally? Do goldfish mistake us for gods, all positions on the ability scale being relative?

There's another scale though, the scale of decency, fairness and good manners. Perhaps most of us have overtaken the old gods on that one. Being able to do anything you want with no consequences can turn a god into a louse.

Power is proportionate, in the context of other power, just as a heavy weight crossing an event horizon loses even its information, so it is also revealed to us that gods within a domestic community of gods behave just like ordinary people. They go to school, do jobs they get stressed from, are impressed by fashion and hang out with friends. All good so far. They also carry out commercial enterprises (why bother?), are very vain and get in a huff when one of their planets doesn’t work properly or fails to produce whatever commodity they need from it. Elder gods leave the community behind and set forth on their own indefatigable odysseys, probably because when you reach a high enough vantage point most of the other gods’ activity looks immature. Are gods herd animals or antisocial loners? Or both, depending on their exposure to endless boredom.

When a planet managed by his employer goes offline, in the product supply sense, that’s where Bernie comes in as a kind of toga-wearing corporate trouble shooter who then has to infiltrate the native species of the client’s world and find out whatever went wrong. It’s like the landlord’s rental agent checking out the state of the cooker in a student share. To do that, he needs to talk to people on the ground and absolutely not do what gods always do, which is to treat mortals like disposable dots on the landscape. Bernie is a pleasant god who doesn’t think mortal lives are meaningless and, therefore, he becomes the humanitarian hero of the piece. This attitude appears to be a generational change, so the young will see in this metaphor their own chance to feel superior to their parents and enlightened. Then again, I’ve felt like that since the age of seven.

I’m unconvinced by the cover, which looks like the kind of thing they stick on the windows of shops selling Warhammer. I know it represents the disruptive types that have stirred things up in the story but it doesn’t sum up the feeling I had from this book, which included a lot of adorable creative growth and beauty. Luminous plants with floating seeds are cooler than this. It wasn’t just about anger and metal hats or I wouldn’t have read it.

This is a good book suitable for all the family and it is based on an attractive fantasy of inoffensive divinity (as it isn’t Earth) and, hey, it’s fun. Although the plot does venture into frailty, it doesn’t explore the human condition as much as it could (see Hamlet), so it’s as if the author set up a vehicle to tell us something meaningful about ourselves and our treatment of lower life forms but then doesn’t push the message through. The fantasy is sweet though. It makes the reader dream of what it would be like if their own family were gods with the power of life and death over other species, squabbling, childish, spiteful, needy, polluting, bearing grudges, breaking up and being as selfish as hell. Hang hubris, we’re farther up the scale to godhood that we thought! Lucky us. Okay, okay, don't smite me, I'm done.